The Sky Isn’t Falling

Training demonstration at Homestead Air Reserve BaseAs if teachers in the Granite State didn’t already have enough demands to respond to, following the 2016 election teachers have been increasingly the scapegoats for nothing less than the death of democracy.*

Recently, an important leader in the state, and champion of historical education jumped into the fray in a letter to the editor, where he maligned the “alarming history deficit” present in the thousands of students who visit the New Hampshire Historical Society each year. As I have done in other blog posts in the past, I find myself in a position of wanting to defend public school teachers and, more generally, the quality of public schooling in the United States.  I am compelled to disagree with this and similar narratives of crisis that tinge statements about education in our country.

It’s important to acknowledge first that I share Mr. Dunlap’s concern about the lack of time spent on historic and civic education in public education in the elementary years. No Child Left Behind yielded a hyper focus on math, reading and high stakes assessments like the NECAP (and now the SBAC).  Something had to give, and this meant many schools devoted disproportionate amounts of instructional time to those subjects typically to the detriment of social studies and the arts (among other things like recess, by the way!).  In many ways, he is quite right to highlight this as a negative consequence of the Accountability Movement. Yet, while I agree that things aren’t great, I disagree that things are getting worse.

In fact, evidence suggests when it comes to both civic and historic knowledge nationwide things are actually improving significantly.

Evidence suggests when it comes to BOTH civic and historic knowledge nationwide things are actually improving significantly.

  • Since 1998, eighth grade student performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) civic literacy and historic literacy test has risen.
  • Score gains for Hispanic-American eighth graders have narrowed what was once an intractable “achievement gap” by 14 percentage points since 1998.
  • White children, Asian American children, children enrolled in Free-and-Reduced Lunch programs (a proxy for childhood poverty), non-English speakers and children with disabilities have also seen a significant improvement in scores since 1998. This data can be accessed on the NAEP website.
  • In NAEP history assessment, the percentage of children scoring at or above the “proficient” category in history rose significantly since 1994. (Recall, “Proficient” and “Advanced” are the top two categories of the NAEP. This would be similar to scoring 3 or 4 out of four possible points on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.)
  • Regarding the sudden drop in civic and historical knowledge, the data does not appear to bear this out with no decline in civic knowledge or historical knowledge on the NAEP.
  • In both civics and history, New Hampshire does significantly better than the national population. How do we know that when the data isn’t disaggregated for these tests at the state level? The data show that English-native speakers, white children, children living in homes with a college graduate and children being raised outside of poverty perform much better than the national average – a phenomenon called “the Achievement Gap.” Similar to all of New England, New Hampshire’s über-homogeneous, English speaking, college-educated population generally does exceptionally well on these measures of academic success. In fact, the New England states – and NH in particular — perform equivalently to the highest performing nations globally.

While there is reason to take heart, there is not yet reason to celebrate.

Civic and historical awareness in our children and adolescents can still improve. While the average scores on civic knowledge nationwide are consistently well above the “basic” level, only 23% of our nation’s children score in the proficient or advanced range.

Despite these clear shortcomings, I caution Granite Staters against adopting the tone of crisis in our state’s public schools. This is because in my work with Granite State teachers, I have become acutely aware of the fact that this narrative of crisis, and “lack of knowledge “of our children, unfairly maligns and shames an already battered profession.

The narrative of failure and crisis in our schools unfairly maligns and shames an already battered profession.

While it’s tempting to adopt the narrative of crisis, where we express shock, alarm and even disgust with what our children don’t know, Granite Staters must work productively and positively to continue to improve the outlook for civic health in New Hampshire.

So, instead of shaming students and their teachers for what they don’t know, we might focus on the many successes in our education system that reflect the hard work and dedication of our state’s public teaching force. When looking for outliers and success stories, it’s easy to identify high-leverage, promising practices that yield results and use that to our advantage for teaching children how to engage. So what are some of the success stories?

