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Gaming the Tests

If there's a test, then there's a way to game it. It's crazy to think that we should therefore abandon standardized tests. But it also makes no sense to rely on test scores without looking for supporting or conflicting evidence elsewhere. Yesterday's New York Times piece on the City's gifted and talented Kindergartens drives this point home.

Two years ago, the score on a standard city-wide test became the sole basis for admission to those programs. Since then, the share of black and Hispanic children in those programs has plummeted. It appears that wealthy parents are buying pricey test-prep books and services for their children. Poor children are, of course, priced out of that market.

I don't know how healthy it is for wealthy four year olds to "turn to jelly on test day" because they've absorbed their parents' fears that a low score will blow their chances at Harvard. But I'm at least as worried about the fate of poor kids when the testing system gives rise to a market whose very premise is that money buys advantage.

As usual, the intentions behind the testing program were noble. Schools chancellor Joel Klein wanted an objective measure that put all children on an equal footing.

But I'm not sure the unintended outcome should really surprise us. We need look no further than the college admissions industry to see what can happen. Wealthy parents buy test prep services, and some even hire college consultants to help them craft the perfect ...

I’ve been loosely following the hype over the recent Brookings’ report on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which calls into question the wisdom of taking a neighborhood approach to education reform. I have read the report, what some have said about it, and HCZ President and CEO Geoffrey Canada’s response to it.

Having drunk the Kool-Aid on the importance wraparound services for students, I must say I sympathize with Canada’s position on a number of counts. Why didn’t the Brookings’ investigators consider growth over time in their analysis? And really, calling into question the whole neighborhood approach to education reform based on the performance of one aspect of the HCZ—one charter school—that 1) does not serve the majority of individuals receiving the Zone’s services and 2) was evaluated in a somewhat suspect way (again, what about growth over time?) seems a bit hasty.

But the main concern I have with this report is its call for a schools-only approach to education reform. That approach is so REACTIVE for a vision of reform. It seems to say that kids come to school “broken” so ...

As more and more states agree to adopt the Common Core State Standards, critics of the effort have been quick to point out that high standards don't guarantee anything. They're right. But that doesn't mean we should back away from the Common Core initiative. High standards are a necessary but insufficient step towards better schools.

Those who raise questions about standards are doing us a service. As Linda Perlstein reminds us, the two states that won the Fordham Foundation's highest marks for their English standards--California and DC--hardly boast the best NAEP results. Folks at the Cato institute, who hate the Common Core effort, are quick to make a similar point. These skeptics offer a useful inoculation against media hype. (Perlstein always plays this role with grace and skill.) They also underscore the point that standards alone won't do wonders.

But the presence of high standards in states whose students don't perform all that well doesn't prove much of anything. Take DC, for example. Its standards are still quite new, and some have credited them with DC's recent rise in NAEP scores. And California's low per-pupil funding levels, together with a whole host of other things, might hold it back.

Clear, high standards won't have much of an impact if the tests are no good, the curriculum is weak, and schools have little or no support to make standards mean something in the classroom. In Massachusetts, whose standards earn high marks, students score on par with students in nations that regularly top the international charts. Some observers see the state's strong tests, staff development for teachers and other supports as reasons for the state's success.

I can already hear howls of protest. This is all mighty speculative, I know. The fact is that it's very ...

Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson recently penned a Newsweek cover story called "The Creativity Crisis." They cite new evidence that American creativity is on the decline, but they also suggest that we can turn things around.

Regular readers of this blog may recall our earlier interview with Merryman about Nurture Shock, the best-selling book she and Bronson published last year. That book argued that many of our most cherished strategies for nurturing children are failing because we overlook key lessons from science.

In their Newsweek piece, Merryman and Bronson find themselves on similar ground. There is a science of creativity, they write, and we ignore that fact at our peril. We can't just pin our hopes on a vague sense of American ingenuity. Nor can we simply enjoin students to let their inner creativity out.

