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February 23, 2016

Common Core’s happy days may be here again

Did a relationship ever sour so quickly as the Common Core and public opinion? Back in 2010 when the college- and career-ready standards were shiny and new, leaders from business and higher education as well as a certain U.S. Secretary of Education praised their rigor, coherence and attention to critical thinking. Within a year, 45 governors and D.C. had rushed to adopt them as their own – a move a majority of teachers and parents viewed favorably.

Then, implementation happened. Many teachers felt rushed to produce results. Parents couldn’t understand their child’s homework. Their anxiety fed chatter on talk radio and social media that did the incredible. It united anti-corporate progressives and anti-government tea partiers in opposition to the new standards and the assessments that go with them. States once on board with the program began to bail in face of angry constituents.

Recently, though, the mood appears to be shifting back into neutral. Presidential candidates deliver variations of the “repeal Common Core” line to applause, but the issue doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the race. The newly reauthorized ESEA deflates anti-Common Core messaging by explicitly forbidding the federal government from compelling or encouraging state adoption of any set of standards, including the Common Core.  After a flurry of state legislative proposals were introduced to undo the standards, only a handful were ever signed into law, and in some of those states, the replacements aren’t substantively different from the ones they tossed.

New studies related to the Common Core could prompt a wary public to give the standards a second look. In the first, a Harvard research team led by Thomas Kane surveyed a representative sample of teachers and principals in five Common Core states about implementation strategies. They were then able to match responses to student performance on the Core-aligned assessments, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

According to their report, Teaching Higher: Educators’ perspective on Common Core implementation, three out of four teachers have “embraced the new standards” either “quite a bit” or “fully.” When asked how much of their classroom instruction changed, a similar proportion said it had by one half or more. Four in five math teachers say they have increased “emphasis on conceptual understanding” and “application of skills,” while an even higher proportion of English teachers reported assigning more writing “with use of evidence.” All are attributes emphasized in the standards.

The research team then related the survey results to students’ scores on the new assessments after controlling for demographics and prior achievement. While they did not find strategies of particular impact on English language arts, they did identify math practices that were associated with higher student scores: more professional development days; more classroom observations “with explicit feedback tied to the Common Core”; and the “inclusion of Common Core-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations.”

Casting light on such strategies is only worthwhile, however, if there is also evidence that the Common Core are good standards. Enter the Fordham Institute. The education think tank assembled a team of 40 experts in assessment and teaching to evaluate the quality of PARCC and Smarter Balanced. For comparison, they examined college-ready aligned ACT Aspire and MCAS, the highly regarded Massachusetts state assessment. The grades 5 and 8 test forms were analyzed against criteria developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers for evaluating “high-quality assessments” that aim to assess college- and career-readiness.

The short version.  All four tests scored highly for “depth,” that is, items that are “cognitively demanding.” PARCC and Smarter Balanced, however, edged out both ACT Aspire and MCAS in “content.” The researchers conducted an additional analysis against other assessments and found the Common Core-aligned tests also “call for greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills than either NAEP or [the international] PISA, both of which are considered to be high-quality challenging assessments.”

Whether or not participating in national standards is a good idea is a decision that should rightfully be made by individual states. There are many legitimate political arguments for going either way, and each state will likely view it differently. But whether the Common Core standards – in full or in part – represent the expectations a state should have for all its students is an educational question that is worth considering on its own merits.

These early reports suggest that the new standards are higher and deeper than what states had before. Most teachers, although not all, have “embraced” them and are changing their instruction accordingly. We are learning anecdotally, too, that as parents see evidence of their child’s growth, they come around as supporters (see here and here).  What this means for the future is anyone’s guess. But for now it’s looking like the Common Core or something very much like them may be seeing happier days ahead. — Patte Barth

This entry first appeared on Huffington Post February 22, 2016.


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.

May 14, 2015

Proficiency Rates Differ Between State and National Tests

Large gaps in proficiency rates still exist between state and national tests according to a new report by Achieve, Inc. It has been known for several years that more students reach the proficiency benchmark on their state assessment than on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), and that gap remains today. In fact, proficiency rates on most state assessments are 30 percentage points higher than they are on NAEP.  What this means is that if one of these states reported 80 percent of their students reached the proficiency benchmark on their state assessment, than just 50 percent likely reached it on NAEP.