  • Between 2013 and 2015, the state of New Hampshire’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders ranked the first, second and third in the nation on math, reading and science. In other words for the last seven years, New Hampshire public schools have outperformed more than 47 other states in our scores on these tests.
  • Nationwide scores are improving in math and literacy. Some academics and researchers have credited the shift to the Common Core State Standards, and the massive push in professional development and training for teachers to support it – as the underlying cause. Civics and Social Studies advocates must leverage the social studies literacy standards embedded in the Common Core State Standards to assure that more time is spent in these areas including non-fiction “informational text” literacy and writing. Informing oneself is a civic virtue and connecting these dots takes very little effort.
  • One highly-regarded academic, Diane Ravitch, an active public school advocate, former Deputy Secretary of Education during the Bush administration, and researcher at New York University, has frequently highlighted data showing the improvement of our nation’s school children on multiple measures of academic success – besides the high-stakes tests on which many middle and high school students exert questionable effort.

Finally, we must understand:

There has simply never been a “golden era” of historical knowledge.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for college educated Baby Boomers and those from the Greatest Generation, but these are the facts. It’s likely that rather than our kids getting dumber, the nature of knowledge, the patterns of behavior, and the skills of engagement look differently when viewed through the generational lens.

We have many assets working to our advantage here in New Hampshire beginning with our talented and dedicated teaching profession who have put New Hampshire consistently at the top. We need to stop asking why our kids don’t know “basic facts” and begin to ask how we can transfer our state’s children’s abundant talents and passions for other subjects into history and civics. We have an excellent foundation to make this happen, it’s a matter of framing the challenge appropriately and directing our energy for positive change.

*See, for example, this article (https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2016-11-22/donald-trumps-election-is-civic-educations-gut-check) which makes the case that most civics teachers’ lack of content expertise is to blame. The author goes on to claim (without providing any numbers to substantiate the claim) that civics teachers are all primarily athletic coaches

The Best of the “Best Schools” Ratings

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer about what parents read it is that, most of the time, it has to do with the question starter “Where do I find the best…?”

Parents, I am right there with you. I love lists – the shorter the better – and ideally with pictures.

So, here’s a meta-exercise. Let’s rank school rankings.

Methodology? Ugh!

Parents are busy people who care about getting their children the “best.” We want to find out where the “best” is, how much the “best” will cost, and how can we can get the “best” at the best price. Parents want the data quickly, and they want the data in a pre-chewed fashion. These are just a few simple reasons why lists work.

But, not all school rankings are created equally. In fact, they’re extraordinarily unequal. As parents, we often put far too much faith in the idea that other people, or “experts,” know best about what’s best.

Here’s the thing: They don’t because they’re not usually experts.

The trouble is that in order to understand how these sources generate their lists, you need someone to give a darn about the study’s methodology. But, ugh…who wants to do that?

I am such a person.

It has forever bothered me that school rankings are based on one or two-dimensional statistics such as the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in the school like the Daily Beast’s list (pre-2014), or average scores on state-mandated tests like Great Schools, and School Diggeror combination of similar metrics like the US News and World Report Best High Schools list.

These rankings are seriously limited because the methodologies are seriously flawed.

Curious Measures of School Quality

First, who determined that those factors make a school “the best?” Basing school ratings on advanced placement classes matters very little and tells parents even less about the quality of a school when their child doesn’t qualify. Even when they do qualify to take the class, odds are against them that they will earn a high enough score on the AP test to “place out” of first-year college coursework anyway.

Only 20% high school graduates, or about 607,000 students, earned a “3” or higher on an AP exam in 2013. Remember, since America only graduates about 80% of students from high school, this means that only one-fifth of that 80% of high school students take and pass an AP exam.

This article in the Atlantic exposed the ratings machine as “meaningless,” and issued a full-out take down of AP as signifying anything but the antithesis of quality and rigor. The author notes these classes are typically about memorization and regurgitation rather than critical reading, reflection, analysis or synthesis – the high-leverage skills of a quality education. (For a counter-point on AP check out this article by Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.)

At the same time, the Atlantic article credited these organizations for making slight but important adjustments to their measurements:

To their credit, US News and Newsweek/Daily Beast, which also use AP and IB courses as a measure, have made their rankings more sophisticated and reasonable by also adding other measures of a school’s quality, such as graduation rates and college-acceptance rates, and performance on state accountability tests and the proficiency rates of a school’s least advantaged students on those tests.

Despite these amendments, the measures are flawed for the simple reason that they don’t help parents make informed decisions about where to buy a home to start their family. Young families want to know where to find the best Kindergarten. These parents realize the first years in elementary school are crucial. High school is nearly a decade away.

