Are Children Learning

As TCAP era ends, school districts tout gains and one looks forward to new tests

Late last week the Colorado Department of Education released the latest — and last — round of student results from the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP, and ACT. As a state, students showed no progress on the TCAP. In fact, most grades saw slight dips in math, reading, and writing.

Meanwhile, the state’s composite ACT score a third of a point.

Despite the across-the-board dips, some school districts, including those on the state’s accountability watch list, have taken the opportunity to highlight individual gains in specific areas.

Here’s a sample of what some school leaders had to say via statements emailed to the media last week:

Sheridan third graders posted an 18 point gain in 2014. And the district had gains in math at all grade levels, including an 11 point gain by eighth graders. Math has been an area the district has consistently had issues with. Last year, they implemented a second math period at its middle school. Deputy Superintendent Jackie Webb said the number of partially proficient students is decreasing as the district heads into its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock. But the work isn’t over.

“Are the final achievement levels where we want them to be? The answer is no. But progress starts with establishing success and these last two years of data have shown that Sheridan students are fully capable and continuing to meet higher expectations. Overall, we are very pleased with these results.”

Meanwhile, District 49 leaders in Colorado Springs said they’re pleased with the results of their own internal assessments and are looking forward to the state’s new online-based assessments that students will take in spring. “While not satisfactory, [TCAP results] sharpen our urgency to begin the CMAS era with even better results for our students,” said Peter Hilts, chief education officer.

“The new tests are an increasingly valid target for student assessment, they are a more accurate proxy for where students actually are.”

Jeffco Public Schools officials pointed out their TCAP scores “remained relatively stable.” Newly minted Chief Academic Officer Syna Morgan highlighted math and ACT increases while pointing out the the tests are just one data point.

“In math, we saw great gains with our Jeffco eighth and ninth graders who gained three to four points in proficiency from last year. Jeffco continued to outpace the state on the Colorado ACT scores by raising the score from 21.2 in 2013 to 21.5 in 2014. While the TCAP results provide one view of the academic performance of Jeffco students, we look forward to providing a body of evidence to show the full picture of student success.”

While TCAP proficiency rates have stalled in Denver Public Schools, the composite ACT score for the district continues to climb. It jumped about a half a point this year to 18.4. Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement:

“While we still have much work to do to realize that goal, it’s encouraging to see more and more of our students reaching these important college readiness benchmarks. Now we need to take our efforts to the next level so that we’re ensuring every student reaches his or her potential.”

Douglas County Public Schools continued to outpace the state in both TCAP proficiencies and the ACT, said Superintendent Liz Fagen. But, like Jeffco, Fagen said TCAP is just one data point. Her statement also highlighted that Highlands Ranch and Ponderosa high schools outscored several of the world’s best countries on the international PISA tests.

“Providing a world-class education for all students is our goal and TCAP scores are one data point. However, we know that a quality body of evidence is the best picture of how our students are doing on the outcomes we value most — we are committed to measuring what matters most using the best strategies for our students.”

Adams 50 school district leaders say they’re on to something with their competency-based model. The district, another of the state’s lowest performing, showed gains in 19 of the 24 TCAP tests, more than any other district in the Denver-metro area, said Superintendent Pamela Swanson.

“The latest results are further evidence that our [competency-based system] model is the right approach to educating all our children. While comparisons with other districts help to illustrate a positive trend, we won’t be satisfied until all our students are learning to their full potential.”

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.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.