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February 3, 2016

PARCC test results lower for computer-based tests

In school year 2014-2015, students took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam on a pilot basis. The PARCC exam was created to be in alignment with the Common Core Standards and is among the few standardized assessment measures of how well school districts are teaching higher-level competencies.

On February 3, Education Week reported in an article that the results for students who took the computer-based version of the exam were significantly lower than the results for students who took a traditional pencil and paper version. While the article states that the PARCC organization does not have a response or clear answer on why this occurred, I will offer my own explanation based on my experience as a teacher of students who took this exam last year.

I taught high school History, and the largest discrepancy in the results between students who took the computer versus paper exam was at the high school level. This is my theory for the discrepancy. Throughout students’ academic careers we teachers teach them to “mark-up” the text. This means that as they read books, articles, poems, and primary sources etc. students should have a pen/pencil and highlighter in their hand. There are many acronyms for how students should “mark-up” their text. One is HACC- Highlight, Annotate, Circle unknown words, Comment. There are many others but the idea is the same. Students are taught to summarize each paragraph in the margins and make note of key words. This helps students to stay engaged with the reading, find main ideas, and critically think about what they are reading. It also makes it easier to go back and skim the text for the main ideas and remember what they read without re-reading.

Generally students are forced to mark-up/annotate the text in this way but, honestly, I still do this! And, I would bet that many adults do too. If you need to read a long article at work, many people print it out and read it with a pen in hand. It makes it easier to focus on what you are reading. Now imagine that someone is going to test you on that article. You will be even more anxious to read the article carefully and write notes for yourself in the margins.

The point is that students are taught to do this when reading, especially when reading passages for exams when there will be questions based on the passage. My own students had this drilled into them throughout the high school years when I knew and taught them. Sometime last year the teachers learned that our school would be giving the pilot version of the PARCC exam to our students. During a teacher professional development day we were asked to go online to the PARCC website and learn about the test and take a practice exam. I encourage you to go online and take it for yourself — this exam is hard! We were asked to analyze the questions and think about ways we could change our own in-class exams to better align with PARCC. We were told that it would soon replace our state’s standardized exam.

One of the first things we all noticed was how long the reading passages are for the ELA portion of the test. It took a long time to read through them and we all struggled to read it on a computer screen. I really wanted to have a printed version to write my notes down! It was long and detailed and I felt as though by the time I saw the questions I would have to re-read the whole passage to find the answer (or find the section where I could infer an answer). I knew the students would struggle with this and anticipated lower scores on this exam than the state test. I was thankful that their scores wouldn’t actually count this year. But what happens when this becomes a high-stakes test?

As I anticipated, the scores for students who took the computer-based exams were far lower than those who took a traditional paper test. The Illinois State Board of Education found that, across all grades, 50% of students scored proficient of the paper-based PARCC exam compared to only 32% of students who took the exam online. In Baltimore County, students who took the paper test scored almost 14 points higher than students of similar demographics who took the test on the computer.

The low scores on the test are a different story. Organizations will need to analyze the results of this major pilot test and determine its validity. Students and teachers, if it becomes mandatory, will have to adjust to better learn the standards and testing format associated with this test. The bigger story is that there are significant hardships that come with taking a computer-based test.

My main concern is the reading passages. I don’t believe teachers should abandon the “mark it up” technique to bend to computer-based testing because learning how to annotate a text is valuable throughout people’s lives. I saw the students struggle to stare at the computer screen and focus on the words. Many used their finger on the screen to follow along with what they were reading. It was clearly frustrating for them not to be able to underline and make notes like they were used to doing.

Other concerns are that this test is online. It requires access to the internet, a multitude of computers for students to test, and students and teacher who are technologically savvy. When my school gave the test, it took several days and a lot of scheduling and disruption to get all students to take the test given our limited number of computers. Certain rooms of the building have less reliable internet connection than others and some students lost connection while testing. Sometimes the system didn’t accept the student login or wouldn’t change to the next page. There were no PARCC IT professionals in the building to fix these issues. Instead, teachers who didn’t know the system any better than the students tried to help.

Not all students were ultimately able to take or finish the exam because of these issues. Thankfully their results didn’t matter for their graduation! There are also equity concerns between students who are familiar with computers and typing and those who do not have much exposure to technology. As a teacher in an urban school I can tell you that was not uncommon to see students typing essays on their phones because they didn’t have a computer.

As a whole, I’m not surprised by the discrepancy in test scores and I imagine that other teachers are not either. The Education Week article quotes the PARCC’s Chief of Assessment in saying “There is some evidence that, in part, the [score] differences we’re seeing may be explained by students’ familiarity with the computer-delivery system.” This vague statement only hits the tip of the iceberg. I encourage those analyzing the cause of the discrepancy to talk to teachers and students. Also, ask yourselves how well you would do taking an exam completely online, particularly when there are long reading passages. –Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Accountability,Assessments,Common Core,High school,Testing — Tags: , , — Breanna Higgins @ 4:27 pm





January 21, 2016

Not a half truth: High school graduation rates never higher

We’ve “lifted high school graduation rates to new highs.”

