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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

August 6, 2013

In defense of standardized testing

In the education world it seems that standardized testing has as many defenders as Alex Rodriguez or Lance Armstrong. However, standardized testing actually got some props recently in articles at in Washington Post and the Huffington Post that focused on how standardized testing can be an important tool to improve our nation’s schools if used correctly. These articles are good reminders of why there has been such a focus on standardized testing over the past couple decades.

Yet, we know that standardized testing is not perfect. But policymakers, researchers, and educators continue to evaluate their use and revise them when necessary. There is certainly room for debate about the proper role of standardized testing but for that debate to lead to any significant improvements it needs to be based on facts and not false assumptions on how standardized tests are currently used.

Justin Fong proposed on his blog Fongalong recently that state testing should be moved from the spring to fall to lessen the reliance on standardized testing. Fong is certainly not anti-testing but has some valid concerns that the tests can have a more positive impact if given within the first couple weeks of the start of school. His suggestions are reasonable but many are based on false or outdated assumptions about standardized testing.

Fong believes:

Teachers should be using test results for diagnostic purposes and spring tests do not provide that information

Most states and many districts are already using testing data for diagnostic purposes even with spring testing.  Which is why PARCC, Smarter Balance and a number of state and districts assessments come with formative assessments for this sole purpose. These assessments are specifically designed to provide the data the author argues teachers need to align their instruction to their students’ needs. However, formative assessments should not be used for accountability purposes as it could negatively affect their value as a diagnostic tool.

Fall testing would enable teachers to focus on good instruction instead of ‘test prep’

Narrowly focusing instruction on ‘test prep’ is unlikely to end just by changing when the tests are administered.  To ensure all schools provide high-quality instruction, every school should be led by an effective school principal who is a strong instructional leader and can provide the support teachers need. Unfortunately, there are too many unprepared principals that see ‘test prep’ as the only means to improve test scores.

Good teaching is currently only judged by how much teachers increase test scores

It is absolutely true good teaching is more than simply improving standardized test scores. In fact, every current teacher evaluation system is designed with that fact in mind. However, improving student achievement—which is best measured by standardized tests–is at the heart of good teaching and should be a major factor in how teachers are evaluated when possible.

  • Contrary to Fong’s implicit assumption, no teacher is based solely on test scores. In fact, there is no state where more than half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on a single standardized test score.
  • Furthermore, every state that requires teachers to be evaluated based in part on standardized test scores also evaluates teachers based on other factors like the quality of their instruction, how engaged their students are, their professionalism, and how they expand their students’ minds and knowledge. So teachers are being evaluated holistically and not just on how well their students do on standardized tests. – Jim Hull
Filed under: CPE,Testing — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 2:51 pm

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

May 30, 2013

Take a common core test drive

The Smarter Balanced assessment consortium just released practice tests for their new assessments aligned to the common core state standards. The tests are computer adaptive and the items were field-tested during the early pilot stage.  Smarter Balanced in one of two multi-state consortia developing common core assessments with support from the U.S. Department of Education.

(Brilliant choice of a name, by the way. They can always lay claim to being the Smarter consortium.)

If you live in one of the 28 Smarter states (see what I mean!), or even if yours is one of the 46 states that has adopted the common core standards, the practice tests are a really good way to see what the common core is about and the kind of skills students will need to demonstrate. Smarter provides easy log in instructions here.  Enjoy your test drive!

Filed under: Assessments,national standards — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 8:54 am

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