school choice

Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Are state tests, such as the Smarter Balance Assessment an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality?  Do these tests truly reveal the quality or effectiveness of a school?  I say, “No,” emphatically, but not for the reasons you might expect.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills, even though many in education disagree.  I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned.  I agree that more learning is better.  I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity.  I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed one-size-fits-all tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality.  It has taken me several years to come to this position.  I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Let me explain what that means. Imagine you want to buy a sports car.  You look up your favorite sports car to see its rating.  You are shocked find low scores and an “F” grade on the rating system compared to other cars.  Unbeknownst to you the ratings are based largely on the size of the payload the vehicle can carry and the number of passengers that can fit in it.  Your dream two-seater is rated low on that account and there is nothing in there about how fun the car is to drive.  That’s an example of misalignment.

Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is irrelevant or actually wrong.  The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.  For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum.  I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling.  State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

An example of schools that do well on these basic academic pillars are the Arthur Academy charter schools.  Due to the use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), they mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which they reside. More importantly, they prepare their students for later success in schooling.  DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching.  The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing.  All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills.  DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but these charters love it, and so do their students and parents.

Curricula, such as DI, that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test—while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material.  A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests.  While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum.  Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire.  These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum.  But if schools that use DI taught what is in their curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools.  Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do.  Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests.  One is that the results have no consequences for the children.  Another is that these are children taking these tests.  Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances.  Schools routinely find children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test.  Yet they can reach not only “proficient” but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired.  Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test.  This is not cheating.  These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”  And it is an appropriate accommodation.  It just shows the best that the student can do.  Guess what?  Children don’t always do their best.  Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with.  If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year. Does that mean the school is bad?  Not at all.  Does it mean the school is good if they carefully accommodate all the children so they get their best scores?  Not at all.

Third is the issue of students’ ability.   This may not be obvious to everyone, but the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn.  The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them.   Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach.  It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad.  That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ—which is never the case.  It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know which school is stronger or more effective.  If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers—just as it happens in every other service industry.  Arthur Academy could do it easily in their schools, without a state test. If they gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of their DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what the children have learned.   Few students outside of their schools could match that performance.  That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.

 

Posted by donc1950@gmail.com in Education
Raising the Bar: Why “Standards and Accountability” cannot improve Education

Raising the Bar: Why “Standards and Accountability” cannot improve Education

There is currently a movement underway to reverse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Those opposed to the Common Core have a wide variety of reasons, ranging from fear of federal control of curriculum, to privacy concerns about intrusive data collection planned, and controversy about whether the standards are more or less rigorous than the former state standards which are being replaced.  While these details can be debated, the more fundamental question is whether “standards and accountability” can reform or improve education.

The idea of “standards and accountability” begins by attempting to define rigorous standards of what K-12 students at each grade level ought to know and be able to do.  [Missing the important point that some students should be held to higher expectations, shouldn’t they?]  The idea goes that if these standards are good enough, then if students can meet them, we can be happy that our schools are doing a good job.  The accountability part of the equation is to give tests that measure whether or not students can meet the standard expectations.  Supposedly then schools that help nearly all students meet the standards are doing a good job.  Conversely schools in which many students don’t meet the standards must necessarily be doing a poor job.  If the standards are too easy, the schools are getting off with doing a poor job.  If the standards are rigorous enough we can force the schools to do a better job—the threats of accountability will cause the schools to self-reform and improve student scores on the tests and thereby achievement.  That’s the idea.  But, in real life it doesn’t work that way.  Why not?  There are several reasons.

First of all, the standards are too vague to be measured as met or not met in any objective sense.  For example, such standards as, “Understand addition and subtraction of fractions as joining and separating parts referring to the same whole.” is not measurable.  There are an infinite number of ways one could try to measure that and how well a student would have to do on such a test to show they “understood.” And on top of that, there are hundreds of these unmeasurable standards in the Common Core.

Secondly, because the standards themselves aren’t measurable, proficiency is not based on pre-established criteria, standard by standard. Students don’t have to pass all the different standards, or even pass a set number of them.  Instead proficiency is randomly defined by a cut-off score on the entire test.  Unfortunately, because the details of the test are secret, teachers don’t really know exactly which skills are tested, and what students must know or how well they should know them to be considered proficient.  They are trying to hit the target, but they aren’t actually allowed to see it.

Finally, everyone wants to raise the cut-off scores, to expect the lowest students to do more to be considered proficient.  If everyone can do it, then it must not be rigorous enough.

Raising the bar–doesn’t make you a better jumper.

Making the standards more rigorous (which many people want to do) is quite commonly referred to as “raising the bar.”  This metaphor compares academic standards to the bar over which high jumpers sail.  Raising the bar occurs each round in a track meet, as the bar is placed higher, and then the competitors must jump higher each round.  But what is the effect of raising the bar in a track meet?

