Testing: You Can Refuse, But You Can’t Hide

Reading and math have had a long history of being tested with standardized tests. The classic notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic has been the center of people’s perception of what kids learn at school. But this idea represents a very narrow understanding of what really goes on at school.

Standardized testing usually starts in the third grade. When I first started teaching in Baltimore City, it was a big deal if you were assigned to one of the testing grades (grades 3 and 5 in that K-5 school). If you taught in a tested grade, the pressure for your kids to perform was much greater, especially if your school, like mine, was drastically under-performing and in danger of being taken over by the state.

Also, the more your test scores improved, the more funding the school would receive. (This is particularly important if your principal, like mine, was misusing thousands of state funds for her own personal gain in the form of lavish “professional development” trips and paying friends’ salaries for positions they didn’t actually hold or qualify for.)

But this added pressure of testing was reserved for those teachers teaching the third or fifth grades. The other teachers were left out of the test prep activities and the proctoring of tests. They weren’t held accountable for the test scores at all, as if the third graders hadn’t had to go through K, 1st, and and 2nd grades or the 5th graders hadn’t had a teacher for 4th grade that contributed to their learning as well.

In the middle school, this inequality in testing is even more pronounced. Since teachers teach specific subject areas, even if they switch grades, they can still remain teacher untested students for their entire career. Yet math and reading teachers are doomed to a career dominated by standardized testing. In NJ and many other states, social studies has never had a standardized test and that has led to it being marginalized, particularly in the elementary school.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is increasingly alarmed by the erosion of the importance of social studies in the United States. This erosion, in large part, is a consequence of the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since the introduction of NCLB, there has been a steady reduction in the amount of time spent in the teaching of social studies, with the most profound decline noticed in the elementary grades. 1In addition, anecdotal information indicates that many American children are receiving little or no formal education in the core social studies disciplines: civics, economics, geography, and history. That such a situation has evolved is untenable in a nation that prides itself on its history, its system of government and its place as a leader in the global community.

By requiring states to measure student achievement in language arts and mathematics and tying school performance reports and financial incentives to testing results, NCLB resulted in the diversion of both funding and class-time away from social studies and other non-tested subjects. The phrase “if it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught” resonates in the American educational community, with significant implications for educational practices and outcomes.

http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/nclbera

A few years ago, science was added to the NJ ASK and science teachers began to feel the pressure that reading and math teachers had been feeling for an eternity. But with the push to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, the standardized testing machine couldn’t stop at adding science. What about social studies, physical education, health, art, music, family and consumer science, keyboarding, and industrial arts? Those subjects had teachers too, and they needed to be evaluated. But how without creating a standardized test for every single subject?

The answer was Student Growth Objectives or SGO’s. SGO’s were based on these teachers making standardized tests of sorts. These tests were developed collaboratively by teachers in the same subject area and/or grade. Benchmark tests are now given twice a year, once in September and again in May or June. They are written, administered, and graded by the teacher. The SGO is based on a goal set by the teacher as to what level of growth they hope to achieve that school year.

So this means that your children are now tested in all areas by test standardized across every discipline taught in school. And it doesn’t even end there.

Teachers of the PARCC tested areas (elementary grades 3-5 and reading and math teachers from then on) are evaluated based on Student Growth Percentiles, which will be calculated using the PARCC data from this year. However those teachers must also develop their own benchmark tests (one or two) to determine an SGO as well. (Where I taught, this was a 200 question multiple choice test developed by teachers.)  So, in reading and math, many students face four tests a year that are not directly tied to their current lessons but rather overall academic achievement goals.

When do the teachers have time to teach? 

Right now, tying teacher evaluations to test scores is new so the percentages may change down the road. But here is the breakdown of how teacher evaluations will be calculated this school year of 2014-2015.

Teachers of PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 55%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): 30%

Teachers of non PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 85%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): none

So teachers of students that do not take the PARCC will have 85% of their evaluation based on their lessons and observations. And, the “standardized test” that they give allows them some really nice advantages. They create the test. They administer the test (with none of the oversight and regulations that come with the PARCC test) . They grade the test. They even get to set their own goals for what they want to achieve. Pretty good deal.

