Brookings: Ability grouping is back

Elementary teachers are using ability grouping once again, according to the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless.

Ability grouping was very popular from the 1960′s through the 1980s, but came under attack as inequitable in the 1990′s. In 1961, 80 percent divided children into robins, bluebirds and sparrows, or the like. (I was a bluebird in 1958.) By 1998, only 28 percent of fourth graders were being placed in reading groups by ability. That shot up to 71 percent by 2009, Brookings finds.

Math ability grouping rose from 40 percent of fourth graders in 1996 and 42 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2011.

With more computers in elementary classrooms, teachers may be “more comfortable with students in the same classroom studying different materials and progressing at different rates through curriculum,” writes Loveless.

Although ability grouping is coming back, efforts to de-track middle school math are continuing. However, pushing more eighth graders into algebra isn’t raising achievement, the report finds.

States with rising percentages of eighth graders taking Algebra I, Geometry, and other advanced math classes were no more likely to raise their NAEP scores from 2005-2011 than states with declining percentages of eighth graders in those courses.

When more students take pre-algebra and algebra, the courses appear to be watered down, writes Loveless. However, there’s no watering-down effect for geometry.

The U.S. is often exhorted to emulate the high-scoring  “A+ countries” — Belgium (Flemish), Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore – in math instruction. However, “the average A+ country made no more progress in math achievement than any other country in TIMSS” since 1995, the report finds.

And the Finns may do well on PISA but they’re nothing special on TIMSS.

Brookings: Common Core won’t boost achievement

Common Core standards “will have little to no effect on student achievement,” predicts Tom Loveless, in How Well are American Students Learning?, a report by Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. The quality or rigor of state standards doesn’t correlate with students’ reading or math performance on NAEP, Loveless concludes.

“State standards have really never been able to penetrate down to the classroom and affect teaching and learning.  Common Core advocates believe this time is different.  I’m skeptical that their project has some secret ingredient that previous standards lacked.”

Standards represent the intended curriculum, “what governments want students to learn,” Loveless writes. Then there’s the implemented curriculum, “what teachers teach.”

Two fourth-grade teachers in classrooms next door to each other may teach multiplication in vastly different ways and with different degrees of effectiveness. State policies rarely touch such differences. The attained curriculum is what students learn.

Standards peak in popularity when first proposed, then nosedive when “tests are given and consequences kick in,” Loveless writes. Common Core is already losing support.

The report also looks at achievement gaps on NAEP and the tendency to misinterpret international test scores.

Education Next is hosting a discussion on Common Core math standards today.

Is PISA the best test?

U.S. students don’t excel on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), but it may not be the best test, writes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.  He cites a math question for 15-year-olds highlighted by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a member of the U.S. advisory board to PISA:

For a rock concert a rectangular field of size 100 m by 50 m was reserved for the audience. The concert was completely sold out and the field was full with all the fans standing. Which one of the following is likely to be the best estimate of the total number of people attending the concert?

A. 2000

B. 5000

C. 20000

D. 50000

E. 100000

Like Mathews, I answered 5,000; PISA says the answer is 20,000. Loveless agrees that the question involves trivial math and would “throw kids off.” Not every kid goes to rock concerts and not every culture is willing to cram four people in a square meter of space.

“PISA exams are written by the losing side in a century-old debate over how to teach math,” Mathews writes. The pro-PISA progressives “want to make math instruction more relevant to the real world, and emphasize mathematical reasoning more than calculation,” while the anti-PISA and pro-TIMSS  “traditionalists say you can’t reason well without mastering the fundamentals.”

Unlike TIMSS, PISA’s approach to science leans left, Mathews writes.

On PISA’s student questionnaire, those who support statements such as “I am in favor of having laws that regulate factory emissions even if this would increase the price of products” are deemed to be environmentally responsible. Those who disagree are not.

Despite the differences between PISA and TIMSS, however, some of the same countries —Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan — do very well on both.

The feds are spending $350 million to help states develop common tests to go with common standards.