Friday, April 24, 2015

Scientific Practices: A Big Shift in Our New Standards

Kentucky's new science standards bring a giant shift toward science and engineering practices.  Eight  major practices are to be applied across physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Those practices aren't an alternative to content knowledge: students will still need to read, write, study, and thing about scientific insights developed over centuries and those emerging now from current research.

Instead, the practices demand that the content knowledge move off of the textbook page (out of the lecture notes, beyond the PowerPoint slides) and into active thinking and work.  Each page of the standards begins with statements that "students who demonstrate understanding can" do specific things.  As illustrations, the middle school standards say call for students to be able to "undertake a design project to construct, test, and modify a device that either releases or absorbs thermal energy by chemical processes" and "analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem."

For student learning, that will require a big realignment to focus on puzzling through big issues and practical applications and building increasingly skilled use of each practice.  For example, with Practice 1 (asking questions), students may start with open-ended puzzling about phenomena they've observed, but then they'll need to learn to move smoothly into focusing their inquiries on testable questions. For Practice 3 (planning and carrying out investigations), those questions will need to be framed in terms of variables and controls.  The standards also provide progressions from grade to grade, so that students develop expertise over the years--but even the youngest are involved in regular, lively work to develop rich insight into the natural world.

In turn, for the community at large, this shift in science expectations creates a new puzzle: what kind of evidence will show us that students are developing those practices?  It seems hard, probably impossible, for machine-scored tests to give us real insight.  If we want to know how students are doing, we may indeed need to find innovative ways to check on this deeper learning.  To succeed, we may have to take on very active roles in defining problems (Practice 1), designing solutions (Practice 6), and making arguments from evidence (Practice 7).

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Most districts losing educators, even as state total grows

From 2004 to 2014, most Kentucky school districts reduced their certified staffs, even as the statewide total increased by 2%. Certified employees include teachers and other educators whose positions require state certificates, including librarians, counselors, principals, superintendents, and some other positions.

The changes can be seen in more detail in this table:

 Thus, three important patterns:
  • The growth tilted toward the larger districts, with smaller districts on average seeing declines and the medium-sized districts taking the greatest losses.
  • The growth was heavily concentrated in the county systems, rather than independent districts.
  • Appalachian districts took heavy losses even as the others grew.
The Appalachian situation is arguably even tougher than these numbers show.  They reflect Appalachian Regional Commission's designation of 54 counties and their 18 independent districts, but a handful of the included locations had very different experiences.

Madison County added 73 certified employees for a 13% growth rate. A set of seven districts (Bath, Clark, Corbin, Laurel, Madison, Montgomery, and Pulaski) together added 247 teachers and 10%.  If those seven were left out of the regional count, the remaining districts would show an 11% decline.

What unites those districts that have been able to add educators over the last decade?  For six of them, you can exit an interstate highway and your off-ramp will put you inside the county seat.  Pulaski doesn't fit that category exactly but it's already at the junction of major east/west and north/south routes, and there's steady campaigning to extend I-66 along that same path.  Roughly, this means the growth zones are in the places most connected to other regions, and the losses deeper in the Appalachian part of the state are heavy indeed.

Here's a second table counting the districts seeing the various kinds of changes:
Over this same period, Kentucky schools saw a 5% increase in the number of students in average daily attendance, so a 2% increase in certified staff falls clearly short of keeping pace.

Monday, April 20, 2015

High School Feedback Reports Show Need for Stronger Supports for Students' Success

Here's a post by Brigitte Blom Ramsey:

Last week, Kentucky released high school feedback reports highlighting the college going and college success rates for students from each of Kentucky's high schools. This is the third year the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics has released these numbers. This year's reports look at college going for the class of 2012 and first year college success for the class of 2011.

Here are some interesting data points and some food for thought:

61.7 - is the percent of 2012 Kentucky public high school graduates going immediately on to college. This is up only slightly over the two years prior.

15.6 - is the percent who earned 30 credits in their freshman year, keeping them on track to be a sophomore their second year in college.

12.1 - is the average number of college credits earned by first year students whose ACT scores showed they were not fully ready for college upon leaving high school.

22.9 - is the average number of college credits earned by students their first year in college who were ready for college based on their ACT score.

These last three data points are particularly concerning. The low number of credit hours earned by so many full-time college students their first year is likely a result of one or more of the following factors: students having to take remedial classes that don't carry college credit, students not being successful in one or more classes their freshman year, or students not taking enough credit hours each semester.

For successful transitions from high school to postsecondary to take place, college/career readiness is critical, but so is appropriate counseling support for all students in both high school and college. College/career counselors can help ensure students pursue the right postsecondary option for them and prove successful in that all important first year after high school.

To view the "Kentucky High School Feedback Report on College Going" and the "Kentucky High School Feedback Report on College Success" for your district or high school, please use this link.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Adding Students, Unevenly

From 2004 to 2014, Kentucky public schools saw a 5% increase in the number of students in average daily attendance, but that growth was far from evenly distributed: more than half of our districts actually saw their numbers decline. Additional differences can be seen in a table of results sorted by district size, type, and region:

Thus, three important patterns:
  • The growth tilted toward the larger districts, with smaller districts on average seeing declines
  • The growth was faster in the county systems (taken as a group) than in independent systems
  • The growth was concentrated outside Appalachia (using the Appalachian Regional Commission's designation of 54 counties and adding the 18 independents in that part of the state)
The Appalachian picture looks relatively tame because a handful of districts on the edge of the region had powerful growth.  Madison County, for example, added 1,653 students to its average daily attendance, growing 19% in one decade. If Madison were not included in the Appalachian list, the rest of the region would show a 3% decline. Clark, Corbin, Laurel, Madison, Montgomery, Pulaski, and Rowan, with excellent highway access and opportunities to act as regional hubs, showed 12% growth --and leaving them out would show the remaining districts with a 6% decline.

