Archives For Testing

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.”

capt As the 10th grade English teacher, Linda’s role had been to prepare students for the rigors of the State of Connecticut Academic Performance Test, otherwise known as the CAPT. She had been preparing students with exam-released materials, and her collection of writing prompts stretched back to 1994.  Now that she will be retiring, it is time to clean out the classroom. English teachers are not necessarily hoarders, but there was evidence to suggest that Linda was stocked with enough class sets of short stories to ensure  students were always more than adequately prepared. Yet, she was delighted to see these particular stories go.
“Let’s de-CAPT-itate,” we laughed and piled up the cartons containing well-worn copies of short stories.
Out went Rough Touch. Out went Machine Runner. Out went Farewell to Violet, and a View from the Bridge.
I chuckled at the contents of the box labelled”depressing stories” before chucking them onto the pile.
Goodbye to Amanda and the Wounded Birds. Farewell to A Hundred Bucks of Happy. Adios to Catch the Moon. We pulled down another carton labeled  “dog stories” containing LibertyViva New JerseyThe Dog Formally Known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum. They too were discarded without a tear.
The CAPT’s Response to Literature’s chief flaw was the ludicrous diluting of Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory where students were asked to “make a connection:”

What does the story say about people in general?  In what ways does it remind you of people you have known or experiences you have had?  You may also write about stories or other books you have read, or movies, works of art, or television programs you have seen.

That question was difficult for many of the literal readers, who, in responding to the most obvious plot point, might answer, “This story has a dog and I have a dog.” How else to explain all the dog stories? On other occasions, I found out that while taking standardized test in the elementary grades students had been told, “if you have no connection to the story, make one up!” Over the years, the CAPT turned our students into very creative liars rather than literary analysts.

 

The other flaw in the Response to Literature  was the evaluation question. Students were asked,  

How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

Many of our students found this a difficult question to negotiate, particularly if they thought the author did not write a good piece of literature, but rather an average or mildly enjoyable story. They did manage to make their opinions known, and  one of my favorite student responses began, “While this story is no  Macbeth, there are a few nice metaphors…”

Most of the literature on the CAPT did come from reputable writers, but they were not the quality stories found in anthologies like Saki’s The Interlopers or Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. To be honest, I did not think the CAPT essays were an authentic activity, and I particularly did not like the selections on the CAPT’s Response to Literature section.

Now the CAPT will be replaced by the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), as Connecticut has selected SBAC as their assessment consortium to measure progress with the Common Core State Standards, and the test will move to 11th grade. This year (2014) is the pilot test only; there are no exemplars and no results.  The SBAC is digital, and in the future we will practice taking this test on our devices, so there is no need to hang onto class sets of short stories. So why am I concerned that there will be no real difference with the SBAC? Cleaning the classroom may be a transition that is more symbolic of our move from paper to keyboard than in our gaining an authentic assessment.

Nevertheless, Linda’s classroom looked several tons lighter.

“We are finally de-CAPT-itated!” I announced looking at the stack of boxes ready for the dumpster.

“Just in time to be SBAC-kled!” Linda responded cheerfully.

An ad supporting the Common Core State Standards posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured a Missouri Teacher of the Year, Jamie Manker, saying, “I support the Common Core because it’s asking kids to think.”

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My immediate reaction was, “Good Heavens! What did Manker’s students do before the implementation of the Common Core? Thinking should have been happening all along!”

Of course her students had been thinking or she would not have been a teacher of the year. Her statement may have been truncated to fit on on the #SupporttheCore poster. Yet, she is not alone in making such statements. There have been a number of teachers of the year who state that their students are doing better work because of the Common Core:

From Nancie Lindblom Arizona 2013 Teacher of the Year, The new standards provide the opportunity to do this by increasing the expectations for all students, allowing me to challenge my students to think analytically.”

From Ms. Sponaugle 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, “My students are engaged, they’re motivated, and they’re learning, and that’s what the common core standards are all about-preparing our children to be confident and capable in an ever-more competitive world.”

Again, these admissions are puzzling. Why would a teacher whose credentials and instructional practice are exemplary enough to warrant a state award wait for an “opportunity” to challenge students to think analytically? Or how would a teacher of the year not already be engaging students in order to prepare them for an ever-more competitive world? Did they not already use a set of standards before the Common Core in their classrooms?

Without context, these teachers’ statements make them appear less competent. In an ironic twist, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s use of teachers of the year as promotional tools has the unfortunate effect of leaving them open to the following line of criticism: What kind of teachers were they B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) when they admit their students were not being challenged?

Their overstatements on behalf of the Common Core contribute to the unfortunate generalization that B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) students were not engaged. They were not being prepared for a competitive world. They did not think.

Collectively, their statements open up a single tricky question for these teachers of the year…..Why not?