Teachers of students who take the PARCC have just barely over half of their effectiveness based on their lessons. 85% vs. 55% is a HUGE difference. Plus they have even less time to teach, because they have to give benchmarks for their SGO’s and take 2 weeks out of instructional time to give the PARCC.

Who in their right mind would want to be a math or reading teacher under these circumstances? If teachers fare poorly under this system, will they be able to find enough desperate, young or naive suckers or altruistic saints to fill their shoes? 

This system is unequal and guarantees a school curriculum dominated by testing. So, send in your refusal letters, I know I will. But don’t fool yourselves. Even if we “Take the PARCC” and it goes down in flames, our children’s education will not be saved.

Testing: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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Refusing to PARCC in NJ

Wars are won one battle at a time.

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Yesterday nearly 100 people attended the State Board Meeting in Trenton, the overwhelming majority went to voice their concerns about the PARCC test slated to be administered in the Spring.

It may not seem like a large turnout, but it was. I have been attending local board meetings for two years now, and I can tell you that they are not well-attended events.

Many teachers do not feel comfortable going, because they worry about the consequences of voicing concerns. With teacher tenure now in jeopardy and evaluations tied to test scores, their fears are understandable, particularly since the test itself is riddled with problems.

Many parents don’t attend, because they don’t really know how much of an impact they can make by going, being educated, and voicing their opinions. Also, parents are tired; I get it. Many households have two working parents or if one parent stays home the other is working ridiculous hours. (And babysitters are expensive!) After a long day of work or caring for kids, there is homework,laundry, lunch boxes to clean, lunch to make, religious obligations, sports practices, talent shows, school concerts, and a million other things. Most board meetings start at 7:30/8pm on a weeknight, just when many parents are putting the kids to bed or getting a minute to actually relax a little. It takes dedication to make a cup of coffee and head out (especially in the dark, cold winter) to a school board meeting.

Therefore, the fact that nearly 100 people traveled to Trenton on a freezing cold weekday to attend a meeting that started at 10am was impressive. (The NJEA knew this and smartly offered free lunch to those registered to speak.) Those people waited for 4 hours until 2pm for the public comment portion to start, knowing that they would only be allowed to speak for 5 minutes.

Nearly 100 people!!!

This is IMPRESSIVE in this day and age where most business and even friendships are conducted from home via the computer. These people took time to write something and drive somewhere and speak publicly.

So many more people wanted to go, but couldn’t because they have jobs to go to and no ability to take a day off. Or like me they had children to take care of and to pick up from school and no one to fill in for them for the entire day. Or for a million other reasons, they couldn’t go. But they wanted to and that is important to recognize too.

There is a movement that is growing in numbers, and its collective voice will not be easily ignored. The PARCC test is not the answer to any of the problems in education; it IS the problem.

Yet as impressive as those nearly 100 people were to make the trip to speak out on behalf of our students and their teachers, many more will need to step up to the plate locally to keep the pressure on. Consider writing a refusal letter and attend your local meetings to voice your opinion and ask questions.

Please share this blog post with others on Twitter or your Facebook wall. I welcome comments as well.

Thank You!

Here’s an article about yesterday’s NJ State Board Meeting:

http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/15/01/07/anti-testing-turnout-puts-state-board-of-education-to-the-test/

This is an article about Sarah Blaine a former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in NJ, which includes her testimony from the Board meeting (a video link as well).

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/08/mom-spells-out-problems-with-parcc-common-core-test/

Here’s a link about Ohio’s decision to delay the PARCC:

http://wkbn.com/2015/01/07/educators-happy-with-delay-in-parcc-reading-exam/

My past PARCC-related posts:

PARCC Learning

PARCC Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

PARCC Attrition

PARCC Data Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

I am not a big believer in the catch phrase “data-driven” instruction.

