Posts Tagged ‘Measurement’

Homeless Students Increase in NYC… Underscoring Impact of Externalities on “School Quality”

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Elizabeth Harris’ article in today’s NYTimes opened with this unfathomable fact:

There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany.

The article, which was triggered by the release of a report to be released on today by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, assesses the impact of homelessness on students, noting that on average those 100,000 children missed 88 days of school during the year they were homeless. Ms. Harris provides many facts like that in her article, but the facts understate the impact of homelessness because data cannot capture what the stress must be like for children who are exposed to the threats of losing their homes over extended periods of time. Nor can the data accurately capture the number of near homeless children: children whose parents are threatened with the need to move because of higher rents, lost employment, and family tragedies.

Nor does the article delve into some of the ways homelessness undercuts the efforts of public school teachers and administrators to improve their schools and undercuts the accountability measures used to determine the “quality” of schools. A few examples:

  • How can schools in the Bronx, which had over 10,000 homeless students, be compared with schools in Bayside Queens, which had “only” 823 homeless students?
  • How can the parents of the 100,000 students who are homeless be expected to complete the daunting paperwork necessary to apply for entry into a charter school?
  • And if the charter schools do not include homeless students in their applicant pools or student bodies, how can their results be compared to those of schools like those in the Bronx where there are high concentrations of homeless children?

The overarching questions, then, are these:

  • How can public schools whose attendance zones include the worst housing in the city and highest levels of homelessness be expected to perform as well as public schools whose attendance zones include the best housing and lowest levels of homelessness?
  • How can “school choice” be any kind of solution for families who wonder where they will live?

Reformers need to answer these questions before offering solutions.

Hoover Institution Survey Finds Diminishing Support for Charters, Which is GOOD News… Continuing Support for Testing, Which is SAD News

August 15, 2017 Leave a comment

The lead story in today’s Education Week feed by Arianna Prothero provides an overview of the results from a recent survey conducted by EDNext, a journal published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The survey was designed to determine support for and opposition to various public education policies. The good news for those of us who oppose the expansion of charter schools and the privatization that it facilitates, is that broad public support for charter schools is falling. The somewhat troubling news is that “…opposition toward school vouchers and other similar policies that direct public aid toward private schools has softened.” a finding that is somewhat mitigated because support for vouchers has not increased.

From my perspective, though, the worst news in the survey was described as an afterthought that didn’t even warrant a header in the column:

Testing and holding schools accountable for student performance continues to have broad support across members of both parties. About two-thirds of respondents agree with the federal requirements to test students in math and reading every year from the latter elementary grades through middle school and once in high school.

To me this finding is disturbing on several levels. It shows that a solid majority of voters equate “test results” with “education quality”. It’s framing insinuates that “grade levels” based on age cohorts are a “given”— that time must be constant and performance must be variable. And it implies that the public still believes there should be some kind of consequence associated with schools that enroll students who do not fare well on standardized tests.

In short, the governance of schools remains fluid in the minds of those composing the survey and those responding to the survey, but the structure of schools remains fixed: they must be organized by age-based grade levels. Until the structure of schools is called to question, summative standardized testing will remain entrenched and performance will vary among age cohorts. Once we are free from the factory paradigm, we can move toward mastery learning based on formative assessments and structured teacher observations.

ESSA Does Provide an Opportunity to Expand Mastery Learning… Will States Seize the Chance?

August 12, 2017 Leave a comment

25 years ago when I was beginning my second term was Superintendent in MD, my staff members and I decided we would make an earnest effort to introduce the concept of mastery learning to our district. Our plan was to develop an “Essential Curriculum” that would identify the sequence of skills every student needed to master in subject areas and then develop performance assessments to determine if students had mastered the plan. Students would progress through the sequence at their own pace, based on our credo that performance would be constant and time would be variable. Letter grades would be abandoned in favor of periodic progress reports and “grade levels” might ultimately be abandoned in favor of “families” or “pods”. It was an ambitious plan that was ultimately set aside because the State began launching what would ultimately become the Maryland State Performance Program, a precursor to the the kinds of state level tests that NCLB mandated. As the State Department began developing its guidelines for testing, it became evident that time would remain constant and performance wold be variable. That is, all tests would be administered during one time period to grade level cohorts defined by the age of students. While this state initiative did not derail our efforts to develop an Essential Curriculum, it DID undermine the direction we hoped to head in terms of assessing and grouping students. In effect, the decision to administer state-wide standardized tests flew in the face of mastery learning…. and not just in Maryland, but across the nation once NCLB was put in place.

