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September 29, 2015 7 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

New Standards, Rising Test Scores In Texas: What Does It All Mean?

You’ve heard it hundreds of times since testing aligned with the Common Core State Standards began: Anticipate lower proficiency rates on standardized tests. That’s what happens, people say, when you adopt tough new standards and tests.

Well, it’s not what happened in Texas. The Lone Star State implemented math standards in grades 3-8 last year that were “dramatically” different from the ones they replaced, according to The Dallas Morning News.

The changes were so dramatic that Commissioner of Education Michael Williams pledged not to include grades 3-8 math results in 2015 accountability calculations and suspended the requirement that 5th and 8th graders pass the math tests to be promoted.

So did test scores plummet? Nope. Results of the state’s STAAR math test were about the same as, and in some cases better than, the previous year’s.

What happened?

State education department officials gave credit to the teachers.

Some educators said that students simply performed better than periodic classroom benchmark tests suggested they would. Others wondered whether the test had changed enough that it wasn’t right to compare performance in 2013-14 with performance last year. And there’s another question floating around, too, the Dallas newspaper reports: “Is STAAR not precise enough in measuring content knowledge to allow for close comparisons?”

State officials insist that the scores and passing rates are comparable, and that cutoff scores for the two years’ tests represent the same level of proficiency, according to the newspaper.

Psychometricians will tell you there are statistical processes that can be used to make scores on one test comparable with scores on a revised version.

But it’s not hard to imagine how all these questions about the meaning of the test scores might leave parents a bit dazed and confused. Yet one of the big drivers of accountability and test-score reporting was to give parents a clearer idea of what’s going on in their schools.

–Catherine Gewertz

| NEWS | Education and the Media

‘Cooties': Zombie Elementary Students Who Attack With Proficiency

It’s a seemingly normal day at a Midwestern small-town elementary school. We follow an eager young substitute teacher named Clint—an aspiring novelist who lives at home with his mother—as he tackles the school day.

First, he has a run-in with a veteran teacher. Then, a smart-mouthed 4th grader snaps at him on the playground. The assistant principal takes away his cellphone, explaining that if students are not permitted to have their phones, neither are teachers.

In his 4th grade classroom, two boys are bullying another student. One of them mocks the substitute and prepares to make the day hell for him.

It’s a rough start for the young teacher. And then, something Clint’s teacher training almost certainly didn’t cover: One of his students turns into a zombie and begins attacking the other students.

Did I mention that this is not yet another earnest education documentary?

This is “Cooties,” a 90-minute horror movie that opened Sept. 18 about what happens when a cafeteria food virus (arriving through that staple of the lunch line, chicken nuggets) turns the elementary school children into killer zombies.

The ragtag faculty of Fort Chicken Elementary School has to ward off the little monsters and try to save themselves. It turns out that those who have reached puberty are immune to getting the virus themselves, though the adults and a couple of older elementary students who fit that postpubescent category can still be ripped to pieces by young zombies.

The script was co-written by Leigh Wannell (the co-creator of “Saw”) and Ian Brennan (the co-creator of “Glee”) and stars Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”). It is full of genuinely funny moments, especially around the teachers’ lounge.

“So, one of my students tried to eat another kid’s face off. How’s your day going?” Clint says to another teacher.

When the zombie kids close in on the teachers’ lounge, one staff member tells his colleagues, “Follow me, I do CrossFit!” He walks out a door and is quickly killed.

The film is not for everyone. It is rated R, for language and violence. Besides being a spoof of various school trends, it does have a fair amount of horror-film gore and violence, including some uncomfortable scenes involving teachers killing zombie children.

But “Cooties” doesn’t take itself too seriously. As I said, it’s not a documentary.

–Mark Walsh

| NEWS | Politics K-12

From Democrats in White House Quest, Sparse Detail So Far on K-12 Education

Former U.S. Secretary of State and 2016 White House contender Hillary Clinton has proposals to eliminate college-debt and expand universal prekindergarten. And two of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have also put out far-reaching proposals for significantly boosting access to higher education.

Missing from all this discussion about the bookends of education? Any sort of comprehensive proposal, from any of the leading Democratic candidates, on how they’d reshape K-12 policy.

Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., who has studied K-12 education and elections, offers three possible reasons. One, Democrats are staying mum in part because Republicans are talking about the issue but in an “ideologically extreme way to appeal to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that dominate[s] the primaries.” The GOP contenders are creating “self-inflicted wounds” on issues such as whether to keep the U.S. Department of Education around that will come back to haunt the eventual nominee, McGuinn said in an email.

Two, he said, K-12 has been a “tricky” issue for Democratic presidential candidates because of the divide between the “reform” wing of the party and teachers’ unions on issues like ending teacher tenure and expanding charter schools. It’s easier to focus on the areas where most primary voters are in agreement, like ending student loan debt, McGuinn wrote.

Finally, this past year has seen a big backlash around the federal role in education and the Obama administration’s K-12 agenda, particularly when it comes to the common core and standardized testing. “I don’t think any of the Dem candidates want to be too closely associated with all that,” McGuinn wrote.

Paul Manna, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who has written extensively about education and politics, is guessing there may not be enough disagreement between the parties to draw a good contrast.

“In the K-12 arena, although Democrats and Republicans are at odds over vouchers ... there are many more policy areas where their preferences seem to overlap. Things such as test-based accountability for schools and teachers, charter schools, and others, are areas where there is less daylight between the typical Democratic and Republican positions,” he said.

Of course, there have been no point-by-point plans on K-12 from anyone running for the GOP nod yet, either. And it’s early. After all, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican nominee in 2008, didn’t come out with his edu-plan until July of that year, just three and a half months before the election.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Wis. Gov. Walker Bows Out of Campaign For Republican Presidential Nomination

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced last week that he had suspended his 2016 presidential campaign, after his poll numbers recently dropped to less than 1 percent. The governor becomes the second Republican to exit the contest after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

In what was likely his last major push on the campaign trail, Walker had gone back to the wellspring of his rise to national prominence and played up his opposition to unions throughout September. He’s most famous for stripping away nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin through Act 10, which he signed into law in 2011.

In his speech announcing his campaign in July, Walker also played up that political victory and touted improved educational outcomes in his state during his tenure. Walker had also switched his position on the Common Core State Standards, going from being a low-profile supporter to an opponent, although the state has so far kept the standards.

In a recent panel hosted by Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, Walker also committed to abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and turning over funds now controlled by Washington to the states. He reiterated that theme in his announcement that he was suspending his campaign, saying that the American people should be trusted and “not the federal government.” And during the second GOP debate Sept. 16, Walker touted improving the educational system as a preferable alternative to increasing the minimum wage.

Walker was first elected in 2010 and then re-elected two more times, including in a 2012 special recall election and in 2014 despite heavy opposition from the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

–Andrew Ujifusa

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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