Rigor is not what you think it is

An English vocabulary word tossed around education today is “rigor”. As the Common Core standards became de rigueur, teachers were told to teach with rigor. We’ve been encouraged to raise our expectations of our students by raising the “rigor”.

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“Rigor.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.

I’m not sure edu-experts know exactly what rigor is. Harsh inflexibility, strict precision, rigidity, severity? These words are not what I would want to guide my own child’s education, and they are certainly not something I feel comfortable aspiring to as an educator.

If the standards call for inflexibility then how can we, as educators, say we meet our students where they are and move forward? Some child is getting left behind.

What would I want? I would want a standard that allows me to differentiate for students who are challenged linguistically, intellectually, and experientially. I would like those same standards to be appropriate to the development of a child. Perhaps in place of teaching for rigor, we should aspire to teaching for responsiveness to how our children learn? Or flexibility of thought? Or inclusiveness?

How about trusting the professional judgement of educators and allowing teachers who know their students best determine how and when to push children up to and beyond what is expected?


PARCC: The Elevator Speech

This morning, I was greeted by more “alleged news” (thanks Jack Cole for THAT gem) purporting that “Educators Urge State Board to Adopt PARCC Exam“. Despite the fact that this news is sourced in the Statehouse News Service and, therefore, just a press release unworthy of front page space, I call baloney.  Here is why: helpme

  1. PARCC is not proven to measure college and career readiness any better than the current MCAS test. Now I could go off on a tangent about the merits of any single, high-stakes test in predicting future success for students, but I’ll stick to the fact that in this era, testing rules. If the new assessment doesn’t do what it is touted to do, why bother to change?
  2. PARCC is expensive. PARCC is administered electronically. That means network and hardware expenses above and beyond what cash-strapped schools already have in place. So, instead of hiring staff or purchasing materials to support programs, a school district is supposed to buy technology upgrades for the purpose of testing. In addition, the time needed to administer PARCC is “expensive” in that instead of learning something, anything, kids are busy with an assessment of dubious value.
  3. PARCC puts many urban districts at a disadvantage.  I taught in a school with a 90%+ poverty level. My kids were not regularly exposed to technology unless they were accessing it in school. The PARCC samples I’ve seen require a high-degree of manipulation between reading a question, computation and/or side work, and moving items around a screen to create an answer. So for kids like my former students, PARCC becomes more a test of technology skill.
  4. PARCC is owned by Pearson.  Pearson – the giant conglomeration owning lots and lots of curriculum resources and now they own the PARCC test. Pearson also dabbles in teacher effectiveness, which (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn) is tied to the assessments (those assessments are very ones Pearson also owns). In the old days, the US government would call this a monopoly. Now it’s simply sweet one-stop shopping. What could possibly go wrong there?

Why in the world does Massachusetts continue to entertain alignment to PARCC? I have no idea.

It’s so easy, ANYone can do it

Recently the New York Times published an article revealing some of the back story about standardized test scoring.  Read the story in entirety here.

Is there anyone else who finds the bar for test scorers a little low?DSC_0107

This year our grade level team struggled to standardize both on-demand and project writing samples. Trust me, there is no sheaf of papers with rubrics that can prepare anyone, let alone a non-educator, for scoring student work consistently – and fairly.

In the article, one scorer admitted that at the time of the interview – June 2015 – she was just beginning to get the hang of scoring a piece.  Consider that admission along side the window for test season. What does that statement mean for the other pieces that were scored ahead of this learning curve? Were the scores inflated or deflated?

In speaking about the vetting process for scorers, a PARCC spokesperson said

Parcc said that more than three-quarters of the scorers have at least one year of teaching experience, but that it does not have data on how many are currently working as classroom teachers. Some are retired teachers with extensive classroom experience, but one scorer in San Antonio, for example, had one year of teaching experience, 45 years ago.

With all respect, are we to believe that just a year of experience makes one an expert in standards? Or that a former educator with 1 year experience 45 years ago, understands and has unpacked the Common Core Standards?

So why not use experienced classroom teachers who presumably have expertise in the standards that are assessed? Well, our friends at Smarter Balance have an answer for that too.

Having classroom teachers engaged in scoring is a tremendous opportunity,” said Tony Alpert, executive director of Smarter Balanced. “But we don’t want to do it at the expense of their real work, which is teaching kids.”

So it’s okay for a classroom teacher to spend inordinate amounts of time doing test preparation or proctoring high stakes tests, but participating in scoring would take away from teaching time? Feigning false concern for how teachers use their time – and possibly having to pay for scorers with expertise and knowledge of the standards?

Oh right. Anyone should be able to do this.

Blaming the Common Core?

This morning’s Washington Post carried an Op-Ed piece by Deborah Kenney, founder of Harlem Village Academies. Unlike many charter schools run by large (overseas) conglomerates trying to turn education into cash cows, this charter appears to have pedagogy and students at the center.

