Recapping our guest series on testing and educational choice

testing and choiceOver the past two weeks, we’ve aired six perspectives on testing and school choice.

We can’t claim to have found all the answers, but we hope our contributors have raised some important issues in ways that go beyond the usual talking points.

  • As Jacqueline Cooper explains, testing can yield vital data on school performance, and help ensure schools meet the needs of students they have historically short-changed. And, as Mike Petrilli notes, it’s crucial for even light-touch regulators to root out the worst schools, which can be especially harmful for low-income families.
  • But, as Jason Bedrick outlines, regulators need to have humility when it comes to judging school quality using tests alone, or imposing mandates that could drive some high-quality schools away from choice programs. An over-reliance on testing can be burdensome for schools, as Jane Watt describes, drawing on her experience as a charter school founder.
  • Tony Bennett proposes a sort of middle ground: giving schools and districts a choice of a few, relatively lightweight tests that measure students’ progress toward college- and career-ready standards. That, he writes, could give educators more flexibility.
  • As Tom Vander Ark shows, it’s time to start thinking about a new approach to testing and accountability that can change the current debate. Lightweight assessments and real-time data on can be useful to teachers, and may eventually usher in the “end of the big test,” but those ideas are still a ways from becoming reality.

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A ‘really special’ school, plus some extra help

Note: This student spotlight originally appeared on Step Up For Students’ “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship” blog.  Step Up For Students is also host of redefinED.

Liam Thomas has Down syndrome and benefits from weekly occupational and speech therapies. But the 9-year-old whirl of energy wants to do what other kids do at school like walk down the hall with friends, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sit at his own desk.

He gets all of that and more at Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas Park that serves students with special needs.

“He loves it!’’ said Liam’s mom, Stacey Thomas, a licensed speech therapist who discovered the school while interning as a graduate student.Stacey and Liam family photo

Because of his disability, Liam qualified for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students. The state-funded program works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the additional dollars – on average, about $10,000 a year per child – from approved options.

Liam’s scholarship covers Morning Star’s annual $9,850 tuition and another $855 in dues and fees for books, technology, speech evaluations and more. Money left over can go toward future expenses, including college. Families are eligible based on their children’s need, not household income. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Duval investigation, achievement and more

IMG_0001.JPGDuval schools investigated: Do black and Hispanic students in Duval County have equal access to a quality education? That’s what the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating, according to a letter the department sent to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. Florida Times-Union. The local NAACP office is offering alternatives to the school changes School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has proposed. Florida Times-Union.

Achievement by gender: A study of a million Florida children born between 1992 and 2002 who attended public schools shows that boys overwhelmingly fall behind girls in learning at an early age and never catch up, and the gap widens significantly when race and socioeconomic status are considered. Washington Post.

Testing costs: Hillsborough County’s school district spent about $2.2 million on testing expenses in 2014-2015, according to a recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of the district’s $2.2 billion annual budget. Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook.

Stadium deal: David Beckham’s proposed deal with the Miami-Dade School Board to build a $200 million Major League Soccer stadium in Little Havana is on hold. Team officials say owners of some of the properties where the stadium would be built are asking too much for their land. Most of the land, next to Marlins Park baseball stadium, is owned by the city, which agreed to transfer ownership to the school board to shelter the team from property taxes. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →


Don’t let testing undermine choice

Note: This is the sixth installment in our series on testing and educational choice. See previous installments here

Tests are an important and perhaps necessary part of schooling. When used properly, they help teachers assess student progress, show students where they need to improve, and provide parents with crucial information when deciding where to enroll their children. What frustrates parents and teachers is when achievement on standardized tests becomes the primary purpose of schooling, rather than an aid to learning.

testing and choiceMandating that private schools participating in school choice programs administer the state test can also stifle innovation and diversity and drive schools away, thereby limiting the choices available to families. Fortunately, the private sector can provide less rigid and more comprehensive forms of accountability that will empower families to make informed choices.

The Benefits and Limitations of Testing

Tests can provide valuable information, but the misuse of testing can have significant unintended consequences, particularly when the tests are transformed from diagnostic tools into cudgels. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio wrote recently, the “data from tests are some of the most valuable intelligence we can access in the struggle to improve our education system.”

However, he cautions, misusing that data can distort the system:

[T]he moment you set out to trigger corrective actions and interventions using tests (which are, after all, designed merely to measure student performance), you are fundamentally shifting their function from providing evidence of student performance to something closer to the very purpose of schooling. This is precisely what has been occurring in our schools over the last decade or more. When parents complain about over-testing, what they are responding to is not the tests themselves—which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time—but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally altered the experience of schooling for our children.

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Florida schools roundup: Education spending, interpreter bill and more

IMG_0001.JPGEducation budget: Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $79.3 billion budget would boost spending for K-12 by $507.3 million, but only 15 percent would be provided by the state. The rest would come through higher property taxes on residents and businesses. Tampa Bay Times. Lake County school officials say the increase in education spending isn’t enough. Daily Commercial.

Interpreter standards: Bills filed by State Rep. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, and State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, would establish standards for interpreters for hearing-impaired students in grades K-12. Sunshine State News.

