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DC schools are missing an opportunity to equip students for coding jobs

In recent years schools in the District have expanded opportunities for students to learn computer coding, an occupation where demand is outpacing supply. But they could do much more to engage low-income students in a potentially lucrative career path that doesn't necessarily require a college degree.

Photo from Bigstock.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the importance of teaching computer science in K-12 schools. Last week was Computer Science Education Week, during which students in DC and around the world participated in online tutorials billed as an Hour of Code. As part of the fanfare, the incoming Education Secretary, John King, visited a classroom at DC's McKinley Tech High School.

DC and 26 states now allow computer science courses to count towards graduation requirements, up from only 12 states two years ago. At least two DC charter high schools offer coding classes, and DC Public Schools offer a wide range of computer-related courses and extracurricular activities, although it's not clear how many students take advantage of them.

But much of the effort in DC and elsewhere is aimed at getting students to enroll in college and major in computer science. King, for example, asked how many of the two dozen students he addressed at McKinley wanted to study computer science in college. He was pleased when over half raised their hands.

There's nothing wrong with students majoring in computer science in college, of course. In fact, it's an excellent idea. The median salary for computer programmers is over $76,000. There are currently over half a million open computing jobs, according to, and last year fewer than 40,000 people graduated with computer science degrees. Forecasters predict that mismatch between demand and supply will continue at least through 2020.

The shortage of qualified college graduates is already creating pressure on employers to hire people who can simply do the work, whether or not they have the credentials. At Google, for example, 14% of the members of some teams have no college education. In general, 38% of those working as web developers aren't college graduates.

Some coders and programmers are self-trained, while others have gone through coding "boot camps" that give participants the skills they need in a matter of months. Although Obama administration officials are intent on encouraging students to go to college, they've also launched an effort to enroll more "low-skilled" individuals in coding boot camps and match them with employers.

Why not teach coding skills before kids graduate from high school?

No doubt these programs can be lifesavers for many who don't have the interest or resources to acquire a college degree. But why wait until after they've graduated from high school? Why not give students in K-12 schools the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to snag a well-paying coding job if they want one?

That's the theory behind the efforts of one DC nonprofit to bring coding classes to low-income kids beginning in 5th grade. The Economic Growth DC Foundation is in its second year of sponsoring its Code4Life program, which runs free weekly classes at one DCPS and two charter schools. The idea is that students will remain in the afterschool program through high school, receiving a series of digital badges that will ultimately render them employable as coders.

On a recent afternoon at KIPP DC Northeast Academy, kids in the program weren't focused on their future career prospects. But they were engaged and having fun. In one classroom, a half-dozen 5th-graders were using a simple program called SNAP to create intricate moving designs on their laptops. Down the hall, a group of 6th- and 7th-graders were learning how to use Excel spreadsheets to manipulate data.

At the same time, the kids were breaking down operations into steps and making the computations necessary to write their programs, acquiring logical reasoning and math skills that will serve them well regardless of what they ultimately choose to do.

Code4Life currently serves a total of only 75 students and relies on volunteers from Accenture and other places, including area colleges, to put together its curriculum and teach classes. The foundation's chairman, Dave Oberting, says he'd like to expand the program to more schools, but that would require funding to hire paid staff.

Ideally, Oberting says, he'd like to see coding become a standard part of the curriculum throughout DC. Code4Life, he says, "is a mechanism for showing that [teaching coding] isn't that difficult."

In some places, coding class is mandatory for all

Other school systems are managing to do it. Earlier this year, Arkansas passed a law requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science classes. Some places are starting before high school—a good idea, considering that most adult coders say they became interested in computers before the age of 16.

The Chicago, New York, and San Francisco school districts have pledged to start teaching computer science to students of all ages. A largely low-income and Hispanic elementary school district near Phoenix is requiring every student to take coding classes. And beginning this year, Great Britain is mandating computer science classes for all students from the age of five.

One problem impeding some of these efforts is the difficulty of hiring qualified teachers, because people with computer skills can generally find better-paying jobs. But teacher salaries are relatively high in DC, so that might not present as much of an obstacle here.

Considering the potential benefits, all schools in the District—and particularly those serving low-income kids—should find a way to teach the basics of computer coding beginning in elementary school. And given the fact that fewer than 10% of poor children graduate with a college degree, DCPS and charter schools need to stop focusing blindly on their "college for all" mantra and start equipping students with the means to make a decent living with a high school diploma.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


Lower test scores aren't necessarily a sign we're heading in the wrong direction

This week Mayor Muriel Bowser and other DC officials released long-awaited results for grades 3 through 8 from the Common Core-aligned tests given last spring. As expected, scores were far lower than on the old tests, especially for low-income and minority students. But that doesn't necessarily mean DC schools are on the wrong track.

Photo by the author.

Proficiency rates on DC's old standardized reading and math tests hovered around 50%. On the new tests—devised by a consortium called PARCC, and taken by students in DC and 11 states—the proficiency rate is only about 25%.

But scores on the new tests aren't equally lower for all students. White students did far better than average on the PARCC tests, while minority and low-income students did worse. That was true on the old tests as well, but—as with the previously released high school PARCC scoresthe gaps on the new tests are even larger.

Scores on the PARCC tests fall into five categories, with the highest two (4 and 5) considered to be meeting or exceeding expectations for "college and career readiness." As you can see from the chart below, far more white students fell into that category than black or Hispanic students. And far more black and Hispanic students than whites fell into the lowest category, "Did not yet meet expectations."

