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July 2, 2015

Testing, opt outs and equity

Spring heralds the return of many things – tulips, bare pavement, baseball, and for millions of public schoolkids, state tests. This year, however, the inevitable proved to be largely evitable. April tulips weren’t seen until late May. Much of the country experienced a white Easter. Major league games were snowed out. And tens of thousands of students just said “no” to being tested.

To be sure, the vast majority of students took their exams as expected. New York state has by far the largest number of test refusers. Yet an analysis by the New York Times estimates that only 165,000 New York students, or about one out of every six, opted out of one or more tests in 2015. Like New York, Colorado has experienced higher than usual opt outs but 83 percent of seniors still took their exams this year.

Despite the small numbers nationwide, the opt out movement is drawing attention to the test weariness that has been settling on many public school parents, teachers and students, even among those who don’t opt out. New common core tests seem to be adding to their anxiety. By making their frustrations visible, the test refusniks are starting to influence testing policy and its place in school accountability, most notably in Congress and proposed ESEA bills currently under consideration.

So who are these opt outers? The New York Times analysis found that the movement appears to be a mostly middle-class phenomenon. According to their calculations, poor districts in New York (Free & Reduced Price Lunch > 60%) had the fewest test refusers followed by the most wealthy (FRPL < 5%). An April 2015 poll by Siena College provides some other clues by identifying racial differences in voter attitudes. While a 55 percent majority of white voters in the empire state approved of opting out, only 44 percent of black and Latino voters did.

A 2015 survey from the California Public Policy Institute identified similar racial differences in opinions about the common core. Substantial majorities of Californian Latinos, Asians and blacks expressed confidence that the new standards will “make students more college and career ready” compared to less than half of white voters.

One probable reason for these racial and class differences is the role standards and assessments have played in educational equity over the last two decades. The 1994 re-authorization of ESEA laid the foundation for what would eventually become NCLB’s test-based accountability by calling on states to “establish a framework for comprehensive, standards-based education reform for all students.”  At that time, researchers and analysts were beginning to show that the achievement gap was not just a reflection of inequitable resources but also of unequal expectations. A 1994 study from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Research, for example, found that “students in high poverty schools … who received mostly A’s in English got about the same reading score [on NAEP] as did the ‘C’ and ‘D’ students in the most affluent schools.” In math, “the ‘A’ students in the high poverty schools most closely resembled the ‘D’ students in the most affluent schools.”  In 2001, NCLB would define further measures to correct these inequities by requiring state tests that would give the public a common, external measurement for gauging whether academic standards were being implemented equally between high- and low-poverty schools.

Indeed, the civil rights community has been among the most vocal supporters of standardized tests in accountability systems. Earlier this year, a coalition of 25 civil rights organizations led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a statement of principles for ESEA reauthorization. Signatories included the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Disabilities Rights Network. Among other things, the principles call for retaining the annual testing requirements of NCLB. In May, twelve of these organizations issued another statement specifically criticizing the opt out movement, declaring:

[T]he anti-testing efforts that appear to be growing in states across the nation, like in Colorado and New York, would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring. When parents ‘opt out’ of tests—even when out of protest for legitimate concerns—they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child.

The statement was not universally embraced. Notable civil rights leader Pedro Noguera along with the Advancement Project’s Browne Dianis and John Jackson of the Schott Foundation took exception to what they consider to be a “high-stakes, over-tested climate” for disadvantaged students. Yet their objections are not so much against tests themselves, but in how the information is used.

There is a growing consensus that the balance between assessment for improvement and assessment for accountability has become skewed toward high stakes – something many believe has a perverse effect on classroom practice. But like Mr. Noguera and his colleagues, many educators and experts also believe that standardized tests are not the problem, it’s the out-sized role they have assumed in everything from instruction to teacher evaluation. The next few months promise to launch many federal and state conversations about what a proper role for state tests should be. Ideally, it will serve ongoing improvement while assuring the public that all students are receiving the benefits of solid public education.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Assessments,Common Core,equity,Testing — Tags: , , , , , — Patte Barth @ 1:10 pm





June 17, 2015

NPR Questions Historic Graduation Rate

As I have written a couple times (here and here) the U.S. high school graduate rate has hit an all-time high of 81 percent this year. This is great news that should be celebrated.