Are We Just Looking at Rankings of the Richest Districts?

Second, these rankings identify “best” schools where very few middle class Americans can afford to buy a home.

If you’ve ever read any of my previous blog posts, or if you follow these rankings and school data at all, you know that school performance is typically in direct relationship to the wealth of the school district. Put another way, wealth and poverty matter.

Newsweek’s recently released high school rankings (again limited geographically to participating schools and limited to averages on standardized tests) have taken to creating two different school rankings. They clarify:

The question, “What are the best schools?” has two different answers depending on whether or not student poverty is taken into account. In an effort to address the effect of socioeconomic disadvantage on education, Newsweek is publishing two lists: our “absolute” list and … our “relative” list, which ranks schools based on performance while also controlling for student poverty rates.

If you’re someone who prioritizes having your children attend a public school with other children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, or if you’re like a friend of mine who doesn’t want to “raise a child who is afraid of poor people,” you might want to know how a school performs regardless of what’s in the savings accounts of the parents who send their children to school there.

What are the “Best Metrics” for Measuring “Best Schools?”

Finally, these rankings are flawed because they mask so many indicators of quality that families and educators should prioritize.

There are many metrics that can tell you how well a school is performing just as well or better than standardized test scores. For example, many people might want to know how parents review the school, school safety in the district, the budgeting track record of administrators, the quality of the teaching force, or the size and diversity of the district.

So, drumroll please. Here is the shortlist of the best of the best school ratings that manages to do all that:

  1. Niche
  2. See above
  3. Sorry, that’s probably the only one, but I’m still looking.

Niche Rankings

Why Niche Wins

Niche has five winning features, and I can express them in a quick list too:

  1. They employ expert statisticians who
  2. draw from a fantastically rich dataset (NCES)
  3. to identify, cluster and weight important indicators
  4. with very little over-emphasis on any single indicator, and
  5. provide tools to parents on their website to dig and play in the data.

I’ll say more about each of these indicators and what they mean in a future blog post, and since you’re likely scurrying off to explore Niche’s ratings and rankings, I won’t say very much about Niche’s methodology either. Suffice it to say any group that references Bayesian probability and their subsequent weighting decisions in it’s How do we Compute our Rankings” section is an outlier among these groups in terms of their attention to detail.

I could deconstruct any list of “the best,” but if you’re looking for a fast source with interesting and accessible data, Niche is the best of the best.

Focusing on the “Opt” in the “Opt-Out Movement”

Like most others, I have had the good fortune to be alive and paying attention enough over the last ten years to bear witness to at least two major revolutions.

I never thought I would see the day when people could actually talk to other people with their wrist watch, and just last month the Supreme Court reaffirmed its’ commitment to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by safeguarding equal access to the institution of marriage. These are major changes – both of which were propelled by and, in turn, will have major implications for democracy.

Though not as long-in-the-making nor as groundbreaking, I’ve been watching the growing “Opt-Out” movement with a muted – but similar – enjoyment.

Is the Opt-Out Movement Truly a Movement?

The “Opt-Out” movement, where parents block schools from testing their children with high stakes standardized measures, is pretty fascinating. In a sense this small movement is akin to seeing hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation turn to each other with expressions of utter disbelief saying, “Wait … we can do that?”

For so long, parents have sent their children to school without asking many critical questions about what their children experience during the school day, including the decisions that administrators make about curriculum, or how data about their children’s performance on standardized tests are collected and used.

Parental disgruntlement has usually centered around their child’s new teacher, and concerns about particular “trouble-makers” in their child’s class. Research has shown over and over that some parents feel entitled to follow these conflicts through, while others feel disempowered or reluctant depending on their cultural or economic background. (See the book “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Class in Schools” by Richard Rothstein for full descriptions of how this plays out.)

Regardless, disgruntlement is minor and scattered. Parents experience and deal with these conflicts in vacuum, and the conflicts experienced by many individuals separated by space and time could never be regarded as a movement. 

So, the recent uproar about the over use of standardized tests, and calls for opting children out of said tests, in contrast, seems to be something of a revolution in the way that parents understand their role in their children’s education.

