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  • Rigor and Readiness: Measuring the Impact of Algebra II

    by Katie McClarty

    Students in a lecture

    There has been a lot of discussion lately about the role of advanced high-school mathematics courses — in particular, Algebra II — in promoting college and career readiness. On one side of the debate, the champions of Algebra II cite research demonstrating that completing the course leads to success in higher education and to higher earnings (Adelman, 2006; Carnevale & Desrochers, 2003). Achieve has been one of the leading advocates for including advanced mathematics in required high school curricula, suggesting there are not only practical advantages (e.g., prerequisites for future study), but also benefits to students’ general academic development. Skills acquired through Algebra II (including but not limited to logical thinking, cognitive capacity, and complex problem solving) can support success in areas far beyond a day-to-day work environment.

    This isn’t to say the debate is settled. A recent report from the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) found that the skills most important for succeeding in community college math courses were those introduced in middle school. By analyzing textbooks, assignments, and tests at seven community colleges, the researchers concluded that few students need to master advanced algebra to be successful. The NCEE report comes at a time when several states (e.g., Florida, Texas) are changing graduation requirements to make Algebra II optional, provide more flexible pathways toward high school graduation, and create space in students’ schedules for more vocational training.

    Isolating the causal effect of taking Algebra II on future outcomes is a serious challenge, thanks to selection bias. It is likely that students who choose to take Algebra II in high school are higher performing and more motivated than many of their peers and thus more likely to attend and do well in college. In other words, it’s something about the type of students that take Algebra II, rather than completing the course itself, that leads to better student outcomes.

    In a recent research study, my co-authors and I set about tackling this thorny issue — separating selection effects from Algebra II’s true causal effects. We will be presenting our work next week at the Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum in Long Beach, CA. We used national datasets spanning multiple decades and sophisticated econometric techniques to isolate cause-and-effect relationships between completing Algebra II in high school and subsequent college and career outcomes.

    The verdict? Algebra II seems to matter more for college outcomes (including community colleges, technical colleges, and four-year institutions) than for career outcomes. Compared to their counterparts who didn’t finish Algebra II, those who did were more likely to be admitted to selective colleges, maintain higher college GPAs, stay in school, and graduate. Conversely, for students who did not apply to college after high school, completing Algebra II was not related to finding a job immediately after high school, initial occupational prestige, earnings, or career advancement.

    This research indicates that students not planning to attend any college (two-year or four-year) may not benefit substantially from finishing Algebra II. That said, it’s important to highlight one caveat: Algebra II does not seem to negatively impact any career outcomes. In that respect, completing the course will keep doors open to college for the many students who do not solidify their postsecondary plans before enrolling in high school courses or starting their mathematics sequence. Some of our other interesting findings from this study will be the topic of future blog posts.

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  • Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance

    by Katie McClarty

    In my last blog, I discussed the importance of metacognitive learning skills—attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs about learning. These skills continue to garner attention from educational researchers and policy-makers. The Office of Education and Technology (OET) at the U.S. Department of Education recently released a report, Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance—Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, which takes a closer look at defining, measuring, and developing these skills. Grit was defined as “perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics” (p. 15).

    The task of defining and measuring grit is not simply an academic exercise; this is a trait associated with important student outcomes, including success in college. Angela Duckworth’s research shows that people with a college degree (Associate’s or higher) tend to be grittier than people without a degree. Moreover, and perhaps not surprisingly, grit seems to be associated with success in particularly challenging postsecondary environments. It is associated with retention at West Point, and research by Terrell Strayhorn has shown grit is a significant predictor of college grades for black males attending predominantly while institutions.

    Because grit may play a key role in overcoming adversity, it is encouraging that grit, tenacity, and perseverance are skills that can be developed with the right supports. For example, the OET report recommends designing learning environments that provide students opportunities to take on long-term, higher-order goals aligned with their interests. These goals are optimally challenging and intrinsically motivating. Meeting them takes perseverance. By developing such skills early, students may be more likely to persevere through challenges that are bound arise along their college and career paths.

    The central tenets of personalized learning echo these themes. First, we must identify where each student is on a learning trajectory. We use that information to provide each student with a challenging, but attainable next step. Technology and digital learning environments can facilitate the personalization process. With these tools we can collect information about students’ strengths, weaknesses, and behaviors, and then adapt learning systems to set reasonable goals for every student. By creating personalized learning solutions, we can do more than just deliver the appropriate academic content. We can set students on a path to increase their grit.

