The School Choice Paradox: Competition vs. Monopoly

The School Choice Paradox: Competition vs. Monopoly

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently released a list of proposed priorities for her department’s competitive grants program. Number one is “Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child’s Unique Needs.” In other words—no surprise—school choice initiatives remain at the top of the Secretary’s agenda.

DeVos’s argument for school choice, like most everyone else’s, hinges on a faith in competition to improve education. In an open marketplace full of choices, according to advocates, schools compete with one another to attract students. This competition drives up the quality of education all around, as parents choose only the best performing options for their kids. As in any competitive environment, if a school wants to survive, it had better stand and deliver.

The hardest of hardcore school choicers want to minimize government involvement to the greatest extent possible, leaving it entirely up to the competitive market’s invisible hand to ensure that every child has access to a good education. School choice advocates, including DeVos, who characterize the public school system as a dead-end monopoly, believe that government regulations, such as open admissions requirements, price controls, accountability mandates, and reporting requirements, only impede a dynamic market’s ability to improve efficiency and quality.

But these school choicers ignore the basic truth that unregulated markets tend not toward greater competition but toward monopoly. If we turn our education system into an unregulated market, where government has no role to play in ensuring the public good, then we risk trading one type of monopoly for another. School-choice models counting on competition to improve education undercut themselves if they eliminate the government’s role in ensuring competition through regulation.

It’s not difficult to make the case that a laissez-faire market breeds monopolies and oligarchies. Just look at the robber barons in the days before antitrust legislation. Better yet, consider the current status of the US economy: after decades of deregulation, only a handful of companies now dominate media, telecommunications, finance, tech industries, oil, transportation, defense contracting, agriculture, retail, and other key sectors.

Companies don’t want competition: they want to eliminate competitors and have the market all to themselves. It takes government policy to keep that from happening. From the New Deal to the 1970s—the decades of the U.S.’s greatest economic growth and income equality—the federal government developed and enforced policies to limit the consolidation of competitors, enforce fair trade practices, protect consumers, and otherwise regulate markets to reduce barriers to entry, ensure competition, and discourage the rise of monopolies. Systematic deregulation, which began under President Carter and has continued largely without pause through every administration since, has resulted quite demonstrably not in more competition but in less.

It therefore doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the same thing happening in education, if school choice policies premised on the benefits of a free market don’t ensure competition through regulation. School choice champions such as DeVos, who rail against the public monopolization of schools, should be just as adamant about guarding education against the private monopolization so evident in other deregulated markets. If education were to go the way of, say, finance or agriculture, it would be dominated by a handful of private, too-big-to-fail companies with proprietary curricula and an incentive to increase returns to shareholders rather than safeguard the public good. Imagine Pearson owning 80 percent of all K-12 schools, free to decide for themselves what to teach, to whom, and toward what end.

What sorts of policies are required to ensure that the market-based education system we are surely headed towards stays competitive? At the minimum, school choice policies must:

Limit bigness. The consolidation of competitors must be constrained, even at the expense of greater efficiency. Unchecked mergers and acquisitions, justified on the basis of increased efficiency, have been the signal route by which a small number of players have eliminated competition and achieved too-big-to-fail status in under-regulated industries.

Keep public schools competitive. As more private players enter education, traditional public schools will serve as a bulwark against the concentration of private power. Currently, however, district schools often are not allowed to compete on equal footing. For example, in many cases charter schools are free to weed out students who lower test scores or cost more to educate. In contrast, traditional public schools must educate everyone who comes through the door, including the students expelled from charter schools. Little wonder then when district schools look worse both financially and academically in comparison to their competitors. School choice policy designed to ensure competition must make sure that traditional public schools aren’t disadvantaged, with their funding siphoned away to help their competitors, and rivals playing by more favorable rules.

Straighten out accountability. As it stands, both the presence and absence of accountability requirements distort incentives, resulting in a market that is neither fair nor efficient. In states such as Michigan, where there is no strong performance-based accountability for charter schools, the incentive is simply to attract as many students as possible. Charters compete fiercely to fill seats, even in poor urban and rural areas, because each enrollee garners around $7,600 in public funds. Schools are not required to show results, however, and so they are not incentivized to actually deliver a high quality education to their students. As a result, the state has lots of charters, but they rank near the bottom of all schools nationwide.

