Standards, Testing & Accountability

Like many, I’m convinced that what happens inside the classroom—curriculum and instruction—has as much of an impact (if not more) on student outcomes than structural reforms. For those who believe as I do, the revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act has the potential to help states figure out how to hold schools accountable for student learning and what, if anything, to do about teacher evaluations. Let me throw out a few ideas.

“If you want more of something, subsidize it,” Ronald Reagan famously quipped. “If you want less of something, tax it.” During the No Child Left Behind era, test-driven accountability has too often stood Reagan’s maxim on its ear. Annual reading tests have practically required schools and teachers to forsake the patient, long-term investment in knowledge and vocabulary that builds strong readers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. High-stakes accountability with annual tests that are not tied to course content (which reading tests are not) amounted to a tax on good things and a subsidy for bad practice: curriculum narrowing, test preparation, and more time spent on a “skills and strategies” approach to learning that doesn’t serve children well. Under the new ESEA, states will still have to test students...

The Bay State edition

The MCAS/PARCC hybrid assessment, Governor Baker’s new workforce skills initiative, Harvard’s new teacher training program, and the state of K-12 computer science education.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: "Images of Computer Science: Perceptions Among Students, Parents and Educators in the U.S.," Gallup (November 2015).


Mike:                                    Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly show and online at! Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Adele of education policy, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:                                 Hello.

Mike:                                    Wow! Amazing, Robert. That was so good. We didn't even rehearse that in advance. You didn't know it was coming. Man, you have a teenager daughter, don't you?

Robert:                                 I do. Actually, my wife is a bigger Adele fan than my teenage daughter.

Mike:                                    She, supposedly, has fans all across the generational spectrum and other lines.

Robert:                                 She's a pretty talented young lady.

Mike:                                    25? Does that refer to her age?

Robert:                                 I believe, see this shows you of my ... I don't know how I know these things. Pop culture is like second hand smoke. You just get exposed to it. She names her albums after her age when she records them. 21 was all about her bad breakup. Now, she's 25, still singing about that bad break up, sounds like. Now, she's just 4 years older.

Mike:                                    This seems to be a thing. Was it Taylor Swift who's album was after the year she was born?

Robert:                                 1989?

Mike:                                    All these people are just trying to make me feel old.

Robert:                                 Most of these people are younger than us, Michael. Don't fight it.

Mike:                                    That is the bottom line. If you were Adele, you would not be giving this podcast away for free, would you?

Robert:                                 No. I'd have it on iTunes and you'd be paying at least $10.

Mike:                                    Exactly, which we're thinking about doing at some point. Hey, Robert! Good to be on the show with you again. Lots of excitement happening in the world of education reform, including ESEA. We're not even going to talk about ESEA today.

Robert:                                 ESEA.

Mike:                                    We've been talking about it. We like ESEA. We'll talk about it some more next week. Looks like the House may vote on it this week. Looks like it's going to happen.

Robert:                                 Who'd've thunk?

Mike:                                    Who'd've thunk? But what we are going to talk about-

Robert:                                 Adele was 9 the last time ESEA was authorized.

Mike:                                    Yes. Is that right?

Robert:                                 Well, she's 25 now, minus 15. She was 9 or 10.

Mike:                                    14 years, rather. Doing some common core math there, Robert. The reason we're not doing ESEA is because it is not central to Massachusetts, and this is a special Massachusetts edition of the Education Gadfly show.

Robert:                                 What are we thinking?

Mike:                                    We like themes around here. Let's get started. Clara, let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Claire:                                   Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Board of Education voted to continue to use their own assessment with questions from PARK rather than go whole-hog with PARK itself. Does this mean that Common Core is on the ropes?

Mike:                                    Audrey, producer Audrey, can could we clip in some things into this segment here from the internet? I have a blog post up on this right now claiming that Common Core is not dead yet. I can try and do the British accent, pretend to be Monty Python-

Robert:                                 Bring out your dead!

