Archive for January, 2015

Citizenship Tests as a Graduation Requirement

January 28, 2015 Comments off

As readers of this blog know, I am solidly against the high stakes standardized test regimen that has been imposed on schools as a result of NCLB and RTTT. I am not, however, opposed to ALL standardized tests. I fully support standardized Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs), tests that are designed to measure a specific skills and specific information sets that are necessary to successfully use those skills. An example of a CRT that is universally accepted is the test required to obtain a drivers license. To secure a drivers license one must demonstrate the capability of driving a car and the ability to understand the signs and “rules of the road”. The AP Tests and GED are examples of CRTs that are accepted as evidence that a student has mastered the skills required for specific college courses or required to graduate from high school.

An article by Rick Rojas and Mokoto Rich in today’s NYTimes describes a CRT that is being required by some states for graduation that is also hard to argue against: the citizenship examination administered to immigrants. Rojas and Mokoto write:

This month, Arizona became the first state to pass a law requiring its high school students to pass the citizenship exam, stipulating that they must answer at least 60 of 100 questions correctly to receive a diploma. (Immigrants are given 10 of the 100 questions and must correctly answer six to pass.) Other states may follow suit: North Dakota’s House of Representatives has passed a comparable bill, and its Senate approved it Tuesday; legislators in Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and seven other states have recently introduced similar initiatives.

The driving force behind this movement is Frank Riggs, a former congressman who is president of the Joe Foss Institute. Riggs thought that it was reasonable to require ALL high school graduates to “demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of civics” in order to get a diploma and reasoned that there was no need to devise a new test for this because we already had one in place: the test given to aspiring US citizens.

The article notes that the proposal to require passage of the citizenship examination does have some opposition:

“I don’t think the test measures what is most important for students to learn,” said Diana Hess, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which gives grants in support of education causes. “If all we’re asking students to do is answer very simple questions, we’re not going to be working on the complex understanding that I think students need in order to participate well.”

The balance of the article describes various perspectives on the question, citing the lack of fundamental knowledge that exists among voters today and the poor voter turnout.

I wholeheartedly support this idea… but would take it a step further. To get a drivers license one must not only pass a written test, one must also pass a performance test: they must demonstrate the ability to drive a car. Similarly I would propose that schools require high school students to register to vote and vote in mock elections beginning in their sophomore year. In that way they would learn the procedures that are required in their state and get an understanding of the specific offices they will be voting for once they are of age. For those teachers who complain that this would take time away from “valuable instruction” my retort would be this: “What is more important to our democracy than ensuring high school graduates are informed voters?”

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Childhood Poverty at “Obscene Levels”

January 28, 2015 Comments off

Charles Blow’s NYTimes column today deals with childhood poverty, a topic that has been the subject of scores of posts on this blog. Drawing statistics and quotes from “Ending Child Poverty Now”, a recently released report from the Childhood Defense Fund, Blow calls on us to reduce the “obscene level of childhood  poverty”. He writes:

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

He quotes extensively from the report, which notes that children born in poverty in the US are more disadvantaged than those born in other developed countries in the world: “Among (the 35 OECD) countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.” 

Citing statistics that demonstrate how poverty is intergenerational and the long term costs associated with the corrosive effects of poverty, the report recommends that our government invest $77 billion per year to end childhood poverty. While that is an eye-popping amount, the report notes that it pales in comparison to what we are spending now:

Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report offers several ideas on how that money could be raised, including the obvious solutions of raising taxes on the highest wage earners and spending less on the military. But as I implied in the comment I left, these ideas are likely non-starters:

As you note in your column, this is not a new problem. Unfortunately “A Nation At Risk” that blamed economic problems on public schools captured the public’s attention far more than the 1994 CDF report “Wasting America’s Future” and the current toxic testing regimen is the result. You could get over $1.7 billion from the state coffers by eliminating standardized tests that are used now to tell us what we already know: children raised in poverty do worse on standardized tests than children raised in affluence. And here’s what is especially maddening: instead of using those results to demonstrate the need to invest more in children who are raised in poverty we are using those results to close neighborhood schools and replace them in many cases with for-profit charters that are not markedly improving the opportunities for children raised in poverty but ARE increasing the money shareholders receive.