In contrast, in states where all schools are held accountable by student performance measures, charters have a disincentive to serve populations least likely to generate high test scores—namely, the rural and urban poor. Evidence indicates that “for-profit charters are less likely than other types of schools to locate in low-income neighborhoods and educate low-income students.” In other words, there’s no percentage in the market for poor kids.

Public accountability for publicly-funded schools is an obvious tenet of good stewardship. But in a market-based system, policymakers must recognize and remedy the incentive distortions accountability requirements can create.

Require reporting. The competitive market model depends on parents making informed choices. Policy aimed at ensuring competition must define the information essential for fairly comparing competitors and require that schools report it regularly and truthfully. Parents should be able to compare options based on consistent and reliable criteria.

Pitting schools against one another in a competitive marketplace may indeed be a way to improve education. But if we decide that a market-based model is the answer, then we must also be wise about how that market operates. We have no lack of examples of what happens in markets absent government-enforced restrictions on the concentration of power. If we’re committed to reforming our education system through market-based competition, then we must also commit to government regulations that ensure the market works for the public good.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post has also been published in Age of Awareness.)

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When Is School Choice a Bad Choice?

When Is School Choice a Bad Choice?

With Betsy DeVos as head of the Department of Education, it is a sure bet that school choice initiatives will be at the top of national school reform efforts in the coming years. DeVos, a longtime  advocate for alternatives to traditional public schools—including charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, online schools, and other ideas—will no doubt support President Trump’s plan to direct $20 billion a year away from traditional public schools and towards school choice programs.

School choice is one of the rare political initiatives that has fans on both the right and left. Unfortunately, there is still no definitive answer as to what kinds of alternatives work best, or even whether policies promoting school choice can improve education nationally. After 25 years of experimentation with charter schools, the results are mixed. Some charters have outperformed traditional public schools, while others have offered no improvement at all. In some cases, charter schools have merely lined the pockets of their founders while failing students utterly. There are similarly mixed results for school voucher programs.

Underlying school choice is a faith in the workings of a competitive market to generate better outcomes. Competition pressures all schools to improve by giving parents, through the exercise of their choice, the power to hold their kids’ schools accountable, so the thinking goes.

The special problem the free market presents in the case of education, however, is that when competitors and experiments fail, children suffer. At stake in a marketplace of education alternatives is not the viability of some consumer gadget, but the life chances of real kids who may never recover from falling behind.

Of course, as school choice champions will be quick to note, children suffer no less tragically when their “monopolistic” traditional public schools fail them, and they have nowhere else to turn.

Education policy based on market principles by definition expects some schools to fail—and, though this point often goes unvoiced, it therefore expects some children to be casualties of those failures. Recognizing this risk, and seeking to mitigate it, is therefore incumbent upon parents, educators, and others, who might reasonably ask: When does policy make school choice a bad choice?

We have enough experience at this point to consider at least a few guidelines:

School choice is a bad choice when it encourages profiteering.

Over $600 billion in federal, state, and local funds go to K-12 public education each year. That’s a tempting pot of public money that many private interests would like to lay hands on. These interests have not been shy about lobbying for models and mechanisms that would siphon some of that money their way, nor in fighting against regulations that would require them to meet accountability standards or make financial disclosures—all in the name of enhancing school choice.

In Secretary DeVos’s home state of Michigan, for example, The Detroit Free Press found widespread abuse, a lack of accountability, and poor academic performance throughout the state’s charter schools, two-thirds of which are run by for-profit management companies.

Online charter schools, dominated by for-profit companies such as Pearson and K12 Inc., have had an “overwhelming negative impact,” according to recent studies, with the majority of students showing “far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers.”

As with any business, the for-profit entities that contract to run public charter schools have an incentive to maximize revenue while minimizing costs. It’s no surprise then that many seek to enroll all the students they can, while getting by with as few teachers, facilities, and instructional resources as possible. For-profit charters are also motivated to avoid accommodating students with problems or disabilities, since these students can bring down both financial and academic performance measures. When it comes to educating a community’s children with public funds, a for-profit model can conflict with the best interests of students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers.

