Category Archives: Tests

Another report urges changing API

A report this week from a Washington think tank bolsters Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s call for significantly revising the state’s primary accountability measure, the Academic Performance Index. Now, if Gov. Jerry Brown would only read it…

“Ready by Design: A College and Career Ready Agenda for California,” published by Education Sector, recommends that the API shift focus from students’ performance on standardized tests to measures of readiness for college and careers, such as high school graduation rates, results of Advanced Placement tests, and percentages of students needing remediation in college. Account-EdSectorStudyCover062012That’s essentially what Steinberg’s bill, SB 1458, would do without specifying what measures would be included, and that is what his bill last year, SB 547, would have done, had Gov. Jerry Brown not vetoed it with a snarky message sharply critical of quantitative gauges of school achievement.

The report concluded that additional measures would not be a panacea, “but an outcomes-oriented API would at least measure and reinforce what’s most important: graduating students from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in higher education and a career,” wrote co-authors Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with Education Sector, and Bill Tucker, deputy director, policy development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report was funded by the James Irvine Foundation, a big promoter and funder of an initiative to combine college readiness and career technical education, called linked learning.

This is the second report from Ed Sector in a month on the California API. Last week, I wrote about “Academic Growth over Time,” in which author Richard Lee Colvin, a former executive director of Ed Sector, recommends Los Angeles Unified’s alternative way to calculate student results on standardized tests. The reports need not be mutually exclusive; recommendations from both could be combined.

When establishing the three-digit API index in 1999, the Legislature implied that it would be adding a range of measures, but never did. Instead, the API is based on California Standards Tests results, primarily English language arts and math, plus results on the high school exit exam, which are not indicators of preparation for life beyond high school. But by adopting Common Core standards two years ago, the state embraced the goal of aligning high school achievement with college and career expectations. The API needs to change to reflect this, the Ed  Sector report says.

In his veto message of SB547 last year, Brown said that changing API now, when facing the challenges of new Common Core curriculum, texts, and tests, “doesn’t make sense.”

Sharply rebutting that, the authors wrote, “In fact, what doesn’t make sense is implementing new standards, tests, and curriculum that are aligned with college and career readiness while continuing to evaluate school performance based on an entirely different goal. More important, Brown’s continued opposition to CALPADS, his refusal to apply for federal funds to improve the state’s data collection, and his veto of the API redesign, only serve to maintain the very status quo that he repeatedly condemns.”

While college acceptance rates are indicators of readiness, the report recommends adding evidence of post-high school achievement to the API, such as college remediation rates, percentage of students who return to college after one year, and the percentage of students who enter the military or who go straight to work after high school. Unlike states like Florida, which track students after high school, California has incomplete, voluntarily collected data – hence the criticism of Brown for forgoing chances for federal database money.

Underutilized EAP measure

California does have one measure of readiness that other states consider a model: the Early Assessment Program, a series of questions created by the California State University and administered as a supplement to CSTs taken by high school juniors. But the authors said that “while touted as a model for those developing Common Core assessments, its respect outshines its influence.” The University of California and most community colleges don’t use results of EAP, and most high schools aren’t using the followup courses in math and expository writing that would enable high school seniors to bypass remediation in college.

Quoting a 2006 survey that found 10 percent of high school teachers said their students graduated not ready for college, compared with 44 percent of college faculty who said students arrived unprepared, the report cited “mismatched expectations on both sides.” Including college readiness measures in the API would encourage high schools, colleges and business leaders to work closer to create common expectations and share expertise and knowledge. The report cited promising examples: collaboration between a San Diego high school and the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District to redesign high school English courses; and the extensive agreements between Long Beach Unified and the local community college and CSU, Long Beach.

Calling SB 1458 “my highest priority,” Steinberg said, “I really believe this bill would bring about a change in cultures. It would create incentives to link education with needs of economy in a fundamental way.”

“The Administration is fine with the API the way it is. I disagree and want to limit the importance of testing,” he said.

The bill, which has passed the Senate, will be heard in the Assembly Education Committee on June 27. Steinberg said he hoped to negotiate with Brown on the measures in the bill. It includes the possibility of including school inspections, which Brown raised in his veto message and mentioned in his State of the State message in January.

