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NCLB Waivers: A Chance to Measure What’s Important

November 14, 2011 1 comment

This White Paper was submitted to New Hampshire Commissioner of Education, Dr. Virginia Barry, on November 14, 2011

The management aphorism “What Gets Measured Gets Done” aptly describes the effects of No Child Left Behind. For the past decade, NCLB required State Departments of Education to use standardized proficiency tests as the basis for rating schools. In the minds of the politicians and the public, these tests were the most effective way to hold schools accountable for student learning. The rationale: standardized tests are easy to administer, relatively cheap, and provide an objective, numeric basis for rating schools. The seemingly precise data these tests generate also provided the media with the means to publish tables showing how schools compared with each other and how their performance varied from year-to-year.

Once school boards, administrators and teachers realized that the pass rates on these standardized tests and the data reported in the newspapers would be the basis for defining the success or failure of their schools, the focus of schooling narrowed. Elementary and middle schools concentrated on reading and mathematics, the subjects measured by the tests, in some cases leading to the elimination or reduction of other subjects like art, music and physical education. Elective programs in middle and high schools came under closer scrutiny as schools devoted more time to subjects assessed by standardized tests. Finally, because the federal law provided no incentives for the attainment of high test scores, schools paid less attention to those students whose performance met or exceeded the minimum standards, focusing instead on students who fell short of the standards, particularly those closest to the standard. What got measured got done.

The Obama administration’s decision to allow states to seek waivers to the current No Child Left Behind guidelines provides states with an opportunity to change the way they hold schools accountable for student learning.

To seize this opportunity, states will need to meet a set of requirements set forth by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; they must: adopt college-and-career ready standards and develop tests to assure students meet those standards; adopt a means of identifying the lowest performing schools in the state and develop a way to support them; develop and implement rigorous teacher and Principal evaluation systems that use student performance as a factor; and, while instituting these changes, reduce “duplicative and burdensome paperwork”. Each of these requirements involves measurement and, as we have witnessed over the past decade, what gets measured has consequences. In seeking waivers, then, it is crucial that states get the metrics right. This White Paper proposes a set of metrics that are defensible, relatively inexpensive, and potentially transformative.

College and Career Ready Standards

There is no need for any state to spend any money developing an assessment to measure “college readiness”. That assessment already exists. Upon acceptance to public universities and community colleges, most students are required to take placement tests to determine if they require remedial courses. Instead of taking these placement tests when they enroll in a post-secondary school, students who aspire to higher education could take them in October of their sophomore year. If the student passes the tests, they would be eligible for dual-enrollment in college courses during their junior and senior years in high school. If the student does not pass the placement test, they would have two years to schedule courses to help meet the “college readiness” standard defined by the tests. Ideally, the results from the placement tests would help high schools identify the competencies each student needs to attain to avoid being assigned to remedial courses when they enroll in a post-secondary school. Teachers would then be able to use this information to design courses and/or class assignments that would help each student master those competencies. The school’s “college readiness” metric would be the percentage of students who enroll in post secondary schools without requiring remedial coursework.

The development of a “career ready” metric requires the establishment of alliances between schools and employers, alliances that would help schools understand the specific competencies a student needs to enter the work force. New Hampshire, where competencies are the basis for the attainment of credits, could be a national leader in developing “career readiness” standards. Here’s how: Sophomores who do not aspire to college but instead seek work in specific career areas would confer with high school ELO Coordinators. The ELOS Coordinators who would identify nearby employers in those career areas and work with them to arrange provide work-study opportunities for high school students in their region. The ELO Coordinators would then work with the employers to define a set of competencies that constitute their “entry standards” and develop Extended Learning Opportunities that would meet those standards. School personnel would then develop courses or learning modules that, when combined with the “entry standard” ELO, would assure the student fulfills the competencies needed to meet the school’s graduation requirements. Ideally, the career bound student could find a work-study assignment that would help them enter the work force upon graduation. The “career ready” metric would be the percentage of students who meet the “entry standard” ELO agreed upon at the outset of the student’s work experience.

Ultimately, schools would be expected to have 100% of their graduates meeting either the college entry standard or the workforce entry standards set by employers. The adoption of these two metrics would require changes in high schools. Students would need to determine their interest in pursuing post-secondary education at the beginning of their sophomore year in order to provide opportunities for remediation as undergraduates. Junior and Senior courses for students aspiring to post-secondary education would have college level content for those students who pass the placement examination or targeted remediation for those student who did not pass. Schools would expand the use of ELOs in the junior and senior year for career bound students, ELOs that would guarantee that graduates have both the competencies needed for graduation and the entry-level skills sought by local and regional employers. The net result for career bound students would be an emphasis on the attainment of competencies and a corresponding de-emphasis on passing courses. Freed from teaching subject matter courses to career bound students, teachers currently assigned to those classes could work as ELO Coordinators.

