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October 15, 2015

Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.

July 10, 2015

‘Proficient’ in the eye of the beholder

While we often talk about the American educational system, in truth we have 50 systems, each with the latitude to define its own academic standards. A newly published analysis  by the National Center of Education Statistics shows just how widely those expectations for student learning differ among states. Moreover, the findings suggest that most states could be aiming too low.

For the last ten years, NCES has conducted periodic statistical analyses that map student proficiency on state tests to their respective performance on NAEP. This national assessment is administered in all states and it is, by large consensus, considered the gold standard both in the richness of content and the quality of the assessment itself. As such, states where their students perform at about the same level on the state test as they do on NAEP can be considered to have high performance standards.

Some partial findings:

  • Grade 4: Only two states (New York and Wisconsin) had state proficiency standards equivalent to NAEP-proficient in both reading and math; an additional three states (Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas) were aligned with NAEP-basic in reading and NAEP-proficient in math. Four states (Alabama, Georgia, Idaho and Maryland) had proficiency levels aligned with NAEP-below basic. A whopping 22 states were in the NAEP-below basic rate in reading.
  • Grade 8: Only New York’s proficiency levels aligned with NAEP-proficient in both reading and math, while North Carolina and Texas were within NAEP-basic in reading and NAEP-proficient in math. Five states (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho and Ohio) were in the below basic range in both subjects. Unlike grade 4, only three states’ grade 8 performance (DC, Indiana and Mississippi) was at the NAEP-below basic level in reading. The majority of states were within the NAEP-basic range in reading and math.

Alert readers will note, of course, that some high-performing states like Connecticut and Maryland had proficiency levels that aligned with NAEP’s lowest performance designation. The analysis is, to be sure, an imperfect comparison. Even so, the relationship between state alignment to NAEP-proficient and their relative performance is fairly consistent, as you can see in the chart featured below as well as in the full report.

Despite the study’s limitations, NCES provides important context for states to help them gauge the quality of their standards. According to the Atlantic , Peggy Carr, NCES’s acting commissioner, explained to reporters that NAEP-proficient is considered to be at a level that shows students are on track to be “college-ready.” The most recent administration showed that only 35 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders performed at proficient or above on NAEP-reading; about the same proportion of eighth-graders (36 percent) were proficient in math. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us in order to meet the goal of all graduates prepared for college and careers.

The NCES study was based on 2013 data so it’s too early to see the impact of the common core standards and aligned assessments in those states that have adopted them. Several states that opted out, however, are also committed to the college and career-ready agenda. NCES’s next iteration of this series should, therefore, give us more insight into how well we are advancing.



Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,standards — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 3:42 pm

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

February 12, 2015

Reading the kindergarten Common Core State Standards with purpose and understanding

The Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) English Language Arts (ELA) benchmarks for kindergarteners came under scrutiny in a recently released report. Issued by two early education advocacy organizations, Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, the report argues that “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten” despite the CCSS requirement that prior to first grade, students are expected to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” If an impossible standard has been set, then expecting children to be able to do something beyond their capability appears to be a waste of time, money, and effort for all parties.

However, a deeper look into the CCSS English/Language Arts for elementary school children, provides an additional piece of information that should ease the concerns raised by the recent report. This introductory information notes that for kindergarten students, the goal is just for children to demonstrate an increased awareness and competencies in the ELA standards. Moreover, the CCSS does not advocate for removing play-based learning from the classroom, although a review of the report could easily allow a reader to believe that the CCSS explicitly denounces such practices. Surprisingly then, a complete read-through of the CCSS shows that the authors of the CCSS explicitly state that “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document” (p.6). Within the same document, the standard that the DEY/AFC report focuses on (Foundational Skills: Fluency) is on page 16. Thus, it becomes confusing how the DEY/AFC report can read the standards with such purpose, yet without understanding.

