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A New Way To Measure Schools; Russia Readers Best U.S.

LA Johnson

Hello and welcome to another edition of our weekly education news roundup! These are a few of the big stories that got our attention this week.

U.S. readers slip a bit

Fourth-grade students in the Russian Federation and Singapore earned top scores on the PIRLS 2016, an international assessment of reading comprehension given every five years. Perhaps most impressive, more than a quarter of students in both countries are, according to the results, advanced readers.

As for the U.S., 50 countries administered the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, and, according to the folks at PIRLS, 11 earned "significantly higher" reading scores than we did. In 2016, U.S. fourth-graders scored slightly lower than those who took the test back in 2011, but, when you compare their performance to 2001 scores, little has changed overall.

Chicago is beating many districts on student growth

Speaking of standardized test scores, by themselves they are an imperfect measure of schools. For one thing, they tend to be tightly tied to student poverty. A new Stanford University analysis takes a different tack by analyzing how scores change over time as students progress through a school district.

Researchers found that the Chicago public schools, which struggle with poverty, low budgets and student safety, nevertheless are able to produce six years of growth in just five years of school. This rate of growth beat almost every one of more than 11,000 districts studied. Some education researchers have been advocating that schools should be judged on this kind of measure rather than annual test scores and traditional, grade-level proficiency rates.

Civil rights fight over school discipline

Is it a violation of civil rights law if a school district — intentionally or not — punishes black students more harshly than white students? On Tuesday, that question took center stage during a Senate confirmation hearing for Kenneth Marcus, who is President Trump's nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Under President Obama, ED and the Department of Justice issued guidance that threatened to investigate and punish schools for policies — especially the use of out-of-school suspension – that have "a disproportionate and unjustified effect" on students of color. Some school administrators, teachers and conservative think-tankers have publicly opposed the guidance, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is now weighing whether to rescind it.

We know that, nationwide, students of color are suspended at disproportionately high rates, a trend that begins in preschool. A recent study detailed disparities in Louisiana schools, and this report from the American Psychological Association is a great primer on the problem.

School discipline was also the focus of a public briefing on Friday from the U.S Commission on Civil Rights titled "The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Intersections of Students of Color with Disabilities."

The Department of Education debates for-profit college rules

Earlier this year, Secretary DeVos did go back to the drawing board on two Obama-era rules intended to rein in abuses from for-profit colleges: "gainful employment" and "borrower defense." As part of that reset, negotiated rulemaking or "neg reg" hearings on gainful employment started this week.

The existing rule cuts off schools from collecting federal aid dollars if too many students can't pay back their loans. Advocates noted that the list of negotiators includes "extra"representatives from the for-profit college industry. As we reported, last week, House Republicans introduced a bill that would not only reverse both regulations, but prevent them from being introduced in the future.

Elsewhere in the for-profit college world, the struggling DeVry University was sold to a much smaller company. DeVry has 25,000 students, down from 70,000 at its peak; the purchaser, Cogswell Education, has about 500, Buzzfeed reported.

Congress debates the SALT discount

Congressional Republicans will be doing a lot of vote-counting and arm-twisting in the coming days as they attempt to pass a massive tax overhaul.One pillar of the proposal so far would likely hurt funding for public schools and universities.

In the past, tax-payers who itemize their deductions have gotten a discount from the federal government for paying their state and local taxes (SALT) — taxes that, in turn, pay for important things like schools.

Now, Republicans want to get rid of the deduction for SALT income and sales taxes and cap the discount on property taxes. If the plan goes through, that would make future state and local tax hikes more painful for many tax-payers and could make it much harder to raise money for public schools. Here's our Cliff's Notes on the tax overhaul's implications for schools.

GAO weighs in on vouchers

Finally, a story that got far less attention in this tax-heavy news cycle: A new report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reviewed guidance from the nation's private school voucher programs and found them lacking on one important subject: Explaining to parents of students with disabilities that, when they use a voucher to leave a public school, they often leave behind important federal protections, too.

The GAO found that even programs targeted specifically at students with disabilities often failed to explain to parents how a voucher would effect their federal rights. We reported that roughly three-quarters of students enrolled in those disability-focused programs were told nothing about how their rights would change. Another 10 percent were enrolled in programs that provided parents with inaccurate information.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.