Standards, Testing & Accountability

On Tuesday, April 12, 2016, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a full committee hearing titled “ESSA Implementation in States and School Districts: Perspectives from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” the first of a series of oversight hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander delivered an opening statement to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. and asked Secretary King two rounds of questions. What follows is the transcript of these talks.

Of particular interest to those of us at Fordham (besides the very important back-and-forth about the appropriate federal role in education and the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches) is the issue of flexibility around eighth-grade math assessments for advanced students. That is addressed toward the end of the transcript.

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Senator Alexander Opening Statement

Mr. Secretary, as you know, I urged the president to nominate an education secretary because I thought it was important to have a confirmed secretary accountable to the United States Senate when the department was implementing the new law fixing No Child Left Behind.

You have sworn to discharge your duties faithfully. That is your oath of office, and...

Last week marked the beginning of the annual New York State English and math tests for grades 3–8. While Catholic schools (and their teachers’ unions) have largely stayed out of the political fray when it comes to standards and testing, we at the Partnership Schools—a network of six urban Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx—voluntarily participate in the New York Common Core assessments.

Catholic schools have long been unapologetic supporters of high standards for all children, and we at the Partnership use results from the New York tests both to ensure that we are keeping expectations high for our students and to benchmark our students’ academic growth.

In an age when some people are opting out, we are opting in.

Of course, we’re aware of the pushback against standards and tests, particularly in our home state of New York. But we believe that pushback is misguided and that the opt-out movement is misleading parents. In particular, it is using tests as a scapegoat for implementation decisions that are mostly within the power of educators and education leaders to change.

As choice schools, we’re fortunate. Our parents—many of whom come from the nation’s poorest congressional district—opt into our schools. And...

It’s not really a surprise that the progress of school choice at the state level is so often tethered to the fortunes of Republican lawmakers. A number of Democratic interest groups (teachers’ unions chief among them, though they’re certainly not alone) have traditionally lined up against charter schools and voucher initiatives, and down-ballot officeholders have been slow to follow the lead of national figures (and charter fans) like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That’s why it’s so striking to observe this month’s developments in Maryland, where an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature has teamed up with the GOP to carve out new funding for private school scholarships aimed at low-income students. It’s important to keep a sense of proportion; the initiative accounts for just $5 million out of a $42 billion state budget, and legislators rejected a far more ambitious proposal for private school tax credits. Still, the move is a major step forward for private schools of choice in the Old Line State.

With New York City authorities already facing serious questions about student safety, the country’s biggest school district must now address a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of students who have been the victims of...

Now that New York’s students are heading into another year of Common Core-aligned standardized testing, it’s probably time to start taking bets on exactly how many kids will actually show up. With last year’s opt-out numbers reaching a staggering 20 percent and a new Regents chancellor claiming that she’d keep her own kids from taking the exams, assessment boosters might be wondering if anyone’s willing to speak up for the joy of filling in tiny bubbles. If so, they’ve found perhaps the least surprising champion in Success Academy honcho Eva Moskowitz, who gave a stridently pro-assessment interview last week following a pre-test pep rally in Harlem. “We need to know how the most affluent communities are performing and whether our kids can do as well as those—and you can’t do that with internal assessments,” she noted. Her arguments were later echoed by old pal Al Sharpton—you remember, the guy who memorably roasted her for protesting Mayor de Blasio’s charter policies. The good reverend is now on the record imploring students to take the tests and expose gaps in achievement. See? Testing was always meant to bring people together.

Chicago kids looking to enjoy a...

Policy wonks and political prognosticators have begun to forecast the collateral damage that is apt to follow if Donald Trump manages—in spite of himself, and notwithstanding his Wisconsin setback—to win the Republican nomination, damaging not only GOP prospects for retrieving the White House but also the party’s odds of prevailing in innumerable races for Congress and for state (and even local) leadership. Following in the wake of those generally dire prognostications are early conjectures about the policy shifts that may ensue in sundry realms both international and domestic if Democrats are positioned to chart the future course.

For education reformers parsing this prospect, it’s useful first to recall the many worthy changes that followed the GOP’s 2010 sweep of a galaxy of state and federal offices (obviously omitting the one that’s ovular). Though nothing in the list below is (from my perspective) perfect, it’s hard to picture many—perhaps any—of these things happening had Republicans not been in positions of influence:

  • New assessments in most states, geared to higher academic standards and featuring higher “cut scores” that correspond more accurately and honestly to the actual demands of college, career, and international competitiveness
  • Accelerating the spread of school choice, both the public version (typically
  • ...