NCLB testing did not extend to high schools, and some states, most notably Vermont and New Hampshire, passed regulations that enabled high schools to award credit for something other than “seat time”, opening the door for mastery learning to be introduced at the high school level. This open door led to partnerships with post secondary institutions, the introduction of on-line non-profit and public school sponsored on-line courses, and opportunities for students to gain credit for experiential learning.

My misgivings about ESSA are well documented in this blog, especially given the GOP dominated statehouses across the nation who might use the state level flexibility to re-impose failed ideas like VAM and using tests as the sole or primary metric for “grading” schools. But, as Kyle Spencer reported in yesterday’s NYTimes, ESSA DOES provide an opportunity for schools and school districts to achieve the concepts our district in MD set out to implement 25 years ago. In “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry”, Mr Spencer describes precisely the kind of program we hoped to implement… and it describes the kinds of resistance we ran into apart from the state standardized test program. The exemplary program Mr. Spencer profiled in NYC’s MS 442 allows students to progress at their own rate, gives them and their parents timely feedback as the progress through the course sequences, and makes performance constant and time the variable.

But programs like the one Mr. Spencer describes, as he notes, does engender resistance from several sources. Parents who want to know the child’s “grade” are befuddled by the system that tracks progress through a sequence of skills. The high schools, who seek a percentage score as an admissions criteria, are flummoxed by the skill reporting as well, forcing the cadre of NYC schools using the mastery approach to develop an algorithm to assign such “grades” to its students. Teachers who find the change of approach mind-boggling have left the schools where mastery learning has been introduced.

Mr. Spencer’s article captures the ways that mastery learning is a radical departure from the dominant “factory” paradigm and how it plays out from the student’s perspective and emphasizes how the emerging grassroots mastery schools movement is necessarily different from school-to-school. He also describes the two factors that are making mastery learning possible now more than ever: ESSA… and technology:

…The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

He also describes the reasons that mastery learning might be compromised: by focussing on cost-cutting; by devolving into a checklist mentality for all courses; by assuming that the metrics used to measure “mastery” are perfect;

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

But the advocates for mastery learning, which include your humble blogger, see it as an imperfect but potentially better way to reach all students more effectively. This quote reflects my thinking:

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Mr. Spencer’s article is a balanced presentation on mastery learning and it implicitly emphasizes the complications schools will face in implementing such a program. But the traditional factory paradigm is clearly failing large numbers of children in our country and, Mr. Soleway’s rejoinders notwithstanding, does not afford opportunities for students to “… learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”. Indeed, if time is constant and performance is variable, the relentless march to “cover” the curriculum precludes any chance for “…slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”! 

I am heartened to see the NYTimes reporting on this movement… and hope that as other schools and districts read this they, too, will consider moving in this direction.



Reopening a Can of Worms that Will Reinforce the Use of Standardized Tests to Sort and Select

August 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Given the current administration in the White House, it is not surprising to learn that the the Justice Department plans to gut affirmative action programs. For decades women, African Americans, and minorities have strived to gain entry to higher education that was denied to them based on their gender, skin color, and/or nationality.Because institutions of higher learning had de facto and de jure obstacles to entry as well as “traditions” that blocked entry, the federal government established Affirmative Action guidelines to help women, African Americans and other minorities gain access to higher education. But, as Mark Walsh reports in an Education Week article all of that is about to go out the window:

Education advocates are reacting with dismay to a report that President Donald Trump’s administration is recruiting lawyers within the U.S. Department of Justice for an initiative to investigate and potentially sue colleges and universities over racial preferences in admissions that discriminate against white applicants.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that there is a compelling interest in higher education institutions having diverse student bodies,” said Anurima Bhargava, a former Justice Department civil rights official under President Barack Obama. “My sense of the way this [Trump initiative] is playing out, the idea is to instill fear and intimidation” among educational administrators, she said.

