We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: ”A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

On tougher test, NY scores plunge

Reading and math scores dropped sharply in New York because the new Common Core-aligned tests are much harder.

In New York City, 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed the state exams in English, and 30 percent passed in math, reports the New York Times. On last year’s easier test, 47 percent of city students passed in English, and 60 percent in math.

Statewide, 31 percent of students passed the exams in reading and math. Last year, 55 percent passed in reading, and 65 percent in math.

Achievement gaps are large: 16 percent of black students and 18 percent of Hispanic students passed English exams, compared with 40 percent of white students and 50 percent of Asians.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said higher standards will prepare students for college and the work force. “Too many school systems lied to children, families and communities,” Mr. Duncan said. “Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators.”

It’s a conspiracy to make teachers look bad and sell more stuff, writes Carol Burris, an award-winning high school principal, on Answer Sheet.

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include “cuneiform,” “sarcophagus,” and “ziggurat.” . . .

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

“There will be tremendous pressure to further narrow the curriculum and cut out all of the enrichment that can make young children smile with anticipation on Monday mornings,” Burris concludes.

New York State Stops Lying to Kids, and That’s a Good Thing, headlines RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Cheating is a valuable workplace skill

Homeschool your kids so they learn to cheat, writes Penelope Trunk on her homeschooling blog. What schools call cheating — getting the right answer from others — is “effective workplace behavior” and a valuable skill, she argues.

Some 85 percent of students admit to cheating, Trunk writes.

. . . Stuyvesant, a New York City magnet school that’s harder to get into than Harvard, had an incredibly organized cheating system that rivals best practices for productivity types in Fortune 500 organizations.

. . . What made Stuyvesant’s cheating system so effective was that everybody had a certain topic that they would be expert on, and everyone else knew how to get the answers from that person.

That’s a great workplace skill, and you do kids a disservice by training them to think that it’s improper behavior.

Compared to their elders, Generation Y is “incredibly productive because they’re great collaborators.”

In the age of information, sharing information rules the day, and there’s no longer a place for a Lone Ranger at the office who works independently of everyone else. Today’s business world is too complicated and too networked for people to work so independently as to not be getting information from other people.

Teachers have been pushing collaborative work on projects and peer tutoring for many years now. Collaborative work on tests is another matter.

Does Trunk have a point?

Tougher tests spur anxiety, opt-outs

New York’s new Common Core-aligned tests are bringing “protests and tears,” reports the New York  Times.

Complaints were plentiful: the tests were too long; students were demoralized to the point of tears; teachers were not adequately prepared. Some parents, long skeptical of the emphasis on standardized testing, forbade their children from participating.

“All the kids were, like, open-mouthed, crazy-shocked and very upset,” said.Maya Velasquez, 14, an eighth grader at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering.

Education officials are predicting test scores will nosedive in the first year.

 Across the city on Thursday, teachers and principals reported that the test required more stamina and concentration than students were used to.

Students said they struggled with questions that asked them to discuss how a writer constructed a story rather than about the content of the passage itself. One question, for instance, asked students to analyze how an author built suspense in describing a girl whose rope snapped while in a cave.

At the Computer School on the Upper West Side, students said teachers had warned them that the test would be the most challenging they had taken. “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder,” said Ron Yogev, a sixth grader.

That was the point. David Coleman, president of the College Board and an architect of the Common Core standards, told critics to chill. “When the alternative is shallower passages and shallower questions, what are we debating here?” he said.

Some parents, especially in affluent areas, are opting out of testing, notes Dana Goldstein in a blog post on Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core.

The new tests were “rolled out” before many schools and teachers received new curriculum materials and training.

. . .  the decision to move quickly was a deliberate one on the part of state policy-makers; since the exams are tied to teacher evaluations and high school graduation requirements, rolling them out sends a strong message that officials expect instruction to improve now. The risk is that the Common Core movement will lose political support as families and schools receive low test scores, and that states like New York will grade the exams on such a steep curve that their purpose–raising expectations–will be watered down.

It takes “fortitude” to stick with rigorous tests when many students do badly — especially if they’re middle-class students — Goldstein concludes.

Texas may cut tests, graduation reqs

Texas leads the nation in test-based accountability for public schools, but now legislators may ease rigorous graduation requirements, reports the New York Times. Currently, high school students must take four years of English, math, social studies and science, unless their parents sign an opt-out form, and pass 15 end-of-course exams. A bill that’s already passed the Texas House would let students earn a diploma by passing five exams and taking only three years of math and science.

