Everything is “High Stakes”

Student assessment has been under assault for years now.  And that assault usually begins with the attack on “high-stakes” tests.

We hated No Child Left Behind because of its high-stakes tests, with student assessments determining whether schools were making adequate yearly progress and ultimately if the school doors would stay open or not.
We hated the current batch of end-of-year “high-stakes” tests offered by the states, particularly now that the student performance numbers are being used by some states (and encouraged by others through NCLB waivers) in their teacher and principal evaluation process.
And we hate the “high-stakes” Common Core Assessments, whenever they come on line, as they blend our fears from both NCLB and state tests and wrap them up into one easy package.
Today, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss has applied the “high-stakes” label to another target — the SAT and the ACT.  In writing about how Common Core State Standards could <SHUDDER> actually have an impact in all states, even in those that haven’t adopted CCSS, she notes that “Students in every state take the high-stakes college admissions exams, the SAT and the ACT.”
Eduflack understands “high stakes” is a powerful term and it can raise the hackles of everyone from the left who oppose stricter accountability measures to the right which recoils from a greater federal footprint on the local classroom.  And he gets that Strauss is using the phrase as fighting words, hoping to generate continued negative feelings toward CCSS.  But sometimes, can’t a test just be a test?
Aren’t there some assessments that should have some stakes attached?  Shouldn’t high school exit exams be “high stakes” as they determine whether a student has earned a high school diploma or not?  And shouldn’t we want the SAT and ACT to have stakes, as they determine who gains entrance to a four-year college, particularly when the costs of college are about as high stakes as they come?
Tests have consequences.  And all tests should have stakes attached.  Driver’s exams are “high stakes” as they determine if you get a license and have access to the freedom that comes with it.  Eye exams are “high stakes,” particularly when anything less than 20/20 will keep you from becoming a pilot in the Armed Forces.  DNA tests are “high stakes” as they determine one’s family lineage, an essential to knowing your history and your health future. The new Google/Bing taste tests are “high stakes,” as they could determine marketing campaigns and huge swings in search usership. 
So if there are no stakes attached, and some seem to advocate, is it even a test?  

Sunshine on Core Standards

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion about the core standards movement and how “public” the development of these national standards will truly be.  Those who see such standards as a needed pathway to lead us to real, tangible improvement and focus on quality believe the process is just underway.  Those who see monsters under the bed and hear things that go bump in the night are certain that the deck is already stacked, the standards are already written, and we’re merely going through the motions.  

If core standards are like most education “movements” in Washington, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yesterday, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced a new website for information on all things related to core standards — www.corestandards.org.  The new site provides a few pieces of interesting information, including a tentative development schedule and those involved with its development.
Currently, the Common Core Standards Initiative (as dubbed by NGA and CCSSO) is sticking by its story that college- and career-ready standards will be completed by the end of the month, by July 2009.  Such an aggressive timeline may lend a little credibility to the notion that these standards are already in the can, pulled mainly from work already done by Achieve, College Board, ACT, and others.  More interestingly, the Initiative is also promising grade-by-grade standards work will be completed by the end of the calendar year, or by December 2009.
In looking at the members of both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups, one thing is clear.  Grade-by-grade standards will be limited to English-Language Arts and mathematics.  By the end of the year, we will not have grade-by-grade standards for science, social studies, foreign languages, arts, or any of the other subjects that our K-12 students are currently engaging in.  How do we know?  Both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups are divided into two camps — mathematics and ELA.  Eduflack can’t imagine that the math groups will be working on science standards, or the ELA groups will be working on social studies expectations.  So for now, our core standards are designed to model our current AYP efforts.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Moving AYP beyond grades three through eight into a full K-12 education continuum is an important thing.  But if we are going to truly get buy-in for the core standards (and more importantly, get states to adopt them and the common assessments that will need to be developed with them), we need to hit all of the key subject areas.  In Eduflack’s home state of Virginia, for instance, we can’t have core standards for math and reading, but then offer the state’s SOL for social studies.  It just doesn’t make sense for the long term.  The minds behind the Core Standards Initiative understand that, but we are still waiting for the explanations and the timetables that will align with all of the other academic subjects our students learn.
It seems most of the heavy lifting will be done by the Work Groups.  So who is on these groups?  A run-through of the rosters (available on the website) shows teams consisting primarily of staff from Achieve, College Board, and ACT.  Student Achievement Partners made the cut, and America’s Choice has a few slots in there (which may also speak to why outgoing Arkansas Schools Chief Ken James is headed to America’s Choice), and there is an academic or two added to each for good measure.
The feedback groups represent a strong list of academics and researchers who know the literature and the research base behind the subject matter.  The ELA Feedback Group, for instance, has two members of the National Reading Panel, as well as the chair of NRC’s reading research effort. 
Folks are going to read into this announcement what they want to.  Some will continue to question the sunshine put on the process and whether the “education blob,” particularly the content-area organizations, will have a real role in the development of the proposed standards.  Others will question whether their is a particular political slant to the approach.  And still others will beat the drum that classroom educators, the ones who will ultimately need to teach to these standards, are not represented at all.
Regardless, it is a first step.  The second step is seeing the work product that will be released at the end of the month.  But soon, we’ll be expecting to hear how the Initiative is going to address subject areas beyond math and reading.  Soon, we’ll want to hear how these standards will be incorporated into current and future curriculum.  And real soon, we’ll need to start discussing how one assesses student proficiency of these standards.  A long to-do list, particularly in light of potential ESEA reauthorization this fall.  Time will tell ….