Identifying and Improving Low Performing Schools

For decades results on standardized tests of all kinds have been consistent: student scores on standardized tests correlate with their parents’ level of education and household income. When NCLB required the use of standardized proficiency tests to identify “low performing schools”, it was no surprise that the great majority of those schools served students coming from low income homes. Children raised in poverty often begin Kindergarten with limited vocabularies, short attention spans, and poor social skills. This lack of school readiness results in an achievement gap that is evident from the student’s first day in school, a gap that widens and persists as students progress through the grade levels. To level the playing field in the assessment of student performance, teachers and administrators in schools with high numbers of children in poverty advocated the use of a “growth model” to measure school performance. They believed that this method of assessment, which holds schools accountable for each student’s growth over the course of a school year, would be a fairer measure of school performance. After being used in several states for as many as ten years, however, it the growth model ultimately classifies schools the same way as the traditional standardized test model[1]. For example, in Colorado, whose accountability model is currently offered as an exemplar for New Hampshire, eighteen of the nineteen schools identified as requiring a “dramatic turnaround” have free and reduced lunch counts of 60% or more with the other school in the group having over 45% of students in that category[2]. The conclusion: even if New Hampshire adopts a growth model it is highly probable that the lowest performing schools will be those that house a high percentage of free and reduced lunch students.

When the results of these “new, improved” state assessments are made public and high poverty schools are identified as “failing”, advocates of No Child Left Behind and critics of public education will contend that schools are “again using poverty as an excuse for low-test scores”. They will suggest that teachers and principals in schools serving low-income students need to work harder, focus their instruction more, and set higher expectations for their students. But the reality is that schools cannot address the inherent performance gap that results from poverty. By the time most students in New Hampshire take their first “new improved” high stakes assessment in third grade, they will have spent 95% of their life outside of public school. Given that reality, it is difficult to expect schools to increase student achievement all by themselves. There is, however, compelling evidence that when schools serving economically disadvantaged students assume a broader role in the lives of children they can get impressive results, especially when they intervene early and coordinate their efforts with other agencies. Since the households of children born in poverty often receive welfare, Medicaid, and housing support, their parents deal with a host of social service agencies. Unfortunately, the agencies providing these services do not work collaboratively with schools. Early education programs like Head Start and public pre-Kindergarten that provide economically disadvantaged students with instruction in fundamental skills are not universally available in New Hampshire and, like the other social service agencies, may not have close ties to schools.

To help all public schools demonstrate they are taking action to counteract the effects of poverty and to reinforce the message that schools cannot address those problems in isolation, the State Department of Education should require schools to collaborate with social services agencies that serve their students and require evidence that schools are striving to engage parents in their child’s education. The State Department could, for example, require schools to establish cooperative agreements with health and social services agencies and articulation agreements with pre-schools and child care centers located within their attendance zone. They could also require schools to administer surveys designed to measure the number and nature of parent outreach activities each school sponsors. Poverty is not an acceptable excuse for poor school or student performance. If economically disadvantaged students are falling short of the mark, schools need to demonstrate they are doing everything possible to overcome the obstacles to their learning.

Improving Teacher and Principal Effectiveness

States seeking NCLB waivers will need to develop guidelines to “improve teacher and principal effectiveness”, guidelines that require “frequent” evaluations and include “student growth” measures as a major factor. These waiver requirements effectively reinforce two popular myths about teacher evaluation:

  • Districts have the capacity to conduct frequent evaluations of all teachers
  • There are standardized tests that measure student growth and the results of those tests can be used to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers.

While neither of these assumptions is true, it is difficult to argue that schools cannot improve the way they evaluate principals and teachers, but the public needs to realize that the evaluation improvements required for NCLB waivers will require additional spending. Increasing the frequency of evaluations using the traditional methodology requires additional administrative staff. Designing and implementing a “value-added assessment” that measures student growth requires additional funds as well, especially if the assessments are required in all content areas at all grade levels. Given the need to fulfill these new requirements at minimal cost to the State and school districts in order to qualify for a NCLB waiver, I propose the following metrics to assess staff performance.

More frequent evaluations: Districts could increase the frequency of classroom observations at a relatively low cost by re-employing retired teachers and administrators on a contract basis. In the private sector, businesses often employ selected retirees on a part-time or full time basis as contractors. When this practice is done in combination with early retirement incentives, businesses have an opportunity to reconfigure their staffing patterns and to recruit young talent. Retirees could provide districts with a cadre of evaluators and teaching coaches making it possible to increase the frequency of observations without adding staff. Alternatively, districts could use video technology to increase the frequency of classroom observations, inviting teachers to share videos of exemplary lessons with their immediate supervisor, the Principal, or with peer evaluators. This would effectively serve the same purpose as an announced observation but would allow the “observation” to occur at a time convenient for the evaluators outside the school day. Ideally, as part of the statewide evaluation model (see next section), evaluators could use electronic tools like those recommended as part of the Marzano Causal Teacher Evaluation Model.

