Standards, Testing & Accountability

Anyone who knows a teenager understands how hard it is to get into a good college these days. We’ve all heard of some bright eighteen-year-old with a stellar GPA, sky-high SAT scores, fives on a half-dozen AP courses, and a service record like Mother Theresa’s who still couldn’t manage to get into her university of choice. (Colleges mail acceptance letters this week.) What gives?

It’s particularly mysterious since national and international exams keep telling us that American high schoolers aren’t, by and large, making any significant achievement gains. Yet when it comes time to apply to college, the crème-de-la-crème appear to be rising further to the top. As proof, see this chart below. It shows, for the nation’s fifty most selective institutions,*  the SAT scores that put one at the 25th percentile of the freshman class (in other words, toward the lower range of what it takes to get into these schools).

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is simple supply and demand. The demographic bulge known as the Baby Boom Echo has made its way through our high schools and into college in recent years. The supply of seats at elite...

A useful new report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation underscores the painful divide between parents and education reformers on the crucial topic of what to do about bad schools.

School hallway
Schools play many roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those.
Photo by hundrednorth

In a nutshell, if the neighborhood school is crummy, parents want it fixed. So do community leaders. Ed reformers are far more apt to want to close it and give families alternatives such as charter schools.

As Andy Smarick has perceptively written, schools play multiple roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those. Hence, shuttering a school affects more than the convenience of keeping one’s own kids in a familiar (and generally close-at-hand) facility, maybe even with that nice Ms. Greensleeves who teaches fourth grade there. As Jean Johnson writes on behalf of Public Agenda, based on a recent series of focus groups (as well as much other research), “Most parents see local public...

GadflyIn the latest dust-up over the Common Core, the inclusion of some (arguably) violent, war-themed picture books in New York City’s third-grade English curriculum has some whining that the recommended texts were not vetted properly—and, predictably, claiming that implementation is moving too fast. For straight talk, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

A national database called inBloom that warehouses millions of students’ personal information for school districts has a slightly unfortunate side business: selling realistic-but-fake student data to application developers. According to inBloom, the two sides of its operation are strictly separate—but that hasn’t stopped parent listservs from exploding with the rage of a thousand mothers.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal found that more than 10 percent of New York City’s principals did not issue a single teacher an “unsatisfactory” grade (the city uses a pass/fail system for reviewing job performance). While this may seem like bad news, flip that number around and notice that nearly 90 percent did. For comparison, consider that, according to Education Week, 98 percent...

The 2013 Brown Center Report on American EducationThe Brown Center’s annual report always takes on three big issues in education policy—and always delivers the goods. Thank you, Brookings! This year’s edition is no exception, broaching the topics of ability grouping in elementary schools (which it finds is on the rise), whether teaching Algebra in eighth grade improves NAEP math scores (it doesn’t), and how American students compare with their international peers (one of report author Tom Loveless's favorite topics). In service of the latter, the report firmly discredits the notion that the U.S. must copy and paste the instructional practices of so-called “A+ countries” (the six that scored at the top of the TIMSS charts in 1995). Rather, since 1995, the U.S. has gained seventeen points in eighth-grade mathematics—an achievement exceeded by only one A+ nation, Korea, and matched by one other, Hong Kong. Moreover, though Finland’s PISA scores have earned them near-worship in many U.S. education circles, that country’s performance on the TIMSS was statistically indistinguishable from ours. Be sure...

  • The U.S. Department of Education just announced more SIG money going out the door. At a TBFI event late last year, the Department and I tussled about the results to date, which showed that more than a third of participating schools (already among the lowest performing in the nation) had gotten worse despite this multi-BILLION dollar program. I sadly predicted these grim results several years ago—not because I’m clairvoyant but because stacks of research over decades showed that turnarounds aren’t a reliable or scalable strategy for generating more high-quality seats. But the Department remains bullish; the release says, “Early findings show positive momentum and progress in many SIG schools.”