Mike:                                    I'm not dead yet! It'd be better if we could do the clip. Insert clip here, Audrey.

Monty Python:                 I'm not dead!

Mike:                                    Okay, there you go.

Robert:                                 We need a cow bell.

Mike:                                    Or, another way to say it is have the Bee Gees in there. Staying alive, staying alive. Ooh, Ooh, Ooh. Staying alive. The point is-

Robert:                                 Mike.

Mike:                                    Some friends of ours, including our good friend Rick Hess, who once upon a time a long time ago used to host the podcast with me, speaking of not giving stuff away for free anymore, Rick Hess. He used to host the podcast with me. He has been writing that this Massachusetts decision is just yet another blow. "A devastating blow" I think he had in the National Review for Common Core. Neil McCleskie says it's getting crushed.

Robert:                                 Crushed in 40 some odd states!

Mike:                                    Still getting crushed in 40 odd states. Look, number one, the standards are still here. Outside of Oklahoma, maybe South Carolina, they're still there. They might not be called Common Core, a few places have added some standards, there's some review processes, so far they're still there. Even places where they've made tweaks, in most places they've become better. They've made improvements. Fine, no problem. The whole goal was better standards. Another goal, better tests. What we've seen so far looks pretty good. We'll know more in January when Fordham releases a big study on these tests.

                                                What about cut scores? Cut scores are through the roof, Robert! At Fordham, we're riled up about, more than anything else, what we call the proficiency illusion where states had these ridiculous low cut scores, telling parents that their kids are doing fine. Every state that has released tests from last Spring, except for our home state of Ohio, has been quite honest, really putting their cut scores pretty much at the same level as [nape 00:04:46] or close to it. In the ball park of saying we know about 35-40% of kids in this country are college ready. Guess what? According to these state tests, especially in math, about 35-40% of kids are on track. That matches. On a lot of these different ways, Common Core is alive and well. The one area where it is not alive and well, though, is around comparability.

Robert:                                 Right. This is where you and I disagree, I think. [inaudible 00:05:12] I'm always going to be just a little bit more focused on the instructional side of things, and you are I think, so I want that data. I want to be able to look at, not just a state level or even district level, I want to be able to look at school level data and say, "Who's doing this good, better, and best?"

Mike:                                    You want to be able to do that nationally.

Robert:                                 Absolutely.

Mike:                                    The issue here is, of course, that PARCC is down to now seven states, that Massachusetts isn't going to use PARCC whole-hog, although it does look like they're going to use a lot of test items from PARCC. Maybe that the next version, what they do in Massachusetts, is they call it MCAS 2.0. They look exactly the same as PARCC. Louisiana, other states are now saying they're going to use questions from PARCC. It does cut against the argument that you're going to be able to directly compare the results from these state tests. Of course, we lost that right off the bat, Robert, because there was always going to be Smarter Balance plus PARCC, plus we always knew that some states were going to do their own thing.

                                                What we maybe didn't know was that it was going to be half the states still doing their own thing on tests which is what we have coming up this Spring. I think we're at about 22, 23 states doing PARCC or Smarter Balance, the rest are not. I still don't get it. So what, Robert? You want to be able to compare a school in New York state to a school in Illinois. Why?

Robert:                                 That's how the field advances. That's how we get better.

Mike:                                    It is? How?

Robert:                                 Sure!

Mike:                                    Play that out. Continue. I don't understand.

Robert:                                 If you use-

Mike:                                    By being what?

Robert:                                 If I have two different populations and one is doing better than the other, I want to know what A is doing better than B.

Mike:                                    Does it actually happen? You're saying-

Robert:                                 Because the conditions don't exist-

Mike:                                    This would enable national studies to be able to use the same data sets and to be able to-

Robert:                                 Yeah. Of course.

Mike:                                    All right. Maybe.

Robert:                                 Look, I'm not saying it's a deal breaker. I'm saying it's important. To me, it was one of the appeals of Common Core. You're absolutely right. We did lose this one out of the box, but I remember saying years ago I would rather have fifty different sets of standards and one test than one set of standards and fifty different tests.

