Standards, Testing, & Accountability

It’s been a long and twisty road since the Common Core State Standards were first released in June 2010. What began more than three years ago as a highly technical debate over the details of the expectations themselves has evolved into a far-reaching philosophical and political debate over the value of setting K–12 academic standards at all.

After two decades of broad bipartisan agreement in the education-reform community on the importance of standards as part of a comprehensive approach to improving our schools, many opponents—bolstered by the work of analysts such as Tom Loveless, Russ Whitehurst, and Eric Hanushek—now oppose the Common Core on grounds that standards don’t really matter anyway, so it isn’t worth expending political capital on a bruising fight to install new ones.

The drumbeat began even before the Common Core standards were finalized, in October 2009, when Russ Whitehurst published a paper in October 2009 challenging the importance of state standards. In brief, Whitehurst compared the “effect sizes” of a variety of reforms—on charter schools, standards, preschool, teacher quality, and curriculum—and found that curriculum had a greater impact than any other reform. He also found that there was no statistically significant correlation between the quality of a state’s standards, as judged by the grades that Fordham assigned, and that state’s student achievement, as measured by NAEP. Rick Hanushek ran a similar analysis using standards...

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It’s silly season for the Common Core debate, and I’m not referring to the latest outlandish claims from folks on the far right. It appears that Common Core Dystopia Disorder has infected some of our usually rational and levelheaded friends in the think-tank community, too.

Jay Greene, I’m talking first and foremost about you. Jay thinks he’s found a smoking gun, proof that we supporters of the Common Core, especially those of us at Fordham, have been dishonest when we’ve claimed that the standards don’t “prescribe” a particular curriculum, because of a recent report in which we fret that educators aren’t embracing the “instructional shifts” promoted by the Common Core:

Common Core doesn’t dictate curriculum or pedagogy Checker assured us, it only requires that “everybody’s schools use the same academic targets and metrics to track their academic performance” and “then those schools can and should be freed up to ‘run themselves’ in the ways that matter most: budget, staffing, curriculum, schedule, and more.”

Also,

These were the promises the Fordham folks made when they were courting us on adopting Common Core, but now that we’re married, they’ve changed their tune. No longer do they bring us flowers, write love-poems, or assure us that Common Core in no way dictates how schools should teach or what they should teach — their pedagogy and curriculum. Instead, Fordham and their friends are now judging schools on whether they are properly implementing ”instructional shifts—ways in which...

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This second annual report on Common Core implementation in forty-eight of the country’s largest urban districts covers a range of topics: professional development, strategies for measuring and collecting data, communication efforts, and the inclusion of ELL students and students with special needs. The survey found that districts are struggling to handle special populations and integrate technology in the classroom and that implementation is lagging, particularly at the middle and high school levels. But not all is gloomy; the results also show promising trends. Nearly all districts reported that CCSS will be fully implemented by the 2014–15 school year, and about half said the standards will be fully implemented by the end of this year, indicating that districts are rolling along, and perhaps even speeding up, their implementation plans. While the authors of the report acknowledge that districts have improved by leaps and bounds since last year’s survey, they reiterate that there is much ground left to cover.

SOURCE: Moses Palacios, et al., Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Year Two Progress Report from the Great City Schools (Washington, D.C.: Council of the Great City Schools, October 2013).
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Does slow and steady win the race? That’s what education analysts are hoping after digging through the newly released math- and reading-achievement scores on the bi-yearly National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The test, administered to around 400,000 fourth-grade and 350,000 eighth-grade public school students, showed the nation’s school kids making slight gains since 2011, continuing a constant climb over the last decade. In math, the average fourth grader scored 242 and the average eighth grader scored 285, both groups up by one point since 2011. In reading, fourth graders did not make any statistically significant gains, but eighth graders improved three points in the intervening two years, going from an average score of 265 to 268. However, the average scorer in both grades did not score at or above the “proficient” level in either math or reading: Fourth graders came closest, with 42 percent reaching or exceeding the mark in mathematics. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between white and black students persisted, and the gap between white and Hispanic students did the same (though the eighth-grade Hispanic cohort is steadily closing the gap in reading scores). But if the average state played the turtle in this fable, there were a few states that played the hare: Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Defense Department schools were the only entities to produce statistically significant gains across both subjects and grades (Tony Bennett’s Indiana also did well, posting significant gains in fourth-grade math and reading). As to whether or not the gains...

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Mike and Brickman celebrate the miraculous survival of skydivers whose plane crashed in midair—but they were never in any danger, since the hot air emanating from Bill de Blasio’s campaign would have saved them anyway. Safely on the ground, they discuss the future of the Common Core in Florida and...

