Standards, Testing & Accountability

Ohio leaders have started an important conversation about education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act. One of the central issues is what accountability will look like—including how to hold schools accountable for the outcomes of student subgroups (e.g., pupils who are low-income or African American). Ohio’s accountability system is largely praiseworthy, but policy makers should address one glaring weakness: subgroup accountability policies.

The state currently implements subgroup accountability via the gap-closing measure, also known as “annual measureable objectives.” Briefly speaking, the measure consists of two steps: First, it evaluates a school’s subgroup proficiency rate against a statewide proficiency goal; second, if a subgroup misses the goal, schools may receive credit if that subgroup shows year-to-year improvement in proficiency.

This approach to accountability is deeply flawed. The reasons boil down to three major problems, some of which I’ve discussed before. First, using pure proficiency rate is a poor accountability policy when better measures of achievement—such as Ohio’s performance index—are available. (See Morgan Polikoff’s and Mike Petrilli’s recent letters to the Department of Education for more on this.) Second, year-to-year changes in proficiency could be conflated with changes in student composition. For example, we might notice a jump in subgroup proficiency. But is...

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, but they are not entitled to their own facts. This idea animates "The Learning Landscape," a new, accessible, and engaging effort by Bellwether Education Partners to ground contemporary education debates in, well, facts.

A robust document, it’s divided into six “chapters” on student achievement; accountability, standards, and assessment; school finance; teacher effectiveness; charter schools; and philanthropy in K–12 education. Data on these topics can be found elsewhere, of course. Where this report shines is in offering critical context behind current debates, and doing so in an admirably even-handed fashion. For example, the section on charter schools tracks the sector’s growth and student demographics and offers state-by-state data on charter school adoption and market share (among many other topics). But it also takes a clear-eyed look at for-profit operators, the mixed performance of charters, and other thorny issues weighing on charter effectiveness. (Online charters are a hot-button topic that could have used more discussion). Sidebars on “Why Some Charters Fail” and case studies on issues facing individual cities lend the report heft and authority, along with discussions on authorizing, accountability, and funding. In similar fashion, the chapter on standards and...

In recent years, more and more districts have encouraged students to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses because they’re more challenging and can earn them college credit. And according to the College Board, this encouragement has translated to more course taking: “Over the past decade, the number of students who graduate from high school having taken rigorous AP courses has nearly doubled, and the number of low-income students taking AP has more than quadrupled.”

Enter a new study that examines what role grade-weighting AP courses might have played in this uptick in participation (for example, a district might assign 5.0 grade points for an A in an AP course but 4.0 grade points in a regular class).

The authors conducted a survey of over nine hundred traditional public high schools in Texas, inquiring whether they had weighting systems for AP courses; if so, when they began; and what changes have occurred in their systems since then. Twenty-eight schools that had increased their weights made up the “treatment group,” including rural, urban, and suburban schools scattered around the Lone Star State. The control group was drawn from traditional public schools with school-level data available before any weight changes occurred. It was then...

Dear Mark and Priscilla,

Please allow an aging education reformer to offer some unsolicited advice regarding the work of the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Almost twenty years ago, I wrote a long public letter to Bill Gates that drew lessons from earlier philanthropic efforts in K–12 education—including many billions of dollars wasted by the likes of Ford, Rockefeller, and Annenberg. In it, I offered suggestions for the most useful work that the then-new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation might do in this realm, particularly by advancing the (also new) concept of charter schools.

In fact, Gates has done—and continues to do—good work in the charter sector. Much of what his foundation has undertaken in the K–12 realm, however, has fallen prey to the classic temptation to try to reform school districts. You—Mark—apparently succumbed to that same temptation when you committed $100 million to the renewal of public education in Newark, by way of both district and charter schools. Smart fellow that you are, you’ve acknowledged that the charter part of this generous gift has done some good (whereas the district part, not so much). You’ve probably read Dale Russakoff’s provocative book about what went wrong in Newark; she notes that you...

It used to be that when people talked about urban school success stories, Catholic schools were at the center of the discussion. Twenty years ago, Cardinal John O’Connor, then archbishop of New York, all but dared public school leaders to send their hardest-to-teach students to archdiocesan schools. “Send me the lowest-performing 5 percent of children presently in the public schools,” O’Connor declared, “and I will put them in Catholic schools—where they will succeed.”

Such was the audacity of urban Catholic school leaders back then. We were confident. Our schools routinely outperformed neighborhood public schools. Our results were stronger—and longer-lasting—and our success came at a bargain price.In fact, it was the historic success of urban Catholic schools that fed the reform movement in general and the charter school movement in particular. Catholic schools were proving what was possible, and entrepreneurial young education leaders were quick to seize the opportunity to do the same in the public sector.

Over the past two decades, that confident leadership has been shaken by declining enrollment and financial struggles. Some in the reform sector and elsewhere have even taken to writing off urban Catholic schools as a relic of a bygone day.

