#Education Week in Review — April 21, 2014

Posted: April 21, 2014

Guest post by Matt Smith

The Achievement Gap

Camp  Howe

The Education Week in Review recaps the national education conversation from the past week. This week we begin with the achievement gap.

The achievement gap is easy to define, but its causes are complex and solutions have proven elusive. The news below indicates the beginning of collective action.

Easy to Define. The achievement gap is easy to define: similar groups of students showing dissimilar levels of academic achievement.

The Data. It’s more accurate to call them achievement “gaps” because the data reveal numerous gaps, not just one between ethnic groups.

The data show that there is, in fact, a gap in achievement between whites and minorities. For example, take the percentage of 4th graders reading below grade level: white students, 58%, Hispanic students, 82%, black students, 86%. We clearly see an achievement gap there: similar groups showing dissimilar levels of achievement.

Another example: low-income students score 100 points lower on the SATs than their higher-income counterparts.

A Troubling Indicator. A prominent foundation, one that recognizes high-performing urban schools with its annual Broad (rhymes with road) Prize for Urban Education, announced 2 finalists this year, not its usual 4–5. The foundation found only two schools in the country worthy of recognition  —  a troubling indicator.

Calls for Action. Former President Bush (44) called the achievement gap “a national scandal.” Rev. Al Sharpton called it the “civil rights issue of our day.”

Part of the problem with the achievement gap: even though it’s easy to define, its causes are complex. In contrast to much of the American public, school officials comprehend the complexity and are asking for help, claiming they cannot solve the problem on their own.

New Research on Causes. Science supports their claims. Researchers at Penn, studying Philadelphia 3rd graders, found three trends among low-achieving schools: homelessness, child abuse, and mothers who did not finish high school.

If the Penn research is solid, those who lay the responsibility at the feet of teachers and administrators seem badly misinformed.

What do African-Americans think the causes are? In a Kellogg Foundation-Ebony magazine survey, respondents reported “lack of parental involvement” as the number one cause.

Obama’s Action. President Obama apparently concurs with “lack of parental involvement” as a cause because last month he announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” an effort to connect boys and men of color to mentors and support networks ($200 million over five years).

Already Obama has created WHIEEAA, the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans, to uncover effective methods for closing the achievement gap, and to develop “a national network” for sharing best practices. WHIEEAA is on a six-month summit tour to raise awareness, this month stopping at Jackson State University.

The President Is Not Alone. Obama is not alone in taking action to close the achievement gap. Other organizations are on board.

Foundations are stepping up: ten of them are partnering with the president on “My Brother’s Keeper.”

The Erikson Institute, a leading child development graduate school in Chicago, created the Task Force on Reducing the Achievement Gap. Erikson will use the findings to advise the state of Illinois.

And the Los Angeles public school system has made an $837 million commitment  —  representing 12% of its budget  —  to address the needs of students who are low-income, English-language learners, and in foster care.

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts

Standardized Testing and Alternative Assessments

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

Last week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio “reduced the role of standardized exams” in evaluating students, a marked departure from his data-loving predecessor. This is a sign of the times.

Resistance to standardized testing has exploded recently, an indication that the “testing pendulum” is set to swing back to the left (if you think No Child Left Behind was the pendulum swinging to the right).

Shifting Gears. Education reform advocates, possibly caught off-guard by how quickly the movement has gained traction, shifted gears this week to a discussion of reform possibilities.

Alternative Assessments. A teacher in California co-designs teaching rubrics with her students. She also incorporates peer assessments into her classroom.

Idaho’s Task Force for Improving Education discusses mastery-based education, where students advance only after achieving full mastery of a subject  —  interesting, although it leaves me with questions.

The Hewlett Foundation calls for more attention to deeper learning, where students take what they’ve learned (e.g., physics) and then apply it to group projects (e.g., balsa wood bridges). These group projects reinforce academics but also develop skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration.

Outcomes Instead of Test Scores. For evaluating districts, one writer sees an “emerging consensus” on using outcomes instead of test scores. Examples of outcomes are high school graduation rates, college matriculation rates, and college graduation rates. Tracking outcomes may be more difficult than grading tests but may also prove more valuable.

Photo credit: “Bill de Blasio” by Kevin Case licensed under CC Attribution 2.0.

SAT’s Major Redirection

In March, the College Board announced upcoming revisions to its flagship product, the SAT.

Recently the College Board released details and sample questions.

Not Just about Vocab. The New York Times latched on to the elimination of obscure vocabulary words. The College Board is shifting away from memorization, but these revisions are not just about vocab.

Instead the revisions are being billed as a “major redirection.” For example, the new SAT will require students to demonstrate extended problem-solving skills and to explain reasoning behind answers.

Aligning with CCSS. Interestingly, the CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, was a key architect of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This suggests that the College Board will further align SAT with the new federal standards.

Two Impacts. The College Board says its changes will have two impacts. First it will improve predictability. Fundamentally, the SAT was designed to match students with appropriate institutions. The SAT is supposed to inform families, high schools, and college admission officers so they all can make better matches.

The second impact is on pinpointing where students are falling behind. When I read “pinpointing,” I interpreted it as a reference to district achievement (as opposed to student achievement) and benchmarking district achievement across the state or country. If true, it’s possible this is a strategic move against testing companies like Harcourt and Pearson, which administer and score state standardized tests.

Two Critics. The SAT has big critics, of course. Two of them hit hard this week. First was John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review, the test prep company. He calls the SAT a “scam” (that surprised me) explaining how he and his partner “cracked the test” in the 1980s. Decrying compensation and profits at the College Board and ACT Inc. (parent company of the ACT), two 501(c)(3) organizations, Katzman calls for the creation of “a new organization to oversee college admissions testing.” We’ll see where that goes.

The second heavy hitter of the week was Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. In a piece provocatively titled, “Part Hoax, Part Fraud,” Botstein insists that the College Board is just reacting to SAT’s loss of market share to ACT, its rival.

Many articles stated that the SAT is losing market share to the ACT but I could not find recent data to back up the claims.

More Like ACT. Botstein’s claim cannot be dismissed out of hand. SAT’s new format does look more like ACT in three ways: 45 minutes shorter, no penalty for wrong answers, and essay optional.

Vociferous Defense. The best article of the week was on Salon: a defense of the SAT (4,000 likes, 700 comments, 500 tweets). Two college professors, apparently without conflicts of interest, mounted a vociferous argument in a heavily-linked article. They champion the testing of general intelligence (IQ). They insist that SAT levels the playing field, especially for high-achieving students who are disadvantaged. You will probably find this article helpful regardless of your leaning.

A Stanford student calls the revisions an “excellent first step” and recounts her history with the SAT.

The admissions director at Duke is taking a wait-and-see approach. Interestingly, college admissions officers were not often quoted in the articles we found.

The SAT Quiz. Finally, if you’re interested in finding out how you would do on the new test, the Washington Post has sample questions in a quiz.

Photo credit: “Sharpened Pencil” by Infratec licensed under Wikipedia Commons public domain

There you have it: a recap of the national conversation from last week.

Matthew Smith is a director at Longacre, a summer camp. Longacre uses the summer to prepare ambitious teenagers for long term success. Join Matt on Google+ for education conversation.