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February 3, 2016

PARCC test results lower for computer-based tests

In school year 2014-2015, students took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam on a pilot basis. The PARCC exam was created to be in alignment with the Common Core Standards and is among the few standardized assessment measures of how well school districts are teaching higher-level competencies.

On February 3, Education Week reported in an article that the results for students who took the computer-based version of the exam were significantly lower than the results for students who took a traditional pencil and paper version. While the article states that the PARCC organization does not have a response or clear answer on why this occurred, I will offer my own explanation based on my experience as a teacher of students who took this exam last year.

I taught high school History, and the largest discrepancy in the results between students who took the computer versus paper exam was at the high school level. This is my theory for the discrepancy. Throughout students’ academic careers we teachers teach them to “mark-up” the text. This means that as they read books, articles, poems, and primary sources etc. students should have a pen/pencil and highlighter in their hand. There are many acronyms for how students should “mark-up” their text. One is HACC- Highlight, Annotate, Circle unknown words, Comment. There are many others but the idea is the same. Students are taught to summarize each paragraph in the margins and make note of key words. This helps students to stay engaged with the reading, find main ideas, and critically think about what they are reading. It also makes it easier to go back and skim the text for the main ideas and remember what they read without re-reading.

Generally students are forced to mark-up/annotate the text in this way but, honestly, I still do this! And, I would bet that many adults do too. If you need to read a long article at work, many people print it out and read it with a pen in hand. It makes it easier to focus on what you are reading. Now imagine that someone is going to test you on that article. You will be even more anxious to read the article carefully and write notes for yourself in the margins.

The point is that students are taught to do this when reading, especially when reading passages for exams when there will be questions based on the passage. My own students had this drilled into them throughout the high school years when I knew and taught them. Sometime last year the teachers learned that our school would be giving the pilot version of the PARCC exam to our students. During a teacher professional development day we were asked to go online to the PARCC website and learn about the test and take a practice exam. I encourage you to go online and take it for yourself — this exam is hard! We were asked to analyze the questions and think about ways we could change our own in-class exams to better align with PARCC. We were told that it would soon replace our state’s standardized exam.

One of the first things we all noticed was how long the reading passages are for the ELA portion of the test. It took a long time to read through them and we all struggled to read it on a computer screen. I really wanted to have a printed version to write my notes down! It was long and detailed and I felt as though by the time I saw the questions I would have to re-read the whole passage to find the answer (or find the section where I could infer an answer). I knew the students would struggle with this and anticipated lower scores on this exam than the state test. I was thankful that their scores wouldn’t actually count this year. But what happens when this becomes a high-stakes test?

As I anticipated, the scores for students who took the computer-based exams were far lower than those who took a traditional paper test. The Illinois State Board of Education found that, across all grades, 50% of students scored proficient of the paper-based PARCC exam compared to only 32% of students who took the exam online. In Baltimore County, students who took the paper test scored almost 14 points higher than students of similar demographics who took the test on the computer.

The low scores on the test are a different story. Organizations will need to analyze the results of this major pilot test and determine its validity. Students and teachers, if it becomes mandatory, will have to adjust to better learn the standards and testing format associated with this test. The bigger story is that there are significant hardships that come with taking a computer-based test.

My main concern is the reading passages. I don’t believe teachers should abandon the “mark it up” technique to bend to computer-based testing because learning how to annotate a text is valuable throughout people’s lives. I saw the students struggle to stare at the computer screen and focus on the words. Many used their finger on the screen to follow along with what they were reading. It was clearly frustrating for them not to be able to underline and make notes like they were used to doing.

Other concerns are that this test is online. It requires access to the internet, a multitude of computers for students to test, and students and teacher who are technologically savvy. When my school gave the test, it took several days and a lot of scheduling and disruption to get all students to take the test given our limited number of computers. Certain rooms of the building have less reliable internet connection than others and some students lost connection while testing. Sometimes the system didn’t accept the student login or wouldn’t change to the next page. There were no PARCC IT professionals in the building to fix these issues. Instead, teachers who didn’t know the system any better than the students tried to help.

Not all students were ultimately able to take or finish the exam because of these issues. Thankfully their results didn’t matter for their graduation! There are also equity concerns between students who are familiar with computers and typing and those who do not have much exposure to technology. As a teacher in an urban school I can tell you that was not uncommon to see students typing essays on their phones because they didn’t have a computer.

