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October 9, 2013

Can tests be worth teaching to?

It’s widely accepted that teaching to the test is a bad thing. The phrase itself summons images of robotic children reciting factoids and filling in bubbles with their number 2 pencils. The practice is said to suppress creativity and critical thought, and crowd out subjects and topics that aren’t tested. Classrooms become joyless.

But what if test prep didn’t mean memorization drills and a stripped down curriculum? What if students couldn’t tell the difference between assessment and a really interesting lesson?  What if the test was something teachers wanted to teach to?

That is one of the challenges the “next generation assessments” are attempting to meet. Two state consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balance) are currently at work on tests aligned to the Common Core that will “measure the full range” of the new standards. This will include the abilities to think critically and creatively, reason mathematically and communicate effectively — skills that aren’t typically associated with standardized, multiple choice tests.

The consortia greatly benefit by the involvement of the country’s leaders in performance assessment, that is, tests designed to mimic rich “authentic” classroom instruction. The $346 million in federal dollars doesn’t hurt either.  Still, developing these tests while making sure they meet high psychometric standards for validity and reliability is an enormous task. Even if they succeed at creating the instruments, will the tests have the desired effect on teaching?

A new report from the RAND Corporation seeks to answer the question, can standardized tests be worth teaching to? The authors of New Assessments, Better Instruction reviewed over 130 studies examining the relationship between high stakes testing and instruction. They offer a qualified “yes”— as long as certain conditions are met.  These conditions don’t only relate to the test design, but also to policies governing implementation and accountability that lawmakers at all levels should heed.

First, the tests themselves. According to the report, the assessments should “mirror high-quality instruction.”  So-called “deeper learning” isn’t easily modeled in multiple-choice format. The authors caution that producing rich assessments may require sacrificing some reliability related to scores, but add that the resulting impact on instruction may be worth it.

The RAND authors also recognize the importance of finding the right balance for accountability. They write:

Research on the ways that high-stakes tests influence instruction suggests that if the test is unimportant or irrelevant to students, teachers, administrators, and parents, it is unlikely to have an effect on instruction. On the other hand, if there are very high stakes attached …. there may be severe “teaching to the test” that does not promote real deeper learning but focuses on superficial features of items.

The solution? Multiple measures for teacher and principal evaluation , accountability based on growth as well as status, and an integrated system that includes low-stakes, formative assessments for tracking student progress along with the high-stakes, end-of-year summative tests.

Already examples are emerging from the consortia that illustrate what tests worth teaching to might look like. The CPE team has been having a lot of fun trying out the SMARTER Balanced practice tests.  We admit some of these items had us momentarily humbled, but we still maintain we’re smarter than a 5th grader.  Try them out for yourselves here.

More importantly, we think that assessments like these could drive deeper learning and instruction especially if combined with sensible accountability policies.

Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,instruction,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 10:53 am





September 10, 2013

New CPE report examines what’s wrong with current teacher PD offerings and how to fix it

CPE_AAG_inlineGraphic_HalfwidthMy first introduction to professional development as a young teacher was underwhelming to say the least.  When I first entered the profession, I was excited to meet other teachers and get down to the business of having lengthy, intellectual conversations about how to best teach our subjects.  Surely, we would debate which concepts to teach, which texts to use, and how we could get our students active and intellectually engaged.

Much to my dismay, in my first years of teaching, there was not one day carved into the expansive school year where I was able to meet with fellow teachers to really get down to the nitty-gritty questions of teaching.  What I did experience, though, was time set aside for “professional development” that did little to inform or improve my own teaching.

For example, when I started my first year of teaching, I sat through an entire day’s all-staff session devoted to the book Who Moved My Cheese?  The book chronicled how different mice responded to the cheese in their maze being moved somewhere else.  As valuable planning time before the first day of school ticked away, the entire staff analyzed which mouse they were in the book.  While I did learn that my department head was a “Sniff,” and another new teacher was a “Scurry,” I certainly didn’t learn anything that made me a better teacher.

Unfortunately, this session was just a taste of the prevalent realities of professional development in American schools, and as time went by, I had to realize that my job was not a place where I would learn to be a better teacher—I had to seek that out myself. I would have conversations after school with fellow teachers about teaching, or pay out of my own pocket to attend “real” professional development sessions that addressed real concerns of teaching my content, but these were isolated experiences, and they didn’t occur in a regular fashion as part of my work.

In all my years of teaching, I can’t think of one professional development experience sponsored by my school or school district that really addressed core issues of my instruction.  I’d like to think that my own experiences are an anomaly in a sea of schools with profound, helpful professional development, but unfortunately, this isn’t true … as you will learn in my report and the latest edition to the CPE library, Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability.

-Allison Gulamhussein






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 19, 2013

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review: Brief Highlights

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently released a lengthy report called “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs” (“The Review”). The much anticipated and highly contested report highlights the shortfalls of the vast majority of the nation’s colleges and universities’ teacher preparation programs. The report sounds the alarm on inadequate training for teachers, particularly focusing on what aspiring teachers need to know and be able to do as they enter the nation’s diverse classrooms.

