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October 19, 2015

State graduation rates continue to climb

Even though the high school Class of 2013 reached a record on-time graduation rate of 81 percent,  it appears like the Class of 2014 is poised to pass their classmates. According to preliminary data released this afternoon from the U.S. Department of Education, 36 states saw improvements in their on-time high school graduates rates over the past year. On the other hand, just six states saw a decrease in their graduation rates while in another eight states graduation rates remained unchanged.

Unfortunately, the national on-time graduation rate won’t be available until early next year once the National Center on Education Statistics validates each state’s graduation data. Yet, with these preliminary results showing nearly three-quarters of states continuing to graduate a greater proportion of students who entered 9th grade four years earlier, it is all but certain the national graduation rate will surpass last year’s record breaking 81 percent on-time graduation rate.

The good news doesn’t end there either. The preliminary results show that our high schools are narrowing the graduation gaps between their traditionally disadvantaged students and more advantaged peers as well. In fact, 28 states narrowed the graduation gap between their black and white students while 32 states narrowed their Hispanic/white gap. Moreover, 23 states have been able to narrow the graduation gap between their economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers as well as between Limited English Proficient students and their English Proficient peers. States haven’t been as successful in narrowing the graduation gap between their students with disabilities and those without but still 21 states were more successful in doing so this year than last.

These preliminary results certainly show many of our high schools are on the right track, yet, they also show there is a whole lot more work to be done. While graduating 8 out of 10 students who enter the 9th grade within four years is a tremendous accomplishment, there are still many more students who never graduate high school. Students who leave high school without a diploma are likely in for a rough road ahead as they are much more likely to be unemployed and earn significantly less in wages than their peers who graduated with a standard high school diploma.  And all signs point to the job market getting more difficult in the coming years for those without a high school diploma, so it is imperative that our high schools keep the momentum going until all students graduate high school with at least a standard high school diploma. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Graduation rates,High school,Public education — Jim Hull @ 3:56 pm

October 15, 2015

Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.

October 1, 2015

Diversifying the teaching force

We know many of the qualities that define “good” teachers: subject matter knowledge, credentials, experience, and impact on learning. But according to a growing body of research, this list is incomplete without also assuring the teaching staff resembles the demographic make up of the students they serve. Let’s just say, we have a long way to go.

Our current public-school enrollment is very close to being majority-minority. In 2011-12, 51 percent of public K-12 students were white down from 59 percent 10 years before. In contrast, 82 percent of their teachers were white (see chart). In American cities, where students of color comprise a two-thirds majority, 71 percent of their teachers were white.  A full three-quarters were female.


Across the country, districts are facing teacher shortages, especially in key areas like special education and mathematics. The additional effort to increase the diversity of their staff may seem like making an already difficult job even harder. In its recent report on the subject, the Albert Shanker Institute acknowledged as much, stating that “our first priority must be to ensure that every student has the benefit of being taught by skilled, knowledgeable and caring teachers – of whatever race and ethnicity.” Nonetheless, they further maintain that diversity “should be a factor, and an important one at that.” This is especially so for the education of minority students.

Among the reasons cited by the Shanker Institute authors is that teachers who share a cultural experience with their students are better able to motivate and inspire them, and are less likely to “confuse cultural difference with cultural or intellectual disadvantage.”  The authors also refer to research suggesting that a demographic match between teachers and students improves students’ academic performance.

Evidence for this latter statement received a big boost earlier this year by researchers Anna Egalite, Brain Kisida and Marcus Winters who analyzed the relationship of what they call “own-race teachers” to student achievement. The authors had access to a huge database enabling them to link 92,000 Florida teachers to 3 million students over a seven year period. They tracked the performance of individual students while in classrooms with different teachers by race and ethnicity over several grades, and compared the impact of same-race to different-race assignments. In this way they have produced perhaps the most rigorous study to date of the effect of minority teachers on minority student achievement.

Here’s what they found: students perform higher in math and reading when they are assigned to teachers of the same race. The overall results are small, but statistically significant. There are differences by race, however. The performance of black, white and Asian students were significantly positive in math, but the effects were highest for black and Asian students.

Hispanic students were the exception. For this group of students, having an Hispanic teacher actually produced a negative effect. The researchers conjectured that this finding could be due to limitations in the data. They explain, the Florida Hispanic population is quite large and culturally diverse, including self-described Caribbeans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans. Grouping them into one ethnicity could therefore be masking important differences among them.

