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October 28, 2015

School choice + objective information = Real choice

image001 (2)Giving parents and students the ability to choose their school is promoted by supporters as the key to improving American education overall. On the surface, the idea has great appeal. Who, after all, opposes having choices?

Indeed, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have embraced school choice in various forms that range from opening up alternatives within the public school system to providing taxpayer dollars to students to take to private schools. But for all the rhetoric, does school choice live up to its supporters’ claims?

The Center for Public Education strove to get to the bottom of these questions in our newest analysis which we’ve titled quite simply, School Choice: What the research says. This handy at-a-glance overview of school choice in all its permutations, describes each of the alternatives, provides a quick look at related state policies, calculates the proportion of the school-aged population it serves and, most importantly, distills what the research says about its impact on student achievement.

It’s a comprehensive and unbiased look at one of the most frequently touted strategies among school reformers. Because what we’ve learned is that choice, in and of itself, is not an effective strategy. It’s just a catchphrase.

October 19, 2015

State graduation rates continue to climb

Even though the high school Class of 2013 reached a record on-time graduation rate of 81 percent,  it appears like the Class of 2014 is poised to pass their classmates. According to preliminary data released this afternoon from the U.S. Department of Education, 36 states saw improvements in their on-time high school graduates rates over the past year. On the other hand, just six states saw a decrease in their graduation rates while in another eight states graduation rates remained unchanged.

Unfortunately, the national on-time graduation rate won’t be available until early next year once the National Center on Education Statistics validates each state’s graduation data. Yet, with these preliminary results showing nearly three-quarters of states continuing to graduate a greater proportion of students who entered 9th grade four years earlier, it is all but certain the national graduation rate will surpass last year’s record breaking 81 percent on-time graduation rate.

The good news doesn’t end there either. The preliminary results show that our high schools are narrowing the graduation gaps between their traditionally disadvantaged students and more advantaged peers as well. In fact, 28 states narrowed the graduation gap between their black and white students while 32 states narrowed their Hispanic/white gap. Moreover, 23 states have been able to narrow the graduation gap between their economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers as well as between Limited English Proficient students and their English Proficient peers. States haven’t been as successful in narrowing the graduation gap between their students with disabilities and those without but still 21 states were more successful in doing so this year than last.

These preliminary results certainly show many of our high schools are on the right track, yet, they also show there is a whole lot more work to be done. While graduating 8 out of 10 students who enter the 9th grade within four years is a tremendous accomplishment, there are still many more students who never graduate high school. Students who leave high school without a diploma are likely in for a rough road ahead as they are much more likely to be unemployed and earn significantly less in wages than their peers who graduated with a standard high school diploma.  And all signs point to the job market getting more difficult in the coming years for those without a high school diploma, so it is imperative that our high schools keep the momentum going until all students graduate high school with at least a standard high school diploma. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Graduation rates,High school,Public education — Jim Hull @ 3:56 pm

September 16, 2015

Budgets, data and honest conversation

Balancing school budgets in a time of shortfalls is a thankless job. Whatever gets cut will nonetheless have its champions, many of whom are willing to let their unhappiness known. Really loud. But one of the nation’s largest school districts is meeting this challenge with a new app that gives the community a channel for telling school leaders exactly what expenditures they want preserved. The hitch – users keep their preferred items only by eliminating others.  In this way, the app delivers an object lesson in how really tough these decisions are.

Fairfax County school district in Virginia serves nearly 190,000 students with an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Despite the community’s affluence, enrollments are rising faster than revenues, and the district is facing a $50-100 million deficit. An earlier citizen task force was charged with recommending ways to close this gap. After reviewing the data, the task force suggested, among other things, eliminating high school sports and band. To say the proposal was not well received is to state the obvious. And the public howls and teeth-gnashing have yet to subside.

