Archives For Valerie Strauss

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:

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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:

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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.”

No common coreOne of the underlying problems in educational reform today is that so few reformers have any hands-on classroom experience. Reading about teaching is academic and informative, but the hands-on experience of standing in front of a class of 9, 14, 24, or (heaven forbid!) 31 students at any grade level is irreplaceable. Developing lesson plans is an academic exercise, however monitoring and adjusting that lesson plan for real time problems (fire drill, student absences, material shortage, technology glitch) during instruction is irreplaceable. Reading assessment data is an academic enterprise, but understanding that data in the context of the classroom with all the personalities, abilities, disabilities, and socio-economic influences is irreplaceable. Hands-on experience should be a major factor in education reform, but the education reform efforts in the  Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have little to no classroom credibility.

A recent entry on Twitter from Randi Weingarten, current president of the American Federation of Teachers, was an attempt to address the classroom experience of the creators of the CCSS. Weingarten herself does have hands-on experience in the classroom, but that experience is spotty.  From 1991 until 1997, and with the exception of a six month full time teaching load in the fall of 1994, Weingarten taught on per diem basis (substitute?) at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, NY. Total experience? Six years, but this short experience is six more than many of the educational reformers who participated in the creation of the CCSS.

Weingarten tweeted the following on June 29, 2013:

Teachers were part of the development of #CCSS from the beginning

She was posting a link that was supposed to demonstrate that teachers, real classroom teachers with hands-on experience, had been involved in the standards from the beginning. The link led to a YouTube video featuring an ELL classroom teacher Lisa Fretzin who reflects how she “…was part of the review process starting in August looking at the the first draft”:

While Ms. Fretzin certainly has classroom credibility necessary for developing the CCSS, her participation was not exactly at the “beginning” of this process. According to her statement on the video, she was not present at the creation; she was asked to “review” which is different than “from the beginning”. Furthermore, her name is not on the list of participants who did create the CCSS for English Language Arts (or feedback group) which clearly identifies only four of the 50 participants (8%) as “teachers”. The remaining 46 participants (92%) are identified with titles such as: “author”, “consultant”, “specialist”, “professor”,  “supervisor”, “director” or “senior fellow.” In all fairness, perhaps many of these participants had worked in the classroom before moving into higher ranking positions as one would hope, but their hands-on classroom work experience is unclear.

The most glaring examples of classroom incredibility are the lead authors for the CCSS, Susan Pimentel and David Coleman; their collective classroom experience is zero. Pimentel has a law degree and a B.S in Early Childhood Education from Cornell University. Coleman’s, (termed “Architect of the Common Core”) classroom experience is limited to tutoring selected students in a summer program at Yale. He later founded Student Achievement Partners and is currently serving as the President of the College Board.

Weingarten must also know that classroom teachers for PreK-Grade 3 and grade level experts were not included in the creation of the CCSS at all. Many of these educators have express concerns that students are not cognatively ready for many of the standards in math and reading. Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post put up an editorial (1/29/13) “A Tough Critique of Common Core on Early Childhood Education” by Edward Miller, teacher and co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige is Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and author of Taking Back Childhood. They note that when the standards were first revealed in March 2010, “many early childhood educators and researchers were shocked. “

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Miller and Carlsson-Paige also include links to the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative and summarize their statement:

 We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children…. The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades….

At all grade levels, therefore, there are concerns about how inclusive the creators of the CCSS were in engaging classroom teachers. The entire initiative, by its own admission, began politically, coming from the nation’s governors and education commissioners, “through their representative organizations the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).”

Weingarten’s tweet was more than a little disingenuous when she indicated that “teachers were part of the development” when, to the contrary, there is much more evidence to prove that the ratio of teachers to individuals bearing education titles was disproportionate in favor of reformers and academics without classroom experience.

Real teachers, those with hands-on experience gained in the classroom, have had a limited say in the CCSS that they will be implementing day in and day out in their classrooms at every grade level. Excluding this important faction is why there has been pushback from teachers who recognize the difficulties in implementing many of the standards. Furthermore, there are growing concerns about the level of accountability for teachers in having students meet these same standards.

