What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Rawls and Understanding Update on RedefinED

November 11, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I updated the “forced reincarnation with the chance to pick your state” thought experiment with NAEP 2013 data over at RedefinED.

Bonus Elvis C:

Many States Show Shameful Records in Holding Schools Accountable for the Progress of Special Needs Students

October 23, 2013

Special Ed inclusion

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The No Child Left Behind Act required student testing and reporting of data in return for continuing receipt of federal education dollars. The law however left granular details to the states, most of whom happily went about abusing them.

This chart is from a new study about the inclusion of special needs children in state testing regimes. As you can see from the third column, states held a glorious 35.4% of schools accountable for the academic performance of special needs children during the 2009-10 school year.  This ranged from a glorious 100% in Connecticut and Utah to a sickening 7% in Arizona.

I have heard through the grapevine that addressing this national scandal has been a major point of emphasis in Arne Duncan’s waiver process. As someone who views this process skeptically overall and suspects that it is creating a mess that will be difficult to unwind, let me say bully for Duncan on this score.

Those of us who have a preference for state and local control over K-12 policy need to recognize data like this and shamefully low cut scores as a major problem.  I’m not an enthusiast for Washington by any means. You won’t however be hearing me sing the glories of devolving K-12 power to Arizona as long as the Wall Street stock picking chicken can pass the AIMS test on a good day and 93% percent of the schools are not held accountable for the academic progress of special needs children.

AP Reporter Tom LoBianco Smeared Tony Bennett

September 10, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Just in case there is any lingering doubt out there about just what happened in the faux Indiana grading “scandal” the Sunshine State News very helpfully dispels it:

It was Tony Bennett’s successor in Indiana, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, formerly head of the teachers union in Washington Township schools, who turned over Bennett’s entire Outlook file — six months of emails, four years of calendar items, everything — to Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco, according to two of Ritz’s employees.

Ritz beat Bennett in the 2012 Indiana general election, becoming the first Democrat to win the job in 42 years. Bennett had been a favorite of former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Two employees in Ritz’s office spoke late Monday to Sunshine State News on condition of anonymity. “Glenda is Tony’s sworn enemy,” said one of the employees. “She approached Tom (LoBianco) and cooperated with the press right down the line.”

“I think the idea was to destroy what Tony stands for by tainting him with a little dirt,” the second employee added, saying what offended Ritz was his hard-driving agenda of charters, vouchers and high-stakes testing.

So you take someone’s entire Outlook file, sift through it, put out a few emails without any context whatsoever. Oh and you make up a story to go along with your out of context emails, and you don’t even bother to learn whether your story holds up to the most basic levels of scrutiny. Questions like “were the changes made reasonable given the circumstances and did they apply across the board?” don’t carry the slightest bit of relevance if your aim is to smear someone, which of course is precisely what Ritz and LoBianco accomplished.

I’m curious where have the rest of the Indiana press been during all of this. Why did it take a news outlet from Florida to reveal what ought to have been immediately suspected from the outset?

UPDATE: While I have a difference of opinion regarding “super-subgroup” and other details RiShawn Biddle’s analysis on this subject is a must read.

Tony Bennett Cleared in A-F grading controversy

September 9, 2013

(Guest Post from Matthew Ladner)

We now have a bipartisan analysis of what actually happened in Indiana grading-gate scandal. Rick Hess covers the subject here:

Flash-forward five weeks, and we finally have a resolution. The headline: Bennett exonerated. That’s the conclusion of a 56-page official report, requested by Indiana’s legislative leaders, and released Friday.  Authored by Democrat John Grew, executive director of state relations and policy analysis at Indiana University, and Republican Bill Sheldrake, president and founder of Indianapolis-based research firm Policy Analytics, the report finds that Bennett acted appropriately and fair-mindedly.  Grew and Sheldrake spent the past month or so investigating what happened and reviewing the data.  They concluded that Bennett and his staff made “fair” and “plausible” changes to Indiana’s school rating system before releasing 2012′s A-F grades.  They found that a lack of planning and capacity had forced Bennett and his team to make a series of on-the-fly “interpretations” and judgments, but that  Bennett and his staff “consistently” applied changes to Christel House and 180 other affected schools.  In short, nothing to see here.

