Standards, Testing & Accountability

Earlier this week I attended the GE Foundation's Summer Business and Education Summit in Orlando. Most of the two-day conversation among the 150 or so participants revolved around Common Core implementation. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush captured the scale of the challenge when he told the gathering on the first morning that states are heading for a “train wreck.” He noted that when the new standards and assessments come fully online in 2015 that many communities, schools, and families are in for a rude awakening.

Running away from the Common Core would be a huge mistake for the country, its children, and its future.

Governor Bush said that the more rigorous Common Core standards, if backed by equally rigorous assessments, will show that only one in three children in America qualify as college or career ready. Bush warned that such bluntness about the poor health of American education and student achievement will trigger serious political backtracking. He said, “My guess is there’s going to be a lot of people running for cover and their going to be running fast.”

But, as Governor Bush and other speakers during the two-day conference argued, running away from the Common Core would be a...

Mike is from Mars; Kathleen is from Venus

Kathleen and Mike wonder how to hold states accountable in twenty-seven different ways and debate whether gender-specific curricula make sense. Amber dives deep into census data on edu-spending.

Amber's Research Minute

Public Education Finances Report - United States Census

Anti-testing advocates frequently decry the amount of time students spend on state summative assessments. I must admit that I’m persuaded that it’s gotten out of hand—in Connecticut, where I lived for the past 6 years, nearly every public school student in the state spent the better part of March taking tests. Even if the tests were better, it’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way?

It’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction.

There is an old engineering maxim: “Good, fast, cheap; pick two.” When it comes to summative state assessments, we seem to have picked just one: cheap.

The truth is, if we want to build a better assessment, we need to set a more ambitious goal. The current crop of time consuming, low-quality tests isn’t the way the world needs to work; it’s simply the byproduct of a failure of imagination and leadership.

But what if we simply raised our expectations? Why can’t we, for example, have a new kind of test, aligned to the Common Core and leveraging the latest...

Last December, I wrote a post criticizing the assessment consortia for their failure to release more information about the development of the forthcoming Common Core assessments. At the time, I argued that providing information about how the standards would be assessed is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.

Providing information assessments is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.

Today—seven months later and just two years from implementation of the new tests—we aren’t much closer to giving teachers a clear sense of how they and their students will be held accountable to the new standards. And while state and district leaders have begun to put pressure on curriculum developers to provide CCSS-aligned materials, there is very little public pressure being put on the consortia to release more information that would help teachers (and curriculum writers) in their quest to align planning, curriculum, assessment, and instruction to the Common Core.

Fortunately, a few states have started to provide more of the guidance that teachers so desperately need. To that end, the New York department of education has released a set of...

Curriculum nerds

Kathleen Porter-Magee makes her podcast debut, debating reading requirements with Mike and explaining why the new science standards need improvement. Amber wonders whether upper-elementary teachers outshine their K-2 peers.

Amber's Research Minute

School Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School by Sarah C. Fuller & Helen F. Ladd - Download PDF

Oleksandr Nartov
Setting a high bar for academic performance is key to international competitiveness.
Photo by EO Kenny.

There is a reason big, modern countries care about education: Decades of experience and heaps of research have shown a close tie between the knowledge and skills of a nation's workforce and the productivity of that nation's economy.

One way to ensure that young people develop the skills they need to compete globally is to set clear standards about what schools should teach and students should learn—and make these standards uniform across the land. Leaving such decisions to individual states, communities, and schools is no longer serving the U.S. well.

We know from multiple sources that today's young Americans are falling behind their peers in other countries when it comes to academic performance. We also know that U.S. businesses are having trouble finding the talent they need within this country and, as a result, are outsourcing more and more of their work.

One major reason for this...

Special-education students, it turns out, may stand to benefit if accountability systems cease to treat them as particularly special. States around the country jumped at the Obama administration’s NCLB waiver offer this year for many reasons, but the opportunity to streamline that law’s accountability requirements by lumping different subgroups together was certainly a draw. The practice raised the ire of many special-education advocates, however, who fear that that the needs of students with disabilities (SWDs) may get lost in the shuffle with the rise of “super subgroups” that lump these youngsters in with ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic minorities. The data in a new IES report, however, suggest that viewing SWDs separately may actually do them a serious disservice. The study analyzes how well schools with substantial special-education populations educate their students and assesses whether NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements led schools to adopt improved practices, thus bumping educational outcomes for their SWDs. For the forty states with relevant data (2008-09), 35 percent of schools were accountable for SWD test scores—up ten percentage points since 2005-06—meaning that they had enough disabled pupils to qualify for accountability under NCLB’s Title I and “subgroup” rules. Further, in 2008-09, just 14 percent...

The central idea behind standards- and accountability-driven reforms is that, in order to improve student learning, we need to do three things:

  • Clearly define a minimum bar for all students (i.e., set standards).
  • Hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable for meeting those minimum standards.
  • Back off: Give teachers and leaders the autonomy and flexibility they need to meet their goals.
The push for greater accountability has often been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control.

It’s a powerful formulation, and one that we’ve seen work, particularly in charter schools and networks where teachers and leaders have used that autonomy to find innovative solutions to some of the biggest instructional challenges.

Unfortunately, in far too many traditional school districts, the push for greater accountability has been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control. That is a prescription for a big testing and accountability backlash. 

You needn’t look far for examples of how traditional districts have gotten the accountability balance all wrong. There are a host of stifling district practices that unintentionally hamstring, rather than free, our teachers and leaders. And that unintentionally encourage precisely the kinds of practices most testing critics loathe.

Many of these...

Bah humbug

Checker and Mike explain why individual charter schools shouldn’t be expected to educate everyone and divide over Obama’s non-enforcement policies. Amber analyzes where students’ science skills are lacking.

Amber's Research Minute

The Nation’s Report Card: Science in Action: Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks from the 2009 Science Assessment - National Center for Education Statistics

In May, Achieve unveiled and solicited comments on the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, the product of months of work by a team of writers on behalf of twenty-six states. This review by Fordham provides commentary, feedback, and constructive advice that we hope the NGSS authors will consider as they revise the standards before the release of a second draft later this year.