ESSA advances: Will every student succeed?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)– the long-awaited revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act aka No Child Left Behind — passed the House 359-64, and is expected to pass the Senate next week. Present Obama will sign it.

The compromise is endorsed by most major education groups, but it misses “the sweet spot of reason in evaluating schools and teachers,” editorializes the Los Angeles Times.

No Child Left Behind made the nation aware, as never before, of just how poorly students of color or with low incomes were faring.

The solution working its way through Congress, though more reasonable than No Child Left Behind, threatens to leave many poor and minority students in schools that middle-class parents would never accept for their children. At minimum, the bottom 20% of schools in California and other states with comparatively poor student achievement need to take concrete steps toward improvement; the looming federal compromise would require intervention only at the lowest-performing 5%. That’s unacceptable. And is this country honestly ready to allow high schools to continue graduating a mere 67% or 70% of their students, with no sense of public outrage?

California dropped its Academic Performance Index in hopes of creating  a broader measurement of school effectiveness,  notes the Times. “Early indications are that the state might end up dumping out a hodgepodge of data for each school, with no overall sense of student performance. How will the state help its neediest schools if it can’t even identify them?”

Conservatives should oppose ESSA, argues Lindsey Burke of Heritage. Although it eliminates average-yearly-progress mandates, the proposed ESSA would not make Title I funds portable or cut duplicative programs, she writes. The act “would maintain significant federal intervention in local school policy for years to come.”

Learning English: Good teaching is #1

With a rising tide of immigrant and refugee students in U.S. schools, helping “English Language Learners” actually learn English — and master academic subjects — is more critical than ever. ELL education is moving beyond the bilingual vs. English debate, I write in Education Next.

I visited Hoover School in Redwood City (south of San Francisco), where 95 percent of students coem from low-income and working-class Latino families.

Ocean animals was the theme in pre-kindergarten classes at a California school in early May. Some pre-K teachers introduced “octopus” and “tentacle,” while others taught “pulpo” and “tentaculo.” In all the pre-K classes, children acted out vocabulary words with hand movements, sang songs, and played a guess-the-ocean creature game. Then they moved to tables, where some of them painted paper octopuses, while others gingerly smelled, touched, and then dangled little octopuses from a local fish market.

Starting in pre-K, Hoover students “talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, information-rich environments,” I write. “They dictate stories to volunteers, write letters, keep journals, and see their writing “published” in bound books.

“Pushed by No Child Left Behind’s accountability goals and pulled by college-for-all expectations, English Learner education is shifting “from the language of instruction to the quality of instruction,” says Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford professor who specializes in language learning.

Nearly all students at Hoover School in Redwood City, California come from Spanish-speaking families.

Hoover students are expected to be proficient in English by 4th grade.

Common Core exams are accelerating the move away from the old bilingual model. Principals want kids who will be tested in English to be taught in English.

However, “dual immersion” schools are growing in popularity. Educated suburban parents want their kids to be fluent in two languages. Quality tends to be high: These schools can’t dumb down expectations or use bilingual aides instead of teachers, because middle-class parents won’t stand for it.

In 1998, Californians passed Proposition 227, which limited bilingual education. A measure to repeal most of 227 is on the November 2016 ballot. It would let children be placed in non-English instruction without parental waivers. I think it has no chance of passing.

“When 227 passed, I thought it would be a disaster,” Frances Teso, a former bilingual teacher, told  me. “Now I think it was a good thing in some ways. It eliminated a lot of low-quality bilingual programs and opened the door to better-quality programs.”

Teso founded Voices College-Bound Language Academy, a high-performing K-8 charter school in San Jose that uses a modified dual-immersion model.

Accountability worked — for some — in Texas

Texas’ test-based accountability system, introduced in 1993 under Gov. George W. Bush, improved academic performance and earnings (by age 25) for students in schools at risk of a low-performance rating, but hurt students in higher-scoring schools, according to a study reported in Education Next.

. . . pressure on schools to avoid a low performance rating led low-scoring students to score significantly higher on a high-stakes math exam in 10th grade. These students were also more likely to accumulate significantly more math credits and to graduate from high school on time. Later in life, they were more likely to attend and graduate from a four-year college, and they had higher earnings at age 25.

These schools increased math courses for students who’d failed the eighth-grade exam and boosted staffing and instructional time, the analysis found.

However, higher-performing schools seeking a “recognized” rating were likely to more low-scoring students to special education to exempt their scores from lowering the school’s overall rating.  These students were less likely to complete college and earned less at age 25.