School choice is a bad choice when it is a tool for advancing ideology rather than education.

In some cases, school choice is promoted by people and entities who see it as but one element in a larger ideological vision for society—a vision in which public services are privatized to the largest extent possible while government is reduced to the bare minimum. When this ideology is the engine behind school reform measures, the goal becomes less about improving education than about devaluing and defunding traditional public schools.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, for example, is a Michigan think tank that pushes for deregulation and privatization in many areas of society, including education. The center champions school choice in its rhetoric, but its stated endpoint for education policy is “no government schools,” a stance that favors the elimination of choices rather than their expansion.

Belief in the market is so strong, and enmity towards regulation so fierce in this ideology, that its evangelists resist any sort of government-enforced accountability; for them, “choice and competition engender accountability.” There is no body of evidence supporting this laissez-faire model, only a ferocious faith that it alone can solve the nation’s education problems. There is evidence, however, that school choice without government regulation does not improve education and can harm disadvantaged students

When education policy is set by the belief that any nontraditional school is a better choice than a traditional public school simply because it is not operated by a government entity, then ideology has overtaken evidence-based reasoning. That possibility is worth paying attention to in the current school reform climate, since Secretary DeVos has been a major funder of the Mackinac Center and her husband has served on its board of directors.

School choice is a bad choice when it promotes racial and economic segregation.

In many areas of the country, traditional public school districts replicate entrenched racial and economic divides. Wealthy neighborhoods tend to have well-funded public schools stocked with wealthy kids, while schools in poorer locations are starved for funds and populated mostly by poor kids.

Charter schools and vouchers can help relieve some of the problems of traditional public schools for disadvantaged people, as they have in Oakland and elsewhere. Studies show, however, that charter schools and other school choice programs, whatever the intention behind their authorization, can also reinforce segregation.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, concluded that “charter schools in North Carolina are increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.” Meanwhile, a judge found that Nevada’s recent experiment with a universal school voucher program mostly benefited wealthy families who already had access to good public schools.

Policies that push for school choice as a means for improving education opportunities need to ensure that mechanisms are in place to make the programs and schools truly accessible to the people who would benefit most. Without an accompanying means of transportation, for example, the choice of a private school on the other side of town may in practice be no choice at all.

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While it remains to be seen whether school choice will be a good choice while Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education, it is worth noting that of the roughly $620 billion spent annually on K-12 public education, less than $60 billion comes from the federal government; the lion’s share of school funding is state and local. Thus, while the proposed $20 billion in federal funds for school choice programs is nothing to sneeze at, its overall impact will be comparatively modest.

The most meaningful choices about school choice will continue to be made at the local and state level. So for anyone interested in making sure that school choice policy in fact leads to good choices, efforts will probably have the most impact closest to home.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post has also been published in BRIGHT Magazine.)

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Why Are Standardized Tests So Boring?: A Sensitive Subject

Why Are Standardized Tests So Boring?: A Sensitive Subject

It is a guiding principle in test development that stimulus materials and test questions should not upset test-takers. Much like dinner conversation with in-laws, tests should refrain from referencing religion, or sex, or race, or politics—anything that might provoke a heightened emotional response that could interfere with test-takers’ ability to give their best effort.

Attention to “sensitivity” concerns, as they’re known, makes sense conceptually. But in practice, as they shape actual test development, sensitivity concerns are responsible for much of why conventional standardized tests are so ridiculously bland and unengaging. The drive to avoid potentially sensitive content constrains test developers to such a degree that one might legitimately question whether the cure is at least as bad as the disease.

So determined are test-makers to avoid triggering unwanted test-taker emotions, they end up compromising the validity of their tests by excluding essential educational content and restricting students’ opportunities to demonstrate the creative and critical thinking skills they’re actually capable of. In other words, ironically, conventional standardized tests may be so radically boring that they’re no better at measuring actual ability and achievement than if they regularly froze test-takers solid with depictions of graphic horror.

Actually, no one knows for certain if the tests are better or worse for being so cautious. There is no research defining sensitivity, no evidence-based catalog of topics to avoid, no study measuring the test-taking effects of “sensitive” content. For all anyone knows, inflaming emotions might actually improve test results—though few test-makers would risk experimenting to find out.