The article was written in response to a NYTimes report of an internal memo that was leaked indicating that the Justice Department was seeking attorneys interested in working on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions”. As Mr. Walsh reports:

The project would be run from the “front office” of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the paper said, meaning it would be run largely by political appointees, rather than from the division’s educational opportunities section, which consists of career lawyers and employees who enforce civil rights laws in the educational context.

While the Education Week article did not say so, the practical reality of this will be an emphasis on the criteria used to admit students to these institutions of higher learning, particularly “objective” criteria like SAT, GRE, LSAT, and AP scores, and, to a lesser degree, class ranks. In most of the previous lawsuits against affirmative action the white applicants based the arguments for their wrongful rejection on the fact that some of those admitted to a college or graduate school had lower LSATs, GREs or lower GPAs in HS or college and that using race and/or gender in any fashion is “unfair” since it serves to allow “less qualified” applicants to enroll in college based solely on their race or gender. In effect, then, standardized tests become the yardstick for entry. In the coming days it will be interesting to see if colleges push back on this direction the Justice Department is taking. I would hope that the flagship state universities and “elite” colleges unite to rebut this direction.

One last irony: based on the analysis in this NYTimes article the beneficiary of any screening based solely on “objective criteria” may be Asian students.

From Pre-K to Career Preparation Courses the Message is the Same: Ignore Easy to Test Skills

July 31, 2017 Leave a comment

With the past week I’ve read two articles that I find heartening. How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy”  from today’s NYTimes by Claire Cain Miller and Jess Bidgood and The Key to Jobs in the Future is not College but Compassion from an Aoen post earlier this week written by Livia Gershon both make the same point. Schools overemphasize the skills required for college entry and the use of technology and overlook the most important skills required for the economy today and in the foreseeable future: empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, compassion and caring.

Both articles look at how schooling needds to change given the automation resulting from technological advances. The NYTimes article talks about the earliest years of schooling in that context:

Technological advances have rendered an increasing number of jobs obsolete in the last decade, and researchers say parts of most jobs will eventually be automated. What the labor market will look like when today’s young children are old enough to work is perhaps harder to predict than at any time in recent history. Jobs are likely to be very different, but we don’t know which will still exist, which will be done by machines and which new ones will be created.

To prepare, children need to start as early as preschool, educators say. Foundational skills that affect whether people thrive or fall behind in the modern economy are developed early, and achievement gaps appear before kindergarten.

But the article then emphasizes that teaching “foundational skills” must go beyond those currently offered in the curriculum of most public schools which are dictated by the standardized tests administered beginning in third grade.

Teaching social and emotional skills is fashionable in education right now, but it’s been part of high-quality teaching for decades, and randomized trials over time have shown how important it is to adult success, said Stephanie M. Jones, a professor of education at Harvard who studies social and emotional development.

If you raise and educate kids to be flexible, problem solvers and good communicators, they can adapt to a world that is new,” she said.

This is natural to the way preschoolers learn, said David Deming, a professor of public policy, economics and economics at Harvard. They flexibly move from the art area to the block area during free play; they build structures and make collages; and they share toys and try again when they mess up.

A big challenge — and one he said is essential to preparing children for a labor market in which routine and individualized tasks are being automated — is making sure this style of education is not lost in higher grades, when teachers turn to lecturing and standardized curriculums. Just as preschoolers learn math by operating a pretend store instead of doing work sheets, he suggests high schoolers learn government by staging a mock Congress rather than reading a textbook.

“You’re learning to work in groups and be creative, and that this problem you’re facing today looks like a problem you faced in a different context a year ago,” he said. “That is a process that is very hard for artificial intelligence to replicate.”

Ms. Gershon’s Aoen essay drills more deeply into the flaws of our current economy that undervalues care-giving professions which, in turn, works against the strengths of those raised in the working class and the strengths of females:

It is becoming clear to researchers that working-class people tend to have sharper emotional skills than their wealthier, more educated counterparts. In 2016, the psychologists Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles from New York University found that people from higher social classes spent less time looking at people they passed on the street than did less privileged test subjects. In an online experiment, higher-class subjects were also worse at noticing small changes in images of human faces…

It can be hard to wrap our minds around the notion that emotional work really is work. With the very toughest, very worst-paid jobs, like working with the dying and incontinent, that might be because those of us who don’t have to do the work would rather not think about how crucial and difficult it really is. In other settings, often we simply don’t have the professional language to talk about the emotional work we’re doing. Smiling and nodding at a client’s long, rambling story might be the key to signing that big contract, but resumes don’t include a bullet point for ‘tolerates inconsiderate bores’. A lot of the time, emotional labour doesn’t feel like labour. It’s also not hard to see that highly educated, mostly male, people who develop and analyse economic policy have blind spots when it comes to skills concentrated among working-class women.