Last, and most importantly, the CCSS does not prescribe how teachers must reach these goals. As highlighted in our own 2013 publication on the Common Core, the CCSS is just a guiding document as to what the goals are, not the pathways in which to reach them. In fact, there is widespread support for play-based learning within the kindergarten curriculum. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the International Reading Association agree that pretend play is an important part of the learning process for young children. In an ideal world, using the CCSS in kindergarten should not interfere with incorporating play into the curriculum and in the practical world, whether or not play-based learning is included in kindergarten falls on the teacher, not the standards. Perhaps kindergarten is an excellent time to start raising awareness and competence in reading with purpose and understanding as this is a skill that is often needed by adults in order to comprehend and think critically about information.

August 21, 2014

Common core support drops, local control rules, and other public opinion trends

Back to school season means it’s also time for the yearly ritual of gauging American attitudes about their public schools. Two major surveys released this week once again show that the public says its local schools are great even though they think U.S. schools overall are in the tank (a mathematical impossibility, by the way). The surveys also highlight some inconsistencies in public thinking as well as widespread acceptance of misinformation, particularly regarding the common core. So let’s start there.

First, what a difference a year makes! The 46th annual PDK/Gallup poll registered a big increase in public awareness about the Common Core State Standards between 2013 and 2014. Last year, only 38 percent said they had heard of them. This year, awareness has more than doubled to 81 percent. But that wasn’t the only shift. Of those who knew about the Common Core in 2013 a majority liked them, but that pendulum swung, too. Now according to PDK, only 33 percent support the new standards while a full 60 percent are opposed.

A new poll from Education Next shows the same downward trend in public support for Common Core as PDK, although EN shows that a majority are still favorable: 53 percent of the public supported them in 2014 compared to 65 percent the year before. EN teased out attitudes by party affiliation and found that Democrats were more far more likely to support Common Core than Republicans — 65 to 43 percent, respectively. Still, even among Republicans, support is significantly higher than PDK reported.

EN also conducted a small randomized experiment. They asked the same question about Common Core standards to one half of the survey pool, except they eliminated the words “Common Core” in the brackets below:

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Now it gets interesting. When the words “Common Core” are eliminated, public support rises from 53 to 68 percent. Moreover, Republicans approved of the non-Common Core statement at the same rate as Democrats. The conflicting poll results could suggest that the Common Core critics are winning the media war. As EN puts it, the words themselves may have become “toxic.” As further evidence, the poll found that the majority of the public believed statements about the Common Core that were not true, such as the federal government requires states to use the Common Core. Yet these beliefs have entered into the information stream and are affecting public attitudes.

Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing a sea change in attitudes. The EN survey raises an issue that should be of major concern: teacher support for the Common Core declined the most. In 2013, a full three-quarters of the teachers polled were in favor of the Common Core. In just one year their support plummeted to slightly less than half (46 percent). One has to wonder if teachers are expressing their frustration with inadequate implementation support. If this is the case, state and district policymakers should pay close attention.

On other topics, the public continues to view public schooling as a mostly local concern, according to PDK. The majority of the public — 56 percent — say local school boards should have the “greatest influence in deciding what is taught in public schools,” followed by 28 percent who say the state should, and only 15 percent who say the federal government should. In addition, to know public schools is to love them. Consistent with results of the last 20 years, the public gives public schools nationally poor grades, but grade their local schools highly. In 2014, 50 percent of the public and 67 percent of public school parents gave their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ compared to 17 percent who gave the nation’s schools high grades. However, this represents a slight drop from 2013 overall.

Both PDK and EN found that the public continues to like the idea of charter schools. But the polls conflict over voucher support. PDK reported that nearly two-thirds of the public opposed vouchers, while EN showed that about half support vouchers for students in “failing public schools” and even for “universal vouchers.” Surprisingly, only a third told EN they would support vouchers for low-income families.

As always, polls can be useful in understanding what the public is thinking. But this year’s polling seems to further cast a light on winners and losers in communicating their messages. — Patte Barth

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