No test-maker wants to hear from a teacher or parent that a student was stunned, enraged, offended, or even mildly disconcerted by content they encountered on a test. And in fairness, no test-maker wants to subject a test-taking kid to a hurtful or upsetting experience. They’re captives, after all; if something on the test makes them feel crappy, they have little choice but to sit there and absorb it. Their scores may or may not reflect the fact that their emotions were triggered: there’s really no way to tell.

On the other hand, high-stakes standardized tests, in and of themselves, trigger lots of negative emotions in plenty of kids, regardless of question content. So a cynic might wonder how much sensitivity concerns are driven by concern for kids’ experience, and how much by fear of the PR nightmares that would ensue from a question or passage that someone could claim was racially or religiously offensive. Whatever the case, the result is the same: keep it safe by keeping it bland.

Since there is no research to guide decisions on sensitivity, the rules test-makers set for themselves are based strictly on their own judgment, and on some sense of industry practice. Inevitably they default to the most conservative positions possible: if a topic might conceivably be construed as sensitive, that’s enough reason to keep it off the test.

Typically, sensitivity guidelines steer test developers away from content focused on age, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Test-makers also avoid subjects they deem inherently combustible, such as drugs and drinking, death and disease, religion and the occult, sexuality, current politics, race relations, and violence.

A “bias review” process gets applied in the course of developing passages and questions for testing, to weed out anything that might be offensive or unfair to certain subgroups—typically African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Women, sometimes Native Americans. The test-maker will send prospective test materials out for review by qualified educators who belong to these subgroups. If a reviewer thinks a test item is problematic, it gets tossed. Though this process is better than nothing, it reflects more butt-covering than enlightenment, putting test-maker and reviewer alike in the awkward position of saying, for instance, “These test items are not unfair to Black people. How do we know? We had a Black person look at them!”

Judgments on topics not pertaining to identity and cultural difference rest purely on the test makers, who, as mentioned, are as risk-averse as can be. In one example I’m familiar with, a passage about the mythological Greek figure Eurydice was rejected because the story deals with death and the underworld. Think of all the literature and art excluded from testing on that kind of criteria. Think of the impoverished portrait of human achievement and lived experience conveyed to students by such an exclusion.

In another case, a passage on ants was rejected because it reported that males get booted out of the colony and die shortly after mating. I’m still not clear on whether the basis for that judgment centered on the reference to insects mating, insects dying, or the prospect of a student projecting insect gender relations onto human relations and being thereby too disturbed to think clearly. Whatever the case, rejecting such a passage on the basis of sensitivity concerns seems downright anti-science.

As does the elimination of references to hurricanes and floods because some kids might have experienced them. I remember a wonderful literary passage that depicted a kid watching his family’s possessions float around the basement when their neighborhood flooded. It was intended for high schoolers. It got the noose.

I’ve seen a pair of passages from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois nixed out of concern for racial sensitivity: you can’t have African Americans arguing with each other on questions of race. Test-makers strive to include people of color in their test content to satisfy requirements for cultural inclusivity. But those people of color cannot be engaged in the experience of being people of color —which renders the whole impulse toward inclusivity hollow and cynical. Such an over-abundance of caution does more to protect the test-maker than the student.

The content validity of educational assessments that cannot reference slavery, evolution, extreme weather events, natural life cycles, economic inequality, illness, and other such potentially sensitive topics should come under serious interrogation. More concerning still is the prospect of such tests driving curriculum. With school funding and teacher accountability riding on standardized test scores, teaching to the test makes irresistibly practical sense in many educational contexts. Thus, if the tests avoid great swaths of history, science, and literature, then so will curriculum.

The makers of the standardized tests schoolkids encounter argue that they are not interested in censoring educational content, only in recognizing that when students encounter potentially sensitive topics they need the presence of an adult to guide them through. The classroom and the dinner table are places for negotiating challenging subjects, not the testing environment, where kids are under pressure and on their own.

