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October 9, 2013

Can tests be worth teaching to?

It’s widely accepted that teaching to the test is a bad thing. The phrase itself summons images of robotic children reciting factoids and filling in bubbles with their number 2 pencils. The practice is said to suppress creativity and critical thought, and crowd out subjects and topics that aren’t tested. Classrooms become joyless.

But what if test prep didn’t mean memorization drills and a stripped down curriculum? What if students couldn’t tell the difference between assessment and a really interesting lesson?  What if the test was something teachers wanted to teach to?

That is one of the challenges the “next generation assessments” are attempting to meet. Two state consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balance) are currently at work on tests aligned to the Common Core that will “measure the full range” of the new standards. This will include the abilities to think critically and creatively, reason mathematically and communicate effectively — skills that aren’t typically associated with standardized, multiple choice tests.

The consortia greatly benefit by the involvement of the country’s leaders in performance assessment, that is, tests designed to mimic rich “authentic” classroom instruction. The $346 million in federal dollars doesn’t hurt either.  Still, developing these tests while making sure they meet high psychometric standards for validity and reliability is an enormous task. Even if they succeed at creating the instruments, will the tests have the desired effect on teaching?

A new report from the RAND Corporation seeks to answer the question, can standardized tests be worth teaching to? The authors of New Assessments, Better Instruction reviewed over 130 studies examining the relationship between high stakes testing and instruction. They offer a qualified “yes”— as long as certain conditions are met.  These conditions don’t only relate to the test design, but also to policies governing implementation and accountability that lawmakers at all levels should heed.

First, the tests themselves. According to the report, the assessments should “mirror high-quality instruction.”  So-called “deeper learning” isn’t easily modeled in multiple-choice format. The authors caution that producing rich assessments may require sacrificing some reliability related to scores, but add that the resulting impact on instruction may be worth it.

The RAND authors also recognize the importance of finding the right balance for accountability. They write:

Research on the ways that high-stakes tests influence instruction suggests that if the test is unimportant or irrelevant to students, teachers, administrators, and parents, it is unlikely to have an effect on instruction. On the other hand, if there are very high stakes attached …. there may be severe “teaching to the test” that does not promote real deeper learning but focuses on superficial features of items.

The solution? Multiple measures for teacher and principal evaluation , accountability based on growth as well as status, and an integrated system that includes low-stakes, formative assessments for tracking student progress along with the high-stakes, end-of-year summative tests.

Already examples are emerging from the consortia that illustrate what tests worth teaching to might look like. The CPE team has been having a lot of fun trying out the SMARTER Balanced practice tests.  We admit some of these items had us momentarily humbled, but we still maintain we’re smarter than a 5th grader.  Try them out for yourselves here.

More importantly, we think that assessments like these could drive deeper learning and instruction especially if combined with sensible accountability policies.

Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,instruction,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 10:53 am

June 13, 2013

Common core standards need a common core diploma

Last week we reported the good news that high school graduation rates are continuing their ascent. But what does that diploma mean? CPE’s latest report, written in collaboration with Change the Equation, finds that in a lot of Common Core-adopting  states, high school graduation won’t necessarily mean students have met the new standards. The report, Out of Sync, argues that all states and districts should re-examine their graduation requirements to make sure they align with their standards.  While our analysis was an on-the-surface look, we hope this leads to a deeper conversation about the implications of having a mismatch between what students should know, as envisioned by the Common Core standards, and what they are actually being taught. Be part of the dialogue by joining us at 1 pm EST next Tuesday, June 18, for a Twitter chat. Follow NSBA’s Twitter handle @NSBAComm and use the hashtag #CCSSGradReq to participate. Where are you on the map?

Filed under: High school,national standards — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 8:53 am

May 30, 2013

Take a common core test drive

The Smarter Balanced assessment consortium just released practice tests for their new assessments aligned to the common core state standards. The tests are computer adaptive and the items were field-tested during the early pilot stage.  Smarter Balanced in one of two multi-state consortia developing common core assessments with support from the U.S. Department of Education.

(Brilliant choice of a name, by the way. They can always lay claim to being the Smarter consortium.)

If you live in one of the 28 Smarter states (see what I mean!), or even if yours is one of the 46 states that has adopted the common core standards, the practice tests are a really good way to see what the common core is about and the kind of skills students will need to demonstrate. Smarter provides easy log in instructions here.  Enjoy your test drive!

Filed under: Assessments,national standards — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 8:54 am

April 26, 2013

The common core: truths, untruths and ambiguities

Educators in 46 states and DC are deep in the process of implementing new “common core” standards into their classrooms. But an emerging anti-core backlash may render their efforts moot in several states.

