Posts published in April, 2013

USA Secondary School Tests Lag Behind Leading Nations

Marc Tucker

   Some consumers, evidently, have had enough. Parents in some schools are refusing to send their children to mandated testing sessions, and we have reports of teachers refusing to proctor them. What are we to make of this?

I can think of no high-performing country we have studied in which we have seen this kind of resistance to the development of tests that we are now seeing in the United States.  Why here, and now and what does it mean?
The answer lies in the history of testing in the United States, and, especially recently, how we have used our tests.

Though almost all the top-performing countries have tests that match their standards (Finland being the exception), they are unlike the typical American tests in important ways.  First, they are designed to match the curriculum, to find out whether and to what degree students have mastered the curriculum the teacher has been teaching.  American tests, for many years, have been designed to be curriculum neutral, meaning unrelated to the curriculum.  So American teachers have seen the basic skills tests they are familiar with as their enemy, testing things that they did not necessarily teach, and often don’t believe should be taught.  The Common Core State Standards were developed, in part, to fix this alignment problem, but the standards are not yet implemented and there is no official curriculum available to teachers that is based on the standards and on which the tests themselves are based, as there are in the top-performing countries.  So it will not be easy to overcome an image of testing among teachers that is based on a professional lifetime of experience.

Second, American tests have been designed to be, first and foremost, cheap.  A testing director for one of America’s biggest cities once told me, with great pride, that his city had never spent more then $1 per test per student per year and never would.  They cost as little as they do because of the multiple-choice, computer scored method of test construction that is so prevalent.  American teachers figured out a long time ago that these tests are great at testing the rudiments of the basic skills and not very good at testing complex skills, deep understanding, critical thinking or creativity, the things teachers want most to teach, another reason for them to detest the typical test.  In the top-performing countries, there is very little use of multiple-choice, computer-based testing.  Most tests are essay-based.  They are scored by teachers trained to score them and teachers generally feel that these examinations are testing the things they think really matter.

Third, the frequency of testing is very different in the United States from our top competitors.  They typically do major statewide or nationwide testing only two or three times in a student’s whole school career, usually just at the end of lower secondary school (tenth grade) and again at the end of high school.  Most of the other testing they do at the statewide or national levels is done to monitor the performance of the system and is done by sampling a few students in a few schools.  The testing program mandated by No Child Left Behind—calling for six grades of testing, including five consecutive grades in elementary and middle school, an enormous testing burden—has no counterpart in the top-performing countries.

Not one of the top-performing countries has an accountability system remotely like that of No Child Left Behind.  No one in those countries is insisting, as the U.S. Department of Education does in its Race to the Top Program, that student scores on mandated tests be used as a major—perhaps the single most important—input into personnel decisions made about teachers.

So American teachers’ experience of testing is very different from that of their counterparts in the top-performing  countries.  They see cheap tests, unrelated to what they teach and incapable of measuring the things they really care about, being used to determine their fate and that of their students.  What is ironic about this is that, because these other countries do much less accountability testing than we do, they can afford to spend much more on the tests they do use, and so are getting much better tests at costs that are probably no greater than what we are spending for our cheap tests.

We will have to wait and see what kind of tests will be produced by the two state testing consortia.  It is rumored that they have been struggling to produce high quality tests, because they, too, are working in an environment in which schools and legislatures are not used to paying very much for good tests.  We have to hope that the developers of these new tests will not fall short of the ambitions their designers had for them.  If they end up looking more like the tests teachers are familiar with than the examinations the top-performing countries use, then millions of American teachers may rebel.  The Congress could, of course, abandon the nation’s unwise commitment to grade-by-grade testing, which would enable this country to produce and administer tests and examinations as good as any in the world, and, at the same time, greatly reduce the testing burden on our schools.  But that would mean that it would also have to abandon the current approach to school and teacher accountability in favor perhaps of accountability systems of the sort used by the top performers, but I have not yet detected any interest in doing so.

