Posts published in February, 2010

New Vision For k12 College Oriented Student Assessments

A group of policymakers and educators gathered to build support for a new vision of educational assessment that is more like good instruction itself. A panel of experts outlined a comprehensive system that includes summative and formative tests of higher-order thinking skills. They urged a move toward the development of deeper, more analytical questions and projects that ask students to solve and discuss complex problems. The portrait of assessment was fleshed out in a paper that draws on assessment practices in the United States and abroad

Middle Grades Are Crucial For A Pathway To College Success

Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Lessons from California

By Trish Williams and Michael Kirst

As expectations for a more highly educated American citizenry rise, what happens in the middle grades matters more now than ever. The middle grades are the last best chance to identify students at risk of academic failure and get them back on track in time to succeed in high school. Moreover, success in key subjects in the middle grades is a necessary prerequisite to being able to enter high school academically prepared for a college and career ready path.

In recent years, educators and policymakers have debated about what should be done to improve performance in the middle grades. Absent solid research evidence about what works, school districts have reshuffled grade configurations (for example, extending elementary school to K-8, or beginning middle school in grade 5), bolstered their focus on “academic rigor,” and worked to ensure that their 11- to14-year old students are engaged in school while they go through the turbulence of puberty. Educators have argued for these and other approaches – all based on theory and philosophy because there has been little student outcomes based research available.

That’s why a team of researchers at EdSource and Stanford University decided to look into the black box of middle school performance to systematically analyze what district and school policies and practices are linked to higher student performance. With funding from Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix and the former president of the California State Board of Education, we spent 18 months conducting the most extensive study ever of middle grades. The work included extensive surveys of nearly 4,000 California teachers, principals, and superintendents about a wide range of middle grades practices. To see what higher-performing schools did, we then analyzed the responses against school-level 2009 student outcomes on standards-based state tests in English Language Arts and Math, controlling for student background.

Our findings were surprising in their consistency. What is startling was how absolutely coherent our findings were, no matter which analysis we ran. Districts and schools with practices that reflect an intense focus on improving middle-grade student outcomes are higher performing, whether they are serving primarily low-income students or primarily middle-income students.

In higher-performing middle grades schools, an intense focus on improving academic outcomes is reflected in two ways. The schools are oriented to the future and take every opportunity and an all-hands-on-deck approach to get all students on track to succeed in high school and prepare for college. In addition, the higher performing schools place a high priority on ensuring every student does well on the state’s standards-based exams in mathematics and English Language Arts. Doing well on these tests helps ensure the students can easily pass the state’s high school exit exam, and it also prepares them to begin a college-prep curriculum as they enter high school.

To accomplish an intense focus on improving student outcomes, higher-performing schools establish a shared school-wide culture with the following strategies as drivers:

1) Set measurable goals for improving student scores on standards-based tests for all students, at all levels, in every grade and subject;

2)  Evaluate superintendents, principals, and teachers based, in part, on student outcomes; and

3) Communicate to students and their families that they too are responsible for student learning and outcomes by attending class, turning in homework, trying hard, and asking for help.

The research shows clearly that higher-performing districts and schools commit to this priority by including student outcomes in the evaluations and asking families and students to accept their share of the responsibility. The district role is to set the standard and provide the resources; the principal role is to drive the focus on student outcomes and to and manage and orchestrate the school improvement process; the teacher role is to improve their own practice but to work collectively together to identify students needing help and to get them the intervention they need.

With a focus on the state’s academic standards, the district and the school ensure curriculum and instruction is tightly aligned with those standards, focus on diagnostic and benchmark assessments aligned with the standards, and use their common planning time to review student progress and either adapt instruction or develop interventions. This is an example of “what gets measured gets done.” At the same time, these higher-performing schools report that the school environment is safe and orderly and that a high proportion of students participate in a wide variety of electives and extra curricular activities.

Higher-performing middle grades schools implement comprehensive and targeted programs — both required and voluntary to intervene with students who are two or more years behind grade level, English Learners, and students at risk of failure in the current year. They also pro-actively review the cumulative folders (test scores, course grades, attendance reports, and behavior reports) of every entering student, flagging those with warning signs, talking with the elementary teachers, and setting up plans to get struggling students back on track.

