Category Archives: Curriculum

For Coherence Sake: Defer Using the New PARCC Tests for HS Graduation

On October 7, MCPS sent a letter from Phil Kauffman the President of its Board of Education to the Maryland State Superintendent of Schools requesting the state to reconsider plans to use the new annual test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment as end-of-course exams for purposes of fulfilling high school graduation.  For several years the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) has been preparing to use these new tests developed by a consortium of states as a replacement for the Maryland State Assessment (MSA) and High School Assessment (HSA) tests that have been used for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law’s accountability requirements.

These new PARCC tests hold much promise to improve the information to schools.  They are developed to be aligned with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for literacy and math.  They use state of the art technology for an adaptive testing experience.  They are also unproven and given that they are likely more stringent than the MSA/HAS tests they replace, many students may not pass them, which would require many students to take a transitional class prior to graduating.  The state is considering a two tier approach where there is a criteria (cut-off score) for being considered “college and career ready” and a lower score to allow students to graduate.  This tiered approach has been advocated for by MoCoEdBlog editorial member, Rick Kahlenberg in a piece titled “Hold Students Accountable and Support Them.” 

MCPS is requesting that MSDE delay the implementation of these requirements and enter into a discussion about how to move forward.  Kaufman’s letter posed several important questions:

“If a college-ready cut score differs from the graduation cut score, what is the most meaningful indicator for institutions of higher education or employers? What messages do tiered cut scores send to students? Maryland now requires all students to be assessed for college and career readiness, and those found not ready, must be enrolled in transitional courses. Given this new paradigm, is there benefit added to continuing the requirement to pass end-of-course exit exams to receive a diploma? Moreover, if, during this period of transition from HSA to PARCC, it is appropriate to prohibit use of PARCC for purposes of personnel evaluations, why is it not equally appropriate to delay the use as a high stakes test for students?”

These are important questions.  I will focus on the last one about using the tests for one purpose only: graduation.  I believe that within this question lays an important systemic consideration that Kauffman’s letter only hinted at: if the tests are not ready to be used to evaluate teachers and principals then why should they be used for students?  I believe this is a strong argument in support of MCPS’ request.  While the change from one testing system to another may seem a matter of upgrading the measurement approach, the reality on the ground is that these kinds of changes are not “plug and play.”  There are many interdependent and moving parts in a school system and high-stakes tests impact many of them, including teachers and students alike.  Students are dependent upon the instruction they receive and the instruction is shaped by both the ability of the teachers and the rewards, incentives, and constraints they work within.

To use the tests for one part of the system (student graduation) but not for another part (educator evaluation) would, in my view, create a tension in the system.  It would have part of the organizational focus in one direction and another part in another.  High school achievement, like the achievement gap and many other big problems in education are systemic.  They have multiple interrelated causes and one of the reasons they are so hard to address for MCPS and the rest of the country is that independent solutions rarely address the combination of factors that underlie the problems in complex systems.  Using PARCC for only student accountability is a partial approach.  And, as Kauffman’s letter says, it puts students in the unfair position of being the ones getting the shorter end of the stick as these new tests are tried out on their future first.  For this reason alone, I believe the MCPS request deserves support from both MSDE and Montgomery County’s elected officials.

There are more questions that can be asked of MCPS about their readiness to support PARCC across the system.  Below, I will sketch out some other important factors and end with some questions that could be included in the conversation that MCPS in Kauffman’s letter requests.

Some Observations about PARCC

PARCC Will Initially Be Disruptive

The implementation of the new tests will be disruptive.  How much they will disrupt the work that goes on in schools is not clear.  But, history has shown, including with NCLB, that most large scale changes in schools can “shock the system” and take some time to become assimilated into the routine.  The day to day work of schools is so labor intensive and what teachers do especially is so often based on what they have done in the past that any change such as a new curriculum will take some time to assimilate.  The fact that PARCC will be aligned to the CCSS will help as MD schools will have a couple of years of experience with these standards. Still, the new tests under the best of circumstances will require some adjustment, at least at least in the first year.

The impact on the schools has the potential to be even bigger and more difficult on schools.  If the PARCC results are tied also to high-stakes consequences such as teacher evaluations or school performance.  One of the lessons of NCLB (and there is a lot of research on this) was that schools with greater challenges suffered much more collateral damage than schools with better circumstances.  So, if the PARCC tests will be high-stakes then they will be higher stakes in the schools with the most needs.  The tests can still provide much valuable information and the information should be used, but tying these results to high-stakes for educators would likely be disproportionally absorbed by high-needs schools.  MCPS needs a robust plan that addresses the impacts of PARCC on the system.