Since Tony’s critics are on the whole fair-minded people with only a tiny minority suffering from some sort of derangement syndrome, I’m sure Tony’s inbox will be filling up with apologies. Some analysts who were willing to pontificate much with little in the way of facts just might be feeling a bit sheepish today as well. Pundits are extremely responsible after all and never just shuffle on to the next subject when they are way off base on something.

I have believed from the outset that no one from Diane Ravitch to Charles Murray sitting in Tony’s position would have told 16 schools without junior and senior students to simply eat getting zero points from graduation rates and AP completion categories. “Would you shut up already and get some juniors and seniors” is simply not a response that any half-way reasonable person was going to utter.  I have also believed from the outset that if the changes made applied to only one school then it was a scandal, but that if they evenly applied the changes across schools then this was a hatchet-job.

For the record it was a hatchet-job.

New York Releases Common Core Scores

August 7, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So purely in the interests of keeping your fighting skills sharp just in case some Common Core supporting crazy old man in a brown robe intrudes on the anti-Common Core cantina, note that a second state after Kentucky released Common Core test results. The results look eerily similar to what happened in Kentucky.

Those guys over there! They said something about cut scores!

Hat tip to Gotham Schools, here is what happened in Reading:


The math chart looks pretty similar. Proficiency rates, in short, crashed across New York and are now far closer to the proficiency rates of NAEP.

How did the old New York tests compare to NAEP? High middle and high in 4th and 8th grade reading respectively:


Note that neither Jay nor Greg have ever to my knowledge based any argument on the notion that Common Core standards were low or that the tests would be simple. Your humble blogger noted some years ago that even if the tests start out well, that he’d like to hear the plan for keeping them that way. I’ve heard realistic plans for states to pull out if (yes I heard you yell “WHEN!!!” all the way from the Raven Coffee Bar in Prescott Arizona-try the London Fog btw) the bad guys take them over but nothing yet on a broad strategy.

I’m, umm, not famous for paying close attention but my ears do remain open on that front.

Anyway the dummy down narrative however should be (at least for the time being) mothballed, as it is starting to look increasingly unsupportable by that pesky empirical reality stuff. Forewarned is forearmed, and you wouldn’t want to end up like, well, you know…

Choice First, Standards Second

August 1, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are now reporting that Tony Bennett is expected to resign.

As I’ve said all along, this is not about Tony Bennett. This is about whether educational standards should be formulated by politicians and their allies behind closed doors and then presented as the One Best Way to which all schools ought to conform.

Does that mean there can be no standards? Of course not! It means school choice must come first, standards second. Common Core and its allies are putting the cart before the horse.

Creating standards and accountability measures requires judgment. Judgment requires trust. What trust requires is a huge metaphysical subject we don’t have space to get into today, but let’s cut to the chase – people don’t trust the government to do this job by itself, behind closed doors and with no alternatives permitted, and they are right not to do so.

That is not because one particular person or one particular party is corrupt. It is written into nature of things, it is woven into the very fabric of the universe, that human social systems don’t work that way. Not even Denethor, the most virtuous man in Gondor, could be trusted to hold the ring without using it: “If you do not trust me to endure the test, you do not know me yet.” “‘Nonetheless I do not trust you…Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this.”

So if that’s not where standards come from, where do they come from? We obviously do have standards, for everything from technical specifications for smart phones to English grammar to the scientific method. Right now we don’t have standards for education. How do we get them?

We get them from the only place standards ever really emerge from: the open, free interaction of civil society, where people are allowed to try whatever makes sense to them and see what works.

Take the scientific method as an example. The early pioneers of modern science – Descartes and Bacon and that crowd – went down all kinds of ridiculous blind alleys. They tried things we would never bother with today. They set down rules for what you’re not allowed to do in science that we would now laugh at. Poor Bacon died from a pneumonia he caught while pursuing a cockamamie experiment, invented on the spur of the moment while travelling during the winter, to test the efficiency of snow as an agent for preserving meat.