And while new federal policy initiatives are fueling a vigorous national debate about how best to evaluate teachers in ways that reflect student performance, this study suggests there should be a similar debate about education leadership. For example, principals and superintendents in higher-performing middle grades schools serving both lower- and middle-income students reported that improvements in student outcomes were factored into their evaluations. And in higher-performing schools that served primarily low-income students, teachers reported that improving student outcomes was part of their evaluations as well.

What our research did not show, however, was that grade configuration and internal organization of instruction had much impact on improving student outcomes. Of the 303 schools we studied, half were grades 5-8, one-quarter were grades K-8, and one-quarter were organized in grades 7-8. There was no consistent and clear association between higher student performance and any one of these grade configurations. Similarly, our study did not confirm that any particular school organization of instruction was superior to another in its association with improved student outcomes.  There may be other good reasons for a district to choose a particular grade configuration or for a school to choose a particular way to organize its teaching and instruction – but improvements in student outcomes is not one of them

We can improve student outcomes in low-performing middle grades schools, whether they are in middle- or low-income communities. With strong leadership, the effective practices found in our study can be implemented by any middle grades school, regardless of the grade configuration or the organization of teaching and instruction.

Trish Williams is executive director of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Ed Source and Michael Kirst is professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. Williams served as project director and Kirst was principal investigator of the study, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better.

Large Scale New Study Of Middle Grades Effectiveness Includes College Readiness

Edsource in Mountain View Ca. released this report today.This report, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better, is based on surveys from 303 principals, 3,752 English language arts (ELA) and math teachers in grades 6-8, and 157 superintendents in California. Educator responses were analyzed against spring 2009 scores on California’s standards-based tests in ELA and math in grades 6, 7, and 8, which were taken by close to 204,000 students.

The study was designed to identify the practices and policies that differentiate higher- from lower-performing middle grades schools that serve similar student populations.

The major contribution of this study is the identification of numerous, actionable practices that are leading to gains in middle grades student outcomes.

But the single most important overarching finding was in how these higher-performing schools create a shared, school-wide intense focus on the improvement of student outcomes:

  • They set measurable goals on standards-based tests and benchmark tests across all proficiency levels, grades, and subjects;
  • Their school mission is “future oriented,” with curricula and instruction designed to prepare students to succeed in a rigorous high school curriculum;
  • They included improvement of student outcomes in evaluations of the superintendent, the principal, and the teachers; and
  • They communicate to parents and students their responsibility as well for student learning, including parent contracts, turning in homework, attending class, and asking for help when needed.
This large-scale study documents the role of the superintendent, principal, and teachers in aligning a standards-based curriculum and instruction, the extensive use of student assessment data to improve instruction and practice, and a wide array of required and voluntary intervention strategies to get struggling students on track.

If it’s important to have more students graduate high school college-ready, then it’s time to give middle grades educators and their students more attention and support.

To learn more:
The Narrative Summary Report, Full Research Report, Technical Appendices, and other materials are all available free on our website at

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College Policies And Practices Can Reduce Student Loan Defaults

Washington D.C.—Colleges across the nation are struggling to confront a growing problem in higher education: student debt. As more students borrow more money than ever before, and recent graduates enter the worst job market in a generation, students are increasingly unable to pay back their loans.

In a new Education Sector report, Lowering Student Loan Default Rates: What One Consortium of Historically Black Institutions Did to Succeed, co-authors Erin Dillon and Robin V. Smiles analyze why students default on their student loans and find that institutions play a significant role in helping students avoid default.

The authors discuss how a small group of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Texas successfully lowered their “cohort default rates,” or CDRs. CDRs are calculated annually for every college and university in the country that participates in the student aid program, and colleges with high CDRs risk losing eligibility for federal student aid. These minority-serving institutions are a good source of ideas for better serving students at risk of defaulting. They can also serve as models of best practice for colleges and universities across the country.

