The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

Apr 23, 2014

Valerie Strauss, education writer and author of The Answer Sheet blog, led this weekly discussion on what's important and new in the world of education.

Hi everyone. Glad you are here (or are reading this later). There are a lot of questions about standardized testing today, which is probably no surprise given that this is testing season and millions of kids arpund the country are taking them. Let's get started....

Q: Is opting out of testing like refusing to vaccinate children? In other words, doesn't it hurt children and schools when parents opt their children out of testing?

Opting out of testing is nothing like refusing to vaccinate children. Refusing to vaccinate a child not only puts that child at risk of getting diseases but also places others at risk too. There are some groups of people -- such as those with cancer, leukemia or other diseases that cause compromised immune systems -- who can't get vaccinated. They depend on the rest of the population getting vaccinated to reduce the risk of exposure. A family that decides to opt a child out of a high-stakes test isn't really hurting anybody -- though some school administrators may say otherwise. Parents opt their kids out of tests that they don't think are valid assessments of what their kids know and to protest accountability systems they think aren't fair to kids or teachers. If you want a medical comparison, you could compare opting out to refusing to allow a child to participate in experimental drug trials without informed consent .

You seem to want to leave out politics in any discussion of education. However, you have to admit that there is a liberal infusion into our educational system, when poll(s) show that a great majority of teachers and others in the ed field identify with the Democratic Party. Nothing is wrong with it, per se; what is of concern is that students are not told this, and that the other side needs to be considered. For example, it is certain that there is global climate change; what is not certain is that it is caused mostly by man. And students, in order to be free thinkers, need to be informed of this.

I actually don't leave politics of education discussions, since a lot of education involves politics, especially curriculum. You mention teachers who are Democrats and then say that "the other side needs to be considered." That presumes that all Democrats agree on everything and there is one other side. They don't, and there isn't. As for global climate chance, it is clear that nearly all scientists who aren't connected to the energy industry do believe that human activity is a big cause of global climate change. That is what students should know, it seems to me. That's what the science says, as inconvenient as it is.

Just filled out a college financial aid calculator that said I can afford 50K a year for my kid. That's 400K for 2 kids. At what point do these private schools start to have to face reality, that their education may be good, it is not better than "insert flagship state university" at a fraction of the cost?

Well, I hope you really can afford that. There's no question the cost of private colleges and universities is in the stratosphere. Private schools actually understand this but still have customers, so as long as they do, it's not clear what would happen to bring down the prices. Many kids don't pay the full cost anyway. As for the quality of education at private versus flagship public schools, that's another issue. There are many many great colleges/universities out there, public and private. What is great for one kid isn't for another. Americans obsess on the highly selective schools but the truth is that most kids don't go there and millions of kids get great educations elsewhere.

Almost all universities now seem to be taking either the ACT or the SAT in college admission. But is there still a lingering bias against the ACT out here on the East Coast? Can my kid completely skip the SAT?

The ACT has overtaken the SAT as the country's most popular college admissions exam. This happened two years ago, and is one of the reasons the SAT is being redesigned for next year. I don't think there is a lingering bias against the ACT anywhere anymore though you should look at the application requirements of each school at which your child seeks to apply. The SAT remains more popular on the coasts and the ACT in the middle of the country but, again, the ACT is now widely taken and widely accepted.

Data is on our side but what are the best ways to present it to legislators and the public? Where can we find sources that will be respected by the proponents of charters and present the truth about class sizes, skimming, teacher experience and turn over, accountability, attrition, etc. Diane Ravitch has the data but is being dismissed by our opponents.

There are a lot of books (for example, the new one by David Berliner/Gene Glass called '50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools') and reports out there with great information. Some education organizations have useful websites too. (I quote FairTest alot because the people there know alot about standardized tests.) One place you can find good research and good critiques of research is the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. It has links to other sites too. 

As to whether these sources will be respected is another open question. So far school reformers have been great at ignoring the data.

As one who knows many teachers, I can tell you why most teachers ID with Democrats instead of Republicans. It is because Republicans attack teachers so much. Would you want to belong to a party that attacks your very difficult occupation? Teachers have to be so much more than just teachers. They have to be first-responders, child-abuse reporters, psychologists, parents, and so much more. BTW...I heard a few prominent Republicans complain that teachers get paid for doing nothing during the summer. Um..when do they think the teachers draw up their semester's lesson plans?

Interesting. It is true that historically Republicans far more than Democrats have pushed for cuts to public education and opposed the right of teachers to unionize, engage in collective bargaining and earn tenure. That said, there is no getting around the fact that the Obama administration has been supportive of policies that many teachers feel are an assault on their profession, including the notion that teachers should be evaluated on the test scores of their students. It's a method testing experts say shouldn't be used, but most states are doing it anyway and the Democratic administration had a big role in how that played out.