The gap is even larger between white students and other groups, such as students in special education (SPED) and English Language Learners (ELL). (The "at-risk" category includes students in foster care or receiving government benefits.)

On the old reading tests given in 2014, the gaps between whites on the one hand and blacks and low-income students on the other were about ten percentage points smaller than on the PARCC. The gap between white and Hispanic students was about 15 points smaller, while the gap for SPED students was only one point smaller.

If you want to explore the PARCC data in detail, there are various spreadsheets and other resources available on this DC government website, and a series of nifty interactive graphics are on the District, Measured blog.

The PARCC reading tests assume more knowledge

Why have the gaps grown? The unsurprising answer is that the tests have gotten harder. And, as various officials explained at the rather sober press conference called to unveil the new scores, that's something that needed to happen. The old tests were so easy they didn't mean much. As in other cities, students in DC—especially poor, minority students—were graduating from high school without the skills they needed to enroll in college courses or embark on career training, even if they'd scored proficient on the tests.

And what makes these new tests harder? I'm not that familiar with the Common Core math tests, although I know they require students to demonstrate they understand math concepts rather than just apply math rules. On the reading side, though, the basic reason is that the reading passages on the test assume that students know more vocabulary and are familiar with a wider range of concepts.

Standardized reading tests, by their nature, don't test any particular body of knowledge. Instead, the tests assess a student's general ability to understand whatever is put in front of her. That's partly because different schools are teaching different content. And of course, it's important for students to develop general reading ability in order to function well in school and in life.

But, as cognitive scientists have shown, the ability to understand a given text depends a lot on whether you're already familiar with the words and concepts it contains. That may make intuitive sense: just think of what it's like to try to read a passage on, say, cellular biology if you know nothing about the subject. What's harder for some of us to grasp is how many words and concepts minority and low-income children aren't familiar with.

PARCC and the other Common Core testing consortium, SBAC, have released sample questions that provide an idea of the kind of knowledge and vocabulary the tests assume children will have. According to a group called Student Achievement Partners, the 3rd-grade questions use words like fraying, spouting, blossom, nifty, scorched, and nutrients. They also present topics and concepts like Babe Ruth, Indonesia, and the U.S. Congress, along with biological terms like gills, larva, and pupa.

More affluent 3rd-graders may not know all these terms, but—as the PARCC test scores indicate—they're more likely to have heard enough of them to be able figure out what a passage is basically about. (Cognitive scientists have estimated that a reader needs to be familiar with 90 to 95% of the words in a passage to comfortably understand it.) Studies have shown that children of wealthier, more educated parents hear far more words and engage in more dialogue than their low-income counterparts almost from birth, and they enter school with significantly higher literacy skills.

Schools can help close the knowledge gap

Some have concluded that, since so much of literacy is dependent on family background, there's not much schools can do about this situation. And schooling can actually make it worse: some studies indicate that the achievement gap grows the longer kids stay in school. But the fact is, we don't know what schools might be able to do to close the gap, because most elementary schools serving low-income kids haven't spent much time trying to systematically build their knowledge and vocabulary.

Instead, they've focused on the comprehension skills the tests seem to call for: finding the main idea, making inferences, and—in the Common Core era—connecting claims to evidence in the text. But if kids don't have the knowledge and vocabulary to understand a reading passage in the first place, they won't be able to demonstrate any of those skills on the test. And it may take years for a low-income student to acquire enough knowledge to do well on a test of general reading ability.

"People want us to just flip a switch, and young people will be off to Harvard," DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at Monday's press conference. "That's not the way it works."

She's right: these things take time. The real question is whether schools in DC are on the right track. Henderson and others point to data in the test results to argue that the answer is yes: generally higher test scores at the lower grade levels than in high school. That shows, they say, that kids exposed to the Common Core approach from an early age are getting it, and that they'll continue to do better when they reach high school.

But the tests get harder in high school, and kids may just hit a wall—as they have in the past, even on easier tests. And the disparity in scores only holds true for math. In reading, the percentage of students scoring proficient was essentially the same at all grade levels, including high school.

Still, some DC schools are on the right track. A number of educators in DC, in both the charter and traditional public school sectors, have grasped the importance of building knowledge, especially for students who are disadvantaged. I've been in classrooms where kids are lapping up facts, words, and ideas that will serve them well in high school and beyond. Whether and when that knowledge shows up in their test scores should be a secondary consideration.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


Charters that don't fill student vacancies may find it easier to boost test scores

Most DC charter schools have a policy of accepting new students at any grade level. But others refuse to take applications past a certain grade. Because students who arrive in later grades can bring down a school's overall test scores, we need to be careful when comparing schools that have different admissions practices.

Photo from Bigstock.

All schools have some attrition from one school year to the next. Some charter schools backfill, which means they accept new students to fill slots that become vacant. Schools that don't backfill don't replace those students, allowing the size of a grade cohort to shrink from year to year.

In some places, like New York and Philadelphia, the backfill issue has divided the charter community. Some have argued it's unfair not to replace students who leave, given the length of charter waitlists. They also say schools that don't backfill are artificially inflating the percentage of students who score proficient on standardized tests.

That's because the most mobile students tend to score the lowest. And students who have been at a good school since early childhood are more likely to be on grade level and better accustomed to a school's behavior code than those arriving later on from weaker schools. So if a school doesn't replace those who leave, it can end up with a smaller cohort of higher-scoring students.