API has served its purpose

A court decision this week involving Los Angeles Unified has raised again the contentious issue of evaluating teachers using standardized test scores. But a recent report for the think tank Education Sector recommends adopting the same method developed by Los Angeles Unified to replace the Academic Performance Index as a statewide way of measuring schools’ progress.

Called Academic Growth over Time, AGT is a value-added model that compares students’ actual performance on state tests to their predicted performance based on demographic characteristics – family income, language, and ethnicity – as well as past test scores. The intent is to distinguish factors of learning that schools can control from those they can’t.

The use of AGT to evaluate individual teachers has sharply divided teachers in Los Angeles Unified. United Teachers Los Angeles opposes using AGT in any manner, while teachers affiliated with Teach Plus Los Angeles and Students Matter support using it as one of several measures, counting for no more than a third of an evaluation. But less controversial is the district’s use of AGT as a tool to evaluate schools, in part because it involves a larger number of student test scores and doesn’t call for high-stakes decisions affecting individual teachers’ careers. To the contrary, a schoolwide AGT can encourage collaboration and team-teaching

This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time report for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the report for its underwhelming achievement. Scores in green indicate a performance that exceeded the district averge for the popularion of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the dsitrict average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year; and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; Source: Los Angeles Unified

This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time scorecard for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the Education Sector report for its underwhelming achievement. The score, on a 1 to 5 scale, in green indicates a performance that exceeded the district average for the population of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the district average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year); and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; for Hispanics, it was 695. (Source: Los Angeles Unified)

Last fall, for the first time, Los Angeles Unified released AGT report cards for all schools, breaking down every subject or grade taught on a scale of one to five, with students’ actual scores compared with where they should have been, given student populations, for a one-year and a three-year average. The AGT’s advantage is that it can highlight improvements in high-minority, high-poverty schools that may flunk under the federal and state accountability criteria, while pointing to mediocre performances in high-wealth schools that can glide by the targets of No Child Left Behind and the state’s API.

Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of he subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicated progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)

Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of the subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicating progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)

The Education Sector report pointed to Audubon Middle School that, under a new principal and re-energized staff, had a 12 percent gain in the API score in one year. But it was still in the bottom 20 percent and failed to meet the proficiency target under NCLB for the 10th straight year.

The state’s three-digit API number, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, is “a crude proxy for student achievement and allowed schools to be ranked,” writes Richard Lee Colvin, former executive director of Education Sector and author of “Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index.” “But it was not designed to give educators much help in analyzing school performance, and it told the public more about who attended each school than how well they were being taught.”

The API’s shortcomings have been known for a long time, and Colvin  lists them:

  • It’s an indicator of students’ wealth rather than of a school’s educational quality;
  • It places too much emphasis on math and reading scores, so that schools end up giving short shrift to science, social studies, and the arts ­– subjects that don’t factor much or at all in the API number;
  • More than 40 percent of schools are above the arbitrary target of 800 and so are no longer held accountable for helping students who are struggling academically;
  • It doesn’t track individual students’ academic growth over time; progress is measured by comparing  how students in a particular grade or subject do one year, compared with different  students the previous year.

Narrow measure of school success

The Legislature had intended that the API be a wider index when it created the index in 1999, but nothing has changed. Now, for the second year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed SB 1458 to broaden the API to include possible factors as graduation, dropout rates and college acceptances, and Advanced Placement scores, along with giving science and other subjects more weight. In a nod to Gov. Jerry Brown, who suggested the idea, Steinberg’s bill could include the results of school inspections measuring non-quantifiable but important factors like school climate and parent evaluations.

There’s no reason why a new index that emerges – whatever it’s called – couldn’t also incorporate AGT as a measure of student progress in combination with proficiency rates on state tests. Colvin said that the costs for districts to compute the AGT scores for its students need not be significant; Colorado has developed an open-source model that districts or the state could buy for $250,000.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said he was open to innovative accountability models, but that now is not time to switch to value-added method. The state will begin using Common Core assessments in 2014-15, and at least two or three years of new data would be needed, bringing the adoption of a new system to 2018-19 at the earliest. The State Board will be reviewing the state’s accountability methods over the next year. Colvin called for making a commitment to AGT now and preparing for a transition. The State Board could grant waivers from the use of API to districts like Los Angeles Unified in the meantime.

But Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy told me the district was interested in a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, not a state waiver, so that it get out from federal sanctions for school failures as the feds defined it and also gain more control over federal Title I money. After months of delay, the state has requested an NCLB waiver, but not on terms requested by the Department of Education; getting the waiver would appear problematic.

Consider a new equity meter to measure closing the achievement gap

So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?

For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.

All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.

We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.

What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:

  • Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
  • Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
  • Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
  • Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
  • Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?

It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Student scores in evaluations

In a decision with statewide implications, a Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles Unified must include measures of student progress, including scores on state standardized tests, when evaluating teachers and principals.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant will leave it to the district, in negotiations with its teachers union and administrators union, to determine what other measures of student performance might also be included, how much weight to give them in an evaluation, and how exactly test scores and other measures should be used.

Chalfant’s decision would appear to strengthen Superintendent John Deasy’s push to move forward with a complex value-added system of measuring individual students’ progress on state standardized tests, called Academic Growth over Time. Deasy wants to introduce AGT on a test basis in a pilot evaluation program next year. But the unions remain adamantly opposed to AGT; Chalfant said the use of AGT as a measure of student progress is not his call to make; and today, hours before Chalfant is to meet again with parties in the lawsuit over evaluations, Los Angeles Unified school board member Steve Zimmer will propose barring AGT from staff evaluations. The school board will vote on his motion later this month.

Chalfant released his tentative decision on Monday. (Update: On Tuesday, after a hearing with all parties, he made the ruling final.) But the carefully crafted, 25-page ruling is not likely to change much, if at all, and may become final today, after the school district and unions get a final chance to make their case at a hearing.

The ruling is a victory for Sacramento-based EdVoice, which filed suit on behalf of a half-dozen unnamed Los Angeles Unified students and their parents and guardians. EdVoice’s lawsuit claimed that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law laying out procedures for teacher and administrator evaluations, requires school districts to factor in student progress on district standards, however they decide to measure it, as well as scores on the California Standards Tests (CST) in evaluations and that Los Angeles Unified was ignoring the requirement – as do most school districts.

Chalfant agreed and, in his decision, quoted Deasy, who, in testimony, acknowledged the district doesn’t look at how students do academically when evaluating teachers.  On Monday, Deasy praised the tentative decision, and called for  the district, his employer, to move quickly to act on it. “The district has waited far too long to comply with the law,” Deasy said. “This is why LAUSD has created its own evaluation system, and has begun to use it. The system was developed with the input of teachers and administrators.”

Next step: negotiating compliance

Chalfant’s tentative ruling proposed that attorneys for EdVoice and the parents propose a plan for compliance and that they and the district try to negotiate specifics over the next month. Whatever they agree to would still likely have to be negotiated with United Teachers Los Angeles and Associated Administrators Los Angeles.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, praised Chalfant’s decision. While acknowledging that the emphasis given to student progress could become a sticking point in negotiations between the district and teachers, he said the ruling makes clear “there is no status quo going forward.”

“It won’t be OK to sit on their hands,” Lucia said. “The district must come up with something different that passes the laugh test and makes a sincere effort to honor the statute requiring that evaluations look at whether kids are learning.”

EdVoice took no position on whether the AGT should be the tool by which to measure student performance in Los Angeles. But, Lucia said, the district must consider other measures ­– whether student portfolios or other district tests ­ – in the evaluations of teachers of courses in which CSTs aren’t given, such as first grade, art and seventh grade science.

Signal to other districts

Chalfant’s ruling would apply only to Los Angeles Unified, although other Superior Courts could cite the ruling. Nonetheless, Lucia said that the message to other districts is that “a district cannot omit the progress of kids in job performance of adults.” The goal, he said, “should be a better determination of effectiveness that allows limited resources to be targeted to those teachers needing the most improvement.”

Attorneys for UTLA and the district could not be reached for comment on Monday.

