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November 11, 2015

More students are graduating but are they leaving high school prepared?

Last month the U.S. Department of Education released preliminary data showing the U.S. is on-track to set yet another record on-time high school graduation rate. While a preliminary national rate was not provided, the data showed that at least 36 states have increased their graduation rates over the previous year which reported an unprecedented 81 percent on-time rate nationally.

Another report was released yesterday by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Everyone Graduates Center showing the recent increase in on-time graduation has led to the number of high school dropouts to fall from 1 million in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012. Over the same time period the number of so-called ‘Drop Out Factories’– high schools that fail to graduate at least 60 percent of their students within four years—decreased from just over 1,800 to 1,040 schools. These are dramatic decreases in such a short amount of time by any measure. But these decreases are made even more impressive by the fact that between 2002 and 2008 the number of dropouts increased by over 25,000 while the number of ‘Drop-out Factories’ fell by less than 200.

More students may be graduating high school but does that necessarily mean more students are finishing high school with the skills they need to succeed in college or the workplace? This is the big question. If high schools are just handing out pieces of paper to any student who attends for four years, a higher graduation rate doesn’t mean much of anything. Yet, if more students are graduating college and career ready, then indeed the record graduation rate is something to celebrate.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to determine how many students are graduating college and career ready, at least at the national level. Reason being, each state sets its own requirement for obtaining a high school diploma. In fact, a number of states set different requirements for different types of high school diplomas. A recent report from Achieve found 93 diploma options across all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the Class of 2014. The report noted that only 5 states (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) require their students to meet college and career ready standards in math and English Language Arts (ELA) to earn a high school diploma. Meaning, these are the only states whose graduation rates are the same as the percent of graduates who are college and career ready.

This doesn’t mean that other states don’t have college and career readiness requirements to earn a high school diploma. In fact, 26 other states offer at least one diploma aligned with college and career standards. However, these states also offer multiple diplomas where students may still graduate high school without meeting college and career ready expectations by either opting out of the college and career ready requirements or choosing not to opt in. Moreover, just 9 of these states publicly report the percentage of students earning college and career ready aligned diplomas. So only in 14 states do we know what percent of high school graduates finish high school ready for college or the workforce.

The lack of alignment between diploma requirements and college-career ready standards may lead some to conclude the recent rise in graduation rates is due to a lowering the bar to graduation. But that would be wrong. Achieve’s most recent annual Closing the Expectations Gap report shows the bar to a high school diploma has been raising in most states—not falling. In fact, when Achieve first started examining high school graduation requirements in 2004 not a single state aligned their graduation requirements to college and career standards, and only Arkansas and Texas required students to pass an advanced Algebra course to earn a high school diploma. Since that time a number of states have adopted similar requirements for high school diploma.

The good news, then, is that graduation rates are not increasing simply by giving out more diplomas, but by more students meeting more rigorous graduation requirements. The bad news is it is still unclear how many of those requirements are aligned with college and career standards. Knowing how many students complete high school college and career ready is vitally important for policymakers in order to make more informed decisions to ensure all students leave high school prepared for postsecondary success. – Jim Hull

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.

July 10, 2015

‘Proficient’ in the eye of the beholder

While we often talk about the American educational system, in truth we have 50 systems, each with the latitude to define its own academic standards. A newly published analysis  by the National Center of Education Statistics shows just how widely those expectations for student learning differ among states. Moreover, the findings suggest that most states could be aiming too low.

For the last ten years, NCES has conducted periodic statistical analyses that map student proficiency on state tests to their respective performance on NAEP. This national assessment is administered in all states and it is, by large consensus, considered the gold standard both in the richness of content and the quality of the assessment itself. As such, states where their students perform at about the same level on the state test as they do on NAEP can be considered to have high performance standards.

Some partial findings:

  • Grade 4: Only two states (New York and Wisconsin) had state proficiency standards equivalent to NAEP-proficient in both reading and math; an additional three states (Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas) were aligned with NAEP-basic in reading and NAEP-proficient in math. Four states (Alabama, Georgia, Idaho and Maryland) had proficiency levels aligned with NAEP-below basic. A whopping 22 states were in the NAEP-below basic rate in reading.
  • Grade 8: Only New York’s proficiency levels aligned with NAEP-proficient in both reading and math, while North Carolina and Texas were within NAEP-basic in reading and NAEP-proficient in math. Five states (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho and Ohio) were in the below basic range in both subjects. Unlike grade 4, only three states’ grade 8 performance (DC, Indiana and Mississippi) was at the NAEP-below basic level in reading. The majority of states were within the NAEP-basic range in reading and math.

Alert readers will note, of course, that some high-performing states like Connecticut and Maryland had proficiency levels that aligned with NAEP’s lowest performance designation. The analysis is, to be sure, an imperfect comparison. Even so, the relationship between state alignment to NAEP-proficient and their relative performance is fairly consistent, as you can see in the chart featured below as well as in the full report.

Despite the study’s limitations, NCES provides important context for states to help them gauge the quality of their standards. According to the Atlantic , Peggy Carr, NCES’s acting commissioner, explained to reporters that NAEP-proficient is considered to be at a level that shows students are on track to be “college-ready.” The most recent administration showed that only 35 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders performed at proficient or above on NAEP-reading; about the same proportion of eighth-graders (36 percent) were proficient in math. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us in order to meet the goal of all graduates prepared for college and careers.

The NCES study was based on 2013 data so it’s too early to see the impact of the common core standards and aligned assessments in those states that have adopted them. Several states that opted out, however, are also committed to the college and career-ready agenda. NCES’s next iteration of this series should, therefore, give us more insight into how well we are advancing.



Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,standards — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 3:42 pm

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

February 12, 2015

Reading the kindergarten Common Core State Standards with purpose and understanding

The Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) English Language Arts (ELA) benchmarks for kindergarteners came under scrutiny in a recently released report. Issued by two early education advocacy organizations, Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, the report argues that “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten” despite the CCSS requirement that prior to first grade, students are expected to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” If an impossible standard has been set, then expecting children to be able to do something beyond their capability appears to be a waste of time, money, and effort for all parties.

However, a deeper look into the CCSS English/Language Arts for elementary school children, provides an additional piece of information that should ease the concerns raised by the recent report. This introductory information notes that for kindergarten students, the goal is just for children to demonstrate an increased awareness and competencies in the ELA standards. Moreover, the CCSS does not advocate for removing play-based learning from the classroom, although a review of the report could easily allow a reader to believe that the CCSS explicitly denounces such practices. Surprisingly then, a complete read-through of the CCSS shows that the authors of the CCSS explicitly state that “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document” (p.6). Within the same document, the standard that the DEY/AFC report focuses on (Foundational Skills: Fluency) is on page 16. Thus, it becomes confusing how the DEY/AFC report can read the standards with such purpose, yet without understanding.

Last, and most importantly, the CCSS does not prescribe how teachers must reach these goals. As highlighted in our own 2013 publication on the Common Core, the CCSS is just a guiding document as to what the goals are, not the pathways in which to reach them. In fact, there is widespread support for play-based learning within the kindergarten curriculum. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the International Reading Association agree that pretend play is an important part of the learning process for young children. In an ideal world, using the CCSS in kindergarten should not interfere with incorporating play into the curriculum and in the practical world, whether or not play-based learning is included in kindergarten falls on the teacher, not the standards. Perhaps kindergarten is an excellent time to start raising awareness and competence in reading with purpose and understanding as this is a skill that is often needed by adults in order to comprehend and think critically about information.

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