Tag Archives: PARCC

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Damage?

History will probably never adequately address the reasons for Common Core’s educational failure to improve results (as opposed to political failure, which I’ve outlined over the past year).

Contemporary analyses can’t even agree that they’ve failed.

  1. We need more implementation time to show the results. (ex: Stay the Course)
  2. The standards were too easy. (ex: Common Core Has Failed. Now What?)
  3. Standards don’t make a difference. (ex: Common Core Has Not Worked)
  4. What are you talking about? Common Core didn’t fail! ex: In California, Common Core Has Not Failed)

Before NAEP failed to show any improvement, everyone pushing Common Core called NAEP the “gold standard” of educational testing. After NAEP scores failed to show any improvement, some Core proponents including, sadly, Michael Kirst, blamed NAEP.

But to me, there’s always been another interesting question: granted that Common Core didn’t improve academic performance, did it do something worse? Did it actively slow or retard student progress?

NAEP Reminder

To begin with, for those who don’t actively pore over NAEP scores, here’s the reformer nightmare:

Click to enlarge. ELA on left, fourth grade on top. These scores go from 1990 to 2019. Notice that the only steep hike is in 4th grade math, next steepest in 8th grade math, and both of the major growth happens not only before Common Core, but before NCLB–that is, long before reformers got their way at the federal level. My take on this: the growing criticism from “A Nation at Risk” on clearly convinced states to take academic achievement more seriously, teaching more content earlier, thus leading to a boost in scores.

That boost in achievement, as anyone who knows NAEP will tell you, never translated to high school:

There are three explanations of why high school NAEP scores remain flat. First, we are holding onto more students, so their ability level is lower, thus pulling down scores.  Next, the population demographics have changed, and the growth rate has been among the races with lower test scores, which prevents the average from increasing. That’s certainly possible, but looking at 17 year old scores by race:

They all seem pretty flat, so surely that would have resulted in a decrease? Eh.

My own pick for why scores stay flat in high school is that the question is reversed. Instead of asking why scores stay flat in high school, ask yourselves why so many more blacks and Hispanics do well in younger grades. I first wrote about this in my seminal article The false god of elementary math scores–well, seminal in the Ed Realist oeuvre, at least:

We should take to heart the Wise Words of Barbie. Math achievement will fall off as the courses get more challenging. Students who excelled at their times tables and easily grasped fractions might still struggle with complex numbers or combinatorics.

Or, as Steve Sailer said once, Usain Bolt wasn’t much faster than any of his age peers–at six months old.

State Tests

I’ve always preferred state test scores over NAEP. Granted, they aren’t standardized over geography or time. But the entire state population is tested by grade on the same assessment.  You’d think that would be a baseline requirement, but in fact NAEP just selects kids at random, allowing the states some selection sculpting, and then tests those kids on a subset of the entire question set.

So what did the state tests show about Common Core?

God Bless Education Week.

Common Core 2015 Test Results

pic39

Blue states are SBAC, red states are PARCC, purple states either didn’t adopt Common Core or didn’t adopt the tests, using their own.

Step through every state’s results from 2013-14 to 2014-15 and you’ll notice that all the purple states saw little or no change in test scores. Meanwhile, the red and blue state scores plummeted, with the singular exception of Missouri, whose English scores on the SBAC were an improvement from the year before. Someone should ask Missouri why. All  the rest, all the way down: state-designed tests, no change. PARCC or SBAC, steep drop in proficiency.

Edweek compared overall student populations over a year period. I picked three states: California, Illinois, and Colorado (an SBAC state and two PARCCs) and broke them out by grade and growth/decline over a five year period.

Orange is before; blue is after. So, a massive hit in test scores. And this was the norm, fairly close to universal, for all states that adopted the PARCC or SBAC. Which is why so many states dumped the tests.

They were designed to be more difficult. Education reformers desperately want to expand charters beyond their primary base of low income parents looking for a way out of chaotic schools. They wanted to break into the suburbs and wreak the same kind of budgeting havoc in wealthy school districts as they do in poor ones. The path towards achieving this, they thought, was to “convince suburban parents that their schools sucked, too!” as Michael Petrilli said in a podcast several years ago.

Reformers thought most people approved of their goals. They thought the public had their backs. They thought the public shared in the disapproval of those dumbed-down NCLB era tests. They were wrong.

Why Make The Tests Harder?

The tests could have been made more difficult, the cut scores higher, without making any underlying change in the materials learned. But Common Core standards, at least in math, were much harder.

Why? Because the Common Core developers had their own ideas about the falloff between elementary and high school scores.  They understood, as I’ve pointed out, that elementary school focuses on arithmetic fact and algorithm mastery.  Math curriculum gets dramatically more difficult and more abstract in high school.  Thus, elementary school test scores are always higher than high school scores. It’s easier to achieve mastery of arithmetic and algorithms.