The fate of the Common Core State Standards may well depend on what this country does about testing and accountability.  Maybe we should be listening to the sounds of nascent rebellion a little more closely.                                                 



High School Graduation Standards Based On Univeristy Entrance Requirements Might Backfire

More California districts are requiring teens to take a course load that exceeds the state’s minimum requirements — the same courses required for admission to the University of California — to graduate from high school. A new report says these ambitious requirements could backfire by making graduation too difficult for some students, and cause them to drop out or fail to earn diplomas after four years. (San Jose Mercury News, 04/25/13)

Community College Student Demand For Online Courses Questioned

Student Demand for Online Courses May Not be as Strong as Colleges Think, New Study Finds

Most community colleges believe that student demand for fully online courses is outpacing supply, but a new study suggests that colleges may be overestimating students’ desire for more online learning, particularly in certain subjects.

The study, from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, interviewed dozens of students who had taken at least one online course at two community colleges. Few students—at these colleges and nationally—take all their classes online: most maintain a mix-and-match of online and face-to-face courses. The researchers set out to understand whether students preferred this strategy, or if they were inhibited from taking more online courses because of limited availability.

The study found that while students appreciated the flexibility of online learning, most would not want to take all their classes online. Students indicated they valued the more intimate connection with teachers and fellow students offered in traditional classrooms.

Students had very clear reasons for choosing to take courses online or face-to-face. They reported that they only took courses online if they felt they could learn the material on their own: If they expected a course to be difficult, or “really wanted to learn something,” they preferred face-to-face courses. Students often equated “difficult” with science and math courses, and many mentioned a reluctance to take these subjects online. 

Students indicated a strong preference for a traditional classroom when taking courses they considered interesting or important, particularly those in their major. They also felt that certain subjects, such as languages, public speaking and counseling, were particularly unsuited to the online setting. 

The study suggests that overall, many students feel they don’t learn course material as well online, and that this deficit is due to reduced teacher explanation and interaction in online courses.  Without substantial improvements in online teacher-student interaction, it is likely that students will continue to prefer face-to-face courses in subjects they perceive as more challenging or incompatible with the online format.

Community college administrators are working within constrained budgets and, as the study’s author argues, these results suggest that an expansion of online courses may not benefit students if it requires a concomitant decrease in face-to-face offerings. While students appear to welcome the option of taking courses online, they may feel less well-served if online classes are offered as a replacement to traditional courses.

For more information, and to read the complete study, please visit

Vague Student Goals Hinder Community College Completion

2 Groups Describe Efforts to Push More Community-College Students Toward Degree Completion
Students who enter community colleges with vague goals and shaky academic backgrounds often end up in remedial courses or on “a meandering path through an overwhelming number of course options,” according to Completion by Design and Jobs for the Future. At a meeting, the groups described their efforts, working with state policymakers and higher-education associations, to create structured pathways to graduation. (Chronicle of Higher Education, 04/22/13)

Student Debt Problems Overstated?

by Derek Thompson/The Atlantic

Recoveries are powered by two things. Houses and cars. And young people aren’t buying either. That’s the conclusion from a new study out of the New York Fed, via Brad Plumer, that can be easily read as blaming student debt for holding back the recovery by squashing home and auto sales. The share of 30-year-olds with student debt who have taken out a mortgage has collapsed since the recession struck (ditto those without student debt). And the share of 25-year-olds with student debt who also have an auto loan has fallen since the crash, as well (ditto again those without student debt). This study seems to feed into a familiarly scary story about student debt as a dangerous bubble that is piling unprecedented levels of debt on young people, and is wrecking the economy by preventing them from starting their lives. There’s two problems with that story. First, as Jordan Weissmann and I wrote for The Atlantic, there are so many reasons that cars and houses are falling out of favor with young people beyond student loans (and even beyond the miserable economy) that it’s impossible to pick a single culprit. For example, companies like Ford are vocally worried that smartphones are replacing cars as symbols of grown-up sociability, and young people are bunching in urban and urban-lite areas with many apartments and good public transit. Second, it’s a myth that college graduates have more debt than they used to. In fact, they have less. Total debt for 20-somethings has fallen since its peak in 2008, as it has for every age group in this period of deleveraging. Families that feasted on credit in the last decade have spent the last few years paying back what they owe and cutting back their excessive spending. Young people, with and without student loans, have done the very same. (more)

Focus On College Completion Obscures Process To Attain It

Clive Belfield and Davis Jenkins write in Inside Higher Ed: Economists are often criticized for treating colleges as if they were factories: using models that evaluate college efficiency in creating outputs (student completions) for a given input (cost). In fact, in many ways a college education is like the factory production process: students start at the beginning and then, after a sequence of “inputs” in the form of courses and support services, some graduate successfully at the end. Unfortunately, economic analyses of college efficiency typically do not look at college as a process. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But to better understand the economics of college completion we need to more accurately model the resources that are required as students progress through college.