Mike:                                    The tests would be the real standard. We will continue to disagree on this. By the way, this whole notion that Massachusetts is backing away from the Common Core is preposterous. Hey, that's all right. We're still friends. We still love you, Rick, and Neil, and the rest of you people. Again, not dead yet!

Robert:                                 If you say it long enough, eventually the sun will go out and we'll all be dead.

Mike:                                    Yes, that's true. Topic number two. That's depressing, Robert. The fatalism ... Yes.

Claire:                                   Governor Charlie Baker announced new workforce skills initiative this week with a heavy focus on career and technical education, are there lessons here for other states?

Mike:                                    Yes. Here we are. Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker-

Robert:                                 Massachusetts?

Mike:                                    I told you. This is an all Massachusetts edition. Give him a hard time on Common Core, because he is the guy who really forced them to not just use PARCC because he's got issues with it. He used to run the Pioneer Institute, blah, blah, blah.

Robert:                                 I think I've heard of him.

Mike:                                    On career and technical education, he is doing some great stuff. Massachusetts already, as in so many other areas, is a leader in career and technical education. They have the regional CTE scores that were, by the way, partly improved by people like Sandra Stotsky, another person from the Common Core fight ... These fantastic CTE schools that are now some of the highest performing schools in Massachusetts that are getting great results, not just on technical education, but also on the core academics, sending kids into pathways and higher education to do all kinds of cool stuff. Charlie Baker is right, though. There's not enough of it.

                                                When I look out there, Robert, and you say in a typical metro area, what percentage of the seats are in CTE? How many high schoolers are concentrating on CTE? It is diminishingly small.

Robert:                                 I was going to say, I should know the answer to that. I don't.

Mike:                                    I think it's in the probably in the neighborhood, depending on how you count it, of 5% or 10% of the kids. This is ridiculous at a time where at least 30% or 40% of the jobs out there are these middle skill jobs that need some post-secondary but not a 4 year degree, they need the technical oriented skills, and we have 5% or 10% of the kids going through them? Supposedly, the rest are going through "traditional college prep." As we know, a huge percentage of those kids are not graduating actually ready for college.

Robert:                                 They're graduating. We just don't know what they're graduating to.

Mike:                                    We do, though. They graduate to the community college where they end up in remedial education-

Robert:                                 Not taking a degree.

Mike:                                    -and drop out with debt and regret. Instead of majoring in debt and regret, they could be doing CTE instead.

Robert:                                 There you go. Look, you have been at the forefront of banging on this drum with those of us in Ed Reform, so keep on banging.

Mike:                                    Let me try this on you, Robert. What if I said then, let's go to a given city. Let's say your wonderful city there, New York City, and say, "You know what? In New York City, based on the economy, based on all kinds of factors, 80% of the kids in New York City in high school should be doing CTE." What kind of reaction would I get then?

Robert:                                 I'll tell you what reaction I would give you. I like the idea of setting a quota, especially, if I'm taking you literally. When you want to base it on current economic conditions? You lose me right away on that. I think the traditional resistance to this, obviously, has been tracking. Whenever you say CTE people hear tracking. Still don't think it's a bad idea. The bad idea is when we decide what track kids go on.

Mike:                                    That's fine. Here's a proposal, though. I think you should either have really high quality CTE programs, or really high quality true college prep programs, and nothing else. None of these general, big, comprehensive schools that are not one or the other. Okay. Topic number three.

Robert:                                 Let me guess, Massachusetts.

Mike:                                    It is a university in Massachusetts. In fact, a very famous one.

Robert:                                 Holy Oak!

Mike:                                    Robert!

Claire:                                   Harvard University recently launched a new teacher training program. Don't we already have enough teacher prep programs? Why is this one significant?

Mike:                                    I wrote this one in, Robert. Don't we have enough? We've got 1,200 teacher prep programs out there. 1,199 of them suck. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Really? We need one more? Huh? You know the whole Daniel Patrick Moynihan line, was it him? No, no, no. It was-

Robert:                                 I'd rather be ... It was Bill Buckley.