In effect, Gershon is arguing that our current economy has set a vicious circle in place whereby the very skills needed in an automated world are undervalued making those jobs less attractive. And this vicious circle will be hard to break since so many jobs depend on the implicit belief that more education is required for success, which may not be the case at all:

Another problem is that the question of how to help low-wage care workers make more money is invariably answered by: ‘give them a better education’. Policy designers talk a lot about ‘professionalising’ direct-care work, advancing proposals for things such as ‘advanced training’ on diabetes or dementia care. Recently, Washington, DC decided to require childcare workers to have a bachelor’s degree – a move one school-district official said would ‘build the profession and set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development’. Granted, anyone working with older people with disabilities, or with small children, might benefit from studying research on the particular needs of these groups; and widely accessible college education is a good idea for reasons that go far beyond vocational training. But assuming that more time in the classroom is key to making ‘better’ workers fundamentally disrespects the profound, completely non-academic skills needed to calm a terrified child or maintain composure around a woman playing with her own faeces.

The US economists W Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call the belief in more schooling as the solution to every labour problem the ‘education gospel’. As Grubb argued in a 2005 talk, having more education tends to help individuals find better work, but that doesn’t make schooling a good overall economic strategy. In fact, he said, 30 to 40 per cent of workers in developed countries already have more education than their jobs demand.

And here’s an irony: the “solution” to the need for the future workforce to have more empathy is… you guessed it… more education programming! Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is spreading across schooling at all levels. But after describing the expansion of SEL programs, Ms. Gershon concludes that their spread may be limited by our standardized testing ethos:

SEL programmes in the US explicitly teach students strategies for developing empathy, managing their own emotions and working with others. Kids practise using affirming language with each other, they collaboratively design rules to govern the classroom, or use mindfulness to improve their understanding of their own mental processes. Researchers are finding that such programmes help students to adopt more positive attitudes and behave in more socially appropriate ways. Many school districts have already adopted SEL programmes, and last year, eight US states announced a collaboration to develop statewide SEL standards.

But the conversation around SEL puts a glaring spotlight on the limited value we place on emotional skills. Often, the programmes are marketed only as ways to reduce violence, not methods for developing crucial human abilities. And in academic environments where testing pressures and back-to-basics rhetoric often crowd out ‘softer’ subjects, they might appeal only insofar as they encourage kids to ‘get themselves under control’ and sit still for a long-division lesson.

Her concluding paragraph captures an overarching conundrum of “progress”:

Technology-driven efficiency has achieved wonderful things. It has brought people in developed countries an astonishingly rich standard of living, and freed most of us from the work of growing the food we eat or making the products we use. But applying the metric of efficiency to the expanding field of emotional labour misses a key promise offered by technological progress – that, with routine physical and cognitive work out of the way, the jobs of the future could be opportunities for people to genuinely care for each other.

At some point, efficiency is no longer a “good”, it is a problem… and when we apply efficiency metrics to immeasurable qualities we can end up with superficial changes,  a veneer of empathy and not the genuiine caring for each other needed to move forward as a civil culture.

Missouri’s History of Evaluating Schools Illustrates How “Outcome-Based” Metrics Undercut State Departments, Emphasize Demographic Differences

July 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Saint Louis Post Dispatch writer Kristen Taketa’s column on potential changes to Missouri’s accountability system provides a history of accountability in that state which illustrates how “outcome-based” metrics undercuts the role of state departments, effectively dismisses the effects of poverty on school children, and provides a cheap and seemingly accurate means of differentiating “performance”. This shift away from a comprehensive but expensive means of evaluating schools to the simplistic and inexpensive method of using test results reinforces the notion that “throwing money” at the solution and imposing government oversight at the state level won’t help improve schools. Instead the message is that hard work by teachers and relentless grit by students alone will make a difference.