Provided by Carnegie Foundation From Inside Higher Education

Information Crucial For Student College Choice At Selective Colleges

Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students

By Aaron Churchill, Fordham Foundation

Despite sterling academic records and substantial financial-aid opportunities, high-achievers from poor families rarely even apply to America’s elite colleges and universities. In a previous study, researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery attributed this to an information deficit: These kids (the researchers excluded kids who attend “feeder” schools) tend to reside in small towns located far from selective colleges and attend high schools with overworked, ill-prepared counselors and student bodies less attuned to selective college admissions. This follow-up study, conducted by Hoxby and Sarah Turner, examines one potential solution: thoughtful, tailored information about selective college admissions that is delivered to students’ doorsteps. In 2009, Hoxby and Turner established the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) program, which randomly mailed college informational packets to thousands of high-ability seniors (12,000 of them in 2011–12). The main finding: Sending students informational materials—especially materials that offered clear financial-aid information—caused these youngsters to apply to and matriculate at colleges of greater selectivity at greater rates. Even more noteworthy, the packets cost just six bucks a pop to produce and mail. The upshot: Instead of languishing in (or dropping out of) a college beneath their abilities, they’ll seek out a campus suited to their gifts. If, as the authors suggest, ECO (or a kindred program) is scaled to reach all of the nation’s high-flying, low-income kids, it could seriously shrink the college-opportunity gap; here’s hoping.

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Cal State U Expands MOOC Experiment

San Jose State University plans to widen its relationship with edX, the nonprofit provider of massive open online courses, and the California State University system is encouraging similar experiments on 11 other campuses. The moves were announced on Wednesday, just two semesters after San Jose State began a pilot project with edX to improve teaching and learning in its own classrooms. The university will incorporate three to five new edX courses into its local curriculum next fall, including courses in the humanities and social sciences. San Jose State last fall used material from an edX course, “Circuits & Electronics,” as part of a “flipped classroom” experiment in its own introductory course in electrical engineering. The university offered three versions of the course: two conventional face-to-face sections and one “blended” section, in which students watched edX videos on their own and then participated in group activities, sans lecturing, during class time. The pass rates in the two conventional sections were 55 percent and 59 percent. In the “flipped” section with the edX videos, 91 percent of students passed. The second semester of trials, currently under way, has also produced encouraging results, said Mohammad H. Qayoumi, president of San Jose State, in an interview. But data from those trials are not yet available because the courses are still in session. The article is in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog.


Homework Insufficient In USA Secondary schools

 Guest Blogger: Will Fitzhugh

The most important variable in student academic achievement

is, of course, student academic work.

 (U.S.) Public High School kids: [143,000 surveyed) in 2008

 82.7% spend 5 or fewer hours a week on  written homework…42.5% spend an hour or less each week on homework…

 Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement]Korean students spend, on average, 15 hours a week on homework,

added to ten hours a week of hagwon after school = 25 hours a week.

[i.e. 25 times the time some U.S. HS students spend, or 

at least 5 times as much as the great majority of U.S. HS students…]



CA. Community Colleges Unveil New Scorecard

by Kathryn Baron/EdSource Today

Students who start community college prepared to take college-level courses have a better than 70 percent chance of earning a degree or certificate or transferring to a four-year college within six years. The outcome is significantly worse for students placed in remedial math or science, with barely 41 percent achieving those goals, according to the first-ever student success scorecards released Tuesday by the systemwide chancellor’s office. The scorecards provide in-depth information for each of the state’s 112 community colleges including student demographics, completion rates, career technical education, and indicators of likely success, such as the percentage of students who completed 30 units after six years. “The scorecard is probably a historic tool for the community colleges,” said Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, during a telephone call with reporters. “What is critically important about the scorecard is that the groups of students can be subdivided in almost any way so that very specific strategies can be used to insure their improvement.” Boosting success rates is critical in the current economy, said state Community College Chancellor Brice Harris, because “by 2018, two-thirds of the jobs in California will require some level of education beyond high school.” The scorecards grew out of the community college Student Success Task Force, whose 22 recommendations were approved by the systemwide Board of Governors last year. Several months later, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012,