Regular Gadfly readers know that we usually rely on two metrics when analyzing school performance—Ohio’s performance index and the value added measures. However, the state assigns A–F ratings along several other measures, including one called the “gap closing” component (a.k.a. annual measureable objectives, or AMOs). This measure deserves scrutiny now that state policy makers have the opportunity to retool the accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA).

First implemented in 2012–13 as a modification to the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)provisions, AMOs are meant to hold schools accountable for the proficiency of student subgroups (e.g., low-income or race/ethnicity). Specifically, the measure compares the proficiency rates of a school’s subgroups to statewide proficiency targets—the “measureable objective.” The AMO methodology also gives partial (up to full) credit to schools when subgroup proficiency increases from year to year. The idea of AMOs is to maintain pressure on schools to close longstanding gaps between low-achieving subgroups and their peers.

Shortly after ESSA passed, the U.S. Department of Education notified states they were freed from using AMOs in their accountability systems. That doesn’t mean that low-achieving students will be forgotten: The new federal law requires an...

Despite the continued controversy surrounding Common Core, the vast majority of states that originally adopted the standards have chosen to stick with them. But the same can’t be said of several new standards-aligned assessments.

Developed by two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, these new tests offered member states shared ownership over common assessments, significant cost savings, and the ability to compare student performance across states. Despite this initial promise, however, membership in PARCC (and, to a lesser degree, Smarter Balanced) has been dwindling for some time now. But is this attrition due to the quality of the tests, as some claim?

To inform states about the quality and content of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, Fordham conducted the first comprehensive evaluation of three “next-generation” tests this past summer, recruiting reviewers who examined operational test items from PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and ACT Aspire. We also evaluated one highly regarded existing state test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Our team of rock star reviewers, comprising educators and experts on content and assessment, judged these tests against benchmarks based on the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO’s) “...

If I had to pick just one reason to support Common Core, it would be to address the paucity of nonfiction texts read by students in elementary and middle school reading instruction. Gaps in background knowledge and vocabulary make it stubbornly difficult to raise reading achievement. Conceptualizing reading comprehension as a skill you can apply to any ol’ text broadly misses the point. By encouraging reading in history, science, and other disciplines across the curriculum, Common Core encourages “a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give [students] the background to be better readers in all content areas.”

Thus, it is great good news that the 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education finds the dominance of fiction waning in the fourth and eighth grades. The standards call for a 50/50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in fourth grade. In 2011, 63 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported emphasizing fiction in class, while only 38 percent said they emphasized non-fiction. A mere four years later, the gap is down to just eight percentage points (53 percent to 45 percent).

On the math side, CCSS asks for fewer topics or strands, as well as a focus on whole number arithmetic from kindergarten...

  • Even before they start school, inner-city students are often beset by huge learning obstacles—from the infamous thirty-million-word gap to the perils of urban violence—that need to mitigated by overtaxed districts. There’s a morbid irony, therefore, in new findings suggesting that these kids face the additional danger of poisoning once they walk into school. Nationwide testing in the wake of the Flint crisis has revealed distressing levels of lead contamination in school systems from Los Angeles to Newark. The problem has gone largely undetected for years because the only statute governing lead levels in public water supplies is a grossly inadequate 1991 EPA rule. Countless district facilities around the country are exempted from its language, and their lead-lined pipes and water coolers are spreading pollutants that are known to damage children’s bodily organs and stunt intellectual development. Disadvantaged families need to know that their kids are safe at school, not at risk of sustaining irreversible biological harm.
  • We all know the hallmarks of a typical civics lesson: dust-dry soliloquys about the Virginia Plan versus the New Jersey Plan, yellowed daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln, and melodically flaccid episodes of Schoolhouse Rock. If there were any class period that could
  • ...

“The Proper Perspective” is a discussion between Jamie Davies O’Leary, senior Ohio policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio. Interested in many of the same data points and research questions, they decided to share some of this exchange more publicly, helping both to illuminate trends in Ohio public education and formulate policy recommendations through their insights. This is the fourth edition of the series. The first can be found here, the second here, the third here.

New Ohio report cards show, to some extent, the effect of parents opting their children out of standardized testing. Jamie and Steve have both been writing about the implications of school and district report cards data and had an exchange about their concerns over testing opt-outs going forward.

Jamie:

I know that you were especially concerned about opt-outs in Northeast Ohio after hearing that Lorain would be hit hard. Indeed, that district was. I was surprised, and glad, that the...

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