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 11.16.51 AMNot so long ago, 11th grade was a great year of high school. The pre-adolescent fog had lifted, and the label of “sophomore,” literally “wise-fool,” gave way to the less insulting “junior.” Academic challenges and social opportunities for 16 and 17 years olds increased as students sought driver’s permits/licenses, employment or internships in an area of interest. Students in this stage of late adolescence could express interest in their future plans, be it school or work.

Yet, the downside to junior year had always been college entrance exams, and so, junior year had typically been spent in preparation for the SAT or ACT. When to take these exams had always been up to the student who paid a base price $51/SAT or $36.50/ACT for the privilege of spending hours testing in a supervised room and weeks in anguish waiting for the results. Because a college accepts the best score, some students could choose to take the test many times as scores generally improve with repetition.

Beginning in 2015, however, junior students must prepare for another exam in order to measure their learning using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The two federally funded testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have selected 11th grade to determine the how college and career ready a student is in English/Language Arts and Math.

The result of this choice is that 11th grade students will be taking the traditional college entrance exam (SAT or ACT) on their own as an indicator of their college preparedness. In addition, they will take another state-mandated exam, either the SBAC or the PARRC, that also measures their college and career readiness. While the SAT or ACT is voluntary, the SBAC or PARRC will be administered during the school day, using 8.5 hours of instructional time.

Adding to these series of tests lined up for junior year are the Advanced Placement exams. There are many 11th grade students who opt to take Advanced Placement courses in a variety of disciplines either to gain college credit for a course or to indicate to college application officers an academic interest in college level material. These exams are also administered during the school day during the first weeks of May, each taking 4 hours to complete.

One more possible test to add to this list might be the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB test) which, according to the website Today’s Military,  is given to more than half of all high schools nationwide to students in grade 10th, 11th or 12th, although 10th graders cannot use their scores for enlistment eligibility.

The end result is that junior year has gradually become the year of testing, especially from the months of March through June, and all this testing is cutting into valuable instructional time. When students enter 11th grade, they have completed many pre-requisites for more advanced academic classes, and they can tailor their academic program with electives, should electives be offered. For example, a student’s success with required courses in math and science can inform his or her choices in economics, accounting, pre-calculus, Algebra II, chemistry, physics, or Anatomy and Physiology. Junior year has traditionally been a student’s greatest opportunity to improve a GPA before making college applications, so time spent learning is valuable. In contrast, time spent in mandated testing robs each student of classroom instruction time in content areas.

In taking academic time to schedule exams, schools can select their exam (2 concurrent) weeks for performance and non-performance task testing.  The twelve week period (excluding blackout dates) from March through June is the nationwide current target for the SBAC exams, and schools that choose an “early window” (March-April) will lose instructional time before the Advanced Placement exams which are given in May. Mixed (grades 11th & 12th) Advanced Placement classes will be impacted during scheduled SBACs as well because teachers can only review past materials instead of progressing with new topics in a content area. Given these circumstances, what district would ever choose an early testing window?  Most schools should opt for the “later window” (May) in order to allow 11th grade AP students to take the college credit exam before having to take (another) exam that determines their college and career readiness. Ironically, the barrage of tests that juniors must now complete to determine their “college and career readiness” is leaving them with less and less academic time to become college and career ready.

Perhaps the only fun remaining for 11th graders is the tradition of the junior prom. Except proms are usually held between late April and early June, when -you guessed it- there could be testing.

Opening speeches generally start with a “Welcome.”
Lucy Calkins started the 86th Saturday Reunion, March 22, 2014, at Teacher’s College with a conjunction.

“And this is the important thing” she addressed the crowd that was filling up the rows in the Riverside Cathedral, “the number of people who are attending has grown exponentially. This day is only possible with the goodwill of all.”

Grabbing the podium with both hands, and without waiting for the noise to die down, Calkins launched the day as if she was completing a thought she had from the last Saturday Reunion.

“We simply do not have the capacity to sign you up for workshops and check you in. We all have to be part of the solution.”

She was referring to the  workshops offered free of charge to educators by all Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) staff developers at Columbia University. This particular Saturday, there were over 125 workshops advertised on topic such as “argument writing, embedding historical fiction in nonfiction text sets, opinion writing for very young writers, managing workshop instruction, aligning instruction to the CCSS, using performance assessments and curriculum maps to ratchet up the level of teaching, state-of-the-art test prep, phonics, and guided reading.”

“First of all, ” she chided, “We cannot risk someone getting hit by a car.” Calkin’s concerns are an indication that the Saturday Reunion workshop program is a victim of its own success. The thousands of teachers disembarking from busses, cars, and taxis were directed by TCRWP minions to walk on sidewalks, wait at crosswalks, and “follow the balloons” to the Horace Mann building or Zankel Hall.