But they didn’t even consider the Wise Words of Barbie.  The Common Core developers, as well as all education reformers and progressives, see ability as irrelevant to policy planning. They see the falloff as a failure of instruction and expectations.

Solving the huge influx of abstract math in high school required,er, flattening the difficulty curve. Teach young children the theory behind arithmetic, rather than just the algorithms and math facts. Introduce conceptual math much earlier into the educational time line. Students would master difficult arithmetic concepts earlier and be ready for the higher difficulty of advanced math.

As far as I can tell, I’m one of the only people who correctly observed this plan seven years ago, in Core Meltdown Coming, (I’m kind of proud of this, given that the Common Core math criticism was that the standards were too easy). You can read some of the details of how they pushed the difficulty down in that article. Or you can just read the thousands of articles delineating the angry woes of elementary school kids throughout the country.

One could easily explain the perceived failure of the past fifty years of educational policy as nothing more than the failure to see ability as highly relevant to educational achievement.

Teaching vs. Learning

So Common Core’s failure to improve academic achievement could be seen as the imposition of ruthless reality: Introducing difficult math concepts earlier didn’t lead to earlier mastery.  

But Stripe wasn’t harmed by the attempt to teach him whistling.

What if teaching more abstraction not only didn’t achieve understanding but also prevented the understanding previously taken for granted? What if kids who’d previously been able to grasp the basics of math facts and algorithms were now struggling with them? If you don’t tell a kid that 3+8=11, but rather continually ask him to prove it, maybe the kid’s own intelligence influences understanding of math facts.  Bright kids will realize that there’s a pattern to the “proofs”, that they are actually just using patterns to reflect reality. Less able kids might  never get around to realizing that math facts are facts, as opposed to opinions they can prove kind of like in writing class, just by finding a cool quote.

Possibly–just possibly–Common Core math standards interfered with algorithm and math fact mastery.

That would explain the falloff in NAEP math performance, although once again NAEP isn’t focused enough to pick up on this in any comprehensive manner. It would also explain why the lowest achievers were the hardest hit.

I have no evidence. Zip, nada. (Although I was just reminded that Spotted Toad wondered the same thing, and that’s a good sign.) It’d be an interesting research project, requiring a deep dive into particular question types. Someone should check it out. My theory has face validity, at least. Intuitively, teachers all understand that teaching students aggressively beyond their capabilities is damaging. It’s why so many of us reject the demand for “higher standards” and often actively support “dumbing down” as a way for children to learn more effectively.

Imagine being an education reformer shilling and then defending Common Core. NAEP scores, which you routinely describe as the “gold standard of education measurement” flatten or drop in fourth and eight grade math and reading in apparent response to a  hugely expensive, howlingly unpopular standards change.  Then it appears that the lowest performers are declining more than high performers, when your argument for Common Core was that higher standards were what weaker kids needed to know what is expected of them.

At that point, you’re left with “It was the implementation!” or “Stay the course!” or “The NAEP is testing the wrong stuff!”

And so, the national standards dream died a horrible death once more.

And so, finally, I have finished all but the final chapter of my Rise and Fall of Bush/Obama Education Reforms. The pandemic derailed my focus, alas, and I probably could have done better on Common Core. Each one of these pieces has something interesting to say, I think, but ideally I would have collapsed them all into two. Sorry about that.


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Alex or Gloria?Common Core Assessments

In my last post* I  said that the tests excited reformers “almost more” than the standards. That’s because the truth would have derailed the article. The truth?  The tests were more important to reformers than the standards.

And the tests failed beyond the reformers’ wildest, most dystopian nightmares.

To focus on the standards is to miss the point entirely. As Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn of the Thomas Fordham Institute said, famously, “…..standards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they’re ignored.

Recall once more  that No Child Left Behind’s failure, which the education reformers themselves baked into the law, created the very failure they were planning to resolve with Common Core tests. States eager to avoid the penalities of not meeting this impossible standard just lowered the cut scores to allow more students to score as proficient.

So as far as reformers were concerned, NCLB failed because the states refused to maintain high standards.

From that perspective, a primary argument for common standards was to provide an excuse for new, common, assessments. Standards themselves were incidental.  That’s why no one pushing Common Core was bothered by a McKinsey hack was in charge of writing the standards. That’s why all the pedantic objections to specific Core strands were waved off. The people who foisted Common Core on America thought of standards as…..wallpaper.  What they cared about was the tests. They wanted to use the tests to hold states and schools and teachers accountable.

