CA’s testing suspension threatens algebra project

CA’s testing suspension threatens algebra project

(Calif.) A team of educators, academics and researchers stretching from Sacramento to Washington D.C. have spent much of the past four years developing and conducting a randomized controlled experiment in teaching algebra to at-risk eighth graders.

But a change in California law last summer that suspended most statewide testing next year threatens the carefully designed program. Funded with a $5 million federal grant, the program architects need to show not only evidence of success – but also that the program can be repeated and scaled for use in almost any middle  school in the nation.

The abrupt curtailment of standardized testing left the project administrators without a basic measuring stick for evaluating whether the intervention program succeeded in promoting student achievement.

“The i3 grant required vigorous research but it also required that your outcome data had to be your state’s accountability system,” said Sharon Twitty, director of the algebra project, known as the STEM Learning Opportunities Providing Equity or SLOPE.

“The bottom line was that no matter how many teachers said they loved what we were doing, the scores on the state test had to be the measure,” she said. “And about three months ago, that measure went away.”

Twitty said she is hopeful that federal officials will approve a plan that can allow the project to move ahead. The intent is for SLOPE to literally purchase last year’s testing instrument from California’s former vendor, Educational Testing Service.

The project is one of 49 awarded grant money in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation program. The i3 program was envisioned as a resource for experimentation in dealing with some of the nation’s most complex educational challenges.

More than $1 billion has been awarded under the i3 program since its inception, with the first cohort of projects – like SLOPE – nearing conclusion.

Unlike most educational studies of the past, the i3 program requires strenuous attention to the scientific method. SLOPE’s project, for instance, had two groups of about 5,000 students participate over a two year period. Half of them were assigned to control classrooms, where teachers engaged in a traditional approach to algebra instructions; the other half, the treatment group, received the benefits of the project-based curriculum led by teachers who had also received additional training.

The program required project administrators to account for even the smallest of outside impact on the subjects. Even contact of a reporter to a participating teacher was considered.

The project design was vetted by a national evaluation team and found to be one of only a handful of i3 grantees that met the rigorous research standards of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse.

The testing requirements, largely unprecedented within the K-12 learning community, are intended to give federal policy makers better insight into what strategies should be pursued with larger funding commitments in the future.

According to a July report from the U.S. Department of Education, the 92 grants funded so far are using a variety of approaches. Some are exploring online training and coaching; others are looking at alternative pathways for teacher preparation; and others are creating or adapting digital tools to support teaching and learning.

Twitty said her project faces a deadline —fall of 2015 – to complete its final report,  – although preliminary data could be released sometime next year.

The state’s move to suspend testing – ordered through legislation that also initiated the transition to the Common Core standards – remains a source of conflict between Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with Duncan threatening to withhold federal dollars as a result.

Twitty said that when action in the Legislature suggested the testing suspension, she notified her federal grant managers, who didn’t believe at first Brown would take such an action. After it was clear the bill would pass and would be signed into law, she said she had to go back to each of the participating school districts to make sure they still wanted to continue. So far, none have dropped out even though the proposed solution to the testing problem would be for each district to add back into the school year an additional round of testing.

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