Top Stories 3 | 10 | 2014

BY PETER MEYER |  It was nearly an SAT sweep last week, but the Common Core wars — and a new report from the Fordham Institute — seem to ensure David Coleman’s rise to the Pantheon of modern education reform.  Worth noting, however, is an essay that warns us to be aware that expanded pre-K could mean lots more ADHD.

Stop the Presses: The College Board Changes the SAT

David Coleman sucked most of the air out of the education world room last week (see sidebar) with his Wednesday announcement about changes to the venerable Scholastic Aptitude Test, an announcement that included a cameo by the great Khan—Sal Kahn, whose Academy is going to offer free online test preparation for the new SATs, slated to be implemented in 2016.

(Other stories this week that might have been contenders for a Top Stories slot were it not for the SAT news  included a Cuomo v. de Blasio arms-length showdown in Albany (here and here); de Blasio v. Eva Moskowitz (here); a Marcus Winters study that concluded that charter co-location fears were a “phantom threat” (here); a Koret Task Force report on education’s future (here); the resumption of the Vergara teacher tenure trial in California (here); the unveiling of digital curriculums at a Texas conference (here); and a Chicagoland profile of Rahm Emanuel at Ed Next (here)).

But who could ignore news of the restructuring of a test that has caused such pre-college angst for millions of Americans – on the cover of the Sunday New York Times magazine with the bold headline, THE S.A.T. IS NOT FAIR, with the word NOT under erasure and a subhed blaring, “How the College Board revolutionized the most controversial exam in America.”  As mainstream media stories go, this one was a perfect score – which, on the retooled SAT, will once again be 1600.

Coleman, an unknown outside the inner circles of school reform until education journalist Dana Goldstein introduced him to a national audience with a September 2012 story in the Atlantic as “a lead architect of the Common Core standards,” has become one of education’s most prominent reformers; in part because of the dramatic headlines over the Common Core these last six months (see the next Top Story, below) and in part because, just a month after being revealed as the key architect of the English Language Arts Common Core Standards by the Atlantic, he was running the College Board, creator (in 1926) of the iconic and much feared SAT test.  (See Nicholas Lemann’s 1999 book, The Big Test, for a good history.)

The Times offered the best backgrounder on Coleman and the incubation of the SAT makeover in the magazine story by Todd Balf (released on Thursday under the headline, “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul”). Balf describes the genesis of the renovation, beginning several months before Coleman took over the CB, when he met with one of the SATs harshest critics, Les Perelman, a director of writing at M.I.T.

“The College Board was a huge nonprofit organization, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue (in part from the nearly three million SAT tests it administers to high-school students each year),” writes Balf, “and despite intense criticism in the past, it had done little, in Perelman’s estimation, to bring about meaningful change.”

Though the SAT has been an unavoidable right of passage for millions of college-bound students – 80 percent of four-year colleges require scores from the SAT or A.C.T., the SAT’s chief rival, reported Balf — the complaints were legion: the SAT caused enormous stress among high schoolers wanting to go to college, it was an inviolable barrier to college entry for many, it was nearly impossible to prepare for in school, it wasn’t connected to what kids were taught in high school, it disadvantaged students who couldn’t afford the specialized preparation programs that were themselves a cottage industry.  Coleman conducted a “`listening thing’ with his organization’s various frustrated constituencies,” writes Balf, and then formed a strategy for change.

According to the College Board website, Coleman and his team settled on “eight key changes” to the SAT:

  1. Relevant Words in Context. The redesigned SAT will focus on relevant words, the meanings of which depend on how they’re used. Students will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear… No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words.
  2. Command of Evidence. When students take the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the redesigned SAT, they’ll be asked to demonstrate their ability to interpret, synthesize, and use evidence found in a wide range of sources. These include informational graphics and multiparagraph passages excerpted from literature and literary nonfiction; texts in the humanities, science, history, and social studies; and career-related sources. For every passage students read, there will be at least one question asking them to select a quote from the text that best supports the answer they have chosen in response to the preceding question.
  3. Essay Analyzing a Source. The focus of the Essay section on the redesigned SAT will be very different from the essay on the current SAT. Students will read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument. They’ll need to support their claims with evidence from the passage…. The Essay will be an optional component of the SAT, although some school districts and colleges will require it.
  4. Math Focused on Three Key Areas. The exam will focus in depth on three essential areas of math: Problem Solving and Data Analysis, the Heart of Algebra, and Passport to Advanced Math…. Current research shows that these areas most contribute to readiness for college and career training.
  5. Problems Grounded in Real-World Contexts. Throughout the redesigned SAT, students will engage with questions grounded in the real world, questions directly related to the work performed in college and career. In the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, reading questions will include literature and literary nonfiction, but also feature charts, graphs, and passages like the ones students are likely to encounter in science, social science, and other majors and careers. Students will be asked to do more than correct errors; they’ll edit and revise to improve texts from the humanities, history, social science, and career contexts.
  6. Analysis in Science and in Social Studies. When students take the redesigned SAT, they will be asked to apply their reading, writing, language, and math skills to answer questions in science, history, and social studies contexts. They will use these skills — in college, in their jobs, and in their lives — to make sense of recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues. Students will encounter challenging texts and informational graphics that pertain to issues and topics like these in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section.
  7. Founding Documents and Great Global Conversation…. Every time students take the redesigned SAT, they will encounter an excerpt from one of the Founding Documents or a text from the ongoing Great Global Conversation about freedom, justice, and human dignity. In this way, we hope that the redesigned SAT will inspire deep engagement with texts that matter and reflect not only what is important for college and career, but what is important for citizenship here and around the world.
  8. No Penalty for Wrong Answers. The redesigned SAT will remove the penalty for wrong answers. Students will earn points for the questions they answer correctly.

Those familiar with the Common Core might recognize the Coleman stamp here; an emphasis on “real-world contexts,” “founding documents,” “deep engagement texts that matter,” and “evidence-based reading and writing.”  In fact, Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard, 2011), told Education Week that not making that point during the SAT rollout hoopla was a  “glaring omission.”  Others, however, pointed out that, given CC’s current frying pan status, mentioning it at the SAT event might have seemed to Coleman like a fire he didn’t need to jump into.

The range of reaction to the SAT overhaul, so far, has been predictably varied. In the Letters section of the New York Times, the College Board was praised for “beginning to tie the content of the SAT more closely to desirable aspects of the college preparatory curriculum” and criticized for “dumbing down the SAT to align itself with often deficient high school curriculums.” National Public Radio’s Scott Simon was upset that the mandatory essay (introduced only in 2005) will be dropped. “I’ve grown to see writing an essay for this show every week as a little like writing an SAT essay week after week, and I’m saddened to think the importance of the essay may be diminished.”

But it could be, as Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, told Ed Week, that the CB’s new focus on bringing disadvantaged high schoolers into the SAT orbit will be the most important of the changes Coleman is bringing to the collegeentrypalooza. Says Cohen: “As the College Board intentionally organizes its resources, financially and technically, to support and improve preparation and higher level of opportunity for disadvantaged students, that’s an awfully important thing to do.”



Common Core in the Trenches

Offering a hint as to why David Coleman didn’t mention Common Core at his SAT press conference, Mike Antonucci in his Education Intelligence Agency blog post last week reported that, “If you thought things were moving fast in the Crimea, take a look at the swings in fortune on the Common Core battle map in just the last 24 hours.” Antonucci listed ten states, from Alabama (“Bill In Works That would Allow Common Core Opt-Out for Schools”) to Wisconsin (“Bill that would undo Common Core academic standards all but dead”) where the CC was in trouble or rising from its sickbed, concluding that “it is clear the public is mostly ignorant about Common Core.”

