Tag Archives: testing

Let’s Talk about Tests: Four Questions to Ask

If you follow education news, politics, and social media, it’s clear that testing is having a moment. I was surprised it wasn’t listed alongside Taylor Swift as a nominee for Time magazine’s 2014 Person of the Year. Everyone–policymakers, unions, state leaders, local administrators, teachers, parents, you name it–seems to agree that the amount of testing and its role in America’s schools and classrooms merit reconsideration. But the momentum of this “over-testing” meme has overshadowed the fact that testing policy is complicated. And when the field talks about “over-testing,” it’s often not talking about the same kinds of tests or the same set of issues.

To help clarify and elevate our over-testing conversation (because it’s here to stay), here are four questions to ask, with considerations to weigh, when deciding whether testing is indeed out of control–and evaluating the possible options to change it. Continue reading

Optimistic Predictions Notwithstanding, Common Core Faces Brutal 2015

Lots of edu-commentators have lots of edu-predictions for 2015. I’ve tried my hand at the forecasting business (relentlessly in some cases), so far be it from me to nitpick all this crystal-balling.

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Photo from savethepostoffice.com

But one recurring theme strikes me as wishful thinking: that the 2015 politics of Common Core won’t be so bad.

My Bellwether colleague Andy Rotherham, with whom I often agree, wrote the “biggest debates about Common Core might be behind us.” Similarly, Carmel Martin predicted our “Moving on From Common Core Debates.” She wrote, “for the most part legislators are getting tired of the issue.”

To me, believing this requires turning a blind eye to three enormous facts.

Continue reading

In Defense of Standardized Testing

According to a Gallup poll last fall, one in eight teachers thinks that the worst thing about the Common Core is testing. On the surface, that’s hardly newsworthy. We know states are changing their tests to align to the new standards, and those changes have inevitably bred uncertainty, anxiety, and even hostility, especially when results could carry high stakes someday. But educators surveyed didn’t say they were upset that the tests were changing, or that there could be consequences tied to the results. Rather, they were upset that the tests exist. Specifically, 12 percent of U.S. public school teachers “don’t believe in standardized testing.” Much like the debate over global warming, these non-believers refuse to validate an unassailable fact: standardized testing does have positive– and predictive–value in education and in life, just as the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer.

More specifically, this righteous conviction—“I don’t believe in testing”—is at odds with most policy analysis. Regardless of political or ideological bent, most will admit that NCLB got one thing right: exposing achievement gaps through the disaggregation of student data. Where did that data come from? Standardized tests. Instead of ignoring longstanding disparities in schooling, NCLB’s testing regimen forced states and districts to quantify them, examine them, and most importantly, try to improve them. It gave policymakers, administrators, and educators a common language to talk about student achievement and progress, and evaluate what was working based on evidence, not perception. Sure, standardized testing needed to be refined over the last decade to enhance quality and reduce unintended consequences—and could still use upgrades and be open to further innovation. But the value of standardized testing in terms of better understanding and improving a public education system as vast and fragmented as ours is undeniable, right? Continue reading

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading

Why Legislative Words Matter

This one’s for all the aspiring policy wonks.

In Newark, NJ, the superintendent recently attempted to revoke the tenure rights of a group of teachers deemed ineffective. The state has a statute (“TEACHNJ”) of recent vintage permitting such things.

Kind of. Well, at least eventually.

One of the affected teachers contested the district’s decision, and an arbitrator sided with the teacher. It turns out that, in an arbitrator’s estimation at least, the statute technically took effect later than the district contends.

The arbitrator ruled that the statute’s language officially started the evaluations-with-state-mandated-consequences clock in 2013-14, not 2012-13. That means the district has only one annual performance evaluation of the teachers in question, not the two that are needed to invoke the state’s tenure-removal provision. So even though the district’s action comports with the spirit of the state law, this personnel decision was overturned, and the “remedy is reinstatement with full back pay and benefits.”

Because of the exact wording of legislative language, dozens of teachers are either–depending on your worldview–being indefensibly shielded from the law’s clear intent or rightly defended from an illegitimate administrative action.

If this law’s lack of specificity frustrates you, consider Section 5 of this North Carolina statute. So concerned that the state board would use its existing statutory and regulatory authority to procure an unpopular testing system (e.g. PARCC or SBAC), the legislature actually prohibits the board from acquiring any new assessment system until it is given new, explicit legislative permission to do so. The law goes even further, actually naming the kinds of tests that would probably be acceptable, (e.g. NAEP, SAT, ACT).

This is the endless tug of war between legislative authority and administrative discretion. In the former, a district gets its hand rapped for trying to squeeze too much power from what it considers sufficiently permissive language. In the latter, lawmakers craft uber-specific language to prevent the state school board from using its existing power to act against the legislature’s wishes.