UTLA argued in its brief that a dispute over requirements in the Stull Act belonged before the Public Employee Relations Board, not a court, and that any requirement for the use of test scores or other measures must be negotiated.  But Chalfant wrote that first and foremost, the district must comply with state law, regardless of the contract it reached with the unions.

The position of the district, on behalf of the school board, was confusing. Last year, in defending the  pilot program using AGT, the district  said it had the authority to impose the terms of evaluations without union negotiations. Even though Deasy testified that test scores and student progress weren’t part of staff evaluations, the district fought the EdVoice lawsuit.

In its brief, the district asserted that the use of AGT in the pilot satisfied the law’s requirement to use state standardized test scores – even though they have yet to be applied, with consequences, to any teacher. The district also asserted that it uses results on district and state tests and other student measures to set goals for teacher instruction and measure improvements in the classroom.

But Chalfant ruled that that’s not sufficient. “There must be a nexus between pupil progress and the evaluations. No such nexus currently exists.”

“This does not mean that there must be a box on a form which directly addresses pupil progress,” he wrote. “It does mean that pupil progress must be reflected in some factor on a written teacher evaluation.”

Whether pupil progress – AGT alone or in combination with other student growth measures ­ – counts 20 percent or 30 percent of an evaluation, as Deasy has advocated, must be decided through negotiations, unless the district asserts a right to impose AGT unilaterally.

Villaraigosa’s Stull Act amendment

In 1999, when he was state Assembly speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored an amendment updating the Stull Act  to require the use of CST scores in teacher evaluations. Villaraigosa submitted a brief supporting this position.

Chalfant incorporated some of Villaraigosa’s points in explaining the rationale for his decision. In 2009-10, 99.3 percent of teachers evaluated received the highest evaluation rating, with 79 percent meeting all 27 measures of performance. This despite that the district “has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the State, and an even lower percentage of students are college ready.”

“These failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of the District’s teachers,” Chalfant cointinued. “Students must want to learn in order to do so, and some students can never be motivated to learn. But the District has an obligation to look at any and all means available to help improve the dismal results of its student population. One means of improving student education is to evaluate teachers and administrators based on the overall progress of their students.”

More dismal science test results

Once again, California students have done stunningly worse than their eighth grade peers in other states on Science 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a biennial test of knowledge in science.

The results were announced earlier this month on the same day as the release of the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which the National Research Council and states have been developing. Many California science educators are counting on the new standards, which focus on an in-depth understanding of science concepts, to jump-start improvement in science in California. Count Elizabeth Stage, the director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at UC Berkeley, among the optimists, but only, she adds, if the state makes science a priority, with more time spent on  it and training for teachers in how it should be taught.

Partial state by state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient and advanced. Source: NAEP (click to enlarge).

Partial state-by-state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient, and advanced. Source: NAEP. (Click twice to enlarge)

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Nationwide, 32 percent of students tested proficient or above on the NAEP science test of physical, life, and Earth and space sciences. In California, 21 percent tested proficient, including one percent advanced, and 47 percent were far below basic. California’s average score of 140 on a scale of 300 – on the upper end of the below-basic band – put it on par with Arizona and perennially poor performers from the Deep South – Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – at the bottom. Only Washington, D.C., which took the test for the first time this year, did a lot worse.

The national average was 152, two points higher than in 2009. Massachusetts, often compared with California for its rigorous standards in general, had a score of 160 ­ – the upper end of the basic band, with 40 percent of its students proficient and 4 percent advanced.

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP (Click to enlarge)

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP. (Click to enlarge)

White students in California scored 159, compared with 163 nationwide, and Asians averaged 158, one point below the national average. But Hispanics in California scored only 128, compared with 137 nationwide, with only 11 percent proficient or advanced. For African Americans, the scores were 124 in California (8 percent proficient) and 129 nationwide.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County and a former member of the NAEP board of governors, called California’s distance behind the rest of the nation “shocking.” He said the low score reflects that science is not being taught enough in elementary grades, where disproportionate time is spent on math and English language arts, which are tested annually (science is tested only in fifth and eighth grades in California). And science isn’t being taught engagingly, with hands-on lessons, Gordon said.

