Skip to content

Johns Hopkins Researcher Celebrates the “Promise of Louisiana Curriculum” Associated with Common Core (?)

April 6, 2017

In November 2016, Ashley Berner, Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, published this review of her own book, which happens to feature Louisiana as an example of the success of closely aligning curriculum with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) “or a version derived from them” (ahem).

Berner’s review includes some select tidbit examples of Louisiana’s academic success:

There was, however, a surprise finding in the national analysis: Louisiana’s teachers demonstrated a significantly stronger grasp and use of standards-aligned materials and practices than their peers elsewhere. The question was, why?

What makes the difference in teacher practices particularly interesting is the recent rise in Louisiana’s student achievement:

  • The state’s 4th-grade students had the country’s highest growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test and tied with Mississippi for the fastest state growth in math. Louisiana was among the top five states in narrowing several achievement gaps: the white-black gap in 4th-grade math, the white-Hispanic gap in 4th grade math and reading; the white-Hispanic gap in 8th grade math and reading (“NAEP 2015: Mathematics and Reading Assessments” 2015).
  • In 2013, Louisiana became one of 12 states to require all juniors to take the ACT test. In 2015, Louisiana’s students gained more points in their composite ACT scores than those in the other 11 states that required 100% participation (“Louisiana Is Number One State in ACT Gain” 2015).
  • The College Board announced in 2014 that Louisiana had made the country’s greatest gains in the number of students scoring a 3, 4, or 5 on AP exams, and the number of students taking AP courses more than doubled between 2012 and 2016 (“Louisiana Students Achieve Top Advanced Placement Gains in State History” 2014).

The combination of Louisiana teachers’ distinctive responses and the state’s rising student achievement prompted RAND’s research team to press further. Was there a connection between these two phenomena and how the Louisiana Department of Education had leveraged the standards?

Notice the focus here on “growth” and gains”– which deflects focus from achievement translating into any practical outcome. But we’ll return to these three bullet points of Louisiana student achievement score-upping.

As for quantitative support, Berner surveyed teachers, including Louisiana teachers.

For qualitative support, the researcher questioned the Louisiana Department of Education for its support of Common Core in Louisiana (even though we have *new* standards and don’t refer to the virtual sameness of the *new* as “Common Core.”)

Berner does note that she did not verify LDOE’s qualitative responses about its marvelous, high-quality support of its teachers by contacting actual Louisiana teachers:

On the qualitative side, the project did not include interviews in schools or districts and thus could not confirm state-department officials’ accounts. As the researchers note, the LDOE’s perception of a singular focus has not been validated on the ground independently of the questionnaire responses. A qualitative study of local perspectives would be important.

But let’s return to the test-score-related news bits that seem to support Louisiana as a curriculum-to-Common Core-connected miracle. (Louisiana standards are not “derived from” Common Core, as Berner hints. They are Common Core Ever-So-Slightly Altered.)

A Selective Slice of NAEP

First of all is the Berner’s featuring of certain NAEP scores– mostly 4th grade scores– again, with that focus on “growth”:

  • The state’s 4th-grade students had the country’s highest growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test and tied with Mississippi for the fastest state growth in math. Louisiana was among the top five states in narrowing several achievement gaps: the white-black gap in 4th-grade math, the white-Hispanic gap in 4th grade math and reading; the white-Hispanic gap in 8th grade math and reading (“NAEP 2015: Mathematics and Reading Assessments” 2015).

In a March 17, 2017, post, New York math teacher and blogger, Gary Rubinstein, pulls back the curtain on Louisiana Superintendent John White’s selective celebration of NAEP scores. Rubinstein’s observations fit well with Berner’s selective NAEP feature. An excerpt:

Since NAEP isn’t just for 4th graders, the first thing I checked was what their current ranking was for black 8th graders and saw that for 8th grade math they actually dropped from 39th to 44th between 2009 and 2015.  For 8th grade reading they dropped from to 43rd to 45th between 2009 and 2015.  So it is obvious why they don’t mention their 8th grade change in rankings.

I also checked how they have done in math for all 4th graders regardless of race.  I found that in 2009 they were 48th while in 2015 they were not much better, at 44th.  In reading they went from second to last in 2009 to 8th to last in 2015.  A jump, but not the sort of thing that John White would ever use to prove his point about his knowledge of improving schools.

