The Case for Strong State Standards and Exit Exams

test-formIn early September Iowa Republicans rolled out an education agenda calling for strong state standards, high school exit exams and expanded public disclosure of school and district performance.

This week Chad Adelman, a policy analyst at Education Sector, a nonpartisian think tank in Washington, D.C., wrote a guest editorial in the Des Moines Register praising the accountability piece but critcizing the strong state standards and high school exit exams.

This is Mr. Adelman’s second editorial. In June he wrote in favor of opening up Iowa’s ever-so-restrictive charter school law. Then, as now, Mr. Adelman did Iowans a favor. He delivers the harsh truth about the gloomy education future Iowa children face:

In June he wrote:

    “In 1992, when I was 8, Iowa’s fourth graders scored higher than all but one state in math and all but four states in reading on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Unfortunately, today’s Iowa children face a gloomier future than I did. Over a 15 year period ending in 2007, only three states had lower academic gains than Iowa, and Iowa now trails 14 states in both subject.”

Last week he wrote:

    “Two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college the fall after graduation, and many are unprepared for the demands of college-level work. These students must take remedial math and English courses to learn content they were supposed to have mastered in high school.”

In June he offered the insightful suggestion that Iowa needs a better charter law focusing on results and proven performance. Those magnet schools meeting agreed-upon performance thresholds should be encouraged to replicate and be given financial assistance and space to do so.

In June Mr. Adelman took the time to look at Iowa law and what’s really going on in our state. Last Monday, however, Mr. Adelman forgot to tune into what’s really going on in Iowa.

Contrary to what Mr. Adelman said, rigorous core academic standards are NOT happening in this state.

Contrary to what Mr. Adelman said, rigorous core academic standards are NOT happening in this state. In fact, the Iowa Department of Education recently backed away from any meaningful commitment to incorporate the very national core standards Mr. Adelman cites as his solution to Iowa’s problem.

Two months ago Education Director Judy Jeffrey said:

    “With our recently passed Iowa Core Curriculum, Iowa can easily incorporate national standards because the Core Curriculum provides more explicit guidance to reach high expectations.”

Today, however, the DE director objects to the making these rigorous national standards a mandatory feature of the $4 billion federal Race to the Top. Director Jeffrey said that these national standards should be voluntary.

So Iowa students aren’t held to rigorous state standards because there are no rigorous state standards in place or in the works. All Iowans really have is “maybe will we or maybe we won’t” leadership.

Iowa spent millions of tax dollars developing core curriculum for teachers but as of yet has no road map for students and parents. The plan introduced by Iowa Republicans focuses on students and parents.

Rigorous core standards – the student and parent road map to success – do not exit. Just ask the parents of an Iowa 7th grader if they know what skills their child is supposed to develop this year.

In terms of exit exams, Mr. Adelman makes valid arguments regarding the difficult experience other states faced when starting from scratch and developing a single test. But he forgets to point out that of the 24 states with exit exams, 14 of them are expected to move away from the single test and toward the more useful end-of-course exams by 2015. Iowa Republicans are open to doing the same.

End-of-course exams assess the mastery of content of a specific high school course. Students don’t exit high school unless they pass these exams. This idea is not without precedent in Iowa.

Iowa’s high school athletes are required to receive a passing grade all their courses. But no similar state law exists in order to graduate from an Iowa high school. Why shouldn’t Iowa students be required to pass end-of –course exams in mathematics and English and science in order to get their diploma?

Since 2004 Iowa has received $25 million in assessment money from the federal government and yet this state continues to rely on a single test to tells us whether our students across the state are learning.

An alarming number of Iowa high school graduates can’t read or do basic math. Take a minute and think about these facts:

  • 22% of all 11th graders can’t read at a proficient level
  • 22% of 11th graders can’t do basic math
  • Yet 90% of 11th graders will get a diploma

Strong state standards and backed by meaningful testing hold districts, teachers and student accountable.

  • Paul Muhly

    I am very glad the Republican Party is coming out against the Iowa Core Curriculum. It is quite flawed. I am copying, below, a letter I recently wrote to Linda Fandel, of the Des Moines Register.
    Dear Linda,

    I have been meaning to write to you for quite a while. I have been following your writings in the Des Moines Register among the many news items that I receive almost daily about the Iowa Core Curriculum (ICC). The blog below added some urgency.   The Iowa Core Curriculum’s standards are not high enough.  From what I have seen, the national standards are going to be far superior.  Further, the Iowa Department of Education and the nature of its efforts to infuse the ICC into Iowa’s education system are going to decrease Iowa students’ ability to succeed in higher education and to compete in the 21st century workforce.