There appears to be a connection. Students of teachers who reported they did hands-on projects nearly every day scored significantly higher (156 points) than those who reported they did it only once or twice a month (149). A survey of California teachers and principals last year by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd confirms Gordon’s impressions; 85 percent of elementary teachers said they had no training in science in the past three years, and 40 percent said they taught it less than an hour each week.

Sixteen of 47 states that took NAEP in 2011 made what NAEP termed significant increases – anywhere from two- to six-point gains on the 300-point scale. Although California’s score also increased three points, from 137 in 2009, NAEP didn’t consider this significantly higher because of the number of test takers relative to the size of the state.

There was some good news nationwide and in California, in narrowing the achievement gap. Hispanic students’ scores rose five points nationwide and four points in California, reducing the big disparities between them and white students from 30 points two years ago to 26 points in 2011 nationwide and 31 points in California. The 36-point gap between African American and white students in California and 35-point gap nationwide failed to narrow.

More than multiple choice

NAEP Science was given to 122,000 eighth graders in 7, 292 schools in 47 states. It used a matrix sampling method, with each student answering only sections of the test. It tested students in physical science and life science (30 percent each), with 40 percent Earth and space sciences. The NAEP test isn’t aligned with California standards or those of any state. It measures the knowledge that a group of scientists and educators agree that all students in eighth grade should know. While California’s science test is all multiple choice, NAEP includes some short-answer questions that require students to analyze a problem or set of data and explain the reasoning behind an answer.

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly (click to enlarge)

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly. (Click to enlarge)

NAEP science results shouldn’t be compared with California’s content standards tests, in part because the NAEP board sets a higher expectation for reaching proficiency. NAEP defines “basic” as partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade, while “proficient” represents “solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challeng­ing subject matter.”

Even the description of “basic” knowledge in the Earth and space sciences section sounds rigorous, however: Students “should be able to describe a Sun-centered model of the solar system that illustrates how gravity keeps the objects in regular motion; describe how fossils and rock formations can be used as evidence to infer events in Earth’s history; relate major geologic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building to the movement of lithospheric plates; use weather data to identify major weather events; and describe the processes of the water cycle including changes in the physical state of water.”

By comparison, students who test proficient “should be able to explain how gravity accounts for the visible patterns of motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon; explain how fossils and rock formations are used for relative dating; use models of Earth’s interior to explain lithospheric plate movement; explain the formation of Earth materials using the properties of rocks and soils; identify recurring patterns of weather phenomena; and predict surface and groundwater movement in different regions of the world.”

California eighth graders take and are tested in physical science. They’re supposed to learn Earth science in sixth grade and life science in seventh grade. So students are partly being tested in NAEP on two-year-old knowledge ­ – one reason cited for California’s poor performance. But both Gordon and Stage say that’s a minor factor.

Stage says that California science standards require an extensive knowledge of facts; with little time to teach science each week, that’s what teachers focus on and not a conceptual framework or scientific investigations and experimentation.

The Next Generation Science Standards teach science in a more integrated way, encouraging students to see common practices between life science and engineering and technology. It stresses what creators call “crosscutting concepts” – a way of linking different areas of science through similar lines of inquiry, such as cause and effect, patterns, and scale. These sound abstract, but the standards stress making them explicit.

Stage points to a distinction between second grade California and New Generation standards dealing with motion of objects. California requires that students know “the way to change how something is moving is by giving it a push or a pull.” The Next  Generation standards would expect students to “analyze data to determine the relationship between friction and the warming of objects” by rubbing two objects together or “develop and share a design solution to reduce friction between two objects,” perhaps by lubricating wheels on a skateboard – something kids can relate to.

The Next Generation standard is an /“accessible way to understand the relationship between energy and experience and it’s a really good example of an engineering practice,” Stage said.

California is expected to adopt the new standards sometime next year. It has no plans – or money, for now – to design a new set of science assessments, but Stage hopes that California will join other states in creating one.

It’s a bill’s life

California school buses won’t be wearing anything but yellow for the foreseeable future.  This week, the state Senate Education Committee killed SB 1295. Introduced by Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, it would have permitted school districts to selling advertising space on the outside of buses to raise revenue.  This is a shortsighted decision by Democrats on the Senate Education Committee,” said the Diamond Bar Republican.  “We should be providing solutions, not gambling on the future of our children.”

