By Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli
Overcoming anxiety: Why I benefited from speaking in class as a child despite my debilitating speech disorder
Many of us, if we’re lucky, can fondly recall a time in elementary school when our parents proudly posted one of our A papers on the refrigerator door. Maybe it was a spelling test or set of multiplication problems—no matter. What mattered, though, was the outstanding achievement that mom, dad, and kid believed was embodied in that A, and the pride and satisfaction that we felt in seeing it every time we opened the fridge for a sandwich.
Back then, we didn’t question whether that A was actually earned. We assumed that we had mastered whatever was being graded and our hard work had paid off.
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to assume that an A still represents excellence. And that’s a real problem.
Here at Fordham, we’ve had a longstanding interest in helping to ensure that parents know the truth about how their kids are doing in school. More than a decade ago, we published The Proficiency Illusion—a groundbreaking study that found that levels of reading and math “proficiency” varied wildly from state to state because of where states set their “cut scores.” What it took to pass a state test ranged from reading or doing math at the 6th percentile nationally all the way up to the 77th.
That’s why, when the Common Core Standards and related consortia tests came onto the scene, we saw them as invitations to increased rigor, transparency, and truth-telling. Finally, parents would receive accurate, useful information about their children’s academic challenges and whether they were on track for college and career. The news might not always be positive. But knowledge is power, right?
Except the message has yet to hit home. The tests are indeed tougher than ever, with Education Next and others finding that most states now set the proficiency bar at much higher levels than before. Yet a 2018 survey published by Learning Heroes, a parent information group, found that 90 percent of parents believe their child is performing at or above grade level; two out of three believe their child is “above average” in school. Eighty-five percent say their kid is on track for academic success—and just 8 percent believe that their child is performing below average.
That's a lot of misinformed parents, given that one-third of U.S. teenagers, at most, leave high school ready for credit-bearing courses.
One of us recently mused that perhaps the reason dismal state test scores don’t resonate with parents is because they conflict with what parents see coming home from school. Who knows their kids better: their teachers or a faceless test provider? The teachers, of course. But what if the grades that teachers assign don’t reflect the state’s high standards? What if practically everyone is getting As and Bs from the teacher—but parents don’t know that?
That was the impetus for Fordham’s newest study, Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016). We wanted to know how easy or hard it is today to get a good grade in high school and whether that has changed over time. We can’t develop solutions until we’ve accurately identified the problem. And in this case, we suspect that one reason for stalled student achievement across the land is that historically trusted grades are telling a vastly different story than other academic measures.
So we teamed up with American University economist Seth Gershenson, who is keenly interested in this topic, and whose prior research on the role of teacher expectations in student outcomes made him a perfect fit to conduct the research.
The study asks three questions:
- How frequent and how large are discrepancies between student grades and test scores? Do they vary by school demographics?
- To what extent do high school test scores, course grades, attendance, and cumulative GPAs align with student performance on college entrance exams?
- How, if at all, have the nature of such discrepancies and the difficulty of receiving an A changed in recent years?
Although other studies have addressed similar questions, this is the first to use official transcript data and standardized test scores for the entire population of eligible students in a state. By including such a broad set of students, rather than a subset, Dr. Gershenson’s analysis breaks new ground.
He focused on student-level data for all public school students taking Algebra 1 in North Carolina from the 2004–05 school year to 2015–16. He had access to course transcripts, end-of-course (EOC) exam scores, and ACT scores. His primary analysis compared students’ course grades with their scores on EOC exams to evaluate the extent of grade inflation. The study yielded three key findings, all of which should cause concern about present-day grading practices.
- While many students are awarded good grades, few earn top marks on the statewide end-of-course exams for those classes.
- Algebra 1 end-of-course exam scores predict math ACT scores much better than course grades.
- From 2005 to 2016, more grade inflation occurred in schools attended by more affluent youngsters than in those attended by the less affluent.
These findings raise several implications.
First, course grades and test scores each have their place. Just because EOC scores better predict math ACT scores than do course grades, the point isn’t that tests are reliable and grades aren’t. Much research shows that students’ cumulative high school GPAs—which are typically an average of grades in twenty-five or more courses—are highly correlated with later academic outcomes.