At one New York City charter school, for example, the percentage of students in one cohort who scored proficient in math was 94% in 3rd grade and 97% five years later, in 8th grade. But the number of students taking the test over that period declined from 88 to 31. That school is part of the Success Academy network, which doesn't backfill after 4th grade.

But schools that choose not to backfill aren't necessarily just trying to inflate test scores. The leader of the Success Academy network says she's protecting the interests of students who stay the course. When new students come in who are far behind, they absorb teachers' attention and hold back those ready to move at a faster pace.

And choosing not to backfill has a cost. In places like DC, where schools are funded on the basis of the number students they enroll, lower enrollment means less money.

Some DC charters don't backfill

DC charters aren't publicly sniping at each other over the backfill issue, but some schools here appear to be reaping the kinds of advantages critics have pointed to elsewhere.

Two DC charter middle schools, both of which include grades 4 through 8, don't accept new students after 6th grade. Both are high-performing and serve primarily low-income populations, and both had significant declines in enrollment for the cohort that graduated from 8th grade in 2014.

At one of the schools, Achievement Prep, that cohort dropped from 93 students in 6th grade in 2012 to 43 in 8th in 2014. The proficiency rates for 8th graders in 2014 were 90% in reading and 97% in math.

At the other, DC Prep Edgewood, the cohort dropped from 55 to 32. The proficiency rates for its 8th graders were 81% in reading and 100% in math.

Would those schools' 8th-grade scores have been lower if they'd filled vacancies with new students? It's hard to say. But another charter middle school that accepts new students at all grades, E.L. Haynes, maintained a class size of 101 between 6th and 8th grade for the same period. Its 8th-grade proficiency rates in 2014 were significantly lower than the two schools that don't backfill: 57% in reading and 70% in math.

Even high schools that backfill don't necessarily admit many new students

It's more common for charters not to backfill at the high school level. Eight DC charter high schools restrict applications to certain grades, with two high-performing ones—BASIS and Washington Latin—not accepting new students after 9th grade.

But even high schools that theoretically accept students at all grade levels can see their cohorts shrink dramatically. At highly ranked KIPP College Prep, the 2015 graduating class numbered 71 students, down from a 9th grade cohort of 134. Last year, the school enrolled only two new 10th graders and one new 11th grader, according to a KIPP DC spokesperson, Lindsay Kelly.

Why not more? "Unfortunately," Kelly said in an email, "many students who come to us in high school lack the credits needed to be on track with their grade level. Some families would rather have their child be promoted at a different high school than have them repeat a year as a student at KCP."

Should all charters be required to backfill?

Some argue that all charter schools should backfill, to level the playing field. New Orleans, where almost all students attend charter schools, has imposed that requirement.

But as KCP's situation illustrates, enforcing such a rule might not be that simple—or even desirable. It doesn't seem fair to hold back students who are capable of doing grade-level work or better by requiring their schools to admit students who are far behind.

Perhaps the better option is to be clear about what we're comparing. New York is considering investigating the amount of attrition and backfilling at its charter schools, which seems like a step in the right direction.

It would also help to look not just at a school's proficiency rates, but at how much its students test scores grow from year to year. DC's Public Charter School Board does take growth into account in evaluating schools, but it's hard for the public to tell how much weight they place on it.

And we should be able to compare test scores for students who have been at a school for several years against scores for newcomers. Right now, those two categories are lumped together, at least for public consumption. If schools that backfill are nevertheless able to boost achievement for kids they've had for a while, they should get credit for that.

The controversy over backfill is a variation on the controversy over charter schools in general. Yes, charter schools have an advantage over traditional public schools because, among other things, they don't have to take students midyearand because families who choose to apply to charters are more likely to be motivated and engaged.

And yes, charters that choose not to backfill have advantages over charters that do backfill, as well as over traditional public schools that backfill. But rather than imposing the same burdens on all schools, we would do better to acknowledge that some schools have more obstacles to overcome than others.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


Some DCPS schools have to cope with an influx of midyear transfers

Thousands of DC students switch schools midyear, especially at some high schools that are part of the DC Public School system. That has negative consequences both for the students who switch and the schools they enter.

Photo of students from Shutterstock.

A recent report from DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that over 92% of DC students remain in the same school throughout the year, based on data from 2011 through 2014. Some have hailed that as proof that the system is fundamentally stable.

But that 8% of students who move midyear is more significant than it sounds, and DCPS schools take in a disproportionate number of new students as compared to charters. In fact, many students who transfer to DCPS midyear come from charter schools. Most of the new arrivals, however, come from other DCPS schools or other states.

Students who switch schools midyear are often already at risk, and transferring only exacerbates their difficulties. They're more likely to have low test scores and to qualify for special education than the DC population as a whole, according to the report. They're also disproportionately low-income, African-American, and male.

Schools that take in a lot of students midyear also face challenges. If a school has established clear routines and rules, late arrivals won't be familiar with them. Some may bring behavior problems that caused them to leave their previous school.

Teachers need to devote extra effort to bringing new students up to speed on what the rest of the class has been learning. Other students at the school can suffer as a result.

Clearly, there are powerful incentives for schools to deny admission to students after the school year has begun. But it's also obvious that it would be a bad idea to deprive thousands of kids of any education whatsoever.

