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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 27, 2015

Fewer, better tests

TestingParents have been concerned about the amount of testing their children have been subjected to in recent years. To the point where some are choosing to opt their children out of certain standardized tests. Yet, a number of educators, policymakers and education organizations have expressed the need for such tests to identify those students whose needs are not being fully met—particularly poor, minority and other traditionally disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, it has been unclear how much testing is actually taking place in our nation’s schools.

But yesterday, a report from the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) provided the most comprehensive examination of testing to date that shed an important light on the quantity and quality of testing students are exposed to. Among the findings the report found:

  • The average eighth-grader spends 25.3 hours per year taking mandated assessments which accounts for 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of total instructional time.
    • Only 8.9 hours of this testing is due to NCLB mandated assessments.
    • Formative assessments are most likely to be given three times a year and account for 10.8 hours of testing for eighth-graders 
  • There is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing and the performance on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP).
  • Urban school districts have more tests designed for diagnostic purposes than other uses.
  • Opt-out rates in the 66 school districts that participated in the study were typically less than 1 percent.
  • 78 percent of parents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “accountability for how well my child is educated is important, and it begins with accurate measurement of what he/she is learning in school.”
    • Yet, fewer agreed when the word ‘test’ appears.
  • Parents support ‘better’ tests but are not necessarily as supportive of ‘harder’ or ‘more rigorous’ tests.

These are much needed findings in the debate about testing, which has been dominated by anecdotal accounts and theoretical arguments. CGCS’s report has provided much needed facts to inform policymakers on time spent on testing, as well as, the quality and usefulness of the tests. In fact, these findings led President Obama to propose the amount of time students spend on mandatory tests be limited to 2 percent of instructional time.

While limiting the time students spend taking tests is a good thing, the report highlights the fact that over-testing is not necessarily a quantity problem but a quality problem. For example, the report found that many of the tests were not aligned to each other nor aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Meaning, many students were administered unnecessary and redundant tests that provided little, if any, information to improve instruction. Moreover, results for many tests, including some formative assessments, were not available for months after they were taken, thereby failing to provide teachers information in-time to adjust their instruction. So, the information for many tests are neither timely nor useful.

For testing to drive quality instruction, testing systems must be aligned to college- and career-ready standards and provide usable and timely information.  Doing so does not necessarily lead to less testing time but it does lead to a more efficient testing system. While there is plenty of blame to go around for the lack of a coherent testing system, district leaders play a lead role in ensuring that each and every test is worth taking. Tools such as Achieve’s Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts can inform district leaders on how much testing is actually taking place in their classrooms and why. With such information in-hand they can make more informed decisions on which tests to continue using and which should be eliminated, as well as, if there is a need for better tests that provide a more accurate measure of what students are expected to learn. By doing so, it will create a more coherent testing system that consists of fewer and better test that will drive quality instruction that will in-turn improve student outcomes. – Jim Hull

October 9, 2015

Concern Over the High School Preparation of Non-College Goers

Parents, employers and students alike feel high schools are not adequately preparing their graduates for success in the workforce according to the results of a recent survey from Achieve. While more than 8 in 10 parents are at least somewhat satisfied with the job their child’s high school did preparing them for success after high school, high schools are not held in such high regard when it comes to preparing graduates for the workforce in particular.

In fact, fewer than half (45 percent) of parents of non-college goers feel high school prepared their child for the workforce. Moreover, just 56 percent of both non-college goers and employers feel high schools do at least a very good job preparing their graduates for the workforce. Although non-college goers and employers have a more positive view than parents on this question, a large portion of all three groups do not feel high schools are doing an adequate job.

Why is this the case? There is no clear answer but it could be that high schools are focusing more on preparing their students for college than the workforce. This is evident by the finding that high schools do a better job providing parents information on what courses their child needs to get into college than providing them information related to workforce preparation.

