Jane Sanders: Testing is a ‘disaster’

If Bernie Sanders is elected president, he’ll take education policy “in the exact opposite direction,” said his wife Jane in a Nation interview.

“We don’t really believe in standardized testing,” said the former college president. “I think the standardized tests that they say: do you know fourth-grade English or fourth-grade history? I think is a disaster and absolutely would not support that.”

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

“Schooling is meant to help people be creative, to have their curiosity stimulated, and have them be actively thinking whatever they’re thinking about — whether it’s the stars, the universe, climate change, anything,” she said. “Having them be able to feel they can explore anything, learn anything.”

A former social worker and political consultant, Jane Sanders earned a doctorate in leadership studies and became interim president of Goddard College and then president of tiny Burlington College, an alternative school with a 25 percent six-year graduation rate. (She left the latter school in deep financial trouble.)

She’s a big fan of progressive education, which she defined as “just having the students have more of a say in what it is they want to learn.”

You might be studying philosophy, math, or English, but you’re learning about what your passion is. Instead of having there be a prescribed set of study — that has a person conveying that knowledge to you — the teacher, the professor is a facilitator to try to meet your needs and to get you thinking critically and writing clearly and communicating effectively.

What if thinking and writing aren’t the student’s passion? He can’t study philosophy or literature because he never learned “fourth-grade English.”

California stops rating schools by proficiency

California is previewing the new education bill’s shift from federal to state accountability, writes Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News. Thanks to a No Child Left Behind waiver granted in June, schools are graded on attendance, graduation rates (“inflated by the demise of the exit exam”) and test participation, rather than by English and math proficency. The pressure is off.

For more than a decade, the release of federal scores indicating California public school students’ progress — or lack of it — has incited alarm, anxiety and anguish among educators.

 But when those marks were ever so quietly posted this month, barely anyone noticed. And it seemed few cared. For the first time in years, California schools met federal standards — but only because the yardstick had been replaced with an easier-to-meet measurement.
Some schools were freed from “Program Improvement” status, despite low achievement scores.

Statewide, only 44 percent of California students tested proficient in English, and 33 percent proficient in math.

Program Improvement “doesn’t have the importance it once did,” said Dorothy Abreu-Coito, director of instructional services in the Sunnyvale School District. “We have to jump through a few hoops.”

Ironically, high-performing Palo Alto High failed because too many 11th graders refused to take state standardized tests.

“Some fear that without federally mandated high expectations and demands for transparency, schools will continue to fail poor and minority children, the intended beneficiaries of No Child Left Behind,” writes Noguchi.

“Much of the pushback to NCLB came because the law actually succeeded, in part, at doing what it was intended to do: identify and intervene in schools that were not helping students achieve overall, as well as those with large disparities in outcomes among different student subgroups, and bring urgency to the need to improve,” writes Melissa Tooley in The Atlantic.  “Under ESSA, it’s no more likely that schools will know how to improve.”

ESSA passes: Will states step up?

No Child Left Behind is no more. The Every Student Succeeds Act has passed the Senate and House by wide margins. President Obama signed the new education bill today.

Will every student succeed under the new education bill?

Will every student succeed under the new education bill?

ESSA guts the “strong accountability provisions that helped spur reforms that have helped more children attain high-quality education than at any other time in the history of American public education,” writes Sandy Kress, who helped write NCLB, on Dropout Nation.

Under ESSA, “schools that fail to lift student achievement or close achievement gaps” will face no federal consequences, he writes. States and districts will hold themselves accountable for serving all students. Or not.

As seen in TexasCalifornia, and even in strong reform-oriented states such as Indiana and New York, traditionalists have been successful in weakening standards for high school graduation, getting rid of accountability measures, and ditching tests that are key in observing how well schools are serving our children. Opponents of reform have been successful in getting more money for doing less for our students . . .

ESSA stands for Excusing States for Student Abandonment, writes Alan Singer on the Huffington Post.

The bill is “political posturing,” writes Conor Williams. “It combines a thin veneer of civil rights equity with excruciating complexity and uncertain accountability.”

Conservatives should oppose the bill’s “bizarre, unclear federal accountability mandates,” he argues. Progressives should not trust states to hold schools accountable for serving underprivileged and underserved kids.

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.”

From No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds 

The newest proposed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — this one’s likely to become law by year’s end — has been released. Ed Week’s Politics K-12 has the details on what’s, unfortunately, named the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). Did we learn nothing about overpromising from No Child Left Behind?

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

States and districts will have to use locally-developed, evidence-based interventions, though, in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate.

Deciding on teacher qualifications will return to state and local control.

“ESSA doesn’t come close to getting it all right, but it’s a vast improvement on NCLB and the status quo,” concludes Rick Hess. “ESSA retains the big thing that NCLB got right for students (e.g. transparency) while stripping away ham-fisted dictates that created problems for students and schools.”

Learning English — pronto

The fall issue of Education Next is out, including my article on what’s changed in how schools are educating students who aren’t proficient in English.

Pushed by No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) accountability measures and the college-for-all movement, educators nationwide have raised expectations for children from immigrant families.

More ELLs are learning in English, as old-style bilingual ed fades away. However, “dual immersion” bilingual programs are proving popular with educated, English-speaking parents.

There’s a greater sense of urgency about getting kids to proficiency in elementary school.

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.

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.

No Child’s lesson: We don’t know how to fix schools


Achievement gaps are closing at a glacial rate.

No Child Left Behind “forced states to identify schools that were failing according to scores on standardized tests,” writes Libby Nelson on Vox. But we don’t know how to fix low-performing schools.

NCLB set in place restructuring options for schools that failed to show progress year after year.

Research in North Carolina by Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor found that the most effective interventions were at opposite ends of the spectrum: Schools that had missed the progress goal for only one year and weren’t yet facing consequences improved. So did schools that faced the biggest consequence, a total restructuring.

But everything in between — transfers, tutoring, a new curriculum or hiring consultants, threatening to restructure — didn’t help much.

The next steps — the various “corrective actions” ranging from firing staff to hiring consultants — were equally ineffective, Ahn and Vigdor found. It wasn’t until schools had to hire new leadership that schools made meaningful change.

Research shows that “No Child Left Behind improved fourth-grade and eighth-grade math test scores, but didn’t do as much for reading abilities,” writes Nelson. Black and low-income students gained the most.

But achievement gaps remain large, according to Sean Reardon at Stanford. “Comparing the magnitude of these effects is akin to comparing the speed of different glaciers,” he wrote. “Some are retreating, some advancing, but none so fast that one would notice a meaningful difference except over a span of decades (or centuries).”