This is one reason that the Thomas Fordham Institute’s new report, “Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers,” is so timely.  Yes, write Fordham’s Amber Northern and Mike Petrilli their Foreward, the CC rollout has been, “in a word: bumpy.”  On the one hand, both supporters and detractors seem to be making of the Standards anything they want. I called it an education Rorschach test in my “Common Core Conflation Syndrome” essay last year. At the launch event for the CUNY Institute for Education Policy last spring a member of the audience told David Coleman that a teacher said she had to “put away her literature book and photocopied microwave instructions” for her eighth-grade class because of the Common Core. (To which Coleman replied, “Careful reading is an important thing” and “the ability to misread [the Standards] is widespread.”)   Sandra Stotsky, who oversaw the Massachusetts standards miracle in the late 1990s, thinks the CCSS are wimpy (see also Peter Wood while one veteran teacher and union leader told New York State education Commissioner John King that the Standards amounted to child abuse.  And all this public harrumphing doesn’t count the folks trying to make a buck off the new standards, including publishers that at least one critic is calling “snake oil salesmen.”

“Even as the media attention to the implementation of the Common Core grows,” write Katie Cristol and Brinnie Ramsey, co-authors of the new Fordham report, “the general public remains largely unfamiliar with the standards.”

This is why their report for Fordham, just 99 pages, is so important. It even includes a handy one-page Appendix called, “The Depth of the Change: What’s Different Under the Common Core.” Cristol and Ramsey, analysts for Education First, the  consulting firm with deep roots in the standards-reform movement, chose four public school districts that were “moving energetically to implement the new standards in their classrooms” and analyzed what they were doing:

  • Kenton County School district in Kentucky was “the trailblazer.” It’s in a “mid-size bedroom community just outside Cincinnati with close to 15,000 students” and has been working in implementing the Common Core for more than three years;
  • Metro Nashville Public Schools is “the urban bellwether,” with nearly 80,000 students, some 60 percent African-American and Hispanic and 75 percent low income.  It introduced Common Core in its classrooms in 2011-2012;
  • The “high-performing suburb” is Illinois’s District 54, serving the largely affluent Chicago suburb of Shaumburg. It gave CC an “enthusiastic embrace” and started “extensive preparation in the 2012-2013 school year;
  • Washoe County School District is Nevada’s second largest, with 65,000 students and is called “the creative implementer” by Cristol and Ramsey.  Despite “consecutive years of budget cuts,” the district created new professional development programs and reallocated funds to support CC implementation in 2011-12.

The report provides a refreshing break from the “political posturing and mudslinging,” as Fordham execs Mike Petrilli and Amber Northern write in their introduction.  And districts in the 45 states and District of Columbia who are still committed to the new standards, however warily, would do well to digest this report. Among its key findings:

  • Teachers and principals are the primary faces and voices of the Common Core standards in their communities.
  • Implementation gains traction when district and school leaders lock onto the Common Core standards as the linchpin of instruction, professional learning, and accountability in their buildings.
  • In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own.
  • The scramble to deliver quality CCSS-aligned professional development to all who need it is both as crucial and (so far) as patchy as the quest for suitable instructional materials.
  • The lack of aligned assessments will make effective implementation of the Common Core difficult for another year.

It is not a rosy-cheek assessment by any means.  But as Petrilli and Northern point out, it’s still spring training, “a time when focusing on the fundamentals, teamwork, and steady improvement is more important than the score.”  Understanding what these four districts have been doing will go a long way to shining a needed light on the path ahead – or home plate, if it’s a night game.

Expand Pre-K, Not A.D.H.D

There is a famous line about government, often attributed to George Washington, that goes, “Government is like fire; it can warm your hands and it can burn your house down.”  It sounds a bit too pithy for our pre-eminent Founding Father, but as truisms go, it’s hard to beat.  So it is in education.  Where does good practice become bad practice?  When does the need for testing beget too much testing; the need for accountability beget cheating; the need for labor law justice beget Rubber Rooms.

This important essay, by Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler, professors at at the University of California, Berkeley, and authors of The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money, and Today’s Push for Performance, suggests that the huge medical-education complex has created just such a problem:  “Over the next few years, America can count on a major expansion of early childhood education. We embrace this trend, but as health policy researchers, we want to raise a major caveat: Unless we’re careful, today’s preschool bandwagon could lead straight to an epidemic of 4- and 5-year-olds wrongfully being told that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

“We’re all for high standards,” the writers warn, “but danger lurks.”

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