Monday, July 20, 2009

How states like Illinois rig school tests to hype phony achievement

When President Obama chose Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, he cited Mr. Duncan's success as head of Chicago's public school system from 2001 to 2008. But a new education study suggests that those academic gains aren't what they seemed. The study also helps explain why big-city education reform is unlikely to occur without school choice.

Mr. Obama noted in December that "in just seven years, Arne's boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38% of students meeting the standard to 67%" and that "the dropout rate has gone down every year he's been in charge." But according to "Still Left Behind," a report by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a majority of Chicago public school students still drop out or fail to graduate with their class. Moreover, "recent dramatic gains in the reported number of CPS elementary students who meet standards on state assessments appear to be due to changes in the tests . . . rather than real improvements in student learning."

Our point here isn't to pick on Mr. Duncan, but to illuminate the ease with which tests can give the illusion of achievement. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, states must test annually in grades 3 through 8 and achieve 100% proficiency by 2014. But the law gives states wide latitude to craft their own exams and to define math and reading proficiency. So state tests vary widely in rigor, and some have lowered passing scores and made other changes that give a false impression of academic success.

The new Chicago report explains that most of the improvement in elementary test scores came after the Illinois Standards Achievement Test was altered in 2006 to comply with NCLB. "State and local school officials knew that the new test and procedures made it easier for students throughout the state -- and throughout Chicago -- to obtain higher marks," says the report.

Chicago students fared much worse on national exams that weren't designed by state officials. On the 2007 state test, for example, 71% of Chicago's 8th graders met or exceeded state standards in math, up from 32% in 2005. But results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, a federal standardized test sponsored by the Department of Education, show that only 13% of the city's 8th graders were proficient in math in 2007. While that was better than 11% in 2005, it wasn't close to the 39 percentage-point increase reflected on the Illinois state exam.

In Mr. Duncan's defense, he wasn't responsible for the new lower standards, which were authorized by state education officials. In 2006, he responded to a Chicago Tribune editorial headlined, "An 'A' for Everybody!" by noting (correctly) that "this is the test the state provided; this is the state standard our students were asked to meet." But this doesn't change the fact that by defining proficiency downward, states are setting up children to fail in high school and college. We should add that we've praised New York City test results that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also claims are inflated, but we still favor mayoral control of New York's schools as a way to break through the bureaucracy and drive more charter schools.

And speaking of charters, the Chicago study says they "provide one bright spot in the generally disappointing performance of Chicago's public schools." The city has 30 charters with 67 campuses serving 30,000 students out of a total public school population of 408,000. Another 13,000 kids are on wait lists because the charters are at capacity, and it's no mystery why. Last year 91% of charter elementary schools and 88% of charter high schools had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards than the neighborhood schools that the students otherwise would have attended.

Similar results have been observed from Los Angeles to Houston to Harlem. The same kids with the same backgrounds tend to do better in charter schools, though they typically receive less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. In May, the state legislature voted to increase the cap on Chicago charter schools to 70 from 30, though Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has yet to sign the bill.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley deserves credit for hiring Mr. Duncan, a charter proponent. But in deference to teachers unions that oppose school choice, Mr. Daley stayed mostly silent during the debate over the charter cap. That's regrettable, because it's becoming clear that Chicago's claim of reform success among noncharter schools is phony.


Have British universities taught their students anything?

Higher education used to be exciting and guarantee a good job. Not any more

A broken promise? Or a noble aspiration that ended in disappointment? Of all the targets set by New Labour when it first came to power in 1997, the real headline-grabber – the one we all remember – was the aim of having 50 per cent of school leavers in higher education. That one felt good, emotionally, however half-baked the thinking behind it.

In this brave new 50/50 world, higher education would no longer be the preserve of a privileged minority, but a natural progression from a normal schooling. And the prospect of universities opening their doors to children whose parents and grandparents had missed out on the chance appealed to people across the political divide. It mirrored the kind of Britain we all wanted to live in.

Nobody focused too much on the small print. What would all these new university entrants be studying? How useful would their degrees be to them in later life? Who was going to pay for all this? It was the headline figure that caught the eye: 50 per cent. Half the population. A reasonable target for a modern democracy.

Twelve years on from the Labour landslide of 1997, the 50 per cent target is as remote as ever, like a mirage in a desert. In 2008-9, 39.8 per cent of people aged between 18 and 30 were in higher education, compared with 39.2 per cent 10 years earlier – absolutely minuscule progress, however you crunch the figures. The proportion did rise to 42 per cent in 2005 but that was a freak year, statistically – there was a surge of students wanting to enrol before the introduction of top-up tuition fees.