For readers who may not know, the common core state standards are intended to define the knowledge and skills in English language arts (ELA) and math that high school graduates will need for success in college and 21st century jobs. The standards were drafted by associations representing the nation’s governors and state education chiefs through a process involving experts and stakeholders and included a two-part public review. They have been endorsed by business leaders , teachers unions  and a bipartisan array of policymakers including President Obama and Jeb Bush. Within two years of their finalization, they were voluntarily adopted by all but four states.

Despite their high-profile supporters, not everyone is feeling the common core love and a handful of early adopting states are experiencing second thoughts. Some critics, like Samuel Goldman writing in the American Conservative, challenge the whole idea of national academic standards, voluntary or otherwise, as an erosion of federalism. Others, like education historian Diane Ravitch, question the wisdom of widespread investment in “untested” standards, especially when attached to real consequences for students, teachers and schools.

These are legitimate debates for us to have. Indeed, something this central to public education demands it. School districts also have real worries about meeting the timeline — the standards are due to be tested in 2014-15 — and getting all of the necessary pieces in place so students will be ready.  Make no mistake. This is a huge undertaking involving every moving part of the education system.

Still others challenge whether the new common core standards are worthwhile targets for students. Unfortunately, this backlash is being fueled by some critics’ misreading of the standards, some unknowns, and more than a few whoppers.

What follows is my attempt to clarify what is true, untrue and ambiguous regarding some of the claims made about the standards themselves so we can focus on the conversation that we need to have about their appropriate role in a national education agenda:

  • Not true: “The common core standards are dumbed down.”  My first reaction to this charge is that whoever believes this has not looked at current standards in many states.  The conservative-leaning Fordham Foundation did just that. Comparing all state standards to the common core, the authors determined that the core are “clearly superior” to 39 states’ math standards and to 37 states in ELA. Three states had “superior” ELA standards to the core. Everything else was about the same.
  • Not true with a caveat: “Classic literature will be crowded out.” A classic misreading of the ELA standards prompted by a common core recommendation that reading at the high school level should be 30 percent literary and 70 percent informational. On the surface that looks like a dramatic shift. But only if one assumes that all of the reading would happen in the English classroom. In fact, a distinguishing characteristic of the common core — one I applaud — is that the ELA standards define specific benchmarks for reading and writing in Social Studies, Science and technical subjects. There’s a good reason for this: American students perform well internationally when it comes to reading literature, but their performance falls when reading for information. But this also means that teachers of those other subjects should be responsible for those particular standards. And that’s the caveat: English teachers have every right to complain if they have to shoulder the full reading burden. At the same time, their colleagues in other subjects were not prepared to teach reading and writing in their subject area and will require some coaching and support.

As to the claim that great literary works will be de-emphasized or not taught at all , I refer readers to the recommended reading in the common core: Shakespeare, Twain, Longfellow, Ovid, Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Yeats, Neruda … you get the idea.

  • True. “The common core does not require cursive writing.” Not true. “Schools cannot teach cursive writing.” This one is just silly, and I suspect it was a slow news day when this rumor got started. Just because something is not specifically addressed in the standards does not mean it is prohibited from being taught.
  • Not true: “8th graders will no longer be able to take Algebra 1.”  See “cursive writing.” Nothing precludes districts from offering Algebra 1 to 8th graders. The core authors even provide a way to organize a “compacted” middle school math program for students who are ready for high-level math in 8th grade.
  • True: “The common core are internationally benchmarked.” William H. Schmidt, the nation’s foremost expert in international math performance, found that the common core-math standards are comparable to the highest-achieving nations. He further found that “most states have a long way to go” to equal them.
  • The jury is still out. “The common core will make every graduate college and career-ready.” Twenty years of research shows that all young people need a high school experience that prepares them for both post-secondary education and good jobs. The common core standards seem to provide a good map for getting there. Whether or not we succeed, however, depends on whether schools can retool effectively, especially given the short deadline and tight budgets. It will require new curriculum and instructional materials; more robust assessments and technology to support them; professional development for teachers and administrators. It will not just involve school districts, but state departments of education, higher education and early education, too. It demands considerable resources to carry out.

Lastly, success will require good communication with parents, teachers and the wider community. Schools will need their support to make change happen, something they’re not likely to get if the information the public gets is wrong.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.


April 23, 2013

The Common Core: Too Much, Too Fast?

The short answer: no and maybe.

Now to the long answer.

As a new teacher, one of the first concepts you learn is “scaffolding.”  Like the scaffolds beside a building, scaffolding in teaching is about building a supportive structure piece by piece so a student can get somewhere he or she couldn’t get by themselves.  A teacher might model with a “think aloud” of how to read for tone or teach symbolism with an easy text as a scaffold for analyzing symbolism in a more difficult text.  However, with a scaffold, a teacher doesn’t let the student off the hook, settling on an easier task the student can easily accomplish.  The student also isn’t just thrown into the deep end, urged to master a complex skill with no support.  The student is supported until he or she achieves a challenging goal independently. 

