Tag Archives: education

Is the MAP test “really about the children?”

Confirmation from Seattle Times that parents are in solidarity with teachers and students:

On Tuesday, only 97 of the roughly 400 ninth-graders who were supposed to take the MAP reading test did so, said Garfield Principal Ted Howard. The other 300, he said, had their parents’ permission to be excused.

Something else from this article bears serious consideration.

Banda said many teachers and parents have told him the MAP is a useful tool.

“Regardless of whether we think testing is good or bad, it’s really about the children and making sure we are able to identify any potential gaps in their learning,” he said.

Superintendent Banda didn’t mean to, but he got at the heart of the problem with the MAP test. It is a useful tool for some, that’s true. But is it “really about the children”?

For some, yes. But for policy-makers, no. On a district-wide and state-wide level, it’s being misused:

  • Test scores are being used as part of teacher evaluations – in some states, it makes up as much as half the teacher’s evaluation. This despite there is no evidence that student standardized test scores measure a teacher’s performance and plenty of evidence that such use is arbitrary.
  • Test scores are being used to classify students into “normal learners,” “advanced learners,” and “kids who need special services.” It could be a useful tool if a human being had authority over how to interpret and use the results, but policies are in place that withhold that authority.
  • Test scores are being used to bar students from graduation.
  • Test scores are being used to grade schools with letter grades, as if such a thing made any sense.
  • And test scores are being collected and stored in a national database, along with various other information about the students – race, ethnicity, income level, dental records, you name it. It’s being kept for long-term use. Can you give me a guarantee that when my kids reach the workforce, that data won’t be in the hands of prospective employers? Hmm???

It’s not about the children. It’s about top-down control of our schools, teachers, and students.

Make the test about the children, Mr. Banda, and I’ll let you give it to my kids.

Till then, I’m opting out.

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Garfield High has made history

Garfield High students, teachers, and parents, you have made history. People will be talking about you for generations to come. The first U.S. school in a testing revolt that has been too long in coming. A school where students, teachers, and parents have all banded together to support each other.

This is going down in history whether Garfield High wins or loses. I hope Garfield wins, because it will embolden those of us who want our education to be child-driven rather than results-driven. But no matter what happens, the actions at Garfield are sparking other actions nationwide. It didn’t create the movement against high-stakes standardized testing, but it is a focal point for struggle.

And what is that? Well, yesterday the superintendent demanded that the test be administered. The teachers are still boycotting the test, but apparently administration is giving it. However, a whole bunch of students are refusing to take it. And a whole bunch of parents are supporting them by submitting opt-out forms. With that kind of solidarity, the district cannot win. It can only save face. Sort of.

My condolences, Superintendent Banda, to have the misfortune of being in a conflict you cannot win. I can kind of get where you might be coming from. If I were you, I would be reluctant to side with students and teachers for fear of being smeared by the corporate types who want results-driven education. All I can say is, try not to be on the wrong side of history.

Thoughts on the MAP boycott

For whoever hasn’t been following this bit of news – it’s been in the national media – teachers in Seattle are boycotting a standardized test called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP. The boycott was initiated by teachers at Garfield High School. Students there are on serious testing overload! There are a bazillion tests required for graduation, which is a problem in and of itself. And on top of that, there’s the MAP. This test is not required for graduation and students are not taking it seriously. At the same time, teachers evaluations are strongly affected by the student’s test results.

All these issues – testing overload, tests being used inappropriately – are a national problem. Some consider excessive testing to be child abuse. Testing is pushing out time for learning. Many people agree that basing teacher evaluations on student test scores is highly arbitrary. Parents are frustrated when standardized tests are used for student placement in lieu of the human judgment by teachers.

Something else is going on, too. Our schools are facing many different kinds of privatization, from privatization of schools (such as charter schools and vouchers) to privatization in schools (transforming schools in the model of the private sector, including dehumanized, centralized control). This is misleadingly called “education reform.” That’s where the push toward high-stakes testing is coming from. That’s why a lot of states have passed laws mandating that student test scores make up one-half of a teacher’s evaluation. And that’s why there’s a call for “multiple measures” of student achievement – that is, multiple tests. Test overload.

There’s pushback from the community affected. Students, parents, and teachers alike. At Garfield, all three have come together – the teachers are boycotting, the PTSA supports it, and the associated student body supports it. All over the city and nationally, people are supporting the boycott. By coming together, I think we could kill the MAP. It’ll be a major win not just for Garfield and not just for Seattle: it will provide inspiration nationwide.

But then what? This brings me to the rather inconvenient fact that most of us fighting this standardized testing overload seriously need to grapple with. Some parents, some teachers, and some students like the MAP. Some oppose it, some support it.

And to be honest, they do it for some good reasons. Kids fall through the cracks. They really do. Without testing, some struggling students are not identified and end up graduating high school without being able to read. Without testing, some advanced learners are not identified. The MAP test catches some of those. And in some cases, the MAP is the only tool that’s useful for that purpose.

But then on the other hand, the Seattle Public School District is using it to bar students from the advanced learning program. Kids who demonstrate the ability to work well above grade level, but who don’t meet a score cutoff on the MAP test, are denied access.