Besides, in DC, only charters have the option of turning midyear applicants away. Neighborhood DCPS schools are legally required to take all comers, whenever they arrive.

DCPS has a net gain of students while charters have a net loss

According to the report, over 6,000 students entered or exited DC schools or changed schools within DC at least once during the 2013-14 school year. Both sectors lost students during the course of the school year, but charter schools were much less likely to replace them with new arrivals. By June, DCPS experienced a net gain of 2% of its enrollment, while charter sector enrollment had declined by 5%.

Some have charged that much of the churn in DCPS is caused by students leaving charter schools midyear, voluntarily or involuntarily. The report shows that many more students do leave charters for DCPS midyear than vice versa.

In fact, over the three years studied, the number of students going from charters to DCPS was more than 12 times the number who have moved in the opposite direction. And over 30% of charters' decline in enrollment each year was due to students transferring to DCPS.

But it's also clear that students arriving from charters are only a fraction of the students entering DCPS schools midyear. More students switch schools within DCPS. For the three years covered by the report, 717 students on average switched from one DCPS school to another each year, while an average of 584 entered the system from charters.

And the number of students who entered DCPS from beyond DC's borders is greater than the number of transfers from charters and other DCPS schools put together: 1,783 a year, on average.

High school students move more than others

It's also clear that there's more movement at the high school level than in other grades. Students in 9th grade had the highest rate of churn in 2013-14, with 12.4% switching schools. At 10th grade, the figure was 8.7%. The only other grade level with a higher rate was preschool for three-year-olds.

That's in line with another study that found 30% of DC students switch high schools at least once. And high school is a particularly bad time to switch: a student's chances of graduating sink by 10 percentage points each time he transfers, according to the study.

A few DCPS high schools have the highest influx of midyear transfers, according to data gathered by the Washington Post. Cardozo High School, which takes in many immigrant students, had a 30% increase in enrollment during the year. Its net gain, after offsetting the increase with students who withdrew, was 18.4% of its student body.

Other high schools, including some application-only DCPS schools, were comparatively stable, losing or gaining less than 1% of their population. Meanwhile, 16 high schools, all of them charters, had a net loss of between 3 and 22.5%.

At Roosevelt High School, which had a net gain of 8.4%, there were 487 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. By May, 47 had withdrawn, but 73 others had arrived.

New students may arrive with vastly different needs. At Roosevelt, the newcomers included a 17-year-old from Guatemala who was in school for the first time since 6th grade, a 9th-grader who had left a charter after she was caught with marijuana, and an 18-year-old who had dropped out of another DCPS high school after moving into a group foster home near Roosevelt.

A change in school funding may help but won't solve the problem

Clearly, officials need to take steps to reduce student mobility in DC. One possibility now under discussion is to change the way schools receive compensation. Currently, charter schools receive a set amount for each student enrolled on October 5th. If they gain or lose students after that date, they neither take in or lose additional money.

A system that compensates charters more accurately for the number of students enrolled throughout the year might give them an incentive to retain students. But it wouldn't help reduce the far greater inflow of students to DCPS from other sources. And it's not clear charters would be willing to admit a larger share of the students who arrive midyear even if they got compensated for them, given the disruption such transfers can cause.

There may be policy changes that could reduce the amount of transferring within DCPS, but it's not clear officials can do anything about the movement across state, and even international, lines. It would help, however, if DC could at least share data about students and their movements with Maryland and Virginia.

That would allow schools here to determine the backgrounds and needs of students who enter from those states, and it would enable DC officials to understand what happens to the many students who transfer to those states' schools from DC. That kind of data sharing is a possibility that OSSE is currently exploring, according to the report.

As the report concludes, we need more information about the underlying causes of student movement from school to school before we can try to reduce it. But even once we identify them, those causes may be hard to address.

Some have suggested, for example, that a system of school choice is part of the problem, because it's led to a cavalier attitude about moving from one school to another. And given that students who transfer midyear are disproportionately at-risk and low-income, poverty and housing insecurity may also be driving a lot of the mobility.

So it's likely that student mobility will be a fact of life at many DCPS schools for the foreseeable future. It would make sense to develop specific programs to help integrate new students at schools that receive large numbers of midyear transfers, as Cardozo has done for immigrant students.

And when we're comparing one school's level of achievement to another's, we should take into account whether a school has been acquiring additional challenging, and possibly disruptive, students—or whether it's been losing them.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


Here's how standardized tests are impeding learning in DC

Standardized tests, which have proliferated in classrooms in DC and elsewhere in recent years, have led teachers to concentrate on reading and math at the expense of subjects like social studies and science. And while the tests have value, they generally don't improve instruction or boost learning.

Photo of student from Shutterstock.

Testing not only takes significant amounts of time away from instruction, it also influences what gets taught. Standardized tests, which factor into the evaluation of schools and teachers, focus primarily on reading and math skills. Partly as a result, that's what most elementary schools now focus on as well, to the near exclusion of other subjects.

According to a national survey, in 2012 elementary school teachers spent only about 18 minutes a day on social studies and 21 minutes a day on science. Testing isn't the only reason for that: in 2000, before the passage of the federal law that spurred much of the testing done today, the corresponding figure was a mere 27 minutes for each subject. But high-stakes standardized tests have exacerbated the problem.