    Many of us are looking forward to thoroughly analyzing the program’s effects, but we’ve been in a holding pattern. The Department still hasn’t released school-level results from Year 1 yet (even though those tests were given two years ago), and we’ve not yet received any results from Year 2 (even though those tests were given a year ago). Forgive the quick snark, but maybe we just have to wait until close of business on the Friday before Thanksgiving week again to get results.

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The quality of charters schools is a topic often covered by the media, stemming from debates about the potential impact of charter schools on student achievement. Only a few groups, however, place an emphasis on ensuring the quality of authorizers who contract with charters and have the responsibility to oversee their academic and fiscal performance. One of these groups called the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) publishes an annual report that collects self-reported survey data from authorizers, which indicate the extent to which they comply with the “Index of Essential Practices.” The best practices represent policies that would allow an authorizer to successfully accomplish their roles as a facilitator and compliance officer.

Of the eleven Buckeye State authorizers whom NASCA surveyed (including Fordham), NACSA found that Ohio’s authorizers scored well according to the index. Authorizers met nine to eleven out of the twelve possible indicators of best practices. NACSA, however, did critique states like Ohio who have implemented laws that do not allow authorizers to institute policies from the index. For example, the current law for charter renewals in Ohio prevents authorizers from issuing new schools a contract longer than the length of the authorizer’s own contract with...

If I could go back in time and begin my stint at an SEA all over again, I’d dedicate more energy to educator-preparation policy for three reasons.

First, obviously, educator effectiveness is hugely important to student learning, and we could accomplish a much by ensuring that those entering the profession are fully prepared for the tough work awaiting them.

The second reason is that SEAs have far greater power over this issue than most people—including lots of incoming state chiefs—understand.

(The third reason comes later…)

Under nearly every state constitution, the state government is given responsibility for public schooling. Lots of this power is then devolved, via statute, to districts.

But most state-level authority is vested in the state department of education. Though legislatures pass lots of laws related to schooling, they generally know where their expertise ends; and regardless of the issue or level of government, when legislators recognize the water’s edge of their understanding, they defer to executive branch (administrative) agencies.

What this translates to is SEAs’ (and/or state boards of educations’) having huge leeway when it comes to teacher preparation and credentialing.

State law may say that each teacher must have “appropriate certification for the position held,”...

In both our role as researchers and as a charter school authorizer we have come to appreciate over-and-over again the critical importance of school leaders in making schools great. Yet, there is no harder job than running a successful school building for high-poverty students; nor a more important job. There are school leaders across the state and the nation who do it day-in and day-out, and too few get recognized for their great work. We are fortunate that some of these leaders work in schools that Fordham sponsors and it is our privilege to tell a little bit of their stories and the impact they are having on students in Ohio.

This Q&A with Chad Webb, the head of school for Village Preparatory School-Woodland Hill campus, is the fifth of our seven-part series on school leadership. (Please see our Q&A with Dr. Glenda Brown, Andy Boy, Dr. Judy Hennessey, and Hannah Powell Tuney.) Village Prep is part of the Breakthrough network of charter schools. Breakthrough operates the highest-performing charters in Cleveland—and, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), are some of the finest charter schools in the nation. ...

In New Jersey, the state department of education released draft regulations for a new teacher evaluation system. The slide deck they used to describe the plan is superb. Among other things, the package includes rules governing the use of student performance data, including “student growth percentiles” (SGP). I was with the department when this all was just a set of ideas nearly three years ago. Since then, the state has moved forward slowly but steadily—see the timeline on slide 4—rolling out a smart, fair plan. I’m proud of my old team.

PARCC, one of two testing consortia associated with Common Core, released a bevy of materials last week (Education Week writes it up here). The group’s website now has a wide array of resources available, including item and task prototypes, explanations of design features and policies for students with disabilities, and an over-arching guidance document. The consortia are reaching a pivotal moment: states need to budget and make decisions about sunsetting current tests. This release was probably timed (wisely) to give member states confidence that PARCC is on schedule. As I’ve written previously, should states have...

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