Secret school success

We’re not all going to hell in a hand basket, argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. ”The last 15 years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students — the very children that have been the focus of two decades of reform.”

 . . . For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

This means low-income and minority students are “achieving one, two, and sometimes three grade levels higher than their counterparts in the early 1990s were,” Petrilli writes.

What happened? States that adopted accountability systems made big gains in the ’90s and “the stragglers made big progress once No Child Left Behind forced them to follow suit,” he argues.

NCLB doesn’t hold schools accountable for history, civics, and geography; neither do most states. But “poor and minority kids are stronger readers now, so they can better read the social studies exams and answer more questions correctly,” Petrilli theorizes.

The debate should be about trade-offs, he writes. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their schools may be turning to scripted lessons and squeezing out art and music. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but principals and teachers have more incentive to cheat on tests. “Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their more affluent, higher-achieving peers are making fewer gains. Is it worth it?”

But can they read?

To qualify for federal school improvement funds, a high-poverty Vermont school had to replace its hard-working principal, reports Michael Winerip in the New York Times. The story blames African refugee students who speak little English for the school’s low scores. Winerip writes that 37 of 39 fifth graders are refugees or disabled, although only 22 percent of students are black.

Alyson Klein of Politics K-12 summarizes the reaction of the education blogosphere — negative — and focuses a critical element:  The school’s scores are very low for all students, not just English Learners or special education students.

Winerip implies newly arrived immigrants’ scores count for No Child Left Behind purposes. That’s not true, points out This Week in Education, who adds that the principal was transferred to a job in the district office. Test scores fell during Irvine’s tenure, notes Eduwonk.  Klein adds:

The story includes all of these anecdotes about the great strides Wheeler Elementary School is making in the six years since (Joyce) Irvine became principal, from offering a dental clinic to teaching kids to play the violin to offering field trips for the school’s staff to the Kennedy Center in Washington to learn more about the arts.

But can these kids read?

Klein links to the school’s scores for 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

In 2006, 31 percent of Wheeler’s kids scored in the lowest achievement tier on reading tests. In 2010, 52 percent were in the group at the bottom. (2010 wasn’t a blip either, as the group of kids scoring at the bottom has gradually grown.) If you take out English-language learners, who have more challenges to overcome in learning to read and then taking a test, 23 percent scored at the bottom in reading in 2006, 44 percent did so in 2010. The same trend is seen for non-disabled students.

The district’s turnaround plan was to convert the school to an arts magnet, thereby attracting more middle-income students, reports the Burlington Free Press. Changing the demographics may raise overall test scores, Klein writes, but it does nothing to improve the reading, writing and math abilities of the school’s low-income students.

Will these Integrated Arts Academy students be able to read?

Tight goals, loose means

Ann Bailey-Lipsett, an elementary teacher who blogs at Organized Chaos, was asked to be one of the teacher bloggers at Education Sector’s Finding the Link: Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development conference. She learned that the Education Department’s mantra is: Tight on goals, loose on means.

With first graders this process usually starts out in a few different ways.

The “structure-seekers” ask a lot of questions like “Where do I put my pencil?” “What is the right answer?” and “Do you want us to use blue paper or light blue paper?” while the “oh good, freedom! Let’s see what we can do/get away with” group gets busy making something happen. Not necessarily the right thing, mind you, but paper gets cut, glue bottles are out, excited chatter starts. Then another group, of course, the “run and hiders” manage to sneak into the classroom bathroom, or into the classroom library . . .  All the while, the “I have the right answer” group of children is walking around the room telling everyone else what to do with utmost confidence. And of course, because they are 6 and 7, they end up crying, stamping their feet, and swearing that they are not Susie/Jamie/Max’s friend because Susie/Jamie/Max wont listen to their idea.

It’s sort of like the reactions to Race to the Top and the attempt to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“The act formally known as NCLB”).

Some states immediately got busy applying for RttT grants, while others refused to participate in the process. Some are not acknowledging that any change is occurring and will not until they’ve seen progress from other states, while some, who comfortably followed NCLB, are still waiting for specific instructions. Even in the room today, as I listened to the debate over how much students’ standardized assessments should play into teacher evaluation I couldn’t help feel that this how we are reacting to the discussion even on a personal level. Some of us are the bossy first graders announcing we know what the answer should and should not be. Some of us figure it will all play out in the end and we’re just along for the ride, while others look at this as a blank check to start some change.

And to empty the entire glue pot.

Getting real about inflated test scores

New York is trying to clean up its testing mess, writes Sol Stern in City Journal.  Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and David Steiner, the state’s new education commissioner, have ordered an outside audit of the state’s scores.

To satisfy No Child Left Behind, New York (and many other states) made it easier and easier for students to score as “proficient.” Politicians claim credit for success based on inflated test scores. In New York City, principals and teachers collect bonuses for higher scores with little oversight to prevent cheating.

