Test reading early — and stop by third grade

Federal rules require reading and math tests in third through eighth grade. That’s way too late to start, writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. It would make more sense to stop reading tests in third grade.

Schools should be held accountable for teaching decoding skills in the early grades, he writes. “A struggling reader in first grade has a 90 percent chance of still struggling in fourth grade; a struggling third grade reader has only a one-in-four chance to catch up by high school.”

By third grade, what matters is comprehension. A reading comprehension test is a “de facto test of background knowledge and vocabulary acquired in school and out,” Pondiscio writes.

People think of reading as a transferable skill, like riding a bike, he writes. “Once you learn how to read, you can read anything – a novel, the sports page, or a memo from your boss – with relative ease and understanding” — they believe. But that’s not how reading works.

Broadly stated, there are two distinct parts to learning to read. The first is “decoding.” We teach small children that letters make sounds, and how to blend those sounds together so c-a-t becomes “cat.” Decoding is definitely a skill and a transferable one.

But the second part, reading comprehension, is much trickier. You certainly need to be able to decode to read, but reading with understanding and subtlety is intimately intertwined with background knowledge and vocabulary. In order to understand a story about a basketball game, for example, you need to know something about basketball.

Good readers almost certainly know “at least a little about a lot of different things.”

Instead of wasting time “trying to teach the ersatz ‘skill’ of reading comprehension,” teachers should build strong readers by teaching history, science, art, music, etc.  (I’d throw in literature.) The more students understand the world, the more they’ll be able to make sense of what they read.

‘Accountability’ proposal is anti-choice

The Charter School Accountability Agenda is a “front” for opponents of school choice and reform, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The authors, Center for Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest, have union backing, he writes.

The agenda includes requiring an “impact analysis” on how new charters would affect district-run schools. It’s “absurd” to let existing schools keep out the competition, Biddle writes. That’s especially true in cities: Urban charters improve achievement — and raise the odds students will earn a diploma and go to college — according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes and Rand studies.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

The agenda would let district schools keep per-pupil funding when students transfer to charters. “Why should any district be entitled to receive dollars for kids they are no longer serving?” asks Biddle.

It also calls for charters to enroll as many special-needs students as traditional schools.

Charters have fewer special-ed students because they’re less likely to put a disability label on students with learning problems, Biddle writes. They focus on teaching struggling students instead of sticking them in a “special ed ghetto.”

The American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed the agenda, ran a very low-performing charter school in New York City, notes Biddle. The school met just one of 38 goals set by its authorizer and was “rated a failure mill” by the city’s education department. The school had little tolerance for special ed students.

UFT Charter meted out-of-school suspensions to 17.8 percent of special ed students in 2011-2012 and in-school suspensions to another 20 percent of them, according to data submitted by the school to the U.S. Department of Education. This is higher than the out-of-school and in-school suspension rates of  1.5 percent and 6.5 percent for kids in regular classrooms.

United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local, will close the K-8 school, but hopes to keep the high school going.

A new education law — or more waivers?

No Child Left Behind (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) expired in 2007, but Congress hasn’t come up with a rewrite. House Republican leaders have postponed a vote on their version, the Student Success Act, because some conservatives think it doesn’t go far enough to curb federal mandates.

“My district doesn’t like it. They just feel that we’re moderating No Child Left Behind. They hate No Child Left Behind,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said.

In the Senate, Republican leaders hope to work with Democrats on a bipartisan bill.

Conservatives should back the Student Success Act, argues Rick Hess.

The Student Success Act (SSA) jettisons NCLB’s invasive system of federally mandated accountability and gives states the freedom to gauge school performance and decide what to do about poor-performing schools. It also puts an end to NCLB’s remarkable requirement that, as of 2014, 100 percent (!) of the nation’s students would be “proficient” in reading and math.

The SSA repeals the “highly qualified teacher” mandate, a bureaucratic paper chase whose most significant accomplishment was lending fuel to lawsuits attacking Teach For America (litigants had some success in California’s courts by arguing that TFA teachers failed to meet the “highly qualified” standard). It eliminates or consolidates 65 programs. It includes expansive new language intended to finally stop federal officials from pushing states to adopt Common Core (or any other particular set of academic standards).

The bill also boosts funding for charter schools, though it doesn’t authorize school vouchers.

Conservatives don’t like the requirement for annual testing, but “shorn of NCLB’s pie-in-the-sky accountability mandates, once-a-year tests will no longer distort schooling and infuriate parents in the way they have in recent years,” Hess argues.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attacked the provision letting federal dollars follow low-income students if they move from high-poverty to low-poverty schools. Urban school districts could lose millions of dollars, he said.