DC is no exception to that trend. Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the DC State Board of Education from Ward 3 who was elected last fall, made testing and the narrowing of the curriculum her main campaign issues. Since taking office in January, she's visited almost 30 elementary classes in a variety of DC schools.

"My overwhelming impression is that most of our kids around the city are getting a very, very narrow curriculum," she says. She fears students aren't acquiring the knowledge about science and social studies that will allow them to succeed in middle school, high school, and beyond.

The SBOE recently called on DC's State Superintendent of Education to investigate how much time schools are devoting to subjects that aren't tested or tested less than reading and math.

Educators say many elementary schools teach only reading and math

In March, the SBOE heard from a panel of award-winning teachers who echoed Wattenberg's observations. A DCPS middle school science teacher, Sarah Riggen, said it's difficult to instruct students at the middle school level when they've never encountered science in elementary school.

"We're asking our students to do these very complex tasks," she said, "but it's a little bit unrealistic if we continue to put science on the back burner in the lower grades."

"Testing is the curriculum" now in many schools, says former DCPS principal Patrick Pope, now principal at Friendship Technology Prep Middle School, a DC charter. Pope, who spent 35 years in the DCPS system, says the curriculum was much broader years ago, before the advent of high-stakes testing.

"You have teachers and administrators whose jobs rise and fall on school performance as measured on reading and math tests given for three to four days in the spring," he said. "And for schools that serve traditionally underachieving populations, the approach has been to double down on math and reading instruction."

Unlike many charter schools serving low-income kids, DCPS has developed a curriculum that covers a broad range of content beginning in kindergarten. But, says Pope, teachers who are under pressure to raise test scores may choose to focus only on those aspects of the curriculum that seem likely to do that.

Practicing reading skills isn't enough to improve comprehension

To some, the narrow focus makes sense: if kids are struggling with reading, then why not just have them practice reading? But reading comprehension is highly dependent on having background knowledge and vocabulary about what you're reading.

So the only way to truly improve reading comprehension is to systematically provide kids with knowledge, the opposite of what elementary schools have been doing. By the time many kids—especially low-income kids—get to middle or high school, they lack so much knowledge that grade-level material is far beyond their reach.

Students are also more likely to become engaged in school when the curriculum includes subjects beyond reading and math. Pope, who brought an arts focus to an underperforming elementary school in Ward 8, says that experience showed him "you can expect better testing results when you build rich programming that engages kids, and you couple that with the best reading and math instruction you can find."

All kids benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum, but poor kids, who are less likely to acquire knowledge at home, need it the most. And they're the ones least likely to get it.

"I would love to see more schools say, you know what these kids need to do to close the achievement gap, they need to go bird-watching," Mike Mangiaracina, an award-winning DCPS math teacher, told the SBOE in March. Mangiaracina has organized a bird-watching group at Brent Elementary.

Some tests boost learning, but standardized ones don't

There's nothing inherently wrong with testing. Not only can tests show teachers what students aren't understanding, they can actually help students retain information.

But that's only the case if students are taking tests—preferably frequent, low-stakes tests—that actually reflect the content teachers have covered. Standardized tests don't generally test content, because they're designed to be given in many different school districts that are all teaching different things.

Instead, they test skills. A standardized reading test, for example, gives students a randomly selected passage and then asks questions to assess how well they understood it.

Another problem is that the results of high-stakes standardized tests given in the spring don't become available until the following school year, when it's too late for teachers to use them to guide instruction.

DCPS has devised its own tests, called unit assessments, that it says are based on the units of study in its curriculum. One DCPS parent, Mike Showalter, said that teachers he's spoken with at several schools say the tests are poorly written and don't actually match what's in the curriculum. The teachers called the tests "awful" and "a huge waste of instruction time," according to Showalter.

DCPS guidelines allow 90 minutes for the tests, but a spokesperson said that "feedback from schools suggested that most students finished in less than an hour." And while schools can administer the tests as many as six times a year, the spokesperson said "the vast majority" of schools only give half that number.

DCPS tests don't focus on what teachers have covered

DCPS officials allowed me a glimpse of a few unit assessments, and based on what I saw, they don't test content directly. Instead, they're constructed like standardized tests, giving students a passage to read and asking them questions about it. While the passages are thematically related to the content of the unit, the tests focus primarily on measuring skills.

For example, the test corresponding to a 2nd-grade unit on Canada and Mexico consisted of a passage about a boy and his grandfather, who was born in Cuba and had moved to Miami. One question asked where the grandfather had been born. Neither the passage nor the questions had anything to do with Canada or Mexico.

Why not have the unit tests ask students questions about what they've actually learned? One reason may be that the current format is a better predictor of how students will perform on the standardized PARCC tests given at the end of the year, which have a similar format. But other standardized tests that are given throughout the year already serve that purpose.

Another possible reason is that DCPS administrators feel it's more important to test comprehension or analytical skills as opposed to what they see as rote memorization of facts. When I asked DCPS's director of early literacy, Jennifer Jump, why the unit test I saw didn't ask anything about Canada or Mexico, she explained that if, say, a unit covered World War II, you wouldn't want to just ask students a fact-based question like when the war began.

Perhaps not. It would probably be better to ask them, for example, what factors led to the outbreak of World War II. But in order to answer that question well, they would need to know some factual information about World War II, including when it began.

In other words, divorcing skills from content is a mistake. You can't develop analytical skills unless you're also developing knowledge that gives you something to analyze. At a certain point kids will have acquired enough knowledge and vocabulary that they can understand texts about things they're not directly familiar with, but that point arrives at different moments for different students.