Democratic Senator Leland Yee of San Francisco failed to convince members of the Senate Education Committee to put some limits on executive salaries during tough economic times.  SB 967 would have prohibited Cal State University trustees from increasing top administrators’’ salaries within two years of raising student fees.   It would also have capped salaries for newly hired executives at 5 percent above what was paid to their predecessors.

Yee’s bill grew out of frustration last July when the Cal State University Board of Trustees approved paying the new president of San Diego State University a $100,000 more than his predecessor.  During that same meeting, the Board increased tuition by 12 percent, or an additional $294 per semester for undergraduates. Last month, CSU trustees agreed to 10 percent pay increases for the incoming presidents of Cal State Fullerton and East Bay.  Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson criticized the board for its lack of tact.

“The students we serve and the public that supports our system enjoy no immunity from the consequence of the Great Recession, which has left millions without work and more millions more working harder for less.  Why should those we select to lead our campuses be any different?” wrote Torlakson earlier this month in a public letter to CSU leaders.

On the aye side of the voting, the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday passed a measure by Senator Kevin De León to increase eligibility for CalGrants, the state higher education program that provides merit and need based funds.

The committee also approved several bills aimed at bringing down the price of textbooks and making them available electronically.  Read more about those bills here.

Coming attractions

Some of the textbook bills are up for their next vote next week.  Legislators are also scheduled to move to the next step with bills that would require information on academic achievement of students for new charters and renewals, that seek to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions,  (which we wrote about here), and create a middle class scholarship program for California residents attending UC or Cal State.

We will be updating action on education bills on a weekly basis.  Click here for a table providing the status of about three dozens of those measures.

College readiness test’s next phase

California’s Early Assessment Program and affiliated efforts to get students college-ready are viewed in national education circles as a rare achievement, a model of K-12 and higher ed collaboration.

The recent naming of one of EAP’s key figures, California State University’s Beverly Young, to the Executive Committee of Smarter Balanced, the multistate group creating the Common Core assessment, is a sign that a new incarnation for EAP may be its ultimate triumph.

EAP is what high school juniors take, as a supplement to their state standardized tests in math and English language arts, to determine if they are college-ready. For those who aren’t, CSU has developed an expository reading and writing course and is developing a course in math for students to take as seniors. A number of states have adopted the reading and writing course for their own students.

“California’s EAP model is the best method currently available in the nation to assess and signal to students their preparedness for college-level coursework, providing them with
an opportunity to correct deficiencies before they enter college,” said a report, “California’s Early Assessment Program: Its Effectiveness and Obstacles to Successful Program Implementation,” which was released this week. It was produced by PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) and written by Hilary McLean, former communications director for the state Department of Education.

California is a governing member of Smarter Balanced. CSU’s assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs, who’s been involved with EAP since its creation in 2004, will serve as one of two representatives of higher ed on the nine-member Executive Committee.

In announcing Young’s appointment, a Smarter Balanced press release reaffirmed the “goal of having the assessments be accepted indicators of college and career readiness.” Young this week said that she’ll be advocating that an EAP-type approach be incorporated into the 11th grade Common Core test. But she also acknowledged that, conceptual agreement aside, it will be a challenge to persuade colleges and universities from various states, all of which have their own standards for college readiness, to accept the test results. “College faculty will have to be brought in at the front end” of the test development, Young said this week. “Otherwise, they will not accept this.”

PARCC – the other Common Core assessment consortium – has explicitly said it wants to base its college-readiness system on EAP,  and has hired Allison Jones, a former CSU administrator in charge of EAP, to lead its effort.

Reputation exceeds impact

Even in California, EAP is not universally accepted. The University of California has steered clear of it, even though a quarter of its students systemwide need remediation classes in English (UCs don’t label their catch-up classes as remediation, but that’s what they are). And only about half of the state’s 112 community colleges accept EAP as a test for determining whether students are ready for credit-bearing courses.