(In New York) the percentage of eighth-graders reaching proficiency on the state’s math test rose from 58.8 percent in 2007 to a stunning 80.2 percent in 2009, while over the same period, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) math scores for the eighth-graders remained flat. On the state’s fourth-grade reading exams, the proficiency rate went up from 68 percent in 2007 to 76.9 percent in 2009, while the NAEP test again showed no gain. On the state’s eighth-grade reading test, the proficiency rate went from 57 percent to 68.5 percent, while the NAEP tests showed a 1 percentile-point gain.

New York elementary students who guess blindly at multiple-choice questions will do well enough to reach the “basic” level. The high school Regents exams also has been dumbed down, Stein writes. The passing score on the algebra exam is 35 percent.

Stein suggests making it a crime to alter students’ test sheets, banning teachers from grading their own students’ Regents exams and putting test-based bonus schemes on hold till the audit is completed.

If New York gets real about how students are performing, will other states follow suit?

English Learners improve

More English Language Learners are reaching proficiency on state reading and math tests, according to a Center on Education Policy report.  However, it’s impossible to compare data from one state to another, says CEP’s Jack Jennings. From Education Week:

Because of deficiencies in data on ELLs, Mr. Jennings said he’s inclined to think the nation should have a single definition for such students. Currently, each state creates its own definition for an English-language learner under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford education professor, called for benchmarking “state assessments against trusted common benchmarks such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress to verify if the gains are indeed real.”

By breaking out data on ELLs’ achievement, NCLB greatly increased the information available and the focus on non-fluent students. What’s missing is long-term data on how well former ELLs do over time after they leave the program.

Update:  In a long-term study of randomly assigned ELLs, children learned English reading equally well by fourth grade whether they were assigned to Success for All’s Spanish bilingual or English immersion reading program.  Both groups of fourth graders closed most of the gap, but not all, with native-English-speaking students.  John Hopkins’ Robert Slavin, who designed SFA, conducted the study.

SFA’s transitional bilingual program teaches reading in Spanish, “with a transition to English starting as early as 1st grade and completed by 3rd grade,” reports Ed Week.

The study found that students in bilingual education had an edge in Spanish reading skills over students in English immersion in the early grades, while the reverse was true for English reading skills. But differences evened out by the 4th grade, with students scoring about the same in Spanish and in English, the researchers reported.

Since all teachers used Success for All’s scripted curriculum and received the same training, the only difference was the language of instruction. I think the evidence for quite awhile has suggested that good teaching and a strong curriculum is much more important than the language of instruction.

Tight and loose

Arne Duncan’s rewrite of No Child Left Behind wins praise from MikePetrilli of Fordham, who says Duncan has kept his promise to be “tight” about results expected while “loose” on means.

The ESEA blueprint released by the Obama Administration yesterday would represent, as Andy wrote, a dramatic change in the federal role in education – one that would be more targeted, less prescriptive, and use a lighter touch on the vast majority of America’s schools.

Adequate Yearly Progress is out along with the requirement to get 100 percent of students to proficiency by 2014. ”No more getting labelled a ‘failing school’  because some of your special ed students or English language learners failed the state test,” Petrilli writes.

Except for the very worst schools in the country–which would be subject to serious turnaround efforts–the rest would be freed from federally-mandated accountability. (The fastest-improving schools would actually get cash rewards and extra flexibility.) It does call for 100 percent of students to graduate from high school “college and career ready” by 2020, but that’s purely an aspirational goal; there are no consequences attached whatsoever. (The transparancy of annual testing and reporting would continue.)

The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal  are focusing on one part to love or hate, the blind men and the elephant, Petrilli writes.

The unions are complaining that the blueprint, in Randi Weingarten’s words, “places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent of the authority.” John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House education committee, warns that the proposal doesn’t square with Obama’s promise of more flexibity for the states.

Petrilli sees it as a “huge victory” for the unions in getting most schools out of the threat of federal intervention. For suburban schools and their often Republican representatives, it’s also a good thing.

It’s a big setback for special ed and ELL advocates, because the failure of their clients would no longer send schools into a buzz saw of sanctions. The civil rights types, who earnestly believe Washington can fix all equity issues from on high, should be apoplectic.

Petrilli is happy about the plan’s reform realism: Common standards, lots more flexibility and ad admission that No Child’s sanctions “were a bust.”

Since I’m still on vacation — having witnessed Ladies’ Steer Undecorating at the wine country rodeo, we’re on our way to the Great Barrier Reef — I haven’t given the plan a close look. But I worry about the kids who weren’t doing well before No Child Left Behind.  They don’t all go to worst-of-the-worst schools.

Ready but not proficient

No Child Left Behind’s call for all students to be proficient by 2014 was “utopian,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said. His revision of NCLB would replace that goal with higher standards “built around the goal of helping all students graduate high school college-and career-ready,” according to an Education Department statement.