Stadium deal: Miami-Dade County Republican Party chairman Nelson Diaz says he’s hearing grumblings about the proposed deal between the school system and David Beckham to build a Major League Soccer stadium. The partnership would give the stadium a break on property taxes by putting ownership in the hands of the school board. Miami Herald.

Opinions on schools: It’s time voters correct a mistake, however well-intentioned, and return the education commissioner’s job to an elected Cabinet position, columnist John Romano argues. Tampa Bay Times.

School plan flexible: Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says his plan to revamp the system will continue to change as he gets input from parents and working groups considering his proposals, which include boosting enrollment by winning students back from charter schools, expanding choice and building new schools. Florida Times-Union. One of the working groups is proposing a new site for a single-gender middle school. Florida Times-Union. Continue Reading →


Testing flexibility, high standards and local control

Note: This is the fifth installment of our guest series on testing and educational choice. See the previous entries here. Coming Tuesday: Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute.

The current issues with standardized testing, and the potential solution to those issues, both lie in the same place: Alignment to the standards. It’s kind of wonky issue, but I think it holds the key to a more workable accountability system. Let me explain.

testing and choiceWhen we began the whole Common Core movement in earnest back in 2010, most of us reformers had a shared belief. We agreed the next generation of assessments needed to be closely aligned to the new standards, all the way down to the item level. That is deep alignment. We wanted to be confident that questions on the tests would measure students’ progress toward meeting all the granular expectations within the standards.

Deep alignment would give states the confidence they needed to use the tests to assign school grades and assemble data for teacher evaluations. It would also give local school administrators a sense of security when it came time to evaluate teachers and make personnel decisions based on assessment data. Both of those are good things.

Conversely, deep alignment between the test and the standards creates some significant problems. Many of those problems led us to the current outcry by both the education establishment and some school choice advocates against assessment.

The first of those problems is testing time. Since the advent of the two multi-state assessment consortia, states have seen the time spent assessing students increase significantly. It’s now common for students to spend about nine hours on their year-end assessments. If you want a test that is deeply aligned to the standards, you simply have to build a longer test to cover all the material.

Second, if students are taking tests that are so deeply aligned to the standards, that tends to dictate things like curriculum and instruction. This phenomenon feeds the “teaching to the test” and other claims about the erosion of local control, teacher creativity and the ability for some schools to break conventions. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Budget, new bills, Common Core and more

IMG_0001.JPGSchools spending: Some Republican legislators want Gov. Rick Scott to publicly acknowledge that increased spending on education in the next budget, which is being released today, will mean higher property taxes. Tampa Bay Times.

Education legislation: Two Republican legislators propose asking voters to make the education commissioner an elected Cabinet position. Another bill would give the state the power to approve charter schools. Palm Beach Post.

Common Core: The Common Core state standards, which came about when Massachusetts, Florida and a few other states collaborated on a national test that would allow better comparisons of state results, has been abandoned by Massachusetts on the recommendation of the man who helped develop them. New York Times. Sen. Marco Rubio has joined Sen. Ted Cruz in signing a pledge to end Common Core state standards if he’s elected president. Sunshine State News.

No Child Left Behind: A conference committee has agreed to the first changes in 14 years to the No Child Left Behind law. The bill would allow states more latitude in dealing with schools that don’t meet standards. New York Times.

School properties for sale: The Miami-Dade School System is aggressively marketing its downtown properties. It’s been working with David Beckham on a soccer stadium, and now it’s offering its headquarters to developers. School officials believe any deals will benefit the system’s 350,000 students. Miami Herald.

Charters and urban areas: Multiple studies consistently show that charter schools are generally more successful in urban areas serving low-income students than in suburban areas. New York Times. Continue Reading →


This week in school choice: Meaningfully different?

Thoughtful education reform advocates sometimes pause and ask whether their efforts are working. Elliot Haspel surveys the landscape and points out some inconvenient truths.

There is no reason to think that, on our current course, the conversation will be meaningfully different in 2025 or 2035. We simply have no empirical evidence that the prevailing reform theory of change can dramatically transform outcomes for kids at a significant scale. Not a single major school system in the entire country has accomplished this or is on track to accomplishing this.

We need a new iteration of the reform movement, a third-way movement that integrates everything we know about great schools, everything we know about fighting the effects of poverty, and everything we know about systems change.

This philosophy—high expectations, high supports, and high coherence—will forge a new path where excellence and equity can be found everywhere, and may just find us a way out of the current education wars.

He’s right to call for humility. He’s right about the effects of poverty, and the need to counteract them.

But it’s possible to look at the concerns he raises, and reach a different conclusion: Reformers haven’t done nearly enough to fundamentally transform the education system. Some 25 years ago, the late John Chubb and Terry Moe looked at the school reforms of the 1980s, and argued those efforts doomed to fail in a system where schools remained subject to political control and parents weren’t truly free to choose among them.

They called for full school choice and near-total school autonomy.

In principle, choice officers a clear, sharp break with the institutional past. In practice, however, it has been forced into the same mold with all the others. It has been embraced half-heartedly, in bits and pieces, as a means of granting parents and students additional options or of giving schools more incentives to compete – popular moves that can be accomplished without changing the existing system in any fundamental way. Choice has simply been part of the grab-bag, one of many system-preserving reforms that presumably make democratic control work better.

Is there a city or school district in America where their diagnosis doesn’t still ring true?


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