Here's a second table counting the districts seeing the various kinds of changes, with one twist on the earlier patterns:
  • Even though independent districts had slower growth as a set than counties as a group, a majority of independents expanded while a majority of counties shrank.
When thinking of those 88 districts with declining attendance, bear in mind that even small losses can bring big challenges. For example, even if layoffs are avoided, people who retire may not be replaced.  Over time,  as those who remain grow in seniority, payroll still creeps upward, making it hard to maintain existing programs and harder still to invest in innovations.  Most Kentucky districts are working in that difficult zone, even while public education as a whole expands.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Performance Tasks, Because Life is not Multiple Choice

Multiple-choice tests are easy to score, and there's a whole science built up around ensuring that results are fairly comparable from school to school and from year to year.  Those are good things.  And yet...

The work students will need to do as adults will be so different. They'll need to create their own solutions, analyzing the problem independently, hunting for their own information, thinking it through, and communicating their conclusions and reasoning effectively.  So I was glad to spot the new, which is promising "articles, discussions, and resources" on some richer ways for students to demonstrate what they know and can do.

In the initial blog post, Jay McTighe offers a definition:
A performance task is any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product and/or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.
McTighe also offers four examples of performance tasks students might be asked to take on: one for siting and designing a public park, another for testing a company's claims about its cat litter, a third for choosing where a regional consultant should base her home and office, and the last on developing articles on the role of forensic investigators.

All of those tasks are harder than choosing from prepared answers.  Students have to work harder, and the scorers have to work harder, and public officials using the data have to think harder about the implications.  The trade-off is this: this kind of work offers evidence that really shows whether kids can really do the sorts of things we really want them doing.

Mind, I'm not saying we need to use this kind of task for statewide accountability.   They're expensive, and there's not a lot of public tolerance for the uncertainties that are included in the scoring.  We learned that in the 1990s when Kentucky tried to break new ground with this kind of activity.

Still,  there could be big benefits if we could use this kind of task as evidence for students, parents, teachers, and communities to consider.  We'd have a better idea of what students will know and be able to do as contributors to our shared future.   In those slightly looser uses, we should be open to richer ways of checking for learning and thinking through what's most important in teaching.

From that perspective, is a welcome invitation to new discussion.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

EdTrust: New bill needs rules on how states tackle gaps

Kati Haycock at the Education Trust is praising many parts of the Every Child Achieves Act, which the latest proposal for replacing No Child Left Behind, but calling for major improvement in one area: the rules about identifying and intervening in schools where all students or a major subgroup is not on track to graduate ready for college and career.  In an April 7 statement, Haycock wrote:
But even as we celebrate what is in the bill, we must press for attention to what is not. What’s missing is a clear expectation that student progress toward college- and career- ready graduation matters most in the accountability system, coupled with a clear expectation that any school that is chronically low-performing or consistently underperforming for any group of students be identified for intervention and support...

[I]f federal law allows states — when they decide which schools need attention and action — to turn a blind eye to schools that are not making progress toward college- and career-ready graduation for some or all groups of children, then most states will do exactly that. And the children who attend schools that consistently fail to meet some or all of the state-set goals can have no confidence that anybody will act to protect their futures.
I started to type in "Kentucky would never turn a blind eye," but then I remembered how recently we've done just that.  It's public policy that Kentucky only provides state support to turn around 41 persistently low achieving schools at a time, because we say we can't afford to strengthen the other schools where students need rapid change just as badly.  Similarly, in 2013, when it came time to identify the second cohort of focus schools where specific groups of students had catastrophically low scores, Kentucky just didn't identify the schools with those weaknesses, and funding was again offered as the explanation.  I want to believe we're better, but the evidence doesn't really allow me to deny EdTrust's argument.

So, yes, the Education Trust has a sound point about likely state choices if the federal rules are not clear about identifying and supporting schools where many students are still being left behind. 

Check out Kati Haycock's full statement and yesterday's PrichBlog post on the basics of the bill.  The committee mark-up of the draft legislation begins today.

--Posted by Susan Perkins Weston

Monday, April 13, 2015

Every Child Achieves Act?

In 1965, it was called  the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and in 2002, it was renewed with the major changes that made it the No Child Left Behind Act. 

Now the"Every Child Achieves Act of 2015" seems to have a shot at becoming law, renewing the ESEA and changing the NCLB requirements.  Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash)  proposed a bipartisan approach.  Politics K-12 reports that amendments are due today for the committee markup that begins tomorrow.

If the current bill became law without changes, states would still be required to:
  • set academic standards
  • assess reading and math once per grade in grades 3-8 and once in high school
  • assess science three times between grade 3 and grade 12.
  • report assessment results broken out by student subgroups
  • establish accountability rules that make use of those assessment results and graduation rates
  • identify low-performing schools
However, if the current bill became law without changes, states would be able to:
  • pilot innovative assessment systems in school districts
  • use additional indicators of student and school performance in accountability calculations (Politics K-12's example of a possible addition is "percent of students taking AP tests")
  • design accountability rules with considerably more flexibility, including an absence of federal requirements about how many schools to identify as low-performing.
In the nature of the legislative process, the current bill almost certainly will see changes, and it may end up never becoming law.  Still, after years and years of failed proposals for ESEA reauthorization, this bipartisan draft may have more potential than most.

Also in the nature of the legislative process, the current bill has many more parts, and I've settled for a few main issues.  You can read the committee summary here, the Politics K-12 summary here, or the full text of the bill here. 

--Posted by Susan Perkins Weston