In some states the gap was even larger. In Georgia, for example, the difference was 60 percentage points in 4th grade reading which was the largest difference in the country. In this case 94 percent of 4th graders were deemed proficient on the Georgia state assessment while just 34 percent reached the proficiency level on NAEP. Georgia wasn’t alone. Louisiana, Alaska, and Arkansas all had gaps of at least 50 percentage points. Similar results were found in 8th grade math as well.

However, there were states with small if any gaps. In fact, in New York more students were deemed proficient on NAEP than on the state assessment in both 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. The report also singled out a dozen or so states that had similar proficiency rates on their state assessments as on NAEP, or as the report called them the “Top Truth Tellers.”

The results aren’t entirely surprising. The Achieve report is based on results from the 2013-14 state assessments when nearly all states were still using older tests. Most states will be giving new Common Core aligned tests for the first time this year which will likely lead to lower proficiency rates as was seen in Kentucky and New York — states that have been administering Common Core aligned assessments for a couple years already. What will be interesting is how this analysis will look a year from now when state scores are based on more rigorous Common Core aligned assessments. I’m guessing the Common Core states will see their scores more aligned with NAEP while those who don’t will still have significant gaps. The question remains, will there be more pushback in states with lower proficiency rates or in those with larger gaps? I guess we will have to wait until next year to find out.—Jim Hull

July 30, 2014

Hysteria to revised AP history framework shows prioritizing is hard

History is the most difficult subject to write K-12 standards for, and for one simple reason: the discipline is bursting with information. There’s not enough time, even over 13 years of public schooling, to teach students everything that is good to know in the subject. Of course, that doesn’t stop pundits and parents from protesting — often loudly — when some preferred person or event is left out.

The new AP U.S. history framework is the most recent effort to raise howls. The College Board has begun revising many of its frameworks and tests in order to reflect changes in scholarship and better align with current college freshman-level survey courses. According to the College Board, the new AP course will emphasize students’ “ability to think critically, construct solid arguments, and see many sides of an issue.” Gone are the lists of topics, replaced by a list of 27 “key concepts” each supported by 3-4 related concepts.

By my estimate, that’s over 80 content standards. That sounds like a lot, yet it’s still not enough for some. In an analysis for the Heartland Institute, retired AP teacher Larry Krieger denounced the framework for, among other things, the alleged “excising” of James Madison and Benjamin Franklin from the historical record (because they were not specifically named); its “dismissal” of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Washington (although all are specifically addressed, just not enough); and an imbalance in content that, Krieger claims, stresses America’s negatives over its good.

Krieger’s critique was soon picked up by the National Review , Breitbart and Glenn Beck who see something pernicious in the rewrite amounting to “left-wing indoctrination.” They have also conflated the AP revisions with the Common Core standards, even though one has nothing to do with the other. In Texas, the possible connection concerned a member of the state board of education enough that he is introducing a resolution to “rebuke and reject” the teaching of AP U.S. history in the state. Texas could be just the first.

Which brings me back to the first point: it is really difficult to write history standards. I am reminded of a very sensible question a former colleague would often ask: “if we add [favorite topic here] to the standards, what are we willing to take out?” History courses are already packed. Great political figures and major military engagements represent only a part of what a rigorous program should provide today’s students. A half century of scholarship has opened up social, economic, cultural and other lenses for viewing the past that add depth and texture to the historical picture. Every subject area — math, sciences, the arts and technology — also has a history that contributes to our understanding of those fields. On top of all this, teachers need time to help students develop their capacity to think critically and analytically about the material.

So educators have to make choices, and there’s the rub. Every story has its champions ready to engage in metaphorical combat over what should survive out of the many worthwhile stories to tell, not to mention how to tell them. And nowhere is the battle more contentious than in deciding what is important in U.S. history to teach our future citizens.

That leaves standards writers with the thankless task of trying to reconcile disparate camps. Compromise has typically been achieved one of two ways: by drafting statements that are so broad they please everyone, offend no one, and provide little guidance for teachers; or by including every topic that everyone wants, resulting in history standards that move from one fact to the next with no room for students to develop any real understanding.