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A bulletin board from my 7th grade Reading and Language Arts Class that tracked books read on hand cutouts. The bottom papers are signed parent pledges to help their children meet reading goals.

 

 

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These posters were made by my students to sell impossible products such as a foul-smelling deodorant.

First of all, instruction cannot be driven by a test given in March and May, because by the time the results come in, the school year is over. So instead the school year is driven by test prep. In my previous school, this meant that 5th graders were taking practice PARCC tests on the computer every Friday. This was not to gauge their progress towards mastery of the standards so much as it was to get them familiar with the technology and format of the test.

Taking so much time to practice disrupts instruction, yet the acquisition of these computer skills is being sold as critical for college and career readiness. But I bet you that any employer would be willing to pay for a typing class for a potential employee who was a well-spoken, intellectually sound writer.

Secondly, the data, which the PARCC provides, only covers a subset of the knowledge and skills required by the Common Core Standards. (One test cannot test every single aspect of every standard. For instance, there are speaking standards that are not tested.)  By their very nature, a cumulative test has to be less than thorough. So when a teacher sees the test data in September for his or her new students, even the breakdown of strengths and weaknesses will not be enough to “drive instruction.” That teacher will still have to their own assessments. This is particularly true in Reading and Language Arts where there are so many subskills behind the reading and writing done on the test. The PARCC does not even give a reading level that would help guide a teacher to suggest appropriate independent reading books.

Thirdly, every teacher takes a course on assessments. While earning my M.A.T. at Johns Hopkins, we discussed, administered, and analyzed data from various types of standardized tests and teacher-made assessments. We learned about formative and summative assessments. The PARCC is a summative assessment that claims to be able to do what a formative assessment does, but it cannot.

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html

The PARCC is not filling some void in education. It is replacing sound educational philosophy and practice. The students who the school districts deem in need of better scores, will be subjected to more PARCC-like practice (presumably from PARCC prep books that Pearson is gearing up to crank out and profit from or test prep programs like Study Island). But in reality those students are not getting any closer to better reading comprehension or writing skills. They are just going to be even more turned off by learning and school.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I do not want data to drive the instruction of my children. I would much prefer sound education research and known best practices to drive instruction. Or better yet, well-trained happy professionals who feel fulfilled by their job and have enough energy and freedom to infuse their lessons with creativity. I want instruction driven by innovation. Or by the interests of the students. Or by current events. Or by the students themselves, as they are given tasks that make them think, create, and perform in ways that make them prepared for the challenges they will face not only in college or careers, but in life.

The phrase “data-driven instruction” is thrown around as if teachers have been wandering around aimlessly with no clue how to plan lessons. But the fact is that teachers are masters of assessment, all kinds of assessment. We devise our grading policies and in the end calculate the grades. We can often assess a student’s level of understanding by the expression on their face or their body language.

Now with the new software available, parents can see the individual assignment and test grades of their children as they are entered by the teacher. They get a running average throughout the marking period from the comfort of their own home.

We do not need any more data.

We know the United States is behind. We know there is an inexcusable divide in the quality of education that children get based on their race or socioeconomic status.

We have the data.

What we need are leaders that are not bound by the purse strings of lobbyists. We need local leaders to step up and take education back from the greedy hands of corporations and politicians and take it upon ourselves to ensure our children get the quality education they deserve. That means parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and board members.

Let’s stop letting others do the thinking for us. Because they are getting it wrong. Gravely wrong.

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Common Core Commercials: Who Pays?

A firm believer in limiting screen time, I try my best to follow through. But I do recognize that it is not the root of all evil.

I DVR DWTS and Chopped to indulge on nights when I am not blogging, reading,  or passing out from exhaustion. But all day, I keep the TV off the vast majority of the time. However, my youngest boy is almost 4 and loves the shows Rescue Bots and How It’s Made. How It’s Made is educational, but the Rescue Bot obsession drives me nuts.

