Standards, Testing & Accountability

Helping lots more young Americans get “to and through” four-year college degrees is a major goal of public policy and philanthropy. In 2009, President Obama set the target of leading the world in college completion by 2020. The Lumina Foundation aspires to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over seven years and half a billion dollars on strategies aimed at increasing college completion.

All of this has led to energetic initiatives inside and outside government to reform the higher education system and provide additional supports to first-generation students—the so-called “completion agenda.”

That’s all well and good. But as I’ve argued before, even these heroic efforts are unlikely to add up to much until we dramatically boost the number of young Americans who are ready for college in the first place. The best evidence of this proposition comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which set a “college-prepared” level on its twelfth-grade assessments a few years ago (in addition to basic, proficient, and advanced). Chart 1 displays the percentage of twelfth-grade students nationally who have reached NAEP’s “college-prepared” level in reading and...

In Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher SurveyJennifer Bay Williams, Ann Duffett, and David Griffith take a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. A nationally representative survey of over one thousand teachers reveals that they are increasingly familiar with the Common Core and believe that it will benefit students. Yet our findings also point to several areas that warrant mid-course corrections if we’re going to fulfill the standards’ more rigorous expectations.

Here are a few key takeaways: 

  1. Teachers like the Common Core but they don’t think all of their students and parents are equally enamored. Most teachers view the standards positively, believing that they will enhance their students’ math skills and prepare them for college and beyond. But they add that students’ and parents’ views are considerably less rosy. Some of their students have “math anxiety,” they say, and 85 percent believe that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught.”
  2. Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising,
  3. ...
  • Elite public academies like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant High School, and San Francisco’s Lowell High School have long been acclaimed for the top-flight academics they offer to applicants who pass their rigorous entrance exams. Lately, however, they’ve been receiving some unwanted attention: Many now argue that the schools’ admissions practices should be altered to cultivate student populations that more closely reflect the demographics of their host cities. Of course, the issue of race and selective schools isn’t a new one, but it has recently burned so hot that people have begun losing their jobs. PBS’s Newshour, in collaboration with Education Week, has a fine roundup of the debate. One point that’s beyond dispute, however, is that major urban K–8 systems need to do a much better job preparing students of color to enter our best high schools. This objective may call for enhanced gifted-and-talented programming, more funding for magnet schools, and a commitment to a form of academic tracking in the early years. Whatever the ingredients, the aim should be higher-achieving kids.
  • Education Week’s terrific coverage has actually earned double honors this week, as we hasten to recommend that you check out their special package
  • ...

In this survey, ACT asked thousands of K–12 teachers, college instructors, and workforce supervisors and employees about their views on current educational practices and “college and career readiness expectations.” According to ACT, these expectations rightly include not only “core academic skills” in English, reading, mathematics, and science, but also “cross-cutting capabilities” like technological literacy and collaborative problem solving, “behavioral skills” related to self-regulation, and “education and career navigation skills.” (No one could accuse the organization of having a narrow perspective.)

Overall, survey respondents identified “acting honestly” and “sustaining effort” as the most important “non-academic characteristics” for young people to develop. And in a separate set of questions, “content knowledge” and “conscientiousness” were ranked highly by every group, from elementary school teachers to workplace supervisors. However, two skill areas were ranked highly only by workforce respondents: technology (by employees) and collaboration with peers (by supervisors).

Based on these results, the authors recommend that state and local education agencies track the development of students’ non-academic skills and incorporate them into instruction. They also suggest that states and districts invest in technology training for teachers. Both suggestions might be sensible in a world of perfect information and implementation, but as matters stand, they...

My friend Tom Loveless is right about most things, and he’s certainly right that scoring “proficient” on NAEP has nothing to do with being “on grade level.” He’s also right that Campbell Brown missed this point.

But Tom, alas, is quite wrong about the value of NAEP’s trio of “achievement levels” (basic, proficient, advanced). And he’s worse than wrong to get into any sort of defense of “grade level,” as if that concept had any valid meaning or true value for education reform.

In his words, Tom’s post sought “to convince readers of two things: One, proficient on NAEP does not mean grade-level performance. It’s significantly above that. Two, using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.”

We agree on the first point, not on the second—and not on his implicit argument that there is merit in basing education policy on “grade-level” thinking.

Unless one is talking about academic standards—Common Core or otherwise—or about the cut scores on high-stakes, end-of-year, criterion-referenced exams like PARCC and Smarter Balanced, “grade level” has no meaning at all. It’s a misnomer that we adopted during decades of using norm-referenced tests. These were “normed” such that the average...