However, last week NPR ran a serious of reports questioning whether indeed 8 out 10 9th graders graduate four years later. They even stated “… this number should be taken with a grain of salt.”

Why is NPR so skeptical of the 81 percent on-time graduation rate? Well, it is because they uncovered possible loopholes in some states that could be used to bolster graduation rates without in fact preparing more students for college and career success. For example, NPR points out:

  • At-risk students are transferring to less rigorous alternative schools or entering credit recovery programs.
  • Schools are pushing out at-risk students to alternative schools so if the student drops out, it doesn’t count against the original school’s graduation rate.
  • Schools are misidentifying a dropout as a transfer, for example, recording a student as a transfer to a private school even though they actually dropped out.
  • Districts are creating multiple pathways to a diploma to make it easier to graduate.

While these are all loopholes that are should be exposed, it is unlikely they had much impact on the overall national on-time graduation rate. It’s not to say that these practices aren’t a problem. In fact, NPR reporters did an exemplary job highlighting examples where these loopholes were taken full advantage of. However, none of the NPR reports provide data on the impact on the national graduation rate.

This is not a criticism of NPR’s reporting as they are journalists not researchers. With that said, here are reasons why the graduation rate is still a number worth celebrating and believing:

  • While credit recovery is a growing trend in education and their benefits are still in question, only a small portion of graduates actually ever enrolled in such programs.
  • The U.S. Dept. of Education has very specific rules on when a student can be counted as a transfer and which school gets credit if they graduate. Yet, no matter which school is responsible for push outs to alternative programs, it would have no impact on the national on-time graduation rates as those students are included in calculating the national rate, too. As such, push outs would only impact individual schools’ rates but not the national.
  • States have little flexibility on whether to identify a student who stops attending a school as a dropout or a transfer. In fact, states are required to verify with “official documentation” that a student enrolled in another school before they can be listed as a transfer. If it cannot be verified, the student must be identified as a dropout. However, as NPR noted different states have different requirements for what documentation is needed to verify transfers to home schooling and those students who may have left the country.
  • While it is true a number of states offer multiple types of diplomas, as NPR noted, for a student to count as a graduate they must have earned a standard high school diploma, or higher. Meaning, they must have earned a diploma whose requirements aligned with the states standards. Students who earned GEDs, Certificates of Attendance, IEP diplomas or otherwise modified diplomas are not counted as on-time graduates. Again, it is important to point out that different states have different requirements for earning a standard high school diploma. Simply offing multiple diploma levels does not necessarily lower the bar to earning a diploma. It just provides an opportunity to recognize those students who completed requirements above those aligned to the state standards.

The U.S. Department of Education has put in place a number of safeguards to close most loopholes. However, as NPR discovered some schools still may be exploiting the few small loopholes that remain. Yet, what their reporting doesn’t state explicitly is that their exploitation is likely the exception with little impact on the overall national graduation rate.

What is also important to point out is that prior to NCLB it was more of the rule that schools and states were taking advantage of similar loopholes when reporting graduation rates. Hence, the strict rules from the Department of Education for calculating a more accurate graduation rate. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the 81 percent rate is simply an on-time graduation rate and does not include those students who took more than four years to complete the standard diploma requirements. According to my report Better Late Than Never including late high school graduates would likely increase the national graduation rate by about 5 percentage point to about 86 percent.

It certainly can be argued that just because our schools are graduating 86 percent of students who enter high schools doesn’t mean that 86 percent of students leave college and career ready. As our report Out of Sync found most states that have adopted the Common Core have not aligned their graduation requirements to the college and career readiness standards of the Common Core. Even so, with only a few exceptions, states are now requiring more from students to obtain a standard high school diploma than when graduation rates were floundering two decades ago. So while there is more work to be done, it is nearly indisputable that more students are completing high school with more skills than any other time in our nation’s history. – Jim Hull






June 10, 2015

Nevada bets the schools’ bank

Nevada is known for gaming. That could explain why lawmakers there are willing to gamble on the delivery of public education in the state by passing the most sweeping school choice bill in the nation.

