Atlanta’s cheated students wait for help

When former Atlanta administrators and teachers were convicted in a districtwide cheating conspiracy, prosecutors promised to help their students by offering tutoring, GED classes or job training. But, six months later, the promised Atlanta Redemption Academy is “on hold,” report Molly Bloom and Rhonda Cook in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta Public Schools plans a separate program to help children affected by cheating, but it won’t start till January at the earliest.

Parents charge “Atlanta is cheating its children,” writes Bloom and Cook.

“When are they going to come back to help the children?” asked Vanessa Haynes, whose daughter testified her fourth grade teacher told students to erase and correct answers on the tests.

Her daughter needs help in reading and math, said Haynes. “Go back and teach these children what you failed to teach them in the first place. Make it right.”

Tests are getting tougher

Tests are getting tougher, according to a new federal report, writes Mikhail Zinshteyn on The Educated Reporter. Common Core adopters Kentucky, New York and North Carolina joined Texas, which rejected the Core, in raising expectations for fourth and eighth graders.

Overall, states are asking more of students, but most set proficiency cut scores at a lower level than the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). In 25 states, what’s considered “proficient” fourth-grade reading is equivalent to “below basic” performance on NAEP. Only New York and Wisconsin matched NAEP’s definition of proficient in fourth-grade reading and only New York matched in eighth-grade reading.

Image of Tougher Tests May Be New Norm in Common Core EraSource: 

“Proficient” students are on track to be ready for college, according to NAEP.

Many states are “living in a Lake Wobegon fantasy where they say the students are above average when they’re not,” said Gary Phillips, American Institutes for Research vice president. “The rigor of the grade-four standards in the highest achieving states may be comparable to the rigor of the eighth-grade standards in the lowest achieving states.”

In four states (Alabama, Maryland, Georgia and Idaho), the proficient level was below NAEP’s basic cut score for fourth-grade math, according to the study. Five states had fourth-grade math proficient levels at the NAEP level.

Image of Tougher Tests May Be New Norm in Common Core Era

Who grades Core essays? Not all are teachers


Essay graders are trained to be consistent like McDonald’s workers.

New Core-aligned tests rely on fewer multiple-choice questions and more writing, notes the New York Times. For example, elementary students might be asked to “read a passage from a novel written in the first person, and a poem written in the third person, and describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.”

Who’s grading essays on Common Core tests? Temps willing to work for $12 to $14 per hour. A college degree is required, but teaching experience is optional.

On Friday, in an unobtrusive office park northeast of downtown (San Antonio), about 100 temporary employees of the testing giant Pearson worked in diligent silence scoring thousands of short essays written by third- and fifth-grade students from across the country. There was a onetime wedding planner, a retired medical technologist and a former Pearson saleswoman with a master’s degree in marital counseling.

More than three-quarters of scorers have at least one year of teaching experience, according to PARCC, which developed one set of Core tests.

They’re trained to produce consistent scores — just like workers at Starbucks or McDonald’s, said Bob Sanders of Pearson. “McDonald’s has a process in place to make sure they put two patties on that Big Mac,” he continued. “We do that exact same thing.”

“Losers who can’t find real jobs” are grading tests, writes Eric Owens, Daily Caller‘s education editor.

In the real world, you can’t opt out of tests

Brooke Haycock hated her urban high school — when she bothered to attend. She filled in the test bubbles “in poetic form,” ABABC. Then she dropped out. “That’s when the tests got real,” she writes in U.S. News.

“You can’t opt out, walk out or otherwise check out of tests if you want to get anywhere in life, writes Haycock, who writes for the Education Trust.

She studied “for the GED, then the SAT, then the community college placement test on breaks at the coffee shop where I worked” to fight her way to university and a career.

On the way to wherever you want to go lie a series of tests – whatever your direction, whatever your goal. There are the college admissions tests. The Armed Services qualifying tests. The get-a-job tests. The get-a-better job tests. The licensure tests. The promotional tests. Moments where you have to prove yourself – your skills, your knowledge, your merit, your determination.

While they now call the tests you take in school “high stakes,” they are the lowest you will ever encounter. And the only ones where, if you don’t do so well, somebody actually has an obligation to help you do better.

Some adults want students to opt out of testing to undercut accountability, Haycock argues. “The fewer students show up for that test, the fewer students schools are accountable for teaching and the less the system has to change.”

Atlanta cheaters will do hard time

Former Atlanta educators convicted in the cheating scandal will spend years in prison.

Judge Jerry Baxter gave longer sentences than the prosecution requested to defendants who refused to plead guilty and apologize. Three top administrators will serve seven years in prison.

“I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed,” the judge said. “That’s what gets lost in all of this.”

A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.

Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was charged, but was too sick to go to trial. She died a month ago of breast cancer.

I’m surprised at the long sentences.

Will new tests live up to the hype?

Muslim Alkurdi, 18, of Albuquerque High School, joins hundreds of classmates in Albuquerque, N.M, Monday, March 2, 2015, as students staged a walkout to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Muslim Alkurdi, 18, of Albuquerque High School, joins hundreds of classmates, as students staged a walkout to protest a new exams.

In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised teachers that Common Core-aligned Assessments 2.0 would be the tests they had “longed for.”

Millions of students are taking those new tests this spring, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. Enthusiasm for the new tests has waned.

The federal government put $360 million into the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed Core-aligned tests.

This spring, of the original 26 states that signed up for PARCC, just 11 plus Washington, D.C. are giving the test. Of the original 31 signed up for Smarter Balanced, only 18 are still on board. (In the early years, some states were members of both coalitions.) Several of the states will give the PARCC or Smarter Balanced test for one year only, before switching to their own state-based exams next year. Another Common Core exam, known as Aspire, produced by ACT, has stolen away some states from the federally sponsored groups; this spring students in South Carolina and Alabama will take that test.