At the same time, efforts from...

Editor's note: This post reproduces a letter sent to Secretary of Education John King on July 29. 

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I am writing to suggest two very specific changes to the proposed rule that your department published on May 31, 2016, regarding the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and its provisions for school-level accountability.

  1. For the “academic achievement” indicator mandated by ESSA, do not require states to use proficiency rates.
  2. Allow states to provide evidence that their proposed “other indicators of student success or school quality” are related to improved graduation, college completion, employment, civic engagement, and/or military readiness rates as alternatives to achievement.

These two tweaks will maintain the law’s strong focus on results while allowing states to develop accountability systems that are maximally fair and useful to educators, parents, and the public.

Recommendation #1: Make states report proficiency rates, but don’t require their use for the “academic achievement” indicator.

As Morgan Polikoff and dozens of scholars and policy analysts explained in a letter submitted to your department on July 22, proficiency rates are extremely poor measures of school quality. Other approaches—such as proficiency indices or scale scores—would meet ESSA’s mandate for measuring proficiency without encouraging schools...

The new education law of the land—the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—has been the talk of the town since President Obama signed it into law in December 2015. Under the new law, testing doesn’t initially seem that different from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) days: ESSA retains the requirement that states administer annual assessments in grades 3–8 and once in high school; requires that test results remain a prominent part of new state accountability plans; and continues to expect states to identify and intervene in struggling schools based upon assessment results. But a closer look reveals that ESSA provides a few key flexibilities to states and districts—and opens the door for some pretty significant choices. Let’s take a look at the biggest choices that Ohio will have to make and the benefits and drawbacks of each option. 

Test design

There are two key decisions for states in terms of test design. The first is related to high school testing. ESSA permits districts to use “a locally selected assessment in lieu of the state-designed academic assessment” as long as it’s a “nationally recognized high school academic assessment.” In other words, Ohio districts could forego a...

You, like me, may find something tiresome about the sudden recrudescence of the Japanese pocket monster after its deserved interval in pixelated purgatory. The arrival of the Pokémon Go app has sent an army of dead-eyed phone worshipers traipsing through Arlington National Cemetery and D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum in search of imaginary cuddle beasts, and it’s hard for us grumps to find an upside. That’s why we should leave it to USA Today’s inimitable gaming correspondent, Greg Toppo, who has gone to bat for the social and educational benefits of the app. In interviews with tech-savvy educators, he detects great admiration for the way it disperses its users into public spaces—churches, parks, museums, and historic buildings—and pushes them to rediscover their communities. A whole array of “augmented reality” games could harness this level of engagement for educational ends, even if their participants just think they’re stalking the elusive Jigglypuff.

Veterans of the reform movement probably don’t need any reminders about the sorry state of K–12 education in Newark. From the thousands of pupils served in abominable schools to decades of state intervention and the squandered $100 million gift from Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg, the city’s troubles...

For three decades, leaders of both major political parties have recognized the urgency of reforming and renewing American K–12 education, and major elements of the reform agenda have generally enjoyed bipartisan support: higher standards, better teachers, results-based accountability, and more choices (particularly via charter schools). That’s why forty-three states—red, blue, and purple—have passed charter laws, and nearly all have higher standards and better assessments than they did a decade ago. From A Nation at Risk (1983) to Charlottesville (1989) to NCLB (2002) to ESSA (2015), elected officials from both sides of the aisle have been able to work together in pursuit of important goals involving the future of the country and its children.

They haven’t always agreed—especially on which levels of government should do what, how many forms of school choice warrant public funding, how best to evaluate teachers, and so on—but I’m not talking about consensus on the details of policy and implementation. I’m referring to mutual acknowledgment of the acute problems of weak achievement, unequal opportunity, too many dropout factories, and too few terrific teachers. Republicans and Democrats have generally agreed that the need for reform is urgent, and their policy outlines have often included many of the...

A new experimental study examines whether interim assessments have an effect on improving outcomes for students at the lower, middle, and higher ends of the achievement distribution, with a particular focus on the lower end.

Specifically, researchers study two reading and math assessment programs in Indiana: mCLASS in grades K–2 (a face-to-face diagnostic for which teachers enter results immediately in a hand-held device) and Acuity, a CTB/McGraw Hill product, in grades 3–8 (which is administered via paper/pencil). K–8 schools that volunteered to take part in the study and met certain criteria (like not having used the two interim assessments before) were randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions in the 2009–10 academic year. Of the 116 schools that met all criteria, seventy were randomly selected to participate, fifty-seven were assigned, and fifty ultimately participated. The outcome measure for grades K–2 was the Terra Nova; for grades 3–8, the Indiana state test (ISTEP+). The analysts conducted various analyses, each of which targeted impact at the lower, middle, and upper tail of the distribution.

In general, the results show that in grades 3–8, lower-achievers seem to benefit more from interim assessments than higher-achieving students. The magnitude of the effects were larger in...