So how did we get from there to here? Did the Royal Society convene the smartest smarties in the land and impose order on this chaos? No, we got here by giving scientists the freedom to try what made sense to them and seeing what worked.

They had endless debates. They disagreed about how to do science, about why they did science, about what science could and could not do. The debates were not a part of the chaos, the debates were the method by which order was eventually imposed on the chaos.

That’s what we need today. Instead of cooking up a One Best Way and then demonizing anyone who dissents, we need a forthright admission that we don’t have a consensus about what works, and to give people not only the freedom to experiment, but a social legitimization of their experimentation. Then we can have some really heated debates where we argue with each other over what works. This, and only this, can ultimately create consensus about what works.

I am not saying that government and political power play no role. I am saying government should play its proper role – as a servant of our civilization, not its master. I even think government has more of a job to do than simply forbidding force and fraud. That is why I favor school choice policies on their own merits, not merely as a stepping stone to “the separation of school and state,” as my libertarian friends would prefer.

A thriving marketplace of diverse options, where people are not only empowered to choose but also respected and honored for making their own choices, is the only path to standards. It is the only thing that can make standards legitimate and widely accepted. Of course this means giving up on the desire to impose them on everyone by force, but then, force is wrong and it doesn’t work anyway.

As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system. But it cannot even do that very effectively in the current environment, as we are seeing. A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance. Those standards could then be imposed on the government system much more effectively than at present.

People who think standards are everything must choose – is it your goal to have the law tell everyone they must use your standards, and have everyone ignore the law; or to get everyone actually using some standards, even if they’re not yours? You can’t have both.

Correct Answers Are So Passé

July 8, 2013

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

In a recent interview, Douglas McCollum, senior vice president and general manager of education publishing company Pearson was asked, “What’s wrong with the way that we do K-12 assessment now?” His response:

We are going from the world of No Child Left Behind, where all of the assessments were objective, multiple-choice items, very cut-and- dry. They really don’t demand as much from students. [They're] not really demanding that you be able to write, demonstrate your thinking skills, and so forth.

You know, I’ve often said to myself, “The problem with these tests is that their all too objective. What we need is a little subjectivity.” It seems I’m not alone. When asked what testing will look like in five years, McCollum responded:

It’s really all about being able to demonstrate your process of thinking. It’s about types of assessments that don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers, but that ask that students be able to defend a position. We’re moving more towards performance tasks, higher-order thinking, synthesis, comparisons.

I too have often thought that getting the right answer was so passé. After all, everyone knows that having the correct thinking is where it’s at. Although, what happens if I have the right answer with the wrong thinking?



James Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute

TUDA and School Grading

May 2, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to discuss A-F school grading with a thoughtful skeptic yesterday. Sadly my doubting Thomas remained a skeptic at the end of our discussion.  I showed him data about the trend for improving grades in Florida, and he produced data to show improving fuzzy labels from his state. I told him that Florida’s progress is confirmed by improving NAEP data, whereas his state has flatlined on NAEP over the last decade despite improved state scores. He wasn’t buying it.

My failure to persuade however got me to thinking about the Trial Urban District Assessment NAEP data. I ran the proficiency numbers for free and reduced lunch eligible students in all the districts and found the following for 4th grade reading:

TUDA 4thNote that the top 3 performers all operate under an A-F school grading system Hillsborough (Tampa), Miami-Dade and New York City (NYC has operated under A-F longer than any non-Florida district). Obviously there are plenty of other factors at play than school grading, but note that a poor child in Tampa is almost six times more likely to be reading at a proficient level than a poor child in Detroit.

So I decided to run the numbers for 8th grade reading, and found the same basic result, with the same top 3 districts, just in a slightly different order. Top performers NYC and Miami have 8th grade students more than three times more likely to read proficiently than students in the lowest performer (again Detroit).

