Saturday, May 01, 2010

MA: State considers watering down MCAS

Officials push back timeline to 2020 for higher scores

In an effort to boost the achievement of all students, Massachusetts education officials are considering a new benchmark that they hope will be more attainable than a nearly decade-old federal requirement that has fallen out of favor with President

Yesterday, a task force of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended setting a goal that 85 percent of students score proficient or advanced on the MCAS test by 2020. That would represent a notable departure from a goal established under President George W. Bush that called for 100 percent of students to be proficient by 2014.

The new benchmark and longer timeline, state education officials say, reflect the enormous task the state confronts in raising achievement levels for all students, as well as specific categories of students, based on such factors as race and ethnicity, income levels, and learning disabilities.

Officials say more work needs to be done to overhaul underperforming schools and expand programs for English-language learners, two areas where test achievement lags. They also want to beef up, among other things, literacy programs for all elementary school students.

The task force on the “proficiency gap’’ believes that the proposed goal is more appropriate and reachable, said board member Jeff Howard, who chairs the task force.

“We were looking for something challenging but realistic that would mobilize people’s attention and resources to get it done,’’ said Howard, who is president and founder of the Efficacy Institute in Waltham, a national nonprofit that works with school districts on programs to boost the achievement of economically disadvantaged students. “A goal that is unrealistic has no mobilizing effect on anyone.’’

While some groups of students are somewhat near the proposed goal, others are far behind, according to the report by the task force on the “proficiency gap.’’

The federal goal, created about eight years ago under the No Child Left Behind Act, has been losing credibility with many educators, researchers, and education advocates across Massachusetts, as the state has targeted more than half of all its schools for improvement or radical overhauls because of a failure to make adequate annual progress in reaching the 2014 deadline. It is a sentiment that is prevalent in other states as well, prompting some to lower standards for proficiency.

It’s not entirely clear how Obama might replace the Bush-era goal. Obama has said he wants a more nuanced method of judging schools that would probably go beyond test scores. Ultimately, he wants school systems to graduate students who are ready for college or the workforce. Any changes would have to be approved by Congress.

The proposed goal in Massachusetts drew a mix of praise and skepticism. Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, welcomed the change. “It’s a reasonable goal,’’ Scott said. “I think it has a more realistic chance of success than the federal objective had.’’

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, called the new goal ambitious, but was somewhat skeptical about the state’s motives in establishing the new benchmark.

“Is this just another attempt to regulate and punish, or is it a sincere effort to get kids to proficiency and help districts get there?’’ said Koocher, who had not read the report. “This being Massachusetts, we have to read carefully into the fine details of the proposal, before drawing final conclusions.’’

It’s not clear whether the proposed goal would carry any sanctions against schools that fail to meet it.

The state board is scheduled to discuss the report at its next meeting.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he thought the new goal had a lot of merit but was not sure about the 85 percent mark. “I’m a believer of setting goals,’’ Chester said. “I like conceptually what’s been recommended.’’


“Free schools” won’t save British education

A Swede tells the Tories that they are wrong to get so overexcited about the Swedish free-school model

Traditionally it was left-leaning Brits who pined after Swedish models, but in this year’s General Election campaign it’s the Conservatives who are taking inspiration from the north. Party leader David Cameron, as part of his plan to build a Big Society, wants to allow parents, charities, churches and other groups to set up their own so-called ‘free schools’ - a hybrid of Sweden’s friskolor and American charter schools. It is time, Cameron says, to end ‘education bureaucracy’, give parents more choice, and infuse the school system with healthy competition in order to drive up standards.

New Labour says such reforms would threaten local education budgets as old state schools are likely to lose pupils, and therefore funding, to the new free schools (which would receive state-funding but would operate independently). Critics also say that the reforms will entrench inequalities, as children with parents who are willing to put in the time and effort needed to set up or ‘shop around’ for schools will benefit, while others will be left behind. For the Conservatives, however, competition is key. They believe that, as associations and interest groups set up schools according to certain children’s needs, all schools will have to up their game in order to attract pupils and funding.