Grades and test scores each provide valuable information because they measure different aspects of student performance and potential. Grades reflect not only students’ mastery of content and skills, but also their classroom behavior, participation, and effort. And test scores tend to be informative measures of general cognitive ability. We need both.
Yet parents don’t appear to value both equally. When there’s a big difference between what the two measures communicate, the Learning Heroes data indicate that parents are apt to take the test scores less seriously—especially if the scores are low. “My child doesn’t test well,” goes the refrain. In our view, this is a form of confirmation bias that’s leading to greater complacency not only on the part of students, but parents too. Why should youngsters invest more time to learn something if an A or B grade says they already know it? Why should mothers work to help their children catch up if grades don’t signal that they’re behind? That’s particularly true when parents are blissfully unaware of how widespread those good grades are. The sad fact is that some will only become aware that their child is marching off a cliff with regard to college readiness—along with many others—after it’s too late.
While external exams are valuable sources of information, educating teachers about high expectations is key. Dr. Gershenson suggests in the study that one way to combat grade inflation is through content-based external tests like EOC exams. Having an external measure that is not developed or graded by the classroom teacher can be an effective way to preserve high standards, and it also serves as an “audit” of course grades and progress. That’s how EOCs were used in the current analysis, and that’s the role that Advanced Placement exams play for many high school students.
But what if teachers don’t truly know what high standards look like? “Often teachers—and principals—have a definition of excellence that defaults to the best work produced in their classroom or school; if the ‘best’ work is not great, expectations for all their students inevitably shift downwards,” Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz recently wrote. “Ultimately, holding students to a high bar requires a zealous and persistent commitment by everyone—from superintendents, principals, and parents, to assistant teachers and office staff…[who must] give students the realistic feedback and dedicated support they need to meet the ambitious expectations of which we know they are capable.”
Hear, hear! We couldn’t have said it better. The question is: Are we ready to take this charge seriously?
Overcoming anxiety: Why I benefited from speaking in class as a child despite my debilitating speech disorder
From complaints that our undergraduates are “mollycoddled babies,” to laments over the disappearance of meritocratic athletic trophies, to descriptions of college students’ “embarrassing fragility,” decrying the cosseting of today’s youth is widespread. And there’s good reason for concern: Despite good intentions, overprotection can be harmful.
Life is hard. Bad stuff happens, and people suffer when we lack the emotional and experiential foundation to deal with it. Sooner or later, just about everyone confronts anxiety, embarrassment, trauma, and tragedy. Expecting people to successfully create the necessary foundation during adulthood is simply unrealistic.
That it’s unrealistic, however, is difficult to prove. There are no solid data or rigorous, gold-standard studies. There can’t be. So those who fret about overprotection do so based on intuition, belief, and personal experience. Often, though, that’s enough. Such was my response upon reading a recent report in the Atlantic about teens protesting in-class presentations.
“In the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options,” reports staff writer Taylor Lorenz. “Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is not only unfair because they are bound to underperform and receive a lower grade, but it can also cause long-term stress and harm.”
This wish and its rationale imply a belief that the costs of accomplishing something despite the anxiety it invokes are greater in magnitude than its benefits.
In my experience, however, that belief is often backwards.
Around the age of five, I developed a stammer. I’ve mostly vanquished it over the years, but I’m now in my thirties and I still have to think about and deal with it with every single day. Would I be better off if I had been “protected” from this anxiety until after college? Not likely.
As you may know, a stammer—or stutter—is an involuntary disruption or blockage of speech. It might manifest as unwanted repetitions of parts of words (as it often da-da-da-did), or a sometimes-unpredictable inability to say certain words or sounds (the first syllable in “Michigan” has always been a problem for me, for example, and I grew up there and went to the state’s eponymous flagship university, so the word has come up a lot).
