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November 2, 2016

Thoughts on nuance and variance

As we approach the 2016 general election, I’ve heard public officials, family, and friends make very clear statements regarding which side of the aisle they support.  Yet, I find it hard to believe that the average American falls in line 100% with either political party, or supports every word and tenet of a particular public policy.  We are nuanced people.  Very few issues are as black-and-white as we’d like them to be.  Here’s a guide for things to consider when considering your stance on a particular issue, candidate, or political party, put in the context of educational issues.

  1. Most issues have an “it depends” clause.

With the onslaught of information available today, it makes sense that we want answers that are black-and-white.  The reality, though, is that there’s gray area for most policies and practices.  We also have to balance our ideological values with evidence.  Charter school proponents may believe in free-market values and choice to improve public schools through vouchers and charter schools, but I haven’t seen widespread evidence that choice in and of itself actually improves academic achievement or long-term outcomes in significant ways.  Yes, there are individual students who have benefited, but there are also individual students who have lost out.  Charter school opponents claim that taking away publicly-elected oversight through school boards is detrimental to the public’s ability to provide free and quality education to all.  Yet, the reality is that some public schools have dismal records, and charter or private schools have sometimes had success with the same students.  We have to acknowledge that we all want good things for our kids, and then use the evidence to figure out what that looks like without demonizing the other side.

  1. Most policies rely heavily on the quality of their implementation to be successful.

Common Core seems to be a prime example of this.  Two-thirds of Americans are in support of some sort of common standards across the country.  Yet, barely half of Americans are in support of Common Core.  Support for both questions have dwindled significantly from about 90% of public support in 2012.  Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called the roll-out of Common Core “disastrous,” despite supporting them overall.

CommonCore

Source: http://educationnext.org/ten-year-trends-in-public-opinion-from-ednext-poll-2016-survey/

They were implemented quickly in many states, often without the curriculum materials or professional development to help teachers succeed in teaching the new standards.  While support for Common Core seems to be leveling off with teachers, who are most familiar with them, several states have repealed or are considering repealing the Common Core.  The new state standards that have been written in South Carolina and Indiana are extremely similar to the Common Core, which means that it may not be the concept or content that people disagree with so much as how they were implemented and the ensuing political backlash.

 

  1. Statistics usually tell us about an average (the typical student) but variance is also important.

Charter schools are a prime example of this.  On average, they have similar student achievement outcomes as traditional public schools.  But, there are schools that outperform their counterparts and schools that woefully underperform.  We have to think about those schools, too.

This is also clear in school segregation.  The average black student in the U.S. attends a school that is 49% black, 28% white, 17% Latino, 4% Asian, and 3% “Other,” but that doesn’t mean that every black student has this experience.  At the edges of the spectrum, however, 13% of U.S. public schools are over 90% black and Latino, while 33% of schools are less than 10% black and Latino.  To understand the reality, we need to look at the variety of students’ experiences (known in statistic-speak as “variance”) not just the average.

  1. There’s always room for improvement. “Fixing” a policy may mean making adjustments, not abandoning it altogether.

Student assessments under No Child Left Behind (2001) resulted in the narrowing of curriculum.  But, we also learned more about disadvantaged student groups and have continued closing the achievement gap for students of color.  Should we throw out testing altogether? Some would say yes, but most Americans say no.  Graduation rates, college enrollment, and achievement scores have all increased since NCLB passed in 2001.  What we can do is improve on student assessments.  Adjusting consequences for students, teachers, and schools could result in less narrowing of curriculum and subjects taught.  Involving more well-rounded tests that encourage creative and critical thinking would help teachers emphasize these skills in class.  Continued improvement in data use can help teachers and school administrators adjust their practices and policies to see continued student growth.  States have the power to make some of these changes under the new Every Student Succeeds Act without dismantling gains made under No Child Left Behind.






February 23, 2016

Common Core’s happy days may be here again

Did a relationship ever sour so quickly as the Common Core and public opinion? Back in 2010 when the college- and career-ready standards were shiny and new, leaders from business and higher education as well as a certain U.S. Secretary of Education praised their rigor, coherence and attention to critical thinking. Within a year, 45 governors and D.C. had rushed to adopt them as their own – a move a majority of teachers and parents viewed favorably.

Then, implementation happened. Many teachers felt rushed to produce results. Parents couldn’t understand their child’s homework. Their anxiety fed chatter on talk radio and social media that did the incredible. It united anti-corporate progressives and anti-government tea partiers in opposition to the new standards and the assessments that go with them. States once on board with the program began to bail in face of angry constituents.

Recently, though, the mood appears to be shifting back into neutral. Presidential candidates deliver variations of the “repeal Common Core” line to applause, but the issue doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the race. The newly reauthorized ESEA deflates anti-Common Core messaging by explicitly forbidding the federal government from compelling or encouraging state adoption of any set of standards, including the Common Core.  After a flurry of state legislative proposals were introduced to undo the standards, only a handful were ever signed into law, and in some of those states, the replacements aren’t substantively different from the ones they tossed.

New studies related to the Common Core could prompt a wary public to give the standards a second look. In the first, a Harvard research team led by Thomas Kane surveyed a representative sample of teachers and principals in five Common Core states about implementation strategies. They were then able to match responses to student performance on the Core-aligned assessments, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

According to their report, Teaching Higher: Educators’ perspective on Common Core implementation, three out of four teachers have “embraced the new standards” either “quite a bit” or “fully.” When asked how much of their classroom instruction changed, a similar proportion said it had by one half or more. Four in five math teachers say they have increased “emphasis on conceptual understanding” and “application of skills,” while an even higher proportion of English teachers reported assigning more writing “with use of evidence.” All are attributes emphasized in the standards.

The research team then related the survey results to students’ scores on the new assessments after controlling for demographics and prior achievement. While they did not find strategies of particular impact on English language arts, they did identify math practices that were associated with higher student scores: more professional development days; more classroom observations “with explicit feedback tied to the Common Core”; and the “inclusion of Common Core-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations.”

Casting light on such strategies is only worthwhile, however, if there is also evidence that the Common Core are good standards. Enter the Fordham Institute. The education think tank assembled a team of 40 experts in assessment and teaching to evaluate the quality of PARCC and Smarter Balanced. For comparison, they examined college-ready aligned ACT Aspire and MCAS, the highly regarded Massachusetts state assessment. The grades 5 and 8 test forms were analyzed against criteria developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers for evaluating “high-quality assessments” that aim to assess college- and career-readiness.

The short version.  All four tests scored highly for “depth,” that is, items that are “cognitively demanding.” PARCC and Smarter Balanced, however, edged out both ACT Aspire and MCAS in “content.” The researchers conducted an additional analysis against other assessments and found the Common Core-aligned tests also “call for greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills than either NAEP or [the international] PISA, both of which are considered to be high-quality challenging assessments.”

Whether or not participating in national standards is a good idea is a decision that should rightfully be made by individual states. There are many legitimate political arguments for going either way, and each state will likely view it differently. But whether the Common Core standards – in full or in part – represent the expectations a state should have for all its students is an educational question that is worth considering on its own merits.

These early reports suggest that the new standards are higher and deeper than what states had before. Most teachers, although not all, have “embraced” them and are changing their instruction accordingly. We are learning anecdotally, too, that as parents see evidence of their child’s growth, they come around as supporters (see here and here).  What this means for the future is anyone’s guess. But for now it’s looking like the Common Core or something very much like them may be seeing happier days ahead. — Patte Barth

This entry first appeared on Huffington Post February 22, 2016.

 






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





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.

NAEPmap

 

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





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