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  • Look at Your Data: Administrator Salary and Tuition

    Visualizing your data gives you clues about how two variables relate to each other. Ignoring clues from the visualization can you lead to potentially inaccurate conclusions.

    Last week Education Sector, a nonprofit education think tank announced something they are calling “Higher Ed Data Central.” They have taken a bunch of publicly available data sets and combined them into a database.

    On their blog, the Quick and the Ed, they started showing examples of what they could do with this data. On Friday they published a post including the graph below of the number of administrators who make over $100k per 1,000 students versus tuition at private non-profit 4 year universities.

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  • Explaining “Field Tests”: Top Six Things Parents Should Know

    by Jon Twing

    Field testing is a routine part of standardized test administration and many such field tests are occurring in a number of states this spring in one form or another. Because such field testing is so important and because it comes in many different varieties, it is important to understand some of the background.

    1) Let’s start with the basics. What is a field test?

    A field test (as defined by the National Council on Measurement in Education) is a test administration used during the test development process to check on the quality and appropriateness of test items, administration procedures, scoring, and/or reporting. Basically, this means that an “item” / test question (including reading passages, essay prompts) itself is tested, enabling educators and test developers to make sure that an item does measure what it is intended to measure—that the questions provide an accurate, fair and valid representation of what students know and can do.

    2) Do field tests count toward my child’s grades or impact his or her achievement?

    No. Field tests (be they separately administered tests or groups of items embedded within a ongoing assessment) never count toward a student’s score or ability to advance to the next grade. Students’ scores on these field-test items are only used to evaluate how well the items or test questions capture the knowledge and skills they are designed to measure.

    3) If field tests aren’t used for scoring or grading, why are they done?

    They are a vital element to the development of fair, high-quality tests. Field tests are done to help ensure questions used in upcoming standardized tests that count are fair for all students, of high quality and rigorous enough to comply with professional standards. It’s important for a state to know that questions, prompts, reading passages, or other test elements are worthy of being used to assess skills and knowledge appropriately.

    Many needs are balanced when field testing is conducted, but two are very critical: (1) minimizing burden on students and schools and (2) administering tests that meet recommended industry standards. Minimizing field testing is vital so that time can be spent on instruction, but it’s also important to gather enough data to be able to evaluate the fairness of questions, to eliminate flawed items, and to build tests each year that cover a range of curriculum from the very easy to the very difficult.

    4) What does field testing mean for my child?

    Field testing is conducted to make sure that the standardized assessments used in your school or your state meet professional standards for quality and fairness. The goal of field testing is to make sure all questions are free from bias, are aligned to academic standards of your state and function appropriately. However, if you are concerned with how field testing may impact your child then contact your child’s school to learn more.

    5) What kinds of field tests are there?

    Generally, there are two approaches to field tests: embedding questions within assessments that count for students and standalone field-testing. In both cases, any question deemed unfair after field testing is thrown out and won’t appear on any future assessments.

    Embedded Field Tests

    Students take embedded field-test questions at the same time they take the rest of their standardized test. This is typically done for multiple-choice assessments. Whenever possible, states embed field-test questions in multiple forms of “live” tests so that these field-test questions are randomly distributed to a representative student population. Experience shows that these procedures can give the state an appropriate amount of data to ensure fairness in a very efficient manner. The embedded field-test questions are not counted on a student’s score.

    Standalone Field Tests

    Sometimes separate field tests are necessary due to factors like test structure (i.e., tests with open-ended questions, tests that required students to perform tasks or lengthy essays), a small student population, or method of test delivery. States administer these separate field tests at a different time than the state assessments that are reported publicly. As with embedded field-test items, a separate field test does not count toward student scores.

    6) Once gathered, how is the information from field tests used?

    After field testing, a range of stakeholders – generally teachers, school administrators, curriculum and assessment specialists who represent a range of ethnicities, genders, types and sizes of schools district, and geographical regions – all gather to review the data collected from the field test. This “data review” committee examines each test question (and related collateral like reading passages) to determine if each question is free from bias (economic, regional, cultural, gender, and ethnic) and that each is appropriately measuring what it was expected to measure. Questions that pass all stages of development—including field testing and this data review process— become eligible for use on future tests. Rejected questions are precluded from use on any test.