Ed reformers’ reliance on the assessments might be considered the Alex Forrest component of Common Core.

“They weren’t going to be ignored, Dan.”

It was all right there out in the open. From the beginning, all the people pushing Common Core standards mentioned assessments in the same breath.

President Obama:
…I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.

Checker Finn: Implementation, Implementation, Assessment, Assessment

But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.

In a well-known 2014 Intelligence Squared debate on “embracing the Common Core” , usual allies Michael Petrilli  and Rick Hess of AEI took opposite sides. But both confirm the primary purpose of all this change.

Petrilli: “Rick is right that…a number of states have decided to pull back from common core testing….My argument is that those states have not fully embraced the common core. You cannot embrace higher standards if you don’t also embrace better assessments. They go together…..We should embrace the idea of moving to next generation assessments..that are worlds better than the tests that we’ve been living with for the past few decades.”

Rick Hess: “The Common Core does not solve the problem it was designed to solve…the concern that state were playing games with their test scores in order to make their schools look better than they were. Common Core was supposed to help address this… (emphasis mine)

Note: Hess and partner Carol Burris lost the debate by audience vote.  They both come out very well in retrospect. Petrilli and his partner were wrong on everything.

Given this obvious expectation, the Common Core proponents were, quite simply, idiots.

Alex Forrest thought she’d won Dan when he succumbed to her charms–at the bar, in the restaurant, in the kitchen sink, in the elevator. How could he say no?

The new tests were going to be so great. No one could say no.

“I don’t think having dinner with anybody’s a crime.”

Playing Michael Douglas’s Dan, the cheating husband, are the progressive educators on the left–the union, ed schools, academia.

These folks examined the standards purely on their educational merits and gave into temptation. Remember, liberal policy wonks want integrated math. They support delay in algorithms while emphasizing “conceptual understanding”. They liked the lack of content and, while they’re rarely honest on this point, progressive educators prefer the emphasis on writing over reading. Reading between the lines, Common Core’s instructional shifts” (the “dog whistles”, as Tom Loveless called them) suggested that the Common Core would allow them cover to demand schools use these methods. I doubt they would have had much success, but that’s another issue.

By supporting Common Core, they could point to nationwide standards mandating all their progressive shibboleths while also getting brownie points for  accommodating with the then-popular ed reform movement. Play nice, and get cover to official  progressive instructional methods. It seemed win-win. And the wife–public school parents, for the most part–would never know because no one cares about standards.

Hey, it’s just dinner.

But just as Dan never thought Alex was a beserker who wouldn’t leave him alone, the progressive left never once realized that Obama, their president hero, was explicitly planning on using these new assessments to evaluate schools and teachers.

You can tell the point at which they figured out it because  union leadership and other key players on the left went ballistic. And so you see Carol Burris, at the time a nationally-known Virginia high school principal, and Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT teacher’s union, originally support the standards and then speak out in opposition.   Both Burris and Weingarten mention that they didn’t realize the standards would be linked so firmly to accountability tests. They also realized that the standards which on paper supported progressive goals would in fact create tremendously difficult tests that would not only make life difficult for public schools

” If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you.”

Once this horror dawned on them the unions and other left of center advocates not repudiated the standards, they also alerted Dan’s wife, Beth, played in our little saga by affluent parents. Some of those parents take elementary and middle school far more seriously than, really, they should. Some of those parents have high school kids sitting ten to twelve hours for 4 or 5 Advanced Placement tests in May and are ready for any excuse to accede to the kids’ demands for a few days off while the schools give tests they find meaningless. And so the “opt out” movement, driven primarily by parents, encouraged occasionally by teacher unions, centered in states with stronger links between test scores and teacher evaluations. Students also took the opportunity to jump in and opt out.

Parents don’t care about standards. Before Common Core, they didn’t care much about state tests, either. Granted, many parents didn’t like them much, especially if they had sensitive children prone to bursting into tears at the least sign of stress. But without a hook, opting out just seemed…weird. Everyone else’s kids were taking the tests.

Then the tests went and killed their bunny.

The Power Player

The flamboozle about opting out and “instructional shifts” acted as a shiny bright object for the media, and certainly explains the public distaste for Common Core and its assessments. But the progressive left and public school parents aren’t responsible for the total meltdown of the Common Core tests, in my opinion.

The temporary agreement of the unions? The parenting optouts? Irrelevant, really. Nice theater. The power players here were the states.

What mattered, in the end, wasn’t that the tests made parents unhappy.

What mattered is that the tests were ridiculously expensive.

But….but wait, you ask. Isn’t that what Obama administration forked out hundreds of millions of dollars for?

No. NAY. Nyet. Nein. Aw HELL naw, Karen.