— President Obama in his 2016 State of the Union speech

Last week President Obama boasted about the on-time high school graduation rate reaching an all-time high during his last State of the Union address. As with most claims the President made that night fact-checkers were ready to determine if data indeed backed up such a claim.  According to Politifact,President Obama only spoke a ‘Half-Truth’ when it came to high school graduation rates.

While Politifact provides valid and fairly solid reasoning for only giving the President a ‘Half-Truth’ rating, they themselves do not provide all the facts either. They did a great job pointing out why the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate cannot simply be compared to on-time graduation estimates prior to 2010. As they rightfully point out states have only been using a common graduation rate calculation in just the past 5 years. Politifact contends that for the President to have been completely truthful he should have stated the current graduation rate is at its highest level in 5 years– when states started using a common calculation for graduation rates. As they point out, prior to that each state had their own way of calculating graduations rates –where some were more accurate than others.

However, there were a number of researchers who developed calculations to estimate on-time graduation rates as well as a number of studies that followed a national sample of students throughout the their high school career. In fact, these rates went as far back as the 1950’s. Yet, none were as accurate as the common calculation currently being used by all 50 states.

But that doesn’t mean estimated graduation rates from years past should just be dismissed. Politifact even points out one such estimate called the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) developed by the U.S. Department of Education reached a high of 79 percent in 1970. Which, of course, is lower than the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate. However, Politifact stated “Yet because the current method for calculating rates is only 5 years old, it’s not clear that the 1970 rate, or even the subsequent ones, are comparable to current rates.”

Politifact is absolutely correct to point out this fact. There is a real question as to whether the AFGR or any other estimate is comparable to today’s graduation rate calculations. Yet, they likely didn’t know about Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s  and Paul A. LaFountaine’s  The American High Graduation Rate study that standardized high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2005. The study utilized a number of data points and statistical adjustments to provide a standardized and more accurate measure of the high school graduation rate. Over that time period, only in one year- 1972—did the graduation rate break the 80 percent mark.

It should be noted the AFGR rates closely matched the rates calculated by Heckman and LaFountaine which indicates the AFGR  is an accurate measure of graduation rates. Furthermore, the AFGR rates were also similar to current graduation rate calculations in 2010 through 2012. Taken together, this provides a consistent and accurate measure of on-time high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2014– the most recent year graduation rate data is available.

Since 2014’s 82 percent on-time graduation rate is comparable to years prior to 2010, it is fair to say graduation rates have never been higher. Can we say this with absolute certainly? No, but the same can be said for almost any national indicator whether it is the unemployment rate or the divorce rate, just to name a couple. However, based on the best available evidence the U.S. on-time high school graduation rate has never been higher. As such, the President was completely truthful in stating our high school graduation rates have hit new highs. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Graduation rates,High school — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 9:25 am





January 14, 2016

Graduation Rates are High: Goal Met?

It’s now no secret that graduation rates have hit an all-time high of 82%, and as our previous blog post reminds us, the rate is even higher when we count students who took more than 4 years to earn their diploma. But, what does a high school diploma today mean? Unfortunately, as Robert Pondiscio at the Thomas Fordham Institute points out, SAT scores have dropped, the recent NAEP performance has seen a slight decrease, and there is a growing need for higher education institutions to offer remedial courses.

The newest report from Achieve – Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts reiterates the point that while more high school students are earning diplomas, these students are not necessarily adequately prepared for the next stage of their lives. In fact, over half of college-going students will have to take at least one remedial English or math course. In addition, less than half of college-goers actually graduate and 60 percent of employers report that high school graduates are lacking the necessary basic skills.

In light of this, we may need to tamper the excitement of rising high school graduation rates. Rather, we need to focus on making a high school diploma more meaningful. Students who graduate high school must be college and/or career ready. This is the next wave of reform. Many organizations, including Achieve, are working to create high school standards that are better aligned with the skills students need to be successful in college and career. The first part of this means to raise the standards for high school students to graduate and work to bridge the gap in academic expectations between high school and college. The second part is to include more career readiness skills in the high school curriculum. CPE’s report “The Path Least Taken” highlights the need for non-college-going students to have the necessary skills to achieve economic success. There is much debate about what career readiness skills are and where schools will find time in the school day to teach them (ex. Financial literacy, email etiquette, personal responsibility etc.). The conversation around that will, and should, continue.

Achieve advocates for including more “real world tasks” as assessments in schools. This is critical. Teachers will all agree on the difficulty of getting students to see the purpose behind the content they learn in classes, which in turn effects their engagement in class. Students don’t see the relevancy of Algebra II, English, Physics, etc. in real life or believe they will ever need those skills in the workplace. Standards, tests, and curriculum can be better aligned with real-world examples and projects so that students are more engaged in the learning. Higher levels of engagement will lead to retention of material and consequently higher academic performance in high school and beyond.