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  • Standardized testing. What is it and how does it work?

    by Kimberly O'Malley

    Standardized assessment is a lens into the classroom. It sheds light on why a child might be struggling, succeeding, or accelerating on specific elements of their grade-level standards. Results from standardized tests help inform the next step in learning for our students. But, sometimes it isn’t always crystal clear to students, parents and the public how and why the tests are developed. Let’s delve into that.

    As it stands, most states are still administering end-of-year tests as required by federal law under No Child Left Behind. For the most part, this means students take annual tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics in grades 3-8; they are tested at least once in high school. Science is tested at least once in elementary, middle and high school. Additional testing in high school often is seen after completing specific courses, like Algebra or Biology, or as a gateway to graduation.
    Each state plans the specifics of its testing program, deciding elements like how many questions to put on a test, the dates for testing, whether tests are given on paper or on computer, to name a few. But, some similarities in the creation of the tests cut across the board.

    Standardized tests undergo a very rigorous development process so here’s a bit about the five major steps that go into making a test.

    States Adopt Content Standards

    This is where it all begins. Everything starts with the content standards developed by states and/or a group of states, as seen with the Common Core State Standards. Content standards outline what a student should be able to know at the end of each school year. These standards are the foundation for instruction in the classroom as well as the assessment.

    Given the huge range of knowledge and skills each student is supposed to master by year’s end, the assessment development process includes a determination of what will be assessed on each test for each grade. Because we can’t test everything covered in a year (no one wants the test to be longer than necessary), decisions must be made.

    Item Development

    Here’s where we get into the nitty gritty. Experts, most of whom are former or current teachers with experience and knowledge of the subject matter and grade level, create “items” that test the content selected in step two. These items can be multiple-choice questions, essay prompts, tasks, situations, activities, and the like.

    Of note, significant time is even spent deciding which WRONG answers to make available for multiple-choice questions. Why’s that? Every item is a chance to identify what our students really know. Incorrect answers can actually tell us a lot about what students misunderstood. For instance, did they add instead of subtract? Multiply instead of divide? Every bit of data helps disentangle what kids really, truly know, which makes the assessment process complex and the final product a very powerful education tool.

    Once the items are developed, then teachers, content experts, higher education faculty, and the testing entity at the state level review them. This diverse group of stakeholders works together to create items that are fair, reliable and accurate. Lots of revisions happen at this stage. And, during this process many items are thrown out — for any number of reasons — and never see the light of day.

    Field Testing or Field Trials

    Now, we test the items by giving them to students. Items developed in step three are “field tested” to gauge how each works when students respond to them. Here, and I can’t stress this enough, we’re testing the item itself – not the kids. We want to know that the question itself is worthy of being used to assess skills and knowledge appropriately. Students’ scores on these field-test items are only used to evaluate the items; they are not used to calculate a student’s score for the year.

    By doing these trials, we can see if gender, ethnicity or even English proficiency impact a child’s ability to successfully perform the task at hand. All of this is done to verify that each and every question is fair. Yet again, a range of stakeholders and experts are involved in the process, reviewing the results and making decisions along the way. The reality is this: if an item doesn’t meet expectations, it’s cut.

    Build the Test

    Using field-tested and approved items, systematically and thoughtfully the test takes its final form. Easy and hard items, tasks, and activities are incorporated. Items that assess varying skills and content areas are added. This part of the process helps us understand what a child really knows at the end of the assessment. As they say, variety is the spice of life. Same goes for an assessment. A mixture of challenging and easy items enable a range of knowledge and skills to be assessed.
    Setting Performance Standards – Finally, states with teachers and their testing partners to make decisions about how well students must perform to pass, or be proficient. For example, performance can be defined as basic, passing, proficient, or advanced. These “performance standards” provide a frame of reference for interpreting the test scores. They help students, parents, educators, administrators, and policymakers understand how well a student did by using a category rating.
    After – and only after – this rigorous, multi-step, multi-year process involving a range of stakeholders is complete, do the tests enter the classroom.

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  • A Former Elementary Teacher in Rural Spain Helping to Innovate the Way Children Learn and Parents Stay Involved

    by LearnEd

    A sunflower
    Extremadura Map2

    A New Way to Improve Learning

    "When I was in school, we weren't using computers or learning how to find useful information online," says Cristobal Garcia who's working with local students and teachers—even parents—who now have that opportunity.

    Cristobal is a trainer for Pearson's eScholarium collaborative education platform in a rural region of Spain called Extremadura.