TUDA 8th

Why do the A-F districts top the list? A 2007 study by the Urban Institute is quite suggestive:

We analyze the impact of the accountability system on Florida’s students and schools using a three-part analysis. First, we estimate the effect of the accountability system and the threat of becoming voucher eligible on student test score performance, both in the short-run and in the longer term. Second, we study the effects of the reform on school policies and practices. Finally, we attempt to determine if the policies appear to affect student achievement or explain the change in student performance. We find that student achievement significantly increased in elementary schools that received an “F” grade by between 6 to 14 percent of a standard deviation in math and between 6 to 10 percent of a standard deviation in reading in the first year. Three years later the impacts persist.

Importantly, we also detect specific school policy changes implemented by the schools that explain part of these increases. Specifically, when faced with increased accountability pressure, schools appear to focus on low-performing students, lengthen the amount of time devoted to instruction, adopt different ways of organizing the day and learning environment of the students and teachers, increase resources available to teachers, and decrease principal control. These, combined with other policies, explain more than 15 percent of the test scores gains of students in reading and over 38 percent of the test scores gains of students in math, depending on the model specification. As such we find evidence that schools respond to accountability pressure in educationally meaningful ways.

So if the powers that be mandated that you were going to come back as an urban poor child, would you want to take your chances in Miami Dade or Dallas or Detroit?

Me too- and school grading is a part of the reason why.


A Once Proud People Begin a Fight Against Hopelessness

April 30, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a fantastic story on their front page of this Sunday’s edition on Navajo schools in Arizona and the efforts underway to turn them around. The story shows how school grading, digital learning and immigration reform can help people who have taken a courageous decision to help themselves.

Background: schools located on the reservations in Arizona face enormous challenges and have truly abysmal test scores to show for it. Isolation, poverty and rampant alcoholism probably constitute the top three problems, though not necessarily in that order. Arizona has the lowest Native American scores on NAEP and they are not only abysmal they have been declining.

In K-12 policy discussions in Phoenix, the subject of “the Res” comes up frequently. Often people will claim that you can’t do this, that or the other thing because of “the Res.” Problems as deep as those caused in large part by a century of having the federal government “take care” of you don’t lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.

It is a long article that focuses on the personal story of Harold Begay, the Navajo Superintendent who returned to run Tuba City school district determined to turn things around. Here are the policy related parts of the story:

When the State Department of Education started assigning letter grades two years ago, Tuba City High School got a D.

It could fall to the bottom or head higher. Begay chose to go higher.When he was named superintendent, he pledged that the district would achieve the top letter grade of A.

Skip ahead….

Last summer, Tuba City High School’s grade improved from a D to a B. In addition to a better performance on standardized tests, the school showed more improvement than other low-performing schools. Navarre was honored at the state Department of Education’s office in Phoenix.

People are starting to believe what Begay told them two years ago”‘We’re going to become an ‘A’ district’” 

As a card-carrying member of the K-12 policy discussion going on in Arizona’s capital, let me be the first to confess that not me nor anyone else down in Phoenix could have ever dreamed up the policy solutions that Begay implemented in Tuba City. That is as it should be – A-F school grading was intended to put a focus on problems and call them by their proper names. Solutions come as a decentralized process.

Most of the conversations I have heard about “Res schools” have involved a sad air of resignation. The article mentions that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who carried the A-F bill in the Arizona Senate and implemented it as Superintendent, became the first person in his position in twenty years to visit schools on the reservation. I don’t know whether that is accurate or not, but I think it is fair to say that if anyone has had a serious plan about what to do about reservation schools in Phoenix it has been well concealed for a very long time.

Read the article however and you’ll the solutions that Superintendent Begay developed on his own: a new emphasis on Navajo culture, hiring teachers from the Philipines and use of a digital learning platform know as Beyond Textbooks. Beyond Textbooks is a product developed by the incredibly impressive Vail Arizona school district, located at the opposite end of Arizona from Tuba City in southern Arizona.

