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.”

What proficiency education looks like

RPA students prep for a wilderness and first-aid elective.

RPA students prep for a wilderness  elective. Photo: Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows looks at an Oregon high school that lets students build their own education.

At Redmond Proficiency Academy (RPA), “students have great liberty to choose the classes they want, even to show up at class or not, to find a groove of learning they’re comfortable with, and to have their success be measured in terms of proficiency or mastery for the content and skills,” writes Fallows in The Atlantic.

Students who need to make up work can use January and June terms, while those who are on track can pursue electives such as wilderness preparedness and “remote first aid,” to the science of breadmaking.”

George Hegarty, who taught in high schools for 15 years before coming to RPA, explained how a student might reach proficiency.

Students who struggle with their ability to construct thesis-based arguments about a novel, poem, or play in an English class have taken walks with their teachers and shared their ideas and analyses of the texts while the teacher took notes. The teacher, then, sits down with the students and helps them see the structured nature of their thinking, and helps them convert the notes into an outline for a paper.

This process highlights that education follows a growth trajectory rather than a “one and done” pass or fail mentality, and we have found that it encourages … students to immerse themselves in particular subject areas rather than simply “survive” Humanities classes.

It takes “about 10,000 percent more individual attention” than in traditional schools,  says Hegarty.

Proficient — or just pretending

Why Proficiency Matters, a new site created by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, shows the gap between reading and math proficiency levels reported by each state and scores reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The gap is 30 percentage points in many states. In Alabama and Idaho, the gap is nearly 60 points.
Enter your state to see how well its proficiency cut scores align with NAEP.

“When the proficiency cut score is too low, it conveys a false sense of student achievement to parents, teachers and educators,” warns the foundation. “This false sense of achievement damages students’ long–term chance for success in college or the workforce.”

First-year college students spend $7 billion a year to learn what they should have mastered in high school, according to a 2012 study.

Common Core standards may be pushing states to raise proficiency standards in reading and math, writes Paul Peterson in Education Next.

Colleges not ready for ‘college ready’ Core grads

Students who pass Common Core-aligned tests in high school could end up in remedial college classes, writes Allie Grasgreen on Politico.

The new standards are supposed to represent “the knowledge and skills necessary for students to be college- and career-ready.” But most university systems won’t use Common Core proficiency to decide who’s placed in college-level courses.

State universities in California and Washington plan to use students’ test scores to guide college placement, writes Grasgreen. Colorado and Ohio are moving in that direction. But most universities are holding back. They’re not sure what “proficient” will mean.

20 states raise proficiency standards

Twenty states strengthened their student proficiency standards from 2011 to 2013, while eight states weakened standards, according to a study in Education Next.

All the states showing strong improvements have adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the authors note.

There remains a 30-point differential between the percentage of students defined as “proficient” by the average state and the percentage of students considered proficient by NAEP.

In many states, taxpayers have been funding tests that are a “weapon of mass deception,” writes Matthew Ladner. “Regardless of where you stand on the Common Core project, and we’ve beat the horse into hamburger on it here, state tests with the approximate rigor of a My Little Pony coloring book — look Mommy I colored this unicorn blue-I’m PROFICIENT!!! — deserve no one’s support.”

Latino students make progress

Young Latinos are doing better in school and are more likely to complete high school,  reports America’s Hispanic Children — Gaining Ground Looking Forward by Child Trends Hispanic Institute.

The percentage of Hispanic eighth graders achieving at or above the “proficient” level in math (an important predictor of high school completion) has increased from 8 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2014.

Dropout rates have fallen sharply, but only 73 percent of Hispanic youths complete high school in four years, compared to 86 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

 

Only a quarter of young Hispanic adults have earned a two- or four-year college degree compared to half of non-Hispanic whites.

 

The report also looks at health, economics, family and other issues. I noticed that young Hispanics are much more likely than blacks to be growing up in a two-parent family.

Illinois sets lower standards for blacks, Latinos

Under a No Child Left Behind waiver, Illinois schools will set lower standards for blacks, Latinos, low-income students and other groups, reports the Chicago Tribune.

For example, while 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, the goal is 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students.

NCLB calls for 100 percent of students to pass reading and math exams this school year. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. “By 2013, almost 85 percent of Illinois schools had received failing labels, including many of the state’s premier high schools,” reports the Tribune.

Since Congress has failed to update the law, the Education Department has given most state waivers. Illinois isn’t the first to set different standards for different student groups.

The lowest 15 percent of struggling schools in Illinois will be targeted for state attention. The six-year goal is to halve the percentage of students and groups who fail reading and math exams.

 Each year, groups will have goals for improving that push them toward their 2019 target. Because groups start at different places, their final targets will be different too. For example, state data provided to the federal government shows the percent of students passing exams in 2019 would range from about 52 to 92 percent, depending on test, grade and student group.