This rationale should rouse everyone to question why we continue to tolerate such artificial conditions for evaluating student learning. It essentially concedes that testing doesn’t align with curriculum, that kids will not be assessed on the things they’re taught—only on the things test-makers decide are safe enough to put in front of them. Further, it admits that test-makers compromise the content validity of their tests in deference to the highly contrived testing conditions they require. Surely we can recognize in this the severe design flaws that lie at the heart of the testing problem.

Obviously, insulting or traumatizing students with test content is something to be avoided. But at the same time, studies show that test-taker engagement is essential for eliciting the kinds of performances that accurately reflect students’ capabilities. When tasks lack relevance and authenticity they work against students’ ability to demonstrate their best work, especially students from underserved populations. Consider this statement:

Engagement is strongly related to student performance on assessment tasks, especially for students who have been typically less advantaged in school settings (e.g. English Language Learners, students of historically marginalized backgrounds) (Arbuthnot, 2011; Darling-Hammond et al., 2008; Walkington, 2013). In the traditional assessment paradigm, however, engagement has not been a goal of testing, and concerns about equity have focused on issues of bias and accessibility. A common tactic to avoid bias has been to create highly decontextualized items. Unfortunately, this has come at the cost of decreasing students’ opportunities to create meaning in the task as well as their motivation to cognitively invest in the task, thereby undermining students’ opportunities to adequately demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

In my own experience interviewing high schoolers about writing prompts, they want to write about Mexican rappers, violence in videogames, representations of gender and race in popular culture, football concussions, gun ownership, the double-standard dress codes schools impose on girls compared with boys, and other topics that are both authentic and relevant to them. Conventional standardized tests would not come near topics like these.

Any solution to this problem has to entail breaking away from the dominant, procrustean model of standardized test-taking, which isolates individual students from all resources and people, asks them to think and write on topics they may never have encountered before and care nothing about, and confines them to a timeframe that reflects the practical considerations of the test-maker, not the nature of authentic intellectual work.

Once free of the absurdly contrived conditions of conventional test-taking, sensitivity concerns can be removed from the domain of test-makers worried about their own liability. Instead, along with their teachers and guardians, students can decide what topics are appropriate to grapple with in their academic work. In fact, learning to choose, scope, and frame a topic in ways appropriate for an academic project is itself an essential skill, worthy of teaching and assessing.

WORKS CITED
Arbuthnot, K. (2011). Filling in the blanks: Understanding standardized testing and the Black-White achievement gap. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Darling-Hammond, L., Barron, B., Pearson, P. D., Schoenfeld, A. H., Stage, E. K., Zimmerman, T. D., … & Tilson, J. L. (2015). Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. John Wiley & Sons.

Walkington, C. A. (2013). Using adaptive learning technologies to personalize instruction to student interests: The impact of relevant contexts on performance and learning outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(4), 932.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was featured as a guest post on CURMUDGUCATION.)

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Is the ACT a Valid Test? (Spoiler Alert: No.)

Is the ACT a Valid Test? (Spoiler Alert: No.)

ACT, Inc. released the results of its 2016 National Curriculum Survey earlier this year. The Survey goes out every three or four years to elementary, middle school, high school, and college teachers, as well as to workforce professionals. It collects information about what respondents are teaching, how they teach it, what they care about, and so forth. It serves as the basis upon which ACT builds its tests.

Because the Survey provides a look into both what pre-college students are being taught, and what they need to know to be prepared for college, it is a useful tool for examining the serious and persistent problem of college readiness—why it is that the majority of high school graduates are underprepared for college-level academic work. ACT itself reports that 72% of its test-takers fall short of at least one of its college-readiness benchmarks, which confirms the widespread underpreparedness reported by other sources. And indeed, ACT’s National Curriculum Survey reveals wide disjunctures between high school teaching and college expectations, which may have something to do with why students aren’t better prepared.

But ironically, by pointing out these disjunctures, the Survey raises questions about the validity of the ACT exam itself. The ACT is a test that straddles the space between high school and college, claiming to be both reflective of high school curricula and a measure of college readiness. But if ACT’s own Survey reveals that high school curricula do not align with college expectations, how can the ACT validly claim to measure both?

Tests are all about validity. Their value and utility depend upon them actually measuring what they purport to measure. If a test does not actually assess what it purports to, then it’s not a valid test, and any inferences made based on its results are faulty—inferences such as “this kid has been taught the skills needed for college success but hasn’t learned them very well.”

