Are Children Learning

Common Core's fate murkier after Pence's speech

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence focused on education issues in his state of the state speech in January as well as throughout the legislative session.

Did Gov. Mike Pence telegraph the end of Common Core standards in Indiana during his state of the state speech?

That’s what a couple key Democrats thought tonight, and they weren’t alone.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and one of her fellow Indiana State Board of Education members agreed afterward that the state is probably ultimately headed for new, locally-written standards.

Pence has been cagey about his position on the increasingly controversial Common Core, saying he has not made up his mind about the standards that Indiana and 45 other states have agreed to follow. But in two paragraphs of his speech, he seemed to hint more strongly than in the past that national standards won’t last in the Hoosier state.

“When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana’s will be uncommonly high,” Pence said. “They will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers and will be among the best in the nation.”

That caught the ear of Democratic House Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, who exchanged a knowing glance with his senate counterpart, Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

“My interpretation is he doesn’t like Common Core or want to do it,” he said. “That’s what Sen. Lanane thought, too.”

The Common Core aims to establish what students need to know by the time they graduate high school to be ready for college or careers and to compete internationally. Indiana adopted Common Core as its state standards and began implementing them a grade per year starting at kindergarten in 2010. Some districts have gone faster, however, already adopting them K to 12.

It wasn’t until 2013 when a backlash against Common Core emerged as a potent force in the statehouse. Conservative legislators raised concerns that the standards were too closely aligned with the priorities of the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, ceding too much local control. Others felt Indiana’s prior standards were stronger.

Some liberals agreed, or felt Common Core was too strongly aligned with a testing-based, accountability-driven system of education they objected to.

During the 2013 legislative session, a bill passed that “paused” implementation of Common Core.  It required new public hearings and additional study of Common Core, setting July 2014 for a new vote of the Indiana State Board of Education as to whether to continue with Common Core or write new Indiana standards. A new bill emerged in the legislature last week that would extend the Common Core pause for a second year.

Last year Pence withdrew Indiana from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of states building a shared, Common Core-aligned exam to replace their state tests. Pence has long been an advocate for local control of education, even voting against the federal No Child Left Behind law while representing Indiana in the U.S. Congress.

Pence invited Ritz and her 10 fellow state board members to the speech and spent a large portion of his speech talking about his education agenda.

“Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools,” Pence said. “That’s why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards.”

After the speech, Ritz said she did not expect Common Core standards alone to emerge this summer as Indiana standards, the way they are now.

“There will be a change to what we currently have,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing now. We’re reviewing the standards.”

The suggestion that Indiana would drop the Common Core to instead create its own standards has recently been echoed by legislative leaders, including House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. House Republican leaders, including Bosma, have been supportive of Common Core, while most of the skepticism about the standards has been in the Senate. Others have suggested the state might borrow elements both from Common Core and from the state’s prior standards.

Some Common Core advocates have argued the state needs to stick with the national-aligned standards because college entrance tests like the SAT and ACT exams will soon be tied to Common Core.

A frustrated Tony Walker, a Democrat from Gary who serves on the state board, is one of them. He said the state cannot drift too far from the Common Core if it writes new standards.

“I think all of our anchor standards will have to be Common Core,” he said. “They have to be. We can’t go it alone. For kids to get into colleges across the country they’re going to have to be aligned to Common Core.”

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.