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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.

August 27, 2015

More students graduating high school college-ready according to new ACT report

According to ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015 report released earlier this week, a growing proportion of high school students are graduating from high school college-ready. While overall scores remained flat, more students scored high enough to reach the ACT college-ready benchmarks in each of the test’s four subject areas- English, reading, math, and science. However, just 28 percent of test-takers reached these benchmarks in 2015 but it is still higher than the 23 percent who reached all four benchmarks in 2009. So, while college-readiness rates remain low, they have been trending higher even as more states require all students to take the college entrance exam and more students head to college than ever before. Keep in mind, such dramatic increases in those being tested typically has a dampening effect on scores.

Unlike college-readiness benchmarks, overall scores remained flat between 2014 and 2015. In fact, overall scores have remained between 20.9 and 21.1 for over a decade, with the exception of 2007 when the overall score reached 21.2. However, a closer look at the overall results show that white, black, and Hispanic students all saw increases in their scores over the past year. So, while overall scores have remained flat, the scores of each of the subgroups have improved. This happens because more black and Hispanic students—who score significantly lower ‘on-average’- are taking the ACT while a smaller proportion of white students- who score higher ‘on-average’- are taking the test. As a result, each of the subgroups’ scores increased while the overall score remained flat. This is what statisticians call ‘Simpson’s Paradox’.

While the results are not earth shattering they provide evidence that our high schools are in fact doing a better job preparing students for college. Yes, we all want to see faster improvement but improving nearly 25,000 high schools does not happen overnight. Fortunately, most indicators of the effectiveness of our nation’s high schools show they are heading in the right direction. More students are graduating high school on-time than ever before and more students are getting into and enrolling in college as well. Add the fact that more high school graduates are college-ready paints a pretty clear picture that our nation’s high schools are on the right path.


The Findings

State Scores

  • Of the 30 states where at least half of graduates took the ACT:
    • Minnesota once again achieved the highest composite score with 22.7.
      • However, just 78 percent of Minnesota 2015 graduates took the ACT
    • Graduates from Hawaii posted the lowest scores among states with a score of 18.5.
  • Of the 15 states where at least 90 percent of graduates took the ACT:
    • Colorado and Illinois posted the highest scores at 20.7, followed by North Dakota (20.6).
    • Hawaii (18.5), Mississippi (19.0), and Alabama (19.1) had the lowest scores out of this group.
    • Hawaii posted the greatest gains since 2014, improving by three-tenths of a point.
      • Alabama saw their scores drop by 1.5 points over the past year. However, this is likely due to the fact that the percent of graduates taking the ACT increased from 80 to 100 percent. Such increases typically lead to lower-scores, at least in the short-term.

National Scores

  • The nation’s graduating Class of 2015 had an average composite score of 21.0, the same as in 2014.
    • At this score, an average high school graduate has about a 75 percent chance of getting admitted into a good college.*
  • Scores increased by one-tenth of a point in reading (21.4), English (20.4) and science (20.9) between 2014 and 2015, while scores decreased by one-tenth of a point on the math test (20.8).
  • Scores for black and white students improved.
    • White graduates increased their scores by one-tenth of a point between 2014 and 2015 (22.3 to 22.4).
    • The average black graduate score improved from 17.0 to 17.1 over the past year.
    • As for Hispanic graduates, their scores increased from 18.8 to 18.9 in the past year as well.

College Readiness

  • Twenty-eight percent of 2015 high school graduates were college-ready in all four ACT subject tests (English, reading, math, and science), which is two percentage points higher than in 2014 and five percentage point increase since 2009.
    • Graduates who achieve these benchmarks are ready to succeed in first-year, credit-bearing college courses in the specific subjects ACT tests, according to ACT research. “Success” is defined as a 75% likelihood of earning a ‘C’ or better in the relevant course.
  • Little change in college readiness by subject.
    • The number of graduates reaching ACT’s college-ready benchmark in science increased from 37 to 38 percent over the past year.
    • In math, the number of graduates deemed college-ready decreased by one percent as was the case between 2013 and 2014.
    • In English there was no change in the number of graduates being college-ready but there was a two percentage point increase in reading.