    As for your comments about Achieve, I have to say I don’t know much about the organization.  However, I think you would get a better sense of what the national standards might be by looking directly at the site that is dedicated to promulgating drafts of proposed national standards and promoting discussion: Achieve is party to the development of the national standards, but I don’t know any more than this.

    I think it would be helpful to compare the materials available at the Corestandards web site with what is available concerning the ICC.  Also, one ought to think hard about the differences in the *processes* followed to reach the ICC, on the one hand, and the national standards, on the other.  I would like to make a few points about this and I would like to encourage you to follow up on them.  I think your readers would be interested.

    1.  While currently, the primary materials available at Corestandards relate to preparedness to go to college, and don’t yet cover the entire curriculum, you will get a sense of what they are trying to accomplish.  First, they are focused on what one needs to know to be successful in college.  They are very explicit and detailed.  Further, examples of the kinds of questions students should be able to answer are given.  The questions are challenging and by any standard require students to think and to think deeply. Moreover, meaningful measurement of achievement of the Corestandards is discussed.

    The examples and detail offered by the DOE for the ICC is pretty limited, by comparison.  As one who knows something about what is necessary to be successful in college, I find it very difficult to see anything in the ICC that will enable students to achieve in college, or even to enter without having to take a *lot* of remedial classes.   The Michigan State study by Hill and Parker makes it clear that students who have the sort of training promoted by the ICC will do poorly in college. (I have sent you the Hill-Parker study before; I would be happy to send it to you again.)

    2.  It is worthwhile to compare who has been involved in writing the Corestandards with the group that produced the ICC.  The list of mathematicians on the national committee is impressive.  It includes, in particular, a past president of the American Mathematical Society – *the* principal professional group of mathematicians in the country.  It also contains members of the National Academy of Sciences.  There are other educators, too, from all levels, and there are other stake holders.  The point is the standards are being developed to address all needs and the development is being done *in the open*.   By contrast, the mathematics part of the ICC was written with the input only of a few math educators – math educators who have a special bias toward a particular text book series (CORE PLUS) and a particular way of teaching.  No practicing mathematicians were consulted.  No one other than mathematics educators were consulted.  I believe the same can be said of the science track of the ICC.  I looked through the committee responsible for the science standards and found *no* professional scientist, only science educators.  No end-users were involved.

    3.  Corestandards focuses on *what* students need to know, not on how to teach the material.  The ICC focuses more on how to teach. When the DOE promotes the ICC, it recommends practices that run counter to best practices of mathematicians and scientists.  I have attached, for an example, a copy of  a Legislative report from January 2008 in which, among other things, the DOE recommends the de-emphasis on “number sense” and greater use of technology (i.e., calculators). It further emphasizes increased work on statistics and probability.  “Number sense” is the ability to do calculations by hand, the ability to recognize differences in orders of magnitude, and the ability get a feeling for quantitative problems through what physicists, engineers, and other users of quantitative methods often call “back of the envelope” calculations.  These are things that are impossible to do, if one is dependent upon calculators.  As for increased work on probability and statistics, that may sound good, and some of it may indeed help with the over all training of students, but what the ICC offers as examples and what is being pushed in the State detracts from mathematical competency. 

    I hold appointments in both the Department of Mathematics and in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of Iowa, and I use probability  regularly in my work.  I can say unequivocally and with significant experience that unless students have good mathematics skills – good number sense – their ability to grasp even the rudiments of probability and statistics will be severely impaired.

    4.  The process that is being followed in developing the national standards is far different from and much *more open* than the process followed in developing the ICC.  Public release of drafts and efforts to seek input are taking place in the national standards.  Nothing like that took place with the development of the ICC.

    As I have indicated before, the Iowa Core Curriculum appears to have been a very secretive and tightly controlled internal process.  In the case of mathematics, most of the team were involved with the CORE PLUS textbook series.  At the time the ICC was written, the leader of the team, Eric Hart  was listed on the CORE PLUS web site as a senior curriculum developer. He is now listed there a “Project Director” – as is Hal Schoen, who directed Hart’s PhD thesis in math education and who, according to Jeff Berger of the DOE, is the *only* outside consultant used in the writing of the mathematics part of the ICC.

