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August 16, 2013

CTE’s central role in the common core

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of speaking with Oklahoma educators at the state’s summer Career and Technical Education (CTE) conference.  I was asked to be part of a panel addressing the question, how to implement the common core into CTE.  My message was simple: the question is backwards because the common core cannot be implemented well without CTE.

Here’s why. The aim of the common core standards is college and career-readiness, not college or careers.  We’ve actually been doing the latter for a long time. Traditionally, high school students elected to either prepare for one path or the other. But as many studies have pointed out (including CPE’s Defining a 21st Century Education) in order to be successful after high school all new graduates need high-level knowledge like that formerly reserved for college-intending students even if they are more interested in jumpstarting their careers than attending a four-year college.

We also know that for most new jobs, a high school diploma alone will not be sufficient; rather they will demand some kind of postsecondary training or certification. In addition, individuals who don’t immediately seek more education after high school will likely need to get back into the system at some point during their working life, as various occupations disappear.  So we need to make sure graduates are prepared for an uncertain future and can continue education and training as they need it.

But college preparation is just one side of the college-career equation. Students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities will work someday.  All young people need to develop the skills valued in the workplace, for example, the ability to apply what they learn, connect information from across disciplines to solve problems, and read and interpret complex informational texts and documents.  Students and employers can’t assume that traditional academic study will teach these abilities.

The common core standards recognize that there is a lot of overlap between the knowledge and skills needed for college and those needed for good jobs. For many students, this likely means higher expectations in terms of academic content. But the common core also differs from subject matter as usual where the CTE field has a head start.  This is especially so in the emphasis on mathematical practices; more data, probability & statistics than in traditional college prep math; reading and writing informational texts; and specific reading and writing standards for science and technical subjects.

These are all innovations that aren’t seen in current state standards, but ones that I applaud.  I’m not alone.  David Conley and his team at the University of Oregon surveyed close to 2,000 postsecondary instructors about the relevance of the common core standards. About half of the respondents taught CTE courses in two-year institutions. The vast majority of instructors rated ELA for non-literary reading and writing very high. A large majority of the CTE group gave mathematical practices the highest importance rating.

These skill-based standards command different, more hands-on instructional approaches. CTE educators have a real advantage in this area compared to their core subject area peers. CTE programs are by definition applied. In this way, they have a lot to contribute to the combined efforts of high school faculty to negotiate the shift to new instruction.

Make no mistake, the common core standards cannot be the sole responsibility of math and English teachers. That’s too much of a burden on two disciplines. It won’t be done well. And it would ignore the valuable resources in other subject areas that should be brought to the table, including CTE.

June 21, 2012

Tests worth teaching to

Standardized tests don’t get a lot of love. Kids don’t like to take them. Teachers resent the time they take away from instruction. Critics say they reduce knowing to the ability to parrot the right response at the expense of critical thinking and problem solving. And the wonks say that if those high-level skills don’t get measured, they won’t get taught. Indeed many charge that the emphasis on standardized testing will be the ruin of public education, most recently in this widely circulating petition launched by an anti-testing coalition.

But what if standardized tests asked test-takers to do more than fill in the bubble next to the correct factoid? What if they challenged students to analyze, synthesize and solve real-world problems? What if it were impossible to distinguish a standardized test from a well-constructed, interactive lesson? What if they were fun?

Truth is, the field of testing has changed a lot since those of us over a certain age were in school. In those days, standardized tests mostly asked test-takers to recognize specific facts or answers from a list of multiple choices, which ended up testing memory more than analysis. But today’s standardized tests are different. They often include open-ended items that call on students to think critically and creatively. Even the much maligned multiple-choice question has undergone a transformation as test designers have developed ways to structure items that require more analysis from test-takers. Just ask any 11th grader who recently took the SAT.  While the quality and richness of the newer assessments vary, for the most part, these aren’t your father’s standardized tests anymore.

Even so, most current state tests would not be mistaken for a hands-on learning experience. The problem isn’t so much standardization, but  the cost to administer and score multi-step, open-ended items.  The introduction of new technology and advancements in the field, however, promise to deliver a new generation of standardized testing  that requires students to show what they know by applying it to something new and unfamiliar. In short, the new tests will blur the line between assessment and good instruction.