“My real desire is to have a high bar for the country, a common definition for success,” Duncan told reporters. “What we’ve had is a race to the bottom, and students are not prepared for college. We want smart new standards to prepare our students and workforce.”

Eduwonk mocks:

Old NCLB meme: This law is forcing schools to dumb everything down and it’s all basic skills. But too many schools can’t clear its unrealistically high bars.

New NCLB meme: The standards in this law were unrealistically high.  So we’re going to replace it with more ambitious ones…

On National Journal’s Education Experts, Sandy Kress, a Bush education advisor, also spots the paradox.

You are said to want to abandon (not fix, change, extend, but rather abandon) the bipartisan goal set 9 years ago in NCLB of having students at the minimum bar of grade level proficiency by 2014. Apparently, this goal is “utopian,” in your mind.

Yet, you have separately said that the standards behind these goals for 2014 are “fraudulently low” and that they should be dramatically raised to “college/career ready.”

. . . This is akin to saying though we can’t high jump at 5 feet, let’s set the bar at 7 feet!

Setting a “much tougher and higher goal with no challenging annual markers and deadlines for its achievement is real fraud,” Kress says. He’s also dubious about promises to evaluate schools in a more “nuanced” way.

I predict that, whatever euphemism you give it and however many carrots you create with increased spending, if you weaken the accountability provisions of NCLB, we will see a serious falloff in achievement for students, particularly disadvantaged students.

Keep striving for universal proficiency, adds a Boston Globe editorial. The Obama administration’s new goal — a mandate for all students to leave high school “college or career ready’’ — is unclear. It could rely on faddish “21st century skills’’  such as “global awareness, media literacy, and critical thinking,” instead of academic criteria, warns the Globe.

The Christian Science Monitor also fears that “college or career ready” will prove to be a “just a sophisticated way of saying lower standards.”

Who writes the tests?

“Proponents of national benchmarks seem to think that they’ll be the ones writing them,” notes Marcus A. Winters in No State Left Behind in City Journal.

Bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Education will have other ideas. So will congressmen from lower-achieving states, which won’t want to be embarrassed by a national proficiency standard that their students can’t reach. Since any system of setting a common standard—either by federal mandate or voluntary state agreement—depends on the cooperation of lousy performers like Georgia, it’s hard to see how a demanding national standard would survive the political process. Similarly, if the NAEP became an enforceable national benchmark, pressure would grow to make it easier.

Winters proposes amending No Child Left Behind to encourage states to set high standards backed by a challenging test.

Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk looks at teaching common s standards and writing and scoring the tests.

Most experts in the testing community have presumed that the $350 million promised by the U.S. Department of Education to support common assessments would promote those that made greater use of open-ended items capable of measuring higher-order critical-thinking skills.

. . . The issues now on the table include the added expense of those items, as well as sensitive questions about who should be charged with the task of scoring them and whether they will prove reliable enough for high-stakes decisions.

To save the cost of human scorers and speed  turnaround time, testing companies are experimenting with software that scores open-ended responses.  Are we going to let high-stakes tests be scored by robots?

Kill NCLB?

Mr. Obama: Kill NCLB writes Jay Mathews in Class Struggle. Accountability will survive without the federal law, he writes. Instead, we should set “national standards — with a uniform national test” to back them up. States would decide how to meet standards and what to do about schools that fail.

The many different state tests, despite valiant efforts by thoughtful policy makers, started soft and have gotten softer. They set a mediocre standard, and are often so different that it is difficult to tell if a high score in Texas is any better than a low score in Massachusetts. Let’s have one test. In fact, to save money, let’s just make the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, now given to only a sample of students in each state, the test everybody has to take.

Public opinion will push states to pay attention to schools that aren’t meeting standards, as long as the data is public, Mathews argues.

This is Checker Finn’s plan, as Mathews writes, and it makes a certain amount of sense. The time and energy now devoted to NCLB compliance could be devoted to arguing over what the national exam should test and how to test it. That would be a useful argument.

Keep the good school promise

Those who want to dump standards and testing are abandoning the good school promise, writes Tom Vander Ark, ex-Gatesman, on his blog.

The primary reason we have a federal law like NCLB is that school boards (and state boards) allowed generations of chronic failure. They cut bad employment deals and asked for more money when things didn’t go well. Teachers that could went to the suburbs. Most low income and minority kids were getting left behind. Anyone committed to equity could see things had to change.

NCLB reflected a consensus that 1) measurement and transparency would help us understand the problem, 2) that a basic template for school accountability would ensure that things would get better for underserved students, and 3) the federal government should play a bigger role in ensuring equity and excellence.

There were a bunch of technical problems with the bill in 2001 and they never got fixed. But the biggest problem is that 8 years later states and school boards have continued to allow chronic failure—they basically ignored the federal demands to intervene.

If we throw out NCLB, we’re giving up on equity, Vander Ark writes.