Measuring student growth: It is fortunate that New Hampshire s abandoning the NECAPs since virtually all researchers agree that proficiency tests like NECAPs cannot be used to measure an individual teacher’s effect on a child’s performance over time. Furthermore, research does not support the use of existing value added assessment models as the primary basis for evaluating teachers. Instead, researchers and education policy makers advocate the use of a wide array of measures to determine the effect a teacher is having on students.

Therefore, instead of using scarce resources to develop a value added measurement as the primary means of assessing teacher and administrator performance, New Hampshire should consider adopting a statewide multi-dimensional evaluation model. Such an evaluation model might include:

  • A formative computer adaptive assessment like NWEA as the measure of a teacher’s effect on an individual student’s academic achievement[3]
  • Parent and/or student questionnaires
  • Parent and/or student interviews
  • Student portfolios or other exhibitions, and
  • Peer evaluations.

When these sources of information are combined with the frequent observations cited in the previous section, administrators would have a more comprehensive picture of a teacher’s performance. An important caveat: Whatever evaluation model the state develops, it should be done in collaboration with the professional organizations in the State and should strive to recognize that good teaching is much more than achieving higher test scores.

With the implementation of the changes outlined in this extended essay in place, the measurement of Principal effectiveness would be straightforward: Did the school forge community alliances? Did the Principal collect and analyze the information provided by the multi-dimensional evaluation system? Based on surveys conducted by the Superintendent did the Principal have an effective working relationship with parents, students, and teachers? By using data beyond standardized test scores the Superintendent would have a broader perspective on the Principal’s performance.

Reducing Duplicative and Burdensome Paperwork

The metrics recommended in this essay could be implemented with a minimum amount of additional paperwork with one exception: the “entry standard” ELOs envisioned in the “career ready” metric. Paperwork associated with classroom observations is ultimately a local determination, based on contracts in each district. If computer adapted assessments are used instead of a new standardized assessment, paperwork associated with the administration of school-wide testing would also be reduced. The surveys envisioned throughout the essay can be completed on-line and made available to evaluators in that format, eliminating additional paperwork. The additional paperwork associated with the “entry level” ELO initiative could be mitigated if a grant could be obtained to provide funding for the staff and/or additional staff time required to develop a database of competency based employer ELOs. The paperwork could also be minimized id regional collaboratives like SERESC and NCES coordinate the district efforts to obtain “entry level” ELOs.

One critical caveat: the USDOE cannot expect State Departments to reduce paperwork if they require them to design and implement evaluation systems designed to sort schools and teachers into categories based on their “performance”. Recent reports on the impact of Race To The Top indicate that the teacher evaluation plans increased paperwork for administrators and effectively diminished the time they spent on informal visits to classrooms.[4] This is not surprising. Fair labor practices would require substantial documentation to dismiss or reduce the compensation of an employee who is issued a contract. Reducing paperwork, then, will especially challenging if the NCLB waivers require the State to link evaluation with compensation in any way shape or form.

Summary: The Right Metrics 

The metrics recommended in this essay would change the way schools operate at the secondary level, change the scope of school responsibilities at the elementary level, and broaden the scope of information administrators gather on classroom teachers. With the exception of the additional costs incurred to improve the current evaluation systems, the other changes outlined could be accomplished by redirecting resources. The coordination of ELOs could be assigned to teachers freed from classroom assignments. If NWEAs or another computer adaptive assessment replace a “new, improved” state assessment as a means of measuring student performance the funds required for the “new, improved” assessment for could be re-directed. Indeed, if NWEAs were adopted at the state level, districts currently funding them in their operating budgets would save money. Much of the new data needed to assess teacher and Principal effectiveness can be gathered through the use of inexpensive online surveys and by redirecting the time spent by Principals and Superintendents.

What gets measured gets done. If we want to continue narrowing the content of what is taught in public schools, narrowing the focus of public schooling, and using standardized tests to measure school performance, we should stay the course: spend money on a “new and improved” state assessment and spend time teaching to that assessment. If we want something different from schools, we should consider new metrics.

 


[1] Betebenner, Linn, Growth in Student Achievement: Issues of Measurement, Longitudinal Data Analysis, and Accountability

[2] School Turnarounds in Colorado, monograph by Julie Kowal and Joel Abeldinger for Donnell-Kay Foundation

3 The Kingsbury Center, NWEA’s research arm, in a 2010 memo to the Charleston County School District, cited limitations to NWEA’s use as a value added measure, expressing particular concern about that school district’s plan to base 60% of their evaluation on NWEA results. These limitations would need to be considered in determining the role NWEA results would play.

[4] Michael Winerip, “In Tennessee, Following the Rules for Evaluations Off a Cliff”, New York Times, November 6, 2011.