The two claims ACT, Inc. makes about the ACT test are at odds with each other, which calls into question the test’s validity. The claim that the test is “curriculum based” rests on Survey results, which ACT says serve as empirical evidence upon which it decides how to build the test. In this way, according to ACT, the test reflects what is being taught in high schools—an important claim, since testing kids on things they haven’t been taught doesn’t tell anyone much about their abilities.

ACT also, of course, claims that the test is a measure of college readiness. Through the Survey, it gathers an understanding of what college instructors expect from entering students. This understanding is reflected in ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, a set of “descriptions of the essential skills and knowledge students need to become ready for college and career.”

According to ACT, the Standards are validated by the Survey in a process that “ensures that our assessments always measure not only what is being taught in schools around the country, but also what demonstrably matters most for college and career readiness.”

But can the ACT test both what is taught in high school and what is expected in college if those two things don’t square up, as is suggested by their National Curriculum Survey and other research?

Perhaps there’s a significant degree of overlap. Perhaps ACT can identify and test students on those things that fall into both the learned-it-in-high-school category and the better-know-it-for-college category. ACT says indeed there is overlap, and that they have a way of figuring out what’s in it.

How do they do it? According to a 2015 white paper, “ACT first identifies what postsecondary faculty, including instructors of entry-level college and workforce training courses, expect of their entering students—that is, the knowledge and skills students need to be ready for entry-level postsecondary courses and jobs. ACT then compares these expectations to what is really happening in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. ACT uses the results of these comparisons to determine the skills and knowledge that should be measured on ACT assessments and to guide its test blueprints.”

The company does not explain how this process of comparison works, but it implies that they identify a subset of knowledge and skills that fall into both camps, then simply test kids on that.

To feel confident in this process, we would need to be certain that the subset is sufficient in size and scope to support the dual claims. That is, we would need to know what lies outside the overlap slice, as well as what lies within. What is being taught in high school that does not appear on the test because it is not a college-ready expectation? Likewise, what college-ready expectations do not appear on the test because they are not being taught in high school?

Once we knew those things, then we could validate the ACT by answering this question: Is the overlap slice sufficient to support both the claim that the test measures what is being taught in high school and the claim that it measures college readiness?

In other words, is there enough of the high school curriculum on the test to justify calling it a valid measure of high school achievement? And are there, at the same time, enough college expectations on the test to justify calling it a valid measure of college readiness?

ACT doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. As far as the ACT is concerned, if you demonstrate proficiency on the test, then ipso facto you’ve both mastered your high school curriculum and are ready for college, because the claims they make for the test require that the two constructs be identical.

What if you don’t do so well on the test? Is it because you haven’t learned well enough what you’ve been taught? Or because you haven’t been taught what you’re being tested on?

The ACT simply doesn’t allow for the second possibility.

In point of fact, if high schools were teaching certain essential college-ready skills – how to revise your work in response to feedback, for example—a conventional standardized test like the ACT would never be able to detect it, because it cannot provide for test-takers opportunities to do the kind of authentic, extended, or collaborative intellectual work that will be required of them in college.

But alas, as mentioned already, plenty of research demonstrates that there is a significant difference between high school learning and college expectations, suggesting that any overlap might not be very robust.  According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”

ACT’s own research confirms this. Two things jump out from the National Curriculum Survey results. First, as we can see from the table below, in many cases the Survey does not ask high school teachers and college instructors the same questions, so there is not much opportunity for determining where high school teaching lines up, or not, with college expectations. The Survey doesn’t look like a very good tool for comparing high school teaching to college expectations in Writing, for example.

The second thing is, where the Survey does provide opportunities for comparing high school with college, it finds that high school teaching does not align with college expectations. The Survey report points out, for example, that high school Writing teachers and college instructors are not emphasizing the same skills. Further, high school math teachers do not agree with college math instructors about what skills are important for success in STEM courses. Less than half of high school teachers believe that the Common Core math standards (which ACT stresses are in line with its own College Readiness Standards) match college instructors’ expectations for college readiness.

