Grading the Common Core Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2009

A new report from the Fordham Foundation gives a grade of “B” to the draft of the proposed “Common Core” standards in ELA and Math.

Fordham’s report, Stars by Which to Navigate: Scanning National and International Standards in 2009, asked subject-matter experts to review the “content, rigor, and clarity of the first public drafts of the ‘Common Core’ standards” as well as the reading, writing and mathematics frameworks of NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA.  How’d they do?

Common Core Reading/Writing/Speaking & Listening: B
Common Core Math: B
NAEP Reading/Writing: B
NAEP Math: C
TIMSS Math: A
PISA Reading: D
PISA Math: D

The executive summary (I have not read the full report, which was just released this morning) makes a couple of important points, explaining and justifying the “B” grade for the common standards:

The document properly acknowledges that essential communication skills must be embraced and addressed beyond the English classroom….These skill-centric standards do not, however, suffice to frame a complete English or language arts curriculum. Proper standards for English must also provide enough content guidance to help teachers instill not just useful skills, but also imagination, wonder, and a deep appreciation for our literary heritage. Despite their many virtues, these skills-based competencies cannot serve as a strong framework for the robust liberal arts curricula that will prepare young Americans to thrive as citizens in a free society. States adopting these standards must, therefore, be very careful about how they supplement them so as to achieve that goal.

 Hard to disagree with any of that, and the B grade sounds fair.  “The Common Core standards are off to a good start,” says Fordham’s Checker Finn, “though there’s room for improvement—and a sound English curriculum will require plenty more than the valuable skills set forth here.”

Achievement Gap or Proficiency Gap?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2009

Lots of coverage of the latest NAEP scores and what it means for efforts to close the achievement gap.  Results show efforts to close the gap “may have a limited shelf life for kids,” notes USA Today’s Greg Toppo. 

“Since the early 1990s, schools have helped minority elementary schoolers close the achievement gap in basic math and reading skills, with real progress showing up recently on a federally administered test given to thousands of kids around the time they’re in fourth grade. But by the time they get to middle school, it seems, their progress all but vanishes.”

“Some of the scores are higher than ever, some show no gains over time,” observes Diane Ravitch, a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP.  “A closer look reveals that the rate of progress is no greater than–and in some cases, less than–the pre-NCLB years.

In the New York Times, Sam Dillon fixates on evolving regional differences.  “The nation’s most dramatic black-white gaps are no longer seen in Southern states like Alabama or Mississippi,” he notes, “but rather in Northern and Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut and Illinois.

Why does the achievement gap persist?  “African-American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter,” Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock tells the Associated Press.  “They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum,” she said. Meanwhile Richard Whitmire, citing Haycock,  points out that states that focus on early literacy skills are making more progress. 

In a non-NAEP post over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli tosses off an interesting and provocative comment on what we mean — or what we should mean — when we say “achievement gap.”  Mike’s eyebrows went up when he heard DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee say that if present trends continue “within six years we will have completely eliminated the achievement gap between black and white students in the District.”  Says Petrilli:

Now that’s quite a statement. To the man on the street, it surely sounds miraculous. You mean black students in the District of Columbia, most of whom live in abject poverty in places like Anacostia, are going to be learning at the same level as the handful of white students in the system, most of whom come from affluent, well-educated families clustered on Capitol Hill and the upscale neighborhood of Chevy Chase, where houses start in the $750,000 range? Wow! Except that’s not what she means at all. She’s referring to the proficiency gap—and by boosting the percentage of black students getting to “proficiency,” she is automatically closing said gap because almost all of the white students are already over that bar. But that doesn’t mean that the average black student will be achieving at the same level as the average white student, which is what “eliminating the achievement gap” sounds like.

Talk of closing the achievement gap is “sloppy and misleading,” Petrilli notes.  “Let’s stop talking about the achievement gap entirely, and instead focus on raising achievement across the board,” he concludes. ”It’s more honest, and, in my view, more equitable, too.”

NAEP, NCLB, CYA, SOP

by Robert Pondiscio
May 4th, 2009

Former Ed Secy Margaret Spellings is the latest boldface name in the edusphere to say last week’s NAEP numbers show that NCLB is working.  Over at Common Core, Diane Ravitch takes a close look at the numbers and says, er…not so fast.  Her takeaway:

First, our students are making gains, though not among 17-year-olds. Second, the gains they have made since NCLB are smaller than the gains they made in the years preceding NCLB. Third, even when they are significant, the gains are small. Fourth, the Long Term Trend data are not a resounding endorsement of NCLB. If anything, the slowing of the rate of progress suggests that NCLB is not a powerful instrument to improve student performance.

