Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

Core tests spark revolt

Common Core testing revolt is spreading across the nation, reports Politico.

The Obama administration put more than $370 million in federal funds into the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia. Forty states signed on — but at least 17 have backed out, including New York, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Louisiana, Missouri and New Jersey may go too.

Opposition is coming from all directions. Even Common Core supporters aren’t happy about the tests.

PARCC estimates its exams will take eight hours for an average third-grader and nearly 10 hours for high school students — not counting optional midyear assessments to make sure students and teachers are on track.

PARCC also plans to develop tests for kindergarten, first- and second- graders, instead of starting with third grade as is typical now. And it aims to test older students in 9th, 10th and 11th grades instead of just once during high school.

The new tests will cost more and the online exams will require states to “spend heavily on computers and broadband,” notes Politico.

Meanwhile, teachers in many states don’t know what sort of test their students will face.

In Michigan, second-grade teacher Julie Brill says she and her colleagues are expected to spend the coming year teaching Common Core standards — while preparing kids for a non-Common Core test that measures different skills entirely. “It’s just so crazy,” she said.

And in Florida, which broke with PARCC last year, third-grade teacher Mindy Grimes-Festge says she’s glad to be out of a Common Core test she believed was designed to make children fail — but she has only the most minimal information about the replacement exams.

“We’re going in blind,” Grimes-Festge said. “It’s like jumping from one frying pan to another. Just different cooks.”

Only 42 percent of students are slated to take PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests — and that’s certain to drop as more states go their own way.

Good riddance to Common Core testing, writes Diane Ravitch.

All accountability testing is at risk, writes Jay Greene. “The Unions are using Common Core not only to block new tests, but to eliminate high stakes testing altogether.”

Study: Post-NCLB, teacher morale is up

The testing-and-accountability era hasn’t turned teachers into “Debbie Downers,” as Education Gadfly puts it.

Teacher job satisfaction has improved since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, according to a new study. Researchers looked at surveys of 140,000 teachers taken before and after 2001.

. . . post-NCLB, teachers are more likely to perceive support from their colleagues, administrators, and parents than prior to the law. The study also found that teachers report a greater sense of “classroom control” (e.g., autonomy over curricula, textbooks, discipline, etc.), greater job satisfaction, and a stronger commitment to the profession.

Researchers compared teachers’ responses in states with accountability regimes prior to NCLB to teachers in states that implemented systems as a result of NCLB.  “The onset of accountability positively impacted teachers’ feelings of classroom control and administrator support,” but had no effect on job satisfaction or commitment.

They don’t know and they don’t care

Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don’t Give A Shit? asks The Onion.

‘Test and punish’ is a state of mind

Test-and-Punish Accountability is a State of Mind, not the State of Reality, argues Anne Hyslop , a New America Foundation policy analyst.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten want to move from “test-and-punish” accountability to a system built on “support-and-improve.”

President Clinton already tried that, Hyslop writes. “Support-and-improve”  became “do-nothing.”

Even when states and district do something to improve schools, results are meager.

After billions invested in retooled School Improvement Grants since 2010, with more resources and more intensive strategies, many under-performing schools have seen no improvements, and a third declines, under the program. Meanwhile, the research on NCLB-style accountability—with consequences—has found positive effects on student achievement, especially for low-performing students and in math.

Furthermore, the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” has vanished, Hyslop writes. “Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

The accountability moratorium will last till 2017 — or longer.

Most reformers believes states should try new “support-and-improve” approaches “in tandem with meaningful accountability systems,” not as an alternative, she writes.

What is incompatible with the support-and-improve mindset is the choices of some elected officials, school administrators, and educators. If drill-and-kill, or weeks of rote test prep, or a testing week “pep rally” is the best you can come up with in response to a system of accountability, then something went terribly wrong, and it isn’t the test.

Transform the response to accountability, Hyslop argues. The test-and-punish culture is a very bad choice. “There are alternatives that don’t sacrifice high-quality, rich instruction at the altar of test-based accountability.”

Core no more

Following Indiana’s lead, Oklahoma and South Carolina have dropped Common Core standards, vowing to write their own. North Carolina will be next.

After that? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants his state to dump the Core too.

In a Missouri compromise, the state will use Core standards for two years to give educators time to write a new set of standards.