“Cross carefully,” she scolded in her teacher voice, “and be careful going into the sessions,” she continued, “the entrances to the larger workshops are the center doors, the exits are to the sides. We can’t have 800 people going in and out the same way.”

Safety talk over, Calkins turned her considerable energy to introducing a new collaborative venture, a website where educators can record their first hand experiences with the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.

And, as unbelievable as this sounds, Calkins admitted that, sometimes, “I get afraid to talk out.”
That is why, she explained, she has joined an all-star cast of educators (including Diane Ravitch, Kylene Beers, Grant Wiggins, Robert Marzano, Anthony Cody, Kathy Collins, Jay McTighe, David Pearson, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and others-see below) in organizing a website where the voices of educators with first hand experience with standardized testing can document their experiences. The site is called Testing Talkhttp://testingtalk.org/) The site’s message on the home page states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of the new breed of standardized tests. What works? What doesn’t? Whether your district is piloting PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or its own test, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

Screenshot 2014-03-31 21.56.01 Calkin’s promotion was directed to educators, “This will be a site for you to record your experience with testing, not to rant.” She noted that as schools “are spending billions, all feedback on testing should be open and transparent.” 

Winding down Calkins looked up from her notes. “You will all be engaged,” she promised. “Enter comments; sign your name,” she urged before closing with the final admonishment, “Be brave.”

Continue Reading…

The 86th Saturday Reunion (3/22/14) at Teacher’s College in NYC was decidedly political. Not political as in elections or party affiliation, but political as education is critical to “the public affairs of a country.”

The morning keynote address by Diane Ravitch set the agenda. Ravitch is an education historian and an author who served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush.  She was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; this Saturday, she returned to speak at Riverside Cathedral.

She began by recalling another political era, calling the cathedral the “sacred space” where William Sloan Coffin had spoken out against the Vietnam War.  This time Ravitch was speaking out against the war on public education.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 9.48.58 AMShe began by alerting the enormous crowd of teachers about the Network for Public Education. This year-old network was established to, “Give the [us] the courage to fight; our motto is ‘We are are many, they are few, we will prevail’,” she claimed.

Screenshot 2014-03-23 19.04.39“I wrote Reign of Error for you to use as ammunition… but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t buy it,” she insisted, “borrow it from the library, but use it to fight back the efforts to undermine education.”

Ravitch has been organizing a defense that is aimed at exposing the corporate take over of education that is endemic to this country alone. She countered that other nations have “no charters and no vouchers,” adding that “charters and vouchers divide communities” in economic funding. She challenged the treatment of teachers in the USA, insisting that other nations respect teachers and do not let “amateurs become principals and superintendents.” 

She spoke of challenges in providing for the inequities in education, detailing that 25% of children today live in poverty, and she demanded to know how our public schools will survive when education reformers push to replace public schools that accept everyone with schools that are privately managed.

She recounted instances of publicly funded charter schools that teach creationism and other “17th century STEM subjects,” and she railed against a push to eliminate local school boards.
“You may want to get rid of members of your local school board,” she quipped, “but there is a democratic process for that; this is an attack on democracy itself.”

“What is the end game?” she asked after the litany of charges against education reform, and then answered her question, “Nothing less than the elimination of teaching as a profession, systematically aided and abetted by the Department of Education.”

Ravitch continued her argument claiming that, “The education reformer narrative is a hoax, and they [education reformers] cannot win if they continue to perpetrate hoaxes.” She noted several indicators that speak to current successes in public education: falling dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher minority scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.

“We have an incredibly successful system overwhelmed by a high test prep curriculum,” she declared. “The reformers’ passion is for firing teachers. They suggest, ‘Let’s test every child every year and we’ll see what teachers get low scores, then those are the bad teachers,’ she intoned. “They fire 5-10% of teachers when they should be coming up ways to recruit and support teachers.”

Teach for America was a particular target of her scorn as she argued, “Teach for America is not an answer,” noting that reformers who rail against university and college preparation programs for teachers, and complain that first year teachers are “poorly trained are the same reformers that encourage the placement of 10,000 TFA graduates annually into schools, despite their minimal six weeks of teacher training. “They [TFA] leave in two years,” she continued, “and we have lost so many teachers. We are reducing the status of teachers. Who will want to teach? Many are shunning the profession; they [teachers] are getting rid of themselves.”

More scorn was heaped upon teacher evaluation systems where billions of dollar have been spent. “Many states have added value added measurements (VAM) to rate teacher effectiveness,” she noted. One such VAM is the inclusion of standardized test scores in rating teachers, however, Ravitch asserted, “most teachers do not teach the tested subjects (math and English). To assign [these] scores to all teachers is totally insane.”