The job of teachers is misunderstood by many people, who don't get just how hard and time-consuming the work really is.

You wrote "...we know the test never really did measure anybody’s aptitude to do well in college. The College Board, which owns the SAT, tried over the years to defend the test’s ability to predict college success, but eventually gave up on it..." But in a recent article (, two psychology professors concluded that "The SAT does predict success in college—not perfectly, but relatively well, especially given that it takes just a few hours to administer. ... SAT scores predicted first-year college GPA about as well as high school grades did, and the best prediction was achieved by considering both factors. ... Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it’s not just first-year college GPA that SAT scores predict. In a four-year study that started with nearly 3,000 college students, a team of Michigan State University researchers led by Neal Schmitt found that test score (SAT or ACT—whichever the student took) correlated strongly with cumulative GPA at the end of the fourth year." Obviously, you disagree with their general conclusion, but could you explain why you disagree? Is it the technical data they cite, such as the correlation between SAT scores and GPA? Or are you looking at the same data but coming to a different conclusion, and if so, why?

Thanks for writing. Good questions. I haven't looked carefully at the study by Schmitt (who is a longtime SAT supporter, incidentally). The College Board itself over years stopped saying that the SAT was a predictor of aptitude, and there is a lot of evidence that shows that high school grades -- even with grade inflation -- are a better predictor of success in high school than college admissions exams. That's why I wrote what I wrote. It may be that there is some correlation between the test scores and college success, but certainly not for everybody. I did really well in college and bombed my SAT. I doubt I'm the only one. Again, thanks for writing. I'll have more next week if you want to return to this...

Can we quantify the perks, relief from regulation, parent contracts, class size and anything else that charters are enjoying that could be given to public schools?

Charter supporters would say they most charters don't get perks but are penalized by the fact that they have to find their own buildings. Charter critics say plenty of charters get a lot of perks, including, in some places, rent-free space in school buildings and significant money from private foundations and philanthropists. States and even districts have different charter regulations.  With all that said, here's the bottom line: Many charter schools don't have to disclose the same kind of data that traditional public schools do. So it would be impossible to accurately quantify this. I think. If anybody knows differently, let me know.

There are a number of questions about charter schools and whether they are hurting public education or helping. Rather than answer a number of similar questions, I'll say this: It's a really big subject. What we do know is that while some reformers believe charter schools are "the answer" or a big part of it, most charters don't really do any better than traditional schools. A new report in Pennsylvania found (like in other places) that charters aren't doing as well as traditional public schools. That doesn't mean reform of many schools isn't needed. It just means that the reforms under way aren't really working.

Without objective standardized tests, we'd have to rely on the subjective judgments of teachers. Don't we need objective measures of student learning?

Your question presumes that standardized tests are objective, which is certainly what testing companies who design exams want everyone to think. The logic behind this, apparently, is that since machines grade the exams for the most part, there is no human subjectivity to get in the way. But the subjects that are tested, the questions that are asked and the scoring formulas are all created by humans. There are all subjective decisions that can and often are biased in ways that unfairly reward or harm some test-takers. So what you are calling "objective" isn't.

By the way, here's a link to that study of Pennsylvania charter schools that I referenced earlier.


I've heard critics of high-stakes testing say one alternative is to use performance assessments. Can you give a concrete example of where in the U.S. performance assessment has been practiced along with evidence of superior results?

Sure. The New York Performance Standards Consortium of 26 public high schools in New York City gives assessments to kids that are created by teachers and rooted in project-based curricula, teaching and learning. Consortium classrooms significantly outperform those in other New York City public schools in graduation rates, college going and college persistance, while serving a similar population of students. FairTest has more on this here.

What do you think is the future of Common core?, and is Common core a good thing?

Big questions there. Common Core isn't going away any time soon. Most states approved the standards and are designing new standardized tests (some by way of multi-state consortia) that are aligned to the standards. The SAT (being redesigned) and the ACT either are or will be aligned to the Common Core standards. Even states that say they are pulling away from the Core initiative are designing their own standards that look remarkably like the Core. As for whether the Core is a good thing, it depends. There are problems with the way the Core standards were written and approved by states, and the tests now being designed to align with the standards aren't going to be a whole lot better in terms of how well and how much they can assess what kids have learned than the old standardized tests, which everyone acknowledged were not good. The Core initiative, whether one thinks it makes educationally sense or not, has not been implemented well, and that is certainly not a good thing.

I hear Pearson, the testing company working on Common Core tests, is trying out computer grading, i.e., robograding, of essay questions on the tests. Can computers do this well?

