Day 2 Chicago: testing, gigabytes and Arne’s regrets


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CHICAGO – Day two of the Education Writers Association National Seminar started with ideas and ended with me trying to solve third grade level Common Core test questions.

In between was a discussion on what will replace the No Child Left Behind Act, sessions on testing, early childhood education economics, an alleged FAFSA, fix and. student privacy data. In the middle was a Q&A with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

First Duncan, who right off the bat was asked about the growing “opt out” movement. He started out by saying he agreed there was too much testing. Pressed, Duncan said he believes most states will comply but that the federal government would step in if need be where participation in tests linked to the Common Core does not reach a 95 percent threshold.

Duncan also talked about regrets. He said he regrets education is not a national priority and that partisan politics impeded progress. He was surprised to hear from a reporter that some Title 1 funds find their way into wealthy school districts. When asked about accommodations for transgender youth, he merely said he wants all children to feel safe.

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During the NCLB post mortem session, the panel, which included American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten, agreed that the federal effort to get everyone on grade level died when states were granted waivers that allowed them to stop labeling schools as “in need of improvement.” Weingarten said Race To the Top, another federal initiative is a goner too. What will replace it is up in the air. Reauthorization bills are in the works. There are Senate and House versions of a replacement. Will it happen in my lifetime, some reporters in the room asked out loud.

The picture up top of this blog is Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, illustrating visually the 113 tests he said the average kid takes over the span of their K-12 experience. He faulted the test for their volume, quality and the consequences. Other panelists debated whether the new mandate should call for annual testing or not.

There was far less controversy in the session on the economic impact of early childhood education which included Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner, who is president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner. Asked about the so-called fade out theory that suggests kids lose the benefit of preschool over time, Heckman showed charts that suggest the benefits of preschool are not just about book smarts but lead to healthier outcomes: less high blood pressure, obesity, the ability to stay on task and work well with others.

In the session on FAFSA, the form some 19.2 million college bound students and their parents filled out in 2014. Now at about 9 pages and 106 questions, the ideas for simplification are many. The idea that seemed to have the most agreement among the panel was to base the report on two-year-old income tax data, rather than the year that just ended.  It would give everyone involved more time to fill out the form correctly. Also, according to Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, poor people wouldn’t have to prove they are poor. That said, Cooper said if reporters wanted to talk about the real barrier to college, its not the financial aid eligibility form, it is the cost of college itself.

The session on protecting student data was timely considering Connecticut is considering such a law.  Just this year there are 10 new laws and 173 bills in 43 states, according to Paige Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign. In Connecticut, some parents would like to see the proposed legislation include consequences for breaches. Some states call for fines and even jail time if collected student data isn’t handled properly. Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said there ought to be a student bill of rights which among other things spells out what data can be accessed for what purposes and which allows parents to see what is collected and correct it if need be.

Lastly, testing the test. Let’s just say third grade math is hard. Andre Latham, who directs the Center for Standards Assessment & Implementation under funding form the U.S. Dept of Ed, defended the new tests that go along with the Common Core. Rather than measuring just basic knowledge, the new questions seek to measure a student’s ability to apply what they learn and draw meaning out of text. He agreed some questions go too far.

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Linda Lambeck