But what has been missed out in the budget- and competition-centred debate around free schools is how this survival-of-the-fittest version of education devalues authority – the authority of teachers, of learning and of knowledge – and how it encourages young people to accept their lot rather than to challenge it.

Parent power vs teacher power

Like New Labour’s existing academies, free schools will also be out of local authority control and will promote parent choice. Already, by the end of last year, hundreds of parents had expressed interest in the Tories’ Swedish/American-style scheme, suggesting that there is, indeed, a lot of disgruntlement about the state of British education.

It is understandable that parents want to ensure their children get the best schooling possible and that they are willing to do everything they can to sort out the failings of the education system. The annual scramble for school places in the UK has revealed parents lying about where they live in order to pass the residency test for a particular school, or suddenly attending church each Sunday in order to fulfil the pupil entry requirements of faith schools. But while groups of parents with shared interests and visions could certainly come up with some good solutions for their children, such pockets of inspiring education will not address the failing quality of mainstream education.

Moreover, pushy parents intervening in the minutiae of everyday life at school can undermine the authority of teachers, who become duty-bound primarily to parents’ demands. A Swedish state-school headmistress interviewed for a BBC Newsnight report earlier this year indicated that parents don’t always know best when it comes to judging how children should relate to knowledge and their peers. In her view, parents sometimes cause disruption in schools, because following the extension of school choice in Sweden it has become easier for children to change schools. She related anecdotally how, when children encounter problems in lessons or with their mates – something every child goes through – parents now more readily pull their children out of the school. This, she said, prevents children from learning a crucial lesson: that ‘if there is a problem, you need to solve it’.

The devaluation of knowledge

The Tories’ free schools would, in reality, be a continuation of the specialist academies introduced under Tony Blair. Blair’s education tsar, Andrew Adonis, made study visits to Sweden long before the Tory shadow education minister, Michael Gove, went there for his Swedish lessons. The Blairite academies are shiny, funky, high-tech monuments to the devaluation of subject-based academic learning, which under New Labour has been dismissed as ‘elitist’ and ‘unnecessary’.

Young people are no longer encouraged to view education as edifying so much as necessary for strengthening their CVs. And judging from the Swedish experience, British free schools are likely to perpetuate the abandonment of the principle of learning for its own sake in favour of the acquisition of particular skills or attitudes. Swedish free schools offer programmes in everything from arts and media studies to agriculture, handicrafts and finance. The Tories are celebrating this kind of individualised learning, where parents and young people pursue their private interests in relation to schooling.

Yes, the bureaucratisation of education under New Labour – the much-maligned ‘targets culture’ – has weighed down education. But the move towards the privatisation of schooling is a sign that the political class has given up on the idea of the school as an institution that transmits universal knowledge to the whole of the next generation.

Inequality and segregation

The left in Britain and in Sweden have criticised free schools for putting children from educated, middle-class families at an advantage, solidifying rather than blurring the lines of segregation. There is choice in theory, but in practice the market has not reduced inequalities, critics say.

There are conflicting studies on the results of free schools and the extent to which their introduction has raised standards of education overall. As for individual students, Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education, told Newsnight that while Swedish pupils studying in new schools have higher results on average, this is probably a result of the fact that they are mostly from well-educated, middle-class families and are more likely to do better in school anyway. The fact that a majority of Swedish free schools can be found in Stockholm and Gothenburg, the two major cities, also suggests that they are a metropolitan phenomenon.

Others warn that, if Britain goes down the Swedish route, education will be tainted by business and will have to submit to the profit motive, so that pupils in new schools will become pawns of the market. A prime difference – for the moment – between the Tories’ vision for educational reform and the Swedish ‘education revolution’ (in social democratic Sweden, scaling back the state in favour of granting individual choice is still quite a novelty), is that the Tories will not allow British free schools to be profit-making. Three quarters of the 1,000-odd Swedish free schools are owned by private businesses.

