** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
A big part of successful policy making is unyielding attention to detail (an argument that regular readers of this blog hear often). Choices about design and implementation that may seem unimportant can play a substantial role in determining how policies play out in practice.
A new paper, co-authored by Elizabeth Davidson, Randall Reback, Jonah Rockoff and Heather Schwartz, and presented at last month’s annual conference of The Association for Education Finance and Policy, illustrates this principle vividly, and on a grand scale: With an analysis of outcomes in all 50 states during the early years of NCLB.
After a terrific summary of the law’s rules and implementation challenges, as well as some quick descriptive statistics, the paper’s main analysis is a straightforward examination of why the proportion of schools meeting AYP varied quite a bit between states. For instance, in 2003, the first year of results, 32 percent of U.S. schools failed to make AYP, but the proportion ranged from one percent in Iowa to over 80 percent in Florida.
Surprisingly, the results suggest that the primary reasons for this variation seem to have had little to do with differences in student performance. Rather, the big factors are subtle differences in rather arcane rules that each state chose during the implementation process. These decisions received little attention, yet they had a dramatic impact on the outcomes of NCLB during this time period. Read More »
In his State of the City address last month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made some brief comments about the upcoming adoption of new assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), including the following statement:
But no matter where the definition of proficiency is arbitrarily set on the new tests, I expect that our students’ progress will continue outpacing the rest of the State’s[,] the only meaningful measurement of progress we have.
On the surface, this may seem like just a little bit of healthy bravado. But there are a few things about this single sentence that struck me, and it also helps to illustrate an important point about the relationship between standards and testing results. Read More »
A recent article in Reuters, one that received a great deal of attention, sheds light on practices that some charter schools are using essentially to screen students who apply for admission. These policies include requiring long and difficult applications, family interviews, parental contracts, and even demonstrations of past academic performance.
It remains unclear how common these practices might be in the grand scheme of things, but regardless of how frequently they occur, most of these tactics are terrible, perhaps even illegal, and should be stopped. At the same time, there are two side points to keep in mind when you hear about charges such as these, as well as the accusations (and denials) of charter exclusion and segregation that tend to follow.
The first is that some degree of (self-)sorting and segregation of students by abilities, interests and other characteristics is part of the deal in a choice-based system. The second point is that screening and segregation are most certainly not unique to charter/private schools, and one primary reason is that there is, in a sense, already a lot of choice among regular public schools. Read More »
Some Florida officials are still having trouble understanding why they’re finding no relationship between the grades schools receive and the evaluation ratings of teachers in those schools. For his part, new Florida education Commissioner Tony Bennett is also concerned. According to the article linked above, he acknowledges (to his credit) that the two measures are different, but is also considering “revis[ing] the models to get some fidelity between the two rankings.”
This may be turning into a potentially risky situation. As discussed in a recent post, it is important to examine the results of the new teacher evaluations, but there is no reason one would expect to find a strong relationship between these ratings and the school grades, as they are in large part measuring different things (and imprecisely at that). The school grades are mostly (but not entirely) driven by how highly students score, whereas teacher evaluations are, to the degree possible, designed to be independent of these absolute performance levels. Florida cannot validate one system using the other.
However, as also mentioned in that post, this is not to say that there should be no relationship at all. For example, both systems include growth-oriented measures (albeit using very different approaches). In addition, schools with lower average performance levels sometimes have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers. Due to these and other factors, the reasonable expectation is to find some association overall, just not one that’s extremely strong. And that’s basically what one finds, even using the same set of results upon which the claims that there is no relationship are based.
Read More »
** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was in Virginia last week, helping push for a new law that would install an “A-F” grading system for all public schools in the commonwealth, similar to a system that has existed in Florida for well over a decade.
In making his case, Governor Bush put forth an argument about the Florida system that he and his supporters use frequently. He said that, right after the grades went into place in his state, there was a drop in the proportion of D and F schools, along with a huge concurrent increase in the proportion of A schools. For example, as Governor Bush notes, in 1999, only 12 percent of schools got A’s. In 2005, when he left office, the figure was 53 percent. The clear implication: It was the grading of schools (and the incentives attached to the grades) that caused the improvements.
There is some pretty good evidence (also here) that the accountability pressure of Florida’s grading system generated modest increases in testing performance among students in schools receiving F’s (i.e., an outcome to which consequences were attached), and perhaps higher-rated schools as well. However, putting aside the serious confusion about what Florida’s grades actually measure, as well as the incorrect premise that we can evaluate a grading policy’s effect by looking at the simple distribution of those grades over time, there’s a much deeper problem here: The grades changed in part because the criteria changed. Read More »
Our guest authors today are Morgan Polikoff and Andrew McEachin. Morgan is Assistant Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Andrew is an Institute of Education Science postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.
In a previous post, we described some of the problems with the Senate’s Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, based on our own analyses, which yielded three main findings. First, selecting the bottom 5% of schools for intervention based on changes in California’s composite achievement index resulted in remarkably unstable rankings. Second, identifying the bottom 5% based on schools’ lowest performing subgroup overwhelmingly targeted those serving larger numbers of special education students. Third and finally, we found evidence that middle and high schools were more likely to be identified than elementary schools, and smaller schools more likely than larger schools.
None of these findings was especially surprising (see here and here, for instance), and could easily have been anticipated. Thus, we argued that policymakers need to pay more attention to the vast (and rapidly expanding) literature on accountability system design. Read More »
Last week, Florida State Senate President Don Gaetz (R – Niceville) expressed his skepticism about the recently-released results of the state’s new teacher evaluation system. The senator was particularly concerned about his comparison of the ratings with schools’ “A-F” grades. He noted, “If you have a C school, 90 percent of the teachers in a C school can’t be highly effective. That doesn’t make sense.”
There’s an important discussion to be had about the results of both the school and teacher evaluation systems, and the distributions of the ratings can definitely be part of that discussion (even if this issue is sometimes approached in a superficial manner). However, arguing that we can validate Florida’s teacher evaluations using its school grades, or vice-versa, suggests little understanding of either. Actually, given the design of both systems, finding a modest or even weak association between them would make pretty good sense.
In order to understand why, there are two facts to consider. Read More »
** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has become one of the more influential education advocates in the country. He travels the nation armed with a set of core policy prescriptions, sometimes called the “Florida formula,” as well as “proof” that they work. The evidence that he and his supporters present consists largely of changes in average statewide test scores – NAEP and the state exam (FCAT) – since the reforms started going into place. The basic idea is that increases in testing results are the direct result of these policies.
Governor Bush is no doubt sincere in his effort to improve U.S. education, and, as we’ll see, a few of the policies comprising the “Florida formula” have some test-based track record. However, his primary empirical argument on their behalf – the coincidence of these policies’ implementation with changes in scores and proficiency rates – though common among both “sides” of the education debate, is simply not valid. We’ve discussed why this is the case many times (see here, here and here), as have countless others, in the Florida context as well as more generally.*
There is no need to repeat those points, except to say that they embody the most basic principles of data interpretation and causal inference. It would be wonderful if the evaluation of education policies – or of school systems’ performance more generally – was as easy as looking at raw, cross-sectional testing data. But it is not.
Luckily, one need not rely on these crude methods. We can instead take a look at some of the rigorous research that has specifically evaluated the core reforms comprising the “Florida formula.” As usual, it is a far more nuanced picture than supporters (and critics) would have you believe. Read More »
Whatever one thinks of the heavy reliance on standardized tests in U.S. public education, one of the things on which there is wide agreement is that cheating must be prevented, and investigated when there’s evidence it might have occurred.
For anyone familiar with test-based accountability, recent cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and elsewhere are unlikely to have been surprising. There has always been cheating, and it can take many forms, ranging from explicit answer-changing to subtle coaching on test day. One cannot say with any certainty how widespread cheating is, but there is every reason to believe that high-stakes testing increases the likelihood that it will happen. The first step toward addressing that problem is to recognize it.
A district, state or nation that is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of cheating, do everything possible to prevent it, and face up to it when evidence suggests it has occurred, is ill-equipped to rely on test-based accountability policies. Read More »
The new breed of school rating systems, some of which are still getting off the ground, will co-exist with federal proficiency targets in many states, and they are (or will be) used for a variety of purposes, including closure, resource allocation and informing parents and the public (see our posts on the systems in IN, FL, OH, CO, NYC).*
The approach that most states are using, in part due to the “ESEA flexibility” guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Education, is to combine different types of measures, often very crudely, into a single grade or categorical rating for each school. Administrators and media coverage usually characterize these ratings as measures of school performance – low-rated schools are called “low performing,” while those receiving top ratings are characterized as “high performing.” That’s not accurate – or, at best, it’s only partially true.
Some of the indicators that comprise the ratings, such as proficiency rates, are best interpreted as (imperfectly) describing student performance on tests, whereas other measures, such as growth model estimates, make some attempt to isolate schools’ contribution to that performance. Both might have a role to play in accountability systems, but they’re more or less appropriate depending on how you’re trying to use them.
