Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Education Reform: Questions Raised

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being developed for K-12 math, English, and language arts aligned to international standards through a consortia of Race to the Top winners and voluntarily accepted by all but 7 states. The Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a consortia of 25 states, which will create a new generation in computer-based assessments to measure student performance against the Common Core State Standards. Florida is part of PARCC.

The national assessments will be taken via computer, and add at least three tests before the final assessment. The interim testing is intended to capture the student's progress and through electronic analysis recommend types of remediation for improvement. While no prototypes or examples are readily available, these test items may incorporate capabilities, such as audio and video. However, assessments will likely include familiar multiple choice question types since development and programming more complex forms takes more time and a lot of money. The cost-benefit for student performance of such efforts has not been discussed. How much will the assessments cost? Secretary Arne Duncan estimates the costs as "heavy-lifting financially."

Secretary of Education Chief-of-Staff Joanne Weiss praises the potential of national standards and assessment in a recent speech:
The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

In this new market, it will make sense for teachers in different regions to share curriculum materials and formative assessments. It will make sense for researchers to mine data to learn which materials and teaching strategies are effective for which students - and then feed that information back to students, teachers, and parents.

If we can match highly-effective educators with great entrepreneurs and if we can direct smart capital toward these projects, the market for technological innovation might just spurt from infancy into adolescence. That maturation would finally bring millions of America's students the much-touted yet much-delayed benefits of the technology revolution in education.

Other Views
The Heritage Foundation points to the federal overreach in the development of national standards. A few states have not signed on and question the need to adopt national academic standards. Massachusetts has signed on; however, a local school board asked state legislators to revisit their decision and in response Republican State Rep. Todd M. Smola filed the legislation to keep Massachusetts' existing standards and its exam, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. The bill was co-sponsored by Democrats State Rep. Anne M. Gobi and State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer.

Neil McCluskey writes opinion, and commentary regarding education matters for the Cato Institute. In one such article, he is critical of the plan for national standards saying there is no evidence that having national standards will improve performance on international tests. He notes that Canada does not have national standards, but does very well on these tests. McCluskey questions whether national standards will have any impact on the economic outcomes. There is simply no evidence to support that notion, he says.

Richard Hess of the American Enterprise Institute believes that Florida is headed towards a "train wreck." In his regular blog, Hess comments on the centralized control over schools brought by Florida's recent reform legislation.

"SB 736 continues the disconcerting habit of imagining that policymakers in a state capital can "fix" schooling through complex mandates. Rather than create the tools and opportunities for districts and schools to do better, and then hold them accountable for doing so, well-intentioned legislators have voted to replace the old credential-and-paper micromanagement with mandates that rely way too heavily on test scores of uncertain reliability, validity, or import. By setting one-size-fits-all prescriptions that apply to every teacher in every school in the state, SB 736 manages to emulate best practices in the pay of encyclopedia and aluminum siding salesmen circa 1951."

Educational reformers believe that national standards and national assessments are needed so that the U.S. can compete in the global market, U.S. students are top performers on international tests, and a spurt in marketing technological innovation is created. Parents, taxpayers, and education policy watchers share misgivings about these federal and state level efforts. The common unity, irrespective of political preference and ideology, is concern about loss of local control, parental input, teaching to the test, costs, cost-benefit, and serious questions as to benefits to students.

UPDATE: The consortia is having difficulties meeting goals and expectations due to costs, timeline, and current technology impact.
Costs: Scott Norton, Louisiana’s assistant state superintendent for student and school performance, said states must be careful to get the tests right in the first shot. While jointly developing tests was intended to save states money, the grants do not include money for administering the new assessments long-term, and it will be harder to make adjustments to the tests once they are completed, because so many states will need to sign off on changes.
“The cost makes me the most anxious,” Mr. Norton said. “In today’s world if we have a [testing] cost problem, we own that: We can print on lighter paper or something. I’m not sure that holds up when we don’t own it alone. If we get into a test we can’t afford, we’re really left holding the bag.”
Technology: “But we’re betting on that, and it does worry me,” she said. “I think technology is not really fully embedded in the world of classrooms at this point.”
Even among classrooms with computer and Internet access, state officials agreed there are few brick-and-mortar schools that fully integrate technology into instruction, which may make it harder for students to adapt to taking tests via computer.
Time: “One of the biggest problems I’ve seen with state assessments and national assessments is they are typically not done on a budget and a timeline that allow people to go out and do the pilot testing and tryouts that you would like,” said Mark D. Reckase, a professor of measurement and quantitative methods at the University of Michigan. “I’ve looked at the timelines for this, and they are fast; there will be incredible pressure to just get it done.”

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