It’s a physiological condition that’s made worse by psychological or emotional states like fear, excitement, and anxiety. It also, cruelly, causes those feelings. So it can be debilitating. As depicted in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, for instance, it sorely hampered King George VI’s ability to address his nation as Britain was going to war with Nazi Germany. And it led Annie Glenn, in front of every major media outlet in America, to reject Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s forceful wish to enter her home and be filmed alongside her as she and the rest of the country watched her husband complete America’s first orbital spaceflight. (John, for his part, characteristically and unflinchingly supported Annie’s choice when powerful men demanded that he change her mind.)
My most relevant memory is twenty-four years old, but it’s as vivid as yesterday. I’m in the early days of fourth grade at a new school with all-new classmates. We’re doing “popcorn reading,” where the teacher picks a student to read some lines, who then picks a classmate to repeat the process, and so on. I’m terrified—especially because my usual trick, switching to a synonym when I get stuck on a word, doesn’t work when reading aloud from a text. I get called on and try my best, but a few words into it I get stuck. So I panic, then cry, then cover my face with the book, hoping that my classmates won’t catch on. But they do. And my teacher does, too, after which she mercifully calls on someone else. It was a traumatic experience. And my classmates never let me forget it. (Kids can be cruel, too.)
Yet after it happened and despite ongoing speech therapy and ceaseless anxiety about my stammer, I still had to do presentations, read aloud, raise my hand to offer answers, respond to questions when called on, talk to groups, and do everything else that was required of students who could—magically, it seems, even now—speak at will without getting into tangles. My teachers didn’t lower their expectations, and my parents didn’t intervene. It was hard, but the God’s honest truth is that I’m stronger for it. More confident. More resilient.
Had I not been forced to speak in class in those early grades, I would not have developed the ability in adulthood to speak publicly—even knowing as I open my mouth that I’ll often struggle to get all the words out. Instead, fear and insecurity would have limited my career prospects and perhaps my aspirations to situations where I wouldn’t have to say much. Or in a job like the one I have now, where I (and my employer) benefit from speaking, I would have stayed quiet and foregone the radio interviews that I’ve done, the podcasts, the dinner meetings, the conference presentations, and umpteen other instances in which I’ve been plenty anxious yet have been able to power through whatever it is was that was worth saying. It would have hurt me professionally, lessened my earning potential, harmed my family’s well-being, impeded romance, and hindered my ability to provide for my (future) children. Worst of all, it would have damaged my own sense of self-worth, all because of well-meaning adults who could have tried to save me from being embarrassed in front of my peers. I’m so grateful that they didn’t.
That’s why the idea of letting students forgo presentations because of social anxiety worries me, even when it’s associated with a bona fide physical affliction like mine. I’m sure there are individuals and instances where such an accommodation is right and appropriate. But in many other cases—like mine—that kind of protectiveness would end up doing more harm.
In most situations, and for most people, I’m quite sure they can overcome their anxiety and do everything their peers can. At least that was my experience—and the love and trust of my parents and teachers made it possible.
“But you support the Common Core!” So said Laura Jimenez of the Center for American Progress on the Education Gadfly Show podcast when I argued that it was a mistake to peg high school graduation standards to the “college-ready” level.
Guilty as charged. I do support the Common Core, which is designed to get students to “college and career readiness” by the end of high school. But I also see that goal as aspirational; I don’t believe we should actually deny diplomas to young people who gain basic skills and pass their classes but don’t reach that lofty level. Nor do I think that we should force all students to take a college-prep course of study all the way through twelfth grade.
How do I square this circle? Am I hypocrite for claiming to support high expectations while not being willing to enforce those expectations when it comes to crunch time?
I’m not the only one struggling with this dilemma. Recently, veteran education policy analyst Marc Tucker, the founder and outgoing president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, penned a long and winding but remunerative essay on the conundrum. In his words:
If you advertise a standard as college and career ready and then deny a high school diploma to all who do not meet it, you will either have to lower that standard or lose your policy-making job, because it will be years before that gap is closed and the society cannot and will not tolerate a large fraction of students leaving high school with no credential at all.
Better to have one standard that truly means college and career ready and another that means the student did everything needed to meet a traditional high school graduation standard.
But this way of thinking about standards and gateways has its own dangers. Suppose that sticking with a high school diploma that is not tied to a community college entrance requirement results in a permanent underclass of mainly poor and minority students who are never expected to get more than a high school diploma, who will always be in the low-skill, low-wage jobs, generation after generation.
