Standards, Testing & Accountability

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserves the many plaudits he received on Friday from President Obama and his friends in the reform community—and even from his sometime-foes in the teachers’ unions. As everyone remarked, he’s a good and decent man, a fighter for disadvantaged kids who’s passionate about his work and loyal to his team. That was certainly my personal experience with him; he was more gracious toward me than I probably deserved, considering the many swipes I’ve taken at his policy decisions over the years.

So please bear with me one more time: Even at this moment of celebration, congratulation, and reflection regarding Arne’s time at the helm, the Obama administration can’t seem to help itself. It almost seems determined to poison the well with Congress and play to the stereotype of a government unwilling to abide by constitutional limits.

I’m referring, of course, to the decision to appoint John King (another smart, committed reformer and all-around great guy) as “acting” education secretary for an entire year rather than putting him through the Senate confirmation process.

It’s certainly true that the confirmation process has slowed to an agonizing pace over the past few decades. And the Bush 43 administration also opted...

As Ohio lawmakers return to Columbus, a debate is brewing about how to measure the effectiveness of e-schools. At issue is the fact that a large fraction of their students are mobile—for example, our 2012 student mobility report found that less than half of online students stay for more than a couple years.  Some e-schools assert that it’s unfair to hold them accountable for raising the achievement of children who spend such a brief time under their supervision.

Are they right? How should we think about accountability for e-schools, or other schools with a highly mobile population? (Our mobility study revealed that urban schools also experience high rates of mobility.) Should state policymakers make accommodations for schools with a more transient student body? Or should they stand firm on accountability, regardless of the challenges of serving a mobile population?

To be sure, these are tough issues, but policymakers can look towards a few guiding principles.

First, all kids count. Every student deserves an excellent education, regardless of whether she’s brand-new to a school or has been enrolled for several years. Think of it this way: when a fourth grade student moves from one school to another, shouldn’t the...

While plenty of folks seem to think that getting rid of Common Core would be good for schools, the standards remain largely intact in most states across the nation, including here in Ohio. Before supporters start congratulating each other on victory, however, they would be wise to recognize that the real battle for Common Core has just begun. As my colleague Robert Pondiscio points out, “far too little attention has been paid to the heavy lift being asked of America’s teachers—and the conditions under which they are being asked to change familiar, well-established teaching methods.”

This heavy lifting includes selecting curricula to teach the standards (because the standards aren't a curriculum—districts choose their own). The lift gets Atlas-like when one considers the poor alignment of the curricula from which districts and teachers can choose. Since last summer, researchers have called out textbook publishers’ misleading claims of alignment with words like “sham,” “buyer beware,” “disgrace,” and “snake oil.” Slapping “shiny new stickers on the same books they’ve been selling for years” has probably lined some pockets, but it’s also left teachers high and dry—and still hefting the weight of ensuring that students master...

Hannah Putman

When trying to improve educational outcomes, it is hard not to feel the need for urgency. We want to figure out what works now and implement changes immediately—because if we wait, kids who are in schools now will miss out. Unfortunately, this pressure to act quickly may be fundamentally at odds with the ability to measure what really works, since meaningful changes in the trajectory of student achievement are not always apparent until years later. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University provides a compelling example of exactly this conundrum.
 
Schanzenbach’s thesis is that too often, education research only assesses an intervention’s immediate or intermediate outcomes without capturing its long-term benefits. This may be particularly relevant, she asserts, when judging the impact of early childhood investments.
 
Schanzenbach offers the example of two studies (both of which she co-authored) on the famous 1990s Project STAR class size experiment in Tennessee. That well-known experiment assigned students randomly to either regularly sized classes or smaller ones. Researchers behind both papers (the first from Dynarski, Hyman, and Schanzenbach and the second from Chetty, Friedman, Hilger, Saez, Schanzenbach, and Yagan) found that the smaller kindergarten classes yielded an immediate bump in student test scores for that year; but both papers report...

Since 2003, Florida has required that schools retain third graders who fail to demonstrate proficiency on the state reading test. A new study by Martin West and colleagues examines the impact of this policy by rigorously comparing the results from students who are just above or below the cutoff for retention. The first cohort to be affected by the new policy entered the third grade in 2002, and West et al. track it through high school graduation. They also track five additional cohorts, the last of which entered third grade in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, they find that the policy increased the number of third graders retained. It started with 4,800 kids in the year prior to the policy introduction (2002) and jumped to nearly twenty-two thousand the next year. The numbers retained have fallen steadily over time, however, as more students have cleared the hurdle. The study’s key finding is that third-grade retention substantially improves students’ reading and math achievement in the short run. Specifically, reading achievement improves for retained students by 23 percent of a standard deviation after one year—and by as much as 47 percent of a standard deviation after two years—when compared to students of the same age....