Why We are Suddenly Concerned about Over-Testing

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stipulated in 2002 that all children grades 3-8 & 10th or 11th be tested using a state-administered standardized test. The intent then was to reach “universal proficiency” on those standardized tests by 2014. So, all students in every state had to “pass” these standardized tests by 2014. This was an extraordinary lofty (read: unrealistic), but worthwhile goal.

Most states contracted to private companies to develop standardized tests, and the students’ tests were scored with the designation “Failing,” “Basic,” “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Students’ performances on those standardized tests were spread across the four designations. However, districts with pockets of poverty were more likely to have concentrations in the “Failing” and “Basic” categories, and districts with concentrated wealth and college-educated parents were more likely to be labeled “Proficient” and “Advanced.”

This gap in performance was predictable. Students have performed similarly on standardized tests since the national government started administering National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP – sounds like “nape”) in the 1960s. This gap in performance is the well-documented “achievement gap.”

Getting to “universal proficiency” by 2014, therefore, conveyed the expectation that states could close the achievement gap in 12 years. All schools had to show “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” toward this goal of universal proficiency. If they didn’t, all sorts of penalties ensued. NCLB required standardized tests as the preferred way to track changes in student performance.

Testing Mania

As lofty as this goal was, when the data from these tests were crunched it became clear that NCLB and standardized tests weren’t closing the achievement gap.

Many very smart people decided that the tests were probably not very good measures of what we want students to learn. (Others decided it was probably the teachers’ fault, but let us leave that for another post.)

So, since the tests were to blame, a few powerful organizations set new guidelines about what American kids should be learning, resulting in the Common Core State Standards or CCSS. With little time to vet the standards, states adopted CCSS and implemented them in their schools.

Then, some very lucky private companies were contracted and got a whole lot of money to design new tests to measure whether students were mastering CCSS. Two tests, the PARCC test and the Smarter-Balanced or “SBAC” test were adopted by most states.

This year, our nation’s schoolchildren in grades 3-8 and 10th or 11th had the sad misfortune of “piloting” these new PARCC or SBAC tests while simultaneously phasing out their state’s old standardized tests. The result was dozens of school days (out of a 180-day school year) spent penciling in bubbles on Scantron sheets and/or clicking through items on the computer.

Add together the state standardized tests; the new, and considerably more challenging, SBAC or PARCC test; for most 10th or 11th grade students their AP test and PSAT or SAT test; and, perhaps their ACT or other college-entrance tests and it’s pretty clear that this year we tested the hell out of American schoolchildren.

Opting Out

This year, the number of parents who said “Thanks, but no thanks” (or more accurately, “Take your test and shove it!”)  to standardized tests exploded155,000 kids opted out of tests in New York alone.

As an education researcher, I lament the lost data. As a parent, I totally get it.

On the one hand, I know our nation’s children are over-tested. According to education expert, Linda Darling Hammond, we as a nation focus more on testing than any other country in the world. We have too many standardized assessments. Some of them generate meaningful data, but others not so much.

On the other hand, I know standardized tests are a source of information about student academic performance. Schools can use this data, but it’s typically used most by education researchers and the national government to help track (some would say exacerbate) the gap in performance between different segments of the American population.

This summer is really the first time that I have thought about it on a personal level, because this school year my oldest daughter is entering third-grade. That is to say, this school year marks the first time NCLB and yearly testing is a reality for me as a parent.

I also live in New Hampshire where our state’s new parent trigger law allows parents to opt-out of any public school curriculum they deem inappropriate. Though our governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt-out of standardized tests specifically, many of our state’s districts are allowing it. It’s probably only a matter of time before NH’s House and Senate override her veto, so I expect the Opt-Out debate to surface again in NH by winter.

My husband and I take parenting decisions on a case-by-case basis. If I had a child who experienced tremendous anxiety over tests no matter how valiant our efforts were to calm her, I would probably pull her out. In that case, the tests would do more harm than good. I defend parents’ rights to protect their children in these cases.

I also happen to think there is a massive level of hysteria around parents opting their children out of testing right now. I don’t judge them, they have their reasons.Their children might react more strongly to taking a test too, where my child doesn’t seem to register a difference between taking a standardized test and taking the teacher’s weekly spelling challenge. Yet, the hysteria overshadows the advantage of standardized testing, which is their power as a source of information and a diagnostic tool about how their child is learning. 