So, for example, if students have learned about World War II, and you test their comprehension or analytical skills by giving them a passage about the War in Vietnam, they may or may not do well. It will probably depend on how much they happen to know about the War in Vietnam, or how much general knowledge they've been able to acquire that will help them understand the passage. But their performance won't necessarily reflect how much they've learned in class about World War II.

If DCPS administrators had designed the unit tests to directly cover the content in the units of study, they could have encouraged teachers to teach that content instead of focusing on skills. The tests might have helped reinforce students' knowledge.

And they could have relieved teachers of the burden of creating their own tests to find out what their students have learned. Instead, DCPS more or less replicated the many standardized tests schools are already giving.

In fact, DCPS allows schools to substitute standardized tests called ANet, which about a quarter of DCPS schools use, for the unit tests. While that may cut down on the number of tests students have to take, it doesn't do anything to promote the teaching of content.

Standardized tests have their place. We need some way of comparing different schools and students and pointing up inequities in our education system.

And ideally, the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests will actually lead schools to broaden their curricula beyond reading and math. To prepare for the old multiple choice tests, teachers could coach their students in strategies like eliminating answers that were clearly wrong. To do well on the new tests, students need to acquire broad general knowledge.

But it's not clear how many teachers and administrators understand that. And we shouldn't count on any standardized tests, no matter how well constructed, to do something they weren't designed to accomplish: improve teaching and learning.

At this point, we need to figure out how to make sure they don't prevent teaching and learning from taking place.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


There's a growing feeling that standardized tests are taking time from instruction

Some DC education activists, teachers, and parents are concerned that standardized testing and test prep are taking too much time away from instruction. But there's no hard data on how much time schools here devote to testing, and it's not clear education officials are planning to collect it.

Photo of test from Shutterstock.

Testing has been a contentious national issue for years, and the debate has only gotten more heated with the arrival this year of tougher tests aligned with the new Common Core State Standards in DC and dozens of states. In some states, particularly New York, parents have been "opting out" of standardized tests in significant numbers, saying they're a waste of kids' and teachers' time.

Even US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has generally advocated testing, said last year that "testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools." And Congress is currently considering changing federal law to put less emphasis on the results of standardized tests.

While there's no sign of an opt-out movement in DC, there are increasing rumblings of discontent. Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on DC's State Board of Education (SBOE), says "too much testing" and the narrowing of the curriculum it has caused were the two issues that had the most resonance with parents during her campaign.

A panel of award-winning teachers appearing before the SBOE in March raised similar concerns, with some saying testing had gotten out of hand. "As far as I'm concerned, we're past the tipping point," said DCPS elementary math teacher Mike Mangiaracina.

One DCPS parent, Mike Showalter, complained to the DC Council's education committee that "in 2nd grade, children and teachers begin a relentless stream of testing"—much of it useless, he said. Showalter said he considered opting his 3rd grader out of Common Core tests in May but decided against it because he was unable to convince other parents to join him and didn't want to "create more hassle for my child's teacher."

Parents' questions about testing prompted DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to appoint a task force to study the issue 18 months ago. Henderson said the task force would release its findings by the end of 2014. But there's been no word on its progress, and a DCPS spokesperson failed to respond to an inquiry about it.

The SBOE recently called on DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education to assess how much time schools are spending on testing and test prep. They also want to know how much attention schools are paying to subjects that aren't tested, like social studies and science.

When I asked OSSE officials if they planned to follow up on the SBOE's recommendations, a spokesperson said the agency understands the board's concerns and is interested in ensuring that schools have access to "a rich curriculum." But she said nothing about whether OSSE would collect the requested data.

How much time do DC students spend taking tests?

Last year, a report that looked at various urban school districts found that DCPS students spent less time than average on testing. For example, according to the report, DCPS 3rd graders spent 14.3 hours per year taking tests, compared to an average of 16.6 hours.

But those figures were based on the amount of time school systems allocate for testing on their calendars. Teachers surveyed in the report said they actually lose much more instructional time to testing than the calendars indicate, perhaps more than twice as much in elementary school.

Some DCPS teachers have estimated their students spend more than 10% of the school year taking mandatory tests. Mangiaracina told the SBOE that students at his school, Brent Elementary, are tested once every 11 days. That's about twice as much as average, according to one study of 14 school districts .

Angelo Parodi, a 5th grade teacher at John Eaton Elementary, said that testing took so much time this year that he wasn't able to cover nearly as much material as in years past. "This is the first time we didn't get to the civil rights movement," he said. "We barely made it to World War II."

Common Core tests are just the tip of the iceberg

The Common Core-aligned tests that DCPS and dozens of states began giving this year have been a lightning rod for testing opponents. This year, students took them in two rounds, in March and May, and the company administering the tests said they would take about eight hours in total. But a math teacher at Wilson High School, Joseph Herbert, said the first round alone consumed almost eight hours.

Next year, the tests, known as PARCC, will be about 90 minutes shorter and given in one 30-day testing window.

But the PARCC tests, which OSSE requires all DC schools to give to students in 3rd through 8th grade and some high school students, are only the tip of the iceberg. Studies have found that local tests, such as those required by DCPS or individual charter schools, make up the majority of the assessments students take.