But science can point us toward concrete strategies to boost creativity, Merryman and Bronson write. In an interview last Friday, Merryman told us more.

Is American Creativity on the Decline?

Public School Insights: You and Po Bronson write that measures of creativity in the United States are falling. How bad do you think the situation is?

Merryman: Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) were developed in 1958 by E. Paul Torrance. He and a colleague tracked kids for 40 and 50 years. They found the TTCT predicts lifetime creative achievement more effectively than IQ. It is a three-time stronger correlation.

These tests are continually re-normed because scores are based on, what answer is most original? In 1970, if someone had drawn an iPod, they would've scored off the charts. But a kid who drew something as an iPod today might not be considered original. So the tests are constantly reevaluated in terms of what kids understand and are familiar with.

Kyung Hee Kim, a researcher at the College of William and Mary, is one of the people responsible for re-norming these tests. In May, when analyzing over 300,000 scores, she found a pattern that showed a decline in scores since 1990. Before 1990, scores were going up, but they've been going down since. The decline is the steepest for young children, specifically school-age children. They are still working on the data, so I cannot say “It has declined X percentage.” But what we can say is that the decline is significant, and Kim considers the ...

In education policy circles, we have to come to grips with some of our double standards. Mike Petrilli illustrated two of these double standards in a recent blog posting.

He openly identified only one of them. Can we forgive charter middle schools for lowering test scores of students who are not on free and reduced-price lunch, he asks? We're not as kind to public schools that serve poor children. "Middle class" charter schools tend to be progressive, so they don't focus on the tests, he writes. That, Petrilli speculates, is why middle class charter middle schools seemed to do worse than regular public schools. Middle class kids "will probably do fine" even with the lower scores, he asserts.

Petrilli is no ideologue. He asks whether his double standard will "end up hurting poor kids, who are forced into 'testing factories' while their middle class counterparts get to 'learn while doing'?" But in the end he's not too worried about the apparent dip in middle class scores.

Petrilli makes very valid points in his characteristically thoughtful and engaging way. Yet I see another double standard in his question. Would regular public schools serving the middle class enjoy the same indulgence charter schools do? Would he and his colleagues give regular public schools that favor progressive methods the same free pass on test scores? (Petrilli's employer, the Fordham Foundation, has not been very kind to progressive educators in the past.)

Petrilli's posting reminds us that the charter movement is not some monolithic force. In recent media portrayals, charters come across as schools that strive to lift student achievement, and test scores are simply the coin of that realm. No excuses! But I often come across people ...

Most people believe we can't be a prosperous nation if we're not a creative nation. But can we teach creativity without giving in to the gauzy, shallow, I'm OK, You're OK creativity exercises that drive traditionalists round the bend?

A recent Newsweek cover story by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggests that we can. In fact, its authors say we must, because our young people have been getting less creative over the past twenty years. What's worse, they claim, we don't seem to have any national strategy to tackle the problem.

In this country, we tend to believe that our Edisons and Gateses will come to us as naturally as the leaves to a tree. Our children's math scores may not always top the international charts, but darn it, we're a naturally ingenious bunch.

But new research is starting to shake that confidence, Bronson and Merryman report. Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary reviewed some 300,000 Torrance scores from the past half century and found that they have been declining since 1990. (Torrance tests are a common measure of creativity. They correlate strongly with "lifetime creative accomplishment," Bronson and Merryman report.) The decline is worst in young children.

But it won't do just to get in touch with our inner poets or to move all our mental furniture into our right brains. Creativity depends on steady commerce between the left and right ...

The Senate should pass a measure to stave off massive layoffs of school staff. LFA just released a statement urging swift action on the Education Jobs Fund, which would provide $10 billion dollars to save critical jobs.

A recent study by the Center on Education Policy underscores the urgency of this effort. Here are some thoughts on a few of the study's major findings:

  • Stimulus funds often did not cover the shortfalls most districts faced last year. Seventy percent of districts reported a decrease in funding between 2008/09 and 2009/10. About 50 percent of those reported that stimulus funds made up for less than half of the shortfall. Forty-five percent of districts that received SFSF money had to cut teaching positions. Though $100 billion sounds like a lot, schools were not awash in money.
  • Most districts expect further declines in funding next year, and to make matters worse, the stimulus money is running out fast. Almost seventy percent expected funding to drop further in 2010/11. Well over half expected to have spent all their SFSF funds by the end of the 2009/10 school year. Fewer than a quarter of districts expecting declines think SFSF funds will make up half or more of these shortfalls. That's the
    ...

Students can come to school with a lot of baggage. They may be feeling the stress of financial pressure at home. They may be dealing with a death or illness in their family. But as school counselor Barbara Micucci puts it, “Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids.”

This is where she and other counselors come in. We recently spoke with Micucci about the counseling profession—why it is important, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. She also told us about her own work and some of the strategies that led her to be named the 2010 School Counselor of the Year by Naviance and the American School Counselor Association. Key to her success: visibility, and a desire to engage parents as partners in the educational process.

Micucci has been a counselor for over 20 years and is currently working at Caley Elementary School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She was selected from a field of extraordinary school counselors across the country and plans to use her new role to call for strategies to ensure that every elementary school across the United States has a school counselor.

Why Have School Counselors?

Public School Insights: Let’s start with a very general question. Why is it important for schools to have counselors?

Micucci: It is so important for a number of reasons. I think kids today are under a lot more stress and family pressure than they have been in the past. There are many reasons. Families themselves are very stressed. A lot of it comes from economic conditions. And aside from that, when I think of my school—and I am in a middle-class school in a suburban district—there are a lot of families where parents are divorced. There are single parent families. There are parents who have adopted children. I have a couple families where there's terminal illness. More families are coming with limited English proficiency. There are families living with other families because of ...

Soon after I posted this morning's blog entry on technology, I got some emails that gave me second thoughts about the way I had advanced my argument. I had painted the ed tech community with a very broad brush, one person wrote. Few supporters of technology in schools are wild-eyed enthusiasts for every new gizmo that comes down the pike. Few believe that iPads or the internet can work miracles without serious attention to how students use these tools. And almost all value persistence, patience, deep thought and concentration.

I meant to argue that education technology is important because it can unite the interests and concerns of the ed tech supporters and skeptics. New media can be powerful aids to old-fashioned skills like reflection, research and reason. And ed tech supporters have the best interests of children at heart. People who use the internet to push all manner of garbage, on the other hand, do not. All the more reason for young people to learn how best to use technology.

So my previous posting may well have reinforced the false dichotomy I was trying to attack. My apologies. ...

If ed tech enthusiasts want to advance their cause, then they should embrace the curmudgeons. In the end, technology skeptics offer some of the best reasons for bringing schools into the digital age.

And the curmudgeons have been out in full force recently. Kathleen Parker mounted a passionate defense of good old fashioned books in her column last week. Malcolm Jones praised the slow reading movement in a recent issue of Newsweek. Brent Staples of The New York Times just described the internet as a sort of plagiarism superhighway, a tool that encourages young people to cut and paste other people's thoughts rather than to think their own. And David Brooks recently wrote that the internet culture is much shallower than what he calls literary culture, which prizes long study and intellectual heft.

I feel a certain kinship with the curmudgeons. Few other people are making the case for virtues like patience, focus, deep thought, and long, good books that demand time, attention and persistence.

I also pity the curmudgeons. They often get tarred as reactionaries, Luddites, bitter-enders and--worst of all--deadweights on school reform.

But the curmudgeons have a point. Recent research suggests that mere access to plain old books can boost students' academic performance, while access to high-speed internet can drag it down. And it turns out that video games, like TV, can shorten our attention spans.

This shouldn't really surprise us. If we simply hand every student an iPad, we just open the doors to distraction. Why spend the time reading a long and difficult text, or doing the hard work of grasping what very smart people wrote many years ago, when you have Hulu ...

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