Hopes of widening access to higher education have also been cruelly disappointed. Research published earlier this year showed that children from the poorest 25 per cent of families make up just 6.5 per cent of the student population. From Wolverhampton to Newcastle, there is an educational underclass that refuses to go away. No target set in Whitehall can shift it one jot. In the very poorest areas, fewer than one in 20 school-leavers go on to university.

This coming autumn, thanks to the economic recession, is going to be a particularly depressing time for apostles of higher education. Millions of British children still aspire to go university. UCAS applications are up eight per cent on last year. But the requisite university places are not there for them. The Government has had to put a cap of 10,000, down from 15,000, on the number of new places which universities can offer.

The problem is not a lack of interest in learning among the young: it is the lack of a structure in which that appetite for learning can be satisfied. There are not enough good, useful, challenging degree courses to go around. And, with increasing numbers of pupils getting good grades at A level, it has become harder and harder for universities to sort the wheat from the chaff at the application stage.

In previous years, because of the clearing system, most school-leavers who were determined to go on to higher education managed to find a course somewhere, even if it was not their first choice. This year, the gap between supply and demand will ensure an awful lot of disappointed youngsters in August and September.

Well, perhaps they should just swallow their disappointment and get on with their lives. It should not take Sir Alan Sugar to remind us that success in life is not achieved by racking up letters after your name but by hard graft, enterprise and a teaspoonful of arrogance.

Yes, a degree can be a passport to a secure career and a comfortable income, but not even that can be taken for granted any more.

Interestingly, a recent survey indicated that only 49 per cent of employers planned to recruit graduates this year. Companies that would normally comb the universities for talent are tightening their belts like everyone else, which can only mean one thing – graduate unemployment on a significant scale.

Not so long ago, the idea that you could go to university, get a good degree, then have to join the dole queue like everyone else, was anathema. I remember, as a student in the late Seventies, staring horrified at a front-page news story about an Oxford graduate with a first-class degree who was still unemployed nine months after graduating. That story would not make the front pages today; in fact, it would hardly be worth reporting at all. The unemployed graduate, with a five-figure student loan to pay off, but not a sniff of a job, is part of the social furniture of our times.

My elder daughter, now 23, is a medical student in London. She should be able to find a job when she graduates: the country needs every doctor it can get. But for her contemporaries who have left good universities with degrees in arts subjects, the outlook is much bleaker. Some of them have found reasonably paid jobs. Others are still doing the sort of non-professional jobs they were doing before they went up to university. Not surprisingly, they are starting to ask themselves; was it worth it?

It is a question which more and more students are asking themselves while they are still at university. They enrol to read geography or film studies or political science, or whatever, go to the odd lecture, attend seminars, take notes, dash off essays at three in the morning. But, deep down, they get no real enjoyment from their studies, which seem too much like hard work. They have been told that higher education will be good for them: they have not been told that it will only be good for them if they want to do it.

A few years back, the daughter of some friends of mine set gaily off to read English at Durham, having got three As in her A-levels, then dropped out after six months. "She's throwing her whole life away," wailed her father, a teacher. Not a bit of it. She was just bored, burnt out academically, and in need of a fresh challenge. In the university of life – in her case, working on a sheep farm in New Zealand – she learnt far more than she would have ever have learnt studying Wordsworth and Conrad.

She is back in England now, working for an IT company. Perhaps, in a few years, she will have rediscovered her appetite for academic study and apply for university again, or get a professional qualification. Or perhaps she won't bother, because she is happy and doing well and forging ahead in the working world, unburdened by the debts of her contemporaries who took out student loans and thought university was the answer to all their prayers.

From a utopian viewpoint, whatever your politics, the fact that higher education remains theoretically open to all but, in practice, is only enjoyed by a minority, will remain a source of disappointment. But we shouldn't get too hung up on statistics, particularly ones like that arbitrary 50 per cent target. A university education can be a joy, a privilege, a stepping stone; but it is not a prerequisite for a happy and successful career.


Australians Open U.S. Med School

When Australia itself has to import large numbers of Indian doctors, this seems very odd. There is no doubt, however, that the University of Queensland is a highly regarded institution. In American terms, it would be one of the "Ivies". Both I and my son are graduates of it

To produce more physicians for Louisiana, a major academic medical center has joined up with a medical school down under. The University of Queensland School of Medicine, in Australia, has opened a clinical school in New Orleans in cooperation with Louisiana's Ochsner Health System. Under the arrangement, students will travel to Brisbane for the first two years of medical school, then return to the United States to complete their third- and fourth-year clinical training at Queensland's new outpost at Ochsner. Those enrolled in the collaborative program will graduate with an Australian medical degree, a Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), which is equivalent to an M.D., from Queensland.