Parents do have a recourse, but it has the word “Privilege” smeared all over it. You can appeal. For an appeal to be successful, in many cases, that means private testing. Two groups of people can get that: the group of parents who can afford the $300 per child that you would need to slap down; and the group of parents whose kids qualify for free-or-reduced lunch AND who have the wherewithal to jump through all the hoops needed to locate and arrange private testing, get their child there on time and prepared, and appropriately fill out the forms. Plenty of kids are going to fall through the cracks.

Is it worth it? Is identifying some children’s education needs worth the price of barring others from programs they need?

And is it worth jeopardizing teachers’ jobs over an arbitrary measure?

And is it worth spending so much learning time and money and so many instructional resources (library space, tutor time, you name it)?

I don’t mean the answer is “no.” I mean that these are questions we need to be asking and answering as a community of students, teachers, and parents.

Also, we need to be asking these questions separately from and independent of the private sector individuals and organizations who are interested in privatizing schools. They want to know, “How can we transform education so it looks good to us?” But we want to know, “What’s the best way to bring up and educate our kids?”

We also need to be asking questions like, “How much testing is too much?” and “What kind of testing is appropriate for our kids and at what grade?” and “What is this test measuring?” and “What are the limitations of this test?”

(That last is a biggie. To understand what the limitations are, people need to understand some basic statistics concepts. Measurement error, confidence level, standard deviation. Almost nobody does. We’re using these numbers without understanding them. We’re worshipping the numbers.)

We need to be asking these questions.

Because even if the MAP goes away, it’s going to be replaced by something else. There will be a whole slew of new tests to measure mastery of the new Common Core Standards. (By the way, one organization that will be sitting pretty is Pearson, the company that makes tests and curriculum and as such, has a vested interest in promoting high-stakes testing and testing overload.) States will continue to pass laws mandating that student test results play a role in teacher evaluations. Communities will continue to resist.

So tell me, what do you think? How are these tests helpful? How are they harmful? Is there a way to use them without getting burned? Is there a way to stop using them without leaving some students’ needs unmet? Let me know what you think.

Teachers, take heart!

What am I thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday? A lot of things, but specifically . . .

. . . TEACHERS.

My teachers, my kids’ teachers, my friends who are teachers. Where would we be without them?

Why do I feel the need to call it out right now? Because from what I can tell, a lot of K-12 teachers are feeling discouraged and disrespected. They’re facing some specific challenges that a lot of people aren’t aware of, such as increased job insecurity, overly controlling administrations, age discrimination, and increased pressure to “teach to the test.”

And why do I think that? Because the vast majority of parents like their children’s teachers. The Seattle School District recently surveyed parents and community members, and a whopping 91% of parents felt “very favorable” or “favorable” about teachers. Here’s the bar graph.

This is an overwhelming supermajority of support. It means that whenever teachers are under attack, parents are potential allies. I say “potential” because it doesn’t always work that way. If parents don’t know about the challenges teachers are facing, they’ll stay on the sidelines. And if they can be convinced that the needs of teachers are in conflict with the needs of children, they’ll take the side of whoever claims to represent children.

But when teachers reach out to parents and tell their side of the story, it makes a huge difference. And when teachers ask for help we come through. Tacoma is a case in point. Dring the Tacoma teacher’s strike, parents backed teachers on the picket line, “walking with them and bringing coffee and snacks.” Not only that, but parents got organized and formed a group to support public education, “Parents and Friends of Tacoma Public Schools.

So take heart, teachers. You have friends.

The freedom of free time

This week I’m thinking about free time – mine, my kids’, my husbands. We all seem to have precious little of it. All summer I’ve been looking forward to the time when my kids would go back to school and I would have “six hours” a day. What I forgot is how much of that “six hours” goes to necessary work like housecleaning, grocery shopping, making food, setting up various doctors’ appointments, filling out paperwork for the kids’ school and teachers, and so forth. That’s just the basics. There’s always something more, like camping, a remodel, activism, keeping up on the Chicago teachers’ strike . . .

Anyway, six hours goes fast when you nibble away at it like that.

Meanwhile, my kids . . . when I was in second and third grade, I don’t think I had homework. Well, they have homework. It’s my job to be the big bad boss lady and stop them from having fun so they can do it. I was on board with the concept last year, but this year I’m feeling rather grouchy and rebellious. Somehow, what with the time it takes for dinner, bedtime routines, and homework, they really only get one or two hours to play after school, and it shows. In particular, my son totally zones out. All he had to do last night was fill out a reading log with what he’d read . . . and what with one thing and another, it took him a half hour. He wasn’t like that over the summer. He could manage his routines when there weren’t so very many of them.

My younger daughter, meanwhile, has begun to verbally articulate her need for play. This started over the summer, when she suddenly started noticing it and complaining when we overscheduled our days. It’s a good thing, because otherwise, I honestly wouldn’t have noticed. Now when she throws fits over having to stop an activity, and says, “I NEVER get any time to play!” I get it.

