Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘Education Next’

Good As Gold?

In Federal on July 19, 2010 at 4:22 pm

We’ve all heard that Massachusetts is head and shoulders above other states when it comes to their standards. It is generally accepted that they have the most rigorous standards in the country. Their state board of education said as much in March when it came to adopting the Common Core standards – they were too weak and would be a downgrade from Massachusetts current standards. Thus, it comes as a surprise to find that Massachusetts’s Commissioner of Secondary and Elementary Education, Mitchell Chester, has endorsed the new standards and recommended that the state adopt them. Initially, Chester was wary of them. He worried that they would be a downgrade. Now, after spending time analyzing them, he says they’re better than even Massachusetts’s high standards. He’s not the only one, either. Today, two former MA Education Commissioners have put their weight behind the switch. Robert Antonucci and David Driscoll called the standards “an advancement over our already strong Massachusetts standards.”

The kicker is the timing. The Board of Elementary Education is meeting tomorrow to discuss whether to adopt the Common Core with a vote due on Wednesday. What seemed like a long-shot after the release of the preliminary draft of the standards seems to have gained traction with the view that the bar was raised with the final version in June. Last year, if you would have asked most experts, they would have thought Massachusetts would’ve stuck with their plan, maintaining the system because of its effectiveness. The state has consistently topped the country in its NAEP scores and even ranks high globally. There are some calling the decision to switch to the new standards foolish, but there is a good chance the first step toward adopting the Common Core standards will be occur this week.

If the state whose standards are considered the gold standard joins the Common Core movement, will it set the bar? (Oh, I kill myself)

If Massachusetts decides to go through with the adoption, there will be little for any state to say in the matter. With the clear leader joining the pack, states like Virginia will have a hard time arguing that their standards are too good to be “downgraded.”

Assessing the Assessments

In Federal on July 4, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Happy 4th! I’m about to be patriotic and read the SMARTER and PARCC applications for Race to the Test. Both are enormous, so I’m sure I won’t catch every detail of their applications. PARCC hasn’t even put their entire application online because it’s so big. Before I begin, I’ve got a few opening thoughts.

Assessment Applications and Fireworks: What could be better?

First of all, I think the state involvement is not what you’d expect. SMARTER has 31 states while PARCC has 26. Of course, the usual states aren’t participating: Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming. A few other states aren’t in on it either, though: Nebraska, Minnesota, and  Virginia (notice that Wisconsin is participating, even though Rep. Obey wanted to reduce the funding to it to RttT). It’s notable that none of those states applied for Race to the Top. Minnesota and Virginia claim that their standards are higher than the CORE standards on which the assessments will be based. While Minnesota may have some basis for their claim, all seven states ahead of them in the strength of their standards according to Education Next, Virginia ranks 40th among states in standards rigor. I’m having a hard time believe a C would bring down a D. Of course, the timeline could have something to do with this. States had to sign on to being a part of these consortia before the CORE standards were even released, so states didn’t have much to go on. By most accounts, the standards are higher than most if not all states currently, so that’s not a worry to those participating.

Aside from the states not participating, some states are participating in both of the consortia. Their staffs must be working overtime. Those in both are Colorado, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. It’s important to note that those states are considered “Advisory States” within SMARTER, rather than “Governing States.” Here’s a graphic to explain what that means. Most likely, they are only decision-makers in PARCC, but are working collaboratively with SMARTER on the R&D parts. This might actually prove handy to SMARTER. They get more states doing work for them (31 to 26), but have fewer states arguing over what to do (19 to 26).

Other observations? Going back to the state standards rigor, 9 out of the top 10 states participating are in SMARTER (Massachusetts isn’t), while only three are in PARCC (New Hampshire and New Jersey are in both). The states not participating are ranked 8 (MN), 23 (WY), 27(AK),  40(VA), 45(TX), and 49 (NE). It’s clear that it’s local-control politics (read Conservatives), rather than worry of low standards that is keeping these states out of participating. I suppose it’s just as well. That means that Virginia, Texas, and Nebraska can’t drag down the quality.

CORRECTION: After reading Bill Tucker’s post, I realize I overlooked the organization of PARCC. Those states that are advisory within SMARTER and are also in PARCC are also only advisory in PARCC. In addition, Iowa and South Dakota are advisory within SMARTER and not in PARCC, while California, Mississippi, and Arkansas are advisory within PARCC, but not in SMARTER. That means that PARCC only has 11 governing states, 8 less than SMARTER. Tucker also points out that the openness of the structure allows states to join or become governing states fairly easily, so it is likely that the consortia one stay in this configuration.

Creating the Finish Line

In Federal, Uncategorized on June 29, 2010 at 2:02 pm

It seems as though I am not alone in my criticism of Cortines from my last post. The mayor’s not too fond of his mettle, either. He says he’s not supportive enough of charter schools.

As I said on Thursday, one of the big recent developments is Race to the Test, a contest to create assessments that align with the new Common Core standards. Personally, if they can actually make legitimate assessments that aren’t just multiple-choice fill-in-the-bubble exams that force students to regurgitate information for a few hours at a time, not only will I be impressed, but it will be a major step forward from what the current state tests look like.