Through much difficulty (read: uncooperative and litigious circumstances), the NCTQ attained data from the 1,130 institutions that train 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained teachers. The Review focuses vastly on public institutions and hopes to expand its analysis to include more private universities in subsequent editions. The standards chosen for the review were developed in accordance with educational experts, best practices of high performing educational institutions, surveyed responses from principals and superintendents, and alignment with the Common Core State Standards. The Review focuses on the skills new teachers must have in order to teach to a high standard, thus surpassing expectations set for previous generations of educators. The NCTQ standards are generally categorized as Selection (e.g., how teacher candidates are selected for training programs), Content Preparation (e.g., early reading), Professional Skills (e.g., lesson planning), and Outcomes (e.g., evidence of effectiveness).

The major takeaways from the report are as follows:

  1. From a zero-to-four star rating system, fewer than 10 percent of rated programs received the upper rankings of three to four stars.
    1. Teacher training programs were largely based on document review (e.g., syllabi, student teaching handbooks, etc.), graduate and employer surveys, and student teaching placement materials obtained primarily through open-records requests.
  2. Most teachers’ colleges are not nearly as restrictive as they could be with only a quarter of programs limiting admission to students in the top half of their class.
    1. According to The Review, high-performing nations limit entrance to their teacher preparation programs to the top third of applicants. This variance could have significant consequences on how the U.S. fares globally in educational success.
  3. Though the vast majority of states (46 states and Washington, DC) have agreed to devise curriculum aligning to the Common Core State Standards, The Review finds that a meager one-third of high school programs and less than one-ninth of elementary programs are prepping future teachers at content levels required by those very standards.
    1. This information aligns with the findings highlighted in a recent report co-authored by the Center for Public Education and Change the Equation: “Out of Sync: Many Common Core states have yet to define a Common Core-worthy diploma.”
  4. Seventy-five percent of elementary teacher reading programs do not prime teachers with high-quality methods of reading instruction.
    1. The Review highlights the disturbing fact that 866 different reading textbooks, “the majority of which are partly or wholly unscientific,” are used across the country to train teachers in reading instruction. Not all textbooks are created equal! Texts need to be thoroughly vetted for their usefulness in providing first-rate reading pedagogy.
  5. A dismal 7 percent of programs provide rigorous and impactful student teaching experiences by placing students with effective master teachers.
    1. The Review recommends a shift in policy wherein colleges and universities insist on cooperating teachers who have proven themselves as highly effective teachers and competent mentors. In other words, it is not sufficient to blindly accept any experienced educator who volunteers for this monumental role in the development of a budding teacher.

Mirroring the U.S. News & World Report national rankings of colleges and universities, The
Review aims to serve as a kind of “consumer report” for endeavoring teachers and school administrators. Because first-year teachers are charged with teaching 1.5 million of the nation’s students, that is more than enough reason to take seriously the quality of teacher preparation and its implications on classrooms all over the country.

Notes on methodology: The Review evaluates elementary and secondary programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels (for a total of four different programs) for the top 200 institutions that produce the greatest proportion of new teachers each year. The remaining ~900 institutions (1,130 total were reviewed) each had two of their programs randomly chosen and evaluated. Data from alternative initial certification programs, traditional advanced certification programs, and private institutions of higher education graduating less than 20 new teachers annually were not included in the analysis. NCTQ was able to include a limited sample of special education programs for evaluation with plans to expand their analysis in future editions of The Review.

Thoughts: To be sure, there are a plethora of positive changes being affected nationwide in public education. (For a great example, read about the nation’s consistently climbing graduation rates courtesy of the Diplomas Count Report from Education Week.) The Review, however, highlights some serious causes for concern that might explain why some students still lag so far behind their peers nationwide. Students in high-poverty, high-need schools are still the most likely cohort to be placed with a novice teacher. It is my hope that, at a minimum, this report be used by college faculty, staff, and administration as a tool for reflection, adjustment, and (re)evaluation of how to train the next generation of teachers to be the best this country has ever seen.-Christine Duchouquette






June 13, 2013

Common core standards need a common core diploma

Last week we reported the good news that high school graduation rates are continuing their ascent. But what does that diploma mean? CPE’s latest report, written in collaboration with Change the Equation, finds that in a lot of Common Core-adopting  states, high school graduation won’t necessarily mean students have met the new standards. The report, Out of Sync, argues that all states and districts should re-examine their graduation requirements to make sure they align with their standards.  While our analysis was an on-the-surface look, we hope this leads to a deeper conversation about the implications of having a mismatch between what students should know, as envisioned by the Common Core standards, and what they are actually being taught. Be part of the dialogue by joining us at 1 pm EST next Tuesday, June 18, for a Twitter chat. Follow NSBA’s Twitter handle @NSBAComm and use the hashtag #CCSSGradReq to participate. Where are you on the map?

Filed under: High school,national standards — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 8:53 am





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