The effect of raising the bar is to gradually eliminate the less able competitors each round, until only the best is left to win the meet.  Raising the bar does not make everyone equal.  Raising the bar does not make everyone better.  Raising the bar has the effect of sorting out the athletes on the basis of their skill.  No one dreams of using it to rank the coaches, because a large portion of a high jumper’s success has to do with innate ability, rather than just the quality of the coach.  Interestingly, before federal involvement in education and before standards and accountability, standardized academic tests were perceived in exactly the same way.  The results on an academic achievement test told you how accomplished the student was, and were never used to make judgments about the quality of the teacher or the school.

If raising the bar does not make everyone a better jumper, why is it even imagined as a method to reform schools?  Standards would operate, if they work at all, about as well as track meets work to make track coaches better.  In my experience most coaches hope to recruit athletes with more ability—so their performance makes the coach look good.

The same thing happens with schools.  Schools that enroll students with greater ability have high tests scores and are considered good.  Schools that enroll students with more learning challenges and less ability have lower test scores and are considered bad.  Nothing useful is accomplished by this exercise. Absolutely nothing.

I know from first-hand experience that parents can tell whether the school their child is attending is challenging, motivating and effectively teaching their child.  Not all schools are right for all children.  Often siblings need and thrive in very different kinds of schools. The average test scores in the whole school is irrelevant to whether the school is doing a good job for their child.  We don’t need this whole standards and accountability regimen, we need to give parents the freedom to choose schools and give educators a chance to create a variety of new, innovative schools that operate free of the bureaucratic restraints of our current one-size-fits-all system.

Posted by donc1950@gmail.com in Education
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

I fell in love with the left wing of the Democratic Party because they, alone, opposed the Vietnam War.  And of course, because they were the party of compassion for the poor.  Over the years, I fell out of love because they wanted credit for their good intentions rather than for what they actually accomplished.

Although the Democrats started the war in Vietnam and a Republican president ended it, I didn’t blame the Democrats or give credit to Nixon.  I didn’t begin to question my love for the left wing until someone I knew and cared for began to get the “help” and “compassion” that were a trademark of the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson began the “War on Poverty.”

What I discovered, to my shock, was that welfare assistance from the government was not a helping hand, or a hand up.  To the contrary, welfare assistance was a sentence to dependency and poverty without an exit.   The details of how the system ran meant that gradually working one’s way back to self-sufficiency was made harder, not easier, by the so-called “safety net.”  The first step out of dependence is part-time work and jobs that don’t last more than a couple of months.  But all the money you make in such jobs goes against your benefits.  Everything with the government is slow, and so the reckoning takes months.  This means that you have to pay back the benefits you received a couple of months ago, just about the time you’re out of work again. So when you need assistance desperately, you can’t get it, but only because you took a job and tried to better yourself.  If you hadn’t tried to take a job you would still be entitled.  So the lesson is—don’t take a job.

It turns out all of the forms of help and compassion run by government agencies have the same basic structure.  You “qualify” by virtue of having little or no income and you “lose” benefits as soon as you get some income or try to get some.  I have another friend who was unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits because he couldn’t find work in his profession in the local community.  When he went out of town to a trade conference (so he could network with people in his profession from all over the country and hopefully find work) his unemployment benefits were cut off.  He hadn’t stayed in the local community “available for work.” Go figure.

I had learned from personal experience that government assistance, as championed by the left, did not actually help to reduce poverty.  Governmental help does not have the right structure, knowledge, or flexibility needed to really help anyone. It is simply a trap. Not surprisingly, data now show (see the graph to the right) that the poverty rate has stopped falling since we began trapping more and more people in these dependency programs.  They have almost no way out.  That was one nail in the coffin of my love for the left-wing.

The next nail in the coffin came as a result of what I learned as a teacher.  At one point as a special education teacher I had a caseload of 28 third grade children with dyslexia—none of whom could read.  I found and used a curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI) that taught every one of them to read.  My school district was uninterested in my success.  DI used phonics and was labeled “harmful.”  DI was removed from the district, without regard to data.  When I realized that the public school system was unresponsive to important outcomes (like whether or not children learned to read!), I began to learn about school choice—in which parents, who do care about outcomes, get to choose a school.

Charter schools, which are public schools freed from the constraints of the administrative bureaucracy of districts and sometimes from the teacher’s union as well, have to attract all their clients.  I went to work for charter schools, and of course, the charter schools in which I was involved used DI. In our schools we taught every one of our students how to read, and we filled our schools, located in poor neighborhoods, with students.  Parents, especially poor parents, were finally able to choose a school that would teach their children to read.  But our schools were not allowed to grow because of deliberate political obstacles.

When I realized that left wing Democrats were the primary obstacle to increased school choice, I was done.  The left wing says it cares about children and the poor.  The left wants to be judged by its good intentions.  But the policies the left supports do not help, and actually hurt children and the poor.  I think results speak louder than words.  I do think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Posted by donc1950@gmail.com in Political philosophy