Not all students want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, argue the bill’s proponents.

Representative Jimmie Don Aycock, the Republican from Killeen who sponsored the House bill (which passed 147 to 2), said the revised curriculum would give students more options, including community colleges or technical schools. “I don’t want them to have to choose up or choose down,” Mr. Aycock said, “but choose what’s right for them.”

Critics say low-income and minority students will be tracked into lower-level classes.

“What we all know is when you leave it up to kids and schools, the poor kids and kids of color will be disproportionately not in the curriculum that could make the most difference for them,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for racial minorities and low-income children.

Texas’ graduation requirements are the toughest in the nation, especially when it comes to exit exams. Since the requirements went into effect in 2007, the graduation rate has risen from 63 percent to 72 percent. More low-income students are taking at least one Advanced Placement exam.

Lowering expectations means a “return to mediocrity” in Texas, argues Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

The bill establishes a “foundation diploma” with 13 required courses and cuts exit exams in “almost all the tougher courses,” Finn writes. Standards will vary widely: Without state end-of-course exams, schools and districts will be apt to “put rigorous-sounding labels on easy courses.”

. . .  since district superintendents will be tempted to offer only the courses that the state mandates, lots of young Texans—most of them likely poor or minority—will be left with no access to classes that would do the most to propel them to success in higher education and beyond.

Texans are debating whether every high school student needs to pass “advanced algebra” to earn a diploma, Finn writes.

. . . the nationwide “college for everybody” push has gone too far, particularly if what’s meant is a classic four-year liberal-arts degree. But in today’s economy, even young people headed for industry need plenty of serious math. It’s irresponsible not to give all of them such career options—and irresponsible also to suppose that sixteen-year-olds are in the best position to make lifetime decisions that they may later regret.

I understand the risks of letting students choose an easier path to a diploma. But I think many students need a choice between real college prep (you’ll have a good shot at earning a bachelor’s degree) and real career prep (you’ll have a good shot at earning a vocational certificate or associate degree).

Conservatives can like the Common Core

Conservatives should support the Common Core standards, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern, who describe themselves as “education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks” (Fordham and the Manhattan Institute).

Glenn Beck  calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Michelle Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.”  Not so, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

Common Core State Standards . . . describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

Common Core doesn’t force English teachers to drop To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of government manuals, they write.  All teachers — not just English teachers — will expose students to informational texts and literary nonfiction. That includes “foundational texts of American history—the Gettysburg Address, Common Sense, and works of thought leaders like Emerson and Thoreau.”

(Non-fiction reading can inspire creativity, writes an AP English teacher in Ed Week’s Teacher.)

On the math side, opponents argue the standards are “squishy, progressive and lacking in rigorous content.”  But the math standards are dominated by content, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

 Unlike many of the replaced state standards, Common Core demands automaticity (memorization) with basic math facts, mastery of standard algorithms, and understanding of critical arithmetic. These essential foundational math skills are not only required but prioritized, particularly in the early grades. The math standards focus in depth on fewer topics that coherently build over time.

“For decades, conservatives have fought to hold students accountable for high standards and an academic curriculum imbued with great works of Western civilization and the American republic,” conclude Porter-Magee and Stern. “This is our chance to make it happen.”

Common Core could lead to “federal control of school curricula,” writes Neal McCluskey on Cato’s blog.  Porter-Magee will serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s technical review panel vetting Common Core tests developed by “Department-selected consortia,” he adds. If the feds control the tests, they control what’s taught in schools, argues McCluskey.

College for free in 10 years?

Will college be free in 10 years? Time looks at a future in which a four-year residential college is a luxury item for the few, while most learners pursue higher education online.

As learning goes online, most universities “will be in the accreditation business,” predicts author and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa.

(Universities) will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

Private companies are getting into skills assessment, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. “The big enchilada of potential disruptions to higher education is if employers go outside of the academy to size up job seekers.”

Smarterer, a Boston-based start-up “offers 800 free online tests for people to prove their chops in areas ranging from C++ programming to speaking English for business or understanding Gothic architecture.”

Jennifer Fremont-Smith, Smarterer’s CEO, describes the company as a “third-party, super powerful assessment and credentialing tool.” Its goal is not to replace the college degree, which Fremont-Smith acknowledges is currently the gold standard of credentials, but to give employers an additional way to sort through job applicants.

More than 400 employers have used the service to help evaluate job candidates’ skills, she says.