Finally, I hope that the parent veto rights bill isn’t overused in New Hampshire. I have many misgivings about parents telling schools regularly what should be in the curriculum. Parent vetoes convey a certain level of distrust in our teachers and schools and they are often used to prevent teachers from teaching things that are widely accepted by scientists to be true (e.g. evolution and climate change). 

For all of those reasons, we will have both of our children follow the standardized testing schedule in our district for now.

Opting-in: With Reservations & Just for Now

Even having thought through all of this and made a decision (for this year at least), I will do several things to parent my kids through standardized tests.

First, and most importantly, I will make sure my daughter understand these tests are not high stakes for her and don’t measure her intelligence. Standardized tests are not tests of intelligence, and just to be clear, intelligence tests (IQ) aren’t even tests of fixed intelligence

Any standardized test should be treated as a diagnostic tool at most, which can help us identify areas where we can support children’s learning more, and areas where they are already demonstrating mastery of skills and content. So, I’ll try not incite further hysteria in my child when I talk to her about the tests. I hope her teachers and building principals do the same – as far as I can tell they do.

I will definitely be examining the testing results when they are returned, and in this manner the personal and the professional overlap for me since I have the training to make sense of test reports (which don’t make sense to many parents). This information can be useful to parents, teachers and schools, but test makers need to do more in the way of making test results meaningful for all.

I also plan to be very active in the school district to make sure that the standardized testing results are NOT used in a high stakes or inappropriate manner. Standardized test results have been used inappropriately in New Hampshire’s recent past as a result of NCLB, and continue to be used inappropriately in other states now (e.g. as a punitive measure for districts failing to meet AYP or as a measure of teaching quality – both so wrong). NH has a waiver from NCLB so these misuses are unacceptable. 

In short, my children will take the tests for now, because standardized tests are a useful tool when used appropriately, they are no-stakes for my children in New Hampshire, and I can parent my kids through the experience.

Focusing on the “OPT”

But, I have the option to change my mind and opt-out, and therein lies the sentiment that makes me a true geek for democracy and overjoys the social studies teacher still very much alive inside of me.

The Opt-Out movement is a movement, and as such has the power to get more parents involved in very important day-to-day educational decisions. It also has the added benefit of bringing the “public” back into “public education,” because people more so than ever before in recent history, seem to be paying attention to what’s going on in our nation’s schools.

So when the frenzy kicks back in again in the upcoming school year and people are debating who is opting in, who is opting out and who doesn’t really care one way or another… know there is at least one person in the nation who’s happy simply that people are recognizing there’s an “opt” in the discussion.

The children are watching and learning that civic participation in our nation’s schools is a democratic and meaningful act.

Posts in the cooker… Bringing research to the foreground

I have scores of ideas of things I’d like to blog about, but here’s the shortlist. If you’re interested in knowing the history behind features of schools, or what the “research says” about schools, please comment with your suggestions!

Cheers – Dianna

  1. What does it mean to “Opt-Out” of a standardized test, and should I do it?
  2. How do schools in different states stack up?
  3. Louis C.K. broke my heart when he called out the Common Core
  4. Is homework for kids or their parents?
  5. LGBTQ kids ARE our kids
  6. What’s the deal with 7 AM start times?
  7. Is there really a teacher shortage?
  8. My child’s report card makes no sense to me (& competency based grading)
  9. What’s the point of “group work?”
  10. Why is the site called “Our Kids?”
  11. Calling a truce in the mommy wars.
  12. Talking about American race relations with kids – a white momma’s work.
  13. The manner in which teachers are portrayed in the media is killing the profession.
  14. My friend says her kids are “totally average,” and I admire that attitude.
  15. The shocking reality about how few kids finish college.
  16. College shouldn’t be “four years at Hogwarts” (truthfully put by Martin O’Malley)
  17. The U.S. is actually not doing badly in international ratings – it just depends on how you slice the data.
  18. Should we lengthen the school year?
  19. Reforms that might work in our schools.
  20. How parents can support schools.
  21. Things *not* to say at the parent-teacher conference & questions to ask.
  22. Decoding the standardized test report
  23. The obesity epidemic and school lunch programs.
  24. The anti-Vax movement and CA’s new mandate for measles vaccine.