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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 His suggestions are reasonable but many are based on false or outdated assumptions about standardized testing.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

May 8, 2013

Blinding us with science

Nanophysicists, as their name suggests, spend their days looking at really tiny stuff — atoms, electrons and other particles whose smallness can hardly be imagined by most of us non-nanos. Now IBM scientists have given us a glimpse of their microworld in what is billed as the World’s Smallest Movie. The plot may leave a lot to be desired, but that’s not why the one and a half minute film has been downloaded more than three million times in just the last week.  The film, “A boy and his atom,” is a stop action portrayal of a boy playing that was made by moving individual atoms one at a time and magnifying the image by a factor of 100 million. See for yourself.


[An interesting sidenote: Ray Harryhausen — one of the great pioneers of stop action film technique — died yesterday at the age of 92]

Making atom movies is not really an item in the IBM team’s job description. The scientists are actually working on vastly increasing data storage capacity in smaller devices. Last year, they found a way to reduce the number of atoms required to store one bit of digital information from one million to 12. That’s not a typo. But as their website says, “even nanophysicists need to have a little fun.”  That wasn’t the only motivation for producing this film. Looking ahead to a future workforce, IBM hopes that it will get more students excited in science.

That’s certainly one of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards, the final draft of which was released in mid-April.  The Next Gen standards are intended as a companion to the common core state standards.  The initiative was led by Achieve, Inc., which was also a key player in drafting the common core and directs the PARCC consortia developing aligned assessments.  It further involved twenty-six so-called lead states and was privately funded.

The final standards have been endorsed by the business community, science teachers and others.  Some earlier critics like the Fordham Institute have been more muted in their comments and are withholding judgment until the integration with the common core is completed. Nonetheless, many agree that they improve on current science standards in most states by defining a coherent K-12 program, emphasizing science practice alongside content, and not shying away from sensitive topics like evolution and climate change.

I was privileged to have a small part in an earlier science standards-setting effort called Project 2061 that was led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Then and now, my number one criterion for reviewing standards is: do they make me wish I could be a student again? Project 2061 definitely did that. To the degree that the Next Gen standards will demand more science, particularly at the elementary level, and encourage children’s curiosity about exploring the world, they are a definite move in the right direction. However, like Fordham, I am waiting to see more before making a final call.

The next gen standards can be downloaded for free. Be aware the format requires some perseverance on the part of the reader.

And talking about being excited about  science … below is a photo of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson who wowed 5,000 attendees at NSBA’s annual conference in April. Dr. Tyson showed us that in relation to the cosmos, we are as tiny as the “boy and his atom” are to us. A great advocate for science research and education, he inspired everyone to make sure their students are encouraged to explore and imagine. And not just because our nation needs scientifically literate workers and citizens. But also because our students need a little fun, too.


February 22, 2013

Business buys into the common core

Maybe it’s because schools are now taking a hard look at them, maybe it’s because the countdown to common core test day looms large, but it feels like the common core standards just can’t get any love anymore. In a strange alliance of purpose, critics from both the right  and the left  are calling on states and educators to reject them, albeit, for different reasons.

Much of the criticism rests on the politics. Even though the nation’s governors and state school superintendents led the development of the CCSS, some see a heavy federal hand in getting states to adopt them through provisions in Race to the Top and NCLB waivers that ask states to have “college and career-ready” standards.  But other voices are criticizing the content of the standards themselves as either too weak or too narrow, as we have written here and here.

This week, a coalition of 72 business leaders, representing such major corporations as GE, Exxon Mobil, and State Farm, provided a counterbalance by offering their considerable voice in support of the common core. In a full-page New York Times ad (by way of Change the Equation,which boasts 42 signatories), the CEOs endorsed the standards as “meet[ing] the business community’s expectations: they are college- and career-ready, grounded in evidence and internationally benchmarked. The CCSS set consistent, focused, rigorous academic expectations for all students.”

They conclude:

We support these new, tougher academic standards that are currently being rolled out in classrooms across the country. These standards will better prepare students for college and the workplace, something of critical importance to the nation’s employers. The changes now under way in America’s schools hold great promise for creating a more highly skilled workforce that is better equipped to meet the needs of local, state and national economies.

We see a lot to admire in the content of the CCSS as well as in the state-driven process that produced them. But the proof will be in the implementation, and the capacity of school districts to provide the support and resources teachers will need to teach them. So stay tuned.

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