Mike:                                    It was Bill Buckley. You're right.

Robert:                                 I'd rather be governed by the first 1,000 names in the Boston phone book.

Mike:                                    You really think the people at Harvard know anything about teaching?

Robert:                                 I love this. There was a piece in the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton, who we love, noted that ... Let me ask you. How much is this program costing? Did you notice this?

Mike:                                    I did not. Tell us a little bit about it. This is for undergrads, or graduate students? Of course, Harvard has a graduate school of education, always has. Never has had a big focus on teaching, per se, but on research and other things.

Robert:                                 I just can't get past this one data point. I swear it's just going to make my head explode. They're going to train twenty-four teachers with private donations. How much money in private donations?

Mike:                                    How much?

Robert:                                 $18 million! $750,000 per teacher!

Mike:                                    Are you serious?

Robert:                                 Look, it's right here in the Washington Post. "Thanks to $18 million from private donors, who wish to remain anonymous ..." I would too if I was that dumb spending that money-

Mike:                                    Maybe, maybe, that's for multiple years. Maybe that's several cohorts?

Robert:                                 "About two dozen Harvard seniors will begin a three year fellowship designed to combine pedagogy, blah, blah, blah." $18 million for two dozen teachers!

Mike:                                    I need to find that fundraiser. Wow. That is impressive.

Robert:                                 Oh my lord. Can you imagine?

Mike:                                    In all seriousness, it is Harvard, and a well-respected graduate school of education with a very well-respected dean-

Robert:                                 A little bit less well-respected today, Mike.

Mike:                                    -that we like, Jim Ryan. What do you think, though? If they were to do this right, what would be different about this Ed. School program than the other ones?

Robert:                                 You're asking the wrong guy. I have unorthodox views about this. My long-held belief is that we have to make teaching a job that can be done at a competent level by mere mortals. Why? Because that's who's in our classroom. You could spend, Harvard, $18 million to create two dozen superstars, that's great. Now, let's talk about the 3.7 million other non-superstars. We have to make this a profession that ordinary people can do well.

Mike:                                    That's interesting. Even if Harvard comes up with a great program, you're saying it is not at all scalable or replicable, right?

Robert:                                 Are you kidding me?

Mike:                                    First of all you've got all this money, which other people don't have. Second of all, you have Harvard seniors, which are not exactly a representative sample.

Robert:                                 They are not. Look, it shouldn't take $18 million to turn two dozen Harvard seniors into competent teachers. Say what you will about Teach for America, they do that in six weeks at considerably less cost. I literally could not get past that figure. I don't care what you're doing. If it takes that amount of money, this is not a serious model.

Mike:                                    Let me issue a challenge to Marty West, our friend at Harvard, or anybody else there at Harvard Graduate School of Education, you're welcome to come on the podcast and make the case for why this is a good investment of $18 million to come up with the Harvard super powered teacher. That is all the time we have for this week's edition of the special Massachusetts Edition of the Education Gadfly show Pardon the Gadfly segment. (laughter)

Robert:                                 What?

Mike:                                    You're right. We should stop doing these themes. It's too complicated. Here's the good news, Robert and Claire, it is now time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute. Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:                                 Thank you, Mike!

Mike:                                    Amber, you are the one non-Massachusetts part of the show today. Everything else has been a Massachusetts focus. Amber is from North Carolina, is that right?

Amber:                                 I taught in North Carolina.

Mike:                                    I always get it wrong.

Amber:                                 It's okay. I lived in Virginia Beach.

Mike:                                    That's right. You were on the Virginia Beach side and then you taught in North Carolina. By the way Amber, Adele was a big focus of conversation earlier. Did you buy the album?

Amber:                                 I have not yet. I have heard such great things. I just think she can really sing. Somebody with a real voice, finally, that doesn't get out there in some little slinky outfit and just parade around. She has a voice.