The odd thing about this particular race, though, is that instead of allowing a number of different groups to compete for the prize, only three organizations were tapped and all three will be getting something. According to EdWeek, there were originally six consortia, but because there was so much overlap, they combined forces. Two of the three consortia, consisting of 26 and 31 states, are competing for $320 million of the total $350 million to create tests for all grades, while a smaller group of 12 states is aiming at making reliable high school exit exams. Even though these are states creating the assessments, it seems as though the federal government’s suggestions may go a long way to shaping what the tests look like. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers initially started out with major differences in their proposals, but after the receiving comments on them, their plans now look very similar to one another. Both are planning on having performance assessments spread throughout the year to track development along with a big exam at the end.

Perhaps smarter tests can be integrated into schools better.

One major difference is that despite the fact that both groups are using technology, SMARTER seems to have latched onto the computer-adaptive model, which can lead to greater accuracy and faster tests. For those unfamiliar, most graduate entrance exams (the LSAT, the GRE, etc) at this point use computer-adaptive tests that change depending on how well the student is doing. They are essentially the exam equivalent of an optometrist trying to figure out your vision. Instead of changing the strength of the prescription depending on how well you can see,  questions get harder or easier depending on how well you perform on each question. That way, they can zero in on where your performance is. Why is this important? In most states, standardized tests take a significant amount of time. I can remember my own high school experience in Indiana when the entire school would essentially shut down for a week for the sophomores and students who hadn’t previously passed to take the ISTEP. As a teacher in Arizona, there were separate days  for reading, writing, math, and science sections of AIMS, as well as an additional day for freshmen to take the TerraNova, and that doesn’t even include the extra days in the fall for students who failed the previous spring to retake the tests. If these tests used adaptive technology, they could be whittled down to a fraction of the length, resulting in more accuracy because of less burn-out from the sheer length of the tests.

While these developments are encouraging, there has been some criticism of the process. EdWeek’s Catherine Gewertz says that the timeline might be too quick. The DOE wants these tests to be in use by 2014-2015. For a strong test to be administered, there needs to be considerable piloting and adjustment and four years may not be enough to reliably do that. Bill Tucker of The Quick and the Ed and EducationNext warns that there are some important steps that may or may not happen that could determine the success of the process. His biggest concern is having open platforms and shared infrastructure. The two consortia seem to be working together so far, so it looks like a positive start. We won’t know how successful this initiative is for a couple of years probably, though.

Are the Right States Being Rewarded in Race to the Top?

In Federal on May 8, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Paul Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón of Education Next recently wrote a report about the improvement (or lack thereof, depending) in state standards across the US. They compared students’ achievement levels on the state tests in comparison to how well they did on the National Assessment of Education Progress. For those unfamiliar, the NAEP was created by the Department of Education and is based upon average international standards of achievement among the  industrialized countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Overall, they found that while reading standards have risen some in recent years, math standards have actually dropped. However, just as important as growth are the levels at which standards are currently. The only state to have higher proficiency requirements than the NAEP in either reading or math was Massachusetts and that was only in math. The state with the lowest standards? Tennessee, one of the two winners of round one of RttT, was hands down the worst state in standards. How terrible?

Based on its own tests and standards, the state claimed in 2009 that over 90 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math, whereas NAEP tests revealed that only 28 percent were performing at a proficient level. Results in 4th-grade reading and at the 8th-grade level are much the same. With such divergence, the concept of “standard” has lost all meaning. It’s as if a yardstick can be 36 inches long in most of the world, but 3 inches long in Tennessee.

Despite these low standards, it was at least holding fairly steady with only a 1% drop in its standards between 2003 and 2009, compared to Arizona with a 48.5% drop and South Carolina with an astounding 65.2% drop in its standards in those six years. In the report and in a podcast with Peterson and Chester Finn Jr., the success of Tennessee and Delaware in Race to the Top is questioned, considering that Tennessee was 51st out of all the states and DC and Delaware wasn’t much better at 36th. Peterson complains

In Tennessee, the gap [between proficiency on state tests versus the NAEP] is wider than any other state, so from that, we gave Tennessee an F. If you go by how well Tennessee has done in the past, how can it possibly be a candidate for one of the two top awards?

He and Finn joke about how federal funding is based upon promises and this is a clear example of that. If past performance were the main indicator, then Tennessee would be one of the first eliminated, rather than the biggest winner.

However, we need to think about the function of Race to the Top. What is its ultimate goal? I would assume  most would agree that RttT is aiming to be a catalyst for change. Duncan and Obama keep patting themselves on the back for all the reforms states have made in the past year without even receiving a penny in return. The money, therefore, is not for crossing the finish line. That’s the wrong metaphor. What’s the point of giving money to Massachusetts for their past performance if they’re going to do well regardless of the money? As mentioned in a previous post, Massachusetts lost out on RttT points because of not being quick enough to adopt the national standards – as the state with the top standards in the country, they would probably be lowering their standards if they adopted the national consensus ones. Why shouldn’t they get points for strong standards, then? Because the point is to get the low performers up. Peterson and Finn point out that both Delaware and Tennesee agreed to adopt the national standards. As both states currently have low standards, adopting the national ones can only move theirs up. I don’t have a problem with grading states based on moves they’re making – these are not for promises at some point in the future. The states have a proposal that has been accepted and is being funded, the same way non-profits or researchers submit a proposal for a grant and get money based on fulfilling the requirements. How else can you fund immediate innovation?