But still I could see someone being compelled by the improving position for the scores of black 4th graders since those are students who have had their entire schooling after the ‘greatest thing that ever happened to New Orleans’ (according to Arne Duncan) event, Hurricane Katrina.  I did see that it was accurate that Louisiana had leapfrogged over a bunch of states in the most recent 4th grade tests for black students.  And I could see how it sounds good to go from the bottom to the middle.  But what I wanted to find out is if this was a ‘significant’ change. …

…In math black 4th graders in Louisiana are not ‘significantly’ different from about 40 states and are better than about 5 and worse than about 5.  So with this pretty weak measurement, it could be argued that Louisiana 4th graders are tied for 45th or that they are tied for 6th.  Basically, there isn’t much that can be concluded when the scores are run through this ‘significance’ filter.

A similar thing happens for 4th grade reading…

Rubinstein continues with discussion of the weakness of trying to prove “significant” change using NAEP scores:

I never thought that NAEP scores were very significant, but I didn’t realize until now how, mathematically speaking, ‘insignificant’ NAEP differences really are.

Berner does the public an injustice to omit offering a more comprehensive view of NAEP scores, including one that investigates the potential statistical insignificance of NAEP subgroup comparisons.

An Average ACT Composite Below 4-Yr Regional College Standards

Berner’s next featured stat is the purported rise of Louisiana ACT scores.

Note that once again, the focus is deflected to improvement:

  • In 2013, Louisiana became one of 12 states to require all juniors to take the ACT test. In 2015, Louisiana’s students gained more points in their composite ACT scores than those in the other 11 states that required 100% participation (“Louisiana Is Number One State in ACT Gain” 2015).

Note that Berner cites a 2015 article on Louisiana ACT gains.

However, let us consider the leveling off of these gains in 2016— and the practical significance of average ACT gains that cannot get most students into four-year college in Louisiana:

ACT scores continue to creep upward in Louisiana public schools, according to results the state Department of Education released Monday (July 25). The Class of 2016 earned an average composite score of 19.5 on the 36-point test, up 0.1 from the year before. …

Functionally, looking at Louisiana’s public higher education system, the new ACT average is still too low to win admittance to anything but community college, or to qualify a student for a four-year TOPS scholarship. Regional four-year universities including SUNO, Southern, Nicholls and Southeastern require a 20, according to the Board of Regents. On Thursday, UNO President John Nicklow lamented that he couldn’t take the average New Orleans graduate.

The average score for low-income students increased from 17.9 to 18.1. That makes them eligible for community college without the remedial classes that can stall their progress.

Berner can celebrate gains in Louisiana ACT scores; however, she would do well to note that even if the gain continued in linear fashion with a .2 gain per annum for low-income students, the average low-income student would not have that 20 ACT composite necessary for entrance in a regional, four-year university until the year 2026.

Note also that the Louisiana Classes of 2013 and 2014 both had ACT composites of 19.1. Then, in 2015, a jump to 19.4. And in 2016, a modest rise to 19.5.

So, on average, Louisiana’s statewide composite rose .4 over four years.

And we haven’t even broached the variation among ACT composite scores across school districts.

We also haven’t determined whether what we have is less Common Core or curriculum and more drilling the ACT test. Indeed, ACT drill might be replacing curriculum. Now there’s a study.

A final note on Louisiana ACT: Comparing Louisiana to the other in 2016 has Louisiana ranked 13th out of 18 states that administer ACT to 100 percent of their students (presumably by the time they’re seniors). A ranking of 13th out of 18 in 2016 isn’t as impressive as being Number One out of 11 in 2014.

However, let’s end this post by considering Berner’s final bit of proffered evidence of the potential triumph of Louisiana-styled-Common Core’ s aligned curriculum– AP score “gains” (again with the improvement focus).

Louisiana AP Score Diminishing Returns

Here’s what Berner features regarding Louisiana AP scores:

  • The College Board announced in 2014 that Louisiana had made the country’s greatest gains in the number of students scoring a 3, 4, or 5 on AP exams, and the number of students taking AP courses more than doubled between 2012 and 2016 (“Louisiana Students Achieve Top Advanced Placement Gains in State History” 2014).

Fast forward to March 2017 and an Advocate article entitled, “Despite Big Push, Louisiana High School Students Still Struggle to Earn College Credit”:

Louisiana’s five-year push to reach the national average for public high school students earning college credit missed the target — by a lot.

Less than 8 percent of students did so, well below the U.S. average of nearly 22 percent for 2016.

The state is 49th in the nation for students scoring well enough through a program called Advanced Placement to get a head start on college credits, which improves the chances they will be successful there. …

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, noted the state is offering more AP courses and students are taking the test more often.