In sum, it is laudable that high school graduation rates are improving. But there is still much work to be done to raise the actual academic performance of the students and make sure that a diploma accurately represents a readiness for life beyond high school. -Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Career Readiness,CPE,Graduation rates,High school,NAEP,Public education — Breanna Higgins @ 1:30 pm





December 15, 2015

It’s Official: HS Grad Rates Hit another All-Time High

I feel like am beginning to sound like a broken record as I seem to keep repeating “HS Grad Rates Hit another All-Time High”. Once again this is true as the U.S. Department of Education made it official today that the on-time high school graduation rate for the class of 2013-14 reached 82 percent.

This news does not come as much of a surprise since preliminary results back in October showed most states increased their graduation rates, but it is still worth celebrating. After decades of data showing graduation rates stuck around the 70 percent mark rates have increased significantly in just the last decade alone.

Keep in mind, however, the 82 percent actually understates how many students earn a high school diploma. That’s because the 82 percent is simply the on-time rate, meaning, only those students who entered 9th grade and graduated four years later are counted as graduates. But as our Better Late Than Never report showed, including those students who needed more than four years to earn a standard diploma or better would likely increase the graduation rate to around 87 percent — just a few percentage points shy of the 90 percent mark and a goal that seemed unattainable just a decade ago.

 

Unfortunately, not all states currently report data that includes late graduates so it is not possible to get a true national graduation rate. But the late grads are students who should be recognized for meeting the same requirements as their classmates who graduated on-time. And schools and districts should be recognized as well for identifying these students who fell behind their classmates and providing the support to them and their teachers to get them back on-track to earn a high school diploma. As our report showed, earning a high school diploma, even if it takes more than four years, significantly improves the chances a student will find success after high school. And both students and schools should be encouraged and rewarded for graduating all students who earn a high school diploma, not just those who did so within four years—Jim Hull

Filed under: Data,Graduation rates,High school,Public education — Jim Hull @ 1:47 pm





November 11, 2015

More students are graduating but are they leaving high school prepared?

Last month the U.S. Department of Education released preliminary data showing the U.S. is on-track to set yet another record on-time high school graduation rate. While a preliminary national rate was not provided, the data showed that at least 36 states have increased their graduation rates over the previous year which reported an unprecedented 81 percent on-time rate nationally.

Another report was released yesterday by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Everyone Graduates Center showing the recent increase in on-time graduation has led to the number of high school dropouts to fall from 1 million in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012. Over the same time period the number of so-called ‘Drop Out Factories’– high schools that fail to graduate at least 60 percent of their students within four years—decreased from just over 1,800 to 1,040 schools. These are dramatic decreases in such a short amount of time by any measure. But these decreases are made even more impressive by the fact that between 2002 and 2008 the number of dropouts increased by over 25,000 while the number of ‘Drop-out Factories’ fell by less than 200.

More students may be graduating high school but does that necessarily mean more students are finishing high school with the skills they need to succeed in college or the workplace? This is the big question. If high schools are just handing out pieces of paper to any student who attends for four years, a higher graduation rate doesn’t mean much of anything. Yet, if more students are graduating college and career ready, then indeed the record graduation rate is something to celebrate.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to determine how many students are graduating college and career ready, at least at the national level. Reason being, each state sets its own requirement for obtaining a high school diploma. In fact, a number of states set different requirements for different types of high school diplomas. A recent report from Achieve found 93 diploma options across all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the Class of 2014. The report noted that only 5 states (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) require their students to meet college and career ready standards in math and English Language Arts (ELA) to earn a high school diploma. Meaning, these are the only states whose graduation rates are the same as the percent of graduates who are college and career ready.

This doesn’t mean that other states don’t have college and career readiness requirements to earn a high school diploma. In fact, 26 other states offer at least one diploma aligned with college and career standards. However, these states also offer multiple diplomas where students may still graduate high school without meeting college and career ready expectations by either opting out of the college and career ready requirements or choosing not to opt in. Moreover, just 9 of these states publicly report the percentage of students earning college and career ready aligned diplomas. So only in 14 states do we know what percent of high school graduates finish high school ready for college or the workforce.

The lack of alignment between diploma requirements and college-career ready standards may lead some to conclude the recent rise in graduation rates is due to a lowering the bar to graduation. But that would be wrong. Achieve’s most recent annual Closing the Expectations Gap report shows the bar to a high school diploma has been raising in most states—not falling. In fact, when Achieve first started examining high school graduation requirements in 2004 not a single state aligned their graduation requirements to college and career standards, and only Arkansas and Texas required students to pass an advanced Algebra course to earn a high school diploma. Since that time a number of states have adopted similar requirements for high school diploma.

The good news, then, is that graduation rates are not increasing simply by giving out more diplomas, but by more students meeting more rigorous graduation requirements. The bad news is it is still unclear how many of those requirements are aligned with college and career standards. Knowing how many students complete high school college and career ready is vitally important for policymakers in order to make more informed decisions to ensure all students leave high school prepared for postsecondary success. – Jim Hull






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