The Measure of College Admissions

Down here in Eduflack’s temporary offices in Central America (long story, but the good news is that it looks like baby Eduflackette, who turned one on Saturday, should be coming home to the DC area for good before the end of the year), my eye was caught by a newsbrief in the NYTimes Digest (even I’m not willing to pay $8 for the full NYT down here) about the latest commission report on college admissions.

Headed By Harvard University Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, the latest report recommends that colleges and universities reduce their dependence on SAT and ACT scores when it comes to admitting new students.  Instead, the commission is recommending specific admission exams more closely tied to high school curriculum and student achievement.
For years now, we have seen leading national colleges and universities back off of SAT and ACT scores as requirements for admission.  Researchers have claimed that high school grades, and not standardized admission scores, are the true measure of student success in the postsecondary classroom.  And still more see the tests — particularly the SAT — as yet another example of the high stakes testing that has permeated P-16 education today.
At the very heart of Fitzsimmons’ report, though, I can’t help but think we are simply rearranging some of the deck chairs for postsecondary admittance.  After all, how different do we expect an “admissions exam” to be from the SAT or ACT.  All will serve as standardized tests.  All will measure students on a common level of English, math (and hopefully science and social studies, and maybe even foreign language) abilities.  All will be used to determine the cutoff line, knowing that a score of X gets you in, a score of Y puts you on the border line, and a score of Z puts you in the also rans.
The real issue is how one goes about constructing the admission exam.  By early reports, the Fitzsimmons commission is proposing an admissions exam based on high school curriculum.  A noble idea, yes.  But is it worth the paper it would be printed on (or the computer it would be coded on?)  Can national college admissions exams really be worth anything until we have national standards on which high school curriculum is based?
The answer, as we all know, is of course not.  College entry exams are intended to demonstrate that entering students have the skills and abilities to do basic postsecondary education work.  At a time when nearly half of all college-going students are forced to take remedial reading or math courses, such a determination has never been more important.  Are our high schools turning out students capable of college-level work?  Are our kids ready for postsecondary education?  And if not, what is it our secondary schools should be doing to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities in the P-16 education continuum?
It all brings us back to the simple concept of national education standards.  A rising senior B student in Alabama should have the same skills, abilities, and access to information as a B student in Connecticut, or one in Wisconsin, or one in Oregon or Nevada.  Algebra II should mean the same thing, no matter what state or what school district is taking it.  And a high school diploma should come with a guarantee of a basic knowledge and ability in English, math, and science.  As a nation, we should have common goals.  As a national education system, we should have common expectations from all of our students, regardless of location or socioeconomic status.
Yes, our goal should be getting a greater number of diverse students into postsecondary education.  We need to increase the number of first-generation students entering the halls of higher education.  We need to promote the notion that postsecondary education is a requirement for success in today’s ever-evolving economy.
A college admissions test simply doesn’t get us there, and in today’s environment, too many colleges may be required to develop dozens of such tests to reflect the vast differences in standards and performances across our 50 states.  If college admissions deans really want to make a difference, they should be out there advocating for national K-12 standards.  They should be demanding that every applicant be measured on the same scale.  They should require that a high school education — rural, suburban, or urban; northeast, south, midwest, or southwest — provides the same levels of skill, preparation, and knowledge.  They should require national standards.

College Costs How Much?

It’s that time of year again.  Yesterday, the College Board released its annual Cost of College report.  And like the years before it, the numbers aren’t pretty.  Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges are up 6.6 percent from last year.  At private colleges, there is a 5.5 percent increase.

At face value, that doesn’t seem too bad.  But let’s take a look at increases over the past decade.  For those going to private schools, tuition and fees have increased 72 percent over the last 10 years.  And in our public institutions, those schools designed to provide ALL students with a postsecondary education, costs have increased nearly 100 percent since 1997.  USA Today has the story — http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2007-10-22-college-price_N.htm?csp=34.

Only the price of a gallon of gasoline has experienced greater inflation that a college degree.  Even healthcare costs haven’t increased, over the same time period, like college tuition prices.

What message does this send, particularly at a time when we preach that very student needs a postsecondary education?  Is that college diploma 100 percent more valuable?  Are starting salaries out of college 72 percent higher today than they were in 1997?  Are we learning more in college today?  Do we have greater access to full professors?  Are classes smaller?  Are offerings more specialized and relevant?

Of course, the answer to all of these is no.  Prices are rising because they can rise.  College endowments are at an all-time high; sticker price doesn’t haven’t to exceed inflation.  More student loan money is available today than ever before.  But we don’t need every student to max out to go to college.  We do it because it is expected.  We know college tuition will exceed inflation every year, and we have come to accept it.

If we are really going to sell today’s high school students on the notion that a postsecondary education is necessary for career and life success (and the data shows that it is), we need to also show that quality postsecondary education can be found at an affordable price.  Not everyone needs a $160K college diploma to secure a good job.  Not everyone needs to borrow six figures in student loans to get a meaningful college degree.

Eduflack looks at his 18-month-old son, and often wonders what college is in his future.  Eduwife is a proud grad of Stanford University (BA and MA) and UPenn (Ed.D.).  At this rate, Eduflack is looking at starting tuition and fees for Stanford’s freshmen of 2024 coming in at nearly $125,000 a year.  It’s never too early to teach Eduson football or golf.