Tag Archives: high-stakes testing

A Conversation about Common Core

After a year of grappling with the new Common Core standards, I feel mixed. I oppose the new Common Core assessments because they’re all part of privatization, top-down control of schools, and high-stakes testing — all those things that have come to be known as “corporate education reform.”

But I’m not sure I’m against the Common Core standards. Yes, they’re deeply flawed. They are copyrighted by a private sector organization, which means the public — that’s you and me — has no control over their content. On the other hand, I think national standards make sense. They are a way to communicate to parents what their kids are expected to be learning, and we definitely need that. Having just one set of standards also makes it easier to develop and plan curriculum at lower cost. So I’m asking myself: might it make sense to keep the standards, but ditch the high-stakes assessments?

That’s why I was excited when I saw a friend start a Facebook conversation on the topic. With the permission of the participants, I’m reposting it here — not as a debate, or the last word on the subject, but as part of the ongoing conversation on what kind of education real parents want for their kids.

Zara: I’m out of alignment with my Party and my usual allies on this one. I’ve had qualms about Common Core, especially about its sloppy, rushed, improperly-supported and counterproductive implementation. I was angry about the way it was developed, like so many recent reforms, without real educator influence and with much pressure by wealthy private individuals. However, Democrats and Progressives are very much disappointing me in their all-or-nothing, un-nuanced approach to the reality of CCS.

To throw it out wholesale at this point would be incredibly disruptive. How, instead, can we organize to make sure Common Core works the way it should? How can we assure that the test results are not used inappropriately and harmfully?

(They should NOT be tied to teacher evaluations – neither as sticks nor carrots. They should NOT be used to grade or rate schools. They should NOT be a trigger for punitive measures against schools. They SHOULD be a signal that a school needs greater, long-term, stable support – not short-term interventions (such as three-year grants) or threats of mass firings or closure.

CCS is deeply imperfect (as I understand it). The assessments are even less perfect (as I understand them) and the profit to be made from them is troubling. But I don’t believe they’re the educational, social-justice napalm my friends do. And the response from my own corner of the ring strikes me as short-sighted, stubborn, slightly paranoid and possibly harmful to our school systems, given the phase of CCS we have already reached.

I know I’ll get criticized by my allies for being ignorant or co-opted or some other unhappy thing. I’m not looking forward to it, but I felt I had to speak up – under my own name – no matter how unpopular or suspect it might make me in the anti-reform circles I generally respect so well.

Kim: People I’ve talked with would rather revert to standards we had in place prior to CCSS, and then with educator input, tweak those. And then there are others who really value a national set of standards, but they need to be developmentally appropriate, created by educators, and minimal so as not to drive everything happening in schools. Also, Pearson and Gates need to be uninvolved.

Sandi: Zara, I agree with you! I want my kids to have the same expectations and learning opportunities in our public school kids that the kids in the best public and private schools across the nation offer. If that takes a set of “standards” then so be it. I’ve always agreed to the concept, but not this current incarnation of the implementation and tests.

Recess is being cut even more than before, and kids’ progress is charted and managed like vacuum sales results, project based learning is gone in some places, and pre-scripted curriculum is rampant.

Teachers are not truly being allowed to develop curriculum to meet the standards, but are being told what to teach, when, and how.

The focus is still “learn this to pass the test,” not “learn to love learning and learn this because it is knowledge and process that will help you develop and find your passions.”

Kristin:  I’ve been thinking the same thing as you, Zara. There is benefit to be had in common state standards. And yes, changing them NOW would disrupt kids for another two to five years. On the other hand, though, they are copyrighted and can’t be tweaked.

Kim: Teacher driven education is key, and to let the testing madness continue is to let the community believe that test scores matter in ways that they do not. As Sandi points out, the testing is the serious problem. The standards are flawed, but I bet we can find flaws in all standards. And so it goes back to data collection, excessive time at the computer, too much emphasis on test scores, not enough time on subjects that aren’t tested, and so on.

Thanks to everybody for letting me post your thoughts. Readers, what do you think?

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

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How much do the Common Core tests cost?

Last week I wrote about the ongoing failure of the Washington State Legislature to fully fund schools. They’re in contempt of court and sanctions may be taken at the end of this legislative session if adequate progress hasn’t been made. And from those charts it looks to me like adequate progress would mean an extra $1500 per year right now.

Instead of fully funding schools, though, the legislature decided to implement new standards and require every school to administer brand-new computer-based tests for them. I have to ask: how much is this all costing, and what could we have done with the money instead?

In this era of privatization and underfunding, the public needs to be especially careful with the money we have.

It turns out the answers are not easy to find. Here is my rough stab at the broad categories of expenses at the state, district, and school level.

  • For the state, the cost to buy the standardized test.
  • For the district, the cost of professional development for the teachers, and the cost of substitutes to take over classrooms while teachers are doing professional development. District-wide technical support for the computer labs. Cost of new instructional materials. Cost of software to help prepare students for the tests. Internet access and headphones.
  • For the schools, the cost to upgrade the computer technology so the tests can be administered. The cost of extra computers if two or more classrooms must give the tests at the same time. The school-based setup of the computer labs. The cost of extra proctors to give the tests. The cost of disability accommodations for students.

Do you suppose the legislature had a complete picture of these costs when they decided to require all schools in the state to take the tests? I bet not. I bet they were given cost estimates by private sector organizations with a vested interest in selling the tests.

That responsibility, then, falls to us. The public. The parents.

And ESPECIALLY to the people (you know who you are) who are always saying, “Why should I put more tax dollars into education when it’s being misspent anyway?” Be the solution, folks.

where did the money go

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.

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.

What would Pippi do on test day?

Under the superintendent’s SERVE proposal, there would be a whole lotta computerized testing. What would Pippi Longstocking do on test day? Just to give you an idea, here’s what she did on her first and only school day. (Don’t worry, she and the teacher parted on good terms.)

Excerpt from Chapter 4: Pippi Goes to School

“Indeed?” said the teacher. “Well, then we shall call you Pippi too. But now,” she continued, “suppose we test you a little and see what you know. You are a big girl and no doubt know a great deal already. Let us begin with arithmetic. Pippi, can you tell me what seven and five are?”

Pippi, astonished and dismayed, looked at her and said, “Well, if you don’t know that yourself, you needn’t think I’m going to tell you.”

All the children stared in horror at Pippi, and the teacher explained that one couldn’t answer that way at school.

“I’m sorry,” said Pippi contritely. “I didn’t know that. I won’t do it again.”

“No, let us hope not,” said the teacher. “And now I will tell you that seven and five are twelve.”

“See that!” said Pippi. “You knew it yourself. Why are you asking then?”

The teacher decided to act as if nothing unusual were happening and went on with her examination.

“Well now, Pippi, how much do you think eight and four are?”

“Oh, about sixty-seven,” hazarded Pippi.

“Of course not,” said the teacher. “Eight and four are twelve.”

“Well now, really, my dear little woman,” said Pippi, “that is carrying things too far. You just said that seven and five are twelve. There should be some rhyme and reason to things even in school. Furthermore, if you are so childishly interested in that foolishness, why don’t you sit down in a corner by yourself and do arithmetic and leave us alone so we can play tag?”