SB 302 (the bill has no name that I could find) offers Nevada public school parents a grant that they can use to pay for private school, online courses, or homeschooling expenses for their child. The roughly $5,000 per student subsidy will be deposited in individual education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents who leave public traditional and charter schools. The cost will be deducted from the state per-pupil allotment that would have otherwise gone to the child’s resident school district.

ESAs are not unique to Nevada. Arizona, Florida and Tennessee provide similar grants to parents whose children have special needs or, in the case of Arizona, are currently attending a low-performing school. Other states like Indiana and Florida provide state-funded vouchers to qualifying families that are similar to ESAs but are typically restricted to use in private schools only. What truly distinguishes the Nevada program from these others, however, is its universality. While other states limit eligibility, Nevada opens up ESAs to every child who has been enrolled in a public school for at least 100 consecutive days prior to applying for the grant. Officials estimate that the bill will affect 93 percent of all school-aged children in the state.

School choice advocates are relishing in the unprecedented scale of the Nevada bill in the belief it will give them a chance to do something decades of choice experiments across the country have failed to do  – demonstrate that a free market approach to education will drive school improvement. Education Week reports that the bill was drafted with the help of several national pro-school choice organizations, including the Goldwater Institute, the Freidman Foundation and the Foundation for Excellence in Education through its lobbying arm, Excel National.  Following its passage, Excel National released a statement saying, “This is a monumental leap forward in the fight for student-focused policies that allow every child the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

But will SB 302 offer this opportunity? Here’s what Nevada is gambling:

Gamble #1: Private schools will want ESA kids. Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. Yet three years into the program, two-thirds of the state’s private schools are declining to accept voucher students. This is perhaps one reason only 4% of students who are eligible to participate are taking advantage of the state vouchers.  Even if a Nevada private school will accept ESA students, there’s no guarantee the school will take all who apply. For one, there may not be available seats. For another, there could be admissions criteria that screen for the most desirable students.

Gamble #2: ESAs will benefit low-income students. Children with disabilities or from families at or below 185 percent of the poverty line qualify to receive 100 percent of the state per-pupil allocation, currently about $5,700 per year. All other students are able to receive a grant equal to 90 percent, or $5,100. Nationally, the average yearly tuition at private schools was $10,740 for the 2011-12 academic year. Elementary schools, which tend to be cheaper, cost an average of $7,770. While Nevada may have some more affordable options available, families are certain to run into tuitions that exceed the ESA. Those who can afford to supplement the costs will do so, but low-income families are not likely to be among them. This begs the question – rather than opening up opportunities for all Nevada children, will the state be subsidizing private education for those who are in a better position to afford it anyway?

Gamble #3: Choice schools will be better schools. This is the basic premise underlying all choice arguments — that when parents are given the opportunity, they will choose a better educational fit for their child who will in turn perform better. This is not to say that parents do not want to make a good choice or are incapable of choosing well. They do and they are. However, it does assume that the simple act of allowing parents to opt in produces better results. And the track record on choice policies to date is really weak.

CPE has reviewed research on various educational options, including charter schools, voucher programs, virtual schooling and homeschooling. (A concise overview of all these findings will be published later this year.) The best that can be said is that school choice works for some students sometimes, is worse for some students sometimes, and is often no better or worse than the public school students attended before. Research on voucher programs, for example, shows some gains for minority and/or low-income students, while most studies show similar performance to public school students. One exception may be higher graduation rates. In addition, our earlier report on virtual schooling found, with the exception of a few noteworthy instances, there was little to commend in full-time online schooling for most students, and that even single courses had their risks.

Good data on homeschooling is non-existent. Anecdotes about the Tim Tebows and other homeschool success stories get wide play, many of which you can find here. Less heard are the stories about when homeschooling goes wrong – voices that are just beginning to emerge, for example, here and here. What is missing is a picture of how homeschooled students fare overall.