With NCLB in limbo, Duncan has used waivers to get states to adopt his education policies, notes the Washington Post.

If a Republican wins the White House in 2016, the Democrats could regret opening the door to rule by waiver, Hess writes. He imagines President-elect Rick Perry nominating Michele Bachmann as secretary of education.

Chris Wallace: Are you worried you’ll be unable to make the legislative changes that you and the President think necessary?

SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Once upon a time, that might’ve been a concern. Happily, the Obama administration provided a path for driving educational change even when you don’t have the votes. That’s why we’ve promised that, come inauguration day, we’ll be ditching the Obama administration’s requirements for waivers from No Child Left Behind and substituting our own. They’ll be drawn from the President’s plan that we’ve been calling the Freedom Blueprint.

If states want a waiver, says Bachmann, they’ll need “to institute a moment of silence in all “turnaround” schools, adopt a statewide school voucher plan for low-income students and those in failing schools, require abstinence education, restrict collective bargaining to wages and prohibit bargaining over benefits or policy, and ask states to revise their charter laws to ensure that for-profit operators are no longer discriminated against on the basis of tax status.”

It’s not looking good for reauthorization, concludes Hess.

Alyson Klein reports on the politics. “In the end, House Republicans are going to have to decide whether they want to pass a bill that — while maybe not perfect — is clearly an improvement to NCLB from their point of view; or they can do nothing and let the President and Federal government have unchecked control over education policy for the remainder of his term,” says Vic Klatt, a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee.

Why we need annual testing

Credit: Christopher King

Credit: Christopher King

The bipartisan campaign to roll back testing would “roll back progress” for students, argues Bellweather’s Chad Aldeman in the New York Times.

Improve test quality, he writes. (He thinks better tests are coming soon.) Cut back on time-wasting tests for benchmarking or teacher evaluations. But keep annual state exams to measure “how much students learn and grow over time.”

Grade-span testing — for example, testing only in fifth, eighth and 10th grade — would let many schools off the hook for the achievement of low-achieving subgroups, Aldeman writes.

A school with 10 Hispanic students in each grade would no longer be held accountable for whether those students were making sufficient progress, because the 10 fifth graders wouldn’t be enough to count as a meaningful population size.

To get a sense of how many students could become newly “invisible,” consider public elementary schools in Washington, D.C. Applying the same minimum group size currently used for entire schools to the fifth grade only, about half of the city’s 119 elementary schools with fifth graders taking math tests would not be held accountable for the progress of low-income or African-American students, because there aren’t enough of them in that grade to constitute a reliable sample size. For that same reason, less than 10 percent of schools would be responsible for Hispanic students or English language learners, and not a single elementary school would be accountable for the progress of students with disabilities.

No Child Left Behind has worked, argues Aldeman. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students are at an all-time  high, along with high school graduation rates.

The retreat from school accountability threatens disadvantaged students’ progress, warns the Bush Institute. Its Big Idea report defends annual statewide testing, but blames districts for overloading students with unnecessary benchmark exams.

An Atlantic story quotes Anya Kamenetz, author of The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be.

Citing a study of students in North Carolina that indicated 85 percent of variation in test scores could be predicted by family income, she asked, why — if income is such a strong predictor — do “we need to administer a test to define what’s happening to these children?”

Well, if we think that all low-income kids will score badly and that it’s impossible to help any of them improve, then there’s no point in testing. We don’t need to test the rich kids either. They’re predestined to succeed. Schools could spend no time on testing — or instruction. After all, family income is the thing that matters. Let the kids play!

Less testing is less effective

Congress is moving — finally — to revise No Child Left Behind, aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There’s bipartisan support for rolling back the federal requirement for annual tests in grades three through eight, reports Education Week. One proposal is to require states to test only once in elementary, middle and high school.

Annual statewide testing is critical to judging school quality, write Matthew M. Chingos and Martin R. West in a Brookings paper. Annual testing shows students’ growth, making it possible to identify “the schools that contribute the least to students’ learning” and those that “perform well despite difficult circumstances.”

By contrast, testing once per grade span produces an average score that “judges schools based on the students they serve, not how well they serve them.”

Percent of Low-Income and High-Minority Schools Identified as Bottom-15%, by Measure

 

Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

‘College Promise’ isn’t likely

From Whiteboard Advisors, Education Insiders predict the future:

Duncan: Drop NCLB, but keep testing


Education Arne Duncan spoke yesterday at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

No Child Left Behind is “tired” and “prescriptive,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a speech yesterday. However, federal education law should include annual tests, Duncan said at a Washington, D.C. elementary school.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind) is up for reauthorization, notes NPR. Duncan said he’d like to start over with a new bill, but retain annual testing.