In other words, ACT’s own Survey shows that, to a significant extent, the knowledge and skills high school teachers are teaching are not the knowledge and skills college instructors are expecting of entering students.

Hence the college-readiness gap.

But if those two bodies of knowledge and skills aren’t the same, how can ACT support the claim that its test measures both what students actually learn and what ACT says they should learn for college readiness? The test doesn’t distinguish a “high-school-learning” part from a “college-requirements” part. As far as the test is concerned, it’s all the same.

In fact, ACT can’t really support both claims at the same time. But they make them anyway because they want to sell the test to two distinct markets. They want to sell it to students who are trying to get into college, so they call it a college-readiness test. And they want to sell it to states and districts for accountability purposes. These entities want to know whether their students are learning what they’re being taught; thus ACT calls the test curriculum-based.

But, we might wonder, don’t standards take care of all this? Standards, after all, both reflect the skills needed for college readiness and guide high school curriculum, right? Therefore, if the test aligns with the standards, then it’s both curriculum-based and a college-readiness indicator, because those are the same thing.

Most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Those that haven’t have concocted their own state standards, which are pretty much in line with the CCSS. In addition, ACT has its own College and Career Readiness Standards, which, it says, line up with both the CCSS and any non-CCSS state standards you care to throw at it. (As ACT says, “If a state’s standards represent the knowledge and skills that prepare students for college and career, then ACT Aspire and the ACT measure that knowledge and those skills”—a statement that manages to be both a non sequitur and a tautology.)

Again, however, ACT’s own research shows that neither high school teachers nor college instructors are much convinced that the CCSS reflect college-level expectations anyway. Asked by the Survey, “To what extent do you feel that the Common Core State Standards are aligned with college instructors’ expectations regarding college readiness,” the majority of both high school and college teachers responded little or slightly, rather than a great deal or completely.

In other words, according to its own data, ACT shouldn’t really get away with equating standards-based “curriculum achievement” with “college readiness.”

So what’s the cost of the ACT’s tricky claim-game? The cost is that we get farther away from understanding and addressing the college-readiness gap, so long as everyone believes that the ACT is really measuring what it says it does.

Wherever high school curricula lack significant overlap with the skills and knowledge ACT identifies as necessary for college-readiness, the test measures not what students have learned but what they haven’t been taught. This, then, contrary to ACT’s claims, is not an indicator of student readiness or achievement, but a measure of the distance between high school teaching and college expectations (or at least those ACT identifies and can test for).

But this is not how the interpretation of test results falls out for either student or state customers. Rather, the inescapable inference for both is that the majority of students have been taught what they need to know but simply haven’t learned it well enough—student’s fault, or teacher’s fault, but not the test’s fault for leading everyone to a lousy inference.

The faulty inference that issues from the ACT doesn’t help matters where students’ future opportunities are at stake; prospective colleges have no way of knowing that a kid was tested on things she was never actually taught. And it doesn’t help where states are trying to figure out how to improve their education systems. Rather, it makes matters worse by misdirecting both states and students away from the problem of how better to connect high school learning to necessary college skills, and toward the problem of how to get kids to score better on the test.

We do indeed want an education system in which high school curricula are focused securely on the skills and knowledge we confidently know are needed for success upon entry into college.  Demonstrably, that’s not what we have now, so we don’t need a test that falsely suggests otherwise.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

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College As Culture Shock

College As Culture Shock

The standards-based education reform movement, kicked off by A Nation At Risk in 1983, has been around long enough now to start showing results, if it’s going to. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that this path is leading anywhere good. The latest Nation’s Report Card, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, shows that twelfth graders in 2015 weren’t any more ready for college than were twelfth-graders in 2012.  Likewise, students in 2012 didn’t make progress over the kids tested in 2007, or 2003, or 1998.

Generally, the NAEP assessments show that over an extended period only about a quarter of high school students have graduated ready for college-level academics. For low-income and minority groups, the numbers are even worse, and aren’t budging. (For a more extended discussion of the College Readiness Gap, click here.)

Why, given all the efforts made in recent years toward defining and teaching the skills and knowledge needed for college success, are we still not seeing rising numbers of high school graduates ready for college?

