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March 31, 2014

Common Core standards undergoes field testing

Field testing for the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests is now underway in many states and will continue to be implemented in others over the course of the next several weeks. More than four million students in grades 3-11 will be helping field test the new math and English language arts assessments. These field tests are an opportunity for students to experience the testing environment and get a sense of what they will be expected to know and be able to do for future Common Core-aligned assessments, but with no stakes attached at this time.

Doing field tests an entire year before these assessments will be used for any type of evaluation helps to ensure that the new Common Core-aligned assessments are reliable, valid, and fair for all students taking them, and gives SBAC and PARCC time to adjust both content or structural issues that might pop up during field testing. This trial run also gives teachers and schools a chance to practice administering the test and an opportunity to work out any technical or procedural problems before the assessments begin next year. Additionally, the field tests will introduce students to a type of assessment that is different from what many are used to: one that emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving and focuses less on memorization and simply filling in the correct bubble.

Of course, these assessments are not perfect, but that is all the more reason that this “test of the test” is important. Much of the controversy surrounding the implementation of the Common Core States Standards has involved how assessment would work and if it would be any different from the testing most states require now. This trial run allows thousands of teachers and millions of students across the country to become accustomed to the new system in what is essentially a “no stakes” testing environment. Will there be glitches? Of course – but the field tests allow time for these issues to be worked out before the actual test is administered next year. It might be an imperfect solution, but it is certainly a step in the right direction to ensure that CCSS-aligned assessments are the best that they can be before they are administered in a high stakes environment.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a helpful Common Core Field Test Q&A available with more information. For more on the Common Core State Standards, visit CPE’s Common Core Resource page.

-Patricia Campbell

February 20, 2014

High school graduation rate at an all-time high

NAEPSecretary Duncan proudly wore number 80 on his jersey at the NBA celebrity All-Star game this past weekend— as well he should’ve. It just so happens the number 80 represents one of the best kept secrets in education: our national on-time graduation rate.

This may come as a shock to many as popular perception tends to be the myth that our public schools are flatlining. But the facts show otherwise, as recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics show our national on-time graduation rate for our public high schools now stands at 80 percent— an all-time high.  It’s quite an accomplishment considering the rate hovered around 71 percent for much of the 1990s.

And keep in mind, the 80 percent graduation rate represents only those students who earned a standard high school diploma within four years of entering high school so it doesn’t include students who earned a high school equivalency (ex GED) or certificates of completion. Nor does it include those students who took more than four years to earn a standard high school diploma. As our report on late high school graduates Better Late Than Never found, including late high school graduates would likely add more than 5 percentage points to the national graduation rate. So the actual national graduation rate is quite likely closer to 90 than 80 percent.

What is even more impressive about these gains is that our high schools are serving an ever more diverse student population. Yet the overall graduation rate increased due to the substantial gains made by minority students. The on-time graduation rate for Hispanic students increased from 64 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2011. During this same time period the on-time graduation rate for black students improved from 61 percent to 67 percent. These are tremendous gains made in a relatively short amount of time. Let’s not overlook the fact that the graduation rate also continued to climb for white students during this same time period (81 to 84 percent).

While these are numbers worth celebrating they also show there is much more work to be done. The attainment gap between minority and white students needs to be closed. While they have narrowed in recent years, the narrowing needs to accelerate so minority students who are just entering school now will have the same chance to graduate as their white classmates.

Of course, simply giving students a diploma will not help them get a job or get into college. So, the diplomas they do receive must represent that fact that these students have completed courses they need to get into and succeed in college or get a quality job after high school. While there is more work to be done to ensure all students leave college and career ready, the data clearly shows our public schools are up the challenge. – Jim Hull

February 7, 2014

U.S. Schools Are Not Flatlining!

NAEPThe idea that U.S. school performance is flat is indefensible. But unfortunately all too many people believe it to be true. Why wouldn’t they? This sentiment is so often stated that it is assumed to be fact, especially since the 2012 PISA results were released last December. For example, in a recent Washington Post column Is The U.S. Making the Grade in Education? columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote “The United States has muddled along over the past few decades, showing little improvement or decline” as if it was undisputed fact even without providing any evidence. Over at Education Week Marc Tucker tries to answer the question Why Has U.S. Education  Performance Flatlined? by cherry-picking a few pieces of data that at first glance appear to support his assumption. Broadly speaking Tucker asserts the U.S. has made little progress since the 1970s in improving student achievement or graduating more students from high school or college.

Marc Tucker is not alone in pointing to such data to claim that U.S. schools are not improving which makes it vitally important to look at all the evidence to determine if indeed our schools have flatlined. As I recently wrote in the American School Boards Journal, the evidence is quite clear that our public schools have not flatlined but are making dramatic improvements in many areas.

Here is the evidence and you decide whether our schools have flatlined or flourished:

Students today are learning more than ever before

If you simply look at overall NAEP scores for our nation’s 17-year olds scores have improved by just six points between 1978 and 2012 it does appear that our schools have indeed flatlined. However, when you take a closer look a much different picture emerges. You’ll see that our nation’s black 17-year olds have improved by 20-points while Hispanic students improved by 18-points—these gains equate to nearly two years worth of learning. The results were even more impressive in reading where black students improved by 28-points between 1975 and 2012 which is nearly three years worth of learning while Hispanic students make a significant progress as well by improving their scores by 21-points. Such lines are hardly flat. Keep in mind that white students made significant gains during these time periods as well. Furthermore, similar gains were made by our nation’s 9- and 13-year olds.

A world leader in improvement

Our schools may not top the international rankings but few countries have improved their performance as much as we have. On the international Trends In Math and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. 4th graders saw their math scores improve by 23 points between 1995 and 2011. U.S. eighth graders saw similar improvements with scores rising 18 points during the same time period. For each of these grade levels the gains were among the largest made by participating countries.  It should be noted the U.S. also made significant gains on the 8th grade TIMSS science assessment and on PIRLS the international 4th grade reading assessment.

More students receiving a diploma

Not only are our students learning more, more students are graduating. Although graduation rates remained relatively flat between 1970 and 2000, between 2000 and 2010 they steadily increased from 67 percent to 75. Just like on the achievement measures black and Hispanic students made even greater gains during this period. In 2000 just 50 percent of black students graduated high school within four years. That percentage has climbed to 62 percent in 2010. The improvement made by Hispanic students was even more impressive by increasing from 50 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2010.

More students are also graduating from college. The percent of the population over 25 with a bachelor’s degree increased from 11 percent in 1970 to 30 percent in 2010. During this same time period the percent of black adults with a bachelor’s degree increased from 6 percent 20 percent. For Hispanics, 8 percent of adults held bachelor’s degrees in 1980—the oldest data available—compared to 13.9 percent in 2010.

Despite the common assertion that our schools have flatlined, the facts clearly show our students are performing higher and more students are earning degrees than ever before. Are our schools where we want them to be? No, there is obviously more work that needs to be done. But the facts do show that our public schools are making significant strides and are in the best position to ensure all students obtain the skills they need to lead a successful life. – Jim Hull

September 18, 2013

School counselors, achievement gaps and the Student Support Act

CongressThe Student Support Act was introduced to Congress on January 18, 2013. The legislation would require the Department of Education to send matching state grants of at least $1 million to increase the number of counselors and psychologists in K-12 public schools. While this policy was designed to benefit all students, it also presents an opportunity to alleviate a troubling achievement gap fact: most high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to the quality of college they’re eligible for.  Most settle for something less and many don’t apply at all. This trend is usually attributed to a lack of guidance and knowledge regarding available resources. If the number of counselors increased in poor communities both of these barriers could diminish. Furthermore, as CPE’s High School Rigor and Good Advise found, counselors not only help students get into college, but for those students to succeed in college as well.

Before examining the impact of school counselors, a closer look at the Student Support Act is in order. Support for the bill stemmed from a glut of studies showing that counselor-to-student ratios were out of control in American schools. As described in a recent U.S. News article, the national average ratio is 470 students for every one counselor—almost twice the 250-to-1 ratio that the American Counseling Association recommends. The article goes on to describe the 1,000-2,000 student caseloads that some California schools face and relay the fact that not all states regulate these dynamics.