Rival companies like Skills.to and Degreed attempt to assess skills and learning. And the ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate measures employability with tests on applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. The certificate is geared for entry-level jobs, even for applicants who lack a college credential.

On the other side of the spectrum, Bloomberg in 2010 introduced an assessment aimed at students who want to bulk up their C.V.s to land jobs in finance. The test covers 11 fairly narrow categories, like investment banking and analyzing financial statements.

Mozilla’s Open Badges project lets people “issue, earn or display badges that display their earners’ skills or achievements,” writes Fain. But digital badges aren’t backed by independent testing, so they’re likely to lack credibility.

Measuring performance by results

Can School Performance Be Measured Fairly? asks the New York Times‘ Room for Debate.

Testing Has Moved Beyond Filling Circles, responds Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation. Objective test scores should be just one part of measuring student success.

When No Child Left Behind was written 11 years ago, standardized tests were the only way to consistently measure student learning on a large scale. But since then, many states have developed sophisticated data systems that can calculate the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college, enlist in the armed services and land steady, well-paying jobs. Instead of using proxy measures for successful preparation (i.e. test scores) we can use measures of the real thing. If high school graduates need to take remedial courses in college, for example, that means their high school didn’t do its job.

School evaluation should include standardized test scores and visits by “highly trained school inspectors” who can  ”observe classrooms and interview teachers and students.”

Waivers don’t go far enough in allowing states to use better measures of achievement, adds Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.

States may not, for example, use a race-neutral approach to identifying schools that are leaving disadvantaged students behind, as Florida would have liked. (In the Sunshine State’s own system, schools are docked if their lowest-performing students — whatever their race — don’t make significant gains in the course of the school year.) They can’t evaluate high schools by outcomes — like how many students go on to graduate from college — instead of by test scores. They can’t even use computer-adaptive tests, like those uses for graduate school admissions, because low-performing students would get assessed on content that is “below grade level.” (Of course, that’s the point of computer-adaptive technology — it can pinpoint exactly where students are, even if they are far ahead or behind most children their age.)

Use international benchmarks and real-world results, writes Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas education professor.

We can find out if our teachers and administrators are effective by comparing our students’ performance levels on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which assesses knowledge of mathematics and science gained from a rigorous curriculum, and the Program for International Student Assessment, which assesses daily life skills and minimal academic content.

 

Massachusetts’ 26 regional technical/career high schools have long wait lists and high graduation rates, notes Stotsky, who helped write Massachusetts standards. “Accountability ultimately lies in their employability after high school.”

 

New standards, new tests — and new schools

“The standards-and-testing model of school reform is far from dead,” writes Paul Glastris in the kick-off to Washington Monthly’s look at  The Next Wave of School Reform.  Common standards and far more sophisticated testing will transform what happens in the nation’s classrooms, he predicts.

Transcontinental Education by Robert Rothman argues for the powerful effect of common standards.

Teaching to a well-designed test that requires students to analyze and interpret is fine, writes Susan Headden in A Test Worth Teaching To. The problem is that schools rely heavily on cheap, multiple-choice tests of basic skills that cause “shallow learning to crowd out the deep.”

In America, high-caliber tests like AP exams are usually the province of elite, high-achieving students on the college track. And so you might think that this two-tier assessment system is an inevitable result of inequality—that underprivileged kids wouldn’t have a prayer on these more demanding tests. Yet the industrialized nations that consistently outshine the United States on measures of educational achievement—countries like Singapore and Australia—have used such assessments for students across the educational and socioeconomic spectrum for years. Although some are multiple-choice tests, most are made up of open-ended questions that demand extensive writing, analysis, and demonstration of sound reasoning—like AP tests.

In Grand Test Auto, Bill Tucker writes about “stealth assessments” that “are embedded directly into learning experiences and enable a deeper level of learning at the same time.”

In this vision, students would spend their time in the classroom solving problems, mastering complex projects, or even conducting experiments, as many of them do now. But they ’d do much of it through a technological interface: via interactive lessons and simulations, digital instruments, and, above all, games. Information about an individual student’s approach, persistence, and problem-solving strategies, in addition to their record of right and wrong answers, would be collected over time, generating much more detailed and valid evidence about a student’s skills and knowledge than a one-shot test. And all the while, these sophisticated systems would adapt, constantly updating to keep the student challenged, supported, and engaged.

We’re not there yet, Tucker writes, but we will be.

Read the whole thing.