Robert:                                 No auto-tune there.

Amber:                                 It is so refreshing. I just really, really like her.

Mike:                                    Excellent. I love it. See, Robert? You should feel good about being the Adele of education policy.

Robert:                                 Am I complaining?

Amber:                                 It's the real deal.

Robert:                                 I hope this podcast gets downloaded just as much.

Mike:                                    All right. Amber, what you got for us?

Amber:                                 I'm going to give you guys a quiz because I got one of these studies as a survey. It's got a bunch of little factoids. Put your little student hat on.

Robert:                                 I'm ready.

Amber:                                 We got a new report out that examines whether computer literacy is getting short-shrift in America's schools.

Robert:                                 Oh, no. My favorite topic.

Amber:                                 It's a Gallup Poll commissioned by Google.

Robert:                                 Can I go now?

Amber:                                 They've got a little skin invested in the-

Mike:                                    Is it funny that Google has to do a poll? They know everything about us already. You'd think they could just mine it.

Amber:                                 All right. We're going to play along. The Bureau of Labor Statistics apparently estimates that jobs in computer and mathematical occupations will increase by 18% between 2012 and 2022, creating, what they say, will amount to 1.3 million job openings in the computer science field. Obviously, Google says, "Look, this is coming. We need kids that have strong computer science literacy skills." They surveyed nationally representative samples of over 1,600 7th to 12th grade students, 1,600 parents of 7th to 12th grade students, 1,000 teachers, so on and so forth, principals, superintendents, you name it. They had the money to survey these populations. Key findings: Number one, how-

Mike:                                    Where's our quiz?

Amber:                                 What? This is the quiz right now!

Mike:                                    Oh, okay. All right.

Amber:                                 How many students report using computers every day at school?

Robert:                                 What percentage?

Amber:                                 Out of ten.

Mike:                                    What grade are we talking about?

Amber:                                 7th through 12th.

Mike:                                    Sorry. 7th through 12th. Using computers every day?

Amber:                                 Everyday. Are you all going to do this with every single one of these?

Robert:                                 80%.

Mike:                                    I'm going to say 60%. If you'd said "three times a week" I'd say darn near 100%.

Amber:                                 Four in ten. 40%.

Mike:                                    That's it?

Amber:                                 Everyday. That percentage obviously increases as students move up the grade levels. About 31% say everyday in grades 7 and 8. By the time they get to high school, it's about 50%. Hispanic students are less likely than white or black students to use computers at school daily. Next one coming up. 75% of Hispanic students have a computer at home that can be used to access the internet, compared with 85% of Black students, and how many white students?

Robert:                                 It's got to be higher.

Mike:                                    95%

Robert:                                 97%.

Amber:                                 98%. God, that's high isn't it? Yet nearly how many have a cell phone? This is all students. No subgroups. How many, all students overall, have a cell phone or a tablet they can use for internet access?

Robert:                                 I'm going to say 110% because some of them have two.

Mike:                                    That's a pretty good one (laughter). 90%.

Amber:                                 91%. Very good. That's high, right?

Mike:                                    Which, by the way, does mean that they have a computer at school.

Amber:                                 Well, that's right.

Robert:                                 As you know, I teach at a charter school in Harlem, fairly low-income students. There's not one single one of them students who I cannot assign online work. Not one. The digital divide practically does not exist.

Mike:                                    You could use their phones for instructional purposes in the classroom potentially.

Robert:                                 I prefer not to, but we'll talk about that another time.

Amber:                                 More than a third of students in 7th through 12th grade say their school does not offer a dedicated computer science class. Now we're getting away from access and talking about what the school offers.

Robert:                                 That's a victory.

Mike:                                    Robert.

Amber:                                 What percentage of principals surveyed from schools that offer computer science classes say that AP computer science courses are available at their school? How many principals have an AP computer science course available at the school. Obviously, we're talking about high school here.

Robert:                                 25%.

Mike:                                    Yeah, that sounds about right. It's going to be a low number.