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Play is important, both for grownups and for kids. It teaches you to learn for fun, not because you have to. It’s how you learn to be creative. It’s also how you learn who you are as a person – when there’s nothing particular you absolutely have to do, what do you choose?

My mom was one of the rebellious few who, during the feminist movement, chose to stay at home with me and my brother, and that’s one of the best things she could ever have done for me. It gave me hours and hours of freedom, and it gave me a role model who worked hard but also wasn’t afraid to laze around the house. So I have some expectations for me-time that maybe other people don’t. My expectations may often be thwarted, but on the other hand, maybe that’s why, when I say I’ve written a story or done this or that, people say, “But how did you find the time?”

How do you find the time for ANYTHING? is my response.

Don’t punish the teachers . . .

Across the country, school districts are implementing something called “value-added measures” in determining teacher bonuses, evaluations, and in the case of Washington D.C., even their jobs. “Value-added” means that teachers are judged based on student performance on standardized tests. They’re touted as “objective” even if “not perfect” (a euphemism for “not accurate.”)

How not accurate?

Twenty-five to thirty-five percent, according to this Washington Post article “Study: Error rates high when student test scores used to evaluate teachers” by Valerie Strauss, July 29th, 2010.

Here in Seattle, the school superintendent tried to implement a Washington DC-style policy that would let her fire teachers based on a value-added measure. The teacher’s union fought back hard, but remnants of it are still in the labor contract. I’ll be keeping my eye out to see what the district does. As a parent, I support my kids’ teachers!

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher

When I first had children I had a rude awakening: messages about “bad mothers” were everywhere. If you didn’t nurse, you were a bad mother. If you let your baby “cry it out”, you were a bad mother. If you ran out of diapers and took your baby to the grocery store buck naked (yep, I did that), you were a bad mother.

Of course, there were plenty of messages about “good mothers.” But many of them were conditional on certain behaviors. Good mothers attend to their babies when they cry, never yell at their babies, don’t keep their babies cooped up in carseats all day, don’t let their babies sleep on their stomachs. This is all good advice, but it’s absolutely impossible to follow perfectly, which leads new mothers to wonder: am I a good mother or a bad mother?

Fortunately, not everybody expects perfection from mothers. Pediatrician Winnicot pioneered the concept of a “good enough” mother. She is an “ordinary devoted mother” who attends to their children most of the time, but she leaves them to fend for themselves sometimes. She might slip up and yell, but then she takes a step back and apologizes, and she tries to do it better next time. As it turns out, children actually benefit when mothers and fathers make mistakes, because they learn to rely on their own resources. They learn to cope in an imperfect world.

Now, in the media, there is a lot of talk about “bad teachers” in our K-12 school system. Just as I take affront with the concept of “bad mothers” (and “bad children,” for that matter), I am offended by the concept of “bad teachers.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom — sexual offenders, adults who otherwise abuse children, and teachers who don’t care or who gave up.

But these teachers are vastly outnumbered by good teachers – who, unfortunately, often get dissed right along with the bad ones. When people start talking about “bad teachers,” sometimes they’re talking about people who are or could become good teachers. In the first five years on the job, teachers are still learning their trade. They make mistakes. The first year, especially, is a hard one. I learned that when I taught at the college level. My first quarter, I agonized over all the things I was doing wrong, but I also had a friend who was more experienced and helped me put it in perspective.

“It’s a dirty secret and nobody likes to talk about it,” she said. “But the first year, everybody’s a crappy teacher. Just don’t tell your students you’re new, or they’ll eat you alive.”

Was I a “bad teacher” then? One of my students, who cussed me out, thought so.

Or was I a “good enough” teacher – that is, a teacher who made some mistakes? I learned from them, and after some experience and professional development, I got better. Some students called me a “good teacher” or even “one of my best” teachers. Some learned a lot, and others didn’t learn anything at all.

Was I a “good teacher”? Or was I a “good enough” teacher? How could anybody know? And on what basis could anybody make that decision? I got good course evaluation ratings – but not as good as the teacher who neglected to stop his students from plagiarizing.

Although it’s important to have high expectations of teachers, it’s equally important to make sure they’re reasonable. Not everybody will win the “Teacher of the Year” award. But the vast majority of teachers are good – or good enough. Their kids learn. They take professional development courses and continue to improve their teaching. They’re the ordinary, devoted teachers who make a positive impact.

But when the media obsesses over bad teachers, to the point of ignoring the vast majority of good teachers, it hurts teachers overall.

Even worse, good teachers run the risk of losing their jobs. This focus on bad teachers is also paired with an attack on teacher seniority, so that the concepts of “bad teacher” and “senior teacher” have been getting muddled together. But most experienced teachers do better than new ones – so if the experienced teachers lose their jobs, our schools will be left with lower teaching quality overall. This is bad for our schools, bad for our teachers, and bad for our children.

My kids have excellent teachers this year, and I’m glad of it. But I also understand that some years won’t be like that. Some years, the teaching quality will go down a little. My kids might learn less academically, but they might learn better how to cope in an imperfect world.

And that’s plenty good enough for me.