    He used to be an elementary teacher.

    Extremadura is one of the poorest regions in Spain. Its economy is largely based on agriculture.

    "But most everyone has access to the internet," Cristobal says. "At home, in libraries, at school—and we're taking advantage of this resource to improve our learning and teaching."

    Captura de pantalla (106)

    A Government Initiative, Embraced by the Community

    working together

    Three years ago, Extremadura's regional government wanted to take its educational system one step closer to a digital future—to be a pioneer in the use of digital content in the classroom in Spain and throughout Europe.

    Pearson was selected to lead two other companies—BlinkLearning and Common MS—to create and roll out what became eScholarium.

    "Through this platform, everyone is now part of teaching," Cristobal says. "Teachers, students, families, textbook publishers—everyone is now working together in a collaborative way."

    Cristobal says teachers embrace the platform because they're now able to review textbooks and keep better tabs on students work so they can apply new teaching approaches.

    "They're also creating their own classroom content," he says, "and sharing it with colleagues in the region through the platform."

    "For the students in an era of technology, they're now learning how to use that technology properly," Cristobal says. "And use this technology learning to help their education."

    "And parents can track homework lessons and scheduled tests," he says.

    More Than 100 Schools and Growing

    Over the last three years, Cristobal says, the platform has been integrated in to 106 centers—from primary schools to secondary schools to music schools to language schools to schools for adult learners.

    This includes nearly 4,000 teachers, nearly 53,000 families, almost 28,000 students, 32 publishers, and 25 bookshops.

    It's offered in both Spanish and English, with hopes to add other languages h in the future.

    "It was difficult for everybody to learn this platform at first," Cristobal says. "But now it's working better for all of us."


    Digital Collaboration

    "Regional officials have been so pleased with the response to eScholarium that they want to roll it out to even more schools," Cristobal says.

    "We also want to push this platform to a phone app, because that's where these kids are going," he says.

    "We're innovating a whole new way of teaching in these communities," Cristobal says. "And we're helping everyone involved—teachers, students, families, and textbook publishers—keep in touch along the way."

    Captura de pantalla (93)
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  • Tests on Computers Versus Tests on Tablets: Do Students Perform Differently?

    by LearnEd

    Shots of computer booths

     Schools are moving from paper to online tests. Researchers are considering the effects of using tablets or computers on large-scale assessment performance.

    Laurie Davis, Ph.D., has been studying how students take tests on different devices for Pearson since 2012. Her research shows that students perform best when they use technology with which they are familiar.


    “When kids are comfortable and confident with the device, they do better," Laurie says. “Using an unfamiliar device gets in the way of kids answering questions and could result in less accurate results.”

    A Better Study: Devices Assigned Randomly

    Laurie recently conducted a statewide study where students were randomly assigned to use a tablet or computer to see if there was a difference in test scores.

    964 high school students from five school districts in Virginia were given online tests in reading, science, and math.

    About half of them took the 80-minute test on a desktop or a laptop, and about half of the students took the test on a tablet.

    Laurie and her fellow researchers found that there was no significant difference in scores across subjects, gender, and ethnicity.

    "Results indicated no significant differences between tablets and computers for math and science at any point in the score point range or for any student subgroup."

    Boys did slightly better on reading questions when they used a tablet.

    There isn't enough data to explain why this happened. Laurie says it might be because boys perhaps find reading on a tablet more engaging than on a computer.

    Finding the Right Device for Each Student

    Laurie suggests this 3-step process to determine whether a student is comfortable with a particular device for testing:

    1. Ask the teacher if the student is able to use the device comfortably.
    2. Ask the student if they are comfortable with the device.
    3. Practice on the device and verify the student is comfortable using it when responding to test tutorials or practice questions.

    Developing a 'Halo Functionality'

    There are obvious differences between a student's use of a computer versus a student's use of a tablet.

    For example, on a tablet, students use their finger to interact directly with the screen to select or move objects and position the cursor. They use a mouse to accomplish these same tasks on a computer.

    Usability studies show using a finger is far less precise than a mouse—and it can be frustrating to students.

    So, Pearson developed a “halo” functionality for graphing questions on tablets. It helps students see the points or lines they are graphing without it being blocked by their finger.

    Halo Image

    The research shows that with the added halo, there is no difference in usability on a tablet versus a computer.

    Standardization or Personalization?