Amber:                                 You guys are really good. 25%. That was a very educated guess. However-

Mike:                                    Amber, we are supposed to be experts here. Come on! (laughter)

Amber:                                 Well, I'm just saying. Gallup reports a 50% increase, by the way, in the number of students who took the AP computer science exam.

Mike:                                    I remember ... Isn't there a stat that there's still no African American males passed the AP computer science exam. Not a single one.

Robert:                                 Are you serious?

Mike:                                    Not in the whole country.

Amber:                                 Is it really that bad?

Robert:                                 Wow.

Mike:                                    I should check that.

Amber:                                 What percentage of parents ... This is a bias question, whatever. What percent of parents say computer science is just as important to a student's future success as math, science, history, and English?

Mike:                                    What percentage of parents?

Robert:                                 70%.

Mike:                                    No, I'm going to say it's 45%.

Amber:                                 64%. If we're playing Price is Right [inaudible 00:20:21]. What percentage of superintendents say the main reason their school doesn't offer computer science is that no teachers are available within their district with the necessary skills to teach it?

Robert:                                 That's going to be high.

Mike:                                    75%.

Robert:                                 82%.

Amber:                                 73%.

Robert:                                 Why even ask me? Just ask Mike. (laughter)

Amber:                                 Just a couple more.

Mike:                                    I am good at this, aren't I?

Amber:                                 [inaudible 00:20:46] Low income parents are more likely than high income parents to say that students should be required to learn computer science. That's just a factoid. Your last one: What is the main reason that school principals and superintendents say that they do not offer computer science? It's not the teacher skills thing.

Mike:                                    It's not that? I was going to say.

Amber:                                 It's another main reason. I'll give you a hint. Think about what's going on right now.

Robert:                                 Because of the demands of testing and whatnot.

Amber:                                 Bingo. Focusing on testing is the main reason they don't spend more time on it.

Robert:                                 Hey, I got one that Mike didn't get.

Amber:                                 That was a little bit more intricate of a quiz, right?

Mike:                                    Interesting. It was. Well done.

Amber:                                 I just wonder whether parents ... People just think, "Oh, the kids just pick it up by osmosis because they're online all the time."

Mike:                                    Using a computer ...

Amber:                                 But this is programming. They went to pains to describe what a computer science course is.

Robert:                                 I'm more worried about how much of what we have in the schools right now. Look, I'm completely out of my depth on this. I couldn't code at gunpoint. I do worry that we're doing this as a parlor trick more than a serious course of study. Just because schools are "offering coding or computer science," how serious is it?

Mike:                                    You're coming from New York where de Blasio says, "Everybody's going to do this coding." In the younger grades, I think that probably is true, but aiming to get a lot more kids ready for AP computer science in high school, I think, is a legitimate goal.

Robert:                                 Absolutely.

Mike:                                    Here's the thing. This intersects with what we've been saying on high achieving kids, especially on high achieving low income kids. What you need to do is start as early as possible, making sure that those kids have access to rigorous math programs, to gifted and talented, to ability grouping, to tracking. What keeps tripping us up is that in many cities, you talk about that and people go bananas. The low income kids who show some promise on mathematics don't get access to that stuff. Out in the suburbs, the white kids still do, and they're still getting started in a pipeline that will result in them being ready for AP computer science by the 12th grade.

Robert:                                 My only question to the folks at Google who came up with the survey, is to what degree is this a problem in search of a solution, so to speak? In other words, if we have a robust STEM program, is that not all the preparation an average to above average student would need to prepare for a career in computer sciences?

Amber:                                 Yeah. I think it's a legitimate question.

Mike:                                    But we don't have that (laughs).

Amber:                                 We don't have that either, right. I'm just thinking ... Honestly, what do we do around here? How long have we looked for a really good web designer? That's a hugely good skill, right? These people make a ton of money. Remember last time we put an external contract out for our website? We were like, "Holy cow!"

Mike:                                    I want that job.

