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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





March 27, 2015

One in six chance you won’t get funding for child care

In an issue report authored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), federal child care subsidies were vastly underused in fiscal year 2011. The report found that of the population of children eligible (i.e., 14.3 million in 2011), 83 percent did not receive federal assistance. That translates into just shy of 12 million children (11.8 million) who did not receive financial support to attend child care. In terms of state assistance, the numbers and percentages are only slightly better. Of the 8.4 million children who were eligible to receive child care subsidies under state rules (which can be, and often are, more restrictive than the federal eligibility parameters), only 29% did so (i.e., 71% or 5.96 million children did not receive child care subsidies).

The numbers can continue to be shocking. Here are some other trends reported within the ASPE brief. First, analyses reveal that amongst children from families between 150% and 199% of the federal poverty limit (for 2011), 96% of these families were not served.

Another finding from the 2011 data reveals that the older the child, the less likely they were to receive a subsidy. Moreover, children ages 10 to 12 were more than four times as likely to not receive child care subsidies compared to children ages 0 to 5. This was also true for 6- to 9-year-olds, who were half as likely to have received a child care subsidy compared to those younger (yet still twice as likely as the 10- to 12-year-olds)!

Provided as an appendix to the report, some background information is provided on this sample of children and their families. Included in this table, are the numbers of families with parents employed for 20 or more hours a month and you can compare this across age ranges. Looking at the total sample, 84% of all eligible families fell into the highest category of employment yet, of this same sample of working families, only 1 in 5 of them received child care subsidies.

Although we would not expect that the same 84% of working eligible families is the same group as the families who did not receive any child care assistance, but clearly there is a big disconnect somewhere in the system. One would suspect that the families who are working as much as possible would be those that need child care (let alone financial assistance for it) the most. Moreover, children (and families) living in poverty are already more likely to face enormous obstacles and as positioned for in our “Changing Demographics of the United States and their Schools” article, these children can especially benefit from programs such as preschool and participation can lead to fewer behavior problems and reduce the likelihood of school expulsion later in their academic career. This misalignment of need and services is unsettling and will be something that we should continue to monitor for change. – David Ferrier






January 31, 2013

Beyond the pink slip: Teacher evaluation isn’t just for firings

It’s not ground-shattering to say that the conventional teacher evaluation system is broken.  This isn’t just an argument made by education reformers and parents, many teachers agree with this point as well.  They cite the haphazard, subjective nature of evaluations, which research suggests does little to improve instruction or lead to the removal of subpar teachers.

In response to calls for better systems to evaluate teachers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded the Measures of Effective Teaching project (MET).  This group has undertaken a three year study in seven school districts to analyze the effectiveness of certain measures of excellent teaching, specifically student standardized test scores, student surveys, and observations.  However, beyond the much debated question about whether these systems can really measure effective teaching, I’d like to ask a different, perhaps more important question—what should be the primary purpose of these systems?

National conversations about teacher evaluation have mainly focused on getting bad teachers out of the classroom, and there is no doubt that there are some teachers teaching today that shouldn’t be.  However, the notion that America’s schools are brimming with teachers who show movies and check emails all class period is, simply put, a myth.  This fact is certainly confirmed by the MET study.  The study trained observers and had those observers watch 7,491 videos of instruction by 1,333 teachers from six socio-economically and geographically diverse districts.  The observers were tested on their knowledge of the observation rubrics, and they were retested when observing to ensure the scores they were giving were calibrated.  After all those observations, the study found that “overall observed practice is overwhelmingly in the mid-range of performance as defined by the instrument.”  In other words, there were few outstanding teachers (as defined by the observation instrument) but also few really weak teachers (as defined by the observation instrument).

This finding should give us pause to really think about our goals in rolling out revamped teacher evaluation systems.  The writers of the MET study suggest that one can accurately use a combination of observations, student surveys, and standardized test data to identify exceptionally ineffective teachers, but then what?  Even if we fire the teachers who are exceptionally ineffective, that may only be a very small percentage of teachers in the classroom.  Will that alone drastically improve student achievement?

I think that looking at teacher evaluations as only a method to weed out the weak is exceptionally shortsighted and may represent a huge investment of money that gets America little bang for its buck.  Instead, we need to think about how teacher evaluations can be used to improve the teaching of teachers.  Bill Gates, in a recent op-ed piece written for CNN, acknowledges this fact, arguing that “the vast majority of teachers get zero feedback on how to improve” while they work “in isolation and have been asked to improve with little or no feedback.”  As a former public school teacher, my own experiences absolutely confirm this fact.

However, as districts rush to revamp their evaluation programs to align with the demands of Race to the Top and state policies, it’s questionable whether or not feedback to teachers is really a priority.  The Center for American Progress recently released a study exploring teacher perceptions of an urban district’s new teacher evaluation system.  The district rolled out the evaluation system in part to compete for Race to the Top funds.  At the beginning of the year, teachers set two student learning objective goals with their administrator.  Throughout the school year, teachers were observed by an administrator who ranked them on a scale of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (exemplary).  Low scores and high scores had to be confirmed by an outside evaluator, a move to ensure fairness and objectivity on the part of the observer, and evidence of student achievement which aligned with the teacher’s initial goals was evaluated at the end of the year to see if students really grew academically.

