Archives For Education reform

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?


There are advertising campaigns that successfully employ the technique of “advertised ignorance” or “false authority” where an individual proudly declares that he or she is not an expert  just before rendering an expert opinion. An example for this form of advertising was from a series of promotions for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup starring actors who portrayed doctors on popular soap operas. Here is the 1986 TV commercial starring Peter Bergman:

This commercial was the second in a series of successful TV doctor endorsements for over the counter medicines; people responded well to taking medical advice from a celebrity who admitted he was not an expert.

The broad acceptance of this logical fallacy may explain why the creators of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were successful promoters.  With minimal experience as educators or certifications in K-12 education, a handful of individuals convinced the National Governors Association that a set of national achievement standards was necessary to improve education.

These “Architects of the Common Core”, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, founded The Grow Network, an internet-based consulting organization before joining with Sue Pimentel to found Student Achievement Partners (SAP), a non-profit organization which researched and developed “achievement based” assessment standards. These three were not experts in education through research or practice, but like the doctor who plays an expert on TV, they were confidently endorsing the Common Core as the cure for all of the nation’s education ills.

The exorbitant cost for their diagnosis and cure was the topic of an article that ran in The Federalist (January 2015) by   titled Ten Common Core Promoters Laughing All the Way to the Bank. The tagline:

People intimately involved with creating or pushing Common Core are making a lot of money despite having demonstrated exactly zero proven success at increasing student achievement.

In addition to Coleman, Zimba, and Pimental, the article lists other who have endorsed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for profit. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; Former New York Education Commissioner John King;  Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna; Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett; and Dane Linn, Vice President for the Business Roundtable. The lone educator William McCallum, head of the University of Arizona’s math department, has begun a nonprofit curriculum company, Illustrative Mathematics, to generate materials for Common Core.

In her article, Pullman lists the credentials for each of the ten promoters and details how much they have financially gained, or still stand to gain, for supporting the Common Core. What these ten individuals collectively lack in education experience, they make up in business acumen. Like the handsome pretend doctor in the Vicks 44 commercials, who was paid handsomely for his marketing, these quasi-educators endorsing the Common Core will reap profits whether the CCSS initiative is successful or not.

Of course the irony of this form of endorsement is that one of the key shifts in education for the English Language arts standards is that students should place an emphasis on evidence whenever they make a claim:

The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information.

If this key shift in the CCSS had been considered when the standards were in their genesis, there might have been an emphasis on requiring evidence for the claims of these CCSS promoters. However, once the standards were announced in 2009, 44 states rapidly moved to adopt the CCSS. Many of these states were spurred on by the Race to the Top federal funding deadlines that awarded extra points to applications completed by August 2010.

The nationwide rush to adopt the standards had been spurred on by non-educators or policy wonks that represented businesses that stood to profit as state after state swallowed what has turned out to be costly, even bitter, medicine.

Whether that CCSS medicine will be effective is yet to be determined, but twelve states who had initially signed on have filed to opt out….A decision not to follow the “doctor’s” orders.

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.

K centers

Examples of center activities

At the beginning of my teaching career, I worked as the 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in a K-8 parochial school. Once a month, my students would pair up with the kindergarten students to complete a creative project: paper maché globes, paper kites, Q & A interviews. On those afternoons, my noisy and awkward adolescents longingly stared at various learning stations: art centers, counting blocks, easels,finger paints, and beanbag chairs circled around picture books. It was evident that my 8th graders wanted to go back to kindergarten.
And why wouldn’t they want to go back? Even back then, kindergarten combined the elements of fun and learning through a structured day of collaborative and independent activities. In today’s kindergarten classes, the morning meeting is a cooperative exercise where students are oriented for the day’s activities. Language arts centers develop reading and writing skills and include collaborative guided reading or read alouds. Math centers provide materials for independent practice in developing math skills. Structured play activities build social interaction, while recess, especially outdoor recess, allows students to practice unstructured play. “Specials” expose students to the arts and/or other disciplines. The entire kindergarten day day is structured to provide students with multiple opportunities to collaborate or to be independent.

In an article titled Ready for Kindergarten? In Parent Child Magazine (Scholastic publication), five kindergarten teachers discussed what attributes they believe children should have to be successful in kindergarten.