Implementation Questions with Technology-Rich Assessments

PARCC Assessments are designed to be delivered on computers rather than paper and pencil. However, not all school systems or school buildings have the same technology and so there are alternative testing approaches that have raised some questions about how PARCC will work when the rubber meets the road. For example, national education expert Rick Hess raised three big issues earlier this year:

  1. Testing under different testing conditions (some in classrooms, some in media centers, some offsite at different locations.
  2. Testing using different devices (ex: computer vs. paper and pencil)
  3. Testing windows that can vary from school to school so that the tests may be taken at different times by different students

None of these issues fundamentally compromises the value of the tests both as well designed instruments and even more being aligned with the CCSS.  But they all can impact the scores in ways that will be really hard to know until after the tests have been administered.  Will the impact on the scores vary based on the kind of school in the same way high-stakes impacts high needs schools more than others?  Quite possibly they will.  MCPS should look at its implementation options and try as best as possible to standardize testing approaches across schools.

Will the Tests Perform as Designed Initially?

When we read that the testing of the tests has gone smoothly, it is important to remember that these are reports from the people who are administering the tests and that smoothly may mean different things to them than to educators.  For example, if the field trial occurs where and when it was planned and the results are able to be tabulated by PARCC, the field trial is smooth from a technical perspective.  This doesn’t mean, however, that the tests were measuring the same things that were taught or that they did as good a job with different populations as the designers hoped.  Larger amounts of real data and more time are required to know this.  Again, it probably will not be until after the first year of full administration that these issues will be clearer.  Also, scuttlebutt from behind the scenes at PARCC has for a few years now has been that the amount of money they began with was less than they needed so don’t be surprised if the quality of the tests is not even; that some parts of the curriculum test more reliably than others.  MCPS should be careful about making inferences based on the results of any part of the curriculum until the broad strengths/weaknesses of the test quality are known.

Some Important Questions for MCPS’ Implementation of PARCC

While it is important to support MCPS’ request, some questions could be asked of them about their plan going forward.

  1. Professional Development and Support. With the recent adoption of CCSS curricula, MCPS along with just about every school district has found the need for professional development was more urgent than expected.  How are the plans coming to train MCPS educators in how to use PARCC?  What lessons have been learned from the pilots thus far about the technology needs as well as the performance of the tests beyond the fairly positive accounts MSDE and PARCC have provided?
  2. PARCC Impact on Technology Budgets. How will PARCC impact the spending decisions throughout the school system?  One of the biggest criticisms of the CCSS has been it is an opportunity for companies to make even more money from education.  School principals, teachers, and even some families are getting inundated with many offers of products that will help prepare students to do well with CCSS and PARCC tests.  Most of these claims are unverified. There is no body that will certify that a product is 100% or 50% CCSS compliant.  There will in the future probably be ways of rating these products this way by the people who use them; but not today.  MCPS would be wise to not to spend too much public money on materials to help prep for first round of tests if it can be avoided.  Much of what is on the market now has been rushed to market and is full of errors. Reviewing materially centrally and making recommendations to schools for how to purchase makes a lot of sense as does working with partner districts to assess the quality of materials and technology.  While MCPS tends to defer a lot to individual schools (site-based management) rather than centrally manage and direct, in this case it may be useful for MCPS to take stock of the products that are out there and provide good technical support to schools.
  3. Accountability Options. One of the driving reasons for high-stakes tests is that not all schools perform as they should and not all schools perform equally well with all groups of students.  Even with all of the many problems with implementation, policies like NCLB have been important ways to see educational differences and also to shift the conversations for many in education towards hard outcomes.  As the sanctions of accountability are even temporarily lifted, what will MCPS be doing to ensure all students are getting the kind of education they deserve?  Will the PARCC test results be combined with other forms of evidence to ask about where there are areas that need improvement and additional attention? While delays in using PARCC for HS graduation make sense, what other external accountability options will MCPS use to ensure all children receive appropriate education.

Summary

As Kauffman’s letter spells out, the issues surrounding the use of PARCC tests for high school graduation are complex and consequential.  The MCPS request to delay implementation of the state’s plan is reasonable.  Whether the state will listen is unclear.  Whether more information about how MCPS is getting ready for PARCC and the new testing and standards paradigms it is part of will help MSDE in their decision is unclear.  For those closer to MCPS—parents, teachers, local elected officials—this kind of information is probably important to have.  For the sake of MCPS’ management thinking and capacity to deal with the difficult and complex problems of student achievement, it is probably important to develop.  MCPS, like pretty much all districts, has traditionally been dependent on state policy and so there may be a tendency when in this role to wait and respond rather than taking the lead and driving the discussion.  MCPS is no ordinary district.  It has not only broad needs but many financial and intellectual resources so it is in a better position than most to lead rather than respond.  The tone and message of Kauffman’s letter suggests this is what MCPS is trying to do.  Let’s hope the state is ready to meet them in a discussion about this difficult issue.