In her article on Missouri’s ongoing review of how best to assess the effectiveness of schools, Ms. Taketa describes the way schools in her State (and most states) was done in the 1970s and 1980s:

Two decades ago, Missouri rewarded school districts with good marks if they got parents involved, offered a variety of extracurricular activities and had safe schools. Districts were applauded if they had deep financial reserves, a competent staff and a school board that got along well with administrators….

When the state created the Missouri School Improvement Program in 1990, its primary goal was to ensure schools were providing the services and resources needed for a good education. Schools were graded not by calculating scores with complex formulas, but by in-person school visits by state education officials and educators from peer districts.

Ms. Taketa never says so in her article, but this system had at least three major problems:

  1. Those who value mathematical precision that provides the ability to rank schools found metrics like “parent involvement, competent staff, and highly functioning school boards” to be too soft. Moreover the narrative reports issued by visiting teams of colleagues and State Department officials often contained subjective descriptions of the districts that did not provide the capability of comparing one district to another in terms of student performance, which many taxpayers viewed as the ultimate determinant of school quality.
  2. For those who value complete local control, the notion of being judged by “outsiders” from the State Department and from “other districts with nothing in common” with theirs was an anathema. If local taxpayers and voters were happy with their schools they did not feel feedback from “outside experts” was worthwhile, even if those experts were assuring that the funds from the state were being invested wisely by the local school board and administrators.
  3. For those who want to limit spending, the cost for these periodic reviews was perceived s daunting and the fact that these comprehensive reviews required a robust state department (i.e. a fully staffed bureaucracy) was especially maddening.

Her analysis of how Missouri moved to testing is a solution to each of these “problems”:

Then in 1993, the Missouri Legislature passed the Outstanding Schools Act, which instructed state education officials to create a standardized test to measure student performance. Student performance began to count for the majority of a Missouri school rating by 2001, the same year the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed by Congress.

By 2012, Missouri school accountability was entirely based on student results, though not all of it on test scores.

Later in the second paragraph, Ms. Taketa describes how the state finessed the problem of helping low performing districts become accredited without having to spend a dime!

The inclusion of non-test criteria, such as attendance and graduation rates, is what enabled two high-poverty, previously unaccredited districts — St. Louis and Riverview Gardens — to earn accreditation upgrades, despite having a majority of students who are not proficient on state standardized tests.

Ms. Taketa then describes the downside of using standardized tests as the primary metric: the narrowing of the curriculum.

While most anyone will agree schools should have high test scores and attendance rates, relying on such outcomes when judging schools runs the risk of schools fixating on earning points and little else. It runs the risk of investing energies solely on students who are a few points below proficient, rather than all students.

And that “risk” is precisely what led to the State legislature revisiting the formula, a process that has taken five years of debate! Their solution, though, still relies on test scores, using “growth” instead of “proficiency”. While “growth” is better than “proficiency”, it still poses a dilemma:

In a 2008 Association for Education Finance and Policy survey, 68 percent of education researchers said growth is the best way to measure school quality. Only 9 percent said measuring proficiency is.

“It has been highly recognized as a more accurate representation of trying to isolate what schools are actually doing for kids,” said Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Districts can already earn points for student growth in Missouri’s accreditation system, but they can’t earn as many points for growth as they can for straight test scores.

Prioritizing growth could give higher ratings to districts such as Riverview Gardens, Jennings and Special School District, all of which received zero points for reaching proficiency targets in 2016 but earned all the points they could for growth.

But Chris Neale, assistant commissioner for quality schools at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, cautions that, in emphasizing student growth, the state shouldn’t lower expectations for students of color or students from low-income backgrounds.

What you have to be careful of is that you don’t even provide by accident an excuse to say children of poverty can’t achieve, people of a particular racial or ethnic background can’t achieve,” Neale said. “We don’t want the unintended consequence of stigmatizing a community.”

The best way to avoid offering an excuse to say that “children of poverty can’t achieve” is to offer those children the same chance to succeed that a student in an affluent school district has. But that would require more funding… and we don’t want the unintended consequence of stigmatizing the legislature as being cold-hearted and uncaring toward the children who were born into poverty.


“Grade Levels” are an Administrative Convenience…Standardized Test “Grade Levels” are a Statistical Artifact… and BOTH Block Mastery Learning

July 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I am bewildered by the fact that most of the general public and most people associated with public education believe that “grade levels” linked to age cohorts are a natural, biological and developmentally appropriate means of grouping children and, because of that fact,”grade levels” linked to age cohorts are a fair, equitable and valid means of categorizing students for the purpose of measuring their performance.

