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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

June 5, 2014

New report shows high school graduation rate at an all-time high

EdWeek’s annual Diplomas Count report shows that the U.S. high school on-time graduation rate has hit an all-time high with 81 percent of students graduating within four-years of entering high school.  You may remember back in April another report also found high school graduation rates were at an all-time high. Both reports were based on similar data so it is not surprising they found similar results. But this most recent report sheds a brighter light on how state graduation rates have changed over time, especially between 2007 and 2012 —the most recent year available to calculate graduation rates. An examination of EdWeek’s data shows that in 2007, 19 states had graduation rates below 75 percent. By 2012 that number dropped to just six states. In fact, just two states (Nevada and Mississippi) currently have graduation rates under 70 percent compared to 11 states back in 2007.

So, states are in fact making tremendous progress in improving their on-time high school graduation rates at a time when many states have actually made it harder to earn a high school diploma. What remains to be seen is if this trend will continue t as states implement the Common Core State Standards, a more rigorous set of benchmarks that aim to prepare all students for college and careers. If states provide districts with the resources they need to effectively implement the CCSS, it is likely more students will not only earn a high school diploma but be more successful after high school as well.


The Findings

State Graduation Rates

  • Most states have improved their graduation rates since 2007.
    • All but three states (Rhode Island, Michigan, and South Dakota) improved their on-time graduation rates between 2007 and 2012.
    • Ten states were able to improve their graduation rates by 10 or more points during this same period.
      • New Mexico made the greatest improvement by increasing their graduation rate from 59 to 74 percent.
  • Large gaps remain between states
    • There is a 33 percentage point gap between Vermont -the state with the highest graduation rate- (93 percent) and Nevada which has the lowest graduation rate (60 percent).
    • Six states have graduation rates under 75 percent while 15 states have graduation rates of 85 percent or higher.

National Graduation Rates

  • The national graduation rate hit an all-time high.
    • Eighty-one percent of students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2008 graduated with at least a standard high school diploma by the summer of 2012. This is the highest level seen since the late 1960s.
      • From 2007 to 2012 the graduation rate increased by seven points.
      • Graduation rates had remained relatively stagnant between the late 1960s and 2007.
  • Attainment gaps have narrowed
    • While graduation rates for white students have improved, graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have improved at a faster rate.
      • The graduation rate for Hispanic students jumped from 62 percent in 2007 to 76 percent in 2012— a 14 percentage point improvement. However, the graduation rate for Hispanic students was still nine points lower than that of their white classmates.
      • Black students made headway as well by improving their graduation rate at a greater rate than the national average of seven points. Yet, there is still a 17 point gap in graduation rates between black and white students.
      •  Large gaps also remain for other groups of students.
        • 14 point gap between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students (72 and 86 percent).
        • 22 point gap between students with and without disabilities (61 and 83 percent).
        • 22 point gap between Limited English Proficient and English Proficient students (59 and 81 percent.)

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

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