“But I think we have a lot of kids taking it but not really achieving a lot,” Nieland said.

More AP test takers; less achievement. Hold that thought.

In the same article, John White tries to emphasize gains:

State Superintendent of Education John White noted that the state has shown improvements.

In the past five years, AP credits doubled, from about 4,100 to roughly 8,600.

Those earned by African-American students tripled during the same period, to 935.

“It is all relative to where you start,” White said. “Louisiana has doubled the number of college credits students earn through Advanced Placement through the last four years. That is remarkable progress, and there are not many states that can say the same thing.”

I love the corporate-reform, eternal spring of “gains.” Whenever a declared goal is not reached, just deflect to “gains.” Save the “failure to meet the goal” talk for goals that do not serve market-driven-ed-reform purposes.

Says one surgeon to another, never: “Sure, most of my patients do not survive a surgery with me, but at least more are living now than in the past.”  

The AP progress that White would promote is not so remarkable if one considers what is hidden in the following statements in the same article:

The state has also shown gains in students taking AP exams. In 2006, just 5.5 percent of students did so, compared to 25.5 percent last year, according to the state Department of Education.

Also in 2006, just 2.5 percent of students scored 3 or higher on an AP exam, compared to 7.8 percent last year.

In 2006, 5.5 percent of students took AP exams. If 2.5 percent of students scored 3 or higher, that means that 45 percent of the students taking AP exams in 2006 scored 3 or higher (2.5 / 5.5).

In 2016, the proportion of students taking AP exams was over four times the proportion of those taking AP exams in 2006 (25.5 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively). However, the percentage of students scoring 3 or higher in 2016 was only 30.6 percent (or 7.8 / 25.5).

So, even though Louisiana has profoundly increased the number of AP test takers from 2006 to 2016, the percentage of those AP test takers who score 3 or higher on the tests has dropped from 45 percent (2006) to 30.6 percent (2016).

In other words, to reach that lukewarm 7.8 percent AP passage rate in 2016, Louisiana had many more students taking the test overall in 2016 and not passing it in 2016 than those who took it and did not pass it in 2006.

There is an AP credit diminishing return here, as Nieland noted in her statement, “We have a lot of kids taking it but not really achieving a lot.”

Indeed, the number of students even taking the AP test is also subject to states pushing the test. Consider Arkansas, as noted in the March 2017 Advocate article:

Years ago, state education officials cited Arkansas as a state that showed AP passage rates could rise quickly.

Last year, 17 percent of students there scored a 3 or higher or an AP test, roughly where officials hoped Louisiana would be by now.

The growth stems from a state law that requires each public high school to offer at least one AP course in each core area….

The state then pays for all AP exams taken by the students.

Incentivize the AP test; increase the number of AP test takers.

Increase the number of AP test takers; increase the percentage of students who score 3 or higher on the AP test.

But there are no guarantees of a proportional return. No worries, though. Just advertise success from the angle that works best.

Is Louisiana Curriculum a “Promise”?

The evidence that Berner offers as support for “the promise of curriculum” in Louisiana (and the connection of that curriculum to Common Core) is easily shredded when one  bothers to look just a little bit closer.

  • Louisiana’s NAEP scores are only marvelous is one selectively views them and disregards the nonsignificance of NAEP subgroup comparisons.
  • Louisiana’s average ACT composite has not reached that required for entrance into its regional, four-year universities, with the state’s low-income students on average just able to gain admission to Louisiana’s community colleges without need for remedial coursework. Moreover, teaching-to-the-ACT should be investigated.
  • And Louisiana’s AP credits are creeping up at a much lower rate than the rate of Louisiana AP test takers is increasing.

Shall we make the leap and tie all of these test score situations to Louisiana’s curriculum? Shall we count all to the credit of Common Core?

It’s all in the marketing, I suppose. But I’m not buying it.

___________________________________________________________

Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

3 Comments
  1. So many games played with “test” data — and so much necessary truth pushed way, way back into those last unread pages of a long report. One year our low-income school was mandated into a meeting where a 20-page report lauded the wonders of this or that program used in low-income schools where the kids, due to use of this miracle program, had produced dramatically higher scores. It wasn’t until the second to last page, a page which of course our staff was never led to read, that the information that these scores were all based only upon those kids who had a “90% attendance rate” was posted.

  2. Dave permalink

    Good job, Mercedes. I will say, however, that the Louisiana ELA curriculum that I’ve looked at for grades 3-8 is actually better than the crap we’ve been force fed in New York State. Our “modules” here are awful, just plain painful to teach. Have you looked into them before?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: