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The Public School Insights Blog

The big education story these days is the chilling effect of higher cut scores on New York State tests. The miracle in New York City seemed a bit less miraculous after after the state raised the bar. Most of the sniping among pundits and wonks has focused on the extent to which the new standard undermines the claims of New York City's school reformers. But I think the story raises even bigger questions. For example:

Where Have the Media Been for so Long?
Cut scores have by all accounts been low since 2006, but, as late as 2009, only a few newspapers had addressed that fact. Critics like Diane Ravitch had raised the issue for years. In August of 2009, teacher Diana Senechal showed that students could guess their way to a passing score. Only in September did the New York Times cover that story--and their story didn't mention Senechal.

By the time the Times ran the story, state board Chancellor Merryl Tisch was already on the case. She had the real courage to declare the cut scores bogus and call for a higher standard.

But in this case, the fourth estate lagged behind. Given how heated and political the school reform debate has become, and how ready parties on all sides are to make grand claims about success or failure, that's bad news.

Why Do We Have Such a High Tolerance for Data that Obscure as Much as they Reveal?
The answer to that question is easy: politics. When so much of the debate is driven by ideology, PR and even fear, you can't expect truth-tellers to get rewarded. Those whose jobs depend on the scores point out problems at their own peril. Those who stake their political ...

New York state education officials recently learned that their standardized assessments were not properly measuring student proficiency. They recalibrated the way the tests were graded and, not surprisingly, the new (theoretically more accurate) scores are significantly lower than those previously reported.

In Florida, concern with the accuracy of test scores caused the state department of education to hire independent contractors to examine the results. Several districts believe that individual student gains fell in an unusual manner. The results are not yet in.

Two unrelated instances. But both illustrate the danger of relying heavily on standardized test scores in making high-stakes decisions for students and schools.

In New York, students appeared to have made more progress than they actually had. The schools looked good. But in New York, test scores are used to determine whether students must attend summer school and are promoted to the next grade level. Because of the grading problem, some students were denied services that could have helped them truly master the skills they need to ...

In case you think hundreds of thousands of looming government layoffs--including layoffs of school and district staff--don't matter: 

Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says state and local government layoffs are having an impact. "They are still in a cutting mode and seem likely to cut several hundred thousand jobs going forward," Bernanke recently told Congress. "That is a drag on the economy, no question about it."

(NPR) ...

Lieutenant General Benjamin C. Freakley is the commanding general of the United States Army Accessions Command (USAAC) and oversees recruiting for the U.S. Army's officer, warrant officer and enlisted forces. USAAC has joined forces with the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) to support young people and boost graduation rates. (We wrote about this partnership in a blog posting several months ago. NASBE is a member of LFA.)

LTG Freakley recently spoke with us about the promise of greater collaboration between the military and schools.

Education: A National Security Issue

Public School Insights: Why do you think the military is getting involved in K-12 education?

LTG Freakley: I believe that the preparedness of our youth through education, health and conduct is a national security issue. Right now our young people, regardless of the tact they take for postsecondary, are limiting themselves. They are limiting themselves because they are not getting a good foundational education in K-12. They are not as healthy as they should be, with childhood obesity becoming an epidemic. And they get off track in their conduct, limiting what might be brilliant careers because they chose to get involved with gang violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, etc.

It is disheartening to see all of this potential being limited. We believe that we have got to help our youth to achieve success through supporting our educators who, I believe, are undervalued in America—not recognized like they should be or supported like they should be. We ought to be as close to education as we can so we can sustain our all volunteer force and also so we can have an economically ...

Should we turn a blind eye to the excesses of PR campaigns that advance a cause we support? Should we tolerate overstatements and hype, as long as they are in the service of something we believe in? Not if the dubious means undermine the noble ends. I worry that some recent PR campaigns launched by combatants in today's school reform wars may allow the means to swamp the ends.

A recent commentator on school reform took a different view. He praised aggressive campaigns and likened the school reform movements they support to past movements for civil rights.

Movements, whether Martin Luther King's exposure of segregation as morally illegitimate, or Gandhi's exposure of the immorality of 'British Rule," are actually the proper political culmination of good ideas, brought about by the impatience with the slow movement of the chattering class.

I'm not sure the analogy really works. Laws enforcing segregation were wrong, full stop. The moral thing to do was clear: Strike them down. School reform, by contrast, doesn't often present such clear choices. So we should be careful not to draw parallels that lump critics of one school reform or another together with those who opposed the movement to end segregation.

History also reminds us that not all movements are created equal. Some movements that are fueled by true outrage and conviction can run off the rails and pervert their original aims when the need to advance The Cause overpowers all tolerance for nuance or doubt. Such movements can begin with a noble vision, but they often end by merely replacing one ...

A couple of weeks ago, to the delight of us here at the Learning First Alliance, the U.S House of Representatives included a $10 billion Education Jobs Fund as an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill they sent to the Senate. Such funding—entirely paid for, through offsets to other programs—would help stave off massive educator layoffs that could have devastating effects on our nation’s children.

But on July 22, the Senate decided against the House’s version of the bill (see how your Senator voted). It sent its own bill back to the House with, among other changes, no money for education jobs. It is predicted the House will approve the stripped down bill, so if there are to be any federal funds for education jobs, they’ll have to be included in a different, as of now unidentified, bill.

Some are cheering this end, claiming that for too long teachers have avoided feeling their fair share of the economic pinch. But those arguments don’t always reflect reality—and are not always the wisest economic policy. Take for example Georgia, where (among other cost-saving measures) the state has eliminated a pay supplement for teachers who receive National Board certification and many districts have instituted furlough days resulting in a loss of pay to educators and support staff. The state is still expecting cuts of about 8,000 certified ...

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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 ...

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