Laurie Halverson: Supports Idea of Standards, Concerns about Common Core

  1. Common Core Standards.The MCPS web site does not say much about “Common Core” standards but instead focuses on its own “Curriculum 2.0” and has teachers and students learning new standards through the county’s developing curriculum and teacher training.  Do you support the Common Core?  Is MCPS doing a good job of navigating the new standards?  And, how would you direct them to do it differently?

I support the general idea of standards for school districts. Standards help parents know whether their child is meeting or exceeding expectations and parents value test scores per school for comparison purposes. Standardized test scores are one tool to help teachers identify students who need support or acceleration. They also provide a gauge for school district leaders in determining whether schools need more support or intervention.

Former state superintendent, Nancy Grasmick said in the May 25, 26, 2010 state board minutes that the purpose of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) was to close the achievement gap. But, how we can expect students who already aren’t performing at the lower performing state standard, to close the gap with a new higher standard without significant professional development and additional resources?  Standards and curriculum by themselves will not close the achievement gap.

It concerns me that 500 early educators signed a statement indicating that they have “grave concerns” about CCSS:  http://www.edweek.org/media/joint_statement_on_core_standards.pdf.  It also concerns me that some top educators, such as Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram who were on the CCSS validation panel, refused to sign a document to approve CCSS. It concerns me that MCPS has a policy (IFA) on curriculum that states that teachers should have ongoing professional development and parents should be partners in the development of the curriculum. Yet, the minimum amount of teacher training has been optional and parents have had little role in curriculum development and don’t even have access to the learning materials at home. It concerns me that there is no plan in place on how anyone in Maryland can give input if we want to change or improve any of the standards. It concerns me that it is costing our state taxpayers a tremendous amount without legislation or a democratic process: While the federal government gave $4 billion in Race to the Top Grants to certain states, it will cost our nation at least $16 billion to implement it. Many states have passed legislation and are taking action to gain back control over the content of curriculum, but Maryland has not.

What I would do differently to direct MCPS as a Board of Education member:

  • I want our schools to move away from teaching to the test and emphasize teaching and learning for all subjects. A resident at Leisure World told me she was taught so well at her school years ago that there was no need to “teach to the test” because she could take any test and perform well-that is what I want for MCPS students.
  • I would want to see measures on how MCPS will evaluate the success of Curriculum 2.0.
  • If MCPS continues to adhere to CCSS next year, I would pursue mandatory professional development for CCSS. I have spoken to teachers who say that students with teachers who skipped the optional training will be at a disadvantage.
  • I would push for more accurate and consistent ways of identifying students for acceleration.
  • I would be involved at the national level, seeking ways for the public to provide feedback on the current standards and how they can be improved in the future.
  • I would also seek changes to the MCPS grading and reporting policy to make sure the report card accurately measures student performance and is easy for parents and students to understand.
  • I would ask for more data such as final exam results per school in comparison with the corresponding course grades the student achieved.
  • Before approving new technology, I would ask financially relevant questions such as, “Will the Chromebooks be compatible for PARCC and MAP testing?” (I heard from an administrator that MAP tests are not compatible with the newly purchased Chromebooks.)

——————————————-

As MCCPTA VP of Educational issues I attended at my expense, a White House Community Partnership Summit at the University of Pennsylvania on March 2, 2012.  I wanted to give feedback to the White House about how Race to the Top policies were affecting us at the local level. Here is a link to my report:

http://mccpta.com/curriculum_dir/2011-2012/WhiteHouseSummit.pdf

 

Here are two excellent links on the CCSS: Building the Machine-The Common Core Documentary http://www.commoncoremovie.com/

Diane Ravitch: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know about Common Core:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/01/18/everything-you-need-to-know-about-common-core-ravitch/

 

Maryland State BOE Meeting minutes from May 25,26, 2010 when they discussed Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards:

http://marylandpublicschools.org/NR/rdonlyres/5D922A58-42B9-420F-997F-11CF4B13DEB4/24493/May25262010.pdf

 

Kristin Trible: Supporting Common Core

Responding to a Question from MoCoEdBlog on Common Core Standards.  The MCPS web site does not say much about “Common Core” standards but instead focuses on its own “Curriculum 2.0” and has teachers and students learning new standards through the county’s developing curriculum and teacher training.  Do you support the Common Core?  Is MCPS doing a good job of navigating the new standards?  And, how would you direct them to do it differently?