Ultimately, Weingarten should not tweet out misinformation about teachers developing the CCSS, especially when the evidence demonstrates that teachers were a only a tiny percentage in creating these standards. Weingarten must know that for any educational initiative to succeed, teachers must be engaged from the very beginning.

In these days of education reform, classroom credibility counts.

ScantronThe New York State Department of Education’s new standardized tests were administered last week. The tests for grades 3-8 were developed by the educational testing company Pearson and contained new “authentic” passages aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. State tests might have been routine news had not several teachers also noticed that the English Language Arts “authentic” passages mentioned products and trademark names including Mug ©Root Beer and Lego ©.

Product placement on standardized tests in elementary schools is bigger news. The public has grown accustomed to advertisements on webpages, before videos, on scoreboards, and with the well-placed beverage during a movie. Subtle and direct advertising to the youth market to develop brand loyalty at an early age is the goal of almost every corporation.

Consider a survey by Piper Jaffray, a leading investment bank and asset management firm, the  “Taking Stock With Teens” survey (taken March 1–April 3, 2013), that gathered input from approximately 5,200 teens (average age of 16.3 years). The survey is used to determine trends, and the most recent results note:

“Spending has moderated across discretionary categories for both upper-income and average-income teens when compared to the prior year and prior season. Yet nearly two-thirds of respondents view the economy as consistent to improving, and just over half signaled an intent to spend ‘more’ on key categories of interest, particularly fashion and status brand merchandise.”

Much attention, therefore, is placed on the youth market, and product placement on standardized testing could be a new marketing strategy. For example, corporations in the fashion industry could read this report and be inclined to offer some news stories or commission a short story that mentioned clothing brand names in the future to Pearson or another testing company in order to provide “authentic” passages. What better opportunity for corporations to build brand loyalty then to an audience, captive in a classroom during a state-mandated test?

The education reporter for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, reported on the “authentic” passages that mentioned products as “author’s choices”; Pearson’s response to her query:

As part of our partnership with NYSED, Pearson searches for previously published passages that will support grade-level appropriate items for use in the 3-8 ELA assessments. The passages must meet certain criteria agreed upon by both NYSED and Pearson in order to best align to Common Core State Standards and be robust enough to support the development of items. Once passages are approved, Pearson follows legal protocols to procure the rights to use the published passages on the assessment on behalf of NYSED. If a fee is required to obtain permission, Pearson pays this fee. NYSED has ultimate approval of passages used on the assessment.

Strauss’s report, “New Standardized Tests Feature Plugs for Commercial Products” also indicated that this practice is not exclusive to NY, and that “several different assessment programs have instances of brand names included due to use of authentic texts.” There were no specifics mentioned.

Following up with the NY Department of Education, Beth Fertig from the blog Schoolbook (WNYC),  Stories from the Front Line of Testing asked about the recent product placement:

“This is the first time we have had 100 percent authentic texts on the assessments,” said spokesman Tom Dunn. “They were selected as appropriate to measure the ELA standards. Any brand names that occurred in them were incidental and were cited according to publishing conventions. No one was paid for product placements.”

Perhaps no one was paid this year, but an unwritten taboo was broken with these standardized test. The New York Post reported one teacher response in the article  “Learn ABC’s – & IBM’s: Products in Kid Exams” by Yoav Gonen and Georgett Roberts

“I’ve been giving this test for eight years and have never seen the test drop trademarked names in passages — let alone note the trademark at the bottom of the page,” said one teacher who administered the exam.

They also reported that other commercial enterprises including the TV show “Teen Titans” and the international soccer brand FIFA  were also included on the tests.