As a whole, I’m not surprised by the discrepancy in test scores and I imagine that other teachers are not either. The Education Week article quotes the PARCC’s Chief of Assessment in saying “There is some evidence that, in part, the [score] differences we’re seeing may be explained by students’ familiarity with the computer-delivery system.” This vague statement only hits the tip of the iceberg. I encourage those analyzing the cause of the discrepancy to talk to teachers and students. Also, ask yourselves how well you would do taking an exam completely online, particularly when there are long reading passages. –Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Accountability,Assessments,Common Core,High school,Testing — Tags: , , — Breanna Higgins @ 4:27 pm

January 29, 2016

Developing Social Emotional Learning in K-12

The Fordham Institute released a report yesterday on
Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is a process where people learn to recognize and manage emotions, learn empathy and responsibility, and develop positive relationships.

The movement began in the 1960s in New Haven, CT when a collaborative social development program achieved success at one of the lowest performing elementary schools in the district. By the early 1980s, these two pilot schools went from having among the worst truancy and behavioral problems in the district to achieving academic results at the national average and seeing a large decline in absenteeism and behavior issues. This spurred the movement on to other school districts. The field was ultimately defined by the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) which promoted SEL projects such as responsible behavior, good decision making, and building relationships.

SEL researchers and educators believe it will help students develop important soft skills for life and develop their academic achievement by creating a culture of respect in the classroom. Research shows that when students feel comfortable and respected in the classroom, they are more likely to participate in class, take risks, and therefore, learn more.

There has been another developing movement to teach resilience, grit and a growth mindset (versus fixed mindset) in schools. The idea is to get away from talk that sounds like “I’m not good at math” and change student’s mindsets into “I’m struggling with math right now but if I keep working hard and ask for help I know I’ll be good at it.” This is certainly easier said than done but are very important skills for children to develop to encourage the idea that hard work and resilience can help them accomplish their goals. We may know that some people are born with certain talents, but for the most part, people achieve success by hard work and practice, something we should foster in all students.

There is overlap between the growth mindset and SEL and educators need not necessarily choose between the two. Both are important for students for students to learn.

It is interesting that in the world of academic achievement, accountability, and standardized tests, movements promoting soft skills are gaining more and more attention. Districts and school leaders are warming to the idea that soft skills such as SEL and growth mindsets need to actively be taught in schools. Teachers, of course, have always known that soft skills are critical and have been losing time to teach them as they are forced to focus on the next test. Although SEL is important at every grade level, it is most often focused on in elementary and early middle grades when children’s attitudes towards school and their ability to form relationships are most developing.

This is all connected to the newest movement, particularly in high schools, to make students “Career Ready”. The exact measures needed to be career ready are still being debated but some of them are, incidentally, familiar to the SEL goals. Students must be ready to take responsibility for their actions, build appropriate relationships with coworkers and supervisors, cope with adversity etc. There are more specific career goals but the ability to regulate one’s emotions are crucial to beginning a career.

High schoolers are notorious for having raging hormones and difficulty regulating emotion- it certainly comes with the territory of being that age. But, students need to learn and practice skills to get along with difficult people and take responsibility for their actions if they are to succeed, in both college and careers paths.

These three movements have overlapping goals and it may be time to start discussing how social and emotional learning can be vertically aligned from kindergarten through grade 12. –Breanna Higgins

Resources on SEL






Filed under: 21st century education,Career Readiness,instruction,Public education — Breanna Higgins @ 2:27 pm

January 22, 2016

CPE examines educational equity in new paper

It’s been over 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared education “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In ruling that separate was in fact not equal, Brown v Board of Education forced federal, state and local governments to open public schools to all children in the community.

Yet integrating school buildings would prove to be just the first step in an ongoing journey toward educational equity in the nation. There remained – and still remain – structural and social barriers to making a world-class public education “available to all on equal terms.” In addition, our ideas about equity have evolved to encompass more than a guarantee that school doors will be open to every child.

CPE explores these issues and more in our latest paper, Educational Equity: What does it mean, how do we know when we reach it? Our hope is to provide a common vocabulary for school boards to help them start conversations in their communities and thereby bring the nation closer to fulfilling its promise of equal opportunity for all.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,CPE,Demographics,equity,funding — NDillon @ 7:00 am

January 21, 2016

Not a half truth: High school graduation rates never higher

We’ve “lifted high school graduation rates to new highs.”

— President Obama in his 2016 State of the Union speech

Last week President Obama boasted about the on-time high school graduation rate reaching an all-time high during his last State of the Union address. As with most claims the President made that night fact-checkers were ready to determine if data indeed backed up such a claim.  According to Politifact,President Obama only spoke a ‘Half-Truth’ when it came to high school graduation rates.