Even more scorn was directed towards Bill Gates, as she maintained “The Gates Foundation has paid millions to have these [tests] written.” Gates himself has been touring the country this year in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a tour that included an opportunity “to dine with over 80 senators” that did not escape her attention. Neither did his comment suggesting “it might take10 years to see if this stuff works.”
“You have to admit he has chutzpah,” she quipped. Her more salient point was in her statement, “One man has bought and paid for an entire nation’s education program.”

Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states.
She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the  National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She  specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here)

Ravitch commented also on the language that education reformers made in promoting the CCSS, standards that force schools to”Jump into the deep end of the pool” or standards that “rip off the bandaid” asking, “Why do they use such sadistic language? These are our children!”

“This small group [CCSS writers],” she continued, “was aided by the ACT and presented the CCSS as a fait accompli.” She added that the writing process of the CCSS was not transparent, and that, in violation of the National Standards Institute protocols,“there is no appeals process for standards that are seen as incorrect.” Moreover, although teachers were invited to “review” the CCSS,  the standards themselves were implemented without a field test. Now the two federally funded testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, will spend the next two years testing these standards online.

“The tech sector loves the CCSS,” she insisted, “there’s new software and bandwidth” included in already tight education budgets, “along with data analysts and entrepreneurial agencies designed to help with the CCSS.” Finally she returned to her message of academic inequities where targets of 70% failure rates on rounds of standardized tests are predicted. “How is it equitable to give a test they know students will fail?” suggesting that a passing rate is fluid, determined by the test creators who choose the “cut rate.”

During the speech, I was seated only eight rows back with a colleague who echoed to me particularly strong statements made by Ravitch on the effects of educational reform. She obviously wanted these statements included in my notes, so here are a few more “Ravitch-isms”:

We must roll back what we see is a poisonous time….

I never met a child who learned to read because the schools were closed.

No other nation doing this. We are alone in taking punitive action.

They [ed reformers] call it creative disruption, but children need continuity, not churn.

As she came to the conclusion of her speech, Ravitch returned to her message on the impact of poverty on academic performance saying, “What we do know about standardized tests is that they reflect socio-economic status. The pattern is inexorable. Look at charts that align standardized test scores with income and education; they [tests] measure the achievement gap.” Ravitch then turned to Michael Young’s book,  The Rise of the Meritocracy, and cited the following quotes:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

She concluded her address with a list of suggestions, of next steps:

  1.  Salvage the standards to make standards better. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) should review and revise the standards. “Fix what is wrong”and “damn the copyright.”
  2. Decouple the Common Core from the tests;
  3. Teachers: Teach what you love and enrich instruction;
  4. Remember that a decent democracy equals values. 
  5. Do nothing to stigmatize those who have the least.

It should be noted that throughout the speech, Ravitch referred to “children” instead of using the word “students.” Her linguistic choice was noted by a later speaker, Kathy Collins. In refusing to use “students,” Ravitch put the focus back on the purpose for public education, to prepare the nation’s children, and she relayed a critical difference between her pedagogy and the philosophy of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “Arne Duncan thinks children as young as five should be on track to be college and career ready. He has said, ‘I want to walk in, look in their eyes, and know they are college and career ready’.”

She paused as if to respond to him, “I see a child. Leave him alone.”

The cathedral reverberated with applause.

March Madness is not exclusive to basketball.Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 1.38.50 PM
March Madness signals the season for standardized testing season here in Connecticut.
March Madness signals the tip-off for testing in 23 other states as well.

All CT school districts were offered the opportunity to choose the soon-to-be-phased-out pen and paper grades 3-8 Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT)/ grade 10 Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) OR to choose the new set of computer adaptive Smarter Balanced Tests developed by the federally funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Regardless of choice, testing would begin in March 2014,

As an incentive, the SBAC offered the 2014 field test as a “practice only”, a means to develop/calibrate future tests to be given in 2015, when the results will be recorded and shared with students and educators. Districts weighed their choices based on technology requirements, and many chose the SBAC field test. But for high school juniors who had completed the pen and paper CAPT in 2013, this is practice; they will receive no feedback. This 2014 SBAC field test will not count.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said for counting the 8.5 hours of testing in English/language arts and mathematics that had to be taken from 2014 academic classes. The elimination of 510 minutes of instructional time is complicated by scheduling students into computer labs with hardware that meets testing  specifications. For example, rotating students alphabetically through these labs means that academic classes scheduled during the testing windows may see students A-L one day, students M-Z on another. Additional complications arise for mixed grade classrooms or schools with block schedules. Teachers must be prepared with partial lessons or repeating lessons during the two week testing period; some teachers may miss seeing students for extended periods of time. Scheduling madness.