Nevada’s bill attempts to hedge its bets when it comes to quality control over school choices by requiring all ESA recipients to take standardized tests in math and English language arts. Participating private schools must further report the aggregated results of these tests to the Nevada Department of Education, which will publish the data. No performance thresholds or consequences are defined, however, so it’s unclear what, if anything, would happen if the ESA students don’t get the quality education they were promised.

And that, my friends, is a huge gamble.  — Patte Barth

Filed under: Charter Schools,Parents,Public education,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 7:30 am





June 4, 2015

Yet Another Report Touts Record High School Graduation Rates

EdWeek’s annual Diplomas Count report shows that the U.S. high school on-time graduation rate has hit another all-time high with 81 percent of students graduating within four-years of entering high school.  You may remember last month another report found the same. Both reports were based on similar data so it is not surprising they found similar results.

One difference is that this most recent report sheds a brighter light on disparities between different groups of students. An examination of EdWeek’s data shows that in 2013—the most recent year graduation rate data is available—the poverty gap in on-time graduation rates is as large as 16 percentage points in Minnesota to just one percentage point in Kentucky.  Nationally, the gap between white students and their black and Hispanic classmates continues to narrow. Again, the gaps differ significantly from state to state.

While the overall story is certainly good news, the persistent gaps are still troubling. Gaps are particularly large between special education students and the general student population as well as between English Language Learners (ELL) and native English speakers. So while significant progress has been made, there is a lot more work to be done until all students enter high school with a similar chance to graduate high school four years later.

 

The Findings

National Graduation Rates

  • The national graduation rate hit another all-time high.
    • Eighty-one percent of students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2009 graduated with at least a standard high school diploma by the summer of 2013 — the highest level seen since the late 1960s.
      • Between 2011 and 2013 the graduation rate increased 2 points.
      • Graduation rates had remained relatively stagnant between the late 1960s and early 2000’s.
  • Large attainment gaps also remain between traditionally disadvantaged groups and their more advantaged classmates.
    • 16 point gap between white and black students (71 and 87 percent).
    • 12 point gap between white and Hispanic students (75 and 87 percent).
    • Seventy-three percent of students from economically disadvantaged families graduated on-time.
      • This is 8 points lower than the national average.
    • Just 62 percent of Students with Disabilities graduated on-time.
      • This is 19 points lower than the national average.
    • Only 61 percent of Limited English Proficient students graduated on-time.
      • This is 20 points lower than the national average.

State Graduation Rates

  • Most states have improved their graduation rates since 2011.
    • All but six states (Arizona, Illinois, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming) improved their on-time graduation rates between 2011 and 2013.
    • Nevada made the greatest improvement by increasing their graduation rate from 62 to 71 percent (9 points) during this same time period.
      • New Mexico and Utah both improved their graduation rates by 7 points as well.
  • Large gaps remain between states
    • There is a 28 percentage point gap between Iowa –the state with the highest graduation rate (90 percent)– and the District of Columbia which has the lowest graduation rate (62 percent).
    • Only seven states (Alaska, District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon) have graduation rates that fell under 75 percent while 21 states have graduation rates of at least 85 percent.
    • In Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota there is a 15 point gap between the graduation rates of economically disadvantaged students and their state averages.
      • In six states (Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, Indiana, and District of Columbia) the gap is 5 points or less.
    • In Mississippi just 23 percent of Students with Disabilities (SWD) graduated on-time which is 53 points lower than the state average (76 percent). Mississippi had both the lowest graduation rates for SWD and the largest gap.
      • On the other end of the spectrum Arkansas had the highest graduation rate for SWK (80 percent) while Alabama had the smallest gap (3 points).
    • Three states (New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Texas) had graduation rates over 80 percent for black students.
      • Three states (Minnesota, Nevada, and Oregon) had graduation rates of less than 60 percent for their black students.
    • Eleven states graduated at least 80 percent of their Hispanic students on-time.
      • Minnesota was the only state to graduate less than 60 percent of their Hispanic students.

 






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






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