Core Course Rigor

  • Graduates who completed ACT’s recommended core curriculum were much more likely to be college-ready.
    • Two-thirds (67 percent) of graduates who completed ACT’s Core Courses (4 years of English, and 3 years each of math, social studies, and science) met ACT’s college-ready benchmark in English compared to 36 percent of those who did not complete the Core Courses. In reading, 49 percent of graduates who completed the Core Courses met ACT’s college-ready benchmarks for reading compared to 34 percent who did not.
    • There was a much greater disparity when it came to math and science.
      • For those graduates who completed the Core Courses, nearly half (45 percent) were college-ready in math compared to just eight percent who had not.
      • For those graduates who completed the Core Courses, 42 percent were college-ready in science compared to just 18 percent who had not.

Test Takers

  • About 59 percent of all 2015 high graduates took the ACT, compared to 57 percent in 2014 and 45 percent in 2009.
  • More minority graduates are taking the ACT.
    • In 2015, nearly 29 percent of ACT test-takers were Hispanic or black, compared to 24 percent in 2010.
    • Furthermore, the percentage of test-takers who were white decreased between 2010 and 2015, from 62 percent to 55 percent.


For more information on how to use college entrance exam scores to evaluate your school, check out the Center’s Data First Web site.

* Data based on calculations from the Center for Public Education’s Chasing the College Acceptance Letter: Is it harder to get into college

August 25, 2015

New Poll Shows Parents Skeptical of Common Core and Testing

Public school parents and the public at large are skeptical of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) and the usefulness of standardized testing, according to The 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of The Public Attitudes Toward The Public Schools released this week. The annual poll also found that while parents like to have a choice on where to send their child to school, they oppose the use of public dollars to send students to private schools in the form of vouchers.

The poll’s findings show the general public, as well as, parents of public school children value other measures of school effectiveness beyond standardized tests. However, the results should not be seen as a total indictment of standardized tests, as results show the public is just as skeptical about allowing students to opt-out of standardized tests. This aligns with the results of the most recent Education Next poll which found the majority of the public supportive of the federal requirement to test students annually in math and reading. So, while the public may be getting weary of standardized testing, there is little support for their abolishment, especially among black and Hispanics. However, the public clearly feels that schools should be judged by more than test scores.


The Findings

Standardized Testing

  • The public places a much higher importance on student engagement over standardized tests.
    • Nationally, 78 percent of respondents rated student engagement as ‘very important’ when it came to measuring the effectiveness of public schools in their community.
    • On the other hand, just 14 percent of respondents rated standardized tests as ‘very important,’ making it the lowest-rated measure included in the survey.
  • Scores from standardized tests were the lowest rated approach of the choices given in the poll to providing the most accurate picture of a public school’s academic progress.
    • The public preferred examples of student work (38 percent), written observations by teachers (26 percent), and grades awarded by the teacher (21 percent) over scores from standardized tests (16 percent)
    • However, black respondents favored scores from standardized tests more than white respondents (19 v 15 percent).
  • Most believe there is too much emphasis on standardized tests.
    • Two-thirds of public school parents feel there is too much emphasis on testing while just 19 percent feel there is just the right amount of emphasis on testing.
    • However, black respondents were less likely to say there is too much emphasis on testing than white respondents (57 v 65 percent).
  • Respondents are split on whether to allow parents to ‘opt-out’ their child from standardized tests.
    • Just 41 percent of parents believed they should be allowed to excuse their child from tests while 44 believed such an option shouldn’t be allowed.
    • Yet, just 28 percent of black respondents believed parents should be able to excuse their child from standardized tests compared to 44 percent of white respondents.
  • Few students complain about taking too many standardized tests.
    • Just 16 percent of public school parents ‘strongly agreed’ that their child complains about taking too many standardized tests.
  • Most public school parents don’t believe it is important to know how students in their community’s schools perform on standardized tests compared to students in other districts, states, or countries.
    • Just 18 percent of respondents said they believed it was important to compare test schools from their community’s schools to those in other districts or states.
    • A greater percentage (24 percent) did say it was important to compare test schools with students from other countries.