I suppose they could do it but not well. MIT writing professor Les Perelman has looked closely at the results of computers scoring student essays and found that computer grading algorithms tend to disregard accuracy and give extra points for length. A long essay that is mostly filled with gibberish but with big words can be scored higher than a shorter essay that is well-argued and written essay.

1. have you written on policies espoused by Diane Ravich? I write as one who has rarely tracked your columns, but has been tracking, and in the past conversing, with Jay Mathews. I also say this as one who feels that the current education privatization efforts serve to destroy community based education as a sop to profiting a few individuals. I also feel that the current efforts in education at the graduate school level serve education poorly by rewarding the implementation of untested, or poorly tested, theories and experiments into mainstream education with out need to show efficacy at a test level. I could go on, but that is enough for now. John Dickert Mount Vernon Farms

Thanks for writing. If you read my blog, you will see that I write extensively and critically about corporate-based school reform. Jay is a colleague of mine who I have long thought is the most knowledgeable education reporter in the world. That said, he and I don't agree on some important things. Every now and then we have debates on our blogs. I'm not sure what to make of your point about graduate education programs; some are terrific, some aren't. Showing efficacy at a test level isn't necessarily the best way to tell if a program is great. In fact, it is the  standardized tests in K-12, a central tenet of modern school reform, that has been a big part of the problem facing public schools that do need reform, though not this kind.

" It may be that there is some correlation between the test scores and college success, but certainly not for everybody." Well, that's what "some correlation" means. No one is claiming that SATs or high school grades perfectly predict college grades - otherwise we could just name the valedictorian on the first day of freshman year. And I've heard no one argue that high school grades aren't the most important consideration. But the debate is whether to incorporate the SAT or other test scores in the application process. I understand that there are valid policy arguments for excluding test scores in the decision, but I think an responsible discussion has to consider the fact that there is a stronger statistical correlation if they are included.

If we have a better correlation -- high school grades -- why make everybody take a test that causes a lot of angst, and that isn't fair to a lot of people for various reasons. And while you may not have heard  anyone argue that high school grades aren't the most important consideration, the fact is that at many big schools kids are rejected because of their test scores. 

One thing I find funny in the push for "objective data" in evaluating teachers is that almost no other creative profession does this. Software engineers aren't evaluated by the lines of code they write; artists aren't evaluated by the square inches of canvas they cover in a year; architects aren't evaluated by the average critic rating of their new buildings. Objective metrics can work for blue collar professions such as warehouse gopher or assembly line operator, but not for something as complex as teaching.

 Interesting. Thanks for writing.

Would love to see someone active in teaching who has some authority - like Carol Burris - make comments and recommendations for supporting the hands-on subjects like the Visual Arts and the Trades, and perhaps introducing subjects that integrate these with Physics, Chemistry & Architecture. Occasionally this happens at the college level (Chemistry of glazing for Ceramics) or some advanced High Schools where a group of students actually builds a house over the course of a year. Would you consider running a column on the above topic, and who else do you think you could get to write on this?

This sounds interesting. Surely there are people out there who could deal with this; I'll look around and see. I'm sure Carol can make some good recommendations too. I suspect there are many public school teachers out there who could design great courses like this but are restricted in what they can do. Thanks for writing.

As you may have seen, DCPS (via the Deputy Mayor) has included in its recent prosposals the possibility of lotteries at the middle and high school level -- for DCPS, not charters which already enroll by lottery. They cite examples such as San Francisco but have not provided any research or data about the resulting impact on school quality. Is there research in this area or other data that would indicate whether or not this approach is appropriate for DC? How would it improve quality?

This is a complicated question and I don't have much time, but in general: Some cities have gone to universal lotteries and I don't now of any research that shows it has improved the quality of schools. Please come back next week and let's talk more about it...

There was a recent article in the Washington Post that said some questions actually mentioned product names in reading excerpts. For example, a question on innovation mentioned Nike's phrase of, "Just do it." That is problematic to me. They could have chosen such innovators such as Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, or Leonardo Da Vinci. It seems Common Core is a sneaky way to commercialize our education system.

Testing companies have been putting commercial products into their tests for a long time, well before Common Core. And as that Post story said, there are commercial mentions in lots of educational products. The Obama administration is trying to limit commercial marketing at schools but whether this will extend to standardized tests isn't yet clear.

Thanks everyone for coming. Please come back next week, or send in questions, either on the Live On Form or to my e-mail:

Have a great week.


In This Chat
Valerie Strauss
I've been covering education for at least as long as I went to school - from kindergarten through graduate school - and The Answer Sheet gives me the opportunity to keep learning (and get paid for it).
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