This particular program is only open to American students and, while its graduates will be eligible to apply for an internship in Australia, the stated intent is to help address projected physician shortages in the United States, Louisiana especially. “The goal for them is to secure residencies and practice in the United States. Our Ochsner goals are to have our top students stay in Louisiana, and hopefully at Ochsner,” said William W. Pinsky, executive vice president and chief academic officer for the Ochsner Health System. The first 16 students in the program began their training in Australia in January; the goal is to admit 80 students this coming January and the following year, 120 more, “which would be our steady state.”

“This is quite a novel, transnational model of education. We’ve all talked about these sorts of things in the higher education sector for some time but as far as we know, this is the first, certainly the first in Australia, and we’re not aware of any other partnership like this in the United States," said David Wilkinson, dean of medicine and head of the medical school at Queensland

Queensland's medical school, which is positioning itself as "Australia's global medical school," also has a clinical school in Brunei, in Southeast Asia, and is in the early stages of establishing a shared teaching site in Malaysia, Wilkinson said. About half the medical school's students spend a portion of their studies overseas, and they can now come to Ochsner for a clinical rotation. "That's a very important part of this program, that we have mixed student cohorts," said Wilkinson.

Apart from the education component of the collaboration, Pinsky added, "To really make this a home run, we need to extend this further in terms of getting into a collaborative relationship with research."

Australian universities have been active in establishing branch campuses abroad, although, with the exception of Charles Stuart University's campus in Ontario (offering degrees in education and business), not typically in North America. In fact, rather than have their ranks reinforced from abroad, some U.S. medical schools have set up shop elsewhere -- take Cornell University's medical campus in Qatar, for instance, and Duke University's partnership with the National University of Singapore.

And while many university entities have developed joint, dual or otherwise transnational degrees in recent years, it's more complicated terrain in schools of medicine given licensure and accreditation requirements, and extra hurdles that foreign medical school graduates must jump in order to practice medicine in the U.S. -- including Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates certification.

In this case, a graduate of the Queensland/Ochsner program applying for licensure in Louisiana “will be considered an international medical school graduate, and will be required to go through ECFMG and meet the various requirements associated with that. But I imagine that would not be a problem, and that they’ll end up doing post-graduate training here in Louisiana, some of them at Ochsner, some in the growing network of Ochsner facilities,” said Robert Marier, executive director of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners.

Marier, a former medical school dean, said the Ochsner/Queensland partnership strikes him as pretty unique, “in one respect. There are offshore medical schools, international schools, in the Caribbean, for instance, which have established relationships with hospitals in the United States and they send significant numbers of their students, most of whom are also U.S. citizens, up to these hospitals for clinical training. That’s not new.... I think what’s different about this arrangement is Queensland is a great university, it’s not a for-profit off-shore medical school. It’s a great university and aspires to be a world player, and with good reason…. And Ochsner is a major, major teaching hospital, so I think it’ll be excellent clinical training for these students.”

“It’s very important to understand that this is a very serious and genuine attempt at an exciting transnational collaboration. This is not a, if you will, a Caribbean medical school, run by a bunch of businessmen. This is a very serious transnational collaboration between one of the world's leading universities and one of America’s leading integrated health systems,” said Wilkinson, the head of Queensland’s medical school.

Queensland’s School of Medicine is accredited by the Australian Medical Council, and the school has submitted an application regarding the new arrangement with Ochsner for the council's approval; the accreditor's decision is pending. “We are hopeful but we are also conscious that this is a novel partnership,” said Wilkinson.

As for those students who have already started the joint Queensland/Ochsner program, in the event that the accreditor does not approve it, or does not do so in a timely fashion, "students who enroll will be expected to complete their four year medical education at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia," as Queensland's Web site for international applicants notes.

John Prescott, chief academic officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said that he was struck by the partnership given that Ochsner has had a long history of working with students from the medical schools at Louisiana State and Tulane Universities (Pinsky said the long-standing affiliations with Louisiana-based medical schools are continuing amid the development of its new partnership with Queensland).

“The prime difference is that the LSU students and the Tulane students are from schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education," Prescott said. The LCME is sponsored by the AAMC and the American Medical Association, and only accredits medical schools in the U.S. and Canada.

“I re-watched the press announcement where the governor [of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal] and others were talking about helping to meet the needs of Louisiana. If it helps to do that, wonderful, that would be a truly wonderful thing,” Prescott said (the AAMC has been among those calling attention to the projected physician shortage and need to increase medical school capacity). Other than that, Prescott continued, “I know the American system very well. I don’t know the system well for Australia, and would have to wait before I make further comment... I’d have to just see how this would roll out.”



teach said...

Higher education means a better job and good life. If you take some specialization in teaching like Praxis I test then you can earn more and find better job than previous.

Robert said...

The University of Queensland's medical school branch in Louisiana reminded me of a story told by Dr. Feinberg at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on UCLA Day back in May. The whole story he told, which I found fascinating, is repeated here. I think he has found a great model for running a hospital.