Common Core

  • Few public school parents feel achievement standards are too low in their community.
    • A third of public school parents feel student achievement standards are too low compared to 12 percent who feel they are too high.
    • Nearly half (48 percent) believe achievement standards are just about right.
  • Majority of parents oppose having teachers in their community use the Common Core standards to guide what they teach.
    • 54 percent of parents oppose the use of Common Core compared to just 25 percent who are in favor.
    • Most Republicans (69 percent) oppose the use of the standards while Democrats (38 percent) feel the same. Half of Independents also oppose the use of the Common Core.
    • Blacks are less likely to oppose the use of the Common Core compared to whites (35 v 57 percent).
  • Few have heard a great deal about the Common Core.
    • Less than a quarter (22 percent) of respondents have heard a great deal about the Common Core although the percentage increases to 30 percent for public school parents.
    • Republicans (25 percent) are more likely to say they have heard about the Common Core than Democrats (19 percent) or Independents (22 percent).

Opinions about Public Schools

  • Local public schools receive high marks.
    • 70 percent of public school parents give the school their oldest child attends an A or B, while 57 percent gave the same grades to all public schools in their community.
    • However, just 19 percent of public school parents would give schools nationally an A or B.
  •  The public sees funding as a major tool to improving public schools.
    • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of respondents listed lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing public schools. Standards/quality of education came in second with just 7 percent.
    • Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents believe that how much money schools spend is important to improving public schools in their community.

School Choice

  • Most respondents favor public school choice programs.
    • 64 percent of respondents favor charter schools and intra-district school choice programs.
  • Most respondents oppose vouchers
    • Just 31 percent of respondents favor allowing parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.
    • Republicans are split on this issue (46 percent opposed and 46 in favor) while Democrats are thoroughly opposed (71 percent opposed to 16 percent in favor). The majority of independents are also oppose (63 percent).


August 20, 2015

Algebra II not just for college goers

“Because colleges require all applicants to take advanced math — at least Algebra II — this is the math standard that all students in the country will now have to meet, requiring mastery of obscure algebraic procedures that the vast majority of adults never use

This belief shared by venture capitalist Tim Dintersmith in his blog post for the Huffington Post about the failures of the Common Core is certainly far from unique. In fact, the belief that advanced math courses such as Algebra II is only needed for those who wish to go on to college is likely shared by a number of educators, policymakers, and parents throughout the country. This is probably due to the fact that, at first glance, such high level math skills are only needed to get into and graduate from college.

But does data actually backup such a belief? Should Algebra II only be relegated to those high school graduates who plan to go onto college? Fortunately, answers to these questions can be found in my recent report Path Least Take II: Preparing non-college goers for success.

What I found will likely come as a surprise to Tim Dintersmith and others who believe that high level math skills are not needed for those who don’t go on to college. In fact, Algebra II is all but essential for those non-college going graduates to succeed in the labor market. By itself, completing Algebra II:

  • Increases the chances non-college goers will:
    • be employed full-time.
    • work for an employer that offers medical insurance.
    • have a retirement fund.
    • earn higher wages.
  • Less likely to:
    • ever be unemployed.
    • be unemployed for more than 6 months
    • be on public assistance.

The positive impacts of Algebra II are amplified when you also consider the fact that many professional certifications or licenses require (slides 39-41) the math skills at least at the level of Algebra II. And the Path Least Taken report shows that obtaining a professional certification or license has the greatest positive impact on whether a non-college enrollee finds success in the labor market after high school.

Of course completing Algebra II in high school doesn’t guarantee a non-college goer will go on to to get a good job or that a non-college goer who fails to complete Algebra II will be destined for career failure. However, preparing students to complete higher level math courses such as Algebra II should not be reserved only for those students who plan on attending college. Our high schools should ensure all students complete at least Algebra II as well as higher level courses in English, science, and social studies, among others, to maximize all students’ chances for a good job. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Career Readiness,college,Common Core,Course taking,CPE,High school — Jim Hull @ 1:27 pm

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