On the old state tests, only 2 percent of math questions and 21 percent of English questions assessed “higher-order skills,” such as abstract thinking and the ability to draw inferences, concluded a 2012 RAND study of 17 state tests.

Two-thirds of PARCC and SBAC questions call for higher-order skills, according to a 2013 analysis by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

“In the old tests a student would just get a vocabulary word by itself and would be asked to find a synonym,” said Andrew Latham, director of Assessment & Standards Development Services at WestEd, a nonprofit that worked with Smarter Balanced and PARCC on the new tests. “Now you will get that word in a sentence. Students will have to read the sentence and be able to find the right answers through context clues.”

The new tests require students to answer open-ended questions, which takes more time.  Smarter Balanced will take eight and a half hours, while some PARCC tests will take over ten hours.

Duncan had promised teachers would get quick feedback from the new tests, but it takes time to grade students’ writing. The only way to get fast feedback is to use robo-graders instead of humans.

No profit left behind

Pearson, the British publishing behemoth,  sells billions of dollars of textbooks, tests, software and online courses in North America, reports Politico‘s Stephanie Simon in No profit left behind.

“Public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective,” writes Simon.

Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses — and treats — attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in the classroom. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.

Pearson’s interactive tutorials on subjects from algebra to philosophy form the foundation of scores of college courses. It builds online degree programs for a long list of higher education clients, including George Washington University, Arizona State and Texas A&M. The universities retain authority over academics, but Pearson will design entire courses, complete with lecture PowerPoints, discussion questions, exams and grading rubrics.

In peak years, the company has “spent about $1 million lobbying Congress and perhaps $1 million more on the state level,” writes Simon. But, she adds, the National Education Association spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress in 2013.

I think this is the key point:

“The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. “When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills.”

The real question is whether schools need the products and services they’re buying from Pearson and its competitors. As long as Pearson has competitors, it can’t jack up its prices or lower its quality without losing business. For example, it’s losing GED customers like crazy because the new test is too expensive and too difficult. I predict they’ll announce a new new GED or lower prices to regain business.

How hard are Core math problems?

Math teachers in Maryland analyzed a Core-aligned fourth-grade math performance task from PARCC, reports Liana Heitin on Ed Week. Several were surprised at how much it required.

PARCC math item deer.JPG

Teachers listed what students need to know and be able to do to solve the problem:

The definitions of perimeter and area
How to find perimeter and area
The definition of a square mile
The properties of a rectangle
How to solve for an unknown in a perimeter
Multiplication (up to multi-digit)
Addition and subtraction (up to multi-digit)

Some might need division, depending on how they approached the problem.

And everyone will need reading and writing skills.

Students earn credit for finding the missing side length, for finding the area of the park, and for calculating the final number of deer. They also can get partial credit for each piece if they make minor calculation errors. That means the problem must be scored by a person, not a machine.

Here are some fifth-grade math questions released by New York. (Here are third- through eighth-grade questions for English and math.)

The next one involves the (gasp!) metric system.

Could I have solved these in fifth grade? I think so.

Promises, ineptitude and overreach

Race to the Top was a loser, writes Rick Hess on the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion education competition. RTTT has become “a monument to paper promises, bureaucratic ineptitude, and federal overreach.”

Instead of letting states come up with reform ideas, the administration created a list of 19 “priorities.” States could “ace three of the 19 priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally-funded tests.”

 Applicants produced hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the Department-selected reviewers that they would do what the administration asked. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

. . . States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.”

. . . winning states relied heavily on outside consultants funded by private foundations. This meant that in-house commitment to the promised reforms could be pretty thin.

At the height of the Great Recession, dangling billions in federal dollars encouraged state education leaders to dream up new spending programs, Hess writes. Yet the value for grant winners amounted to “about one percent of a state’s annual K-12 budget.”

The Common Core might have been “a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states,” writes Hess. RTTT transformed it into “a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants who signed on only for federal dollars.”

Given that Race to the Top also pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests.

Now, states are running from their Race to the Top promises, threatening the Common Core enterprise.

Test answers are in the (missing) book

Pennsylvania’s state exams can be “gamed” by a “shockingly low-tech strategy,” writes Meredith Broussard, a Temple professor of data journalism. All it takes is reading “the textbooks created by the test makers.”

Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing because they don’t have the right books, she writes in  The Atlantic.

On  the 2009 Pennsylvania exam, third-grade students were asked to write down an even number with three digits and how they know it’s even.

Here’s an example of a correct answer from a testing supplement put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

This partially correct answer earned one point instead of two:

Everyday Math’s third-grade study guide tells teachers to drill students on the rules for odd and even factors and be able to explain how they know the rule is true, Broussard writes. “A third-grader without a textbook can learn the difference between even and odd numbers, but she will find it hard to guess how the test-maker wants to see that difference explained.”

I’m not shocked that tests are aligned to textbooks. What’s truly disturbing is Broussard’s research into whether Philadelphia schools have the right books. She found district administrators don’t know what curriculum each school is using, what books they have or what they need.

According to district policy, every school is supposed to record its book inventory in a centralized database called the Textbook Storage System. “If you give me that list of books in the Textbook Storage System, I can reverse-engineer it and make you a list of which curriculum each school uses,” I told the curriculum officer.

“Really?” she said. “That would be great. I didn’t know you could do that!”

Principals use their own systems for tracking supplies and books. Short of support staff, schools stack books in closets and forget they’re there. Teachers scavenge materials from closed schools and spend their own money to supplement their $100 a year supplies budget.

Broussard built a program, Stacked Up, which found the average Philadelphia school has 27 percent of the books it needs. But that’s just a guess because nobody really knows who’s got what.