That is, alas, the rub. Aim too high and we discourage kids, educators, and parents, who aren’t nearly prepared to meet the new standard, and harm their already-meager job prospects. Aim too low and we consign “generation after generation” to “low-skill, low-wage jobs,” and endorse a system whereby we give illiterate and innumerate young people diplomas that mean very little except persistence in school.
The solution, as I see it, isn’t simply to find a happy medium—a Goldilocks standard that’s not too high and not too low but just right. (And not just because my libertarian friends have warned me away from the “Hemisphere Fallacy.”) Instead, I offer these three rules:
- In the early and middle grades, err on the side of utopianism.
- By high school, err on the side of realism.
- At every step along the way, be transparent with parents about the trajectory their child is on.
Rule #1: Aim high in the early grades
As Jeff Bezos said the other day, “we know for a fact that if a kid falls behind, it’s really, really hard to catch up.” That insight has led plenty of advocates (and Bezos himself) to embrace high quality preschool, which makes a ton of sense. But even communities with universal pre-k continue to see lots of kids—especially poor kids—struggle in school, as the academic benefits of even the best preschools fade.
The answer isn’t to give up on preschool but to raise our expectations for elementary schools—to do whatever it takes to get kids caught up during the critical K–5 years. Back to Marc Tucker, discussing how it works in the highest achieving countries:
The expectations for students are set very high for all students and the students are given a curriculum that is matched to those standards. But the teachers are given much more time to work with each other to develop highly effective lessons and effective teaching techniques so the students can reach those higher standards. Their approach to formative evaluation provides teachers with the skills needed to figure out whether every student in the class understands the material as it is being taught, so no one falls behind. If a student does fall behind, a team of teachers is formed to figure out why and fix the problem, whatever it is, in school or out. If a whole group of students is falling behind, the core curriculum is stretched out and enriched for them and the students get much more support, whether that means before school, during the school day, on Saturdays or during the summer, in small groups, one-on-one, whatever it takes. More time, more support, but not lower standards.
In this system, students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen. (Emphasis added.)
An aligned curriculum, true professional development, and more time—all of this makes sense for U.S. elementary (and middle) schools, too. (I’d add: The present scarcity of research-based teaching practices, especially in reading, is a national shame, as Emily Hanford’s wonderful radio documentary illustrates.)
It’s also why it makes sense to stretch students to read books beyond their current reading ability—with support from teachers—so they are not confined to a dead end of low-level literacy. And why, when evaluating elementary schools, it’s appropriate to measure both their students’ growth and their success at getting students to proficiency by the end of fifth grade, especially students they’ve had under their roofs since age five.
Rule #2: Get more realistic in high school
On the other hand, at some point we have to start getting realistic about how to best help students who didn’t get what they needed when they were young. (Yes, if we get Rule #1 right, eventually the number of such students should decline markedly.) Some would put that marker in middle school; others might want to wait until the child turns eighteen.
A new, well-reasoned (and beautifully designed!) set of policy recommendations from the XQ Super Schools folks argues that high school is not too late for young people to find success. “New neuroscience research shows that teenage brains are primed to learn,” its authors write. “During the high school years, big changes happen in the parts of the brain that control reasoning, planning, and self-control. With the right stimulation, even IQ can increase during the teenage years.”
Given all that, Marc and I have both argued before that we should set the end of tenth grade as an important gateway for students.
It would go something like this: In general, in ninth and tenth grades, students would take a traditional set of academic courses and sit for a set of end-of-course exams. They would assess pupils on reading, writing, math, science, history, and civics — the essential content and skills that all students should be expected to know to be engaged and educated citizens. Another component would assess students’ career interests and aptitudes as best these can be gauged. High-achieving students might start taking these exams in eighth grade and finish them in ninth. (This is more or less what the “Kirwan Commission” in Maryland is proposing for my own state.)
