Archives For Curriculum

Notice how I am trying to beat the character limit on headlines?

Here’s the translation:

For your information, Juniors: Connecticut’s Common Core State Standards Smarter Balanced Assessment [Consortium] is Dead on Arrival; Insert Scholastic Achievement Test

Yes, in the State of Connecticut, the test created through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) based on the Common Core State Standards will be canceled for juniors (11th graders) this coming school year (2015-16) and replaced by the Scholastic Achievement Test  (SAT).

The first reaction from members of the junior class should be an enormous sigh of relief. There will be one less set of tests to take during the school year. The second sigh will come from other students, faculty members, and the administrative team for two major reasons-the computer labs will now be available year round and schedules will not have to be rearranged for testing sessions.

SAT vs. SBAC Brand

In addition, the credibility of the SAT will most likely receive more buy-in from all stakeholders. Students know what the brand SAT is and what the scores mean; students are already invested in doing well for college applications. Even the shift from the old score of 1600 (pre-2005) to 2400  with the addition of an essay has been met with general understanding that a top score is  800 in each section (math, English, or essay). A student’s SAT scores are part of a college application, and a student may take the SAT repeatedly in order to submit the highest score.

In contrast, the SBAC brand never reported student individual results. The SABC was created as an assessment for collecting data for teacher and/or curriculum evaluation. When the predictions of the percentage of anticipated failures in math and English were released, there was frustration for teachers and additional disinterest by students. There was no ability to retake, and if predictions meant no one could pass, why should students even try?

Digital TestingScantron

Moreover, while the SBAC drove the adoption of digital testing in the state in grades 3-8, most of the pre-test skill development was still given in pen and pencil format. Unless the school district consistently offered a seamless integration of 1:1 technology, there could be question as to what was being assessed-a student’s technical skills or application of background knowledge. Simply put, skills developed with pen and pencils may not translate the same on digital testing platforms.

As a side note, those who use computer labs or develop student schedules will be happy to know that SAT is not a digital test….at least not yet.

US Education Department Approved Request 

According to an early report (2006) by The Brooking’s Institute, the SBAC’s full suite of summative and interim assessments and the Digital Library on formative assessment was first estimated to cost $27.30 per student (grades 3-11). The design of the assessment would made economical if many states shared the same test.

Since that intial report, several states have left the Smarter Balanced Consortium entirely.

In May, the CT legislature voted to halt SBAC in grade ii in favor of the SAT. This switch will increase the cost of testing.According to an article (5/28/15) in the CT Mirror “Debate Swap the SAT for the Smarter Balanced Tests” :

“‘Testing students this year and last cost Connecticut $17 million’, the education department reports. ‘And switching tests will add cost,’ Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell said.”

This switch was approved by the U.S. Department of Education for Connecticut schools Thursday, 8/6/15, the CT Department of Education had asked it would not be penalized under the No Child Left Behind Act’s rigid requirements. Currently the switch for the SAT would not change the tests in grades 3-8; SBAC would continue at these grade levels.

Why SBAC at All?

All this begs the question, why was 11th grade selected for the SBAC in the first place? Was the initial cost a factor?

Since the 1990s, the  State of Connecticut had given the Connecticut Achievement Performance Test (CAPT) in grade 10, and even though the results were reported late, there were still two years to remediate students who needed to develop skills. In contrast, the SBAC was given the last quarter of grade 11, leaving less time to address any low level student needs. I mentioned these concerns in an earlier post: The Once Great Junior Year, Ruined by Testing.

Moving the SBAC to junior year increased the amount of testing for those electing to take the SAT with some students taking the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) or selected to take the NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress).

There have been three years of “trial testing” for the SBAC in CT and there has been limited feedback to teachers and students. In contrast, the results from the SAT have always been available as an assessment to track student progress, with results reported to the school guidance departments.

Before No Child Left Behind, before the Common Core State Standards, before SBAC, the SAT was there. What took so them (legislature, Department of Education, etc) so long?

Every Junior Will Take the NEW SAT

Denver Post: Heller

Denver Post: Heller

In the past, not every student elected to take the SAT test, but many districts did offer the PSAT as an incentive. This coming year, the SAT will be given to every 11th grader in Connecticut.