    Test makers are always looking for the fairest tests. In recent years, this has meant more standardization.

    New technology—with tweaks like the halo functionality on tablets, not computers—means more personalization may be in the offing.

    Laurie Davis says: “It can be fair to personalize the technology used to take the test so students can perform the best they can."

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  • Summer Break: Expert Advice for Parents on Managing Behavior at Home

    by LearnEd

    Kids outdoors


    Earlier this spring, we wrote about how Adam Bauserman helps teachers tackle three common classroom behavior problems. In this follow-up piece, we’ll address behavior issues that arise at home during summer break, and provide Adam's tips for parents striving for smooth sailing over the summer.


    School's Out for Summer

    Summer vacation. For kids, it’s the best time of the year. For parents, it’s often the most stressful. Without the schedule and structure of the classroom, behavior problems in children can flare up during the summer months.

    Adam Bauserman, known as “Dr. Behave,” has a background in education. He’s taught kids of all ages, from elementary school through college. Today, he is an implementation specialist at Pearson, where he helps teachers tackle common classroom behaviors.


    Different Places, Same Struggles

    Not surprisingly, behavior challenges teachers tackle during the school year are the same ones parents see during the summer. As a father to a son with Autism, Dr. Behave has tips for parents hoping to prevent summer break from turning into summer breakdown. He’s hosting a webinar on the subject this Wednesday, July 20. Click here to register.

    In advance, he’s sharing his best advice for parents on dealing with three major behavior problems: disrespect and reactive behavior, blurting out and interrupting, and lack of motivation. The tips are listed below.

    Dr Behave Final

      The Three "C"s

    “These behaviors are human – they happen,” Adam says. “The key is not to belabor a conflict or its resolution.”

    “Be clear, be concise, and be complete. Use only words kids understand, make your point quickly, and then move on.”

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  • My name’s Diane, and I’m a single parent

    by Diane Budd

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    I am a single parent. It’s funny how often that fact crops up early in conversations when I meet people. Perhaps it’s because I’m proud of my daughter, perhaps it’s a preemptive strike against the stigmas that still linger in the more conservative walks of society. Though single parent families are a strangely common and unremarkable concept, I still come across the odd menacing rumble of quiet disapproval; a glance, a tut, a carefully placed piece of humiliation. It’s rare, but it registers. One way or another, being a single parent seems to define me in a way that two parent families never need to explain themselves.

    I had many fears when my daughter, Xairis, was born six years ago. I had the sort of childhood where I didn’t mix much with other kids. I never really played out, or went to parties, or babysat. I wasn’t unhappy… I never really stopped to consider that I ever needed anyone more than my brothers, sisters and cousins. Perhaps it was because of this lack of having been around children that, when I fell pregnant, I was overcome with a worrying sense that I was hugely unqualified.

    Despite being 28 when Xairis was born, I was very much blazing the trail for parenthood in my social circle. None of my siblings had children, nor any of my close cousins. The only mother I really knew well enough to ask for advice - my own - had died a few years before.

    After she died I had left the family nest of New England, and headed for the sunshine and warmth of Florida, to be with my partner - the man who became my daughter’s father. Pregnancy is tough enough, without also being in a new place, with no disposable income to talk of, surrounded by nobody I knew, and far away from the only people I did know.

    But it’d be OK, I’d tell myself, because my partner has a child already and he’d know how to do things. Wouldn’t he! It turns out, he wouldn’t. It wasn't so much a question of interest as responsibility. He came from a home where mom took care of everything, allowing him to be the man of the house without having to carry the duties that come with that title. So it didn't really seem out of balance to him that it was the mother’s role to do all the heavy lifting. I guess in his mind, that's the way it was supposed to be.

    In a way, I had been a single parent a long time before my little girl arrived. You expect your baby to utterly rely on you for their every need; not your partner. It had been good training for motherhood.

    I was afraid I would make mistakes, but I was more afraid of not giving my little girl the right start; of hanging around in an environment where she might learn from the behaviours she was seeing. That’s why, when Xairis was about three, we left. Just the two of us, me and my new little girl, heading out in the big, big world. I didn’t know what I was doing. I made mistakes. Lots of them. I still do. But I’m learning how to be a better mom every day.