Both DCPS and many charter schools administer perhaps four or five other kinds of standardized tests throughout the year, partly to assess growth and partly to predict how students will do on PARCC tests.

Teachers also spend an undetermined amount of time preparing students for standardized tests, as well as giving their own quizzes, midterms, and finals.

Tests can disrupt school for everyone

DCPS and OSSE say standardized tests cause little disruption to normal school routines. One DCPS official told a concerned parent in an email that a longer testing window has allowed schools to rotate smaller groups of students through tests rather than testing everyone at the same time, "so that instruction, student services, field trips, science fairs, performances and the like can continue." But some teachers disagree.

"Some schools shut down when testing comes," Kristina Kellogg, a DCPS teacher, told the SBOE. "There's no field trips, extracurricular activities. Everything is in the box of testing mode."

Testing can disrupt instruction even for students who aren't being tested. Teachers aren't allowed to proctor exams for their own students, so other teachers are pressed into service and have to abandon their classes. Often schools don't have enough computers to go around and commandeer them from classrooms for testing purposes.

The PARCC tests "caused significant and severe disruption to all teaching and learning at Wilson," Herbert says. And David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School, says that each PARCC session "took at least a week to administer and in essence shut the school down for each of those weeks."

Tansey also says that disruption can continue after testing ends, because it can take a while to reestablish classroom routines. When testing occurs near the end of the school year, it may be too late for things to return to normal.

DCPS and OSSE say all this testing is worthwhile because it provides valuable information. And it's true that standardized tests have played an important role in pointing out the gap in test scores between socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Without standardized tests, families at high-poverty schools would have no way of knowing how far behind their children are, even if they're getting high grades.

But it's less clear these tests provide the kind of information that helps teachers teach and students learn. I'll take that subject up in another post, along with the effect that testing has had on the school curriculum.

Update: In response to a question about the status of DCPS's testing task force, a DCPS spokesperson said, "The Chancellor's Assessment Task Force has helped DCPS to more deeply evaluate the assessments we offer. This work has led us to ensure our assessments are high quality and aligned to our curriculum."

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


How one DC charter school is "changing everything" to give kids knowledge

For decades, elementary schools have focused on building skills at the expense of instilling knowledge. One DC charter school network, Center City, is in the forefront of a movement to reverse that approach.

Photo of students from Shutterstock.

Most elementary schools in the US teach reading by focusing on skills like "finding the main idea" or "making predictions." Especially in high-poverty urban schools, where kids often struggle with reading, teachers spend hours every day on these skills and don't teach history or science in any systematic way.

But to understand what you're reading, you need a certain amount of relevant background knowledge and vocabulary. Just try finding the main idea of this abstract of an article in a scientific journal. Unless you're well versed in cellular biology, chances are you'll be stumped.

That's what it's like for many kids who try to tackle high school level material after spending years practicing reading comprehension skills on simple stories. And low-income kids, who are far less likely to acquire knowledge at home, start out at a disadvantage and fall farther behind with each passing year.

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by DC and dozens of states, aimed to correct this situation. The authors of the standards included language about the need to build knowledge systematically starting in elementary school, by implementing a broad and coherent curriculum.

But few have noticed that fundamental aspect of the Common Core, which doesn't actually require schools to focus on any particular content. In fact, many have blamed the Common Core for the very thing it was trying to remedy: the narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and math.

Some schools are undertaking the shift

Still, some schools and school districts, including DC Public Schools, have undertaken the challenging shift from a focus on skills to one on building knowledge. One is Center City, a DC network of charter schools with six preschool-through-8th-grade campuses primarily serving low-income students.

Center City is "light years ahead of most schools around the country" in implementing the new approach, according to Silas Kulkarni. Kulkarni is on the staff of Student Achievement Partners, a group that supports teachers in adapting to the new demands of the Common Core.

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called "ANet" (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

"Whatever ANet's assessing in the next nine weeks, that's what I'm teaching," says Center City's director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn't collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then a classroom teacher an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school borrows from free resources available on state websites like EngageNY and Louisiana Believes has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they'll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Kids find acquiring knowledge more engaging than practicing skills

One criticism often leveled at the Common Core is that it's unrealistic to expect young children to handle the kind of "complex text" the standards call for. But as a visit to Center City demonstrates, kids not only can handle complex ideas, they actually enjoy them.

For one thing, reading isn't the only way for kids to get information. Before asking students to read a text on a given subject, teachers can orally introduce ideas and vocabulary that are beyond kids' reading levels.

In one 1st grade class at Center City's Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

"Magma!" they chorused, drawing on knowledge they'd gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for "fire"—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

That's another advantage of a knowledge-based approach: if it's done well, kids find it far more engaging than spending hours practicing finding the main idea. Schools with challenging populations may feel they have to establish order before they can shift to focusing on knowledge, but that could be a mistake.

If kids are excited about learning, "the behavior problems fall away," says Samantha Flaherty, Center City's curriculum manager.

Adopting a curriculum is only half the battle

But adopting a curriculum is only half of what a school needs to make the shift successfully. It establishes what you teach, but just as important is how you teach it.

Providing a teacher with a script about, say, different kinds of rock relieves her of the burden of acquiring all that knowledge herself. But if she just reads the script in a monotone, "the kids will go crazy after ten minutes," says Flaherty. Each teacher has to own the material, teaching it in a way that is both engaging and suited to her own style.