The big wrinkle in this plan?
The SAT test has been revised (again) and will be new in March 2016.

What should we expect with this test?

My next headline?

OMG. HWGA.

This summer, I plan to spend time organizing question stems to spark critical thinking and post them on a number of slides to share with teachers.
OR
I could shorten the process and use just one slide. I could ask one question that is guaranteed to drive critical thinking. I could ask:

So what?”

To be honest, the first time I was asked this question in an academic setting, I was appalled. I felt I was being taunted. I was sure the professor was just being rude.

I was uncomfortable…I could not give an effective response.

“So what?”

I hated the question. I hated that the professor was goading me. I hated Dr. Steven D. Neuwirth. 

I was taking a graduate course (560) Literature of the American South, what I thought would be a “fun” course as I completed my Master’s Degree in English.

I remember distinctly the moment that was not fun…the evening of the second class.

“So what?” Dr. Neuwirth wrote on the chalkboard; he snapped a piece of chalk as he underlined the question for emphasis.

So what? he repeated in class after I offered what I thought was a brilliant observation on the evidence of dignity as a character trait in a discussion on William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying.

I was irritated. I had worked very hard on my responses.

So what? he scrawled in big letters on the paper I handed in three weeks later.

I was angry. I had worked even harder on that response.

My frustrations continued. Nothing in my training had prepared me for his persistence with the So what? question.

I had done what had worked in every other class. I had developed a thesis. I had used evidence. I had proved my thesis.

Regardless, my answers did not satisfy his challenge. So what? He found my reasoning lacking, and because he was not satisfied, neither was I.

I needed to think how to explain better.
I had to think differently.
I had to think critically.

It was then I realized that Dr. Neuwirth’s So what?” question was making me think critically.

Dr. Neuwirth’s irritating challenge brought me to recognize that it was not enough for me to develop and prove a thesis in a paper. I had to prove why my argument mattered.

For example, it was not enough to prove that Faulkner’s characters displayed dignity despite their social status, I had to question so what is the reader to take from his writing?

I had to ask the question So what?” not with attitude but with curiosity. Curiosity led to inquiry:

  • So what was my point? 
  • So what was missing from my response?
  • So what should I want the reader to know or do?
  • So what happens next?
  • So what do I do to cause or prevent something from happening ? 
  • So what makes this work or not work?
  • So what will this information lead me to study next?

Such inquiries led to me to make conclusions. I had always found conclusions difficult to write. I had always followed the predictable formula of restating the thesis, but I found that when I used the critical question So what? I could offer a broader conclusion.

For example, when I developed a thesis on the dignity of Faulkner’s characters and provided evidence from the text, I was really posing the question “Why should anyone read novels by Faulkner?” When I asked myself so what? I could conclude that Faulkner’s characters spark empathy in the reader.

It turned out that I did not hate theSo what? question.

I did not hate Dr. Neuwirth …although, admittedly, liking him took a little longer. While I did understand the importance of being challenged, I still found him a brilliant but abrasive teacher.

Four years after that class, I  became a teacher, and I taught literature. My students wrote predictable and boring conclusions that restated the thesis. They were not thinking critically. I had to do something.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University's Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University’s Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

I asked my students So what?

And I scrawled So what? on their papers.

And I wrote So what? on the Smartboard -without chalk.

My students also hated theSo what? question.

They complained to me, but their conclusions improved.

So here is one question, one irritating question, for critical thinking for sharing on one slide:

So what?

 

 

The Southport Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, hosts a summer book sale every July under large tents that cover most of the lawn and in the library’s auditorium. Browsing for books under this acreage, one can only imagine “Where did all these books come from?”

The most logical conclusion I can come to is that Southport residents must do nothing all day but read.

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

I tried as hard as I could to lessen the load of titles on the young adult tables, but the six boxes (approximately 250 books) I hauled out from the sale barely made a dent. These books will go into classroom libraries for independent reading (silent sustained reading -SSR), literature circles, book clubs, etc. The premise of bringing these books to the classroom is to make sure that students at all grade levels have access to books at any given moment during the school day.

