Will new tests live up to the hype?

Muslim Alkurdi, 18, of Albuquerque High School, joins hundreds of classmates in Albuquerque, N.M, Monday, March 2, 2015, as students staged a walkout to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Muslim Alkurdi, 18, of Albuquerque High School, joins hundreds of classmates, as students staged a walkout to protest a new exams.

In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised teachers that Common Core-aligned Assessments 2.0 would be the tests they had “longed for.”

Millions of students are taking those new tests this spring, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. Enthusiasm for the new tests has waned.

The federal government put $360 million into the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed Core-aligned tests.

This spring, of the original 26 states that signed up for PARCC, just 11 plus Washington, D.C. are giving the test. Of the original 31 signed up for Smarter Balanced, only 18 are still on board. (In the early years, some states were members of both coalitions.) Several of the states will give the PARCC or Smarter Balanced test for one year only, before switching to their own state-based exams next year. Another Common Core exam, known as Aspire, produced by ACT, has stolen away some states from the federally sponsored groups; this spring students in South Carolina and Alabama will take that test.

On the old state tests, only 2 percent of math questions and 21 percent of English questions assessed “higher-order skills,” such as abstract thinking and the ability to draw inferences, concluded a 2012 RAND study of 17 state tests.

Two-thirds of PARCC and SBAC questions call for higher-order skills, according to a 2013 analysis by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

“In the old tests a student would just get a vocabulary word by itself and would be asked to find a synonym,” said Andrew Latham, director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, a nonprofit that worked with Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the new tests. “Now you will get that word in a sentence. Students will have to read the sentence and be able to find the right answers through context clues.”

The new tests require students to answer open-ended questions, which takes more time.  Smarter Balanced will take eight and a half hours, while some PARCC tests will take over ten hours.

Duncan had promised teachers would get quick feedback from the new tests, but it takes time to grade students’ writing. The only way to get fast feedback is to use robo-graders instead of humans.

What if Core scores go down and stay down?

Test scores will drop in Common Core states this year, writes Eduwonk. It’s a harder and unfamiliar test. Reasonable people get that.

The risk for Common Core will come in a few years, if scores remain low, he writes.

A lot of places are “adopting” Common Core but without really doing the instructional shifts or big changes in classroom practice to up the bar for teaching and learning.

. . . in a few years when more ambitious standards collide with inadequate capacity and classroom practice and scores haven’t, overall, moved upwards a lot is when the political bill could come due. Common Core will be declared another “failed” reform idea and something else will come along.  In fact, what Common Core will have in common with a lot of prior reform efforts is a diluted implementation, inadequate support, and half-measures.

Something else is likely to be “a lot more choice,” predicts Eduwonk.

From Epictetus to road-crossing chickens

Philosophy can engage, inspire and deepen the thinking of high school students, writes Diana Senechal in American Educator. She teaches Philosophy for Thinking at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a selective New York City public middle/high school that draws an ethnically diverse group of students. (Two-thirds are Latino or African-American; 56 percent qualify for a free or subsidized lunch.)

Her students have published the second issue of their erudite and humorous philosophy journal, Contrariwise, which can be ordered here. 

Students write about Epictetus, the Book of Job, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Pascal, Gogol, virtue, kindness, humor, utopia, dystopia, the DMV — and more.

Peerayos Pongsachai uses math and philosophy to analyze the question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

The journal includes national and international contest winners. Emma Eder (Georgetown Visitation Prep, Washington, D.C.) won first place for The Very Real Problem of Irrationality in the math/philosophy category. Her classmate Julia Sloniewsky took on the challenge of writing as a knight or samurai during the all of feudalism. She won for Letter in the Desk of Hiraku Kikkawa.

The international contest asked students to imagine their favorite dish is “its own nation.”

Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? . . . Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences — anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as secreatry of state.”

Plate’s Republic by Grace Eder, also a Georgetown student, won first place. Second and third place winners came from Italy, China, Turkey, Britain and the U.S.

India: Bride dumps groom who can’t add

From India: A bride walked out of her wedding ceremony when her groom failed to solve a simple addition problem, reports the Deccan Chronicle.

The question she asked: How much is 15+6?

His reply: 17.

“The groom’s family kept us in the dark about his poor education,” said Mohar Singh, the bride’s father. “Even a first grader can answer this.”

After police mediation, both families returned the gifts and jewelry that had been exchanged before the wedding, said a police officer.

For $999, adults can go to ‘preschool’

Brooklynites who want to fingerpaint, play dress-up, snack and nap can pay $999 for five weeks of Preschool Mastermind, which bills itself as the world’s first preschool for adults.

How schools can close marriage gap

Schools can promote marriage and upward mobility by preparing disadvantaged students for college or careers, writes Mike Petrilli. High-quality career and technical education (CTE) is a “solid pathway to postsecondary education and remunerative and satisfying work.”