But here’s are two facts: the grouping of students into “grade levels” based on their age cohorts was a practice instituted in the early 1900s for administrative convenience. Once it became THE “standard” means of grouping students, it also became the basis for scoring “standardized tests” that became the basis for creating homogeneous “ability” groups within those grade levels, norm-referenced tests that used scale scores to determine if students were performing “at grade level”.

In the late 1900s it appeared there might be an opportunity to replace norm-referenced standardized tests that sort and select students with criterion referenced tests that help determine if students have mastered the material presented in class or learned outside of the classroom .The technology was emerging that would make the use of such tests feasible, and, had the hoped for conversion to mastery learning taken place it was possible that student directed learning would have replaced test-driven learning.

Since NCLB, the administratively convenient standardized tests have moved to the forefront. Predictably, their results, which would necessarily yield a bell curve, demonstrated a large number of “failing students” and, just as predictably, those “failing students” were housed in schools serving children raised in poverty whose test results correlated strongly with the income of their parents.

Now that these “failing schools” require “take overs” by the State, and given that the State Departments of Education do not have the wherewithal to oversee all of the schools identified as “failing” based on standardized test scores, the “failing schools” are turned over to private contractors who promise to get better results on tests in exchange for a waiver of regulations and relief from the “administrative burdens” imposed by teacher unions.

When Congress repealed NCLB by passing ESSA, the misnamed “Every Student Succeeds Act”, and President Obama signed it into law, there was SOME hope in my part of New England that given the flexibility built into ESSA that they might be able to institute some mastery-learning and/or student-directed learning into their state plans. When the bill passed, I was hopeful of that outcome for Vermont and New Hampshire, the two states I worked in before I retired… but also dreading how other states might use their flexibility to impose things like “value-added” measures and school choice. I was also fearful that those states who rejected the Common Core might feel liberated and impose Creation Science requirements or limit the teaching of climate change

Now… several months later, it is clear my hopes will not be realized in either Vermont or– especially in New Hampshire… and my fears about the direction other states would take were well founded. Worse, as reported in yesterday’s Politico Morning Edition for education it appears that after declaring that the USDOE would give states flexibility in determining their accountability measures— which MIGHT have given them some flexibility— the USDOE is rejecting any metrics that move away from standardized tests based on grade levels. Here’s Politico reporter Benjamin Wermund’s analysis of on state’s experience at trying to move away from the “traditional” model of accountability by using scale scores instead of “grade levels”:

Connecticut, in its updated plan, stands by the use of scale scores to measure academic achievement, rather than grade-level proficiency. Scale scores convert a student’s grades to a common scale – for example, 300 to 900 – enabling educators to distinguish the relative performance of students at the high and low ends of the same proficiency level. The Education Department told Connecticut in June that the law requires a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level. And a team of federal reviewers, who separately provided notes on the plan, said the state’s approach to grading schools “lacks transparency.”

But Connecticut officials disagree. “Webster’s dictionary defines proficiency not only as a state of being proficient, but also as an advancement in knowledge or skill,” they write in their revised plan, which calls scale scores “the most accurate measure of a student’s proficiency.” Connecticut’s new plan says that “characterizing a student’s achievement solely as falling into an achievement level is an extreme oversimplification,” and “solely relying on a binary proficient/not proficient approach encourages unsound educational practices.” Colorado and Massachusetts also want to use scale scores. Massachusetts received similarly discouraging feedback from the Education Department, while Colorado is still waiting. Read Connecticut’s revised plan.

If ESSA does require “a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level” then there is yet another reason to lament it’s passage. Scale scores are not a perfect means of determining mastery, but they DO move the thinking of educators, parents, and decision-makers away from the statistical artifact of “grade level scores” and compel them to be more open-minded to different forms of accountability and instruction. If ESSA does NOT explicitly require “a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level”, then I hope that Lamar Alexander and other Senators will speak out against this interpretation by USDOE. If ESSA’s intent is to fulfill Betsy DeVos’ stated ideal of pushing for  “…reforms locally that will help to ensure all children, no matter their zip code, have access to an education environment that works for them”, allowing states to set their own accountability standards is a step in the right direction.