The report provides new statistical analysis of CDRs that also emphasizes that institutions play a role in reducing default. Dillon and Smiles examine the widespread argument that an institution’s CDR has more to do with the students it enrolls than its practices. This new analysis shows that while student demographics are a significant predictor of an institution’s CDR, they are not the sole predictor, or even the primary one. Institutional characteristics, or in some cases, unmeasured factors, are important to predicting whether an institution has a high or low default rate and potentially whether it runs afoul of federal sanctions.

“The experience of the Texas HBCUs, along with this new statistical analysis, proves that institutions play a significant role in making sure their students do not default. We must hold schools accountable for keeping rates low,” say Dillon and Smiles.

Read Lowering Student Loan Default Rates: What One Consortium of Historically Black Institutions Did to Succeed.

Most Useful Book Ever On College Readiness

I just received an advance copy of  College and Career Ready by David Conley, Jossey Bass , 2010. This is the most comprehensive and in depth book ever on the subject. It is very specific in terms of definition, concepts, and practical applications. It contains the latest research and is very comprehensive. The secondary school cases are very useful. It is truly one stop shopping in this domain.

Link To Report On Public Discontent With College Spending

Here is the link to report that is covered in post behind the one below.

Most Americans believe that colleges operate like businesses, concerned more with their bottom line than with the educational experience of students, according to a new study. Most Americans believe that colleges could admit a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices, and that colleges could spend less and maintain a high quality of education. And a growing share of Americans believes that college is essential to success, but a dwindling share thinks college is available to the vast majority of qualified, motivated students

More Latinos Go Farther Away To Attend College

Since 1975, the share of Latino freshmen at four-year colleges who choose schools more than 50 miles from home has risen to nearly 59% from about 46%, and the share who attend such colleges within 10 miles of home dropped to 15% from 30%, according to a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. The researchers say the change is partly the result of growth of the Latino middle class and a rising educational confidence among children and grandchildren of immigrants. In addition, many colleges are stepping up to recruit and offer financial aid to college-age Latinos in California, Texas and Florida. (Los Angeles Times, 02/15/10)

Public Skeptical About How Colleges Spend Their Money

  A new national poll released by the National Center For Public Policy And Higher Education reveals that over half of the respondents thought colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality education. Sixty percent thought colleges care more about their bottom line than they do about educating students.

In 2000 31% of Americans said college is necessary, but now 55% do. However, only 28% believe most qualified students get to attend college. This poll suggests colleges need to be more transparent about how they spend money, and if it is going to frills like fancy student centers. For more on spending patterns see The Delta Project

Reader Feedback on Whether ACT or SAT Are Valid Measures For College Selection

In recent post I cited advice from Montgomery County Md. Schools  where the school system recommended certain cut points on ACT or SAT as a guide for college admission at selective institutions. Montgomery County is trying to help students understand what the colleges are looking for on SAT/ ACT , but no one really knows what the right cut scores are. Most  colleges do not use a cut score and consider many factors for admissions. The private colleges are not transparent ,and will take students with low scores in order to fill their classes ,or enroll students with particular talents they want.  Public colleges in many states give some guidance on desired scores , but it is impossible to monitor whether these designated scores are not pushed aside for various desired students.

 In my experience most students and parents think there is a cut score and there is not. Parents and students think test scores are more important than they really are for admission. But the whole issue of what minimum test score is needed , or gurantees admission, remains a mystery story to me.

Pell Grants Fuel Growth Of For-Profit Colleges

For-Profit Colleges are growing rapidly and now serve 6% of all undergraduates. But these colleges include about 20% of all those students receiving federal Pell grants for low income students. Pell grant recipients make up about 50% of enrollment at proprietary institutions, a larger share than at other types of colleges. The University of Phoenix received 657 million dollars in Pell grant revenue in 2008-2009.  Kaplan College got 202 million. (Source, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8,2010 page A4).

These colleges are flexible on when and how students can enroll. Some spend up to a third of the tuition received to recruit students. For- profit student persistence and completion rates vary, but tend to be in the higher ranges for broad access colleges. Student recruitment costs are high , so retention is essential for expanding profits.