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October 27, 2015

Fewer, better tests

TestingParents have been concerned about the amount of testing their children have been subjected to in recent years. To the point where some are choosing to opt their children out of certain standardized tests. Yet, a number of educators, policymakers and education organizations have expressed the need for such tests to identify those students whose needs are not being fully met—particularly poor, minority and other traditionally disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, it has been unclear how much testing is actually taking place in our nation’s schools.

But yesterday, a report from the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) provided the most comprehensive examination of testing to date that shed an important light on the quantity and quality of testing students are exposed to. Among the findings the report found:

  • The average eighth-grader spends 25.3 hours per year taking mandated assessments which accounts for 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of total instructional time.
    • Only 8.9 hours of this testing is due to NCLB mandated assessments.
    • Formative assessments are most likely to be given three times a year and account for 10.8 hours of testing for eighth-graders 
  • There is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing and the performance on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP).
  • Urban school districts have more tests designed for diagnostic purposes than other uses.
  • Opt-out rates in the 66 school districts that participated in the study were typically less than 1 percent.
  • 78 percent of parents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “accountability for how well my child is educated is important, and it begins with accurate measurement of what he/she is learning in school.”
    • Yet, fewer agreed when the word ‘test’ appears.
  • Parents support ‘better’ tests but are not necessarily as supportive of ‘harder’ or ‘more rigorous’ tests.

These are much needed findings in the debate about testing, which has been dominated by anecdotal accounts and theoretical arguments. CGCS’s report has provided much needed facts to inform policymakers on time spent on testing, as well as, the quality and usefulness of the tests. In fact, these findings led President Obama to propose the amount of time students spend on mandatory tests be limited to 2 percent of instructional time.

While limiting the time students spend taking tests is a good thing, the report highlights the fact that over-testing is not necessarily a quantity problem but a quality problem. For example, the report found that many of the tests were not aligned to each other nor aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Meaning, many students were administered unnecessary and redundant tests that provided little, if any, information to improve instruction. Moreover, results for many tests, including some formative assessments, were not available for months after they were taken, thereby failing to provide teachers information in-time to adjust their instruction. So, the information for many tests are neither timely nor useful.

For testing to drive quality instruction, testing systems must be aligned to college- and career-ready standards and provide usable and timely information.  Doing so does not necessarily lead to less testing time but it does lead to a more efficient testing system. While there is plenty of blame to go around for the lack of a coherent testing system, district leaders play a lead role in ensuring that each and every test is worth taking. Tools such as Achieve’s Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts can inform district leaders on how much testing is actually taking place in their classrooms and why. With such information in-hand they can make more informed decisions on which tests to continue using and which should be eliminated, as well as, if there is a need for better tests that provide a more accurate measure of what students are expected to learn. By doing so, it will create a more coherent testing system that consists of fewer and better test that will drive quality instruction that will in-turn improve student outcomes. – Jim Hull

August 25, 2015

New Poll Shows Parents Skeptical of Common Core and Testing

Public school parents and the public at large are skeptical of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) and the usefulness of standardized testing, according to The 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of The Public Attitudes Toward The Public Schools released this week. The annual poll also found that while parents like to have a choice on where to send their child to school, they oppose the use of public dollars to send students to private schools in the form of vouchers.

The poll’s findings show the general public, as well as, parents of public school children value other measures of school effectiveness beyond standardized tests. However, the results should not be seen as a total indictment of standardized tests, as results show the public is just as skeptical about allowing students to opt-out of standardized tests. This aligns with the results of the most recent Education Next poll which found the majority of the public supportive of the federal requirement to test students annually in math and reading. So, while the public may be getting weary of standardized testing, there is little support for their abolishment, especially among black and Hispanics. However, the public clearly feels that schools should be judged by more than test scores.


The Findings

Standardized Testing

  • The public places a much higher importance on student engagement over standardized tests.
    • Nationally, 78 percent of respondents rated student engagement as ‘very important’ when it came to measuring the effectiveness of public schools in their community.
    • On the other hand, just 14 percent of respondents rated standardized tests as ‘very important,’ making it the lowest-rated measure included in the survey.
  • Scores from standardized tests were the lowest rated approach of the choices given in the poll to providing the most accurate picture of a public school’s academic progress.
    • The public preferred examples of student work (38 percent), written observations by teachers (26 percent), and grades awarded by the teacher (21 percent) over scores from standardized tests (16 percent)
    • However, black respondents favored scores from standardized tests more than white respondents (19 v 15 percent).
  • Most believe there is too much emphasis on standardized tests.
    • Two-thirds of public school parents feel there is too much emphasis on testing while just 19 percent feel there is just the right amount of emphasis on testing.
    • However, black respondents were less likely to say there is too much emphasis on testing than white respondents (57 v 65 percent).
  • Respondents are split on whether to allow parents to ‘opt-out’ their child from standardized tests.
    • Just 41 percent of parents believed they should be allowed to excuse their child from tests while 44 believed such an option shouldn’t be allowed.
    • Yet, just 28 percent of black respondents believed parents should be able to excuse their child from standardized tests compared to 44 percent of white respondents.
  • Few students complain about taking too many standardized tests.
    • Just 16 percent of public school parents ‘strongly agreed’ that their child complains about taking too many standardized tests.
  • Most public school parents don’t believe it is important to know how students in their community’s schools perform on standardized tests compared to students in other districts, states, or countries.
    • Just 18 percent of respondents said they believed it was important to compare test schools from their community’s schools to those in other districts or states.
    • A greater percentage (24 percent) did say it was important to compare test schools with students from other countries.

