Standards, Testing & Accountability

magnifying glass photo

Look a little bit closer.
Photo by Jen and a camera

Seattle’s recently released student-achievement
results were “very, very alarming,” according to Michael Tolley, one of Seattle
Public Schools’s leaders. He’s right, of course. For example, the city found that black youngsters who do not speak
English in the home (mostly immigrants and refugees) tested higher than those
blacks who do speak English at home
(and are, presumably, U.S.-born)—by as much as 26 percentage points in math
and 18 percentage points in reading. These results invite many questions, but
here’s one tangible takeaway: Our data-reporting subgroups may be cut too crudely.
Since 1990, blacks have ticked thirty-six points higher on NAEP’s fourth-grade
math assessment (compared to whites’ twenty-nine point increase). This slow narrowing
of the achievement gap is present across fourth- and eighth-grade math and
reading. Yet Seattle’s data call into question how these gains are being made.
Are descendants of slaves making the...

Creating Opportunity Schools coverThrough this report (prepared by Public Impact),
The Mind Trust proposes a dramatic transformation of public education in
Indianapolis, akin to the structural changes that have taken place in New
Orleans and New York City. It observes that great schools across the country
share a set of core conditions that enable them to help all students achieve.
Among these core conditions are the freedom to build and manage their own
teams, refocus resources to meet actual student needs, hold schools accountable
for their results(and close those that don’t perform), and create a system of
school choice that empowers parents to find schools that they want their
children to attend. To create success in the public schools of Indianapolis
(IPS), the Mind Trust proposes these bold moves: shift funding from the central
office to schools; give high-performing schools autonomy over staffing,
budgets, and curriculum; provide parents with more good choices; unite all
public schools under a new banner of quality called Opportunity Schools; and
allow the mayor and the City-County Council to appoint the IPS school...

social-service programs are gaining steam—after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem
Children’s Zone, think Obama’s new Promise
and the AFT’s proposed
initiative in rural West Virginia
. These “cradle-to-career” partnerships link
myriad groups and programs in order to provide wraparound services (from
prenatal care run by a neighborhood clinic to mentoring coordinated through the
local United Way chapter). But questions of accountability loom large. (As the
saying goes, when everyone is accountable, no one is.) This brief from Ed
Sector profiles the Strive Partnership of Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky, a
program that does a pretty good job of managing this shared accountability, and
distills recommendations for others looking to initiate similar wraparound-service
partnerships. To ensure quality, the brief states, programs of this kind must
have metrics and performance targets in place (for each program partner as well
as the whole) and a system for collecting and reporting data. (Other things,
like strong and sustained leadership, are also helpful.) Most importantly, there
must be a ringleader—an “intermediary organization” charged with overseeing the
whole program, tracking the efficacy of each of the program’s components, and

Hearken back to junior high and high school for a moment.  What
“historical documents” were you taught in social studies and American history
classes?  The U.S. Constitution? Your state’s constitution?  What
about the Declaration of Independence or the Federalist Papers?  The
Northwest Ordinance (especially if you grew up in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota)?

My entire K-12 education was in Ohio public schools.  When it came to
history, I didn’t take any electives or special courses beyond whatever was
required for me to earn a diploma.  Yet, I was taught all of these
important historical texts, multiple times, from seventh grade through
twelfth.  So I was surprised to see a bill
moving through the Ohio legislature that would require schools to teach what I
thought were standard fare for Ohio’s students. In fact, at first blush it
seemed implausible to me that many schools weren’t already doing so.

My husband, also an Ohio public school alum (from a quote-unquote better
district than I attended), had a different reaction when I told him about the
legislation. He guessed at least two-thirds of students learn...

This morning we’re releasing a new analysis
of NAEP scores by Mark Schneider, former NCES commissioner, with some
important implications for both NCLB’s legacy and the future of
accountability-style education reform. Schneider
finds that solid gains in math achievement coincided with the advent of
“consequential accountability,” first in the trailblazing Lone Star
State and a few other pioneer states, then across the land with the
implementation of NCLB. But Schneider also warns that the recent plateau
in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the
country’s performance.

the paper to learn more and be sure to register for Fordham’s January 5
discussion of the paper, and consequential accountability in general, “Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?“...

“Consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind
and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a
significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and
middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs
and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked
the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains
are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in
academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another
meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

The Accountability Plateau coverSo argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend
whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Stat stud.” Schneider, a
political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for
Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American
Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In a
Fordham-commissioned analysis released
, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of

All Over the Map coverParents, be aware: The “proficient” designation
that your child received on her state science test may not signify much. This
new report from Change the Equation (a STEM-advocacy outfit) and the American
Institutes for Research evaluates the proficiency cut scores of thirty-seven
states’ eighth-grade-science assessments, comparing their rigor to that of the
2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The upshot? Fifteen states
set their bars for proficiency below NAEP’s basic
designation. Virginia is the worst of the lot—setting its cut scores far below
the rest of the pack—and repaying itself with a 91 percent proficiency rate on
its state exam. Only four states (New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts,
and Louisiana) expect their students to be at or above NAEP’s "proficient"
threshold. (Feeling a bit of déjà vu? This report is a lot like Fordham’s own Proficiency
blockbuster from 2007, in which we drew similar conclusions
about reading and math.) A word on the forthcoming common science standards: This
work is necessary—and hugely important. But, as we are reminded time and again,

“Believing we can improve schooling with more tests,” Robert
Schaeffer of FairTest once argued, “is like believing you can make
yourself grow taller by measuring your height.”

It’s a great line. Such statements are the seductive battle cries of
the anti-standards and anti-assessment crowd. But is there any reason
behind this kind of rhetoric?

Parents rarely complain that their young babies are being weighed
and measured too much—even though it can create an extra burden in an
often stressful time in their lives. That’s not because parents naively
believe these basic tests will make their babies grow faster or
taller, but rather because they trust that their doctor will use the
data from these and other tests to flag early problems and develop
individualized plans to help their children thrive.

Of course, education assessments—particularly end-of-year summative
assessments—are far more complicated than scales. But the purpose of
tests in school is no different: to flag problems early and often so
that they can be addressed before they become lifelong issues.

In education, like in medicine, there are unintended consequences to
relying on a limited number of tests...

The number
of districts rated excellent in Ohio has risen dramatically over the past
several years, from 85 in the 2002-2003 school year to 352 in the 2010-11
school year (almost 60 percent of all districts in the state). Are students
performing at higher levels than ever before, or are there other factors
contributing to the large increase in excellent ratings? The authors of Grading on Curve: The Illusion of Excellence
in Ohio’s Schools
would argue the latter.

The report
by the Ohio Association for Gifted Children points to the complexity of Ohio’s
accountability system as well as low cut scores on Ohio’s assessment tests for
the rise in the number of excellent districts. For example, achievement
standards only require that 75 percent of students assessed at various grade
levels be proficient in order for that indicator to be met. Therefore, if 75
percent of third graders score at a proficient level in math, the district
meets the third grade indicator even though 25 percent of students are not
proficient. Districts can also get a “bump” up to excellent for making above

Common Core added an important piece to the mounting evidence that
curriculum continues to narrow at the expense of vital academic subjects
with yesterday’s release
of survey data from 1,001 third through 12th-grade teachers. Fully
two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that extra attention to math and
language arts is crowding out other subjects, with the sentiment
particularly strong among elementary-school teachers. Of those who saw
the curriculum narrowing, 93 percent pointed to state tests as the
primary culprits.

Focusing on math and reading at the expense of subjects like science
and social studies requires serious scrutiny, and Common Core should be
applauded for bringing more attention to the issue. Critics of
test-based accountability will be quick to cite the survey as evidence
of the deleterious effects of testing, but the numbers tell a more
complicated story. 90 percent of teachers said that inclusion in state
testing results in a subject being taken more seriously. Of those who
reported crowding out, 60 percent said that the increased focus on math
and language arts boosted test scores and 46 percent agreed that it