Recruiting teachers to extremely isolated and troubled areas is a real challenge. Tuba City is 75 miles north of Flagstaff out in the middle of a very desolate nowhere. If you want a small vignette into the idiocy of our immigration laws, note that Begay is losing half of his Filipino teachers to expiring visas. We ought to be throwing these teachers a ticker-tape parade, but instead we’ve decided to boot them out of the country.

By the way, don’t hold your breath waiting for American nativists to rush to Tuba City to provide the instruction these children need.  They are ummm busy, or something. But I digress.

Tuba City High Schools jump from a D to a B grade was possible because of the emphasis on student learning gains. Twenty-five percent of a school’s grade comes from the gains of the overall student body, and another 25% from the gains of the lowest performing quartile from the previous test. If you get gains your grade gets moving. Arizona will need to nudge up the grading standards in the future but for now the system just may be working as intended by meeting the worst schools where they are at the moment.

Tuba City schools face many challenges and have a long, long way to go, but don’t make the mistake of betting against them- they are back in the fight.

Extremism in Defense of Mediocrity is Quite a Vice

January 31, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Michelle Malkin recently wrote columns of an alarmed tone warning of the dangers of the Common Core. Here is a taste:

Under President Obama, these top-down mal-formers — empowered by Washington education bureaucrats and backed by misguided liberal philanthropists led by billionaire Bill Gates — are now presiding over a radical makeover of your children’s school curriculum. It’s being done in the name of federal “Common Core” standards that do anything but set the achievement bar high.

Substitute the word “conservative” for “liberal” and the paragraph reads like Diane Ravitch. Ms. Malkin proceeds to repeat various anti-Common Core assertions as facts-but are they facts? Having read that last bit about “standards that do anything but set the achievement bar high” I decided to put it to a straightforward empirical test.

Kentucky was the earliest adopter of Common Core in 2012, and folks from the Department of Education sent some before and after statistics regarding 4th grade reading and math proficiency. I decided to compare them to NAEP, first 2011 KY state test and 2011 NAEP for 4th Grade Reading and Math. NAEP has four achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced. Kentucky also has four achievement levels: Novice, Apprentice, Proficient and Distinguished. The first figure compares “Proficient or Better” on both NAEP and the state test in 2011:

KY CC 1As you can see, Kentucky’s definition of “Proficient” was far more lax than that of NAEP. In the Spring of 2012 however they became the first state to give a Common Core exam. How did the 2012 state results compare to the 2011 NAEP?

KY CC 2Kentucky’s figures are strongly suggestive that the new test is a good deal more rigorous than the old one- it tracks much closer to NAEP than the previous test. While it is possible that Kentucky had item exposure that explains some of the difference, but let’s just say there is an awful lot of difference to explain. We would expect somewhat lower scores with a new test, but if the new test were some dummied down terror…

There will also still be honest differences of opinion over standards independent of the rigor of the tests. Moreover, just because it is an obnoxious pet-peeve of mine, it is worth noting that starting out more rigorous doesn’t guarantee that they will stay that way…

A formal study could definitively establish the rigor of the new Kentucky test definitely vis-a-vis NAEP, but it is well worth considering where KY’s old test ranked in such a study by NCES. Short answer: Kentucky’s old standards were high-middle when compared to those of other states. Ergo we can infer that the proficiency standard on the KYCC test is far closer to those of NAEP than a large majority of current state exams.

There is room for honest debate regarding Common Core as a sustainable reform strategy, but we should have that debate rather than the present one.

UPDATE: Reader Richard Innes detected an error in the NAEP proficiency rates in the first version of this post. I made the mistake of looking at the cumulative rather than the discrete achievement levels and then treating the cumulative as discrete-thus double counting the NAEP advanced. If you have any idea of what I am talking about give yourself a NAEP Nerd Gold Star. Getting instant expert feedback is one of the best things about blogging, and I have updated the charts to correct the error.

In terms of substance, both sets of KY tests were further apart from NAEP proficiency standards, but the new ones are still far closer than the old ones.



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