I doubt that the 2014 CDF Report will get any more traction than the 1994 report, but appreciate Charles Blow’s effort to bring the report to the full attention of the public. MAYBE repeating the report’s central message will help people of conscience to think twice before they support cuts to programs that help children. That central message is:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith.”

What Could Replace Standardized Tests as A Metric?

January 27, 2015 Comments off

Several years ago (over 35 to be more precise), I recall pondering to move as I sought a new job in a larger school district. To help us decide where we might want to move, my wife and I had purchased  Places Rated Almanac which complied reams of data sets to help families like ours decide where we might want to move. As I recall, the data sets included items like housing costs, availability of transportation, recreation alternatives, medical services, weather, taxes… and schools. The metrics used to assign “stars” for each of the data sets had some flaws (e.g. recreation included the number of golf courses and bowling alleys, neither of which interested me) but the one I found most frustrating was the data set for schools. The ratings used some combination of per pupil spending, class size, and standardized achievement tests to evaluate “quality” and they were particularly inadequate in metropolitan areas like Hartford CT where the city school indices were blended with the nearby suburban districts… and I knew from my experiences in the Philadelphia area that there were VAST differences between the city schools and suburban schools and among the suburban school districts as well.

It is therefore not surprising that after relocating to Western MD in the late 1980s I was enthusiastic about the State Department of Education’s notion of developing “Report Cards” for each school as part of an accountability initiative and I welcomed the opportunity to participate in the development process as one of the 24 Superintendents in the State. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick we developed a Report Card that included standardized test scores, drop out rates, attendance, and a host of demographic data that included race, socio-economics, special education, and ESL. As the report cards evolved we worked to upgrade the Report Cards. We changed the test data reported, moving away from the use of minimum competency tests to the “Maryland School Performance Assessment Plan” (MSPAP) assessments that were administered in grades 5, 8 and 11. We made certain we all used a common methodology for defining “drop outs”.  We reported the data in a disaggregated format to make certain that high-performing students in affluent schools were not masking the deficiencies of, say, special education students in less affluent schools. The MSPAP Report card was far superior to the blunt measurements used by Places Rated but still fell short of capturing the elusive qualities the separate a “good” school from an “excellent” school.

I was saddened when I learned that Maryland had to abandon its tests with the advent of NCLB because they were not given at the end of each grade and they also needed to abandon the format of the Report Card. Standardized Test data became the primary metric for determining school quality. Race To The Top, as noted repeatedly in this blog, only made matters worse by raising the stakes of standardized test results thereby making them the de facto exclusive metric for school quality. Ironically, the depth of the data available to parents in the age of the internet was more school specific than the Places Rated data, but it was far less helpful to parents and far more punitive to schools.

But, as Anna Kamenetz reported in an NPR post earlier this month, the reauthorization of NCLB may result in the use of a different set of accountability metrics. In “What Schools Could Use Instead of Standardized Tests” Kamenetz offers a long list of possibilities:

  • Samplingwhere tests like NAEP would examine random samples of students in a school instead of stopping everything to administer tests to all students simultaneously.
  • “Stealth testing”, which suggests formative assessments like NWEA or Khan Academy dashboards could be used to systematically determine individual student progress
  • Multiple Measures, where routinely collected data, like “…graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes” could be used to measure a school district’s effectiveness. Kamenetz also suggests that emerging metrics like social/emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments, and portfolios could be included in the “multiple measures” provided to students and/or their parents.
  • Inspections, conducted by well-funded state departments of education.

Kamenetz has written a book on this topic, which provides a more expansive description of each of these ideas and offers others…. and anyone who thinks this is “unaffordable” should look at how much we are spending on standardized tests. The billions spent on those tests could easily be redirected to the metrics described above… and the results described above would be far more beneficial to teachers, parents, and students than the results we are getting today.