As virtually every researcher does, Egalite and her team call for more research to better understand the relationship between teachers and students by race. But for us lay people, the evidence is pretty clear that school districts should pay attention to recruiting a teaching force that is demographically representative of the community alongside their professional qualities.


Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Demographics,teachers — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 12:42 pm

September 29, 2015

A different view on the achievement gap

For nearly a quarter of a century education policy has focused on closing the achievement gap between traditionally disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. During this time period there have been numerous studies focused on quantifying such gaps and identifying the causes in the hopes that such findings will enable policymakers to make informed decisions about policies to narrow such gaps. Yet, the impact of the racial composition of schools on the achievement gap has not garnered much attention from researchers.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sheds new light on this important topic. Specifically, the report asks the question:  Does the percent of black students enrolled in a school impact the achievement gap between black and white students?  Sounds like a straightforward question but the answer is far from clear as you will see. Specifically the report found:

  • White students attend school with few black students.
    • White students attend schools whose enrollment is typically 9 percent black
    • Black student attend schools whose enrollment is typically 48 percent black
  • Schools with the densest enrollment of black students—schools whose enrollment is between 60 and 100 percent black—were mostly likely to be found in the south and in large cities.
  • Both black and white 8th grade students who were enrolled in high black student density schools scored lower on the NAEP math assessment than those enrolled in low black density schools- 0 to 20 percent black enrollment.
    • The achievement gap between black and white students did not significantly differ depending on the black student density of the school.
  • Gaps narrowed between black and white students when researchers took into account the student’s socioeconomic status, and other student, teacher, and school characteristics but large gaps still remained.
  • Gaps were largest in the highest black student density schools than the lowest black student density schools even when taking other student and school characteristics into account.
  • The black/white achievement gap has more to do with differences within schools than differences between them.

So what exactly do these finding tell us? For one, they tell us that even though Brown v Board of Education was decided over 60 years ago black students still tend to go to school with mostly black students and white students tend to go to school with mostly white students. Second, even though math scores for both white and black students tend to decrease as the proportion of black students in schools increase, the achievement gap remains basically the same. Third, when comparing similar students attending similar schools the achievement gap widens as the share of black students enrolled in a school increases. Finally, although differences between schools, such as funding, contribute to the achievement gap, differences within a school contribute more to perpetuating gaps.

What does this mean for policymakers? There are no clear answers but focusing on desegregating schools would be a step in the right direction, although it isn’t nearly enough to close achievement gaps. The same can be said about ensuring there is an equitable distribution of funding and quality teachers among schools. While important, this report shows that such resources should be distributed more equitably within a school to improve the performance of its black students and close achievement gaps.

The report doesn’t provide clear cut answers on how to close the achievement gap, but it does provide ample evidence that students, both black and white, who attend schools that predominately enroll black students are not receiving the same education as their peers that attend schools who enroll mostly white students. In addition, no matter the racial makeup of the school, black students are not achieving the same level as their white peers. How resources are distributed within the school can go a long ways to narrow that gap. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Demographics,equity,NAEP,research — Jim Hull @ 2:44 pm

September 3, 2015

Fewer High School Grads Ready for College According to Latest Recent SAT results

Just as last year, this year’s SAT results included results from the College Board’s two other testing programs— the PSAT/NMSQT and their Advanced Placement (AP) exams— providing a more complete picture of student progress towards college readiness throughout high school.

While ACT results released last week showed overall scores among the graduating class of 2015 remaining flat, SAT scores saw a significant drop. In fact, scores on the college-entrance exam are at the lowest level in the ten years since the College Board included a writing section to go along with the critical reading and mathematics sections. Not only have SAT scores been declining in the long-run, scores dropped by 7 points in just the past year alone. Making it the largest one-year drop since the inclusion of the writing section. Furthermore, scores dropped in each of the three sections as well.

Stark differences are also evident when it comes to the ACT and SAT college-readiness benchmarks. According to the ACT, slightly more students are graduating high school college-ready than in the previous year. Yet, SAT results show fewer students are graduating college-ready. Although each exam has their own method of determining college-readiness, it would be expected that the year-to-year changes would be somewhat similar. However, that is not the case for the 2015 results.

Since neither the ACT nor SAT are representative of all high school graduates nationwide it is impossible to pinpoint why the two tests are providing such conflicting information about the quality of our nation’s high schools. That is because in most states these tests are optional, so only those students expecting to go onto a four-year college are likely to take the exams. Furthermore, there are a number of students who take both the SAT and ACT, so their scores are counted twice which can impact scores as well. Furthermore, the ACT and SAT measure different skills, although in the coming years this will be less of an issue as the SAT will be redesigned to align with the Common Core which the ACT already is.