For years, the state standardized test was given to grade 10, sophomore students. In Connecticut, the results were never timely enough to deliver instruction to address areas of weakness during 10th grade, but they did help inform general areas of weakness in curriculum in mathematics, English/language arts, and science. Students who had not passed the CAPT had two more years to pass this graduation requirement; two more years of education were available to address specific student weaknesses.

In contrast, the SBAC is designed to given to 11th graders, the junior class. Never mind that these junior year students are preparing to sit for the SAT or ACT, national standardized tests. Never mind that many of these same juniors have opted to take Advanced Placement courses with testing dates scheduled for the first two full weeks of May. On Twitter feeds, AP teachers from New England to the mid-Atlantic are already complaining about the number of delays and school days already lost to winter weather (for us 5) and the scheduled week of spring break (for us, the third week of April) that comes right before testing for these AP college credit exams. There is content to be covered, and teachers are voicing concerns about losing classroom seat time. Madness.

Preparing students to be college and career ready through the elimination of instructional time teachers use to prepare students for college required standardized testing (SAT, ACT) is puzzling, but the taking of instructional time so students can take state mandated standardized tests that claim to measure preparedness for college and career is an exercise in circular logic. Junior students are experiencing an educational Catch 22, they are practicing for a test they will never take, a field test that does not count. More madness.

In addition, juniors who failed the CT CAPT in grade 10 will still practice with the field test in 2014. Their CAPT graduation requirement, however, cannot be met with this test, and they must still take an alternative assessment to meet district standards. Furthermore, from 2015 on, students who do not pass SBAC will not have two years to meet a state graduation requirement; their window to meet the graduation standard is limited to their senior year. Even more madness.

Now, on the eve of the inaugural testing season, a tweet from SBAC itself (3/14):

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This tweet was followed by word from CT Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s office sent out on to superintendents from Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, DRW, that the state test will be delayed a week:

Schools that anticipated administering the Field Test during the first week of testing window 1 (March 18 – March 24) will need to adjust their schedule. It is possible that these schools might be able to reschedule the testing days to fall within the remainder of the first testing window or extend testing into the first week of window 2 (April 7 – April 11).

Education Week blogger Stephen Sawchuk provides more details in his post  Smarter Balanced Group Delays in the explanation for the delay:

The delay isn’t about the test’s content, officials said: It’s about ensuring that all the important elements, including the software and accessibility features (such as read-aloud assistance for certain students with disabilities) are working together seamlessly.

“There’s a huge amount of quality checking you want to do to make sure that things go well, and that when students sit down, the test is ready for them, and if they have any special supports, that they’re loaded in and ready to go,” Jacqueline King, a spokeswoman for Smarter Balanced, said in a March 14 interview. “We’re well on our way through that, but we decided yesterday that we needed a few more days to make sure we had absolutely done all that we could before students start to take the field tests.”

A few more days is what teachers who carefully planned alternative lesson plans during the first week of the field test probably want in order to revise their lessons. The notice that districts “might be able to reschedule” in the CT memo is not helpful for a smooth delivery of curriculum, especially since school schedules are not developed empty time slots available to accommodate “willy-nilly testing” windows. There are field trips, author visits, assemblies that are scattered throughout the year, sometimes organized years in advance. Cancellation of activities can be at best disappointing, at worst costly. Increasing madness.

Added to all this madness, is a growing “opt-out” movement for the field test. District administrators are trying to address this concern from the parents on one front and the growing concerns of educators who are wrestling with an increasingly fluid schedule. According to Sarah Darer Littman on her blog Connecticut News Junkie, the Bethel school district offered the following in a letter parents of Bethel High School students received in February:

“Unless we are able to field test students, we will not know what assessment items and performance tasks work well and what must be changed in the future development of the test . . . Therefore, every child’s participation is critical.

For actively participating in both portions of the field test (mathematics/English language arts), students will receive 10 hours of community service and they will be eligible for exemption from their final exam in English and/or Math if they receive a B average (83) or higher in that class during Semester Two.”

Field testing as community service? Madness. Littman goes on to point out that research shows that a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college success than an SAT score and suggests an exemption raises questions about a district’s value on standardized testing over student GPA, their own internal measurement. That statement may cause even more madness, of an entirely different sort.

Connecticut is not the only state to be impacted by the delay. SBAC states include: California, Delaware,  Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

In the past, Connecticut has been called “The Land of Steady Habits,” “The Constitution State,” “The Nutmeg State.” With SBAC, we could claim that we are now a “A State of Madness,” except for the 23 other states that might want the same moniker. Maybe we should compete for the title? A kind of Education Bracketology just in time for March Madness.

Perplexed: adj.

1. bewildered; puzzled.
2. complicated; involved; entangled.

(o _ 0 )  ?