Students who pass the exams would then choose among several pathways for the remainder of their high school years — paths that all could (but need not) take place under the same roof. Some would be traditional “college-prep,” with lots of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-enrollment courses. Others would be high quality career and technical education offerings connected to degree or certificate programs at a technical college. At the end of high school, students would graduate with special designations on their diplomas indicating that they are ready for postsecondary education or training without the need for remediation (i.e., “college ready”).
Students who don’t pass the exams would enter programs specifically designed to help them catch up and pass the threshold tests on their second or third (or fourth or fifth) tries. Those who catch up quickly can join their peers in the college-prep or CTE programs. Students must pass the tests to earn high school diplomas—but the passing scores would be set well below what it takes to be college ready.
Rule #3: Be honest with kids and their parents at every step along the way
Raising expectations is hard, as is overhauling our high schools. (Again, see the XQ report for lots of solid ideas on how to make it happen.) What shouldn’t be difficult is using data we already have to tell parents the truth about whether their kids are on track. How is it that 90 percent of parents regularly report to Learning Heroes that they believe their own child is on grade level even though state assessment results show that the real number is less than half that amount?
The answer, most likely, is that the message that “everything is OK” is exactly what parents are receiving from their child’s teachers and school. When EdNavigator, a parent-support group in Louisiana, looked closely at the report cards being sent home to the families they work with, they were completely flummoxed. Those short documents were packed with jargon and totally lacked clarity. Never did a report card raise a clear red flag, even when warranted, by saying, for example, “we are concerned about your child.” That fateful omission was particularly the case for younger students, even those who were already two or three grade levels behind.
Maybe many teachers don’t understand just how high the standard is for a child to be on track for success. But thanks to predictive analytics, we know, at least by fifth or sixth grade, whether a student is likely to hit postsecondary readiness by age eighteen. Schools should not hide the ball from parents, or kids, but should help them understand what everyone needs to do to change the outcome, the sooner the better. One great model for this is a WestEd initiative called Academic Parent Teacher Teams, an approach that deserves to be adopted everywhere.
And when students get older and reach the graduation stage without coming close to achieving “college readiness,” we do them a great disservice when we encourage them to enter the buzz saw of community college remedial education nonetheless. Again, honesty is the best policy. We should make colleges tell them how students with their level of achievement have fared. What proportion end up completing a degree or credential? We should stop “nudging” young people into pathways that are highly unlikely to lead to success.
High expectations are as critical as ever. But it’s only when we combine them with a pragmatic approach that we have a chance of actually achieving them.
The debate about effective and equitable school discipline policies, fueled by a 2014 Dear Colleague letter from the Obama Administration, continues to weigh heavily on the minds of school reformers. As educators and lawmakers referee competing concerns about discipline and equity, we need more information about what states are doing. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) has released a report on each state’s current school discipline policies; their findings highlight the movement against out-of-school suspension and provide a peek into how states are addressing recent concerns about racial inequality in the dispensation of discipline.
ECS developed eight key questions to compare school discipline policies between states. Among these are whether and how exclusionary discipline (suspension or expulsion) is limited, what non-punitive or positive behavior support mechanisms are in place, and what discipline reporting requirements exist. For answers, they combed through statutes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia and synthesized their findings into tables organized by state and key question. The product is a comprehensive, user-friendly snapshot of the state of school discipline around the nation.
When it comes to exclusionary discipline, state policies vary widely; only sixteen states plus the District of Columbia limit exclusionary action by grade level, and only seventeen plus the District of Columbia prohibit suspension or expulsion over attendance issues. State legislatures are somewhat more unified on the use of non-punitive disciplinary strategies. Thirty states and the District of Columbia encourage leaders to use “specific, evidence-based interventions,” such as social-emotional learning and Response to Intervention (RTI), either before or alongside punitive action. A majority of states also spell out reporting requirements for disciplinary actions, although the level of detail ranges from merely logging suspensions in the case of violence to disaggregating all disciplinary events by demographic category.
Ohio, the great state from which the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hails, is one of those that bans entirely suspension for attendance issues, and in November 2018 it will prohibit suspension for any reason before fourth grade. Reports on suspensions and expulsions are already mandatory. November is also the deadline for the State Board of Education to update its current positive behavior support initiatives and policies.