So, here’s my question: Why do we insist on throwing them all together into a single rating for each school? To illustrate why I think this question needs to be addressed, let’s take a quick look at four highly-simplified situations in which one might use ratings. Read More »
When I point out that raw changes in state proficiency rates or NAEP scores are not valid evidence that a policy or set of policies is “working,” I often get the following response: “Oh Matt, we can’t have a randomized trial or peer-reviewed article for everything. We have to make decisions and conclusions based on imperfect information sometimes.”
This statement is obviously true. In this case, however, it’s also a straw man. There’s a huge middle ground between the highest-quality research and the kind of speculation that often drives our education debate. I’m not saying we always need experiments or highly complex analyses to guide policy decisions (though, in general, these are always preferred and sometimes required). The point, rather, is that we shouldn’t draw conclusions based on evidence that doesn’t support those conclusions.
This, unfortunately, happens all the time. In fact, many of the more prominent advocates in education today make their cases based largely on raw changes in outcomes immediately after (or sometimes even before) their preferred policies were implemented (also see here, here, here, here, here, and here). In order to illustrate the monumental assumptions upon which these and similar claims ride, I thought it might be fun to break them down quickly, in a highly simplified fashion. So, here are the four “requirements” that must be met in order to attribute raw test score changes to a specific policy (note that most of this can be applied not only to claims that policies are working, but also to claims that they’re not working because scores or rates are flat):
Read More »
As states’ continue to finalize their applications for ESEA/NCLB “flexibility” (or “waivers”), controversy has arisen in some places over how these plans set proficiency goals, both overall and for demographic subgroups (see our previous post about the situation in Virginia).
One of the underlying rationales for allowing states to establish new targets (called “annual measurable objectives,” or AMOs) is that the “100 percent” proficiency goals of NCLB were unrealistic. Accordingly, some (but not all) of the new plans have set 2017-18 absolute proficiency goals that are considerably below 100 percent, and/or lower for some subgroups relative to others. This shift has generated pushback from advocates, most recently in Florida, who believe that lowering state targets is tantamount to encouraging or accepting failure.
I acknowledge the central role of goals in any accountability system, but I would like to humbly suggest that this controversy, over where and how states set proficiency targets for 2017-18, may be misguided. There are four reasons why I think this is the case (and one silver lining if it is). Read More »
The State of Indiana has received a great deal of attention for its education reform efforts, and they recently announced the details, as well as the first round of results, of their new “A-F” school grading system. As in many other states, for elementary and middle schools, the grades are based entirely on math and reading test scores.
It is probably the most rudimentary scoring system I’ve seen yet – almost painfully so. Such simplicity carries both potential advantages (easier for stakeholders to understand) and disadvantages (school performance is complex and not always amenable to rudimentary calculation).
In addition, unlike the other systems that I have reviewed here, this one does not rely on explicit “weights,” (i.e., specific percentages are not assigned to each component). Rather, there’s a rubric that combines absolute performance (passage rates) and proportions drawn from growth models (a few other states use similar schemes, but I haven’t reviewed any of them).
On the whole, though, it’s a somewhat simplistic variation on the general approach most other states are taking — but with a few twists. Read More »
It is a gross understatement to say that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is, was – and will continue to be – a controversial piece of legislation. Although opinion tends toward the negative, there are certain features, such as a focus on student subgroup data, that many people support. And it’s difficult to make generalizations about whether the law’s impact on U.S. public education was “good” or “bad” by some absolute standard.
The one thing I would say about NCLB is that it has helped to institutionalize the improper interpretation of testing data.
Most of the attention to the methodological shortcomings of the law focuses on “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) – the crude requirement that all schools must make “adequate progress” toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. And AYP is indeed an inept measure. But the problems are actually much deeper than AYP.
Rather, it’s the underlying methods and assumptions of NCLB (including AYP) that have had a persistent, negative impact on the way we interpret testing data. Read More »
New York City has just released the new round of results from its school rating system (they’re called “progress reports”). It relies considerably more on student growth (60 out of 100 points) than absolute performance (25 points), and there are efforts to partially adjust most of the measures via peer group comparisons.*
All of this indicates that the city’s system is more focused on school rather than student test-based performance, compared with many other systems around the U.S.
The ratings are high-stakes. Schools receiving low grades – a D or F in any given year, or a C for three consecutive years – enter a review process by which they might be closed. The number of schools meeting these criteria jumped considerably this year.
There is plenty of controversy to go around about the NYC ratings, much of it pertaining to two important features of the system. They’re worth discussing briefly, as they are also applicable to systems in other states. Read More »