Their recommendations for the top five readiness skills students should have, in no particular order, are:

  • Ability to play well with others
  • Ability to listen
  • Solid oral-language skills
  • Desire to be independent
  • Enthusiasm toward learning

What is interesting is comparing these skills that kindergarten teachers look for in students to the skills that recruiters look for in hiring once students have exited a school system. A recent survey by The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) a non-profit group that links colleges with recruiters, asked hiring managers what top skills they believe to be the most important in recruiting employees. The top skills for recruiters look for are:

  1. Ability to work in a team structure
  2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
  3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
  5. Ability to obtain and process information

The elements of collaboration and independence that started in the structures and strategies from kindergarten are evident in both lists. The ability to communicate is critical whether a student is entering as a five year old or exiting with five years of graduate school.

In addition to this information, consider the first-hand individual employee accounts from those who work at Fortune 500 companies that have been designated as “The Best Places to Work.” Included on this list are predictable choices (Google #1) where the  activities of a Google Employee (highly edited) might look something like this:

Google Workspace or Center

Google Workspace or Center

  • 9:00 AM: Morning meeting
  • 11:00 AM: Call with the team to plan
  • 2:00 PM: Brainstorming with my team.
  • 4:00 PM: Submit ideas; Spend ten minutes trying to convince others.

The skills of communicating and collaboration in this abridged account mirror the qualities required by the five kindergarten teachers. And those reviews by employees from various Fortune 500 companies included statements about additional learning, “They really know how to push you” (McKinsey#9) and “Given great opportunities to expand my knowledge about the field” (Chevron #6). The desire to participate or be “pushed” was a connecting thread for all the top rated companies, and that desire for additional learning could be the spark that is ignited in kindergarten.

An example of a Kindergarten workspace

An example of a Kindergarten workspace

I am not suggesting that the focus of kindergarten should be career readiness as has been expressed by some education reformers, but it is surprising how many of the kindergarten-like structures and strategies are embedded in the more successful companies. Perhaps it is no wonder these companies receive such enviable reviews from their employees.

A little creative liberty in rewording one of the reviews from Forbes given by an employee from the top rated company Acuity, illustrates how these structures and strategies in employee satisfaction might sound like the ideal kindergarten experience [my additions]:

One Millennial commented, “I have never worked for a company that has an upper management team [OF TEACHERS] that is so forthcoming and approachable. They are always praising us and you can tell we actually are making a difference in the organization [SCHOOL]. I love coming to work and doing my job [OF LEARNING]. It’s just an added bonus that we often get special treats like food and gifts as well as parties to celebrate our success as a company [CLASS].”

Yup. Let’s not forget that “special treats like food and gifts as well as parties,” are also part kindergarten experience, and just one more way that kindergarten may be preparing employees for those Fortune’s Top 500 companies.

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.

time clock americanYes, American teachers do work more hours than their international counterparts, but exactly how much more could be a matter of perception versus reality, and testing may be to blame.

A recent study comparing the number of hours worked by American teachers shows the difference in instructional time is not as significant as has been publicized in the past. Researcher Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has published his findings in a working paper titled “The Mismeasure of Teaching Time“. His research contradicts claims of American teachers working twice or even 73% more hours than their counterparts in other countries, correcting these claims by grade level to 12% (elementary) 14% (middle/intermediate), and 11% (high school).

The reason for the difference, Abrams suggests, was the the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) offered by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) used to collect data on this topic:

The most recent data reported to OECD is from the 2007-08 survey, which was 44 pages long and contained 75 questions.  Teaching time is the 50th question and it asks teachers to round up the number of hours. As a result, responses were often inflated.

In addition to suggesting that the process of answering 50 questions clouded the responses of teachers taking the survey, Abrams contended that the inflated time also came from a misinterpretation of “teaching time” calculated by the OECD as the “net contact time for instruction.” By definition, excluded from net contact time are activities such as professional development days, student examination days, attendance at conferences, and out of school excursions.

In applying the OECD definition of teaching time, Abrams concluded that one contributing factor to the over-estimation by American teachers was the large number of hours spent assessing students.

Using examples from school districts in Massachusetts, Abrams offered a breakdown of the time teachers spend assessing students in grades 2-8:

  • For students in grade two, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments tied to the state exams
  • For students in grades three and six, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 16 hours are lost to state exams in ELA and math;
  • For students in grades four and seven, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 20 hours are lost to state exams in ELA, ELA composition, and math;
  • For students in grades five and eight, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 24 hours are lost to state exams in ELA, math, and science. 

Averaging a student school week at a very generalized 35 hours means that students in Massachusetts grades K-8 could spend approximately 1.5-2 weeks of each school year being assessed. Spreading this time out over the school year may contribute to the perception of a never-ending test season.

The report considered the time American educators spend assessing students at every grade level contributed to the misperception of teaching time. More importantly, the study highlighted the disparity in pedagogical practice between the education systems in United States compared to other countries. Like so many other researchers, Abrams contrasted American schools with Finland’s school system. He noted that the difference in teaching time between the two countries was not as great as originally publicized, but that the difference of practice is the “polar opposite.” In Finland, the structure of the school day has 15 minute breaks between classes or 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of instruction, for a total of 75 minutes per day, with no standardized tests. The result is that Finland’s teachers demonstrate little confusion on defining teaching time.

The data provided by Abrams suggests that American teachers do work more than other teachers worldwide. Using Paris-based OECD figures to convert the percentage of time into regular 40 hour weeks means that American elementary teachers work 2.4 weeks (12%); middle/intermediate teachers work 2.75 weeks (14%) and high school teachers work 2.2 weeks (11%) more than other teachers worldwide.

If the demand for assessment is the reason for the difference,  I am confident that most American teachers could think of other things to do during those weeks other than testing.

I am sure their students feel the same way.

Throwbacks in education are common.

This time, Robert Pondiscio, a Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institution is itching for a fight to reopen old “reading war” wounds. He has taken umbrage with the NYTimes (7/2/14) opinion piece Balanced Literacy Is One Effective Approach by Lucy Calkins: Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and a proponent of balanced literacy.

Pondiscio’s op-ed (7/3/2014) titled, Why Johnny Won’t Learn to Read charges back into the heat of that fight as he referenced the 1997 National Reading Panel’s review of studies on the teaching of reading.

In reminding everyone that “phonics won,” Pondiscio jettisons the definition of the word “balanced” in the phrase balanced literacy. The Oxford Online Dictionary states that when “balanced” is used as an adjective, it is defined as:

  • Keeping or showing a balance; in good proportions:
  • Taking everything into account; fairly judged or presented:
  • having different elements in the correct proportion

Screenshot 2014-07-06 17.07.23Since 1997, the term “balanced literacy” has come to mean that the parts of the phonics approach should be in good proportions with other approaches for teaching reading and writing. Pondiscio however, recasts the phrase “balanced literacy” in mythological terms, as a hydra…“a new head for whole language.” His interpretation is unsupported by definition.

Pondiscio’s wish that the “win” by phonics would eradicate whole language’s contributions to teaching literacy is overstated as some of the recommendations by the NRP could be associated with whole language:

  • Teaching vocabulary words—teaching new words, either as they appear in text, or by introducing new words separately. This type of instruction also aids reading ability.
  • Reading comprehension strategies—techniques for helping individuals to understand what they read. Such techniques involve having students summarize what they’ve read, to gain a better understanding of the material.

Beyond his use of the NRP’s 17 year-old-study, there is another problem in his choice of evidence, a quote by Susan Pimentel, one of the “principal authors of the Common Core.” Pimentel lacks the academic credentials to qualify her as an expert in literacy  (BS Early Childhood; Law Degree) in her claims that balanced literacy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” In contrast, many early literacy educators find the ELA CCSS worrisome, running counter to the spirit of new and emerging readers.

Moreover, Pimentel’s on again/off again association with the other CCSS “architects” (David Coleman and Jason Zimba) from Student Achievement Partners (SAP) was laid bare by Mercedes Schneider in a February 27, 2014, post: Schneider Dissects Sue Pimentel’s Role in Common Core Drafting; Exposes How 3 People Were Main CCSS Architects. In a blog post, Schneider documents Pimentel’s role through SAP’s tax filings and marginalizes Pimentel’s contributions with a suggestion that her inclusion on the CCSS was gender-based, “a female speaking to an audience from a profession that is primarily female, and that is good public relations for selling the CCSS product.”

Further on in Pondiscio’s op-ed, there is a reference to a NY Department of Education study on the Core Knowledge Study (2008-2012) which demonstrated, “significantly stronger gains than comparison school students on nearly all measures was for 1000 students in grades K-2 in 20 schools.” The use of this study is no surprise. Pondiscio’s promotion of this Core Knowledge program is due to the leadership of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a Fordham Medal of Valor winner. What is missing is information on the size of the study, which involved less than 1% of K-2 student population (1.1 million total student enrollment in 2013), and its methodology in comparison to other literacy programs. Hirsch himself concurs that, “The study was too small. We need a bigger one – and one that gauges long-term as well as short-term effects.”

But what is Pondiscio most damning complaint against balanced literacy?

 “While the Common Core focuses kids’ attention on what the text says, balanced literacy often elicits a personal response to literature.” (Pondiscio)

Let me repeat his concern.

Pondiscio is distressed that a student may respond emotionally to a work of literature.

How is this a problem?

I quite am certain that a personal response in a reader is exactly what any author of literature hopes to achieve.

Reading literature is more than a decoding exercise. Reading literature at any age, especially good complex  literature, is an exercise that connects the reader and the author in an intimate bond of empathy.

Balanced literacy does require a student use evidence from a text, but the advantage to balanced literacy is that it recognizes that students cannot be silenced on what they think or feel about their reading, whether the choice of texts is theirs or not.

Pondiscio’s issue with whole language is that it emphasized reading for meaning instead of spelling, grammar, and sounding words out. In making this final part of his argument, Pondiscio reduces words to data or things devoid of meaning.

Such thinking reminds me of a line from Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, a film study on William Shakespeare’s Richard III.

While filming on the streets of  NYC, Pacino is seen asking passers-by what is their relationship to Shakespeare. One pan handler stops long enough to explain how he feels the words in Shakespeare “instruct us”:

If we think words are things  and have no feelings in words…then we say things to each other that mean nothing.

But if we felt what we said,  we’d say less and mean more.

The pan-handler shuffles off after offering his personal explanation on words and meaning.

Pondiscio claims he wants “students to grapple with challenging texts that are worth reading,” but grappling with what the pan-handler says about the meaning of words in those texts, challenging or not,  is even more important.

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.

At the intersection of data and evaluation, here is a hypothetical scenario:Screenshot 2014-06-08 20.56.29

A young teacher meets an evaluator for a mid-year meeting.

“85 % of the students are meeting the goal of 50% or better, in fact they just scored an average of 62.5%,” the young teacher says.

“That is impressive,” the evaluator responds noting that the teacher had obviously met his goal. “Perhaps,you could also explain how the data illustrates individual student performance and not just the class average?”

“Well,” says the teacher offering a printout, “according to the (Blank) test, this student went up 741 points, and this student went up….” he continues to read from the  spreadsheet, “81points…and this student went up, um, 431 points, and…”

“So,” replies the evaluator, “these points mean what? Grade levels? Stanine? Standard score?”

“I’m not sure,” says the young teacher, looking a bit embarrassed, “I mean, I know my students have improved, they are moving up, and they are now at a 62.5% average, but…” he pauses.

“You don’t know what these points mean,” answers the evaluator, “why not?”

This teacher who tracked an upward trajectory of points was able to illustrate a trend that his students are improving, but the numbers or points his students receive are meaningless without data analysis. What doesn’t he know?

“We just were told to do the test. No one has explained anything…yet,” he admits.

There will need to be time for a great deal of explaining as the new standardized tests, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), that measure the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are implemented over the next few years. These digital tests are part of an educational reform mandate that will require teachers at every grade level to become adept at interpreting data for use in instruction. This interpretation will require dedicated professional development at every grade level.

Understanding how to interpret data from these new standardized tests and others must be part of every teacher’s professional development plan. Understanding a test’s metrics is critical because there exists the possibility of misinterpreting results.  For example, the data in the above scenario would appear that one student (+741 points) is making enormous leaps forward while another student (+81) is lagging behind. But suppose how different the data analysis would be if the scale of measuring student performance on this particular test was organized in levels of 500 point increments. In that circumstance, one student’s improvement of +741 may not seem so impressive and a student achieving +431 may be falling short of moving up a level. Or perhaps, the data might reveal that a student’s improvement of 81 points is not minimal, because that student had already maxed out towards the top of the scale. In the drive to improve student performance, all teachers must have a clear understanding of how the results are measured, what skills are tested, and how can this information can be used to drive instruction.

Therefore, professional development must include information on the metrics for how student performance will be measured for each different test. But professional development for data analysis cannot stop at the powerpoint!   Data analysis training cannot come “canned,” especially, if the professional development is marketed by a testing company. Too often teachers are given information about testing metrics by those outside the classroom with little opportunity to see how the data can help their practice in their individual classrooms. Professional development must include the conversations and collaborations that allow teachers to share how they could use or do use data in the classroom. Such conversations and collaborations with other teachers will provide opportunities for teachers to review these test results to support or contradict data from other assessments.

Such conversations and collaborations will also allow teachers to revise lessons or units and update curriculum to address weakness exposed by data from a variety of assessments. Interpreting data must be an ongoing collective practice for teachers at every grade level; teacher competency with data will come with familiarity.

In addition, the collection of data should be on a software platform that is accessible and integrated with other school assessment programs. The collection of data must be both transparent in the collection of results and secure in protecting the privacy of each student. The benefit of technology is that digital testing platforms should be able to calculate results in a timely manner in order to free up the time teachers can have to implement changes suggested because of data analysis. Most importantly, teachers should be trained how to use this software platform.

Student data is a critical in evaluating both teacher performance and curriculum effectiveness, and teachers must be trained how to interpret rich pool of data that is coming from new standardized tests. Without the professional development steps detailed above, however, evaluation conversations in the future might sound like the response in the opening scenario:

“We just were told to do the test. No one has explained anything…yet.”

Across the pond, British students studying for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) will no longer experience a narrative on growing up in the Jim Crowe South or reenact the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, or be immersed in stories of The Great Depression’s impact on itinerant laborers. A recent decision by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education means that British students will no longer be reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  The Education Secretary of the United Kingdom, Michael Gove, has recommended a syllabus that favors British texts exclusively for students to “swot up” for their exam boards. In order to make more room for the strictly British diet of Eliot, Dickens, at least one of the Bronte Sisters, these 20th Century American classics are being dropped in favor of British texts. According to The Guardian, when Gove took office he told his party’s conference:,

 “The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.”

A number of responders have noted Gove’s concern that the American texts come with “ideological baggage” that is not relevant to British students. The controversy was sparked when the new syllabus for OCR, one of the biggest UK exam boards, was released. A statement by UK’s Department for Education noted that in the revised syllabus, specific (American) books are not banned, but rather:

In the past, English literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow. We published the new subject content for English literature in December. It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th-century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles. (“To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove orders more Brit lit” Guardian)

Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, recommends removing American texts

Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, recommends removing 20th C American texts by Steinbeck, Miller, and Lee.

The news is not all bad, however. Instead of considering the removal as a literary slight to the multitude of authors who write in English -but who do not serve the Crown- perhaps Americans should be grateful that those discomforting moments of U.S. History are being hidden or systematically expunged from the prying eyes of young British readers. Students do not need to be exposed to the effects of prejudice, intolerance, and poverty through the lens of an American culture when British culture already has a plethora of masterworks that focus on their own brand of bigotry, bias, and destitution. Why would British students need a global perspective as they enter the 21st Century workforce?

Consider how wonderful for Americans that Gove has eliminated the need to explain the real inditement of our judicial system through the fictional violation of Tom Robinson’s civil rights despite the dramatic evidence provided by his defense attorney, Atticus Finch. How brilliant that British students will never have the opportunity to connect the fictional fraud in the trial of John Proctor to the real terror of the McCarthy Hearings and Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. How fabulous that readers in the United Kingdom will not be forced to read how the myth of the American Dream is often unattainable, especially when a scientifically confirmed climate change associated with the Dust Bowl contributed to harsh economic realities.

So, thank you, Secretary Gove, for keeping America’s literary exposés on dirty secrets hidden. Now, a schoolchild’s positive image of an American 20th Century will not be tarnished by the likes of those upstarts Lee, Miller, and Steinbeck.

Yes, Mr. Secretary, for British students everywhere, ignorance will be bliss!

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