While gaining the loyalty of the youth market is a necessary step for major corporations, the appearance of these brands on standardized tests brings our students one step closer to the future as envisioned by Stephen Spielberg in the film Minority Report. In one scene, the fugitive John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks along a corridor while animated billboards market directly to him by calling his name:

The possibility of this kind of marketing exists and perhaps personalized advertising will call to us everyday; a cacophony of advertisements designed to keep brand names in our consciousness. Similarly, even the youngest students are the target of marketing campaigns as part of any corporation’s long term economic strategy; advertisements on multiple platforms are the “white noise” of their lives. So frequent are advertisements in students’ lives that any product placement, paid or unpaid, on these standardized tests may contribute to the definition of what is “authentic”. Students are exposed to ads so frequently and in so many genres that a text is not real without some brand name mentioned.

And if that product placement is a small part of what makes a passage “authentic” on a standardized test, can talking “authentic” billboards in the school hallways be far behind?

Honestly? I am not surprised about the recent drop in the verbal SAT scores. At least once a day, I will hear a student grouse,”I hate to read.” I hear students whine about the length of books. I have students ask in class, “Are Spark Notes available for this book?” Too many students skim the first and last pages to feign understanding. Too many students admit they have not finished a book they started. Too many students prefer to watch the movie than read the book.
Teachers in my English Department are not surprised when we get the results of reading check quizzes. Sadly, we have come to realize that student would rather fail a quiz then spend time reading to prepare themselves.


Well, reading is a sedentary and solitary activity. Reading demands attention. Reading contends with the demands for student time in and out of school including sports, school club activities, employment. Reading requires uninterrupted blocks of time.

Technology now complicates how reading is accomplished. Students can be engaged in reading through any one of a multitude of digital devices. These platforms, however, are not exclusively reading platforms. A book needs time to “hook” a reader; a device can interrupt that introductory period.  A student can simply click over to another stream of graphics and information should there be a hiccup in reading attentiveness.

In short, with all the demands and digital distractions, many students are experts at gathering information, but simply have not practiced reading.

According the the Washington Post article, What the Decline in SAT Scores Really Means by Valerie Strauss, “Newly released SAT scores [2011] show that scores in reading, writing and even math are down over last year and have been declining for years. And critical reading scores are the lowest in 40 years.” the total drop in critical reading was three points. Even more alarming was the statistic that, “critical reading scores in 1972 were 530; today they are 514.”

So, how do teachers combat this trend? What steps can teachers implement to try to correct the falling scores and move them in the opposite direction? Since teachers cannot control those factors outside our classrooms, I suggest teachers control reading in our classrooms. Against the cacophony of today’s hyper-connected world, teachers must carve out class time for quiet reading. Teachers, especially language arts teachers, must also allow for student choice.

Quiet time in the classroom may be the only time a student can read without distractions, and teacher supervision can contribute to creating this atmosphere.  Quiet time in the classroom can provide an opportunity for a book to capture a student’s interest, for a author’s voice to take hold of the imagination. Even short periods of time, 10-20 minutes a day twice a week, will yield roughly 15-30 hours of quiet reading time during school year. More time means more practice, and there is a well-established correlation of reading time with high standardized tests scores.  Equally important is allowing students to have the authentic experience of choosing  what they read.

As early as 1988, a seminal study titled Growth in Reading and How Children Spend Their Time Outside of School published in the Reading Research Quarterly followed the the academic success of  5th grade students who read voluntarily (Anderson, R., Fielding, L., & Wilson, P.). The study noted that “It was also discovered through these same interviews that students who were in schools where they were given opportunities to read self-selected materials and were given access to materials that they were personally interested in reading were more likely to engage in voluntary reading than those in classrooms where these practices were not evident.” A follow-up article to this study by Linda G. Fielding and P. David Peterson offered a layman’s argument for voluntary reading in the article Reading Comprehension: What Works (Fielding_Pearson_1994). The 1988 study and follow up in 1994 made the argument that the critical time to create voluntary readers was in grades 5 and 6. However, with the trend of decreasing reading scores, all grades should adopt the recommendations of the study.

So, while teachers may not be surprised in the drop in the SAT reading score, they may be surprised to find out that the solution was outlined in the research published 23 years ago. That solution is to give students the chance to read in class, the chance to choose a book to read. To practice reading is critical to the practice of teaching.