States also are dropping out of the two federally funded testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Only 42 percent of students will take a Core-aligned test, reports Education Week. That number is “likely to dwindle.”

6th graders seek pay for field-testing exams

After spending 5 1/2 hours field-testing new Common Core exams, Massachusetts sixth graders want to be paid for their time, reports the Ipswich Chronicle.

Ipswich Middle School teacher Alan Laroche’s A and B period math classes tested the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam. Students told Laroche that “PARCC is going to be making money from the test, so they should get paid as guinea pigs for helping them out in creating this test.”

Student Brett Beaulieu wrote a letter requesting $1,628. He calculated that’s minimum-wage compensation for 37 students for 330 minutes of work.

He then went on to figure out how many school supplies that amount could buy: 22 new Big Ideas MATH Common Core Student Edition Green textbooks or 8,689 Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils.

“Even better, this could buy our school 175,000 sheets of 8 ½” by 11″ paper, and 270 TI-108 calculators,” Beaulieu wrote.

He gathered over 50 signatures from students, as well as from assistant principal Kathy McMahon, principal David Fabrizio and Laroche.

Beaulieu and Laroche sent the letter to PARCC and to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, reports Reason’s Hit & Run. “Regardless of ideology, it seems like nobody—not teachers, not parents, not local officials, and certainly not sixth graders—likes being a guinea pig in an expensive national education experiment.”

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.

NYC: Cheating or sympathy?

“Scores on English Regents exams for high schoolers plummeted” when New York City barred teachers from grading tests given at their own school, reports the New York Daily News. Passing rates dropped at 373 out of 490 schools and the failure rate on English exams rose from 27 percent to 35 percent. That change was “not reflected in the other nine Regents subjects.”

At Harlem Renaissance High School 69% of students passed English in 2012. In 2013, only 37% passed. “Teachers helped us out a little bit. They gave us credit for trying,” said senior Morrell Christian, 19, recalling the good old days. “If you needed extra points they gave them to you. That changed when they couldn’t mark their own tests.

Evaluating essays is subjective, teachers told the Daily News. While “grade inflation was rampant,” it wasn’t cheating, they said.

“Teachers know their students. Sometimes a bad grade means the student giving you hell again next year, or him not getting a scholarship,” said one teacher at a Brooklyn school. “There’s a form of empathy coming out. Like, ‘Oh my God, there has to be another point in there! Let’s find it.’”

Many said teachers were “encouraged to grade the exams generously so more students would graduate.” That helped students, but raising graduation rates also could keep a school from closing and earn the principal a “fat bonus.”

Don’t blame measurements for cheating, writes Matt Yglesias on Vox. He’s responding to tweets by Chris Hayes, who “offers a take on the VA scandal that’s calculated to warm the hearts of America’s teachers unions,” writes Yglesias. Hayes writes:

Current VA story is a classic example how metrics ordered from above often just lead to books being cooked rather than better performance . . . See juking crime stats, Atlanta standardized test cheating scandal, etc…

Yglesias wonders if  “a person who cheats in response to an incentive program the kind of person who’s going to do amazing work in the absence of an incentive program . . . If a data-based framework is imperfect, is going to a data-free one any better?”

Exam stress is higher overseas

U.S. students take lots of tests, but exam stakes are higher overseas, reports NPR.

In England, 16-year-olds take “15 or 20 substantial examinations” as part of a test deciding whether they’ll finish high school, says Dylan Wiliam, a professor emeritus of educational assessment at the University of London.

For those who do well and go on, they get two more years of high school. And each of those years ends with another big round of tests, saving the worst for last.

“And your grades on those examinations will determine which universities you’re offered places at,” Wiliam says.

Grades don’t matter. It’s all about the tests.

Finland has no standardized exams — until the end of high school, when students spend 40 hours taking a half-dozen daylong exams. Students know their futures depend on doing well on the exam, says Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Japanese students have to take entrance exams to get into an academic high school.

 “It’s a lot of pressure,” says Akihiko Takahashi, an associate professor of math education at DePaul University who knows the Japanese testing system well. “If you do not pass exam, you cannot go anywhere, even high school.”

Japanese (and Finnish) universities also give their own entrance exams.

Around the world, except for the U.S., high school grades, teachers’ recommendations, extracurriculars and essays don’t determine college admissions, says Wiliam. “Basically, it’s how well you do on those exams.”