This evaluation system did result in an increase in firings, but it didn’t result in much feedback to the teachers who weren’t fired about how to improve their practice.  After interviewing a large sample of teachers in the district, most said that the new system had no impact on their pedagogy.  Only half of the teachers said any of the feedback was helpful; some even said they got no feedback.  At the end of the 2010-2012 school year, the district had spent countless sums of money developing an evaluation system, hiring outside evaluators, and implementing the system, but fired only 34 teachers in a district employing 1600 teachers (2% of its teaching force).  What about the other 98% of teachers in the district?  According to those teachers, all of this time and money resulted in little to no change in their teaching.  That’s a problem.

In the public dialogue about how to improve America’s classrooms, there’s often a simplistic notion that firing a teacher and replacing him or her is a no-brainer solution to our educational dilemma.  While new evaluation systems should identify exceptionally ineffective teachers, that alone is not enough.  They have to provide feedback for improvement for teachers who aren’t fired.  Such a focus certainly brings into light new questions about who is giving the feedback, the nature of the feedback, the qualities of good instruction, and how to coach teachers toward good instruction; however, those are the questions we really need to be asking.

Filed under: CPE,Teacher evaluation,teachers — Tags: , , — Allison @ 2:57 pm





October 17, 2011

Others agree, Fordham’s claims about high achievers not supported by data

Last month I wrote about how the Fordham Institute’s claim that our nation’s high achievers are losing ground wasn’t supported by evidence.  Well, it is good to know I am not alone. First, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) supported my critique that the data didn’t back up Fordham’s claim– but then again NEPC disagrees with just about everything Fordham says. Then the Center for American Progress (CAP)—which agrees with Fordham on several issues–released a critique of the Fordham report that raised similar concerns about the conclusions as I did. CAP’s main criticisms were:

1.     Fordham claimed that the federal No Child Left Behind law might have caused high-flying students to do worse over time. All of Fordham’s data, however, came from the post-NCLB time period. Without a pre-NCLB comparison, there is no way to make a claim that NCLB caused the decline.

2.     The report fails to acknowledge the true consequences of poverty on student achievement. The Fordham researchers note that “high achievers in high-poverty schools grew slightly less than those in low-poverty schools,” but use this finding to argue that poverty is not a strong predictor of student progress. Ample evidence proves, however, that low-income children need more resources in order to overcome the disadvantages they bring with them to school.

3.     A broader look at the data suggests that the nation’s top students have actually been gaining ground in a number of areas. For example, from 2000 to 2009, the percentage of eighth graders scoring at the highest level in math jumped 3 percentage points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

I’d have to agree with CAP on each of these points. It will be interesting to hear Fordham’s rebuttable when they host a conference on their report that includes one of the CAP authors on Monday October 17th. I will certainly be watching. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,research — Tags: , , , — Jim Hull @ 10:27 am





October 13, 2011

Using growth in NCLB’s reauthorization

On Wednesday, Senator Harkin released his bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I haven’t read the bill yet, but I have read that Senator Harkin is proposing to drop the current Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirement and instead evaluate schools based on “continuous improvement.” This would mean that all students are no longer expected to be proficient by 2014; instead, they are expected to make a certain amount of academic gains from year to year.

Sounds simple enough. Critics and proponents of NCLB alike have been pushing for the inclusion of a measurement of student growth since NCLB was enacted nearly a decade ago. However, back in 2002 less than a handful of states had the assessments and the data systems in place to measure how much academic gains individual student made from year to year. Now, thanks to NCLB, all states have the capacity to make such calculations. Almost all would agree that including such measures would greatly improve the fairness of any accountability system.  

Yet, incorporating student growth into a federal accountability system is not as straightforward as it seems. First of all, as my report Measuring Student Growth illustrates, there is no single method to measuring student growth. Choosing which method is best depends on the data available and how the data is going to be used. For example, a growth model, which identifies students who are not gaining as much as similar students, will look a lot different than a model that is used to identify students who gained enough in the past year to be on track to reach a certain benchmark such as being college and career ready when they graduate high school.

So before a growth model is used for accountability, policymakers need to state a clear purpose for what the growth data is to evaluate. For example, is the purpose to ensure schools are closing achievement gaps? Is the purpose to ensure all students are college or career ready by the end of high school? Or is it to identify schools where students are making fewer gains than students in schools with similar student populations?  For each of these questions, an adequate answer would require a different growth model.

Second of all, simply moving from a proficiency-based accountability system such as NCLB to a continuous improvement based system as proposed by Senator Harkin overlooks the fact that most state assessments are not designed to effectively measure student growth from grade to grade. Most states have developed their assessments to evaluate if a student is proficient or not proficient each year. As such, many state assessments are unable to reliably determine how much a student has learned from year to year, especially a student who scored at the very high or very low end of the test’s achievement scale. Yes, states can calculate a growth measure using the assessments they now have in place, but in many cases the result will not be as accurate as if the assessments were designed specifically to measure student growth.

These are just two major issues when it comes to including a growth measure for federal accountability. Yes, evaluating schools based on student growth is much fairer than how schools are currently evaluated under NCLB. But just simply including a growth measure does not automatically make it a better accountability system. Policymakers need to set a clear purpose for accountability systems and then incorporate a growth model that would best evaluates whether schools are meeting their goals. From what I know now about the Harkin bill, it is not clear whether the purpose is to ensure all students are college or career ready or if all students are making a year’s worth of gains. Without having a clear purpose for what to hold schools accountable for, adding a growth model will not be any fairer than NCLB. – Jim Hull






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