“High-stakes testing creates strong incentives to game the system,” conclude the authors.

Too much testing

Schools are giving too many tests, President Obama has declared in a Facebook video. He wants to help schools to spend no more than 2 percent of instructional time on testing, while retaining “smart, strategic” tests.

Eighth-graders — the most tested students — spend 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of school time taking mandated tests, estimates a Council of the Great City Schools study of 66 urban school districts. That doesn’t include time devoted to test prep.

No Child Left Behind requires an annual math and reading exam in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in math. Science is tested in some grades. But states and districts have added many other tests — often to qualify for federal grants and waivers, notes the Washington Post.

To win a grant under the competitive Race to the Top program, or to receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind, states had to evaluate teachers based in part on student test scores. Since federal law required standardized tests only in math and reading in certain grades, states added tests in social studies, science, languages — even physical education — to have scores they could use to evaluate teachers.

“Many of the appalling things reported on here are the direct result of the way the federal government has approached this,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “The accountability system is what’s driving this and it’s fundamentally flawed.”

The average urban student takes roughly 112 tests between pre-K and grade 12, the Great City Schools report finds. There’s lots of duplication: Some districts require a “summative” exam and an “end-of-course” exam in the same subject. In addition, most tests “don’t actually assess students on any particular content knowledge.”

Often, results aren’t used to improve teaching, the report found. Results come months late and teachers aren’t trained in how to use the results.

Eliminating duplication makes sense, of course. But the most effective way to cut testing time is to give up on evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. (The new Student Learning Objective assessments for non-NCLB subjects are unreliable and low-quality, says Great City Schools.) Is the Obama administration ready to back away from that policy?

Common Core-aligned tests take much longer because they require students to do more writing and less bubbling. I assume that would fall under “smart” and “strategic.”

SAT decline is ‘ugly’ — and ominous

The Class of 2015 SAT results are “ugly,” writes Rick Hess. Scores have sunk to the lowest point since the college-admission test was recentered.

In the past decade, reading and math scores have risen steadily for fourth- and eighth-grade students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Hess notes. So why do these gains vanish by the end of high school?

The conventional response in education circles is to conclude that we’re  continuing to get high school “wrong” — that all of the frenzied efforts to adopt new teacher-evaluation systems, standards, and curricula, digital tools, and the rest have had a big impact in K-8 schools but not in high schools.

But, maybe, we’ve been fooling ourselves, writes Hess. In response to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states focused on reading and math in grades three through eight.

It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if schools found ways to boost those reading and math results by cannibalizing other instruction, reassigning teachers, shifting time and resources from other grades and subjects, emphasizing test preparation, and the like.

The apparent progress of elementary and middle-school students could be misleading, writes Hess. If so, our schools are in even worse shape than we realize.

Accountability fail

A highly rated New York City teacher who moves to a low-rated school will get an asterisk on her new ratings, writes teacher Arthur Goldstein in an open letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Doesn’t that indicate that the test scores are determined more by students themselves as opposed to teachers?” he asks.

Goldstein teaches English as a Second Language to immigrant students who tend to do badly on standardized tests. It would be “irresponsible of me to neglect . . . basic conversation and survival skills,” yet the test focuses on academic English.

Teaching ESL or special education is a high-risk specialty, Goldstein argues.

Attaching high stakes to test scores places undue pressure on high-needs kids to pass tests for which they are unsuited. For years I’ve been hearing about differentiation in instruction. I fail to see how this approach can be effectively utilized when there is no differentiation whatsoever in assessment. It’s as though we’re determined to punish both the highest needs children and their teachers.

Teacher morale has “taken a nose dive” because of high-stakes evaluations, he writes.

Accountability can backfire, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

When states decided to track and publish surgeons’ success rates, the very best surgeons took fewer high-risk cases, according to several studies.

Rating teachers by their students’ performance poses the same risk, argues Tucker. Instead of rewarding good teachers, it may reward teachers with good students and penalize those who teach the most challenging students.

He imagines a top teacher who leaves her suburban school for a high-poverty school. The work is much harder. “Your students’ scores on the state tests may not go up much, but you know what you have done for a number of these kids has spelled the difference between a chance for a future and none at all,” Tucker writes. But the teacher earns a very low rating and other experienced teachers decide that teaching the neediest kids is too much of a risk.

Value-added measures are supposed to compare students’ past performance, so teachers aren’t penalized for teaching low-performing kids. But it’s not clear that the measures are reliable — especially for the many teachers who don’t teach subjects that are tested.