    I do not get child support and I don’t have my family network close by. I don’t get any help from Xairis’ father - something I have chosen to accept. The relationship had taken its physical and mental toll on me. In the end I decided that the struggles of being alone would be financially and emotionally easier than the struggles of asking him to be reliable. So having a job is a financial necessity. But even if it wasn’t, I would still work. Knowing that you have to work hard to earn what you want is one of the best examples you can give a child

    Xairis is now in school, which makes life a little easier. But I still pay for wrap around school care, as well as someone to look after her in the evenings I’m working. She enjoys reading, and loves learning; animals and dinosaurs are the flavor of the month at the moment. But recently she’s been having difficulty focusing in class, so I’ve also employed a private tutor to give her the the 1-2-1 attention she needs right now. Her teachers tell me that her hyperactivity requires some kind of extracurricular outlet, but I’ve long since run out of time and money.

    I am blissfully aware that with someone good by my side, I might be less strapped for cash, have more time, provide more, be a better parent. That dinner, bath and stories wouldn’t need to get squeezed into the last drops of the day before one of us falls asleep. That I wouldn’t need to rush in the mornings, just so we can steal a few more minutes together by strolling to her daycare center. (We’ve been trying to get up even a little earlier, so we can do some yoga and meditation together - alas it’s turning out to be a class of one!)

    But amongst the waves of guilt and frustration, I am optimistic, because I know she’s got education on her side. Unlike tens of millions of children around the world, she gets to go to school. She gets to be taught and to learn. To a degree, she’ll get to decide the way she wants her life to turn out. In the list of things I want for my daughter, an education comes way, way above a father.

    I know that my daughter feels very loved, and knows I am doing my best. She embodies many of the things I still strive to be. She is resilient. She lets problems slide off her back. She entertains herself. She’s popular, but isn’t attached to any one person. She regularly goes without the things her friends expect to get - new toys, clothes, vacations, time with mom. But she’s rarely without a smile. One day, out of nowhere, she turned to me and said: “Mommy, dya know what? Before I was born, I asked for you to be my mom”. My heartbreaker and my everyday-maker.

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  • Teaching twice: The hidden cost of America’s education system

    by Don Kilburn

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    President Obama offered up an ambitious plan to make the first two years of community college free of charge. It’s a highlight of his budget proposal and will be a tent-pole issue of the administration’s education policy for 2015. And it would expand access to more people across the country.

    But students throughout the educational ladder, from pre-school to college, are falling further and further behind in basic skills. Mathematics and literacy top the list. The widening gap between expectation and reality threatens the value of college as fewer students are prepared to succeed in degree programs, such as those offered at community colleges, and thrive in the careers higher education makes possible. The costs of teaching twice – both financial and the overall strain on the system – is the largest undiscussed threat to our higher education system.

    Let’s take a look at the landscape. Fifty percent of community college students and twenty percent of four-year students need to complete remedial core competencies before advancing to a degree program. The cost: $4 billion every year. This is an unsustainable system. The burden on state and federal education resources must be addressed before more students are sent to college unprepared.

    From my perspective in a career working across the educational system, there are three core areas where modest improvements would lead to lower remediation costs and more students obtaining the skills they need.

    Assess outcomes at every stage. For decades, educational investment policies have been driven by “old metrics” such as the quality of facilities and class size. These are important, but with the technologies and methods we have now, we can focus on the ability of a lesson plan to deliver results. These can be achieved in real time, without waiting for test results. High stakes tests have a role in education, but they are a lagging indicator and do not allow for immediate intervention if a student, or a class, is struggling.

    Efficacy of products and services is a critical concept for the entire education industry. School districts, teachers and taxpayers alike all need to be able to see the utility of every tool that’s used and every dollar that’s spent.

    Ed tech is a catalyst. Students today are digital natives and expect a seamless integration between technology and the classroom experience. The largest 1:1 digital learning initiative, in Huntsville, Alabama, is already paying off. The district saw reading scores improve by 18% and math scores improve by 27% in just two years from 2011 to 2013. The graduation rate improved 14% over the same period. Students’ digital habits are helping to raise standards, and we need to be prepared to meet their expectations with learning that’s available anytime, anywhere.

    But it’s not the only answer. We know that pouring money into new devices doesn’t solve the educational puzzle. New tools are only effective when teachers are trained on how those tools can help them identify their students’ challenges, and help them overcome them. Better equipping our teachers to make a difference with good professional development is a smart investment.