The different takes on the NAEP tells Checker Finn that what we really need is an independent education-achievement audit agency “to sort out the claims and counterclaims about student performance and school achievement.” 

Advocates always do this sort of thing—reaching for whichever data they think make the most convincing case for their accomplishments, exertions and assertions (and, of course, making or implying causations that no reputable scientist would accept). This will continue. And usually the advocates get away with it because anybody who disputes their claims is also seen as having his/her own ax to grind. That’s why America would be so much better off with an independent education-performance audit bureau.

A fine idea, but like a newspaper ombudsman or “public editor,” there will always be some question about how one’s judgement is colored by the interest of whoever is signing the check.  Apropos of which, I keep running into this quote from David Simon, the creator of The Wire. 

 ”You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America – school test scores, crime stats, arrest stats – anything that a politician can run on [or] anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

Sounds cynical, I know.  But hard to argue.

Hello, Sweetheart. Get Me Rewrite!

by Robert Pondiscio
April 29th, 2009

The ledes on yesterday’s NAEP numbers in papers across the country this morning:

“The basic math and reading skills of USA students have slowly, surely improved over the past 30 to 40 years, new findings show, with sharp increases among many of the nation’s lowest-performing students – especially in the past four years” – USA Today

“U.S. high-school students haven’t achieved any significant gains in reading or math for nearly four decades”  - Wall Street Journal

“Math and reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, providing fuel to those who want to renew the federal law and strengthen its reach in high schools” — Washington Post

“The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics” — New York Times

The nation’s 9- and 13-year-olds are doing better in math and reading than they did decades ago, test results released Tuesday show” — Atlanta Journal Constitution

“American 17-year-olds aren’t performing any better in reading and math than their bell-bottom-clad counterparts in the early 1970s” — Christian Science Monitor

NAEP Reactions Cheat Sheet

by Robert Pondiscio
April 29th, 2009

Glass Half Full

“It shows that we are on the right track. It is not an accident. It is by design. It proves the policy principle.  Accountability is working. Where we’ve paid attention, grades 3 through 8, we are getting the best results. Where we have paid less attention, high school, we’re not” — Margaret Spellings

“Overall scores in both [reading and math] are up with nearly all gains reaching statistical significance (save 17-year old math scores). In many cases, all-time highs were hit” – Andy Smarick

Today’s new NAEP data is mixed news with enough kernels for people to argue that current policies are/are not helping improve achievement especially for traditionally under-served kids, are/are not hurting advanced kids, some encouraging results for early grades but not for high school etc…it’s a stimulus program for education partisans!  Short answer, we need to do a lot better but all is not lost”  Andy Rotherham

“Why the difference in elementary school reading, the sort of difference that could put a smile on even the most curmudgeonly of education reformers?  We might not want to say it out loud, but some may actually want to consider that Reading First and our emphasis on scientifically based reading instruction has actually worked” –  Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards

Glass Half Empty

“It is very disappointing to see flat scores at the high school level, but they should not surprise any of us….Huge numbers of high school students have not been challenged to read much that is beyond middle school level in difficulty and complexity. Too many students in middle school are allowed to read whatever they want in the name of “engagement.” It hasn’t worked. These flat scores are a serious warning: we need a substantive English curriculum from grades 6-12 ­ for all students. ” — Sandra Stotsky

“Overall, this report is further proof that we must do better. While it’s good news that younger students are making meaningful gains in reading and math, it’s deeply troubling that many high school students are not” — U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA)

Glass Deep Enough to Drown In

“The latest Long Term Trends…reveal a productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.  Anyone who points to the slightly higher scores in the early grades as cause for celebration is missing the point. What parents care about is that their children are well prepared for higher education and future careers at the end of their secondary education. The fact that scores have risen somewhat in the early grades means little since those gains evaporate for the vast majority of students by the time they graduate” — Andrew J. Coulson

New NAEP Numbers

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2009

NAEP long-term trend numbers are out.  Headlines and links:

Improvements seen in reading and mathematics

Black students make greater gains from early 1970s than White students

Most racial/ethnic score gaps narrow compared to first assessment

For students whose parents did not finish high school, mathematics scores increase compared to 1978

Percentages of students taking higher-level mathematics increasing

USA Today’s Greg Toppo highlights sharp increases in math and reading among many of the nation’s lowest-performing students. especially in the past four years, but notes “the stubborn, decades-long achievement gap between white and minority students shrank between the 1970s and the first part of this decade, but has barely budged since 2002, when the federal government compelled public schools to address it through No Child Left Behind (NCLB).” 

Over at Curriculum Matters, Mary Ann Zehr notes average scores have remained flat for 17-year-olds both in reading and math since the early 1970s.  “The scores for 17-year-olds in reading, however, did increase by three points, to 286, from 2004 to 2008, which is considered significant. But the same was not true for 17-year-olds in math. The scores remained stagnant for that age group in math during that same period,” she notes.