It struck me that just like teachers have to scaffold for students, we might think about scaffolding districts’ implementation of the Common Core and the bevy of high stakes tests that accompany the new standards. Just this month, students in New York City public schools took their first round of Common Core aligned exams, and the results were not pretty .  Teachers, parents, students, and principals reported the test elicited a number of responses, from humorous, to ludicrous, to heartbreaking:     

  • A child waking up from a nightmare where he was murmuring about bubbling in an exam
  • Weekend and after school test prep classes
  • Teachers teaching students yoga to help students relax during testing
  • Pep rallies to encourage students before exams
  • Rampant student stress and anxiety
  • Students crying at the end of the exams

In response, many have begun to question adoption of the Common Core, period.  Several parents have even decided to opt their children out of testing all together.  To some degree, one can certainly understand their frustration. 

Common Core implementation (which is soon to be met in many places with rigorous exams aligned with the more rigorous standards which are tied to high-stakes decisions like a teacher’s employment) is coming at an exceptionally fast pace.  Right before the start of the 2010-2011 school year, many states decided to adopt the Common Core.  However, after adoption, states had to coordinate their own roll out of the standards, and districts likewise had to process and design approaches to the new standards.  In the midst of all of this, classroom teachers had to learn a new curriculum and rewrite their own curriculums, learning and mastering new ways to teach in response to the Core. For teachers in New York, (assuming the most generous timeline where time for realigning the curriculum was given to teachers immediately upon state adoption) teachers would have had a maximum of two years before being held to high stakes tests aligned to the Core.  For anyone whose ever written the curriculum for a course within the time constraints of a public school teacher’s job, you know this is not enough.

In fact, that’s exactly the argument that’s been coming out of New York.  New York Times journalist, Kyle Spencer characterized the rapid pace of adoption in New York:

The standards are so new that many New York schools have yet to fully adopt new curriculums—including reading material, lesson plans, and exercises—to match.  And the textbook industry had not completely caught up either. State and city officials have urged teachers over the last year to begin working in some elements of new curriculums, and have offered lesson plans and tutorials on official Web sites.  But they acknowledge that scores will most likely fall from last year’s levels.

There’s a frenetic, sink or swim approach to implementing these reforms, and in that rush, policy makers are risking losing the Core altogether as backlash builds.

However, while the frustration of parents, students, and school faculty is valid, the answer is not to completely get rid of the Common Core.  The Common Core is a step forward in making schools locations of critical thought.  Consider some of the criticism of the Common Core coming from the New York area.  After taking a Common Core aligned test, a sixth grade student noted that, “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder.”  Another student felt like she didn’t have enough time to fully complete her written essay on the exam.  Both of these tasks ask students to do things that we as a society want citizens to do, read something, comprehend it, and then respond with one’s own ideas.  After all, isn’t this the heart of a democracy—being able to understand ideas and express your own? Of course, this would certainly be less difficult for students if they weren’t asked to write, and instead only had to fill in multiple choice bubbles based on easier readings.  However, is reverting back to these easier tasks really the answer?   

Though getting rid of the Common Core isn’t the answer, districts and teachers (just like students learning new, complex concepts) do need scaffolds to transform classroom instruction to align with the Common Core.  Modeling a skilled teacher, policy makers could and should give teachers and schools support and time as they learn to raise instruction to the level of rigor the Core demands, delaying implementation or offering the tests first as low-stakes assessments so teachers can learn from them.  After all, a teacher doesn’t merely tell a student, “balance this chemical equation or else.”  The teacher also doesn’t let the student simply not balance the equation, but instead a great teacher gives supports and time for the student as he or she learns to balance the equations independently.

In our debates about the Common Core, let’s parse through what part of the policy we really disagree with.  Is asking our students to think, read, and write more the problem, or is it the rapid, breakneck speed by which the Core has been implemented?  I think for many of us it’s the latter rather than the former.  The good news is that thoughtful policy makers can craft solutions to create scaffolds for Common Core implementation, such as making the first two years of testing low stakes instead of high stakes, giving teachers more time to work collaboratively to rewrite the school’s curriculum, or lowering the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores as teachers get to know the standards more.  Hopefully what we won’t do, though, is throw the baby out with the bathwater by getting rid of the Common Core altogether.  -Allison Gulamhussein

Filed under: CPE,instruction,national standards,standards,teachers,Testing — Allison @ 2:14 pm

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