Are Children Learning

Researchers explore what’s missing from debate on standards, testing

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Panelists from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education discuss the current public debate around standards and testing in Tennessee.

While most public opposition to the Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has come from political conservatives wary about losing local control of schools, there’s also concern that the academic standards are inextricably tied to a larger system of high-stakes standardized testing.

It doesn’t have to be that way, concluded a panel of researchers from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education on Monday during a forum on K-12 education in Tennessee.

Panelists suggested that uniform standards such as the Common Core can lead to more creative teaching, deeper learning and even better tests – if educators and policymakers can reach a consensus on the purpose of tests.

“I think it’s a good idea that we have a statement on what we think every kid in the country should know and be able to do,” said Barbara Stengel, a Peabody professor.

“We have a tendency to think, ‘Yeah, what I’m doing here is the right way to do it.’ We need some way of checking that, and standards are a good way to do that,” Stengel said. “Stated standards take me out of my corner, my community, even my state, and remind me what kids out there in the wide world are doing.”

In Tennessee, the Common Core and the impending arrival of a new standards-aligned assessment have dominated much of the debate about public education during the last year, including a handful of bills filed this year in the Tennessee General Assembly that would scrap the state’s current standards.

Panelists said Common Core standards and Next Generation – the national science standards developed by 26 states, including Tennessee – provide a springboard for students to “receive” math and science knowledge through passive lectures, but also to generate the knowledge themselves through hands-on classroom activities.

However, once-a-year tests mandated by the federal government can’t assess that kind of nuanced learning and don’t help teachers improve instruction, said Rich Lehrer, another Peabody professor

“If we want to engage children and older students in the production of mathematics and science knowledge, then there are very severe limitations of one-time tests to do that,” he said. “We’re going to have to broaden what we think of assessments.” As an example of a high-quality assessment, he cited a classroom experiment on silkworms, complete with open-ended, qualitative answers.

Marcy Singer-Gabella, the chief academic officer for Project GRAD, a partnership between Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, said such an assessment is more helpful to teachers because it gives insight into students’ ability to reason. “If we are unable to see what is happening inside the minds of students, it’s very difficult to know what I should be doing differently tomorrow,” she said.

The conversation around assessments changes, however, when the primary function of tests is to to make decisions about teacher hiring and firing or school closures —  an idea that all of the panelists were wary of.

“We don’t understand the impacts of high-stakes testing,” Singer-Gabella said. “In fact, there is so much noise in the system around testing that it is at our peril that we make consequential decisions based only on test scores.”

Singer-Garbella added that research shows that pegging teachers through test scores is especially problematic – since an individual teacher’s impact on student learning is probably only around 10 percent.

Carol Johnson, who led the former Memphis City Schools and Boston Public Schools, is now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt. She said the focus on individual teachers’ scores undermines teamwork – a key ingredient to teacher success. She also said that the increasing use of test scores to make decisions about teachers and schools can discourage teachers from going to the schools that are most in need.

“Teachers are much more reluctant to work in a school with high poverty in an environment where the accountability consequences are so severe that you might lose your job or you might not be rewarded if you happen to be teaching at a school where you can predict the outcomes for kids will be lower,” she said.

Stengel said public discussion around standards and tests should be aligned with the overall purpose of education.

“I think we want graduates who are both good and smart. We want them to be smart enough to think through the problems of the day, but we also want them to be . . . good at whatever the universe is calling them to do to contribute to our shared community,” she said.

Stengel said the most important question is whether standards are advancing the overall educational purpose. “Does the current regime of high-stakes testing contribute to making our students both good and smart?” she asked.

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It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee holds a hearing on the bill Thursday.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.