Though it sometimes appears that Education Secretary John King didn’t get the memo, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents a significant devolution of authority from the federal government to the states. This is a praiseworthy development that, in our view, better fits America’s constitutional principles of federalism and opens up many areas of education policy for innovation and improvement.

That devolution includes the heart of ESSA: school-level accountability. States now enjoy a freer hand to decide how they want to rate (or “grade”) their schools and determine which are worthy of either praise or aggressive intervention. The new law doesn’t give states carte blanche; they can’t move away from student achievement as a major indicator of quality, for example. But they certainly have more leeway than under No Child Left Behind.

So what forms might—and should—this take? How might states approach the particular challenge of redesigning their accountability systems? The contestants in our “accountability design competition” in February surfaced ideas aplenty and made many promising suggestions. With a few months of reflection on them, we see that there are competing camps or worldviews when it comes to ESSA accountability (much as there are regarding school choice). We see...

Thomas J. Lasley II

NOTE: Tom Lasley, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton and former dean of the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton, addressed the Ohio Board of Education in Columbus today. These are his written remarks in full.

Thank you for this opportunity to share thoughts regarding expectations for Ohio’s K-12 students. I believe Ohio must continue to have high quality, demanding achievement assessments and set rigorous passing scores for those assessments.

To get and to keep good jobs, our children need world-class educations. Lowering the bar when our competitors in this country and around the globe are increasing expectations would tremendously disadvantage our young people. We have to be honest with ourselves and with students about what’s required to compete--and to succeed--in a knowledge economy.

Ohio and other states now have a lot of data upon which to base policy and practice decisions. This was not true twenty years ago. But it is true today--as a result...

Ohio’s largest online school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), has recently caught flack for its low graduation rate. A New York Times article, for example, averred, “Publicly funded online schools like ECOT have become the new dropout factories.” It is true that a mere 39 percent of the ECOT’s class of 2014 graduated in four years, meaning that thousands of pupils failed to reach the high school finish line on time. Meanwhile, a recent GradNation report called out the low graduation rates of some alternative, charter, and virtual schools (for a deeper dive into the charter school rates, see Susan Aud Pendergrass’s excellent piece on Flypaper). For some, these statistics are proof positive of educational failure.

We are in no way defending “dropout factories” of any stripe. It’s well known that Ohio’s virtual schools (like those in almost every other state) have struggled mightily to demonstrate an impact on student growth, and we’ve made no secret of our own misgivings about ECOT and many of its peers. But when it comes to graduation rates, how much of the blame belongs to the schools themselves? Is it possible that the way these numbers are calculated yields...

Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December, much discussion has centered on changes related to school accountability. Under the new law, a state’s accountability plan must include long-term goals, measures of progress toward those goals, and an explanation of how the state plans to differentiate schools. This revised system would replace the accountability plans that states developed under their still-operational NCLB waivers, and it would take effect during the 2017–18 school year. ESSA’s accountability requirements also involve the dissemination of annual report cards for the state, districts, and schools that contain a variety of accountability indicators and a plethora of data.

NCLB also required school report cards, so the idea itself is nothing new. What’s changed is what the report cards contain. For instance, NCLB required states to include information on state assessment results, the percentage of students not tested, graduation rates, and performance on adequate yearly progress measures. ESSA moves away from adequate yearly progress while mandating four types of indicators: achievement, another academic measure (probably growth for elementary and middle schools and graduation rates for high schools), progress for English language learners, and “other indicators of school quality and...

This report examines the measures of school performance—such as reading and math proficiency rates—that are included in existing state accountability systems and provisionally assesses their alignment with the requirements of the newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act.

Nationwide, the report identifies a total of sixty unique measures—though no individual state uses more than twenty-six, or fewer than four—that they divide into seven categories: achievement, growth, English language acquisition, early warning, persistence, college- and career ready, and “other.”

This schema allows them to generate some useful statistics. For example, all fifty states and the District of Columbia measure achievement in English language arts and math, and many also measure achievement in science (twenty-seven states plus D.C.), social studies (fourteen states), or writing (five states). Similarly, forty-five states plus D.C. measure growth in ELA and math, yet only eight make the attempt in science, and only three in social studies.

At the high school level, forty-nine states plus D.C. include four-year graduation rates. Many also include other persistence measures, such as an extended-year cohort graduate rate (thirty-seven states) or dropout rate (eleven states). Furthermore, thirty states include some other measure of college and career readiness, such as participation in or performance on...