I am perplexed as to why this word is on the EngageNY first grade vocabulary list, and again perplexed when I review the first grade units for English Language Arts (ELA) on this website. I am perplexed because I can see that several units in our current grade five curriculum (Early Settlers and the American Revolution) and our entire grade six curriculum (Ancient World History) have  been bundled into a series of units that will be taught in first grade.Did I mention that EngageNY complicates these areas of study with content area lessons on the human body and astronomy in first grade?

All these complications have me even more perplexed as to why so many people are recommending that educators visit and use EngageNY resources. In two separate incidents over the past two weeks, I have heard educators from the State of Connecticut recommend the site. One recommendation was made directly to the Commissioner in the State Department of Education, Stephan Pryor, during a roll-out of the state’s Common Core website. I hope he does not take these recommendations seriously.

Remember that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were supposed to guide teachers to teach less and focus more. The CCSS were promoted as a means to stop instruction that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The CCSS were promoted to allow teachers to select their own materials, an opportunity to move away from scripted programs, stating,”Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”

Engage NY curriculum contrasts with these both of these goals; it is both staggering in its breadth and it is highly scripted.

A look at the Grade One English Language Arts curriculum in the “Listening and Learning Strand” demonstrates the breadth in a curriculum that is organized into 11 separate content area Domains. An examination into Domain 4, titled “Early World Civilizations” shows a unit that is 21 days in length for 6 year-old students using  a Tell It Again! Read-Aloud Anthology. Engage NY explains that this unit:

“….for Early World Civilizations contains background information and resources that the teacher will need to implement Domain 4, including an alignment chart for the domain to the Common Core State Standards; an introduction to the domain including necessary background information for teachers, a list of domain components, a core vocabulary list for the domain, and planning aids and resources; 16 lessons including objectives, read-alouds, discussion questions, and extension activities; a Pausing Point; a domain review; a domain assessment; culminating activities; and teacher resources.”

A further examination of Domain 4 means reviewing its 81 student objectives. That number is not as intimidating as the language in the content area objectives. The first ten objectives state that “by the end of this unit, students will be able to….”:
  1. Locate the area known as Mesopotamia on a world map or globe and identify it as part of Asia;
  2. Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon;
  3. Describe the city of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens;
  4. Identify cuneiform as the system of writing used in Mesopotamia;
  5. Explain why a written language is important to the development of a civilization;
  6. Explain the significance of the Code of Hammurabi;
  7. Explain why rules and laws are important to the development of a civilization;
  8. Explain the ways in which a leader is important to the development of a civilization;
  9. Explain the significance of gods/goddesses, ziggurats, temples, and priests in Mesopotamia;
  10. Describe key components of a civilization…
Consider the readiness for first graders to meet these content objectives, and consider their readiness in meeting  other content area objectives in this unit including:
#16 Explain the significance of gods/goddesses in ancient Egypt;
#26 Define monotheism as the belief in one God….

The problem with these content area objectives is that the response, (and remember this is a six year old’s response), is limited to a shallow or cursory understanding to any of these larger questions. Entire courses at higher grade levels, middle and high school, have been developed around these objectives, and many of these objectives will be repeated again in these higher grade levels.

Next, consider that the unit that follows Domain 5-Early American Civilizations, is dedicated to a study of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan societies. These first 10 objectives for Domain 5 state that “the student will be able to….”

  1. Explain that a shift occurred from hunting and gathering to farming among early peoples; compare and contrast hunter-gatherer societies and Mayan society;
  2. Explain the importance of extended family to the Maya;
  3. Identify the areas in which the Maya/Aztec/Inca lived;
  4. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca farmed;
  5. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca developed large cities or population centers, or empires, many, many years ago;
  6. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca had leaders (kings or emperors); identify by name the emperor of the Aztec, Moctezuma;
  7. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca each had a religion;
  8. Describe the significance of the stars and planets to the Maya;
  9. Explain the significance of the Mayan calendar;
  10. Identify the Aztec capital as Tenochtitlan; identify that Machu Picchu is an Incan city…
There are 32 more objectives for students in Domain 5, and there are nine other domains with an equally daunting number of “the student will” objectives in the Listening and Learning strands. There are more objectives, with overlap, in the Skill strands for each of remaining nine Domains. According to the curriculum in EngageNY, a first grader would be expected to have a basic understanding of Early World Civilizations and Early American Civilizations as well as these remaining nine domains:

Domain #1: Fables and Stories
Domain #2: The Human Body
Domain #3: Different Lands/Similar Stories
Domain #6: Astronomy
Domain #7: The History of the Earth
Domain #8: Animals and Habitats
Domain #9: Fairy Tales
Domain #10: A New Nation: American Independence
Domain #11: Frontier Explorers

The most striking characteristic of this list of domains is the breadth of content area material that a first grader (remember, these are 6 year-olds), is required to “explain” or “identify” or “describe.” These are at best low level comprehension skills in Bloom’s taxonomy. This list clashes with the CCSS objective to become “more focused and coherent” especially when this list of domains does not appear to be connected by any central theme; their inclusion appears random.

All this content will be important to developing a student’s background knowledge over the course of several years, but how critically important is this material at the first grade level when instruction time is at a premium? Practice in reading and writing should be a priority, and the content used for in the development of reading and writing skills should not overwhelm students, but rather complement student cognitive ability.

Nevertheless, EngageNY provides equally dense ELA curriculum at each grade level. Students often “revisit” content that they may not have understood earlier, an enterprise that could be unnecessary given the cursory treatment that may given a topic at an earlier grade level (example: studying War of 1812 in grade 2).

Like any other website with lessons aligned to the CCSS, teachers may find value in some resources on EngageNY. A cautionary note, however, is that these are not “teacher-tested” lessons, but highly scripted lessons from the juggernaut of publishing and testing, the UK based Pearson. This raises a frightening scenario of having the creators of student achievement tests (Pearson) hold teachers and students accountable for the content they (Pearson) have also created in the lessons.

Connecticut’s adoption of the CCSS should remain true to its stated goals of allowing teachers to select their own materials in the development of focused curriculum at each grade level. The damage may already be done, however, since the website Pryor was offering in the state rollout of the Common Core already contains numerous links to EngageNY resources.

Which brings me to another 1st grade word on the EngageNY vocabulary list.
Apoplexy.

An interesting graphic came across my screen this week. The purpose was to call attention to the hours spent testing elementary students by comparing them to the tests for college or graduate school:

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 8.28.06 PM

Standardized testing is not new to schools in the State of Connecticut. Many schools will be using the Smarter Balance Assessment (SBAC) this year (pilot) for state testing. The new testing schedule will be the same as the NY State tests. The SBAC website provides testing times:

Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 8.26.11 PM

Both charts illustrate the number of hours that elementary, middle, and high school students will sit in order to take tests to measure their achievement in meeting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The SBAC tests will be given over a period of week(s), and scheduling may depend on the number of available computers that meet the testing software criteria.

Each sitting will match the minimum amount of time an older student sits for college and law school entrance exams. While these entrance exams (SAT, LSAT, and MCATs) are taken only once, the SBACS are taken annually in grades 3-8 and again in grade 11. Consider that an average student’s experience taking the SAT is a little under four hours, while a student will take the SBAC repeatedly for a total of 52 hours over the course of one academic career. Yet, the hours spent taking a test are not the only hours committed.

Washington Post education reporter, Valerie Strauss, cited a study by the American Federation of Teachers in her July 25, 2013, article How much time do school districts spend on standardized testing? This much.”  The report compared “two unnamed medium-sized school districts — one in the Midwest and one in the East” and determined that:

The grade-by-grade analysis of time and money invested in standardized testing found that test prep and testing absorbed 19 full school days in one district and a month and a half in the other in heavily tested grades.

The percentage of time for SBAC testing is roughly .07% of the school year (based on an average of 1100 school hours/year), but when when test preparation is added, (ex:19 days), that percentage jumps to 11%. This jump is enough to make the time for test preparation equivalent to a year of physical education classes. Ironically, research is proving that physical education may be the best kind of test preparation.

An article by Dr. Catherine L. Davis and Dr. Norman K. Pollock  detailed some of the more recent studies on the relationship between physical education and cognition, noting that “benefits have been detected with 20 minutes per day of vigorous physical activity”.

Their paper, Does Physical Activity Enhance Cognition and Academic Achievement in Children? determined that, “incorporating 40 minutes per day of vigorous activity to attain greater cognitive benefits would require additional programs available to children of all skill levels.” They concluded that:

In a period when greater emphasis is being placed on preparing children to take standardized tests, these studies should give school administrators reasons to consider investing in quality physical education and vigorous activity programs, even at the expense of time spent in the classroom. Time devoted to physical activity at school does not harm academic performance and may actually improve it.

Schools are motivated to try different strategies in order to improve test scores. The data from standardized tests are used to determine the effectiveness of curriculum as well as individual student performance. Standardized test scores are also an increasing metric in teacher evaluations. In the State of Connecticut, test scores could count as much as 40% in a teacher’s performance review, with the spotlight on those educators who teach in testing grades 3-8 and grade 11.

Paradoxically, the focus on standardized testing as an evaluation tool is a contributing factor to the increasing commitment of time and resources to test preparation. Next generation tests like the SBACs will be taken on computers that will require school systems to invest in computer hardware that meets specific criteria. The cost of the hardware and practice software could be justified by increasing the number of students who will take the tests.

