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Briefly Stated: February 8, 2023

February 07, 2023 6 min read
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Miguel Cardona: Standardized Tests Should Not Be a ‘Hammer’

Standardized tests should be used as “a flashlight” on what works in education not as “a hammer” to force outcomes, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said recently in a speech.

The statement reflects a shift in thinking since annual testing became federal law more than 20 years ago, and it echoes past comments from Cardona, who warned states against using 2022 NAEP scores punitively when they showed steep drops in reading and math in September.

But federal policies stemming from the two-decade-old No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, make it difficult for states to use standardized tests in any other way, policy experts say. And despite changing attitudes, there’s little indication that the nation’s schools will move away from the current form of test-based accountability anytime soon.

“It doesn’t matter what the sentiment is,” said Jack Schneider, an education professor and policy analyst at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who is also an advocate for including alternative measures like school climate, teacher ability, and school resources in accountability policies. “The law is structured so that it really isn’t much of a flashlight.”

Cardona did not announce any new testing-related policies or plans for the Education Department in his Jan. 24 speech to educators, so it’s unclear if the agency plans to address concerns about test-based accountability through grants, waivers, or rulemaking. The department hasn’t announced any plans to revise standardized testing policy.

Still, his words reflect ever-changing opinions about standardized tests and what role they should play in evaluating school performance.

“He’s trying to bridge two eras,” Schneider said. “Right now, we are still very much in the era of test-based accountability because that’s the law. He also recognizes that’s not going to persuade very many people for much longer as a mechanism for school improvement.”

Home Visiting Pays Attendance Dividends in Connecticut

Forget the truancy officer—find a home visitor instead.

A $10 million investment to establish a home visit program set up by the Connecticut education department in April 2021 has resulted in attendance rates ticking up—by 4 percent in the first month among most students who received a home visit.

“Truancy labels a student, and it makes a family feel shame, and nothing grows in the garden of shame,” said Kari Sullivan Custer, attendance lead for the state education department.

The program targeted about 8,690 chronically absent students in 15 districts across the state, who were visited by staff members or partners from community organizations. The gains continued after the first month: Nine months after the first home visit, pre-kindergarten through 5th grade students’ attendance rate increased by 8 percentage points on average. For students in 6th through 12th grades, that increase was an average of 16 percentage points.

The results were mostly consistent, regardless of the students’ demographic or socioeconomic backgrounds, excepting English learners, whose increase in attendance was about half that of their peers.

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to improve students’ time at school and helped develop the LEAP program, noted that Connecticut was able to execute the program successfully because it was the only state that had gathered and published chronic absence data monthly during the pandemic.

English Teachers Endorse Nonfiction in Students’ Reading

News articles, memoirs, essays, narrative journalism—all these forms of nonfiction can enrich the reading and writing students do in schools, says the National Council of Teachers of English in a new position statement.

Especially in the early grades, English/language arts instruction tends to favor fiction over nonfiction, possibly because many states don’t require teachers to take courses in appropriate selections for children and because awards and lists for fiction are more prominent and publicized than their nonfiction counterparts, NCTE members said.

Ideally, said the authors of the position statement, nonfiction can be included in text sets alongside fiction that explore a topic in depth and guides student thinking forward.

“Young people need a rich diet of all genres,” said Mary Ann Cappiello, a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University’s graduate school of education and a lead author of the statement.

The debate over the appropriate balance has recurred periodically. The Common Core State Standards, unveiled in 2010, also said that nonfiction should make up a greater proportion of what students read—culminating in about 70 percent of text by the 12th grade.

States Sour on High School Exit Exams

The number of states requiring students to pass an exam to receive a high school diploma continues to fall, a sign that attitudes towards the once-popular general competency exams have shifted dramatically. Only eight states still mandate exit exams, according to an analysis released last month by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a nonprofit, down from nearly half the states about a decade ago.

Equity concerns are one reason: Studies link the tests to higher dropout rates among students of color and low-income students. But the pandemic also played a role: New Mexico leaders waived exam scores for high school students set to graduate in 2024, citing the need for time to focus on teaching and to catch kids up.

Newer research also suggests that failing an exam can have big consequences. Even though the population of kids who tend to fall just above and below the passing score are almost identical academically, those who pass are more likely to graduate.

Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming still require students to pass these exams to graduate. Other states are turning to “end of course” tests that more closely match content taught in a specific class, rather than general knowledge.

Poll: Parents Don’t Want Schools to Focus on ‘Culture Wars’

Despite all the headlines and political rhetoric devoted to the so-called culture wars in schools, most parents think a lot of it is much ado about nothing.

More than two thirds of voters and parents say they are not worried about teachers indoctrinating kids, pushing a “woke” agenda on them, or teaching critical race theory, as some Republican lawmakers and far-right parent groups have been accusing schools of doing for more than a year.

That’s according to a December 2022 poll by the American Federation of Teachers, which collected information from more than 1,500 voters, including 558 parents, about their priorities and areas of concern about public education. The participants in the national poll were evenly split on the political spectrum.

Fighting indoctrination, the “woke” agenda or the teaching of CRT are common reasons cited by Republican lawmakers for introducing or supporting challenges to books, and legislation that seeks to restricts teaching and learning certain lessons about race and racism or limit LGBTQ students’ rights in school.

However, new data show that voters don’t see those as important issues. Two-thirds of voters said that these kinds of culture wars distract public schools from their core mission of educating students, according to the poll.

Instead, most parents and voters agreed that school districts should focus on providing a safe and welcoming environment for children, ensuring that all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed, making sure students have strong fundamental skills in reading, math, and science, and developing students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Caitlynn Peetz, Staff Writer; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; Libby Stanford, Reporter; and Madeline Will, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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