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.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: