Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Shael Polakow-Suransky

New York State took a major step toward implementing the Common Core State Standards this spring with new assessments designed to better measure critical thinking and problem solving. While the new tests certainly leave room for improvement, the new assessments are an important milestone in the shift towards pushing teachers to assign more cognitively challenging and engaging work.

This has been a long time coming.

Seven years ago, Mayor Bloomberg, writing in the Washington Post at the inception of New York City's accountability system, argued that it was critical for states across the country to set a higher standard and align expectations more closely to the rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

As we continue to translate the promise of these new standards into deep changes in what and how we teach, it's critical that we also reflect on what we've learned and consider ways to strengthen the system that is currently in place.

Our accountability system in New York City was designed to promote equity and strengthen the quality of our schools. It was crafted to push schools to make the right instructional decisions for all students and to inform the supports, interventions, and rewards provided to schools. This system is rooted in four core principles:

1.     Schools are compared to other schools serving similar students, providing a fair sense of what schools can achieve;

2.     Schools’ contribution to student learning is the primary emphasis—we use multiple measures that look at both absolute performance and growth,...


One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a...

Chad Aldeman

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has just drawn a very confusing line in the sand over standardized testing. A new announcement this week allowing states flexibility to avoid double-testing students on both existing state assessments and the coming field tests for new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments is likely to have far-reaching and not entirely positive implications.

Let us explain. The new flexibility allows any state (and any district in those states) to count field tests toward NCLB’s annual testing requirement in the spring of 2014 as long as all students are tested on some assessment. However, those field tests will not result in student-, school-, district-, or state-level scores, so theoretically a state could administer the field test to all of its students and have no transparent or actionable data. At the same time, Duncan has threatened to withhold money from California for its legislation limiting testing in the spring of 2014 only to districts with the technical capacity to administer the field tests. California’s plan would also not result in actionable testing data next spring.

The only difference between the two is that California doesn’t care if some students are given a one-year testing reprieve. Both Duncan’s waiver and California’s plan would result in large numbers of students, schools, districts, and (potentially) entire states without testing data for this school year. In fact, Duncan’s plan could result in testing kids solely for the sake of testing them—little to no actionable information for...


The following is the text from Mike Petrilli's testimony to the Tennessee Senate Education Committee on the Common Core, delivered on September 20, 2013.

Senators and Representatives: It’s an honor to be with you today. My name is Mike Petrilli; I’m the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also does on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio. We promote education reforms of all stripes, with a particular focus on school choice and standards-based reform. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush administration; my boss, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan administration.

I suspect that not all of my friends agree with me, but I am glad that you are holding this hearing and debating the issue of whether Tennessee should stick with the Common Core. These standards were developed by the states, and to be successful, they need to be owned by the states. Our educators are all too familiar with the “flavor-of-the-month” reforms that come and go. They are wondering if they should wait this one out too. By having this open debate on the Common Core, you can settle the issue once and for all, either by changing course or moving full-speed ahead.

I am here today to urge you to stay the course with the Common Core. Those of us at Fordham sincerely believe that the faithful implementation of these standards will help many more young people—including Tennesseans—be prepared for success...

In this week’s podcast, Michelle defends Toni Morrison, Mike laughs social-emotional learning out of the room, and both consider the possibilities of the “tablet revolution.” Dara takes us all on a field trip. Amber's Research Minute “ The Educational Value of Field Trips ,” by Jay P. Greene, Brian...

Many of today’s reform critics see standardized testing as education’s greatest evil, arguing that it forces a dull, routinized and stifling learning culture. However, in this new book by William J. Reese, a professor of educational-policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we learn that pen-and-paper exams were, in fact, created in order to reform an uncreative and stifling system—one characterized by testing via “public exhibitions” of well-rehearsed oratories and parades. Reese centers his story on how education reformers Horace Mann (Massachusetts’s first secretary of education) and Samuel Gridley Howe (a member of the state’s School Committee) fought tooth and nail to bring about this transformation. In 1845, the School Committee issued the first written test at Boston’s grammar schools and towns outside of Boston—and the results were abysmal. Nearly half of the test questions were left unanswered, resulting in extremely low average scores: The highest scoring subject was grammar with 39 percent; history reaped an embarrassing 26 percent. (Unfortunately for Howe, parents blamed Howe for this miserable showing and voted him out at the next election.) More than a century and a half later, the testing wars continue. Indeed, Howe’s fate may be on the minds of officials who fret about the failure rate that is apt to follow the new Common Core–aligned assessments. The rest of us, however, should at least understand that these issues aren’t new.