Educators have often charged that the AP U.S. history framework took the latter route, something the College Board was attempting to correct with the new revision. How successful they were is clearly a topic worthy of discussion. But as a long-time standards reviewer, I’d like to offer a few things to keep in mind when considering the content of the new AP framework:

  • The framework is not a curriculum. Rather it is designed to leave decisions to teachers about the particular topics to teach and concepts to emphasize. Likewise, the AP test will feature questions that can be answered effectively by drawing from a range of historical topics for evidence. This means that no AP classroom will look exactly like the next.
  • Approximately 400,000 out of 15,000,000 high school students, or 2.6%, took the AP U.S. history exam last year. If this is a coup by the College Board to impose a national curriculum on American high schools, they really have their work cut out for themselves.
  • AP courses are intended to model college-level survey courses, and the College Board consults with universities and faculties to validate that they do. Critics who are concerned about the content might do better to direct their barbs toward higher ed.
  • Finally, students have history every year in public school beginning in at least first grade, and likely study American history yearlong in both fifth- and eighth-grades. We can assume AP students already know who George Washington is. If they don’t, we have much bigger problems to deal with than worrying about what the College Board is up to.

I have my own quibbles with the new framework. For example, I think it could have done more with science, technology and the arts and their role in defining the U.S.  But in order to include this content, what am I willing to take out?

I’ll need to think about that. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Common Core,CPE,High school,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 11:29 am

June 11, 2014

Common Core no longer OK in Sooner state

Oklahoma just became the latest state to jettison the Common Core standards that they adopted in 2010. The Sooner State joins Indiana and South Carolina which have also experienced grassroots opposition to the college- and career-ready standards, leading them to opt out of a nationwide effort they had not too long ago voluntarily opted into.

Interestingly— and unlike her Indiana and South Carolina colleagues— Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin was a public supporter of the standards who spoke in their favor as recently as January of this year at a meeting of the National Governors Association. But the bill, which passed with overwhelming support from both chambers of the Oklahoma legislature, had the backing of a vocal group of parents and small-government conservatives who saw the effort as a sign of federal over-reach. On June 5, Gov. Fallin signed HB3399 into law.

The Oklahoma opt-out differs from Indiana and South Carolina in another way. The latter two states both called for the development of new college- and career-ready standards to eventually replace the Common Core, which will continue to be used in the interim. In contrast, Oklahoma’s law calls for the immediate repeal of the Common Core. The state will revert back to the PASS standards they were using prior to 2010 until the replacements are finalized sometime in 2016.

A report by the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition and the Fordham Foundation calculated the total costs of writing new standards, assessments, and training to run upwards to $125 million. On top of that are the interim costs related to reverting to old standards while schools await the new. The authors wrote:

A harder cost to quantify is the impact repeal will have within the classroom…. [F]or nearly four years, teachers and students have been preparing for the Common Core Standards. A sudden departure from that course will create greater uncertainty in curriculum planning, and inevitably introduce several shifts as schools readjust to PASS standards and then again to new standards in two years. While some teachers might remember PASS standards from prior years, many newer teachers will have little to no exposure to these standards.

Clearly from our point of view, providing a sound public education to every child is the most important responsibility state and local governments have to fulfill. Each state therefore needs to consider standards from its own context and come to its own decisions. It’s not only appropriate for states to re-examine the standards they hold their schools to, it’s something they should do periodically.

So it’s entirely reasonable for states to have second thoughts about the Common Core, especially if they now believe they rushed into the relationship. But they should also be extra careful in deciding what to do about it. For one, there are some very practical costs involved, as the Oklahoma report points out. Over 40 states have spent the last three to four years retooling their school programs to align with the Common Core. That’s a large investment that should not be easily disregarded.

There are educational considerations, too. Putting aside for a moment how states and their public may view the federal role in Common Core, they should examine the standards on their own merits. There is a lot in the substance to be commended: the emphasis on using evidence, reading and writing in the subject areas, and the articulation of mathematical reasoning are just a few.

The first matter for public discussion then is, do these standards represent what we want for our students? I’m not at all sure this conversation happened in a lot of states, even though it should have. But it’s not too late to have it now. If the answer is “yes,” the Common Core can at least be on the table when the state develops its own standards even if the state wants to bail on the national effort. But if the answer is “no,” the state faces the challenge to define standards that will prepare all students for college and careers — standards that will likely need to be higher than what the state had before.  — Patte Barth

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