Response:  I support the Common Core as it is a unique opportunity to ensure that educational standards are part of the national conversation and that we continue to prioritize the education of our children.  The other day, I saw someone share a poorly written test and erroneously blame the Common Core standards.  We continue to see individuals become confused between standards, curriculum, and testing.  It is unfortunate inaccuracies such as this one that are taking away from a truly important conversation on educational standards and, just as importantly, what methods we will put in place to gather feedback and determine how to improve upon them in the future.   The current standards may not yet be perfect but it is up to each school system to work with the standards and implement a strong, comprehensive curriculum that meets or exceeds those standards.  MCPS has had its share of missteps in the implementation, but change was going to be difficult no matter what.  It’s time to move forward and ensure our teachers are well supported and enthusiastic about teaching in a new manner.  If slowing down is appropriate, we can slow down.  I would not support turning back.

Montgomery County’s elementary school curriculum: Where’s the beef?

It was back-to-school night last week at my son’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, which meant that we moms and dads got a first look at “Learning for the Future: A Parent’s Guide to Grade 1 Curriculum 2.0.” Several years ago, MCPS sold the curriculum to Pearson. Which is rather bizarre, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Let me start by saying that MCPS does a lot of things right. My son’s teacher, who has her own classroom for the first time this year, seems great (and graduated from one of the best teacher prep programs in the country, according to NCTQ). She also gets a ton of support from her fellow teachers, and from the central office, which is simply not available in the typical American school. (And that is the sort of support that both Dana Goldstein and Elizabeth Green called for in their recent books.) Most importantly, MCPS has a curriculum, which, surprisingly enough, is an anomaly for public school districts. (Many districts, especially the itsy-bitsy ones, hand out textbooks and call it a day.)

The problem is that the MCPS curriculum—at least what I’ve seen so far, which means Kindergarten and first grade—is weak when it comes to content in science, and extremely weak in history.

Consider the social studies content that my son is expected to learn this year:

  • Civics: Importance of rules; rights, responsibilities, and choices; leadership and authority; contributions of people important to the American political system; United States symbols and practices
  • Culture: Different ways of meeting human needs; people share and borrow culture; social skills.
  • History: Differences between past and present; people and objects of today and long ago.
  • Geography: People modify, protect, and adapt to their environment; geographic tools used to locate and describe places on Earth,;physical and human characteristics of places.
  • Economics: Economic choices about goods and services; production process; technology affects the way people live, work, and play; markets in the community; differing values of goods and services.

Notice what’s missing: Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents?

People who study education for a living understand what’s going on—this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such “conceptual understanding” over “rote facts and figures.”

Yet the NCSS lost a big battle in 2010 when the Common Core State Standards explicitly called on schools to adopt a content-rich curriculum, with the 57 most important words in education reform:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Montgomery County claims that Curriculum 2.0 is aligned to the Common Core—always a dubious assertion considering that both documents were finalized in 2010. Clearly, when it comes to content, at least in the elementary grades, MCPS has missed the boat.

So what could first graders be doing if challenged with a truly Common Core-aligned and content-rich curriculum? Consider the Engage New York English Language Arts Curriculum, whose “sequence of domains” for Grade 1 includes:

  • The human body
  • Early world civilizations
  • Early American civilizations
  • Astronomy
  • The history of the Earth
  • Animals and habitats
  • A new nation
  • Frontier explorers

Finally, some specifics! Some content!  Some acknowledgment that we don’t have to wait until kids can read before teaching them about how the world works!

I’m fortunate to have the resources to supplement what my son is getting in MCPS; we can read about these topics at home and even watchcarefully selected videos about them. But the lack of content is a significant barrier for the district’s lower-income students, who are going to struggle with reading comprehension unless and until they learn about the worlds of history, science, literature, and more. What will it take for MCPS and other districts to grasp this fundamental lesson from cognitive science? (Maybe plummeting proficiency levels, a la PARCC, will be a wake-up call.)

Montgomery County has plenty of “capacity.” It has a robust curriculum department. And it claims to be committed to the Common Core and to narrowing achievement gaps. Adding real content to Curriculum 2.0, starting in the early grades, is eminently doable. So let’s do it!

Common Core – coming soon

The blogging/editorial team at MoCoEdBlog are working on a series of posts about the Common Core State Standards, including a basic overview of what they are, why they are important, and how they relate to MCPS curriculum and state testing.