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.”

What can the world learn from Finland?

fl_coverMarc Tucker looks at two very different takes on Finland’s education system.

Finland has aced PISA exams by trusting first-class teachers to teach well, not by hold them accountable for test scores, argues Pasi Sahlberg in Finnish Lessons: What can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

In Real Finnish Lessons, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren argues that long-standing policies and practices caused Finland’s 2000 rise.

Teachers are respected in Finnish culture, which is more conservative than other Nordic countries, Sahlgren writes. Finland was a poor country until recently.

. . . as in most Asian countries, (Finnish) children were taught to defer to and obey their elders; obedience in this very hierarchical society was a cardinal virtue. . . . well after many other countries had adopted more progressive methods, Finnish teachers lectured and their students wrote down what they said in notebooks and learned it. Period. None of this currently fashionable student-as-constructor-of-knowledge and teacher-as-guide stuff. The increasing autonomy granted Finnish teachers under the new regime was used, he says, by many, if not most teachers to persist in their old ways.

Finns used to be known for their determination to succeed in the face of adversity, Sahlgren writes. Prosperity has eroded that grit. “Finnish students, who used to do what they were told, however boring and difficult it might have been, are now much harder for Finnish teachers to control. Finnish teachers may have no choice but to adopt more progressive attitudes and teaching methods.”

And Finland’s PISA scores are slipping somewhat.  On a new international ranking, which uses PISA, TIMSS and Terce scores, the top five countries for math and science achievement for 15-year-olds are Asian, followed by Finland and Estonia.

Tucker has some doubts about the thesis.

As it happens, I’m on my way to Finland, though not to check up on their schools. We’re visiting Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn (Estonia).

Darren Miller of Right on the Left Coast has graciously agreed to guest blog while I’m away.

Why Johnny can’t read, write or calculate

U.S. education has been dumbed down, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

High school textbooks for 12th graders are written  at the 7th- or 8th-grade level, while community colleges have labeled basic algebra — usually taught in 8th- or 9th-grade  — “college math.” And many of their students can’t pass it.

Why have our education standards collapsed? he asks.

Forty years earlier, Grandma was the first in the family to finish high school.  Twenty years ago, Dad was the first to go to college.  Now, all the kids have to go to college.  . . . In other countries, grades are the result of a student’s performance on an externally graded test.  Everyone gets together to help Junior meet the high standards.  In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college.

Teaching is no longer a high-status job — and one of the few jobs open to talented women and minorities, Tucker writes. Teacher quality has declined.

Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement.  Facing tough sanctions from the federal government for low test scores, many states lowered whatever standards they had for high school students, so they could escape the consequences of poor student performance.

. . . the best of our high school graduates, seeing the pressure teachers were under to produce under appalling conditions, decided not to choose teaching as a career. Applications to schools of education started to fall and are now falling ever faster.

Unlike other nations, the U.S. has not raised standards for entering teachers’ colleges or earning a license, he writes.

Colleges have lowered standards to retain students “admitted irrespective of their academic performance,” Tucker writes. At the same, “have more or less destroyed what was once a first-class vocational and technical education system.”