Yesterday, NCES launched an interactive science tasks website that features several hands-on and computer-based investigations that do precisely that.  Each task sets up a problem that students are asked to investigate through simulated experiments and then explain their findings. I could describe these, but I encourage you to try them out for yourselves, especially the computer-based tasks. These are so much like the kind of classroom assignments we would want to see all students recieve,  they hardly seem like a standardized test at all. Yet they were administered and scored as part of the 2009 NAEP-science assessment

Widescale assessments like this are only beginning. The two state consortia developing assessments for the common core state standards are working to develop computer-based testing that measures both students’ knowledge and skills through authentic and problem-based tasks.  They are further collaborating on protocols for scoring such problems by computer as a means to keep the costs down. We have been keeping track of progress in common core implementation and policies, including assessment examples as they come available.

One of the often heard criticisms of standardized tests is that they encourage “teaching to the test,” implying that this is a bad thing. Interesting, though, that few see this as a problem with Advanced Placement courses, which in fact are designed to prepare students for the AP exam. The difference, of course, is that AP is commonly viewed as a test worth teaching to. 

Current standardized tests are big improvements over what they used to be, but they are only part way to where they can be. This next generation of assessments is already showing the potential to both model good instruction and measure learning. As such, their influence over what happens in the classroom should be welcome, not something to dread.  — Patte Barth

Filed under: 21st century education,Assessments — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 11:20 am

May 31, 2012

The ‘college-for-all’ misconception

Diane Ravitch is one of the smartest education advocates around. Which is why I am a bit puzzled by her recent post in the Washington Post’s blog The Answer Sheet where she argues against the “college-for-all” mantra. While I consider myself an advocate of college for all, I feel it is important to hear from those who see flaws in advocating for all students to go onto college. As such, I looked forwarded to hearing Ravitch’s critique.

Unfortunately, I was hugely disappointed. Not that her argument against college for all was baseless or incoherent, but that it was based on the faulty misconception that “college for all” means “a four-year degree for all.”

It is certainly understandable for the average parent to have such a misconception. Most people think of four-year institutions when they hear the word “college.” However, it is important for parents and the public at large to understand that  “college for all” is not limited to four-year institutions. College for all is simply about having students complete some form of advanced training after high school — which Ravitch advocates for in her piece!

Ravitch is absolutely right that not all kids want or need to go onto pursue a four-year degree. President Obama and other advocates for college-for-all such as myself would agree with her. But what advocates are pushing for is for all students to complete some form of postsecondary training so that they have a good chance of getting a job that provides a livable income as well as essential benefits like health insurance and retirement benefits. Such jobs certainly include being an electrician or plumber, ones Ravitch highlights as not requiring a four-year degree.

When it comes to K-12 education, what school board members and the general public need to know is that no matter if a student wants to go on to a four-year institution, two-year institution, or straight into an apprenticeship program after high school, all students should be prepared for postsecondary education or advanced training (as our report on 21st Century Education points out).

The report proves that the high school preparation students need is the same no matter which of these paths they choose to follow. Whether a student wants to go to a four-year institution or be an electrician they both need to have the knowledge and skills to answer questions like this one (slide 39).

While more work needs to be done to eliminate the misconception that college-for-all advocates for all students attending a four-year institution, the real point is this: whether a student expects to go onto a four-year institution or straight into the job market, they both need the same high school preparation. – Jim Hull   

October 28, 2011

STEM for all

You may not think of Advanced Manufacturing, Utilities and Transportation, and Mining when you think of working in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related field. But according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce these are just some of the industries, historical providers of blue-collar, middle class jobs, that are now looking for STEM workers. And although overall jobs are disappearing from most of these industries there is actually a shortage of STEM workers in these fields.

There is also a supply shortage of more elite STEM occupations, such as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, but focusing on the shortage in these high-level occupations overshadows the fact that the demand for workers in STEM occupations is increasing at every level, not just the college-educated.

Yet the problem does not end there. Not only is there a shortage of workers in STEM occupations, but of even greater to concern is the fact there is a shortage of workers in non-STEM fields that require basic competency in STEM skills. Specifically, the report states:

“The concern for STEM shortages tends to focus on the possibility of an insufficient supply of STEM workers, but the deeper problem is a broader scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy.”