“Middle-skill jobs” that require a vocational certificate or two-year degree pay well in fields such as health care and information technology, Petrilli writes. While European countries prepare 40 to 70 percent of young people for technical jobs, “we remain obsessed with the four-year college degree” in the U.S. Fewer high school students are concentrating in career and technical education here than 20 years ago.

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program, which is designed to lead to careers in fields like chemistry and microbiology. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

“Career academies” — typically small vocational programs within large high schools — combine academic and technical training. A randomized MDRC study found career-academy graduates earned more, worked more and were more strongly attached to the labor market, compared to a control group, writes Petrilli.  The effect was strongest for black and Latino males.

Even more striking is that, years after high school, career-academy graduates were more likely to be married and living with their spouse than their peers in a control group.

It’s not clear whether they “developed skills that helped them form more stable relationships or became more ‘marriageable’ because of their stronger career prospects,” writes Petrilli.

Reinventing high school

In Reinventing High School in The Atlantic, Deborah Fallows profiles The Center For Advanced Research and Technology (CART), which provides half-day career programs for 11th- and 12-grade students in Fresno County, California.

Inside a CART robotics lab

Inside a CART robotics lab

CART offers 16 career tracks, “from forensics to game design to law and order, robotics, biotech, engineering, business and finance, environmental science, psychology and human behavior, and many more,” writes Fallows.

Teachers all have work experience in their fields.

Students work on projects such as “cloning carrots, making movies, designing online games, and making toys,” she writes. In addition, students go on field trips and “do internships or projects that take them to hospital operating rooms, senior centers, and wildlife refuges.

CART also tries to develop confidence, self-esteem and teamwork. When students work together on projects, someone who lets down the team can be demoted to lesser responsibilities or kicked off the team.

Seventy-one percent of CART students enroll in community colleges, compared to 60 percent of similar students who didn’t participate, according to a a 2011 Irvine Foundation study of the graduating classes of 2003 to 2009. Twenty-three percent of CART students enrolled in universities, a bit more than the 21 percent of non-CART students who did so.

Study: Chicago cuts suspensions, not safety

At the same time Chicago schools cut out-of-school suspension rates, students and teachers report feeling safer, according to a new study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

In the 2013-14 school year, 16 percent of CPS high school students received an out-of-school suspension (OSS), down from 23 percent in 2008-9. Still, 24 percent of high school students with an identified disability and 27 percent of high school students in the bottom quartile of achievement received out-of-school suspensions in 2013-14. Suspension rates for African American boys in high school remain particularly high, with one-third receiving at least one out-of-school suspension.

At the high school level, about 60 percent of out-of-school suspensions and almost all in-school suspensions result from defiance of school staff, disruptive behaviors, and school rule violations.

The in-school suspension rate has gone up sharply, the study found.

NJ eyes automated test-grading

New Jersey is considering using robo-graders to evaluate essays on Common Core-aligned tests, reports NJ Advance Media.

Students will type short essays on the computerized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams. This year, they’ll be graded by humans — “but 10 percent of online essays will get a ‘second read’ by a computer to test the viability of automated scoring in the future.”

Computer grading is cheaper and returns scores quickly to students and their schools.

Teaching can be taught

Teaching can be taught, argues Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion. It’s not an innate gift. It’s a craft.

In a training session for inner-city London teachers, Lemov showed a video several times to analyze the strategies used by Ashley Hinton, a Newark elementary teacher, writes Ian Leslie in The Guardian.

. . .  (Lemov) sees Hinton placing herself at the vantage points from which she can best scan the faces of her pupils (“hotspots”). He sees that after she first asks a question, hands that spring up immediately go back down again, in response to an almost imperceptible gesture from Hinton, to give the other children more time to think (“wait time”). He sees her repeat the question so that this pause in the conversation doesn’t slow its rhythm.

He sees Hinton constantly changing the angle of her gaze to check that every pupil is paying attention to whoever in the room is speaking, and silencing anyone who is not doing so with a subtle wave of her hand.

He sees her use similar gestures to gently but effectively recall errant students into line without interrupting her own flow or that of the student speaking at the time (“non-verbal corrections”).

He sees Hinton venture away from the hotspots to move down the sides of the class, letting her students know, with her movement, that there is always a chance she will be beside their desk in the next few seconds.

He sees that in one particular instance she moves toward a particular student while making it look to the rest of the class as if she is simply changing her perspective, so that she can correct his behaviour without embarrassing him – and he sees that she does so with the grace of an elite tennis player delivering a disguised drop shot.

Hinton smiles warmly and varies “the volume of her voice to convey enthusiasm for her topic,” Lemov points out. Her students “are utterly captivated, eager to pitch in with their own thoughts, avid for learning.”

She’s not leaping on desks like Robin Williams in Great Poets Society. Good teachers practice their craft, says Lemov.

“The myth of the magical teacher subtly undermines the status of teaching, by obscuring the extraordinary skill required to perform the job to a high level,” concludes Leslie. “It also implies that great teaching cannot be taught.”

Lemov links to more teaching videos on his Teach Like a Champion blog.