While Politifact provides valid and fairly solid reasoning for only giving the President a ‘Half-Truth’ rating, they themselves do not provide all the facts either. They did a great job pointing out why the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate cannot simply be compared to on-time graduation estimates prior to 2010. As they rightfully point out states have only been using a common graduation rate calculation in just the past 5 years. Politifact contends that for the President to have been completely truthful he should have stated the current graduation rate is at its highest level in 5 years– when states started using a common calculation for graduation rates. As they point out, prior to that each state had their own way of calculating graduations rates –where some were more accurate than others.

However, there were a number of researchers who developed calculations to estimate on-time graduation rates as well as a number of studies that followed a national sample of students throughout the their high school career. In fact, these rates went as far back as the 1950’s. Yet, none were as accurate as the common calculation currently being used by all 50 states.

But that doesn’t mean estimated graduation rates from years past should just be dismissed. Politifact even points out one such estimate called the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) developed by the U.S. Department of Education reached a high of 79 percent in 1970. Which, of course, is lower than the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate. However, Politifact stated “Yet because the current method for calculating rates is only 5 years old, it’s not clear that the 1970 rate, or even the subsequent ones, are comparable to current rates.”

Politifact is absolutely correct to point out this fact. There is a real question as to whether the AFGR or any other estimate is comparable to today’s graduation rate calculations. Yet, they likely didn’t know about Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s  and Paul A. LaFountaine’s  The American High Graduation Rate study that standardized high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2005. The study utilized a number of data points and statistical adjustments to provide a standardized and more accurate measure of the high school graduation rate. Over that time period, only in one year- 1972—did the graduation rate break the 80 percent mark.

It should be noted the AFGR rates closely matched the rates calculated by Heckman and LaFountaine which indicates the AFGR  is an accurate measure of graduation rates. Furthermore, the AFGR rates were also similar to current graduation rate calculations in 2010 through 2012. Taken together, this provides a consistent and accurate measure of on-time high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2014– the most recent year graduation rate data is available.

Since 2014’s 82 percent on-time graduation rate is comparable to years prior to 2010, it is fair to say graduation rates have never been higher. Can we say this with absolute certainly? No, but the same can be said for almost any national indicator whether it is the unemployment rate or the divorce rate, just to name a couple. However, based on the best available evidence the U.S. on-time high school graduation rate has never been higher. As such, the President was completely truthful in stating our high school graduation rates have hit new highs. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Graduation rates,High school — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 9:25 am

January 20, 2016

ESSA Gives More Power to the States

The Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, is the newest federal legislation to improve national education systems. This act replaces the heavy-hand of NCLB and places more emphasis on states to do the heavy lifting. There was a lot of criticism of state implementation of NCLB (some of the weaknesses and frustrations around the law may have been more the fault of implementation than the law itself) and now the states will need to take on more responsibility over innovation in policy-creation, testing, and accountability along with the compliance role they have been doing for years.

The state and local education agencies will need to reflect on and improve their own staff and capacity to succeed in this important work. Education agencies have become increasingly political in recent years and the average tenure of state chiefs is only 3.2 years. This tenuous environment and rapid shifts in leadership make it more difficult for agencies to complete long-term goals and for staff to have a coherent sense of direction.

In addition to changing leadership, the recession lessened the staff numbers in most education departments, leaving less employees to monitor the same numbers of schools, students, and federal funds/programs. Despite the upturn in the economy, EdWeek reports that staff numbers have not increased and has led staff members to be overstretched and to work on programs where they have little experience.

The point of understanding these staffing problems is that they will be exacerbated as ESSA demands more of the states. States finally have the decision-making power that they have been longing for, but an important question is: do they have the capacity to follow through? We can hope that as states gain power, they will also be able to hire qualified employees who can devise policies that are best for their state. They need experts to transform their lowest performing schools and groups of students, to create or revise accountability systems for schools, create or adopt academic standards (Common Core is an option here but it not required), and update school performance measures to include a school quality characteristic. These initiatives all require experts to take the lead in creating and implementing the policies, as well as to evaluate their effectiveness.

Local education systems should be aware of coming changes and work with states and schools to bridge the gaps in implementation of new policies. The more state and local systems can cooperate and communicate, the better chance policies have of being honestly implemented and becoming a success. –Breanna Higgins

Filed under: Accountability,CPE,ESSA,Public education — Breanna Higgins @ 10:47 am

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