Are Children Learning

State legislature votes to delay Common Core-aligned assessments

Tennessee’s state legislature voted Thursday to delay new tests based on Common Core state standards for a year and start a new competitive bidding process for assessments.

The legislature’s decision, if approved by the governor, means Tennessee schools will continue implementing the Common Core state standards, which have been adopted by 46 states, but will not use an assessment based on the standards to gauge students’ academic performance in the 2014-15 school year.

The PARCC assessment was supposed to be used in Tennessee schools next year. The state’s legislature considered delaying implementation of both the test and the state standards for as many as two years.

A house conference committee report released Wednesday  and adopted Thursday says that the state should use the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, which is the current state assessment, again in 2014-15. Meanwhile, it should hold a competitive bidding process to determine which assessment to use starting in the 2015-16 school year. The committee calls for the test to be field tested before it is implemented.

As the Tennessee Education Report notes, PARCC could again be selected through that competitive bidding process. But other states that had initially signed on to use the PARCC assessment, including Kentucky and Florida, have also changed their plans.

The report also set guidelines limiting how student data collected in the assessments can be used. It also requires any nationally-developed standards for science or social studies to be explicitly approved by the state’s legislature. (The current Common Core standards are just for English language arts and Math.)

The committee report is couched in the language of state’s rights: It begins by saying, “WHEREAS the federal government has no constitutional authority to set educational standards for Tennessee or to determine how children in Tennessee will be educated. Any partnership with the federal government is solely at the discretion of the state…”

The bills delaying the assessment, which must be signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, had a tumultuous run through the state’s legislature: The state standards, the textbooks used to teach them, the assessments used to measure their implementation, and the way data from the tests will be used have all been the subject of intense debate.

Andrea Zelinski, a reporter for the Nashville Scene, reports that the governor is likely to go along with the delay: 

Advocacy groups bemoaned the decision. “This legislation creates a disappointing pause in Tennessee’s efforts to have a high-quality assessment that truly measures student learning,” said Jamie Woodson, the CEO of SCORE, a nonpartisan education advocacy group. “We have supported moving to a new state assessment in the 2014-15 school year because students deserve a more engaging, skills-based assessment that is better aligned with classroom instruction and allows them the opportunity to show how much they have actually learned.”

Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II has said that he believes the district should move forward with implementation of the Common Core state standards, but that the district did not have enough computers to implement the PARCC tests, which are mostly online, as of earlier this spring. The district has been preparing for the PARCC tests this year regardless.

The debates in the Tennessee legislature reflect a national debate about the Common Core state standards, which were adopted with great enthusiasm by many states but which have since become the subject of heated debate. Here is a “tracker” of anti-Common Core legislation. Many states have experienced challenges in implementing the new standards, which were intended to be more rigorous and more uniform across states.

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State education commissioner Kevin Huffman released a statement about the delays:

“Our teachers have worked hard to prepare for new assessments, and I genuinely believe our students are ready and that they can compete with students in other states. While I am disappointed that Tennessee students will not move forward with the assessments planned for next year, I understand the General Assembly’s goal of ensuring that we select the right assessments for the long run. We will continue to focus on implementing higher academic standards and ensuring that Tennessee students improve faster than students anywhere in the country.”

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.