Myths of the anti-testing backlash

Test haters have become myth makers, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Jennifer Borgioli on Gadfly.

The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

. . . research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers.

. . . Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to catch kids up and get them back on the path to success.

Testing also is blamed for “drill-and-kill” instruction that existed long before the testing-and-accountability era, they write.

All else being equal, the students who typically fare better on state tests are those whose teachers focus not on empty test-taking tricks but rather on content-rich and intellectually engaging curriculum.

Ironically, an anti-testing position paper by the Chicago Teachers Union showed test-prepping teachers’ students scored lower on the ACT than students who were given “intellectually demanding work.”

Standardized tests don’t measure “what really matters” in education, such as critical thinking or social and emotional skills, critics complain. No test can measure everything, concede Porter-Magee and Borgioli. But many skills can be evaluated.

Anti-testers argue that setting standards and aligning assessments to them doesn’t work because it’s not what the Finns do.

Our own history suggests that it is exactly the states that have set rigorous standards connected to strong accountability regimes—most notably, Massachusetts—that have seen the greatest gains for all students, not just our most disadvantaged.

Meaningful reform will “require the effective measurement of student achievement that tests make possible,” they conclude.

Colorado: Graduates’ skills don’t match jobs

Four-year college graduates’ skills don’t match available jobs, complained employers in Fort Collins, Colorado. A local liquor company employs three people with masters’ degrees, including a beer stocker with a physics degree.

A college degree is a valuable investment, but the first four to five years after college are “tougher than they’ve ever been,” said Martin Shields, a Colorado State economics professor.

In Massachusetts, community colleges are working with employers to design job training programs in high-demand fields.

NCTQ: Teacher prep earns D+

Teacher preparation policies earned a D+ in 2012, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook. That’s up from a D in 2011.

The highest grade — B- — went to Alabama, Florida, Indiana and Tennessee. Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont made the most progress. Three states – Alaska, Montana and Wyoming – received failing grades.

Only a third of undergraduate teacher preparation programs are sufficiently selective, NCTQ finds. The majority “fail to ensure that candidates come from the top half of the college-going population.” Only 24 states require teacher preparation programs to use a basic skills test to screen applicants.

Standards are low for elementary teachers:

Teaching children to read is among an elementary teacher’s most important responsibilities, yet only 10 states appropriately assess teacher proficiency in effective reading instruction. And only 11 states adequately test new elementary teachers’ knowledge of mathematics.

Even though all but four states require some subject matter tests for elementary teacher licensing, the passing scores are extremely low. Every state (for which NCTQ has data) except Massachusetts sets the passing score for elementary teacher licensing tests below the average score for all test takers (50th percentile), and most states set passing rates at an exceedingly low level.

Only eight states– Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas – use student achievement data to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the effectiveness of the teachers they graduate.

Too many (would-be) elementary teachers

State Output

Some states produce enough elementary teachers to fill anticipated openings, but others produce twice as many as needed—or more.

Supply Demand Percent Difference
Colorado 1,169 1,099 106%
Connecticut 701 600 117
Delaware 373 122 306
Illinois 9,982 1,073 930
Kentucky 1,275 730 175
Louisiana 1,033 650 159
Maryland 1,011 723 140
Massachusetts 1,175 1,051 112
Michigan 2,903 1,227 236
Minnesota 1,179 709 166
Mississippi 751 660 114
New York 6,498 2,800 232
Pennsylvania 6,048 1,420 426
Tennessee 1,970 1,380 143

In many states, colleges are churning out too many would-be elementary teachers, reports Education Week.

New York and Michigan prepared twice as many elementary teachers as needed in 2011-12. Pennsylvania turned out four new graduates for every job opening. Illinois issued nine new elementary-teacher certificates in 2009 for every one first-time teacher hired in 2010.

By contrast, Colorado and Michigan produce just enough new elementary teachers to meet demand. (That’s assuming nobody moves from Illinois and Pennsylvania.)

Colleges should be more selective about admitting teacher candidates and train them more intensively, argues the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“We could improve, enhance, and extend the quality of teacher preparation, and therefore produce better-qualified new teacher graduates, but probably fewer in number,” agrees Arthur E. Wise, former president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Prospective elementary teachers have lower academic qualifications than other college graduates, concludes a 2007 Educational Testing Service report. (Secondary teachers have higher-than-average test scores.)

“We could raise the bar and get teachers with higher aptitudes in classrooms and still have plenty of elementary teachers,” (NCTQ’s Arthur) McKee said.

Massachusetts beats Finland

Finland is an education “miracle story,” according to one set of international tests, but nothing special on others, reports Ed Week’s Curriculum Matters. “If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average on the 2011 TIMSS, or Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, released last month. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as “benchmarking education systems” on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana.

. . . “Finland’s exaggerated reputation is based on its performance on PISA, an assessment that matches up well with its way of teaching math,” said Loveless, which he described as “applying math to solve ‘real world’ problems.”

He added, “In contrast, TIMSS tries to assess how well students have learned the curriculum taught in schools.”

Finland’s score of 514 on TIMSS for 8th grade math was close to the U.S. average of 509 and well below Massachusetts’ score of 561. Finland was way, way below South Korea on TIMSS but nearly as high on PISA.

Finland beat the U.S. average on TIMSS science section, but was well under Massachusetts.

In 4th grade reading, Finland beat the U.S. average on PIRLS (Progress in International Reading, Literacy Study), but scored about as well as Florida, the only U.S. state to participate.