Amber:                                 What are these people doing in an hour? Because we don't know what they're doing in an hour, we're paying them (laughter).

Mike:                                    I did just learn how to embed a GIF in a Tweet, though.

Robert:                                 But you don't know how to say "GIF" which is the proper pronunciation.

Mike:                                    There's a debate about that.

Amber:                                 Anyway, it's a black box, I think, to a lot of us.

Robert:                                 It sure is.

Amber:                                 Wow, we really should know more about it.

Mike:                                    We should indeed. All right! Thank you, Amber. That was fun and enlightening. Always a pleasure, Robert. Until next week-

Robert:                                 I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Mike:                                    And I'm Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Education Gadfly Show signing off.


The ESEA reauthorization conferees delivered some good news for America’s high-achieving students last week. Absent further amending, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will include a necessary and long-overdue section provision that allows states to use computer-adaptive tests to assess students on content above their current grade level. That’s truly excellent news for kids who are “above grade level”—and for their parents, teachers, and schools.

Here’s the language, with emphasis added: 

The quality of state assessments matters enormously to children of all ability levels, but today’s tests do a grave disservice to high-achievers. Most current assessments do a lousy job of measuring academic growth by pupils who are well above grade level because they don’t contain enough “hard” questions to allow reliable measurement of achievement growth at the high end.

Doing that with paper-and-pencil tests would mean really long testing periods. But a major culprit is an NCLB provision requiring all students to take the “same tests” and (at least as interpreted during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies) barring material from those tests that’s significantly above or below the students’ formal grade levels. Though the intentions behind this decision were honorable—to...

Gary Kaplan

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education wisely decided this week to tack between the Scylla of MCAS and the Charybdis of PARCC. Following Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s recommendation, they chose to adopt MCAS 2.0, a yet-to-be-developed hybrid of the two options. Their adroit navigation calms the troubled waters for the time being. But choosing a test is only the beginning of the voyage. Strong and sustained tailwinds will be needed to swell the sails of student achievement.

A test is a measuring instrument. It shows where a student needs to improve, but it doesn’t provide instructional strategies and tools to achieve that improvement. Even without a new test, current state, local, and national assessments already generate more data than anyone can digest.   

Assessment data should directly drive instruction, and the instruction should be individualized to the student. This is the intent. But data-driven, individualized instruction can only take place online. Teachers can’t cut and paste textbooks—but software can be customized with a keystroke. Still, very few schools have the computers and software to support individualized online instruction.

MCAS 2.0 can be an effective driver of instruction if the state invests in a computer for every student (along with the...

Any baseball team finding itself down 3-0 in a seven-game series points to the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Despite the longest of odds—they hadn’t won a World Series in eighty-six years! Their Bronx nemeses had them down!—they staged a miraculous comeback, winning four games straight.

Now, any on-the-brink team getting peppered by reporters’ questions can point to the Sox. “Yes, we’re down big,” they can say. “Sure, things haven’t gone as we wanted. But it can be done! Just give it time! The Red Sox did it!”

Of course, what these teams fail to mention is that the thirty-two other times an MLB team went down 3-0, that team lost the series. Worse, in the 110 instances in which an NBA team went down 3-0, that team always lost the series.

In other words, past poor performance predicts prospective performance.

But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is undaunted. True to the administration’s messianic approach to policymaking, he sought yesterday to defy history. Presumably wearing a Johnny Damon jersey under his suit, the secretary traveled to the home of the Red Sox to rally-cap the legacy of his signature initiatives.

I tip my own cap to his PR team. The choice of Boston for this...

When is a test not a test? Sure, there’s an easy answer—“When it doesn’t send opt-out parents running for their torches and pitchforks”—but that’s not what we’re looking for. Give up? It’s when the test is a “locally driven performance assessment.” An article in Education Week explains the rise of these specially designed student tasks in eight New Hampshire school districts, which have been granted authority by the Education Department to employ them as alternatives to standardized tests. The districts will work with the state and one another to develop Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE), a series of individual and group queries that allow students to exhibit mastery over a subject without filling in bubbles. The challenges (which include the design of a forty-five-thousand-cubic-foot water tower to show proficiency in geometry) sound stimulating, and the Granite State’s record in competency-based education is extensive. It’s not hard to see why such an option would be attractive to state and local officials, especially when testing has become roughly as popular there as a leaf-peeping tax. What remains to be seen is whether this approach to assessment captures the same vital data as traditional measures.

