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.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.