Common Core

  • Few public school parents feel achievement standards are too low in their community.
    • A third of public school parents feel student achievement standards are too low compared to 12 percent who feel they are too high.
    • Nearly half (48 percent) believe achievement standards are just about right.
  • Majority of parents oppose having teachers in their community use the Common Core standards to guide what they teach.
    • 54 percent of parents oppose the use of Common Core compared to just 25 percent who are in favor.
    • Most Republicans (69 percent) oppose the use of the standards while Democrats (38 percent) feel the same. Half of Independents also oppose the use of the Common Core.
    • Blacks are less likely to oppose the use of the Common Core compared to whites (35 v 57 percent).
  • Few have heard a great deal about the Common Core.
    • Less than a quarter (22 percent) of respondents have heard a great deal about the Common Core although the percentage increases to 30 percent for public school parents.
    • Republicans (25 percent) are more likely to say they have heard about the Common Core than Democrats (19 percent) or Independents (22 percent).

Opinions about Public Schools

  • Local public schools receive high marks.
    • 70 percent of public school parents give the school their oldest child attends an A or B, while 57 percent gave the same grades to all public schools in their community.
    • However, just 19 percent of public school parents would give schools nationally an A or B.
  •  The public sees funding as a major tool to improving public schools.
    • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of respondents listed lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing public schools. Standards/quality of education came in second with just 7 percent.
    • Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents believe that how much money schools spend is important to improving public schools in their community.

School Choice

  • Most respondents favor public school choice programs.
    • 64 percent of respondents favor charter schools and intra-district school choice programs.
  • Most respondents oppose vouchers
    • Just 31 percent of respondents favor allowing parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.
    • Republicans are split on this issue (46 percent opposed and 46 in favor) while Democrats are thoroughly opposed (71 percent opposed to 16 percent in favor). The majority of independents are also oppose (63 percent).


August 10, 2015

CPE featured on NPR’s All Things Considered

CPE Director Patte Barth joined other education voices in an NPR segment on cut scores, the benchmarks that are supposed to indicate how well a student performs on a standardized test (i.e. knows the subject matter). Educators from states that are participating in the Common Core-aligned PARCC assessment gathered last week to discuss where those lines should be drawn— an exercise Barth accurately describes as “part science, part art … and part political.” Listen to the rest of the broadcast below.

July 10, 2015

‘Proficient’ in the eye of the beholder

While we often talk about the American educational system, in truth we have 50 systems, each with the latitude to define its own academic standards. A newly published analysis  by the National Center of Education Statistics shows just how widely those expectations for student learning differ among states. Moreover, the findings suggest that most states could be aiming too low.

For the last ten years, NCES has conducted periodic statistical analyses that map student proficiency on state tests to their respective performance on NAEP. This national assessment is administered in all states and it is, by large consensus, considered the gold standard both in the richness of content and the quality of the assessment itself. As such, states where their students perform at about the same level on the state test as they do on NAEP can be considered to have high performance standards.

Some partial findings:

  • Grade 4: Only two states (New York and Wisconsin) had state proficiency standards equivalent to NAEP-proficient in both reading and math; an additional three states (Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas) were aligned with NAEP-basic in reading and NAEP-proficient in math. Four states (Alabama, Georgia, Idaho and Maryland) had proficiency levels aligned with NAEP-below basic. A whopping 22 states were in the NAEP-below basic rate in reading.
  • Grade 8: Only New York’s proficiency levels aligned with NAEP-proficient in both reading and math, while North Carolina and Texas were within NAEP-basic in reading and NAEP-proficient in math. Five states (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho and Ohio) were in the below basic range in both subjects. Unlike grade 4, only three states’ grade 8 performance (DC, Indiana and Mississippi) was at the NAEP-below basic level in reading. The majority of states were within the NAEP-basic range in reading and math.

Alert readers will note, of course, that some high-performing states like Connecticut and Maryland had proficiency levels that aligned with NAEP’s lowest performance designation. The analysis is, to be sure, an imperfect comparison. Even so, the relationship between state alignment to NAEP-proficient and their relative performance is fairly consistent, as you can see in the chart featured below as well as in the full report.