    (Jeff Berger will argue that Hal Schoen (now retired) was a member of the University of Iowa Department of Mathematics and he was consulted – implying, erroneously, that the ICC has the imprimatur of mathematicians, in general, and Iowa’s Department of Mathematics in particular.  But Schoen is not a mathematician, he is a math education specialist.  He had a joint appointment in the Department because the Department has for decades taken seriously the need to provide proper mathematical training for teachers and the need to be supportive of education efforts.)

    The Iowa Department of Education seems to have been “captured” by a particular philosophy of education promoted by some educators who arguably are very controversial.  The most prominent, perhaps, is Willard Daggett, who has co-opted the phrase “rigor and relevance”.  He is quoted throughout the DOE writings – particularly those of Rita Martens.  In particular, his teachings are cited to justify the approach taken in the mathematics strand of the ICC.  “Googling” on Willard Daggett will reveal some of the controversy surrounding him.  Also, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier has been following him and his relation with the Iowa Department of Education (please see attached article).

    In short, the process and outcomes in the creation of the ICC were biased from the start.  The focus was on a particular way of teaching, not on what students need to know in order to be successful.
    Despite expressing a negative view toward CORE PLUS here and elsewhere, I would like to say a few words that are a bit more positive about the textbook series.  I believe that CORE PLUS came into being, in part, to respond to the vexing problem or question that all mathematics educators face: “What good is this?”  That is, in part, the relevance side of “rigor and relevance”.  In this respect, I think CORE PLUS has done an admirable job.  Just about every mathematical topic addressed is accompanied by good examples.  One can argue about detail here and not everyone agrees with me as to the quality of the examples or the extent of the relevance, but in my opinion it would be difficult to find a textbook series that does a better job at this.  On the other hand, where CORE PLUS falls down  is in the mathematics *content*.  The content – the rigor – simply isn’t there.  What the content is is not a matter of subjective opinion – mine or anyone else’s.  How much that detracts from its effectiveness as a teaching instrument is debatable.  My view is that it matters a lot and detracts a lot from the CORE PLUS materials.  Further, students who are deprived of the content are hard pressed to make it up.  They are at a disadvantage in college – not just in taking *mathematics* classes, but also in taking quantitative classes that require certain levels of mathematical expertise – expertise *expected* from their high school backgrounds.  In fact, it is this second point that is the more important.  If a student has a mathematical deficit when entering college, the college usually has some sort of remedial course or courses to help the student make up the deficit.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that the student has to pay more and to delay his or her program to make up the deficit.  Moreover, from a pedagogical perspective, it would be much better to learn the subject earlier in order to achieve a fluency that only comes over time.  The result of having to make up a deficit in college, that is, the result of needing remedial work, is that all too frequently, students drop out of their preferred major or drop out of college altogether. 

    The University of Iowa is rightly concerned about its retention rate, which apparently is the lowest in the Big Ten.  While one cannot pin this problem directly on the ICC, one *can* attribute a large part of it to the failure of Iowa’s schools to provide the students with the necessary content to perform well in college.  That is what the ICC should be focused on and that is where it fails so miserably.
    I would also like to say a few words in support of Hal Schoen despite the fact that he is mad at me for coming out against the ICC and, in his view, disparaging CORE PLUS. He was a stalwart member of Iowa’s Department of Mathematics and took his teaching and service responsibilities in it very seriously. His research, as I have indicated, was in mathematics education. To his great credit, he amassed considerable support from the National Science Foundation and, I believe, other sources for his work. He was dedicated to improving education in Iowa and felt that his contributions to CORE PLUS were very significant to improving K – 12 education throughout the country. He never, however, discussed his roll as consultant for the ICC with the Department, nor did he seek input from the Department concerning what a core mathematics curriculum for the State should look like. Where he and I fundamentally disagree is that I think CORE PLUS is still an experiment; he regards it to be a more “finished” product. I think it is an experiment that is still very much flawed. But I also think it is an experiment worth continuing and improving. Nevertheless, since it is an experiment, and one with a problematic record, it has no business being adopted as the model for the Iowa Core Curriculum. It was adopted, however, and its adoption was undertaken very much in a “stealth” mode. While I believe Iowa should have a core curriculum, I think the damage the current ICC will do to Iowa’s children will be enormous. There are a number of things that could be done ameliorate the bad effects of the ICC, but these, perhaps, should be the subject of another message.

    I hope these thoughts are of use to you.  In any case, as always,

    Best wishes,