I’m a big fan of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). They do great work to help charter authorizers significantly improve their practices. I speak from firsthand experience—they partnered with the charter office at the New Jersey Department of Education while I was there and substantially improved our work.

But NACSA is more than a provider of technical assistance. In important ways, they help advance reform thinking. The latest example is their excellent recent report on accountability for “alternative” charter schools (or “alternative education campuses”—AECs). Such schools serve very high-risk student populations, including those in the juvenile justice system, with substance abuse problems, who are persistently truant, and more. Accordingly, these schools often fail to perform well on standard measures of student achievement, making it difficult for authorizers to fairly and accurately assess their performance. AECs disproportionately fail to make AYP and are disproportionately represented in states’ bottom 5 percent of schools.

But it might be the case that, despite low test scores, lots of AECs are doing great work. For these schools, because they’ve been identified for attention via state accountability systems, they’re unnecessarily subjected to intrusive state interventions. Currently, only seven states have sought to remedy this situation, creating separate accountability systems for alternative schools. But the ball is most certainly in the court of state governments.

Since states are creating their own new accountability systems via ESEA waivers, they must tackle this issue if AECs are to...

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In the debate over Common Core, there may be only one certainty: Both advocates and opponents spend inordinate amounts of time trying to undermine their opponents by pointing to the perceived underhanded and manipulative actions of their foes. The hope, I suppose, is that if you can undermine the credibility of your opponents, you can win the day—facts be damned.

Unfortunately, by trying to make the conversation about intentions rather than about facts, important debates can be easily overlooked or obscured.

Take Jay Greene’s latest blog post, “Fordham and CC Backers Need To Get Their Stories Straight.” In it, Greene argues that we at Fordham were being inconsistent—perhaps even disingenuous—in our description of what Common Core standards are and are not. On the one hand, Greene argues, we’ve said that Common Core do not prescribe curriculum. But, he goes on,

“[those were] the promises the Fordham folks made when they were courting us on adopting Common Core, but now that we’re married, they’ve changed their tune … No longer do they bring us flowers, write love-poems, or assure us that Common Core in no way dictates how schools should teach or what they should teach—their pedagogy and curriculum.”

It's an odd line of argument, particularly given the simple and straightforward position Fordham has taken on this subject from before the existence of the Common Core. In short, we have always said that the only way for rigorous standards to lead to higher achievement is for state and...

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William McCallum

Who I am and why I decided to work on the Common Core State Standards

I am a university-distinguished professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona. My doctorate in mathematics is from Harvard University, and I have been a fellow at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at Berkeley and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In addition to mathematics research and university teaching, I have been involved in K–12 education for 20 years. For my work in this area, I was honored to receive the National Science Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars in 2005 and the American Mathematical Society’s Award for Award for Distinguished Public Service in 2012. I have come to be known in the mathematics and mathematics education communities as someone who can be trusted to care both about the rigor of the mathematics curriculum and about how children learn.

When I was asked to work on the standards, I decided to use that trust, knowledge, and experience to the utmost, to help build a world where all people know, use, and enjoy mathematics. I saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve our children’s prospects for college and career, to give them the sort of mathematics education they deserve and need in order to prosper. Our children are no less capable than the children of other countries; they can meet high standards and they deserve the opportunity to do so.

How the standards were written

The Common

...
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Education Gadfly Weekly

Opinion + Analysis: 
Opinion
Claim: Rolling back education reform will improve outcomes for students, especially poor students. Reality: There is no evidence for this claim. The most frustrating thing about Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error , isn’t the way she twists the evidence on school choice and testing, her...
Opinion
I’ve been in Asia for other reasons (looking into the education of gifted students), but while on the ground in Tokyo, I learned of a fascinating policy dispute that, in the U.S., would be even more controversial. Compulsory education in Japan runs through ninth grade, but nearly everyone goes to,...
Briefly Noted
After a week of insider chatter predicting that L.A. schools chief John Deasy would resign in February , the L.A. Unified Board of Education issued him a satisfactory evaluation—and his contract has been extended through 2016 . It’s no secret that L.A.’s teacher union has no love of Deasy, due in...
Reviews: 
Report
In the next school year, field testing of new Common Core assessments will be complete, and states will be faced with the weighty decision about which tests they will use to measure student learning going forward. Two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and...
Report
The “fifty-state review” of educational policies has proliferated into a literary genre of its own. Extant are fifty-state reviews of academic standards , charter school laws , a whole plethora of ed-reform policies , teacher-union strength , and even bullying laws . Add to this growing body of...
Study
The latest study by IES attempts to document how American eighth graders compare to their peers around the globe. Using NAEP scores to predict performance on TIMSS, an international test that examines what students know about math and science, analysts included thirty-eight countries and nine other...
Report
New from a workgroup of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), this report maps an oft-overlooked space in the charter-accountability world: How charters that serve special populations, such as students who have dropped out, are held accountable for performance. Two key...
Gadfly Studios: 
Podcast
Dara attempts to understand why Brickman hates Halloween. In the meantime, they tackle Michigan’s legislative strategy for keeping the Common Core, John Deasy’s job status, and the cost of high-quality tests. The TIMSS-NAEP linking study isn’t all bad news for U.S. eighth graders, says Amber. Amber...