For all students combined, the passing rate would be about 76 to 79 percent in 2019 — lower than the now-infamous 100 percent requirement.

Illinois also will use “supergroups,” lumping together black, Latino and Native American students in the same group rather than looking at their achievement separately.  The Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy groups, said supergroups undercut accountability. “This eliminates one of the most important civil rights victories in education law, and returns us to a time where states may not be responsive to the needs of underserved students.”

Under the state’s new policy, districts won’t have to offer tutoring — or transfers — to students in repeatedly failing schools.

Each school will have different achievement goals, so it will be harder for parents to compare schools’ achievement results.

2014: It’s time for universal proficiency!

It’s 2014:  All students will be proficient in reading and math, Mike Petrilli reminds us. It’s the law!

Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year, all students in each group described in subparagraph (C)(v) will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement.

– No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, section 1111(2)(F)

The next time someone talks about all students being college and career ready, a highly effective teacher in every classroom or eradicating childhood poverty, remember “universal proficiency by 2014,” Petrilli suggests.

The No Child Left Behind generation — today’s 11th graders started school after the law passed — are doing better he writes. 

NCLB kids were fourth graders in 2007:

Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black and Hispanic students all shot up four points (almost half a grade) over 2002’s baseline and math scores went up a whopping five points for all students, for white students, and for Hispanic students over a 2003 baseline, and black scores rocketed an incredible six points.

And in 2011, as eighth graders:

Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black students shot up four points over 2007’s baseline, while Hispanic students gained five points, and math scores were up three points over 2007, with Hispanic students gaining five points.

Yet just a third of the NCLB Generation had become proficient readers by the eighth grade. For Blacks and Hispanics, it was 15 and 19 percent, respectively. The results for mathematics were just a few points higher.

Still, these incremental gains add up to about half a year of extra learning, on average, writes Petrilli. That’s not enough, but it’s something.

Next time around, the goals should be high but achievable, writes Petrilli. For example, in the next six years, let’s try to get the national average to the level already achieved by Massachusetts students.

Parents: Set goals, measure, fix

Parents strongly support standards, assessment and evaluation writes Suzanne Tacheny Kuback in an e-mail discussion on Mike Petrilli’s “problem with proficiency” post. She describes parent focus groups conducted by PIE Network.

Standards, assessment, and evaluation don’t make sense to parents as separate concepts:  to the extent they think about these things at all, it’s just stuff that they assume you do to manage sensibly. (Set goals, measure them, talk about how well you did, and then fix stuff that didn’t work.) Not only would it not make sense to parents to suggest not doing these things, parents are incredulous when they think that any of it isn’t already common practice.

Most intriguing, “standards” don’t even make sense to parents as an idea unless you measure them. I wished we’d videoed those moments in the conversations: if you suggested having standards but no common tests, parents got mad. They literally pushed chairs back from the table or threw pens down to make their point: “You can’t say you have a standard if you don’t also measure it.”

Parents are concerned about excessive testing, but they want the information, Kubach wrotes.  It’s not that they don’t trust teachers.  “They just want to know how their kids are doing and value the objective information they get from tests.”

The problem with proficiency

Proficiency rates are terrible measures of school effectiveness because they “mostly reflect a school’s demographics,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. Schools should be evaluated on growth measures, he argues.

Our school—let’s call it Jefferson—serves a high-poverty population of middle and high school students. Eighty-nine percent of them are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch; 100 percent are African American or Hispanic. And on the most recent state assessment, less than a third of its students were proficient in reading or math. In some grades, fewer than 10 percent were proficient as gauged by current state standards.

That school deserves a big ole F, right?

But there’s more.

According to a rigorous Harvard evaluation, every year Jefferson students gain two and a half times as much in math and five times as much in English as the average school in New York City’s relatively high-performing charter sector.

.  . .Jefferson is so successful, the Harvard researchers conclude, because it has “more instructional time, a relentless focus on academic achievement, and more parent outreach” than other schools.

Now how would you rate this school? How about an A?

“Jefferson” is Democracy Prep Charter High, a New York City school whose high school seniors earn high test scores. It takes at least five years to get them there, says Seth Andrew, founder of the DP network.

Proficiency matters too, responds Checker Finn.

Kids can show plenty of “growth” in school—and yes, we should laud schools that accomplish this—but still not be ready for college because they aren’t actually proficient. This is why absolute levels matter, too, and why schools should be judged in part by how many of the students emerging from them have reached true proficiency or, in today’s parlance, are truly college and career ready.

Let’s concede that both matter, but growth is a better measure of school effectiveness.

Petrilli’s piece has sparked an avid e-mail discussion including American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Rick Hess, Robert Pondiscio and a host of others.  (I’m on vacation with unreliable wireless access — I typed part of a post on a smart phone! — so I haven’t jumped in.)