Despite the study’s limitations, NCES provides important context for states to help them gauge the quality of their standards. According to the Atlantic , Peggy Carr, NCES’s acting commissioner, explained to reporters that NAEP-proficient is considered to be at a level that shows students are on track to be “college-ready.” The most recent administration showed that only 35 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders performed at proficient or above on NAEP-reading; about the same proportion of eighth-graders (36 percent) were proficient in math. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us in order to meet the goal of all graduates prepared for college and careers.

The NCES study was based on 2013 data so it’s too early to see the impact of the common core standards and aligned assessments in those states that have adopted them. Several states that opted out, however, are also committed to the college and career-ready agenda. NCES’s next iteration of this series should, therefore, give us more insight into how well we are advancing.



Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,standards — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 3:42 pm

July 2, 2015

Testing, opt outs and equity

Spring heralds the return of many things – tulips, bare pavement, baseball, and for millions of public schoolkids, state tests. This year, however, the inevitable proved to be largely evitable. April tulips weren’t seen until late May. Much of the country experienced a white Easter. Major league games were snowed out. And tens of thousands of students just said “no” to being tested.

To be sure, the vast majority of students took their exams as expected. New York state has by far the largest number of test refusers. Yet an analysis by the New York Times estimates that only 165,000 New York students, or about one out of every six, opted out of one or more tests in 2015. Like New York, Colorado has experienced higher than usual opt outs but 83 percent of seniors still took their exams this year.

Despite the small numbers nationwide, the opt out movement is drawing attention to the test weariness that has been settling on many public school parents, teachers and students, even among those who don’t opt out. New common core tests seem to be adding to their anxiety. By making their frustrations visible, the test refusniks are starting to influence testing policy and its place in school accountability, most notably in Congress and proposed ESEA bills currently under consideration.

So who are these opt outers? The New York Times analysis found that the movement appears to be a mostly middle-class phenomenon. According to their calculations, poor districts in New York (Free & Reduced Price Lunch > 60%) had the fewest test refusers followed by the most wealthy (FRPL < 5%). An April 2015 poll by Siena College provides some other clues by identifying racial differences in voter attitudes. While a 55 percent majority of white voters in the empire state approved of opting out, only 44 percent of black and Latino voters did.

A 2015 survey from the California Public Policy Institute identified similar racial differences in opinions about the common core. Substantial majorities of Californian Latinos, Asians and blacks expressed confidence that the new standards will “make students more college and career ready” compared to less than half of white voters.

One probable reason for these racial and class differences is the role standards and assessments have played in educational equity over the last two decades. The 1994 re-authorization of ESEA laid the foundation for what would eventually become NCLB’s test-based accountability by calling on states to “establish a framework for comprehensive, standards-based education reform for all students.”  At that time, researchers and analysts were beginning to show that the achievement gap was not just a reflection of inequitable resources but also of unequal expectations. A 1994 study from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Research, for example, found that “students in high poverty schools … who received mostly A’s in English got about the same reading score [on NAEP] as did the ‘C’ and ‘D’ students in the most affluent schools.” In math, “the ‘A’ students in the high poverty schools most closely resembled the ‘D’ students in the most affluent schools.”  In 2001, NCLB would define further measures to correct these inequities by requiring state tests that would give the public a common, external measurement for gauging whether academic standards were being implemented equally between high- and low-poverty schools.

Indeed, the civil rights community has been among the most vocal supporters of standardized tests in accountability systems. Earlier this year, a coalition of 25 civil rights organizations led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a statement of principles for ESEA reauthorization. Signatories included the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Disabilities Rights Network. Among other things, the principles call for retaining the annual testing requirements of NCLB. In May, twelve of these organizations issued another statement specifically criticizing the opt out movement, declaring:

[T]he anti-testing efforts that appear to be growing in states across the nation, like in Colorado and New York, would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring. When parents ‘opt out’ of tests—even when out of protest for legitimate concerns—they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child.

The statement was not universally embraced. Notable civil rights leader Pedro Noguera along with the Advancement Project’s Browne Dianis and John Jackson of the Schott Foundation took exception to what they consider to be a “high-stakes, over-tested climate” for disadvantaged students. Yet their objections are not so much against tests themselves, but in how the information is used.

There is a growing consensus that the balance between assessment for improvement and assessment for accountability has become skewed toward high stakes – something many believe has a perverse effect on classroom practice. But like Mr. Noguera and his colleagues, many educators and experts also believe that standardized tests are not the problem, it’s the out-sized role they have assumed in everything from instruction to teacher evaluation. The next few months promise to launch many federal and state conversations about what a proper role for state tests should be. Ideally, it will serve ongoing improvement while assuring the public that all students are receiving the benefits of solid public education.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Assessments,Common Core,equity,Testing — Tags: , , , , , — Patte Barth @ 1:10 pm

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