Successfully completing class assignments doesn’t mean students are meeting grade-level standards that will put them in a strong position for college-level work, according to a new report released Tuesday by TNTP, a research and advocacy organization that usually focuses on teacher policy and equity issues.
Specifically, “The Opportunity Myth” finds that almost three-fourths of the time — 71% — students are doing the work that teachers give them, but less than a fifth of those assignments meet standards for college-readiness. That’s why there’s a myth, the authors say. Students who predominantly plan to go to college, and might even be told they are doing rigorous work, are often “being woefully underprepared to meet their ambitious goals,” the report says.
TNTP conducted observations and surveys for the project in four school districts and one charter network that was fairly representative of the demographics of U.S. students, Daniel Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, said in a conference call with reporters. The research team followed 250 teachers, watched close to 1,000 lessons in progress, reviewed nearly 5,000 assignments, analyzed thousands of work samples, and collected real-time surveys from 4,000 students to get “a better grasp” on how students perceive the work that they’re doing in class.
"Students actually are the best experts we have on the quality of education we are providing," Weisberg said on the call. He said while the research team saw students "working really hard," many were not getting a chance to "succeed at the highest level."
Just last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, released a study that reaches a similar conclusion. Based on a sample of all public school students who took algebra I in North Carolina from the 2004-05 school year through 2015-16, the research showed that while many students get good grades in the subject, far fewer earn top grades on end-of-course algebra tests, and grade inflation has grown worse over time at schools serving more affluent students.
"Earning a good grade in a course is no guarantee that a student has learned what the state expects her to have learned in that course," the report says. The results matter to students because the end-of-course exams are a stronger predictor of ACT scores than grades during the school year, the report said. The authors also wrote that grade inflation masks students' true abilities.
"This means grades may mislead students, parents, and subsequent educators — not to mention potential employers and policymakers — about how children and schools are performing and how well students are prepared for what follows, be it work or postsecondary education," the report says.
Allowing students to 'stretch'
In the TNTP report, the authors say four components are necessary for students to benefit from their classroom experiences — consistent opportunities to complete grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction that puts the responsibility for most of the thinking on the students, a feeling of being deeply engaged in the lesson and teachers with high expectations. But on average, only 16% of the lessons observed in core subject areas met these criteria, amounting to 29 hours per subject (out of a possible 180) over the course of the school year.
These four elements, they write, are especially important for students who start the school year behind their peers. When they were consistently given grade-level assignments, they were able to close the gap in seven months. But even in these classrooms, teachers were assigning grade-appropriate work only about half the time. The researchers also found a strong relationship between high expectations from teachers, higher-quality assignments and stronger student performance.
During the research, they viewed classrooms with these questions in mind: Were students doing the work they were assigned, were they being assigned grade-level content, and were teachers allowing students to do what is sometimes described as the “heavy lifting?”
"When students are asked to try in school, when they are asked to push their thinking even when they’re stuck,
to explain why they’ve arrived at an answer, to help a classmate, they also have the chance to stretch their sense of their own capabilities and see themselves grow," the report says.
The variable 'is not the kids'
The researchers, however, found instances of teachers interrupting students when they were trying to give answers or students copying answers from the board, Weisberg said. The report contrasts two assignments at the same grade level, in the same district. In one English language arts class (ELA), students read "A Mighty Long Way," written by one of the students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. They wrote an informational essay, allowing them to meet multiple grade-level standards.
But in another 8th-grade ELA class, the students read a 5th-grade text and were only asked to fill in the missing vowels in a word — a task that "isn't aligned to any 8th grade literacy stand," Weisberg said, adding that the "variable between these two classrooms is not the kids." Instead, it's the choices that educators make at the classroom level.
The report also highlights "bright spots," such as 12th graders at a school in the West working in groups to discuss evidence from a text and 4th graders spending a class period working on equivalent fractions and explaining their thinking while the teacher provided clarification if needed.
Low-income students, English learners, students of color and those with disabilities are far less likely to be given the chance to do grade-level work, the report shows. In 38% of the classrooms where students of color made up the majority, no grade-level assignments were given, compared to 12% of classrooms made up mostly of white students. But when students of color were given grade-level assignments, they succeeded 56% of the time — not that far below the 65% rate for white students.
Hoping to inspire other districts
TNTP is working with the districts involved in the study to help them address the concerns raised in the results.
"We’ve shared the data with all the districts that participated, and several have already started making some changes based on it," Andy Jacob, a partner for communications and publications with TNTP, said in an email. "We’re hoping the report will inspire other districts to replicate some of what we’ve done and get a clearer sense of what their students are experiencing day in and day out."
The study raises the question of how teachers respond to feedback, especially from students. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study showed that student surveys were a reliable measure of the learning environment within classrooms. An internal report involving the Tripod survey, which asks students for their feedback and was used as part of MET, also suggests teachers will use survey results to improve their practice.
"Teachers alluded to developing improvement plans and implementing new ideas after identifying a particular area of needed improvement," says the report, which is being peer reviewed by two research journals. The paper also quotes a teacher who received lower scores in "caring," which is one of the seven areas measured by Tripod.
"But I'm like, 'Okay. So, how do I change this then?' Then I went home over the summer, and I devised this plan that I had was to try to talk to every kid ... that I can every single day," the teacher said.
While some might be more likely to dismiss what students stay about their teaching, Alka Pateriya, vice president of Tripod Education Partners, said in an email, "Anecdotally, as we talk with folks, we find that teachers who are reflective can set goals and improve over time."
The TNTP report also comes as other experts are urging schools to give teachers more time to work with curriculum and instructional materials, during time set aside for professional learning communities, for example, so they can design lessons that meet grade-level state standards.
The TNTP report includes survey results showing that while 82% of teachers support their state's standards, 44% say they expect that their students can reach those standards. The authors, however, don't lay all the blame on teachers and note that most students feel their teachers want them to do well.
"This problem doesn’t start or end with teachers," Weisberg said on the call. "These are systemic issues."
The authors include five actions for schools that would improve the chances of more students working in classrooms with those four key components: directly asking students and families about their goals, giving all students grade-appropriate assignments, giving students who are behind challenging material that makes them think, giving educators a chance to see that students are capable to succeeding at high-level work, and conducting an "equity audit" to determine what is keeping some students from accessing grade-level instruction.