Claim: Rolling back education reform will improve outcomes for students, especially poor students.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

The most frustrating thing about Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, isn’t the way she twists the evidence on school choice and testing, her condescending tone...

I’ve been in Asia for other reasons (looking into the education of gifted students), but while on the ground in Tokyo, I learned of a fascinating policy dispute that, in the U.S., would be even more controversial.

Compulsory education in Japan runs through ninth grade, but nearly everyone goes to, and graduates from, high school (twelfth grade). Admission to individual high schools, whether public or private, is competitive, and the competition is intense to get into the best and highest-status of them. (At the one I visited the...

After a week of insider chatter predicting that L.A. schools chief John Deasy would resign in February, the L.A. Unified Board of Education issued him a satisfactory evaluation—and his contract has been extended through 2016. It’s no secret that L.A.’s teacher union has no love of Deasy, due in part to his support for the...

In the next school year, field testing of new Common Core assessments will be complete, and states will be faced with the weighty decision about which tests they will use to measure student learning going forward. Two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), are currently developing the leading options for Common Core–aligned assessments. But states in which anti–Common Core sentiment runs deepest have begun to ...

The “fifty-state review” of educational policies has proliferated into a literary genre of its own. Extant are fifty-state reviews of academic standards, charter school laws, a whole plethora of ed-reform policies, teacher-union strength, and even bullying laws. Add to this growing body of literature the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) recent fifty-state review of teacher evaluation policies. For NCTQ analysts, it’s not merely the teacher-evaluation tool per se that is...

The latest study by IES attempts to document how American eighth graders compare to their peers around the globe. Using NAEP scores to predict performance on TIMSS, an international test that examines what students know about math and science, analysts included thirty-eight countries and nine other educational systems in their inquiry. And the results? Not terrible. Eighth-grade students in thirty-six states outperformed the international TIMSS average in math, and those in forty-seven states did so in science. In the interest of naming names, the states that performed below that average in math included Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Alabama, and the District of Columbia, while four systems—South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—bested every U.S. state in math. Massachusetts did well in math compared to other systems, but when matched against the top performers, its...

New from a workgroup of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), this report maps an oft-overlooked space in the charter-accountability world: How charters that serve special populations, such as students who have dropped out, are held accountable for performance. Two key points emerge (which are really applicable to all charters): (1) Make the charter contract the central instrument of accountability and (2) be open to different yet detailed and rigorous approaches to evaluating academic success or failure. Interestingly, the report recommends not making significant changes to operational and financial indicators or methods of oversight for alternative schools. Approaches to the performance frameworks can vary from setting different cut scores to wholly different accountability measures specific to alternative schools. The report discusses proficiency, growth...

In the next school year, field testing of new Common Core assessments will be complete, and states will be faced with the weighty decision about which tests they will use to measure student learning going forward. Two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), are currently developing the leading options for Common Core–aligned assessments. But states in which anti–Common Core sentiment runs deepest have begun to back away from the consortia (to date, four states—Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah—have officially withdrawn), leading to consternation among Common Core supporters and joy among detractors. This has left remaining states in a pickle: If additional states withdraw, will the cost of consortia-developed assessments skyrocket as the fixed costs are spread over fewer states? This new report from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center sought out answers—and contains good news for those states choosing to stay the course. After calculating the projected costs for consortia-developed assessments, summarizing key differences between the two, and estimating the costs for non-consortia testing options such as ACT-developed assessments and vendor-developed, state-specific tests, author Matthew Chingos found that price fluctuations that could occur if more states withdraw would be relatively minor. For example, even when considering the possible departure of Florida, PARCC’s second-largest member, the price of PARCC’s tests would only increase by about 60 cents per student. If only the fifteen states currently field testing PARCC were to ultimately adopt the tests, test costs would increase by just $2.50 per...

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