A study out of Britain’s Institute of Education (IOE) has found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in mathematics, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of ten and sixteen than their peers who rarely read. In fact, the study found that whether or not a child likes to read is a greater predictor of classroom success than parents’ educational levels.

A Chicago Tribune article follows Jailyn Baker, a teenager in Chicago, on her seven-leg, hour-and-a-half-long commute to the Josephinium Academy, her school of choice and one of the few private schools in the city that her family can afford. Her story illustrates not only the lengths to which folks will go to exercise school choice but also a great irony: Jailyn lives closer to Indiana, a state that has one of the “most liberating” school-voucher programs in the land, than she does to Josephinium; were she living in Indiana, she would be eligible for a voucher worth nearly $6,000, which could allow her to attend a private school that she didn’t have to torture herself to get to.

Kudos of the week go to Jeb Bush, who—in what seemed like a moment of frustration—struck back at Common Core critics: “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine.” He followed his comments, made at an appearance in Washington in support of Louisiana’s school-voucher program, by calling opposition “purely political.” Read more here.

A month after publishing two pieces blasting the National Council on...


Among the many arguments raging—and more than a little mud-slinging—around the Common Core State Standards, perhaps the most arcane involves the blurry border between academic standards and classroom curricula.

Toni Morrison

Begin with the fact that neither term has a clear definition. Most people hazily understand that standards involve the destination that students ought to reach—i.e., the skills and knowledge (and sometimes habits, attitudes, and practices) that they should have acquired by some point in their educational journey. Often it’s the end of a grade (“by the end of fifth grade, students will know how to multiply and divide whole numbers”), sometimes the completion of a grade band (“by the end of middle school…” or “during ninth and tenth grade”).

Curriculum, on the other hand, is what Ms. Robertson teaches on Tuesday, in week 19, or during the “fourth unit,” and it generally consists of scopes and sequences, actual lessons, textbooks, reading assignments, and such.

Over a stated period of time, curriculum combined with pedagogy, properly applied by teachers and ingested by students, is supposed to result in the attainment of standards.

But it’s blurry. Standards range from vague to specific and from few to numerous. Curriculum ranges all over the place, from a forty-seven-minute lesson to a yearlong, even multi-year scope and sequence.

In general, in the U.S. in 2013, states prescribe standards, at least in core school...


No, I’m not suggesting that social studies kill people, but the recent emission by the National Council for the Social Studies of “guidance for enhancing the rigor of K–12 civics, economics, geography, and history” does have this in common with the agreement that the U.S. and Russia reached in Geneva on Saturday regarding Syria’s chemical weapons: both are termed “frameworks” and neither will do any good unless many other people do many other things that they are highly unlikely to do.

Abraham Lincoln

The Syrians must itemize, declare, and dismantle their chemical weapons. All of them. Fast. Who really thinks that’s going to happen?

And for the College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards to have any positive influence on this woebegone realm of the American curriculum, states and districts (and textbook publishers, teachers, etc.) must supply all the content. For this framework is avowedly, even proudly, devoid of all content.

Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin Luther), a map of the United States, or the concept of supply and demand. You won’t find anything that you might think children should actually learn about history, geography, civics or economics.

Instead, you will something called an “Inquiry Arc,” defined as “as set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn...


Sending an e-mail to ed-reformers and asking for their two cents results in a many responses, as Michael Petrilli learned when he shared his article “The Problem with Proficiency” and asked, “Who’s with me?”

Here’s a small snapshot of the thoughtful, respectful, and fifty-eight-round (!) conversation that included forty-some opinionated edu-thinkers.

  • “I would argue we need a different accountability system,” writes Randi Weingarten. “One that :

1. Pressures all of us to do better, by shining the spotlight particularly on our most vulnerable children, and what we are doing to help them succeed;

2. Credits improvement appropriately;

3. Defines success (and frankly, proficiency) radically differently than by a test score; and

4. Includes accountability for what we value—and for managerial steps that must be taken such as the provision of supports, not simply outcomes.”

  • “The big question to me is not who holds the bag on the end of year test result, but how we transform the quality of daily work,” asked David Coleman, president of College Board. “How can teachers and students engage in excellent work on a far larger scale?”
  • Frequent Flypaper blogger Andy Smarick tunes in on the state aspect: “The entity that SHOULD be held most accountable, but is actually LEAST accountable, is the state. State constitutions empower/require state governments to ensure kids are educated. If we're displeased with results, and the state is ultimately responsible, we need to hold state governments to account...meaning change how they
  • ...