Another challenge is weaning teachers from a focus on data and test scores. Skills alone don't mean much, but it's easier for teachers to measure whether kids are acquiring them than whether they're building knowledge.

And the new Common Core tests that DC and other schools across the country have switched to this year will continue to measure skills, not knowledge. But because the new tests call for greater analytical abilities, kids will only score well if they've acquired enough knowledge to become good general readers. For low-income kids, that could take years.

Williams has a laid-back attitude toward testing. "I tell teachers, don't chase the test," he says. "If you have a strong curriculum, the test will take care of itself."

That's a sentiment you won't hear from many school leaders these days, unfortunately. And at schools where there's pressure to increase test scores, teachers will have an even harder time adjusting to a focus on knowledge.

"People are just beginning to realize that we need to change everything," says Flaherty. "It's not for the faint of heart."

But building knowledge is the only way to make elementary education meaningful for all kids, and it's our best chance of narrowing the achievement gap.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


Can DCPS stem the middle school exodus?

Students have been leaving DC Public Schools in droves after the elementary grades because of a dearth of appealing middle school options. A series of graphs from DC's Office of Revenue Analysis shows what's been happening and suggests that things could change in the future.

All graphs from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Looking at the DCPS cohort that entered kindergarten in 2006 and is now in 8th grade, there's been a dramatic drop: from about 4,000 in kindergarten to a little over half that number in 6th grade. Much of that decline occurred between 5th and 6th grade, the first year of middle school.

While a number of DCPS elementary schools have improved in recent years, parents have complained that the system's middle schools suffer from low achievement, discipline and safety issues, and a limited range of academic and extracurricular offerings.

Only one DCPS middle school, Alice Deal in Ward 3, has proved widely attractive. And with an enrollment of 1,300, Deal is overcrowded.

Drop in elementary enrollments after 4th grade

At some elementary schools, parents begin leaving after 4th grade for private schools, other DCPS elementary schools that feed into Deal, or charter schools, many of which start their middle schools at 5th grade. Some leave the District altogether.

At Ross Elementary School in Dupont Circle last year, for example, the number of students fell from 19 in 4th grade to nine in 5th. In the previous three years, only one of the 47 students graduating from 5th grade went on to the middle school that Ross feeds into.

On Capitol Hill, where some parents have made a concerted effort to retain students in neighborhood schools, enrollment can drop as much as 50% between preschool and 5th grade.

And a Washington Post poll last year found that only 24% of District residents would choose to send their children to a DCPS middle school. Among white and college-educated parents, only 20% would make that choice.

During last year's mayoral campaign, both leading candidates made improving middle schools a key issue, with Muriel Bowser adopting (at least for a while) the slogan, Deal for All.

And DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has focused on middle schools this school year, ensuring a standard baseline of academic offerings that includes algebra, foreign language, art, music, and physical education. She pledged more of an emphasis on students' social and emotional needs as well.

Henderson also promised more field trips, and recently she and Bowser unveiled a plan to offer middle school students who are taking a foreign language the opportunity to travel abroad.

Will DCPS's efforts result in more middle school students?

It's too soon to know if any of those efforts will bear fruit. The current DCPS 6th grade cohort started out smaller than the 8th grade one, but its decline has been less precipitous. So the number of students remaining in DCPS at 6th grade is about the same in both cohorts.

The DCPS cohort now in 4th grade shows the least attrition of all. Although it started out smaller than the cohort of current 8th graders, it's now about the same size that cohort was in 4th grade.

It's hard to say how many of these students DCPS can hold onto. A wider array of courses and more field trips, even international ones, may not be enough to do the trick.

Mixed results on middle school improvements

There have been some bright spots. One middle school east of the Anacostia River, Kelly Miller, has made dramatic improvements under a dynamic principal.

And the new Brookland Middle School, which opens this fall with an arts focus and a project-based learning approach, drew more applicants than expected in the school lottery. That may be a vote of confidence in the school's incoming principal, who is transferring from the well-respected Janney Elementary School in Ward 3.

The interest in Brookland is particularly encouraging because DCPS delayed the school's opening by a year, partly out of concern that it wouldn't attract enough students.

But Hardy Middle School north of Georgetown is still struggling to draw neighborhood students, even after DCPS installed a school leader who seems to inspire confidence.

And Ward 6 families are disappointed that long-promised renovations at two of the neighborhood's middle schools, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, won't be happening for several more years. Those schools have also been slow to implement a plan to adopt an International Baccalaureate curriculum that could draw neighborhood students.

It can be hard to turn a struggling school around, and even harder to change public perceptions. The experience at Brookland suggests that DCPS might have more success with brand new middle schools, and the plan for new school boundaries and feeder patterns calls for the construction of several.

But DCPS has been spending hundreds of millions building and renovating buildings, particularly high schools, and it's not clear how much more money will be available for such projects.

Some DC parents who have taken the plunge into what seems like a less desirable middle school have been pleasantly surprised. One Capitol Hill mother who passed up a well-regarded charter school for her daughter in favor of Eliot-Hine told the Post that her concerns about safety were unfounded and that she and her daughter are happy with the school.

"I feel like we wasted a lot of time and effort fretting for a year on the pros and cons of the school we considered," she wrote in an e-mail. "We could've focused that energy on [Eliot-Hine]!"

If more parents were willing to give their neighborhood middle schools a chance, the pace of change might well speed up. And then we could turn our attention to an even thornier problem: improving the quality of DCPS high schools.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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