This spring, in schools across the country, standardized testing season is in full swing, and opponents are once again crying out against “high-stakes testing.” But that phrase can be misleading. In many states the stakes are much lower than you might think for students, teachers, and schools, and they’re likely to stay that way for a while.
Student consequences tied to tests are fairly low or nonexistent in most states. Graduation requirements and grade promotion policies tied to tests vary greatly between states and most have more holes than Swiss cheese. As of 2012, half of states had some sort of exit exam as a graduation requirement, but almost all these states had exceptions and alternate routes to a diploma if students didn’t pass the exam on the first try. Tying grade promotion to tests is less common, though some states have emulated Florida’s 3rd grade reading retention policy. Now, just as tests become more rigorous, states are rolling back their graduation and promotion requirements tied to those tests, or offering even more flexibility if requirements are technically still in effect:
Ohio created new safe harbor policies this school year, which, among other things, prevents schools from using test results in grade promotion or retention until 2017-18 (except in the case of third grade reading tests).
New Jersey has had exit exams since 1982, but students can now fulfill the requirement using multiple exams, including the SAT, ACT and PARCC, and a proposed bill would pause the requirement altogether until 2021.
What do new assessments aligned to the Common Core tell us? Not all much more than what we already knew. There are large and persistent achievement gaps. Not enough students score at high levels. Students who performed well on tests in the past continue to perform well today. In short, while the new assessments may re-introduce these conversations in certain places, we’re not seeing dramatically different storylines.
To see how scores differ in the Common Core era, I collected school-level data from Maine. I chose Maine because they’re a small state with a manageable number of schools, they were one of the 18 states using the new Smarter Balanced test this year, and because they have already made data available at the school level from tests given in the spring of 2015.
The graph below compares average math and reading proficiency rates over two time periods. The horizontal axis plots average proficiency rates from 2012-14 on Maine’s old assessments, while the vertical axis corresponds to average proficiency rates in Spring 2015 on the new Smarter Balanced assessments.* There are 447 dots, each representing one Maine public school with sufficient data in all four years. The solid black line represents the linear relationship between the two time periods.
(Click graph to enlarge)
There are a couple things to note about the graph. First is that, as has played out in many other places, proficiency rates fell. The average proficiency rate for these schools fell from 64 to 42 percent. While a number of schools saw average proficiency rates from 2012-14 in the 80s and even the 90s, no school scored above 82 percent this year (this shows up as white space at the top of the graph).
Second, there’s a strong linear relationship between the two sets of scores. The correlation between these time periods was .71, a fairly strong relationship. Schools that did well in the past also tended to do well, on a relative basis, in 2015.
Seattle Public Schools students headed back to school late this week after a teachers strike delayed the start of the school year by about one week. The main grounds for the strike were lack of teacher pay increases and heavy teacher workloads—both of which got sorted out in the deal negotiated by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) and the school district. Another significant result of the negotiation? Student test scores will no longer be tied to teacher evaluations.
A major reason the SEA was able to slide in the negotiation about student test scores and teacher evaluations is the fact that Washington State does not have an ESEA waiver, which requires student growth to be a “significant” part of evaluations (how significant is largely left up to the states). For teachers of tested grades and subjects, the waiver rules require that state tests be included at some level. Interestingly, the ESEA bills moving to conference in the coming months will not include teacher evaluation, effectively removing the federal requirement for the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation. All of this raises the question: could what happened in Seattle be an indicator of what may happen to teacher evaluation systems across the country? Continue reading →
We’ve now finished Year 3 of the No Child Left Behind “Waiver Era.” Nationwide, 83 percent of students—more than 41 million children—attend schools freed from the most burdensome aspects of NCLB. The federal requirements that became familiar in the education world are no longer:
“Adequate Yearly Progress?” Waived.
Corrective action” and “restructuring?” Gone and gone.
“Supplemental Educational Services,” or free tutoring for students in low-performing schools? Gone.
“Highly Qualified Teachers,” otherwise known as “HQT?” Waiver states no longer enforce it.
It’s unlikely that the nation as a whole will ever revert back to NCLB or the rules built into the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). As Taylor Swift might put it, we are never, ever, ever going back to NCLB. Continue reading →
It started with two really depressing facts. NCLB hadn’t worked. But the pre-NCLB era hadn’t worked either–that’s why we got NCLB, for goodness sake.
But instead of obsessing about the weakness of both (we and everyone else had done plenty of that already), we started thinking about the strengths of both. Before NCLB, states and their districts and schools had lots of flexibility. They could develop policies and practices that fit local needs, and they could change courses swiftly when things went wrong. Education leaders were in charge of their standards, tests, and accountability systems, so they felt a sense of ownership over their state’s system of public education.
In the NCLB era, we got an increased focus on student achievement. We were able to track the performance of all kids, and we were assured of meaningful school and district interventions when students were falling behind. We also enjoyed an unprecedented increase in accountability for billions in federal taxpayer funds.
Our question became: Is it possible to marry the best of both eras? We started sketching something out.
We eventually hit upon what turned out to be The Big Question–the one that ultimately brought about “Pacts Americana,” the report we’re releasing today: Does the education world have some kind of time-tested system–something could be brought to bear on ESEA reauthorization–for combining real accountability with real autonomy?