Because standards, important as they may be, are not enough. It is increasingly evident that learning entails much more than the acquisition of cognitive skills by themselves. For example, researchers now emphasize students’ dispositions and behaviors—e.g. their “grit”—as necessary components of academic success. Education reformer Diane Ravitch identifies poverty and race-based inequalities as the unaddressed culprits in our failure to make progress in the standards-based education era.

Where college readiness is concerned, we must consider that most students, when they first enter a college classroom, are encountering what amounts to a new and strange culture, with its own embedded behavioral expectations, its own language, its own values and assumptions. Many entering students, regardless of the standards-based cognitive skills they may have acquired in high school, are essentially strangers in a strange land, largely unacquainted with the world they’ve entered into. They don’t speak the language, they’re unfamiliar with the underlying values that structure rules for meaning-making, they don’t quite know how to successfully make use of the skills and knowledge they do bring with them from high school.

They are not prepared for the culture of college academics.

Moving to a foreign country, most high schoolers might be able to order a meal and buy a bus ticket from the start, but they would not find themselves truly understanding and thriving within their new habitat until they became oriented to how the natives think, what motivates them, their belief structures, why they behave as they do. The same is true of students entering the foreign world of postsecondary academics.

And, of course, where higher education is concerned, the goal ultimately is to integrate these new denizens into the culture to such a degree that they become wholly familiar, conversant, and accepted members. That’s what being educated means.

The norms of college academic culture are unfamiliar to most matriculating students, but especially those who are among the first in their families to go to college. For the most part, how academic culture operates goes unexplained, yet understanding and negotiating it is critical to every student’s college success.

To do well in a college classroom, students must acquire a high-level map of the governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and thinking and behaving—all the elements that comprise the webs of significance constitutive of any culture.

The cultural elements endemic to the intellectual enterprise of college academics are only thoroughly acquired over time, through experience and exposure, through a kind of osmosis, as students absorb the language and concepts employed by their instructors, begin to read and respond to an array of academic texts, participate in collaborative academic work, sink deeper into their major field of study, write papers, do research, and gradually begin to grasp the kinds of performances that are considered successful.

At a fundamental level, acquiring a college education entails enculturation into the practices and discourses that structure meaning-making in higher academics.

Every student brings to school particular linguistic resources, background experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ widely, however. Some students are better able to function within academic culture from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them. The vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from what they’ve grown up with. They enter college already knowing pretty much how things work, how to interpret what’s being said, how to discern and meet the behavioral and performance expectations.

For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the one they’re entering, and it takes a lot more than mastery of basic cognitive skills to be successful.

To be clear, we’re not talking here strictly about immigrants from distant lands, who may be struggling with English or American cultural norms more broadly. Nor are we talking about students grappling with the unfamiliarity of college life per se—class schedules, dorms, social activities, and so forth.

Rather, we’re talking about anyone for whom the norms of the intellectual culture of college are unfamiliar—anyone for whom, for example, the primacy and procedures of academic, evidence-centered argumentation are not already woven into the fabric of how meaning gets made in their world. There are many ethnicity- and income-defined subgroups within American culture that fall into this category.

Wide disjunctures between native and academic cultural norms, absent some targeted intervention, are how socio-economic disadvantages transmute into educational disadvantages. All the more reason, then, for all students, regardless of income or background, to begin the process of enculturation as they prepare for college, rather than after they get there.

There is no exhaustive taxonomy of academic cultural norms, but we’ve identified eight key concepts—interdependent and mutually reinforcing—that every student would do well to grasp prior to entering the intellectual culture of academia.

Our FREE .pdf—A High Schooler’s Guide to the Culture of College Academics: 8 Key Concepts—defining and exploring them is available here. For a white paper surveying the literature and laying out a theoretical basis for this guide visit here.

These concepts can be difficult to get across, but they are graspable by high schoolers and, we believe, are in keeping with the level of rigor needed in high school instruction if it is to drive college success.

Part of what’s so hard about the transition to college is precisely the need to learn the operative norms of the intellectual culture when they are not at all self-evident, and not familiar to students from their previous school experience or upbringing. It makes sense, then, to begin providing some enculturation into the norms of college-level academics as part of college prep instruction in high school.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

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