But the primary way in which free schools can lead to segregation and social division is in how they encourage children to be educated in the manner deemed acceptable to that particular section of society to which their parents belong. Michael Gove has said that, in Sweden, young people from poor areas have been able to escape failing state schools. Certainly, reducing or scrapping residency requirements is a good thing – though in Sweden proximity, along with sibling attendance and application timing, is one of the entrance criteria for free schools, too. For upper secondary free schools, grades determine admission.

Yes, free schools offer certain opportunities to attend a school in another council area from the one you live in (a good thing), but in the end the free school system, rather than creating a more equal school system, will further separate people along the lines of school background. It offers liberal parents the chance to send their children to the same school, it allows religious children the chance to be educated in religious schools, working-class children to receive vocational training, and so on.

Creating a culture that values learning

There is nothing wrong with communities of interest, but neither is there any point in pretending that free schools are the answer to segregation. As Frank Furedi pointed out in a recent essay on spiked, in principle there’s nothing wrong with private education, but it is not the private status itself which guarantees success. Many of the institutions in Britain’s independent education sector, Furedi said, ‘are built on a legacy of significant cultural and intellectual capital. Their achievements are organically linked to a tradition of excellence, which is supported by generations of influential and privileged parents. Such schools cannot be cobbled together through parental ambition or the workings of the market.’

It would indeed be a great relief if, after New Labour’s constant tinkering with the curriculum and its devaluation of subject-based learning, the British school system could be freed from bureaucratic demands and philistinism. But while politicians should cut back on their meddling in everyday school affairs, they should also accept responsibility for providing a public school system that adheres to high standards for all.


Constant British government meddling in High School courses 'has made exams easier'

Constant meddling by ministers in GCSEs and A-levels is compromising standards and fuelling grade inflation, an exams chief warned yesterday.

Tim Oates, a senior figure in Cambridge University's exam board, said reforms to the content and structure of public tests has made it difficult to ensure quality is being maintained.

He claimed a series of changes could also be fuelling grade inflation, including the splitting of traditional two-year A-level and GCSE courses into bite-sized 'modules'.

Some pupils could be gaining higher grades 'without an improvement in the underlying standard of attainment', he warned.

Put to the test? Exams chief Tim Oates has warned that some pupils are gaining higher grades in GCSEs and A-levels 'without any improvement'. (Posed by models)

Mr Oates's intervention at a seminar in London called into question ministers' claims that education standards have risen since Labour came to power 13 years ago.

Although the Government has claimed a rise in the number of pupils gaining higher grades is down to children working harder and better teaching, Mr Oates, head of research at Cambridge Assessment, told delegates there was enough evidence of grade inflation to 'stimulate anxiety'.

His comments came a week after he said talking about grade inflation could be seen as a 'Ratner moment', a reference to the hapless jeweller boss Gerald Ratner, who in 1991 sent the value of his stores plummeting by calling one of his products 'crap'.

But Mr Oates insisted it was important to tell the public about the 'many and varied mechanisms' that could be behind rising grades.

'Frequent and contrary change' ordered by the Government was 'threatening standards', he warned.

'We have had a period of constant change in the structure and content of qualifications. If you effect continual, unnecessary and inappropriate change in qualifications, it makes holding any standard extremely difficult.

'Maintaining standards is one of the most challenging things an awarding body has to confront. We have to reduce the frequency and scope of change in qualifications. Arbitrary change is not helpful. Frequent arbitrary change is extremely unhelpful in terms of maintaining standards.

'Of course exams have to be updated, but unnecessary change threatens standards.'

And he claimed the exam system gave borderline pupils 'the benefit of the doubt', possibly leading to an increase in grades over time. Modules also had an 'impact'.

'It encourages boys who might perhaps leave everything until the last moment in terms of an examination to have to work right from the first few weeks of the course,' he said. 'They attain more and a higher number of higher grades will be the result.'

Mr Oates said schools, universities, employers and exam boards should devise exams - not the Government. The Mail revealed yesterday how Cambridge rejected 5,800 applicants with three-As last year. Just over a quarter of A-levels taken in the UK are graded A.


1 comment: said...

My understanding is the New Zealand "free school" model created an environment of competition.