In his speech, Duncan invoked famous phrases used by both President Obama and former President George W. Bush, the latter of whom introduced No Child Left Behind more than 13 years ago.

“This country can’t afford to replace ‘the fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of, ‘It’s optional,’ ” he said.

Duncan came out against “redundant” and “unnecessary” tests.

Brookings makes The Case for Annual Testing that tracks growth in student achievement, while eliminating most NCLB standards and accountability provisions.

Hill Republicans will decide what happens, writes Rick Hess in his ESEA predictions on Pundicity.  They see Duncan as “obdurate, unwilling to listen, and remarkably disinterested in what the federal government shouldn’t do or what it can’t do well.” So Sen. Lamar Alexander will work with Democratic senators, but Duncan could be out of the negotiations.

Misspelled sign leads to principal’s demotion

Photo of the sign provided by school board member Corey Teague A Paterson, New Jersey principal was demoted days after a school board member circulated a photo showing misspellings on a sign outside the elementary school’s side entrance, reports the Paterson Press.

A custodian had listed events for “Dicember” and alerted people to the date for “progress reepor.” The sign, outside an entrance not used by the principal or staffers, contained the errors for more than a week, officials told the Press.

“If this is how the administration takes care of signage how can we expect the students to do better? We must be held to a higher standard,” wrote board member Corey Teague in an email accompanying the photo.

Principal Antoinette Young, already under a “Corrective Action Plan designed to address shortcomings in her performance,” is being reassigned to an as-yet undetermined position, said district spokeswoman Terry Corallo. The vice principal, Boris Simon, is serving as interim principal, Corallo said.

Is it reasonable to demote the principal? asks Darren on Right on the Left Coast.

What’s wrong with U.S. teaching

Why Is American Teaching So Bad? asks education historian Jonathan Zimmerman in The New York Review of Books. Zimmerman reviews Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Garret Keizer’s Getting Schooled.

Goldstein quotes Horace Mann’s praise for female teachers, whose low-cost labor had enabled Massachusetts to create a common school system.

 “How divinely does she come,” he declared, extolling the female teacher, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!”

For centuries, Americans have “lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills,” writes Zimmerman. Now, teachers are expected to ensure students do well on tests, not to mold their characters.

 Who becomes a teacher in America? . . . In the first half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein notes, bookish urban immigrants used the profession to catapult themselves into the middle class. During the Great Depression, especially, teaching attracted people of outstanding academic achievement—including some with Ph.D.s—who couldn’t get work elsewhere.

Since the 1960s, however, the proportion of top college students who have entered the field has steadily declined. Part of the reason lay in the feminist movement, which created new occupational opportunities for women outside of teaching.

Most teachers get a little theory in ed school, writes Green.  They’re expected to learn how to teach on the job, where they’ll work in isolation.

By contrast, many other advanced countries have institutionalized critical commentary by peers and also provide intellectual support to improve skills and learning as part of teachers’ professional practice. Japanese teachers . . .  have designated periods to observe each other’s classes, study curriculum, and otherwise hone their craft. But they also learn a great deal in their pre-service training, which is both more rigorous and more demanding concerning particular subject matter than anything American teacher-education students are likely to encounter.

In Finland, would-be teachers study the subject they’ll teach and then “spend a full year apprenticing in a school, receiving regular feedback from several mentors.” Finally, they research and write an original thesis on a scholarly trend or controversy within their fields.

Many U.S. educators think teachers don’t have to be smart, writes Zimmerman.

So Garret Keizer’s first supervisor worried that he might have too many grades of A on his college transcript to succeed as a high school teacher, and Elizabeth Green concludes her otherwise skeptical book with the much-heard platitude that teachers need to “love” their students.

Keizer is offended by comments like that, and he has every good reason to be. Do lawyers have to love their clients? Must doctors adore their patients? What American teachers need now is not love, but a capacity for deep and disciplined thinking that will reflect—and respect—the intellectual complexities of their job.

“The U.S. badly needs to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else,” Zimmerman concludes.

Why do teachers obsess about not being good enough?  asks Ellie Herman on Gatsby in LA.

It starts with “pathetically inadequate” teacher training, she writes. A “hodgepodge of useless state-mandated courses” didn’t prepare her to deal “with large classes of students who were several years below grade level, many of whom had difficulty controlling their behavior in class.”

Furthermore, “once you’re in the classroom, you’re pretty much on your own.”