    As instruction methods evolve, so too should evaluation and accreditation. Competency-based learning means using mastery as the metric of student success instead of the amount of time spent in class. With more flexibility and focus on the student, remedial needs could be cut from whole semesters of coursework down to modules for the specific skills a student needs to progress.

    Remediation is a huge impediment to students even finishing a degree, as the time and money required to master essential skills often put the dream out of reach. Enabling more students to go to college for little or no cost is the right thing to do, so we need to ensure that we’re preparing all our students for success in college and in the workplace that follows. The value of a college education is only as good as the ability to gain new skills, instead of relearning old ones.


    This article was originally published on

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  • Are you ready for a renaissance in assessment?

    by Amar Kumar

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    I was recently having coffee with my friend, Jodie, a teacher in England. She was telling me a story about an English test she had once given her class. The scores from the test showed that several of her students had clearly not grasped some important concepts. Alas the test had been designed simply to produce a score, rather than to uncover insights. It gave the grades, without the whys. And without those whys, how could she know what to revisit, with whom, and how?

    In particular, one of her ‘star’ students, who she had expected to fly through the test, had not.  It turned out that on the morning of the test, he had had a big fight with his brother, and this had clearly affected his performance. Yet the test simply told her that he hadn't understood the topic.

    There is a rapidly accelerating debate amongst educators around the world – from developed and developing economies, and from schools, universities and professionals – about the purpose and use of assessments. A new consensus is emerging advocating for the use of new technologies to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of assessments.

    Today’s publication of Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment contributes to this debate and advocates for a new set of principles and guidelines in the way assessments are designed, conducted, and applied.

    We probably all know what we mean by “assessment”. In the broadest sense possible, it’s any appraisal, judgement, or evaluation of a student’s work or performance. These evaluations can be formal (e.g., standardised testing) or informal (e.g., classroom observations), and determine what students know, how much they understand, what they can do, and what they struggle with.

    But for me, and for an increasing majority of the education community, assessment is so much more than a certification of a student’s ability or a mark of their likelihood to succeed in further study or employment. Assessment is - or at least it should be - a way to help teachers teach better; a way to inform them of their students’ needs and make the appropriate interventions.

    Yet assessments have historically been used predominantly to hold teachers, schools, and systems to account for the performance (and largely academic performance only) of their students. As such they have tended to ignore the full compliment of a student’s ability: Does he display emotional intelligence? Can she solve a problem? Can they work well as a team?; and subsequently focus on a too narrow definition of ‘value’ for outcomes.

    A cappuccino and more conversation later, Jodie recalled a particular student who failed her math and science tests, but always shone when it came to creative writing. Unfortunately, back then, creative writing wasn’t a skill anyone tracked. So the writer in her - the thing that gave her most potential - was ignored, and so unnourished.

    However, the scent of a renaissance is now in the air.

    New technologies are rapidly making assessments more reliable, less subjective, and less time consuming. For example, adaptive testing technologies (i.e., tests that evolve in real time based on student performance) increase the accuracy of the assessment and can reduce the number of questions a student needs to answer. Automated exam marking can reduce the subjectivity of grading for more qualitative subjects such as history, English, and creative writing. And personalised learning tools can integrate assessments into the day-to-day activities of a classroom, so teachers get real-time feedback on student performance, rather than having to wait until the end of a unit or semester.

    In this new environment, assessments are no longer this conveyor belt of one-moment-in-time temperature checks. No longer do they rely solely on the assessed only having one chance to prove what they know. No longer do they simply produce the letters and numbers for someone to carry about for life.

    Rather, the assessment renaissance is cultivating a new approach; a virtuous circle of insights, interventions, and improvements, where teaching and technology come together in perfect harmony.

    The authors of the new paper detail the steps that policymakers, schools, teachers, and parents need to take in order to prepare for this renaissance. Among their recommendations is an investment in training teachers, so they can better use technologies to make assessment less subjective, less time consuming, more reliable, and ultimately more purposeful.

    When Jodie was just beginning her teaching career, she said one statistic in particular left its imprint. Only 10% of students who were assessed as below average at the start of secondary school went on to achieve good grades by the end. She told me she wanted to know why, in all the intervening years, they weren’t able to uncover the reasons why 90% of students weren’t getting better? When, Jodie asks, will assessments become less about pleasing the school management team and more about understanding how she can become a better teacher and help her students achieve their ambitions?

    Well Jodie, the renaissance is upon us.


    Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment is authored by Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser, and Dr Peter Hill. It is available at


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