broken promise?

Common Core tests were supposed to usher in a new era of comparing America’s schools. What happened?

PHOTO: Pete Souza / White House
President Barack Obama and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010.

How well does an elementary school in Maryland stack up to one in New Jersey? Do California’s eighth graders make faster academic gains than their peers in Connecticut?

In 2010, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the case for common state tests that would allow parents and educators to find out — and predicted that the comparisons would lead to dramatic policy changes.

“For the first time, it will be possible for parents and school leaders to assess and compare in detail how students in their state are doing compared to students in other states,” Duncan said. “That transparency, and the honest dialogue it will create, will drive school reform to a whole new level.” It was a heady moment: Most states had signed on to at least one of the two cross-state testing groups, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

Though their numbers have since dwindled substantially, the two groups still count over 20 members between them. But seven years later, it remains difficult to make detailed comparisons across states, as a potent mix of technical challenges, privacy concerns, and political calculations have kept the data relatively siloed. And there’s little evidence that the common tests have pushed states to compare notes or change course.

“This is one unkept promise [of] the common assessments,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has backed the Common Core standards.

“I’ve been surprised that there haven’t been more attempts to compare PARCC and Smarter Balanced states,” said Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners.

What comparisons are available? PARCC publishes a PDF document with scores from different states, based on publicly available information. “We have more states than ever administering tests that will allow for comparability across states,” said Arthur Vanderveen, the CEO of New Meridian, the nonprofit that now manages PARCC. “That data is all public and available. I think the vision really has been realized.”

Smarter Balanced does not publish any data comparing states, though those scores could be collected from each participating state’s website.

The presentation of the data stands in contrast to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test taken by a sample of students nationwide. NAEP has an interactive site that allows users to compare state data. No such dashboards exist for Smarter Balanced or PARCC, though both tests could offer more granular comparisons of schools and students.

Tony Alpert, the head of Smarter Balanced, says a centralized website would be difficult to create and potentially confusing, since states report their results in slightly different ways.

“The notion of comparable is really complicated,” he said. Nitty-gritty issues like when a test is administered during the school year, or whether a state allows students who are learning English to use translation glossaries on the math exam, can make what seems like a black and white question — are scores comparable? — more gray, he said.

“Early on our states directed us not to provide a public website of the nature you describe, and [decided that] each state would be responsible for producing their results,” said Alpert.

Neither testing group publishes any growth scores across states — that is, how much students in one state are improving relative to students who took the test elsewhere. Many experts say growth scores are a better gauge of school quality, since they are less closely linked to student demographics. (A number of the states in both consortia do calculate growth, but only within their state.)

“I’m not sure why we would do that,” Alpert of Smarter Balanced said. States “haven’t requested that we create a common growth model across all states — and our work is directed by our members.”

That gets at a larger issue of who controls this data. For privacy reasons, student scores are not the property of the consortia, but individual states. PARCC and Smarter Balanced are also run by the states participating, which means there may be resistance to comparisons — especially ones that might be unflattering.

“The consortium doesn’t want to be in the business of ranking its members,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests. “Except for the ones that are doing well, [states] don’t have any political incentive to want to release the results.”

As for PARCC, a testing expert who has works directly with the consortium said PARCC has made it possible to compare growth across states — the results just haven’t been released.

“Those [growth scores] have been calculated, but it’s very surprising to me that they’re not interested in making them public,” said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment. This information would allow for comparisons of not just student proficiency across states, but how much students improved, on average, from what state to the next.

Vanderveen confirmed that states have information to calculate growth across states.

But it’s unclear if any have done so or published the scores.

Chalkbeat asked all PARCC states. Colorado, Illinois and Maryland responded that they do not have such data; other states have not yet responded to public records requests.

Vanderveen said that states are more interested in whether students are meeting an absolute bar for performance than in making comparisons to other states. “A relative measure against how others students are performing in other states — and clearly states have decided — that is of less value,” he said.

The cross-state data could be a gold mine for researchers, who are often limited to single states where officials are most forthcoming with data. But both Polikoff and Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard and testing expert, say they have seen little research that taps into the testing data across states, perhaps because getting state-by-state permission remains difficult.

Challenges in the ability to make comparisons across states and districts led Ho and Stanford researcher Sean Reardon to create their own solution: an entirely separate database for comparing test scores, including growth, across districts in all 50 states. But it’s still not as detailed as the consortia exams.

“One of the promises of the Common Core data was that you might be able to do student-level [growth] models for schools across different states and our data cannot do that,” he said.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”