The Best and the Brightestest

by Robert Pondiscio
December 8th, 2008

It is a generational right, and probably a compulsion, to look at the generation in the rear view mirror and pronounce them unfit to lead.  Hence books like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.  But look at the data, and you’ll see something surprising.  The short of the stick in the brains department is being held, not by today’s 20-somethings and teens, but by those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.  “Compared with every other birth cohort,” writes author Neil Howe in the Washington Post, “they have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, they’re the dumbest.”

Want proof? Let’s start with the long-term results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is housed within the U.S. Department of Education. Considered the gold standard in assessing K-12 students, the NAEP has been in continuous operation for decades. Here’s the bottom line: On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.

Same story, different test:  “The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort,” says Howe.  “Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort.  Ever since, the SAT has been gradually if haltingly on the rise, paralleling improvements in the NAEP.”

Math Scores: U.S. Cities vs. The World

by Robert Pondiscio
October 23rd, 2008

Students in six major U.S. cities–Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York and San Diego–are performing as well or better in mathematics than 4th and 8th graders in other countries, according to a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

However, students from five other major cities–Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia and Los Angeles–are performing below the international average, and sometimes well below.  The research compares data on the U.S. cities math performance in the NAEP 2007 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in  Mathematics with international numbers culled from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). 

USA Today looks at the numbers and concludes “Fourth- and eighth-grade students in…Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York City and San Diego actually hold their own against international competitors from Singapore, Japan, England and elsewhere.”  That’s an overly generous description given that Singapore has 73% of its 8th graders proficient in math; Japan has 57%; while the top U.S. cities in the study, Charlotte and Austin, have a proficiency rate of 34%.  However, the international TIMSS average among 8th graders is a mere 21%.  For it’s part AIR concludes:

The findings in this report reinforce the fact that neither the typical student in the United States or in any of the 11 urban districts has achieved the Proficient level of performance found in Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Chinese Taipei, and Japan. If the United States is counting on today’s mathematics education to seed the future technology and science needed to carry our cities and our nation forward, then we are already at a competitive disadvantage.

A press release on the study is here.  The full report is here.

The Problem With Preschool

by Robert Pondiscio
August 22nd, 2008

Mom, apple pie and universal PreK?  Not so fast argue Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the libertarian Reason Foundation in today’s Wall Street Journal.  With the exception of “very intense interventions targeted toward severely disadvantaged kids, “there’s little statistical evidence that strapping a backpack on all 4-year-olds and sending them to preschool is good for them.” While U.S. preschool attendance has gone up to nearly 70% from 16% in the last half century, they note, fourth-grade reading, science, and math scores on the NAEP have stayed flat since the early 1970s.

Preschool activists at the Pew Charitable Trust and Pre-K Now — two major organizations pushing universal preschool — refuse to take this evidence seriously. The private preschool market, they insist, is just glorified day care. Not so with quality, government-funded preschools with credentialed teachers and standardized curriculum. But the results from Oklahoma and Georgia — both of which implemented universal preschool a decade or more ago — paint an equally dismal picture.

 Dalmia and Snell maintain that preschool gains don’t stick because the K-12 system “is too dysfunctional to maintain them.”

“Our understanding of the effects of preschool is still very much in its infancy. But one inescapable conclusion from the existing research is that it is not for everyone. Kids with loving and attentive parents — the vast majority — might well be better off spending more time at home than away in their formative years. The last thing that public policy should do is spend vast new sums of taxpayer dollars to incentivize a premature separation between toddlers and parents.”

Update:  Richard Whitmire, guesting over at eduwonk, is having none of this.

Making a Mockery of Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
August 12th, 2008

The drumbeat for national curriculum, standards and assessments gets a little bit louder today with a strongly worded New York Times editorial.

Congress has several concerns as it moves toward reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Whatever else they do, lawmakers need to strengthen the requirement that states document student performance in yearly tests in exchange for federal aid.  The states have made a mockery of that provision, using weak tests, setting passing scores low or rewriting tests from year to year, making it impossible to compare progress — or its absence — over time.

“The country will have difficulty moving ahead educationally until that changes,” opines the Times, noting that complete lack of a relationship between states that report strong performances on their own tests and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The Times concludes:

Congress needs to take the testing issue head-on. It should instruct the NAEP board, an independent body created by the government, to create a rigorous test that would be given free to states that agreed to use NAEP scoring standards. Then the federal government could actually embarrass the laggard states by naming the ones that cling to weak tests. Without rigorous and consistent testing, there is no way to know whether our children are getting the education they deserve and need.

Sounds an awful lot like what Diane Ravitch was talking about last week.