After a flurry of discipline reform efforts earlier this year, Washington, D.C., has a number of suspension limitations and mandatory non-punitive discipline alternatives. By 2020 suspension will be strictly limited even at the high school level, and it is already nearly eliminated in grades K–8. Any disciplinary action must go hand in hand with non-punitive support measures, including conflict resolution strategies and parent-teacher conferences. D.C.’s reporting requirements are robust, calling for data files on each student and an annual summary of disciplinary actions disaggregated by demographics.
As ECS acknowledges, these data look only at state-level policies, even though many of the discipline strategies students encounter come out of individual districts. (We can hardly blame the researchers for choosing not to investigate the policies of each of the country’s 13,000+ school districts!) The overview is nevertheless helpful in gaining an understanding of basic trends in student discipline policy, particularly in the wake of the 2014 Dear Colleague letter. Whether or not the Trump Administration maintains, revises, or rescinds it, state policies are here to stay.
SOURCE: “50-State Comparison: State Policies on School Discipline,” Education Commission of the States (August 2018).
States purport to use teacher relicensure to maintain educator quality and facilitate professional development. Yet according to a recent New America report by Melissa Tooley and Taylor White, they are falling short of that goal.
After examining standard license renewal policies in all fifty states and D.C., as well as conducting informal interviews with teacher certification personnel, the analysts grouped states into two groups. The first, comprising a dozen states, require educators to create professional growth plans (PGPs), wherein they identify personal growth goals and plans to achieve them, and then document their progress. Tooley and White believe these to be more teacher-focused and more likely to fulfill the purpose of teacher relicensure. The policies in the thirty-eight other states and D.C. do not mention PGPs. Yet regardless of the greater potential in the first group, they generally found systems in both to be lacking. And even when policies seemed sound in theory, they found them to be mostly ineffective in practice.
Take, for example, “continuing education,” the most common element of relicensure policies, which exists in forty-four states. Teachers fulfill this requirement through myriad avenues, such as higher education coursework and varying levels of professional development (PD). But they are rarely specific to teachers’ day-to-day work, like in Delaware where only half of required PD hours must be related to a teacher’s individual work. And most states measure professional development in hours accrued rather than skills obtained for improvement. Thus many educators can achieve relicensure merely by accumulating hours of potentially ineffective training unrelated to personal improvement.
Worse, states’ use of Tooley and White’s preferred policy—professional growth plans—is usually poor. In theory, PGPs are meant to facilitate tailored, relevant professional development and provide administrators with evidence of personal growth. In practice, however, they often fall short of that ideal. Ten of the twelve PGP-wielding states require teachers to align professional growth goals with evaluations, but very few of them have supports for either. And documentation of learning activities meant to bring out this improvement is rarely tied to specific proof of it. In Kansas, for example, teachers are not even required to establish these links; they are just rewarded extra points if they do.
To fix these widespread problems, Tooley and White recommend that states restructure their teacher relicensure policies to truly and demonstrably reflect individual learning and growth. Policies should ensure that teachers participate in PD and learning opportunities that provably lead to growth, and then they ought to require evidence of that improvement before relicensure is granted. One way to do this is to pair professional growth plans with implementation supports by, among other things, offering exemplars of strong development activities and training for administrators to help them guide and evaluate teachers’ progress.
To be sure, challenges will always exist. Relicensure can be an important tool to maintain teacher quality, but doing it right is time-consuming for everyone involved, as well as costly for cash-strapped school systems. It also requires leaders to forgo easier paths on which they are not responsible for terminations and instead do what is in students’ best interest. If more chose to do so, this report could help.
Source: Melissa Tooley and Taylor White, “Rethinking Relicensure: Promoting Professional Learning Through Teacher Licensure Renewal Policies,” New America (August 2018).
On this week’s podcast, Donna Bahorich, Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss how to encourage students to take ownership of their educational journeys. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether encouraging more students to retake the SAT would narrow college enrollment gaps.
Amber’s Research Minute
Joshua Goodman et al., “Take Two! SAT Retaking and College Enrollment Gaps,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2018).