In under two hours, I filled six boxes with plenty of favorites (grades 5-10) from authors Gary Paulson, Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, Jerry Spinelli, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Rick Riordan. I also grabbed selections of book series that fall into the “popular culture categories” such Goosebumps (RL Stine) , Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), and Alex Rider (Alex Horowitz).

These are not the books that teachers will “teach” but they are the books students will read; the difference is described in an earlier post.

There was a box of a dozen copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I picked up 10 clean copies of this best seller as a reading choice for students groups who prefer non-fiction. This is the story of a young boy in Malawi (Africa) who developed a contraption that would provide his village with electricity and running water:

With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forget an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him. (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)

There is increased attention to incorporate informational texts such as this book because of the design of the  Common Core State Standards in Literacy which suggest that by 12th grade, 70% of a reader’s diet should be non-fiction. The copies I have are enough for a small group(s) to read in literature circles or book clubs.

I also collected copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the American Literature classes (grade 10). This apocalyptic novel is worth including in a curriculum because of McCarthy’s style and message. In an earlier post I describe how The Road was the first book I collected for use in the classroom; its integration into curriculum was very successful. Copies of the book with its distinctive black cover and bold lettering were easily found among the 10 or 12 tables of donated fiction….as if there had been a massive book club after-party.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.16.55There were large crowds attending the Southport Pequot Library’s annual sale on Saturday, and the long lines of patrons waiting patiently to check out at the volunteer cashier tables might cause one to wonder if the sale has become a victim of its own success?

On the other hand, as they slowly snaked past the tables of nature books and cookbooks, patrons continued to browse and added even more purchases to the piles in their arms or bags. No one complained as there was always something to read.

Overflow of books or marketing geniuses??…those long lines on a Saturday afternoon could just be another successful marketing technique by the Friends of the Pequot Library.

 Anne Frank: The Diary of  Young Girl transcends the labels of genre. anne Frank book

Yes, as the title suggests, it is a diary, but it is also a memoir, a narrative, an argument, an expository journal, an informational text, and much more.

Yet, these genres listed are treated as separate and distinct in the reading and writing standards of the Common Core (CCSS). The standards emphasize the differences between the literary and informational genres. The standards also prescribe what percentages much students should read (by grade 12 30% literary texts/ 70% informational texts), what genres of writing they should practice (narrative, informative/explanatory, argumentative) and the percentages students should expect to communicate  in these genres by grade level.

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

In the real world, however, the differences between genres is not as clear and distinct as neatly outlined in the standards. The real world of Nazi occupied Holland was the setting that produced the defiant Diary of Anne Frank.

On June 12, 1942,  Anne Frank received a red and white check autograph book as a birthday gift. This small volume was soon filled by Anne as a diary, the first of three separate volumes, as she her family and friends hid in the secret annex.

A diary is a daily record, usually private, especially of the writer’s own experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes.

Anne’s narrative in these diaries provides a sequence of events and experiences during the two years she spent hiding with others behind the bookcase in the attic where her father had been employed.

A narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

In June of 1947 Anne’s father Otto Frank published The Diary of Anne Frank, and it has become one of the world’s best-known memoirs of the Holocaust.

A memoir is a written account in which an individual describes  his or her experiences.

In one entry Anne explains she is aware of what was being done with Jews throughout Europe and those who resisted the Nazis. She refers to radio reports from England, official statements, and announcements in the local papers. There are expository style entries throughout the diary that help the reader understand how much she and others knew about the Holocaust:

“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews….If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.” October 9, 1942

“All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Expository writing’s purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.

Finally, there are excerpts taken from the diary where Anne makes a persuasive argument for the goodness of people, even in the most awful of circumstances:

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.  If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn’t necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.” March 26, 1944

A persuasive argument is a writer’s attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular opinion on a controversial issue.

Anne’s opinion about the goodness of people during the horrors of the Holocaust is a remarkable argument.

The Diary of Anne Frank gave rise to other genres. Anne’s diaries served as the source material for a play produced in 1955 and then as a film in 1959.

The genre of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, should not be the focus, or the reason for its selection into a curriculum or unit of study. Instead, it is the quality of the writing from a young girl that makes the diary a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th Century.Screenshot 2015-06-11 18.50.33

Novelist and former president of the PEN American Center, Francine Prose revisited the diary and was “struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is.” Prose’s research on Anne Frank as a writer culminated with her own retelling, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she makes a strong case for the literary quality of Anne’s writing:

“And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.”

In an interview on the PBS website, Prose was asked, “Do you think there is something about Anne Frank’s voice that continues to resonate with young people today?” Her response,

“I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren’t kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.”

When selections from The Diary of Anne Frank were first published in the “Het Parool” on April 3, 1946, the historian Jan Romein also recognized how Anne’s young literary voice rose above the inhumanity that caused in her death at 15 years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his review, he writes:

“… this apparently inconsequential diary by a child… stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”

Romein’s review elevates the “apparently inconsequential diary” as testimony in making a legal case against the Nazi regime. It is that power in Anne’s voice that makes her diary a powerful text to offer students, whether it fits the percentages in a CCSS aligned unit of study for an informational text or not.

Her entry on July 15, 1944, written 20 days before she and her family are betrayed to the Nazis reveals yet another genre:

 “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

For there is poetry in that entry as well.

Who wants to rewrite curriculum this summer?

(Anyone? Anyone?…..)

Let’s be honest. Writing  or rewriting curriculum is a ongoing process that, while necessary, is not always seen as the most positive experience. Moreover, the suggestion of spending summer days writing curriculum (paid or unpaid) may trigger range of emotions, some strangely akin to the model offered by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

That model is commonly referred to as the “five stages of grief”, and those five stages have been applied to many different sciences, from the financial markets (The Five Stage of Bit-Coin Understanding in Fortune Magazine) to sports (The Five Stages of NFL Fan Grief in The Atlantic). The premise of the film Groundhog Day is that the protagonist Phil, is forced to repeat each day as he fails at each stage. Perhaps it is that kind of failure that makes educators confront curriculum revision exhibiting a range of different emotions.

Because the  Kübler-Ross model was developed to address the lack of curriculum in hospitals, the model contains language that is especially applicable to any form of curriculum in general. The descriptions in each of the five stages chronicle the emotional rollercoaster that educators at any grade level or in any content area may experience in addressing revisions to curriculum.

Five emotional stages of curriculum?

Five emotional stages of curriculum development: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and in front, Acceptance.

 

 

1. Denial and Isolation

The first reaction to writing curriculum may be to deny the necessity of the rewrite entirely. According to Kubler Ross, this first reaction, “is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions.” Since the overwhelming emotion from teachers at the end of the year (June) is most likely exhaustion, the idea of starting over may not generate a great deal of enthusiasm with the following protests:

“Didn’t we just do this last year?”
“I just finished the whole thing! Why does it need revising?”
“It was the snow day cancellations…I hear there is no polar vortex predicted for next year.”
“Face it…no matter what we write, we are never going to be able to get to World War II.”

2. Anger

As some approach writing curriculum in denial, others may express anger that may be aimed at inanimate objects. In the Kubler-Ross model, frustrations are directed at the PARCC or CCSS or any other state testing. The challenge to revise curriculum means confronting the incendiary topic of testing:

“There are not enough school hours to complete everything in that binder [of curriculum]to prepare students for that test.”
“Take away the tests, and I’ll deliver the curriculum.”
“It’s those tests that need to change!”

3. Bargaining

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability can be seen as need to regain control, and in education the Kubler-Ross stage might be captured with statements like these:

“Forget the revision…..I promise I will be more organized next year. I plan on buying post-it notes.”
“Release me from lunch duty, and I’ll have time to deliver the curriculum as is!”
“All we need to do is practice fidelity to all of the the program(s) we have already…I mean all of them….simultaneously….”

4. Depression

In the Kubler-Ross model, sadness and regret predominate this stage of depression. Educators may recognize that they have spent less time on things that matter, and in a series of admissions, agree that something about the events of the past year went terribly wrong:

“I never get to the poetry unit.”
“Someday, I might actually teach about World War II.”
“I confess…Ithrew out the pile of ungraded papers that were in the bottom of my desk drawer since April.”

5. Acceptance

This final stage is marked by those who will finally approach the task of curriculum revision with a sense of calm and commitment. Kubler-Ross is careful to point out that this (hopefully final) stage is not a stage of happiness, but rather a stage of acceptance that can demonstrate a dignity and grace to provide a curriculum that will be carefully revised for the rest of us.

Thank you in advance to all those educators who will remain calm and accept the need to revise curriculum to meet the ever changing demands in education today. They need to get started right away because, good grief…
September is only a few months away!

Testing a Thousand Madelyns

February 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

My niece is a beautiful little girl. She is a beautiful girl on the outside, the kind of little girl who cannot take a bad picture. She is also beautiful on the inside. She is her mother’s helper, fiercely loyal to her older brothers, and a wonderful example for her younger brother and sisters. She is the gracious hostess who makes sure you get the nicest decorated cupcake at the birthday party. She has an infectious laugh, a compassionate heart, and an amazing ability “to accessorize” her outfits. For the sake of her privacy, let’s call her Madelyn.

Two years ago, the teachers at her school, like teachers in thousands of elementary schools across the United States, prepared Madelyn and her siblings for the mandated state tests. There were regular notices sent home throughout the school year that discussed the importance of these tests. There was a “pep-test-rally” a week before the test where students made paper dolls which they decorated with their names. A great deal of time was spent getting students enthused about taking the tests.

Paper dollSeveral months later, Madelyn received her score on her 4th grade state test. She was handed her paper doll cut-out with her score laminated in big numbers across the paper doll she had made.

Madelyn was devastated.

She hated her score because she understood that her score was too low. She hid the paper doll throughout the day, and when she came home, she cried. She could not hang the paper doll on the refrigerator where her brother’s and sister’s scores hung. The scores on their paper dolls were higher.

She cried to her mother, and her mother also cried. Her mother remembered that same hurt when she had not done well on tests in school either. As they sobbed together, Madelyn told her mother, “I’m not smart.”

Now, the annual testing season is starting again. This year, there will be other students like Madelyn who will experience the hype of preparation, who will undergo weeks of struggling with tests, and then endure a form of humiliation when the results return. The administrators and teachers pressured to increase proficiency results on a state test, often forget the damage done to the students who do not achieve a high standard.

That paper doll created during the fervor of test preparation is an example of an unintended consequence; no one in charge considered how easily scores could be compared once they were available to students in so public a manner. Likewise, many stakeholders are unaware that the rallies, ice-cream parties, and award ceremonies do little to comfort those students who, for one reason or another, do not test well.

There is little consolation to offer 10-year-old students who see the results of state tests as the determiner of being “smart” because 10-year-old students believe tests are a final authority. 10-year-old students do not grasp the principles of test design that award total success to a few at the high end, and assign failure to a few at the low end, a design best represented by the bell curve, “the graphic representation showing the relative performance of individuals as measured against each other.” 10-year-old students do not understand that their 4th grade test scores are not indicators for later success.

Despite all the advances in computer adaptive testing using algorithms of one sort or another, today’s standardized tests are limited to evaluating a specific skill set; true performance based tests have not yet been developed because they are too costly and too difficult to standardized.

My niece Madelyn would excel in a true performance based task at any grade level, especially if the task involved her talents of collaboration, cooperation, and presentation. She would be recognized for the skill sets that are highly prized in today’s society: her work ethic, her creativity, her ability to communicate effectively, and her sense of empathy for others. If there were assessments and tests that addressed these particular talents, her paper doll would not bear the Scarlet Letter-like branding of a number she was ashamed to show to those who love her.

Furthermore, there are students who, unlike my niece Madelyn, do not have support from home. How these students cope with a disappointing score on a standardized test without support is unimaginable. Madelyn is fortunate to have a mother and father along with a network of people who see her all her qualities in total; she is prized more than test grades.

At the conclusion of that difficult school year, in a moment of unexpected honesty, Madelyn’s teacher pulled my sister aside.
“I wanted to speak to you, because I didn’t want you to be upset about the test scores,” he admitted to her. He continued, “I want you to know that if I could choose a student to be in my classes, I would take Madelyn…I would take a thousand Madelyns.”

It’s testing season again for a thousand Madelyns.
Each one should not be defined by a test score.

Graphic 2It’s snowing again in Connecticut.
It’s February.
No surprise.

In fact, snow days are not a surprise for thousands of school districts across the US.
Snow days interrupt instruction.
Again, no surprise.

It’s a fact that schools have requirements for school instruction days and for instruction hours or seat time. So if snow days and interruptions to instruction time requirements are not a surprise, what can educators do to be ready for the inevitable snow day?

There are some districts that prepare for snow days in advance by organizing assignments before the school day.

In New Hampshire, some districts have used ‘‘Blizzard Bag Days.” On these days, students complete assignments at home, either online or on paper. If 80% of students complete assignments, then the snow day is not added to the end of the school year. Some districts have reported that the number of students who participate in Blizzard Bag Days has risen to 90%.

As technology expands in the classroom, the use of different learning platforms can halt the disruption of learning by allowing students to participate in activities that allow them to practice skills they have been taught in the classroom. For districts that are concerned about the amount of technology in homes, many platforms are easily accessed by digital phones through mobile apps. Phone message apps that deliver assignments do not chew up the data time if the materials have already been sent home in anticipation of a snow day.

One possible argument in designing the use of technology to facilitate learning on a snow day is how to determine the percentage of students who must participate in order for the day to “count” in the school calendar. Previous attendance figures by school could be used to choose such a percentage for credit, and student work turned in or digital work submitted could be used to validate these percentages.

Another argument is choosing a method to determine how many hours or how much seat time is necessary to complete an assignment  in order to “count” for credit. The seat time argument may be less of a concern given that there are districts with students, particularly in the upper grades, who are receiving credit for core coursework on platforms with flexible seat time requirements. For example, instead of using Carnegie units (120 hours per unit) for course credit, some online platforms, such as platforms like Odysseyware, provide fewer coursework hours in grade level subject areas. Many of these online course platforms require the use of seat time waivers, with sometimes as little as 70-80 hours, to complete coursework.

Another concern may be raised by teachers who might initially interpret snow day assignments as “extra work” to prepare, review, or grade. As a former teacher, I would argue that while snow days gave me an opportunity to catch up on grading or lesson plans, I was in effect, working twice. I would work during the snow day, and then work again on the date tacked onto the school year. How many times in June, in a particularly warm and steamy classroom, did I wish that we could have kept to the original school closing date?

The Common Core’s focus on increasing non-fiction materials into all grade level curriculum means that every subject area, including “specials” or electives (art, music, physical education, computer technology, etc.) could contribute in preparing materials for snow days; core subject areas need not be the only requirements for snow day lesson preparation. Rotating responsibilities for assigning work (Snow Day #1: English, Art, Science; Snow Day #2: Math, Social Studies, Music) might be a way to ensure that students do not lose practice in the same subject area with each cancellation.

Finally, in support of snow day assignments, is the argument that practice for standardized testing, now required by the Common Core in the form of SBAC or PARCC, needs to happen before early spring test dates. Any interruption in skills practice caused by snow days, particularly in the later winter months, could have an adverse impact on student and school test results. Even at the upper grade levels, snow day interruptions pose problems for delivering Advanced Placement content, already in overstuffed syllabi, in order to prepare students for annual AP exams held in early May.

graphic 1The result is that days added in late June to meet state requirements become educationally superfluous and may place students into another meteorological challenging situation: overheated classrooms when outside temperatures climb into the 90s.

When school calendars are decided a year in advance in any of the Snow Belt States, Mid-Atlantic States, or New England, it is common practice  to add snow days to the school year. The same practice could be extended by having teachers prepare materials for snow cancellations either at the beginning of the school year or soon after the first quarter.

It’s no surprise that it will snow again next year.

Here in New England, when that first snow day comes next year, there should no surprises.

Graphic by Christopher King that accompanied the editorial piece "In Defense of Annual Testing"

Graphic by Christopher King that accompanied the editorial piece “In Defense of Annual Testing”

My Saturday morning coffee was disrupted by the headline in the New York Times opinion piece, In Defense of Annual School Testing  (2/7/15) by Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education research and consulting firm. Agitating me more than the caffeine in the coffee was clicking on Aldeman’s resume. Here was another a policy analyst in education, without any classroom experience, who served as an adviser to the Department of Education from 2011 to 2012. Here was another policy wonk with connections to the testing industry.

In a piece measuring less than 800 words, Aldeman contended that the “idea of less testing” in our nation’s schools, currently considered by liberals and conservative groups alike, “would actually roll back progress for America’s students.”

…annual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.

Here is the voice of someone who has not seen students take a standardized test when, yes, they are very much in “that single moment.” That “single moment” looks different for each student. An annual test does not consider the social and emotional baggage of that “single moment” (EX: no dinner the night before; using social media or video game until 1 AM; parent separation or divorce; fight with friend, with mother, with teacher; or general text anxiety). Educators recognize that students are not always operating at optimum levels on test days. No student likes being tested at any “single moment.”

Aldeman’s editorial advocates for annual testing because he claims it prevents the kinds of tests that take a grade average results from a school. Taking a group average from a test, he notes, allows “the high performers frequently [to] mask what’s happening to low achievers.” He prefers the kinds of new tests that focus on groups of students with a level of analysis possible only with year to year measurement. That year to year is measurement on these expensive new tests is, no doubt, preferred by testing companies as a steady source of income.

His opinion piece comes at a time where the anti-test movement is growing and states are looking at the expenses of such tests. There is bipartisan agreement in the anti-test movement that states students are already being assessed enough. There are suggestions that annual testing could be limited to at specific grade levels, such as grades 3, 8, and 11, and that there are already enough assessments built into each student’s school day.

Educators engage in ongoing formative assessments (discussions, polls, homework, graphic organizers, exit slips, etc) used to inform instruction. Interim and summative assessments (quizzes/test) are used continuously to measure student performance. These multiple kinds of assessments provide teachers the feedback to measure student understanding and to differentiate instruction for all levels of students.

For example, when a teacher uses a reading running record assessment, the data collected can help determine what instruction will improve a child’s reading competency. When a teacher analyzes a math problem with a child, the teacher can assess which computational skills need to be developed or reviewed.

Furthermore, there are important measures that cannot be done by a standardized test.  Engaging students in conversations may provide insight into the  social or emotional issues that may be preventing that child’s academic performance.

Of course, the annual tests that Aldeman suggests need to be used to gain information on performance do not take up as much instructor time as the ongoing individual assessments given daily in classrooms. Testing does use manpower efficiently; one hour of testing can yield 30 student hours of results, and a teacher need not be present to administer a standardized test. Testing can diagnose each student strengths and/or weaknesses at that “single moment” in multiple areas at the same time. But testing alone cannot improve instruction, and improving instruction is what improves student performance.

In a perverse twist in logic, the allocation of funds and class time to pay for these annual tests results in a reduction of funds available to finance teachers and the number of instructional hours to improve and deliver the kind of instruction that the tests recommend. Aldeman notes that the Obama administration has invested $360 million in testing, which illustrates their choice in allocating funds to support a testing industry, not schools. The high cost of developing tests and collecting the test data results in stripping funds from state and local education budgets, and limits the financial resources for improving the academic achievement for students, many of those who Aldeman claims have “fallen through the cracks.”

His argument to continue annual testing does not refer to the obscene growth in the industry of testing, 57% in the past three years up to $2.5 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association. Testing now consumes the resources of every school district in the nation.

Aldeman concludes that annual testing should not be politicized, and that this time is “exactly the wrong time to accept political solutions leaving too many of our most vulnerable children hidden from view.”

I would counter that our most vulnerable children are not hidden from view by their teachers and their school districts. Sadly their needs cannot be placed “in focus” when the financial resources are reduced or even eliminated in order to fund this national obsession with testing. Aldeman’s defense is indefensible.

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

TOP GROSSING:
1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE:
94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.

Since I write to understand what I think, I have decided to focus this particular post on the different categories of assessments. My thinking has been motivated by helping teachers with ongoing education reforms that have increased demands to measure student performance in the classroom. I recently organized a survey asking teachers about a variety of assessments: formative, interim, and summative. In determining which is which, I have witnessed their assessment separation anxieties.

Therefore, I am using this “spectrum of assessment” graphic to help explain:

Screenshot 2014-06-20 14.58.50

The “bands” between formative and interim assessments and the “bands” between interim and summative blur in measuring student progress.

At one end of the grading spectrum (right) lie the high stakes summative assessments that given at the conclusion of a unit, quarter or semester. In a survey given to teachers in my school this past spring,100 % of teachers understood these assessments to be the final measure of student progress, and the list of examples was much more uniform:

  • a comprehensive test
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a recital/performance

At the other end, lie the low-stakes formative assessments (left) that provide feedback to the teacher to inform instruction. Formative assessments are timely, allowing teachers to modify lessons as they teach. Formative assessments may not be graded, but if they are, they do not contribute many points towards a student’s GPA.

In our survey, 60 % of teachers generally understood formative assessments to be those small assessments or “checks for understanding” that let them move on through a lesson or unit. In developing a list of examples, teachers suggested a wide range of examples of formative assessments they used in their daily practice in multiple disciplines including:

  • draw a concept map
  • determining prior knowledge (K-W-L)
  • pre-test
  • student proposal of project or paper for early feedback
  • homework
  • entrance/exit slips
  • discussion/group work peer ratings
  • behavior rating with rubric
  • task completion
  • notebook checks
  • tweet a response
  • comment on a blog

But there was anxiety in trying to disaggregate the variety of formative assessments from other assessments in the multiple colored band in the middle of the grading spectrum, the area given to interim assessments. This school year, the term interim assessments is new, and its introduction has caused the most confusion with members of my faculty. In the survey, teachers were first provided a definition:

An interim assessment is a form of assessment that educators use to (1) evaluate where students are in their learning progress and (2) determine whether they are on track to performing well on future assessments, such as standardized tests or end-of-course exams. (Ed Glossary)

Yet, one teacher responding to this definition on the survey noted, “sounds an awful lot like formative.” Others added small comments in response to the question, “Interim assessments do what?”

  • Interim assessments occur at key points during the marking period.
  • Interim assessment measure when a teacher moves to the next step in the learning sequence
  • interim assessments are worth less than a summative assessment.
  • Interim assessments are given after a major concept or skill has been taught and practiced.

Many teachers also noted how interim assessments should be used to measure student progress on standards such as those in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or standardized tests. Since our State of Connecticut is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), nearly all teachers placed practice for this assessment clearly in the interim band.

But finding a list of generic or even discipline specific examples of other interim assessments has proved more elusive. Furthermore, many teachers questioned how many interim assessments were necessary to measure student understanding? While there are multiple formative assessments contrasted with a minimal number of summative assessments, there is little guidance on the frequency of interim assessments.  So there was no surprise when 25% of our faculty still was confused in developing the following list of examples of interim assessments:

  • content or skill based quizzes
  • mid-tests or partial tests
  • SBAC practice assessments
  • Common or benchmark assessments for the CCSS

Most teachers believed that the examples blurred on the spectrum of assessment, from formative to interim and from interim to summative. A summative assessment that went horribly wrong could be repurposed as an interim assessment or a formative assessment that was particularly successful could move up to be an interim assessment. We agreed that the outcome or the results was what determined how the assessment could be used.

Part of teacher consternation was the result of assigning category weights for each assessment so that there would be a common grading procedure using common language for all stakeholders: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Ultimately the recommendation was to set category weights to 30% summative, 10% formative, and 60% interim in the Powerschool grade book for next year.

In organizing the discussion, and this post, I did come across several explanations on the rational or “why” for separating out interim assessments. Educator Rick DuFour emphasized how the interim assessment responds to the question, “What will we do when some of them [students] don’t learn it [content]?” He argues that the data gained from interim assessments can help a teacher prevent failure in a summative assessment given later.Screenshot 2014-06-20 16.50.15

Another helpful explanation came from a 2007 study titled “The Role of Interim Assessments in a Comprehensive Assessment System,” by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and the Aspen Institute. This study suggested that three reasons to use interim assessments were: for instruction, for evaluation, and for prediction. They did not use a color spectrum as a graphic, but chose instead a right triangle to indicate the frequency of the interim assessment for instructing, evaluating and predicting student understanding.

I also predict that our teachers will become more comfortable with separating out the interim assessments as a means to measure student progress once they see them as part of a large continuum that can, on occasion,  be a little fuzzy. Like the bands on a color spectrum, the separation of assessments may blur, but they are all necessary to give the complete (and colorful) picture of student progress.