CSU has invested a lot in EAP. On its dime, it developed the test and pays faculty to grade the 45-minute writing portion of it. It created the writing course and online math and English tutorials. It hired regional EAP coordinators to work with high schools and has trained more than 6,000 high school teachers to lead the writing course.

Still, respect for EAP probably exceeds its impact within California. It’s been a struggle to get students to understand what EAP is and to act on the results. Only 400 of the more than 1,000 high schools in the state offer the year-long expository writing and reading course, Young said.

Participation in EAP has steadily increased to more than 80 percent in English Language Arts. Source: California's Early Assessment Program (Click to enlarge).

Participation in EAP has steadily increased to more than 80 percent in English Language Arts. Source: California's Early Assessment Program (Click to enlarge).

Though voluntary, more than 80 percent of juniors now take the English piece, and nearly 40 percent take the math; fewer take the latter because they have to be enrolled in Algebra II as a junior, because CSU requires three years of math for admission. The test consists of 15 multiple-choice math and English questions, plus the writing piece.

If, as promised, Smarter Balanced’s assessment incorporates more complex short-answer questions and is computer-adaptive, posing questions based on the student’s previous answers, it could improve on EAP. EAP was not intended to be a diagnostic tool, but it could provide more information, particularly for community colleges, on gaps in students’ math knowledge. “The end game now is how to go beyond EAP with the Smarter Balanced assessment,” said PACE Executive Director David Plank.

CSU created EAP with the goal of reducing the number of students needing remediation to 10 percent of entering freshmen. That simply hasn’t happened. The percentage of juniors taking EAP deemed ready for college has edged up slightly to 15 percent in math and 21 percent in English. About two-thirds of entering CSU students still need remediation in either English or math, even though they have a 3.0 grade point average. Researchers estimate that EAP has cut the need for remediation by 6 percent in English and 4 percent in math.

The report listed some of the obstacles:

  • Students don’t understand the scores and what they mean; they assume, based on their grades, they are college-ready.
  • Since they’re part of the state standardized tests, EAP results don’t come back until August, which is late for scheduling the expository writing class;
  • Some high schools remain resistant to the CSU course, preferring to teach literature to seniors;
  • There’s a disconnect: Most high school teachers assume their students are college-ready; far fewer college instructors agree.

The picture may change soon. CSU campuses are adopting the policy that students must complete remediation courses before they arrive for school; that will encourage more to take expository writing and the new math course as high school seniors. Long Beach Unified, as part of its Long Beach Promise, requires students who don’t pass EAP to take the writing course. The year-long math course that Long Beach is piloting will go statewide this fall.

Starting this fall, Young said, students who test proficient on their standardized English language arts test and take the year-long expository writing course with a C or better will be designated college-ready in English.

“EAP has not proven a panacea,” said Plank. “Its primary value is the signal it sends to students to be ready for college. As the signal strengthens, impact on student outcomes will increase also.”

In & out of step with top ed systems

Updated at 2:45 pm, April 2

Andreas Schleicher looks the part of a diplomat. Tall and slim, with thick gray hair, and impeccable English spoken with a European accent. He is also the consummate diplomat when it comes to assessing the United States’ standing in education. In most countries, low results on the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam, led to contemplation and action. In the United States, not so much; at least not initially.

“I don’t think there was really much of an impact in the year 2000 when the results came first,” said Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. That year the United States ranked 15th in literacy, retrieving information, and interpreting texts; and 11th in reflecting on texts. The U.S. was behind what have come to be the usual suspects, including Finland, Canada, Korea and Japan, as well as some nations that give the U.S. a collective wince, such as Iceland, Ireland and, mon Dieu, France.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source:  PISA) Click to enlarge.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source: PISA) Click to enlarge.

Schleicher said the big impact came after the 2006 results. That’s when U.S. 15-year-olds scored 21st in the world in science literacy, 19th in identifying scientific issues, 23rd in explaining phenomena scientifically, and 22nd in using scientific evidence. That got the attention of politicians, which informed the development of Common Core standards and Race to the Top, the competitive $4.35 billion federal program to give states money to improve student achievement through innovative strategies.

“I think the Common Core standards hold a lot of promise. I wouldn’t underrate the potential impact they can have eventually on what happens in classrooms,” Schleicher said. “I think the challenge is to translate that into instructional practices.”