Simply put, math and science education shouldn’t be limited to preparing top students for STEM careers. All students have the basic STEM skills they need to compete in a more technologically demanding job market. The good news from the report is that our K-12 system already produces enough talent in math and science to fill our need for traditional STEM workers.

Yet, 75 percent of these students do not go onto major in a STEM related field in college. To make matters worse, of the students who do start college with a STEM major, just 38 percent graduate with a STEM degree. Although our students are taking the math and science courses in high school to be prepared for STEM work, are those courses are rigorous enough to adequately prepare students for a career in a STEM-related field?  

Either way, the report highlights the fact STEM education should not be reserved for our best and brightest students. In the near future, STEM skills will be a basic requirement for many of the jobs our current students will be applying for. It’s imperative our schools provide all our students the rigorous math and science courses they need to compete in the 21st Century job market. – Jim Hull

To see what percent of jobs will be STEM jobs in your state by 2018, check this out.

August 11, 2011

How does your state’s standard compare?

Yesterday, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education released a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2009. The report enables states to compare the rigor of their standards for proficiency in fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading to that of other states. To do so, it places each state’s assessment cut-score for proficiency — the score which students much reach to be considered proficient — onto NAEP’s scoring scale using statistical mapping techniques. This means it shows where on NAEP’s scoring scale a student would fall if that student scored right at the state’s cut-score for proficiency on the state assessment.

Example: If a fourth grader in Vermont scored at the proficient cut-score on the Vermont state assessment, that score would correspond to a score of 214 on NAEP, which falls within NAEP’s Basic Achievement Level.

 What did the report find?

  • The differences where states set their proficiency standards vary greatly.
    • The difference in scores between the states with the five highest and lowest standards is comparable to the difference in scores between NAEP’s Basic and Proficient levels.
    • The range of state standards is between 60 and 71 NAEP points, which equates to about six or seven years of learning. It is also more than twice the size of the Black/White achievement gap in 4th grade reading, which is 25 NAEP points.
  • Most state’s proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance.
    • In grade 4 reading, 35 of 50 states set their standard for proficiency lower than NAEP’s cut-score for its Basic level. For grade 8 reading, 16 out of the 50 states did so.
    • In grade 4 math, seven of 50 states set their score for proficiency below the cut score for NAEP’s Basic level, with 42 states setting their proficiency score within NAEP’s Basic level. One state—Massachusetts—set its proficiency score within NAEP’s Proficiency level. Similar results were found in at the 8th grade level.
  • The rigor of state standards increased in states that substantively changed their assessments between 2007 and 2009.
    • Across the 34 math and reading assessments that substantively changed between 2007 and 2009, in 21 cases the rigor of the standards increased.
    • In just 5 cases did the rigor of the state standards decrease.
  • Most state results show more positive changes in the proportion of students reaching proficiency than NAEP results.
    • The change in the percent of students reaching proficiency between 2007 and 2009 was more positive in 17 of 22 state assessments than on NAEP.

Keep in mind when reading the report that NAEP does not necessarily define proficiency the same way states do. NAEP defines Proficiency as competency over challenging subject matter, not grade-level performance as states attempt to do. It is also worth mentioning that no country, not even the highest performing countries, would have 100 percent of their students reach NAEP’s Proficiency level. and that some leading assessment experts have stated that proficiency for accountability purposes probably lies somewhere between NAEP’s Basic and Proficient levels.

Even with that in mind, the results should be a warning flag to many states, especially those who set their proficiency standard below NAEP’s Basic level. But this could be a moot point in the coming years, as most states have signed on to the Common Core of Standards, where the goal is college and career readiness, not proficiency as both state assessements and NAEP are currently setup to measure. In the meantime, states should still ensure they set their proficiency standards at a level where students demostrate they have the skills necessary to get into college or get a good job after high school. — Jim Hull

For more information on how NAEP’s proficiency levels compare to states’, check out the Center for Public Education’s The proficiency debate: A guide to NAEP achievement levels.

The graph below from today’s report shows where your state’s cut-score for proficiency falls on the NAEP 8th grade math assessment score scale (Other grade and subjects can be found on pages 10, 11, and 12 of the report). Scores above 299 fall in or above NAEP’s Proficient level, while scores above 262 but below 299 fall within NAEP’s Basic level.

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