Test performance

For a few weeks, Denver at center of PARCC testing world

The basement conference rooms of a Denver hotel are ground zero for setting the performance levels of students in Colorado and other states on last spring’s PARCC language arts and math tests.

Dozen of educators gathered Monday to begin setting the five performance levels – sometimes called “cut scores” – for the two sets of tests given to Colorado students in grades 9-11.

“It’s exhausting,” said Marti Shirley, a high school math teacher in Mattoon, Ill. “But it’s invigorating in a way, too.”

Shirley and about 120 other teachers, administrators and college professors are meeting in Denver this week to set cut scores for high school language arts and math tests. Similar panels will gather in Denver during the last two weeks of August to set proficiency levels for elementary and middle school test results.

The educators do their work in panels of about 20 members each. Six groups are working in Denver this week.

Officials from PARCC and a group of panelists met with reporters Wednesday to explain the process and reflect on what it means.

Because the PARCC tests are designed to be harder than Colorado’s old TCAP exams and other states’ past tests, smaller percentages of students are expected to be ranked in the top proficiency levels. Panelists were asked repeatedly about that gap between how students actually perform and how they should perform.

They all came down on the side of setting high expectations.

“We’ve got to raise the standard if we want to do better. … The only way to do that is to keep raising the bar,” said Robin Helms, a math teacher at Wray High School on Colorado’s eastern plains. She’s serving on one of the panels.

“Students only give you what you ask them, so you have to push,” said Katherine Horodowich, an English teacher at Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences, N.M. “We have to set the bar higher.”

Shirley said there’s wide agreement among educators “that these standards are attainable. Are they attainable tomorrow? That’s not the case. … Trust us. Give us the benefit of the doubt that we know what we’re doing.”

The overall goal of the Common Core State Standards, on which the tests are based, and of the tests themselves is that high school students should be ready for college or to go to work and that younger students are prepared for the work in the next grade.

How performance setting works

The panels will be setting the scores needed for a student to be ranked in one of five performance levels.

“They are making recommendations about how good is good enough,” explained Mary Ann Snider, a Rhode Island education official who works with PARCC.

Each PARCC member state selected 20 educators to serve on the panels. The high school panels started this week with two days of intensive training and began setting levels on Wednesday.

The five levels
  • Level 5: Distinguished understanding of subject matter
  • Level 4: Strong understanding
  • Level 3: Adequate understanding
  • Level 2: Partial understanding
  • Level 1: Minimal understanding

A key tool for the panels are the detailed “performance level descriptors” that lay out the knowledge and skills that students need to demonstrate to be rated in each performance level. (See an example of a descriptor as the bottom of this article.)

Here’s how the panels work:

  • Members work through test question one by one.
  • Panelists individually decide what scores on a particular question should be assigned to each performance level.
  • Members then share their individual scores with each other, learn what the group’s median score was for each level and also learn the median score of all students in a particular grade on a test.
  • Based on that shared knowledge, individual panelists reconsider their individual decisions, and the whole process is repeated until the group reaches consensus.

The panelists who met with reporters had positive things to say about the process.

“None of us are shy. We have no problem telling people we disagree,” said Loretta Holloway, an English professor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

“It’s not like we all sit down and make one judgment. It’s a conversation,” said Helms. “We’re spending a whole week looking at this.”

What went on before

Before the panelists could begin work, the tests taken by 5 million children had to be scored.

The Pearson testing company used about 14,000 scorers at home or at more than a dozen centers around the country to score the tests, which took about a month per content area. Scoring was done by grade level, not by state. And individual scorers worked on individual questions, not entire tests.

Scorers assigned points for each answer, which could be as many as six points, depending on the question. To be hired, scorers had to have a four-year degree in a relevant field and pass a scoring “test” after being trained. Samples of scorers’ work were double checked by testing experts.

What’s next

After the high school panels finish their work, the education commissioners from the eight PARCC governing board states (including Colorado) will meet to review the recommended cut scores. The commissioners can make changes. Higher education executives from the states also will review the cut scores on high school tests.

The education commissioners will meet again Sept. 9 to review the middle and elementary school cut points.

Public release of scores, including parent reports similar to the one pictured above, will come in late fall or early winter, PARCC officials said Wednesday. In future years results should be available in June or July.

Colorado uses test scores, plus growth data based on multiple years of scores, as part of the system that rates schools and districts. A law passed by the 2015 legislature created a one-year timeout in the accreditation system, so PARCC scores from last spring won’t be used to rate schools and districts next year.

The state’s non-PARCC tests for science and social studies use four performance levels – distinguished, strong, moderate and limited. Students with distinguished or strong command are considered to be ready for college work, or for the next grade.

The State Board of Education will have to fine-tune the existing accreditation system in order to account for PARCC’s five performance levels.

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.