67% back school testing

Two-thirds of the public — and two-thirds of parents — support federally required testing, concludes the annual Education Next survey. Teachers split evenly on the question, which asked, “Do you support or oppose the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school?”

Another question asked:

“Some people say that ALL students should take state tests in math and reading.  Others say that parents should decide whether or not their children take these tests. Do you support or oppose letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests?”

Only 25% of the public like the idea, while 59% oppose it, the remainder taking a neutral position.  Among parents themselves, just 32% favored the opt-out approach, while 52% opposed it.  Fifty-seven percent of the teachers also reacted negatively to the idea, with only 32% lending it support.

Asked “what level of government should play the biggest role in deciding whether or not a school is failing?,” 18 percent chose the federal government, 50 percent the state and 32 percent local government.

A new ESEA?

The long-delayed revision of No Child Behind (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA) might actually happen this year. Or not.

A conference committee will try to reconcile a bipartisan Senate bill with a Republican-only House bill, reports Alyson Klein in Ed Week‘s Politics K-12. Key issues to resolve include “whether the updated law should include a preschool program, whether states should be able to allow federal funding to follow students to the school of their choice, and just how states should measure school performance.”

Both versions of the new ESEA limit the Education secretary’s power, writes Klein. There’d be no more setting policy by waiver.

Under the Senate bill, the secretary of education is prohibited from monkeying around with standards, tests, state goals, school turnaround remedies, and accountability systems. And the secretary would be specifically barred from offering conditional waivers, as Duncan has done. The department would get to approve states’ plans for using federal Title I money for low-income students, but it would only have 90 days to review them. (That’s compared to 120 days under current law.)

And states whose plans aren’t approved by the education department would get the opportunity to revise them, and even demand a public hearing exploring the reasons for their rejection. That would eliminate a lot of the behind-the-scenes-back-and-forth on the finer points of accountability plans that’s been a hallmark of the waivers.

The two bills are weak on accountability, editorializes the Washington Post. The Senate bill would let states “define which schools are struggling and when and what — if any — remedies should be adopted,” while the House bill would “water down testing requirements and allow parents to opt their children out of tests.”

Here’s Mike Petrilli’s cheat sheet for ESEA.

Grit, mindset will be part of ‘Nation’s Report Card’

Students’ motivation, mindset, “grit” and other noncognitive traits will be measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” beginning in 2017, reports Education Week.

The background survey will include five core areas — grit, desire for learning, school climate, technology use, and socioeconomic status — of which the first two focus on a student’s noncognitive skills, and the third looks at noncognitive factors in the school. . . . In addition, questions about other noncognitive factors, such as self-efficacy and personal achievement goals, may be included on questionnaires for specific subjects . . .

There’s no plan to use NAEP’s noncognitive measures to judge schools.

However, a “coalition of seven California districts that have received waivers from some federal accountability requirements are developing a new accountability system, in which 40 percent of a school’s evaluation will take into account school culture and students’ social and emotional learning,” reports Ed Week. Schools that score poorly on these measures will be paired with a higher-performing school to learn how to improve.

Don’t use measures of noncognitive traits for school accountability, advises Angela Duckworth, who’s pretty much the inventor of “grit” and colleague David Scott Yeager. These measures are not reliable enough for this use, they write.

In the real world, you can’t opt out of tests

Brooke Haycock hated her urban high school — when she bothered to attend. She filled in the test bubbles “in poetic form,” ABABC. Then she dropped out. “That’s when the tests got real,” she writes in U.S. News.

“You can’t opt out, walk out or otherwise check out of tests if you want to get anywhere in life, writes Haycock, who writes for the Education Trust.

She studied “for the GED, then the SAT, then the community college placement test on breaks at the coffee shop where I worked” to fight her way to university and a career.

On the way to wherever you want to go lie a series of tests – whatever your direction, whatever your goal. There are the college admissions tests. The Armed Services qualifying tests. The get-a-job tests. The get-a-better job tests. The licensure tests. The promotional tests. Moments where you have to prove yourself – your skills, your knowledge, your merit, your determination.

While they now call the tests you take in school “high stakes,” they are the lowest you will ever encounter. And the only ones where, if you don’t do so well, somebody actually has an obligation to help you do better.

Some adults want students to opt out of testing to undercut accountability, Haycock argues. “The fewer students show up for that test, the fewer students schools are accountable for teaching and the less the system has to change.”