Parents may not feel high schools are doing an adequate job preparing non-college goers for the workforce because they feel their child isn’t taking the courses their child needs to have success in the workforce. In fact, a majority of parents believe requiring higher level math and science courses, such as Algebra 2 and biology, is needed to prepare their child, whether going to college or not. As my Path Least Taken II report found, these higher level math and science courses don’t just improve the chances a student will get into and succeed in college, they also increase the chances non-college goers will find success in the workforce. Unfortunately, few non-college goers complete such high-level courses according my original Path Least Taken report. On the other hand, the same report found that nearly all college-goers took them.

Maybe parents are onto something. If all students did in fact take high level math and science courses they would not only be prepared for college they would be prepared for the workforce as well. Of course, there is more to being college and career ready than completing Algebra 2 and biology but it is a big step towards ensuring all students graduate college and career ready. –Jim Hull

Filed under: Career Readiness,college,Course taking,CPE,High school,research — Jim Hull @ 10:27 am

September 29, 2015

A different view on the achievement gap

For nearly a quarter of a century education policy has focused on closing the achievement gap between traditionally disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. During this time period there have been numerous studies focused on quantifying such gaps and identifying the causes in the hopes that such findings will enable policymakers to make informed decisions about policies to narrow such gaps. Yet, the impact of the racial composition of schools on the achievement gap has not garnered much attention from researchers.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sheds new light on this important topic. Specifically, the report asks the question:  Does the percent of black students enrolled in a school impact the achievement gap between black and white students?  Sounds like a straightforward question but the answer is far from clear as you will see. Specifically the report found:

  • White students attend school with few black students.
    • White students attend schools whose enrollment is typically 9 percent black
    • Black student attend schools whose enrollment is typically 48 percent black
  • Schools with the densest enrollment of black students—schools whose enrollment is between 60 and 100 percent black—were mostly likely to be found in the south and in large cities.
  • Both black and white 8th grade students who were enrolled in high black student density schools scored lower on the NAEP math assessment than those enrolled in low black density schools- 0 to 20 percent black enrollment.
    • The achievement gap between black and white students did not significantly differ depending on the black student density of the school.
  • Gaps narrowed between black and white students when researchers took into account the student’s socioeconomic status, and other student, teacher, and school characteristics but large gaps still remained.
  • Gaps were largest in the highest black student density schools than the lowest black student density schools even when taking other student and school characteristics into account.
  • The black/white achievement gap has more to do with differences within schools than differences between them.

So what exactly do these finding tell us? For one, they tell us that even though Brown v Board of Education was decided over 60 years ago black students still tend to go to school with mostly black students and white students tend to go to school with mostly white students. Second, even though math scores for both white and black students tend to decrease as the proportion of black students in schools increase, the achievement gap remains basically the same. Third, when comparing similar students attending similar schools the achievement gap widens as the share of black students enrolled in a school increases. Finally, although differences between schools, such as funding, contribute to the achievement gap, differences within a school contribute more to perpetuating gaps.

What does this mean for policymakers? There are no clear answers but focusing on desegregating schools would be a step in the right direction, although it isn’t nearly enough to close achievement gaps. The same can be said about ensuring there is an equitable distribution of funding and quality teachers among schools. While important, this report shows that such resources should be distributed more equitably within a school to improve the performance of its black students and close achievement gaps.

The report doesn’t provide clear cut answers on how to close the achievement gap, but it does provide ample evidence that students, both black and white, who attend schools that predominately enroll black students are not receiving the same education as their peers that attend schools who enroll mostly white students. In addition, no matter the racial makeup of the school, black students are not achieving the same level as their white peers. How resources are distributed within the school can go a long ways to narrow that gap. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Demographics,equity,NAEP,research — Jim Hull @ 2:44 pm

July 31, 2015

Executive functioning, an emerging and important area of study

2015-07-30_14-03-24Last semester we had the pleasure of having David Ferrier, a doctoral student studying applied developmental psychology at George Mason University, as one of our policy research interns.

We enjoyed many cerebral discussions with David, who spent his time detailing what research says about executive functioning and its connection to critical thinking, specifically, and academic achievement, generally, in an upcoming research brief.

You can get a preview of what David means by executive functioning and why it’s so important in the latest issue of American School Board Journal. Read it here and then visit our Facebook page where we’ve shared a video of a University of Michigan researcher discussing what she discovered in her review of school-based interventions that target executive functioning.

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