So what’s a broke district to do? Give the data to the community. Fairfax released this web-based budget tool to the public this week as a means to call the question: In order to keep [your priority here], what do we get rid of? Users are able to choose from more than 80 budget items to cut in seven categories: “school staffing and schedules,” “instructional programs,” “nonacademic programs,” “instructional support,” “other support,” “employee compensation” and “new or increased fees.”  Each item has a dollar figure attached and the goal is to reduce the budget by $50 million.

I happen to be a Fairfax resident so I was happy to test-drive this web tool. The first thing that struck me was the near absence of low-hanging fruit. All of the big ticket items hurt, mostly because the savings come from reduction in staff or valuable instruction time. Increase elementary class size by one student: $12.9 million. Reduce daily course offerings in high school from seven to six: $25 million. Reduce kindergarten from full-day to half-day: $39 million. Yikes! Given these choices, I could see why eliminating high school sports at nearly $9 million could start to look like a lesser evil.

On the other hand, items that seemed to do the least damage to the educational mission also saved a relative pittance. Raise student parking fees by $50: $300,000.  Reduce district cable TV offerings: $100,000. Increase community use fees: $70,000. Clearly, the nickel-and-dime strategy was not going to get me close to $50 million.

In the end, I came within the 10 percent margin of hitting the target (while keeping high school sports) and I submitted my preferences. But I’ll be honest. They include some choices that I do not feel the least bit happy about. And that’s the point. In 2010, CPE published a report on the impact of the recession on school budgets across the country. The title, Cutting to the Bone, pretty much tells the story. The current Fairfax deficit represents only 2 percent of its yearly budget. But after years of cost-cutting, there’s no fat left to trim.

Clearly, if I were a school board member, I would want to know more about the impact of these programs and policies before making any final decisions. But presenting the data on their cost and what the dollars buy – as this tool does — is a really good way to educate the community about the challenge and engage them in an honest conversation about how they can best serve their students, especially when revenues run short. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Data,funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 10:11 am

September 4, 2015

Parsing religion’s place in schools

Religion and schools Few issues can spark more emotion and confusion than the role of religion in public schools. As Charles C. Haynes recently noted, “schools still struggle to get it right.” Here at CPE, we see evidence in the fact that, nine years after it was first published, our paper on the topic is still consistently among our top downloaded reports.

Edwin C. Darden, a lawyer and the author of the CPE paper, attributes the confusion to “the clashing and equally forceful commands contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” There is the right of students and staff to “freely exercise” their faith – a guarantee that does not go away when individuals enter the school door. At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the government and its institutions – including public schools – from “establishing” religion.  Simply, schools must respect the religious rights of individual students and staff but do so while not appearing to endorse or favor any particular religion or even religion itself.

Sometimes the push and pull between these clauses leads to conflicts that eventually require the courts’ judgment to resolve. Haynes argues that many of these cases did not need to get that far. He writes, “What’s striking about these conflicts — and others like them across the country — is that far too many school officials are violating settled law. Either they don’t know the law or, worse yet, they simply choose to ignore it.” I think there is a lot of truth in what Haynes says. But there are also some situations where the lines are not all that clear between what is and is not allowed in schools, leaving even the most conscientious school leaders somewhat baffled.

Under the Establishment Clause, schools may teach about religion, which has an academic, secular purpose, but they must not cross the line to proselytizing or promoting religion. Darden gives the example of a school choir that sings songs of praise as part of its repertoire. He explains, “While the music originates from church, the choir is learning principles of performance, vocal control, and other artistic concepts by participating. The words of faith are viewed as secondary.” This, he argues, is an allowable school practice. But the distinction can get complicated.