Finland’s seventh graders dropped from above average to below average on TIMSS math. Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture said this was “mostly due to a gradual shift of focus in teaching from content mastery towards problem-solving and use of mathematical knowledge.”

U.S. students lag Asians in math, science, reading

Despite some gains, U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, science and reading, according to two international tests, the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, known as PIRLS, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, referred to as TIMSS.

U.S. fourth-graders’ math and reading scores improved since the last time students took the tests several years ago, while eighth-graders remained stable in math and science. Americans outperformed the international average in all three subjects but remained far behind students in such places as Singapore and Hong Kong, especially in math and science.

In fourth-grade math, for example, students in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Ireland and the Flemish region of Belgium outperformed U.S. students.

. . . In eighth-grade science, children in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia, Russia and Hong Kong beat U.S. students.

Some U.S. states participated. Florida, the only state that volunteered to take the fourth-grade reading exam, did very well, virtually tying Hong Kong, the top scorer. Third graders must pass Florida’s state exam to move into fourth grade.

Massachusetts’ eighth graders excelled in science and math. The state’s students placed fifth in math, behind  Singapore. South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan, and second in science, below Singapore.

U.S. students do well in the early grades, but don’t improve as much over time as students in other high-scoring countries, notes Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post.

“When we start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time,” said Jack Buckley, who leads the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The U.S. ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading, seventh in fourth-grade science and ninth in fourth-grade math; that dropped to 13th in eighth-grade science and 12th in eighth-grade math. (Reading wasn’t measured in eighth grade.)

“These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained in eighth grade, where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve.”

Where’s the literature?

Secondary teachers should stress classic works of literature, argue Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein in a paper critical of Common Core Standards. The new standards name only a few required texts, such as foundational American documents (for example, the Declaration of Independence) and a Shakespeare play, notes Ed Week.

(The standards) say that half of what students read in elementary school—and 70 percent in high school—should be informational, arguing that mastery of such texts mirrors the demands likely to be made on them in college and job training. is.

. . .  some English/language arts educators . . .  fear that literature will lose its important place in students’ studies. The standards’ architects have argued that the opposite is true: Teachers of social studies, science and other subjects will inherit new responsibilities for teaching writing and reading in their areas, freeing English/language arts teachers to dive deeply into literary works with their students.

Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor nd a chief architect of Massachusetts’ highly regarded academic standards, and Bauerlein, an Emory English professor, believe “the analytical and critical-thinking skills developed by a deep study of literature” will prepare students for college more effectively than reading informational texts.

Private schools and public schools in affluent suburbs will teach a literature-rich curriculum, while most public school students will suffer from a “literature deficit,”  Stotsky and Bauerlein predict. That will widen the achievement gap, they write.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn isn’t included in Massachusetts’ new Common Cored curriculum, write Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute. (It’s not banned either. It’s just not mentioned.) “These new English standards include less than half as much classic literature and poetry than the Massachusetts standards they will replace.”

 

School funding: Quietly unequal

The rich districts get richer in Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina, according to a new Center for American Progress report, The Stealth Inequities of School Funding. In these states, schools in higher-poverty districts receive less state and local dollars than low-poverty districts, the report finds.

On the state level, there’s no relationship between education spending and results, according to a State Budget Solutions study, which analyzed state spending from 2009 to 2011. Spending more didn’t raise graduation rates or ACT scores. Spending less didn’t lower performance.

Massachusetts, which has the strongest academic performance in almost every subject area and the highest ACT scores, spend less of its state budget on education than 45 other states, SBS reported.

Measuring performance by results

Can School Performance Be Measured Fairly? asks the New York Times‘ Room for Debate.

Testing Has Moved Beyond Filling Circles, responds Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation. Objective test scores should be just one part of measuring student success.

When No Child Left Behind was written 11 years ago, standardized tests were the only way to consistently measure student learning on a large scale. But since then, many states have developed sophisticated data systems that can calculate the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college, enlist in the armed services and land steady, well-paying jobs. Instead of using proxy measures for successful preparation (i.e. test scores) we can use measures of the real thing. If high school graduates need to take remedial courses in college, for example, that means their high school didn’t do its job.

School evaluation should include standardized test scores and visits by “highly trained school inspectors” who can  ”observe classrooms and interview teachers and students.”

Waivers don’t go far enough in allowing states to use better measures of achievement, adds Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.

States may not, for example, use a race-neutral approach to identifying schools that are leaving disadvantaged students behind, as Florida would have liked. (In the Sunshine State’s own system, schools are docked if their lowest-performing students — whatever their race — don’t make significant gains in the course of the school year.) They can’t evaluate high schools by outcomes — like how many students go on to graduate from college — instead of by test scores. They can’t even use computer-adaptive tests, like those uses for graduate school admissions, because low-performing students would get assessed on content that is “below grade level.” (Of course, that’s the point of computer-adaptive technology — it can pinpoint exactly where students are, even if they are far ahead or behind most children their age.)

Use international benchmarks and real-world results, writes Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas education professor.

We can find out if our teachers and administrators are effective by comparing our students’ performance levels on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which assesses knowledge of mathematics and science gained from a rigorous curriculum, and the Program for International Student Assessment, which assesses daily life skills and minimal academic content.

 

Massachusetts’ 26 regional technical/career high schools have long wait lists and high graduation rates, notes Stotsky, who helped write Massachusetts standards. “Accountability ultimately lies in their employability after high school.”

 

Early test lets students boost skills

When Massachusetts high school students took a college placement pretest, most learned they were on the remedial track. After taking online classes, they reduced their need for developmental education in college.

California Latinos, who make up half the college-age population, are missing out on higher education.