The consequences of overworked counselors are dire for academically successful, low-income public school students. Reports from the Brookings Institute and Stanford University demonstrate that when these students are eligible for selective colleges, they rarely apply. The reports state that the majority of students don’t seize the opportunity because they are unaware of their eligibility, fear they cannot afford tuition, or aren’t pushed to explore rigorous universities. In essence, opportunities to defy historical education disparities are lost due to misinformation and insufficient encouragement.

Counselors can alleviate these barriers in a number of ways. First, they can help establish a schedule for completing components of college applications. While some students don’t need guidance, the aforementioned reports suggest that many would benefit from a predetermined structure that sets early deadlines for admissions essays, school transcripts, college entrance exams, teacher recommendations and other important deliverables. With deadlines in place, counselors can check in on progress, ask parents to help monitor from home and ensure that students are applying to schools that match their qualifications. They can also explain the numerous and, often times, complex financial-aid options that are available for impoverished families.

None of the necessary support or encouragement is feasible with an average counselor caseload that doubles the recommended amount. The Student Support Act addresses these concerns by empowering schools to hire more counselors and better support their students. Last April, Congress referred the bill to the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education where it currently awaits a vote. With overwhelmed counselors and high-achieving public school students hanging in the balance, education leaders would be wise to encourage that a vote takes place sooner rather than later.

~Jordan Belton

May 2, 2013

CPE’s new report examines the strategies behind the “turnaround”

The Center for Public Education is excited to announce the release of a new report, “Which Way Up: What research says about school turnaround strategies.” The title is a play on the plethora of strategies aimed at improving the lowest performing schools in the country.

This is a worthy goal, perhaps the important mission of public schools: to ensure all students receive a world-class education. But challenges abound and some schools, for a variety of reasons, fail to deliver on the promise, giving rise to a wave of reform models known simply as the turnaround. The problem is that many of these efforts have relied on strategies that have produced mixed results, if any at all. We called upon education researcher and writer team Eileen M. O’Brien and Charles J. Dervarics to take a closer look at the research and here’s what they found.

Although individual states and cities have attempted to address chronically low-achieving schools over the years, the US Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is the largest undertaking in the school turnaround arena. A relic of the No Child Left Behind Act, it received a significant funding boost (some $3.5 billion) in 2009, thanks to the federal stimulus bill known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Like Race to the Top, the department made SIG into a competitive grant program and required grant seekers to choose among four different intervention models to secure the funds:

  • The school closure model, in which the low-performing school is closed and students move to a higher achieving school.
  • The restart model, in which the school becomes a charter or is taken over by an education management organization.
  • The transformation model, in which the school replaces the principal, provides enhanced professional development to staff, launches a teacher evaluation system, increases learning time, and creates new support services for students.
  • The turnaround model, which includes many of the same elements as the transformation model with the additional requirement that teachers must reapply for their jobs. A turnaround school must replace at least 50 percent of the staff and grant the new principal greater autonomy to pursue reforms.

First-year data on SIG award recipients show some positive gains, particularly at the elementary level and in reading. But one year’s worth of data is hardly a trend and the achievement data was not broken down by reform model, which would’ve provided greater insight into what strategies seem to be the most effective.

Previous research on some of these strategies has been a little more enlightening. For instance, research is pretty clear about the impact of school closures on student achievement: better performing schools produce gains, lower-performing ones don’t. The research on charter schools, a hallmark of the restart model, is also fairly definitive:  charter schools, on average, perform no better or worse than their traditional school counterpart.

Evidence on the transformation model, which is far and away the most popular model among SIG recipients, is mixed and confounded by the great latitude schools are given in implementation—good for schools but hard for researchers who are, of course, interested in identifying and evaluating effectiveness.

Even more worrisome than the large-scale federal push toward strategies that are either untested or have shown mixed results on reversing chronically low achieving schools is the adoption of some of these strategies— school closure, conversion to charter, replacement of majority of staff— into parent trigger laws.

While we can’t and shouldn’t lessen our focus on helping the country’s lowest-achieving schools deliver on public education’s promise to all students, we should be mindful and methodical about what it is we’re investing in to get them there.

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