The Race to the Top money was just to develop the tests. All that money went to consultants and right about now is when you realize why progressives froth at the mouth over Pearson.

How the Money was Spent, courtesy of hard work by Edweek. Orange is SBAC only, blue is PARCC only, and green for greedy got both.

SBACPARCCVendors

So the Common Core consortia funds went to a bunch of testing and curriculum companies. Said testing and curriculum companies developed the tests for Smarter Balanced and PARCC.

But the tests had to pay for the administration and scoring.

As early as 2012, the great Gewertz (Catherine, of Edweek, the only publication that consistently did bang-up reporting on Common Core), asked how much Common Core would cost, comparing Fordham’s cheerleading lowball estimate with the Pioneer Institute’s warning about the implementation costs. Other Common Core advocates acknowledged the cost, but argued it was worth it.

Proponents  argued that the $25 or so per student was ” not far from the nationwide average of what states currently pay”, but there were a lot of states below that national average and California’s lower than average costs tilted the average down.

But that per seat prices was just for administration and scoring. That cost didn’t include the tremendous infrastructure investment required to create a testing platform. The tests were all computer based, so many states and districts had to spend millions beyond the millions required for the tests, the implementation, and the scoring.

In other words, the states were going to have to shell out a lot of money to be told their students were total losers as far as David Coleman was concerned.

The  Common Core advocates always knew that, so far as love and affection goes, they were the mistress, the girlfriend, the bit on the side. They were always going to lose out to the wife and kids. But that didn’t matter, because those tests meant they weren’t going to be ignored.

It’s just they had the wrong mistress in mind.

The wrong woman

You know who else thought she was Alex Forrest? Gloria Trillo.

She thought she’d seduced a married guy who’d feel so guilty and scared by his infidelity that she could brazen her way into a relationship with him, whether or not he left his wife.

But she’d gotten herself involved with a mob boss, and didn’t know what that meant.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but it’s important to understand that despite this battle being fought in the media by think tanks and unions and progressive educators, these people were entirely out of the loop on delivery. The states  signed up for Common Core. The states joined testing consortiums,. The states had to deliver the tests, score the tests, live by the results of the tests.

The states aren’t Alex’s slighty guilty Dan. The states are fifty Tony Sopranos. They got mistresses, they got whores, they got the bimbos they screw occasionally at the Ba Da Bing club, they got the infrequent smoking hot number they spot at a party and screw in an elevator for a quick thrill but in the end, they go home to the Madonna, the woman too good to f*** the way they want. Guilt? Fuggedabout it. They’ve been playing this game for 50 years.

SBAC and PARCC were the testing equivalent of strippers. Strippers who want the occasional mob boss attention don’t make waves. They don’t create headaches. They don’t for sure go visit the wife and upset her.

Because if you do, well, Patsy comes by for a test drive and makes it really, really clear that Gloria understands just how thoroughly she can be ignored.

“And here’s the point to remember: my face is the last one you’ll see. Not Tony’s.”

Tony is going to ignore you, Gloria. Go back to selling cars, or end up splattered all over those fine leather seats. That’s the choice. You’ll never get near the wife. You’ll never spend a second more of time in Dan’s brain, even as annoyance, because alas, Dan wasn’t Dan. Dan was Tony.

And the end, well. Not very cinematic. As of late 2017,

parcsbacgeogparccsbactestdecline

Collapse. As bad as that looks, it’s worse just two years later. SBAC is down to 12 and PARCC–well, PARCC isn’t used in full by any state, best I can tell. (Spotted_Toad, who has been watching the PARCC demise up close, agrees.) PARCC’s gone. SBAC has traction in the West Coast. But no common cut scores, no universal benchmarks, not even the figleaf of a win for the people who went to so much trouble to foist Common Core upon a serene and oblivious public.

This was a long way around but I hope it communicates the primary issue: whatever you hear about the standards quality, the unhappy parents, the worried teachers–it was all mostly irrelevant. Politically useful, sure. But the reason that Common Core advocates consider the effort a failure is not because the standards weren’t popular, nor are they particularly worried that states rooted them out. They wanted the tests. They didn’t get the tests.  They thought they were dealing with Dan, that the opposition was the union. In fact, they were cut out of the game by mob bosses.

I have more, but let’s see how this goes.

*****************************************************************************
*(Seven or so weeks. Sorry. No one thing, but a great deal of the delay was because I couldn’t figure out how to explain the fall of the Common Core assessments in a way that covered everything. I mean, you could talk about opt out or bad polls or the 2016 election, but none of it really captured the root cause for the failure. How could I get that point across? Then I could deal with the details.

Suddenly, and I can’t remember why, I thought of probably absurd analogy that runs through this piece. Hope it helps.)