  • In the entire tortured lexicon of bureaucratese, no two words can inspire more dread in the hearts of academic administrators than “Dear Colleague” (well, maybe “NAEP scores,” but that’s a separate issue). President Obama’s Office of Civil Rights has issued a fusillade of “Dear Colleague” letters to educators at every level of schooling over the past few years, relying on the magic of governmental coercion to solve such diverse ills as campus rape, inequitably applied discipline, and the existence of languages besides English. In both the Wall Street Journal and Education Next, R. Shep Melnick has picked apart the legal rationale behind yet another pernicious edict, first disseminated late last year; this one pushes schools to shrink the nationwide racial achievement gap by providing their students with equal access to “resources” (read: funding, and everything else). The policy breezes past two Supreme Court rulings that explicitly reject its legal foundations, forcing schools to meticulously chronicle the “intensity” of their extracurricular activities and the condition of their carpeting if they wish to avoid a federal investigation. Educational disparities among ethnic groups are seriously concerning, but policymakers should consider whether the best way to counter them is
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Remember all those pitched battles and screaming matches over Common Core? The furious charges of federal overreach? The demands to "repeal every word" of it? As children return to school across the country this week, Common Core remains largely intact in more than forty states. At the same time, new evidence suggests that the much tougher Common Core challenges—the ones emanating from inside classrooms—have only just begun.

Results from the initial round of Common Core-aligned tests (administered last spring) have been trickling out for the past few weeks in more than a dozen states. The results have been sobering, but not unexpected. Recall that the No Child Left Behind years were an era of rampant grade inflation. States whose students performed poorly on the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) routinely rated the vast majority of their students on or above grade level, simply because states were allowed to set their own bar for success and thus had a perverse incentive to declare ever-greater numbers of kids proficient. The result was a comforting illusion of student competence that was shattered when "proficient" kids got to college and needed remediation,...

At this week’s meeting of the state board of education, board members accepted Ohio Department of Education (ODE) recommendations on cut scores that will designate roughly 60–70 percent of Ohio students as proficient (based on the 2014–15 administration of PARCC). While this represents a decline of about fifteen percentage points from previous years’ proficiency rates, it isn’t the large adjustment needed to align with a “college-and-career-ready” definition of proficiency. In fact, this new policy will maintain, albeit in a less dramatic way than before, the “proficiency illusion”—the misleading practice of calling “proficient” a large number of students who aren’t on-track for success in college or career.

The table below displays the test data for several grades and subjects that were shared at the state board meeting. The second column displays the percentage of Ohio students expected to be proficient or above—in the “proficient,” “accelerated,” or “advanced” achievement levels. The third column shows the percentage of Ohio students in just the “accelerated” or “advanced” categories—pupils whose achievement, according to PARCC, matches college- and-career-ready expectations. The fourth column shows Ohio’s NAEP proficiency, the best domestic gauge of the fraction of students who are meeting rigorous academic benchmarks.

Under these...

Between 2010 and 2012, more than forty states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in our elementary and secondary schools. Now comes a critical milestone in this effort. In the coming weeks, parents in most states will receive for the first time their children’s scores on new tests aligned to the standards. The news is expected to be sobering, and it may come as a shock for many. Parents shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

It is important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children each year in grades 3–8 to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.

But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states have historically set a very low bar (often called “juking the stats”). The result was a comforting illusion that most...

Last Friday, in a 6-3 decision, the Washington State Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the state’s voter-approved charter school law, threatening the future of nine new schools with more than 1,200 students.

The ruling was not based on the merits of the law (one of the strongest in the country on accountability). Nor was it based on the words of the state constitution. Instead, the majority cut off all funding from charter schools (the specifics on when and how to be determined by a lower court) by relying on an obscure 1909 judicial interpretation of the words “common schools.” These words are found in the state constitution, but aren’t defined. The majority held that under this century-old definition, the charter school law did not subject those schools to enough “local control,” and therefore is unconstitutional.

The holding hinged on this idea of control—despite the fact that these charters are subject to more accountability than the state’s traditional public schools. Parents choose whether their children will attend. Charters performing in the bottom quartile of all public schools must be closed if they continue to fail. And local school boards are free to sponsor...

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