Additionally, those who fund education want tests that run on this hardware to be an effective measure of student achievement, and these tests must be of a substantive duration to make the expense worthwhile. Given the commitment of time and money, students will continue to sit for tests and test preparation, perhaps for even longer periods in the future.

What might students be thinking about sitting for all these standardized tests?

They might borrow the words of their favorite author, Dr. Seuss, “And we did not like it. Not one little bit.”

The recent invitation to respond to the statement “Don’t Teach the Test” was under discussion in the New York Times: Invitation to a Dialogue series. The question was posed by Peter Schmidt,  the director of studies at Gill St. Bernard’s School, and he singled out two tests in particular: the SAT and the Advanced Placement Tests.

Schmidt suggested that the SAT should be eliminated as a requirement for college on the basis of economic inequality.  Students who have the finances to take prep courses or hire tutors have an advantage, and Schmidt suggests that, “our colleges are further promoting the inequities of our society.”

Schmidt also called for the end to  Advanced Placement  (A.P.) courses in high school, saying that they

“too often fail to prepare students adequately for college-level course work. They also put pressure on students to perform well on the A.P. exams in the spring, leaving them exhausted and lacking a spirit of intellectual curiosity.”

Full disclosure: I teach Advanced Placement English Literature, and I have served as an A.P. Reader.

AP TestsThat said, I believe Schmidt is right about the pressure the testing for these courses places on students. I agree that these students are exhausted the first two weeks of May since students who take A.P. courses often take more than one A.P. class. Many students are scheduled for two separate tests on the same day. But as to his assessment that the A.P. courses do not prepare students for college level work, I must respectfully disagree.

Students who take A.P. courses recognize that they may or may not receive college credit for the course. College credit is given based on a student’s test score (minimum a level “3” on the A.P. English Language or Literature) and the willingness of the college to accept that score in lieu of an undergraduate course.  As a result, there are no guarantees of college credit in an A.P. class; however, colleges do look to see if students are taking A.P. classes as an indication of their academic ambitions.

The A.P. exams in all subject areas are a mix of multiple choice questions and essay responses questions.  In the A.P. English Literature exam, there are 55 challenging questions on five or six literature selections. Students need a command of vocabulary and the ability to “close read”, a skill that was the hallmark of A.P. courses long before the Common Core State Standards. But the most demanding part of the AP English Literature exam is the essay section where students write three essays in response to three prompts in two hours. 

My students practice writing to these prompts throughout the school year.  They learn to read, annotate, and draft quickly, but Schmidt raises a good question.

Does the A.P. test prepare students for college?

In responding to Schmidt’s concern, I have thought about how my student’s responses to the essay test questions are not the only measure for determining student understanding. A good A.P. course incorporates the practice of revising drafts written for a practice test. There is always a gem of an idea in these hasty constructions. There is always some hypothesis that student will discover as he or she “writes into” the prompt, something I have previously referred to as a “manifesto in the muck.” A good A.P. course provides a student with the chance to take that essay draft, and expand and revise. A good A.P. course gives students the chance to start again with the end of the draft in order to begin a better essay.

Schmidt complains about “the  lack of  imagination and creativity” that “are the cornerstones of genuine learning,”but these generalizations are not true.  I know first-hand that there is nothing to stop a student’s imagination or creativity in responding to a work of literature in an A.P. course. Some of the most amazing statements or ideas I have read have come from students undergoing the intellectual crucible of writing an organized essay in under 40 minutes. In reading these practice drafts, some ripe with grammatical errors and misspellings,  I will pause with my red pen suspended, repeating to myself, “First do no harm”, as I leave a draft untouched. A.P. advises instructors to “reward the student for what they do well”, even on a practice test.

There are too many reasons to not like the standardized tests that are choking education today; the limited data that standardized testing yields is often not worth the time and expense. Frankly, I am no fan of the College Board. The limitations of the A.P. test, however, does not mean that an A.P. course is not valuable.

The A.P. test, like all standardized tests, is a single metric measure, but an A.P. course is a much broader experience.  So, yes, I teach to the test, but I also teach the A.P. course as a preparation for the rigors of college level work, and in particular, I teach the course so that my students will have the option to waive a 100 level composition class giving them the option to take a course in their major field of study.

Schmidt concluded his invitation with an impassioned plea,

As E. M. Forster wrote more than a century ago in Howards End, in addressing the shortcomings of British universities: “Oh yes, you have learned men who collect … facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?”

I would argue that my A.P. class is the only place in my curriculum where I can offer the writings of E.M Forster, if for no other reason than to see how students would respond to that literary prompt.  I know that in their responses, there could be one from a student who, writing under intense pressure, could draft a sentence or two that would reveal a “kindle of light within.”  Whether that student response would be in a test booklet written during the A.P. test or not does not matter.