Of course, some folks...

A small storm has blown up around the fact that certain math items on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) do not align with what fourth and eighth graders are actually being taught in a few states—mainly places attempting to implement the Common Core State Standards within their schools’ curricula.

NAEP is only administered in grades four, eight, and twelve. So the specific issue is whether the fourth graders who sat for NAEP this spring had a reasonable opportunity to learn the skills, algorithms, techniques—broadly speaking, “the content”—on that test. If their state standards had moved some portion of what used to be fourth-grade math to the fifth or sixth grade, or replaced it with something else entirely, their state’s NAEP scores would likely be lower.

This kind of misalignment is blamed for some of the math declines that NAEP recently reported. Department officials in Maryland, for example, examined the NAEP math sub-scores and determined that many Maryland fourth graders are no longer being taught some of those things before they take the test.

We are left to wonder: Should NAEP frameworks and assessments be updated to reflect what’s in...

I spent a few hours digging into the recently released 2015 NAEP TUDA data. The results didn’t get much media coverage. That’s a shame because these are the best assessments for understanding student performance in (and comparing the results of) America’s biggest urban districts.

It’s a treasure trove of information, and it tells hundreds of stories. I encourage you to get into the numbers and see what pops for you.

I tried to condense my big takeaways into six headlines and images.

1. We’ve been trying to improve urban districts for half a century. These are the results. No district is able to get even one in five black kids up to proficiency in eighth-grade math or reading.

2. Across the participating districts, there has been meager progress in both subjects and both grades for more than a decade.

3. A few districts, however, have made gains over time, most notably Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles. They deserve credit.

4. Instances of progress deserve attention because...

Last week, in the wake of President Obama’s pledge to reduce the amount of time students spend taking tests, my colleagues Robert Pondiscio and Michael Petrilli weighed in with dueling stances on the current state of testing and accountability in America’s schools. Both made valid points, but neither got it exactly right, so let me add a few points to the conversation.

Like Robert, I don’t see how we can improve our schools if we don’t know how they’re doing, which means we need the data we get from standardized tests. But I also believe that—because we’re obligated to intervene when kids aren’t getting the education they deserve—some tests must inevitably be “high-stakes.” The only real alternative to this is an unregulated market, which experience suggests is a bad idea.

Must this logic condemn our children to eternal test-preparation purgatory? I hope not, but I confess to some degree of doubt. The challenge is creating an accountability system that doesn't inadvertently encourage gaming or bad teaching. Yet some recent policy shifts seem to have moved us further away from that kind of system.

As Mike noted, the problem of over-testing has been exacerbated in recent years by the...

A new study by the NAEP Validity Studies Panel analyzes the alignment of the assessment’s 2015 Math Items (the actual test questions) for grades four and eight to the math Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

To do so, the panel enlisted as reviewers eighteen mathematicians, teachers, math educators, and supervisors who have familiarity with Common Core. This group classified all 150 items in the 2015 NAEP math pool for each grade as either matching a CCSS standard or not.

The reviewers determined that the Common Core and NAEP were reasonably aligned at both grade levels— not surprising, since CCSS writers had the NAEP frameworks at their disposal. Further, NAEP is by design broader than the CCSS and is supposed to maintain a degree of independence relative to the “current fashions in instruction and curriculum.”

Panelists found that 79 percent of NAEP items were matched to the content that appears in the CCSS at or below grade 4. The overall alignment of NAEP to CCSS standards at or below grade eight is even closer, 87 percent.

There is, however, variation in matches across content areas. In fourth grade, the least aligned content area was data analysis, statistics,...