big testing

Colorado scores on “nation’s report card” decline but stay above national scores

Colorado students did worse this year on the test known as “the nation’s report card” than they did the last time it was administered two years ago, according to data released Wednesday. But the state’s scores are still better than national averages.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is a set of reading and math tests given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in each state. Earlier this year, 4,500 Colorado students spent one hour each taking one of the tests.

On the fourth-grade math tests, 43 percent of Colorado students scored proficient or better, down from 50 percent in 2013. On the eighth-grade math tests, 37 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 42 percent two years ago.

On the fourth-grade reading tests, 39 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 41 percent in 2013. On the eighth-grade reading tests, 38 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 40 percent two years ago.

Most national scores, with the exception of fourth-grade reading, dipped as well but the declines weren’t as steep. However, Colorado education officials said the decreasing scores aren’t cause for concern.

“If we start seeing declines over a period of time — if we see scores dip again in 2017 — it becomes a little more alarming,” said Will Morton, director of assessment administration for the Colorado Department of Education. “Right now, with a single-year dip, I wouldn’t be too concerned about it yet.”

HOW DO COLORADO’s 2015 SCORES COMPARE TO NATIONAL SCORES?

U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams since the early 1990s in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.

Many states have adopted or are developing new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the country. But the NAEP tests are not officially aligned with the standards adopted by Colorado and more than 40 other states. Called the Common Core standards, they detail what students should know in reading and math.

By the 2013-2014 school year, the Common Core standards were in effect in all Colorado schools. The state also rolled out new tests that align with them. Students took the reading and math tests, known as PARCC, for the first time last spring.  The state is scheduled to release the results in November.

“When we look at tests as a measurement for student success — and they’re only one way to measure student success — those tests, which are taken by all students … are what we really look at,” said Dana Smith, interim chief communications officer for CDE.

HOW HAVE MATH SCORES CHANGED OVER 10 YEARS?

But officials said NAEP serves a purpose, too, in that it provides a glimpse into how Colorado students are performing compared to students across the country. Colorado ranks in the middle: Its scores were 23rd highest in fourth-grade math, 17th highest in eighth-grade math, 23rd highest in fourth-grade reading and 18th highest in eighth-grade reading.

“Overall, we’re about where we would expect to be,” Morton said, adding that “if you look at it on a bell curve, we’re in the middle of that bell curve toward the higher end.”

Colorado’s scores have generally improved over the years, while achievement gaps between white and minority students and low-income and non-low-income students have stayed the same. This year, Colorado’s scores did not improve. Morton and Smith were hesitant to speculate as to why, but they noted the differences between NAEP and the Common Core.

NAEP may not be testing what students are learning in their classrooms, they said. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research found that the similarity between the NAEP math tests and the Common Core is “reasonable,” but there are gaps. For example, the study said it appears that “a notable amount” of middle-school math content recommended by the Common Core is not part of the NAEP test.

“As our teachers continue to teach to our Colorado standards,” Morton said, “those differences between what NAEP is designed to test versus what our teachers are being asked to teach — those differences may be highlighted.” But it’s too early to tell for sure, he said.

“Until we have more years of implementation, we can’t really tell if this is an implementation dip or a fundamental difference between our standards and the blueprint of the NAEP test,” Morton said.

HOW HAVE READING SCORES CHANGED OVER 10 YEARS?

NAEP officials took a similar view of the scores, which stayed stagnant or declined in most states.

“One downturn does not a trend make,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP tests.

“It’s not a multi-year trend we’re seeing,” added Bill Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the framework for the NAEP tests. He referenced “curricular uncertainty” in American classrooms and said experts have suggested that “slight declines” often precede improvements.

The NAEP tests are not meant to be tied to a specific curriculum, Bushaw said. However, he predicted that the national board would take another look at the framework in light of this year’s scores and reports such as the one from the American Institutes for Research.

In Colorado, officials said that while NAEP is helpful, it’s just one piece of the overall testing puzzle — and one that’s based on a small sampling of the state’s nearly 900,000 students.

“We don’t get too upset when we see small gains or losses,” Morton said.

Chalkbeat Tennessee reporter Grace Tatter contributed information to this report.

Data source: National Assessment of Educational Progress 

Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

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.