Category Archives: Student Assessment

New Bellwether Analysis on Michigan Education Provides Facts for DeVos Debate

When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.

Slide1To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.

Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?

Among the things we found:

  • Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
  • Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
  • About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
  • Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
  • On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
  • Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.

Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.

What Good Are Higher Graduation Rates If Students Aren’t Learning More?

On Thursday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the results of its 2015 science assessment for America’s 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students. Only 22 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level, compared to 38 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders. And while 4th and 8th graders both saw a small but significant improvement from 2009, high school seniors stagnated — earning the same average score as the 2009 sample.

This was also true across all subgroups. Among students of colors, students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), rural students, and female students, not a single group saw a statistically significant score change from 2009.2015 NAEP Science Assessment Scores

We saw a similar trend in April, when NAEP released the 12th grade results of its 2015 reading and math assessments. Seniors’ average reading score did not significantly change — again across every single subgroup. The average 12th grade math score declined.

And yet, earlier this month, data released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) showed that America’s high school graduation rate has reached a record high of 83 percent, continuing a five year trend. In stark contrast with this year’s NAEP data, rates among students of color, students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students have all improved.

While this is certainly good news, it begs the question: What good are higher graduation rates if students aren’t learning more?

According to ED Secretary John King: “Students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st Century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.” While high school graduates do earn more than non-graduates, this answer is still deeply unsatisfying.

States will have the opportunity to seriously address America’s stagnant high schools in the coming years. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law last December, provides greater flexibility for states in almost every facet of federal K-12 education policy. The law makes it easier for states to spend Title I money on high school students. It also gives states much greater leeway for using school improvement funds, including an optional set-aside for programs like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education. It remains to be seen exactly how states will implement the law, but luckily we’ll have NAEP along the way to give us a national snapshot of student learning.

We’re doing a better job of shepherding students to high school completion — now we just need to make sure they actually learn something.

States Need to Get Real on Testing Tradeoffs Before Making Another Big Switch

risksignJust a few years ago, it seemed like most of the country was heading towards common state assessments in math and reading. Two groups of states won federal grant funds to create higher-quality tests; these became the PARCC and Smarter Balanced test consortia. Now, despite the demonstrated rigor and academic quality of those tests, the testing landscape is almost as fractured as it was before, with states pursuing a variety of assessment strategies. Some states in the consortia are still waffling. Others that have left are already scrapping the tests they made on their own with no idea of what they’ll do next.

States should think carefully before going it alone or introducing a new testing overhaul without strong justification. There are some big tradeoffs at play in the testing world, and a state might spend millions on an “innovative” new test from an eager-to-please vendor only to find that it has the same, or worse, issues as the “next generation” tests they tossed aside.

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Candidates Think We Can’t Handle the Complex Truth About Education

The Learning Landscape

We need a nuanced education conversation based on data, not polarizing rhetoric. That’s why we built this new resource: www.thelearninglandscape.org/

Depending on whom you ask, charter schools represent either the best of things or the worst of things in the modern education system. This binary hero-villain dialogue plays out time and again among education advocates. It’s so pervasive that it even managed to infiltrate a presidential election that has otherwise been light on K-12 education talk.

Bernie Sanders declared his support for public charter schools, but not private ones in a CNN town hall event last March — belying a fundamental confusion about what charter schools actually are. Last year Hillary Clinton disparaged charter schools with a blanket statement suggesting that they reject serving students who are the “hardest to teach.” And while decrying the federal footprint in education, Donald Trump said he wants more charter schools because “they work, and they work very well.”

The primary flaw with all of these statements is that each one lacks nuance and ignores what is true, what we know, and what we don’t know about charter schools. After all, one of the hallmarks of political campaigns is the reduction of complex issues to simple binaries. Candidates harp on divisive issues and ask voters to pick a side — for or against, good or bad. While this strategy makes for rousing stump, it misleads and under-informs voters about critical policy issues.

Sanders’ confusion about whether charter schools are public or private schools is not uncommon, but it’s easy to clear up. Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly-funded, and they provide education free of charge. The confusion arises because they are often operated by private organizations (a mix of non-profit and for-profit). Some of these private organizations are very good at running schools that achieve amazing outcomes with kids. Some of them are not as good.

Similarly, by painting all charter schools with the same brush, either negatively or positively, both Clinton and Trump ignore the complex reality of what we know about charter schools. (Clinton, I should note, told the NEA convention earlier this month that we should seek to learn from the many good charter schools – that common sense statement drew boos from the crowd).

In practice, who is served best and most often by charter schools varies significantly from state to state and city to city. And the overall quality of charter schools varies, too. In some cities, like Washington DC, charter schools produce an average of 101 days of additional learning in math compared to the surrounding district schools. That’s a tremendous difference. But in Fort Worth, Texas, charter schools underperform district schools on average.

Attempting to define the whole notion of charter schools as either good or bad encourages us to continue to focus on the existential question of whether we should have charter schools at all. And that is simply the wrong question. Continue reading

39 Magical Years of Exploration: Wisdom from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Kindergarten Teacher

When I think about kindergarten, a number of images instantly come to mind: wooden blocks, the house corner, easels, smocks, water tables, the alphabet, and paper bag frog puppets. But, what I remember the most vividly is my teacher, Miss Spendly, and her wide, affirming smile and warm eyes. She made me fall in love with school.

Lin-Manuel Miranda remembers his kindergarten teacher fondly too. He tweeted a picture of the two of them in December. When Mrs. Liebov first came to see his Broadway show In the Heights, he proclaimed: “Mrs. Liebov, look what I made!”

Lin-Manuel Miranda hugging his kindergarten teach Amy Liebov

photo via @Lin_Manuel

Mrs. Liebov is an expert on kindergarten. She spent thirty-nine years guiding five-year-old students through a magical year of exploration, first at Hunter College Elementary School, a school for gifted children, and then as a founding faculty member at The School at Columbia University. I visited her classroom at Columbia before she retired and was amazed by her joyous, beautiful, and functional classroom. Mrs. Liebov easily guided students through lessons on symmetry and art projects modeled on Eric Carle’s books. Her young students made videos declaring their favorite parts of kindergarten, including memorable comments like: “I liked learning about Picasso’s blue period.” I recently interviewed Mrs. Liebov to capture her deep wisdom about the magical time of kindergarten and how it has changed in recent years.

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