The Rescue Bots is a cute show, don’t get me wrong. Not much violence, no guns really, and some funny irony for the parents stuck watching. But my issue isn’t with the show. We can’t get the show On Demand, so we have to DVR it.  That means commercials. I try my best to fast forward, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Well today I was in the kitchen washing dishes and heard a commercial for the Common Core. I shut the water off and walked in just in time to see it was sponsored by the Urban League, Comcast and NBCUniversal. I rewatched it, and was so angry by what I saw.

Here are links link to the two ads that ran during that television show:

Put Our Children 1st PSA – Everybody Wins

Put Our Children 1st PSA – Full Potential

The president of the urban league, Marc H. Morial, has an impressive resume as an entrepreneur, lawyer, professor, mayor, CEO…yet he has no experience as a teacher. Having taught for 5 years in the ghettos of Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Newark, I can, without reservation, tell you that he was either paid a whole lot or just simply never stepped foot in an inner city classroom. Even in the suburbs, there is a pervasive divide when it comes to race and socioeconomic status. This divide was not remedied by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and it won’t be by the Common Core either.

How will Common Core be equally implemented in schools overrun by violence, drugs, and gangs? How will Common Core feed all of the children who come to school hungry, sad, angry, or all of the above? How will it fix the segregation in our nation’s schools? Before I taught in the suburbs of NJ, I taught in 3 schools in 3 different states where poverty reigned, and I did not have a single white student.  How will Common Core fix the inequality, corruption, complacency?

Not to mention that when money is tied to test scores, people will cheat. I am not saying they might, I am saying that they WILL. How do I know? Because I have witnessed it with my own eyes. In Baltimore, I had a principal come into MY 3rd grade classroom and make kids erase the wrong answers and fill in the right ones.

In Brooklyn, I had a test booklet from the previous year slipped onto my desk after school hours with instructions for me to review it with my students days before the test. That test booklet had more than 50% of the same questions on the test my students took. The testing companies repeat questions from year to year, therefore usually they only release tests that are already 5 years old. I never found out where that test booklet came from, but all of the teachers in the grade received one on the same day in the same way. Thankfully and by sheer luck, I ignored the note and decided that my kids did not need anymore practice. But during the test my classroom phone rang and a fellow colleague was terrified because his students recognized the questions and accused him of cheating.

This is the dirty side of education. The one most people don’t hear about. But I can assure you, that I have no hidden agenda. I just want the empty promises that these commercials promise to be true. That’s why they make me so angry.

Comcast and NBCUniversal won’t sponsor my message….because the truths I speak simply don’t make anyone money.

Womb to the Classroom?

The second that second line showed up on the pee stick, I started reading anything and everything I could get my hands on (starting with the paper insert from that pregnancy test box and the 4 other boxes I had purchased just in case).

With motherhood looking at me down the barrel of the pregnancy gun, I felt unprepared. So reading seemed a natural reaction, it had always worked for me before.

So before the pee stick dried, I was at Barnes and Noble buying books. Well I pretended to consider buying books, while sipping  bottled water in the cafe and browsing a towering stack of books.  I read everything from the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff to the sassy A Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy by Vicki Iovine to the hysterical Belly Laughs by Jenny McCarthy to the earthy practical A Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook by Cathe Olson, to the extremely natural midwife Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I also read medical journals through my doctor husband’s subscription and watched endless television shows depicting various types of birth experiences.

I was suffering from  information overload well before I even sat down at a computer and started googling stuff. My doctors most likely sighed when they saw my name on the schedule, because I came with questions, studies, research, and a birth plan of 2-3 typed detailed pages.

The point was that I didn’t take pregnancy lightly.  Like many other new mothers, I wanted to be informed, but more importantly I didn’t want to screw it up. I wanted to do everything in my power to keep that little growing life inside of me as healthy as possible.

And if that meant…

no sushi, no fish with even a trace of mercury, not too many nuts or peanut butter (just in case it causes allergies), no caffeine (not even decaf coffee just in case), no harsh cleaning chemicals, no artificial sweeteners, no contact sports, not laying on my back to sleep, getting a flu shot and endless blood work, changing over to organic dairy and produce, and of course giving up wine despite that fact that European women somehow found a way to drink some without dying of guilt…

then I would do it.