Schleicher discussed these optimistic notes and more during a video interview (click here for part 1 and here for part 2) with Thoughts on Public Education when he was in California for a conference at Stanford University on the Finnish educational system, which we wrote about here.

Valuing teachers

Some of the biggest differences between the United States and the better scoring nations on PISA is in the prestige of the teaching profession. “Pay in the United States is comparatively low,” said Schleicher. Although U.S. teachers may earn more money than those in other countries, the compensation is significantly lower than for other professions. That’s not the case in places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with other civil servants, including lawyers.

Salary is one aspect of teacher satisfaction, but it isn’t solely responsible for the high attrition rate among new teachers, which is 30% in the first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In other countries, teachers are given time during the school day to collaborate with their colleagues and to observe master teachers, and they receive high-quality professional development. They also have a career ladder that isn’t just aimed at administration.

“If you tell a person who’s 25 years old, you are in school, you are going to be a math teacher, and 25 years from now you’re still going to be in that school as a math teacher, you’re telling young people that there is no future for them,” explained Schleicher. Other countries have professional progressions that could lead to the principal’s or superintendent’s office, but also include training other teachers, going into curriculum development, and other non-bureaucratic positions. “That way,” said Schleicher, “you’ll retain your best teachers in the profession.”

Factoring for diversity

When asked what three steps the United States should take to propel itself back onto the top of the charts, Schleicher was quick with an answer.

  • Common Core standards:  The U.S. has already begun this process of developing a set of clear goals detailing what good performance looks like.
  • Building capacity for delivering Common Core:  Attracting the best people into the teaching profession and providing the resources, support and professional develop to retain them.
  • Developing an equitable system:  This takes the second step even farther by attracting the best teachers and principals to work in the most challenging classrooms and schools, and ensuring that the money gets where it can make the biggest difference.

Critics of the PISA rankings cite the vast differences between the United States and some of the countries at the top of the list as significant challenges to employing some of these measures.  Singapore and China have powerful central governments.  Finland lacks racial and ethnic diversity, and the entire population of the country could fit into California’s public schools with a million seats left over.

Schleicher said that PISA does consider the environment in comparing countries, including diversity in wealth, language, ethnic background, and religion.  The United States isn’t alone in dealing with diversity, “there are a lot of countries that are a lot more successful than the United States in moderating socio-economic diversity,”  he said. “The context of an education system is a challenge, but the test of truth for an education system is how it moderates that context.”

CST results back in a jiffy

Next year, school districts will receive the students’ results on state standardized tests in two weeks, not two months – or longer.

Gov. Jerry Brown had called for the quicker turnaround in his State of the State address, and on Wednesday, the State Board of Education approved amendments to the contract with the test administrator, Educational Testing Service, to make that possible.

By getting scores back during the school year, instead of during the summer, districts will be better able to make decisions on summer school attendance and placement for courses in the fall. Teachers will be able to identify gaps in student knowledge and, with time left, address them, suggested Susan Swann, executive director of ETS’s K-12 Assessments in California.

Test results have been delayed until now because of the methodology ETS used in evaluating new questions that it introduced in the tests. For 2013, ETS will substitute tests from previous years instead of including new questions, which won’t require a lengthy post-exam vetting process. Another method is to accumulate a big bank of  previously vetted test questions, which the SMARTER Balanced state consortium preparing the assessment for Common Core standards will use.

What happens after 2013 is up in the air. ETS’s contract runs out next year, creating at least a one-year gap before states are scheduled to begin offering the new Common Core assessments. ETS will likely get its contract extended.

State Board President Michael Kirst and Executive Director Sue Burr negotiated the contract changes. Among them, ETS will resume two actions designed to bolster the security of the state’s standardized tests that had been suspended a few years ago to save money. ETS will do 135 random security audits to see if districts are complying with protocols in administering the tests. It will also do an electronic analysis of test results to identify instances where batches of answers  to questions have been  altered. The state could then follow up with an inquiry.

Investigations into allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., have heightened the need for more vigilance. The suspension of monitoring by ETS had created the possibility that cheating could go undetected.