A recent case in Laurens County, Georgia, also involves a song of faith, but some are questioning whether its purpose is truly secular. According to a news report, the West Laurens High School band has a decades-long tradition of playing “Amazing Grace” before football games followed by a moment of silence. Many in the crowd use the moment to recite the Lord’s Prayer together.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a formal request to the school to stop the prayer and song, and at this writing, the school board’s decision is pending. The case is far from clear-cut. The song “Amazing Grace” itself has a long history in the U.S. and could, therefore, fit comfortably in the educational, secular bucket. The individuals in the crowd also have a right to pray. But by following a school band’s performance of a song of faith with a moment of silence whose purpose is reflection or prayer, the school may be crossing the line from the secular to non-secular, and this could be a case of what the courts call “entanglement.” As Darden puts the question, “Does the government involvement with a religious activity stretch so deep that it is indistinguishable from the religious nature itself?” If so, then the practice would be judged unconstitutional.

These questions are confounded when community opinion and local tradition enter the fray. Little wonder, then, that many schools take the easy way out and essentially declare the school building a no-religion zone. But this is not a solution and can lead to other problems. Haynes cites the case of a Nevada school that refused to allow a sixth-grade girl to use a Bible verse as part of an assignment called “All About Me,” no doubt out of the teacher’s concern about allowing religion in the classroom but in clear violation of the child’s right to free expression. Religion avoidance also leaves gaps in children’s academic preparation. How can they understand history without understanding the role religions played in the political and social development of movements and nations? As an English major, I can’t imagine how to even read a large body of the world’s literature without some basic understanding of its religious context and metaphors.

The fear of religious controversy also affects the teaching of secular content that some faiths take exception to. This is especially true in science. The Fordham Institute found that most state science standards gave short shrift to the study of evolution, and that even in states that address this central biological concept, the mention of human evolution is “conspicuously missing.”

Haynes calls for in-service workshops for educators and administrators on “how to apply the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.” I would go further. I suggest that pre-service teacher and principal preparation require First Amendment training. And that all school leaders, including school boards, be given opportunities to better understand how to allow religion in the school that respects individuals’ rights while remaining neutral, as a public institution must.

September 3, 2015

Fewer High School Grads Ready for College According to Latest Recent SAT results

Just as last year, this year’s SAT results included results from the College Board’s two other testing programs— the PSAT/NMSQT and their Advanced Placement (AP) exams— providing a more complete picture of student progress towards college readiness throughout high school.

While ACT results released last week showed overall scores among the graduating class of 2015 remaining flat, SAT scores saw a significant drop. In fact, scores on the college-entrance exam are at the lowest level in the ten years since the College Board included a writing section to go along with the critical reading and mathematics sections. Not only have SAT scores been declining in the long-run, scores dropped by 7 points in just the past year alone. Making it the largest one-year drop since the inclusion of the writing section. Furthermore, scores dropped in each of the three sections as well.

Stark differences are also evident when it comes to the ACT and SAT college-readiness benchmarks. According to the ACT, slightly more students are graduating high school college-ready than in the previous year. Yet, SAT results show fewer students are graduating college-ready. Although each exam has their own method of determining college-readiness, it would be expected that the year-to-year changes would be somewhat similar. However, that is not the case for the 2015 results.

Since neither the ACT nor SAT are representative of all high school graduates nationwide it is impossible to pinpoint why the two tests are providing such conflicting information about the quality of our nation’s high schools. That is because in most states these tests are optional, so only those students expecting to go onto a four-year college are likely to take the exams. Furthermore, there are a number of students who take both the SAT and ACT, so their scores are counted twice which can impact scores as well. Furthermore, the ACT and SAT measure different skills, although in the coming years this will be less of an issue as the SAT will be redesigned to align with the Common Core which the ACT already is.

However, there can be a number of reasons why ACT and SAT are providing such conflicting reports. It could be that since the ACT has become more popular throughout the country and more colleges are accepting the ACT that fewer higher-performing students in traditional ACT states may be taking the SAT but still taking the ACT. It could also be that more lower-performing students, who previously would not have taken the SAT, are now taking the college-entrance exam which would lower SAT scores, at least the short-run.

Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer. But considering the fact that almost every other indicator of the effectiveness of our nation’s high schools points in a positive direction, we shouldn’t put too much weight on one indicator such as the SAT. We know that more students than ever are graduating on-time with a regular diploma and do so by having completed more rigorous courses. Moreover, more of these graduates are going on to college than ever before. Yet, despite these positive results this year’s SAT results paint a much dimmer picture. With that said, it will be important to keep our eyes on the SAT results in the coming years to see if this year’s results are an anomaly or the start of trend. In the meantime, educators, school board members, and other policymakers shouldn’t put too much stock in one year’s results but should dig deeper into the SAT results for their local schools to see what they can learn so they can better prepare future graduates to get into and succeed in college.—Jim Hull


The Findings

Overall SAT Scores

  • The combined score in each of the three SAT sections- Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing— were at a 10-year low of 1490 when the Writing section was first introduced.
  • The combined scored dropped 7 points in just one year. This is the largest drop in a single year since the Writing section was introduced.
  • Scores dropped in all three sections from 2014 to 2015.
    • Critical Reading declined from 497 to 495.
    • Mathematics scores fell from 513 to 511.
    • Writing scores dropped from 487 to 484.

College Readiness

  • Less than half (41.9 percent) of the test-takers met the SAT College-Ready Benchmark in 2015, which is a decrease from 2014 when the rate was 43 percent.
    • The SAT College-Ready Benchmarks represent a student who scores a combined 1550 or higher. Students hitting this benchmark have a 65 percent chance of earning a B-minus grade point average in their freshman year courses.
  • Minority students less likely to be college-ready.
    • Just 16.1 percent of black students and 22.7 percent of Hispanic students were college-ready, according to the SAT’s Benchmark.
      • More black students reached the college-ready benchmark in 2015 than in 2014 (15.8 percent).
      • However, fewer Hispanic students reached the college-ready benchmark in 2015 compared to 2014 (23.4 percent).
    • On the other hand, over half (52.8 percent) of white students met the benchmark in 2015 and 61.3 percent of Asian’s students.

SAT Test Takers

  • Just over 1.7 million students from the Class of 2015 took the SAT sometime during their high school which was a 3 percent increase from 2011.
  • More minority students taking the SAT.
    • Nearly a third (32.5 percent) of test-takers were underrepresented minorities in 2015, compared to 31.3 percent just a year earlier and 29 percent in 2011.

PSAT/MNSQT (10th grade exams) Results

  • Nearly 4 out of 10 10th graders who took the College Board’s PSAT or NMSQT exams in 2015 scored at the grade-level benchmark that indicates they were on track for college and career readiness.
  • Just 16.7 percent of black 10th graders who took the PSAT/NMSQT reached the grade-level benchmark in 2015 while 54.7 of white examinees did so.
  • Only 19.8 percent of Hispanic examinees met the grade-level benchmark while 61.5 of Asian examinees did so.


Advanced Placement (AP)

  • In 2015, 2.5 million students took at least one AP exam compared to 2.3 million a year earlier and 2.0 in 2011.
    • In total, 4.5 million AP exams were administered in 2015 compared to 4.2 million in 2014 and 3.5 million in 2011.
  • As more students took an AP exam more students passed an AP exam as well. The number of students scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam increased from 1.4 million in 2014 to 1.5 million in 2015. In 2011, just 1.2 million students passed at least one AP exam.
    • Minority students less likely to pass at least one AP exam.
      • A third (32.3 percent) of black students who took at least one AP exam scored a 3 or higher compared to 66 percent of white examinees.
      • Half of Hispanic examinees passed at least one AP exam.
      • Nearly three-quarters (72.2 percent) of Asian examinees scored 3 or higher on at least one AP exam.
  • Over a quarter (26.2) of students who took an AP exam were from an underrepresented minority group which is slightly higher than in 2014, when the percentage was 26.0 percent. However, it is a significant increase from the 23.9 percent in 2011.

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