However, there can be a number of reasons why ACT and SAT are providing such conflicting reports. It could be that since the ACT has become more popular throughout the country and more colleges are accepting the ACT that fewer higher-performing students in traditional ACT states may be taking the SAT but still taking the ACT. It could also be that more lower-performing students, who previously would not have taken the SAT, are now taking the college-entrance exam which would lower SAT scores, at least the short-run.

Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer. But considering the fact that almost every other indicator of the effectiveness of our nation’s high schools points in a positive direction, we shouldn’t put too much weight on one indicator such as the SAT. We know that more students than ever are graduating on-time with a regular diploma and do so by having completed more rigorous courses. Moreover, more of these graduates are going on to college than ever before. Yet, despite these positive results this year’s SAT results paint a much dimmer picture. With that said, it will be important to keep our eyes on the SAT results in the coming years to see if this year’s results are an anomaly or the start of trend. In the meantime, educators, school board members, and other policymakers shouldn’t put too much stock in one year’s results but should dig deeper into the SAT results for their local schools to see what they can learn so they can better prepare future graduates to get into and succeed in college.—Jim Hull


The Findings

Overall SAT Scores

  • The combined score in each of the three SAT sections- Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing— were at a 10-year low of 1490 when the Writing section was first introduced.
  • The combined scored dropped 7 points in just one year. This is the largest drop in a single year since the Writing section was introduced.
  • Scores dropped in all three sections from 2014 to 2015.
    • Critical Reading declined from 497 to 495.
    • Mathematics scores fell from 513 to 511.
    • Writing scores dropped from 487 to 484.

College Readiness

  • Less than half (41.9 percent) of the test-takers met the SAT College-Ready Benchmark in 2015, which is a decrease from 2014 when the rate was 43 percent.
    • The SAT College-Ready Benchmarks represent a student who scores a combined 1550 or higher. Students hitting this benchmark have a 65 percent chance of earning a B-minus grade point average in their freshman year courses.
  • Minority students less likely to be college-ready.
    • Just 16.1 percent of black students and 22.7 percent of Hispanic students were college-ready, according to the SAT’s Benchmark.
      • More black students reached the college-ready benchmark in 2015 than in 2014 (15.8 percent).
      • However, fewer Hispanic students reached the college-ready benchmark in 2015 compared to 2014 (23.4 percent).
    • On the other hand, over half (52.8 percent) of white students met the benchmark in 2015 and 61.3 percent of Asian’s students.

SAT Test Takers

  • Just over 1.7 million students from the Class of 2015 took the SAT sometime during their high school which was a 3 percent increase from 2011.
  • More minority students taking the SAT.
    • Nearly a third (32.5 percent) of test-takers were underrepresented minorities in 2015, compared to 31.3 percent just a year earlier and 29 percent in 2011.

PSAT/MNSQT (10th grade exams) Results

  • Nearly 4 out of 10 10th graders who took the College Board’s PSAT or NMSQT exams in 2015 scored at the grade-level benchmark that indicates they were on track for college and career readiness.
  • Just 16.7 percent of black 10th graders who took the PSAT/NMSQT reached the grade-level benchmark in 2015 while 54.7 of white examinees did so.
  • Only 19.8 percent of Hispanic examinees met the grade-level benchmark while 61.5 of Asian examinees did so.


Advanced Placement (AP)

  • In 2015, 2.5 million students took at least one AP exam compared to 2.3 million a year earlier and 2.0 in 2011.
    • In total, 4.5 million AP exams were administered in 2015 compared to 4.2 million in 2014 and 3.5 million in 2011.
  • As more students took an AP exam more students passed an AP exam as well. The number of students scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam increased from 1.4 million in 2014 to 1.5 million in 2015. In 2011, just 1.2 million students passed at least one AP exam.
    • Minority students less likely to pass at least one AP exam.
      • A third (32.3 percent) of black students who took at least one AP exam scored a 3 or higher compared to 66 percent of white examinees.
      • Half of Hispanic examinees passed at least one AP exam.
      • Nearly three-quarters (72.2 percent) of Asian examinees scored 3 or higher on at least one AP exam.
  • Over a quarter (26.2) of students who took an AP exam were from an underrepresented minority group which is slightly higher than in 2014, when the percentage was 26.0 percent. However, it is a significant increase from the 23.9 percent in 2011.

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