Recent disappointing results on NAEP and PISA have prompted many policy makers and pundits to question the billions of dollars invested in large-scale, standards-based reform initiatives dating back to NCLB, RTT, Common Core and next-generation college and career readiness assessments. U.S. student performance on PISA has been stagnant since 2000, and achievement gaps have widened. NAEP saw declines this year across grades and subjects.
As Daniel Koretz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently told The New York Times, “it’s really time to rethink the entire drift of policy reform because it just isn’t working.”
Or maybe it’s just a really intractable problem and “frustration is understandable,” as William McCallum, a mathematician who helped write the Common Core State Standards, said in the same Times piece.
Indeed, national efforts to address the problem run headlong into our historical commitment to local control, whereby 15,000 local schools boards are trying to figure out how to improve student outcomes for an increasingly diverse population facing an increasingly complex world. Maybe we do know what works but lack the mechanisms to implement it at scale. Where there has been strong leadership with a clear commitment to high standards and quality instruction, outcomes have improved.
Washington DC, for example, with its focus on rigorous standards and assessments, early childhood education, teacher quality and principal leadership, has shown tremendous gains on NAEP since 2003. Mississippi, with its focus on research-based reading instruction, also saw strong gains.
What’s immediately apparent if you actually look at these gold-standard assessments, is that they emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, going well beyond the low-level tests of basic skills common in the NCLB era. They include more open-ended tasks and complex problems.
Students deemed “proficient” on NAEP have not only demonstrated mastery of challenging academic content, but also the ability to analyze, reason, plan and creatively solve real-world problems.
Consider a fourth-grade NAEP reading question using the story Five Boiled Eggs, which asks students, “Do you think that the innkeeper changes in the story? Use specific information from the beginning and end of the story to support your opinion.” It requires students to think across the entire text, locate and recall specific passages and form a reasoned analysis.
The same is true of PISA, which not only assesses whether students can locate and recall knowledge, but also whether they can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply their knowledge in new situations.
Consider a PISA math question that challenges students to help a nurse calculate the drip rate for an infusion in drops per minute, using a formula. The question then asks students to calculate how the drops per minute change if the hours are doubled but the drop factor and the volume of the solution remain constant. The questions shows the impact of change and mathematical relationships in an occupational setting.
To prepare students to perform on these more rigorous assessments, schools will need to provide regular opportunities for students to practice high-level skills such as solving complex problems, conducting research, developing a persuasive argument and using technologies to find, analyze and evaluate information.
Research confirms that an inquiry-based approach that expects students to delve deeply into an area of study and make connections among ideas and areas of knowledge within and across disciplines strengthens understanding, retention and the transfer of knowledge.
Schools will also have to develop higher-quality assessments that measure these deeper learning skills. Low-quality assessments that focus on low-level recall have an insidious effect, especially on students of color and low-income students whose schools have narrowed the curriculum to mirror low-quality tests. The result is that these students are often denied access to a thinking curriculum and are instead relegated to remedial, rote-oriented and often scripted courses of study.
It is because of our commitment to an equitable education for all students that New Meridian is committed to providing states with high-quality assessments that measure these deeper learning skills. We understand that what is tested is what gets taught. That is why we are committed to helping states develop assessments that include more authentic investigation into real-world challenges, so that we can help ensure that every student is given the opportunity to develop these higher-level skills that will be so critical to their future success.