(Heck if they told me I should sit in a bubble for 9 months or my baby wouldn’t be healthy; I would have done it.)

I will spare you my 4 birth stories, but with every childbirth I made tremendous sacrifices in the interest of my babies. I switched practices a week before my due date with my first baby, because I just couldn’t trust the doctor I had been seeing. I tried to go without pain medication for my first 2 births (the other 2 were planned c sections). I took no medication after the birth of all of my children c-sections or not, because I wanted to be alert and to keep my breastmilk pure. I traveled to the NICU every 45 minutes starting less than 24 hours after my 2nd baby was born prematurely to make sure he got as much of my milk as possible and no formula. I blamed myself for his early arrival, because I had been working too hard.  I roomed in with all of my babies and wouldn’t let the nursery take them away even when I was up all night alone when my husband went home to take care of our other children.

I was the same way with my babies as infants. Holding them all of the time, reading to them several times a day (I even read to them all while in utero), wearing them in baby wraps, feeding them organic baby food (feeling guilty for not making my own), nursing as long as I could, not showing them television until age 2, rocking them to sleep, letting them sleep with me, constantly worrying about SIDS and checking them obessively…..

You get the idea. From the second I peed on the stick, I was 100% dedicated to being not just a good mother, but one that met impossible levels of perfection. Sure I relaxed a little with each of my 4 children, as I became more confident in my parenting abilities. But still, I worked damn hard to give all of them the best start in life.

But why am I writing all of this?

To brag?

No, I believe that no matter what choices we make as mothers that by nature we want the best for our babies. We may not all breastfeed, or try natural childbirth or even buy organic baby food (gasp!). But, those choices don’t define us. What defines us as mothers is our instinct. The instinct to care for our babies with every ounce of our being regardless of how many boxes we can check off on the perfect mother checklist.

Do I hope to make other mothers feel in adequate?

No, the media does this all of the time, especially to mothers. We never feel like we are good enough. We feel like everything we do is constantly judged and stressed.

  • Are the kids’ car seats installed properly?
  • Are they getting too much BPA?
  • Are their vaccinations saving their lives or infecting?
  • Are their baby blankets silent killing machines?
  • Will I be able to pull off everything I pinned for baby’s first birthday on Pintrest?

I don’t want to add more stress.But I do want to ask why do we as mothers hold ourselves to such impossibly high standards when our children are babies, but then let go so easily once our children become school age?

Shouldn’t we expect our schools to respect all of the time, effort, stress, and love that we put into our pregnancies and babies and to show the same amount of dedication to our children once they arrive at school?

Why do so many mothers stop researching and reading when their children turn 5? Does our job only include the time from the womb to the classroom? Or are we missing something by trusting our schools blindly to finish the job that we worked so hard at for all of those years?

Yes, I know we are tired, but all it takes is a little bit of time. Carve a few minutes from the DVR, or Facebook, or Pintrest and look into what is best for your school age child’s development. Then look into whether those needs are being met at school.

  • Do your kids feel safe and happy?
  • Are they excited about learning and going to school?
  • How much screen time are they getting at school?
  • Is the work too hard or too easy?
  • Is the work interesting or boring?
  • Are there enough field trips and other curriculum-enriching activities?
  • Are your board members and administrators informed and working for positive changes?

Education reform is happening right now. The schools, curriculum, instruction, and tests are changing. We work hard to give our children the best in life. And only WE can make sure that the schools are furthering those efforts. Please join so many of us who are already finding our voices on blogs, on Facebook, at school board meetings and PTA/PTO meetings.

(And I want to give a shout out to the fathers too. This post focused a lot on my experience as a mother, but dad’s have the same instincts too. Historically PTA/PTO meetings have been mom-centric, but it does not need to stay that way. Fathers bring a unique perspective to the table and are a hugely untapped resource in many school districts outside of sports.)

How have you impacted education in your school district or state? I would love to hear about it!