The question Ms. Kenny poses? Is the Common Core causing school experiences to become rigid, developmentally inappropriate, prison-like experiences? Or is it poor pedagogy? Or is it something else?

I started examining the Core when it first came out – partially because of my interest in mathematics curriculum development.  I do believe having the road map for instruction that comes out of the Core is beneficial. I know I may be lulled into subtly lowering expectations for my students because the topic is difficult or because there is some roadblock to students’ learning. Checking adherence to the rigor that is expected of most students at grade level serves as a reminder of the goal and expectations.

The contrasting examples Ms. Kenny cites – a Kindergarten class learning about verbs through interactive and directed play and the class where students didn’t speak except for a rote response to a drill activity on the same topic – point to what I believe is the giant release the core gives teachers. Or at least what it should give us: we are free to address the standards in whatever way our students need. This is the aspect of the Common Core that excites me, the potential to address the curriculum as creatively as I want.

Instead of relying on a textbook, series, or program, what if we plan collaboratively with our colleagues for the students we have in front of us without fear of reprimand for not using some mandated materials? Instead of using a textbook as a Bible, use it as a resource — go to it when necessary? Unpack those standards, understand what happens vertically as well as in our own grade level.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen large textbook publishers “correlations” to state or Common Core standards. Did they make sense to you? Well, most of the time they didn’t to me either.  It seems as if those correlations are marketing materials aimed at purchasing agents within districts. The connections to what we are teaching seem truly fuzzy. Okay, I’ll say it….. they are bogus. A lot of the time.

As one of a team of teachers aligning our available materials to Common Core math standards, I frequently hear teachers complain that they have to go looking for materials. That’s a fact, but it is a fact by design. There are many inventive teachers out there who relish the chance to tap into their creativity and deliver meaningful and memorable lessons.

Our students deserve a rigorous education. They deserve one that is not stifling, or rigid, or devoid of the joy of learning. What we need is time to collaborate, time to research best practice, time to unpack standards.



Daily Five Math, Common Core and Investigations

That’s right, I am incorporating all three of these things in one classroom.  I’ve been a fan of the Daily Five and Literacy CAFE for a couple of years. Last year, I started to use the structure of the Daily Five in mathematics.  I did this for a couple of reasons – first and foremost is that I hate segmenting curriculum areas into compartments.  If something works well in one area, it should work well in another.  And it does.

Admittedly, I have adapted D5 to suit my own needs as a teacher and the needs of my students.  This year has been a little tricky. The Common Core implementation ALONG SIDE continued attention to the 2004 Mathematics Framework makes me feel like I’m straddling a fairly fast moving river as the water level rises.

This week – school vacation week here in Massachusetts – I spent some time getting my bearings again for what universal or landmark games I can rotate in and out of the Daily Five.  Here’s what my current list looks like (this is on wikispaces, feel free to join in).

Fasten Your Seatbelts…..

It’s going to be a bumpy night.” I love this quote from “All About Eve”; and coming straight from Bette Davis’ mouth – well you can imagine the delivery.

The more thinking is done about the implementation of the new mathematics curriculum frameworks – the Common Core – the more it becomes apparent that this is going to be a major, that is MAJOR, implementation.

Looking at it from a third grade teacher perspective – students will come to third grade with near mastery, if not mastery, of place value AND mastery (that is spelled out) of addition and subtraction facts — all of them.  Historically, that has not been the case; students coming to third grade often have a shaky grasp of place value and most definitely we spend lots of the beginning of the year on addition & subtraction facts. Honestly, there are some children who do not leave THIRD grade having memorized/mastered these facts.  That’s a post for another day though.

What this means to me is that, for the next year – or possibly two – we will straddle two grade levels of work. It is clear what the expectations of students leaving third grade and going to fourth are. (Click here to download the PDF or Word version); but there will also be some catching up to do for second graders coming in to third this September.  I’m sure other teachers at grade levels above and below my own grade level will feel the same.

And to add to the pressure, by 2014 the Spring testing will have completely transitioned to the new Common Core standards. Here’s a link to DESE’s plan to transition test items.  In other words, transition quickly and get working on mastery of the new standards.

Will we be ready – I sure hope so. Because not only will there be new standards to be responsible for, the test results will be linked to my own evaluation as a teacher.

I have a feeling that fastening my seatbelt isn’t going to be much help here.


With the Common Core Standards, we — that means teachers — are bracing for new and improved standardized testing.  An article in the Boston Globe this morning (link here) floats the idea. MCAS may or may not be replaced by a new Common Core test, presumably aligned to the new standards.

If you read the story, take a close look at Paragraph 4. Yes indeed, the vision for the new test is that all students will take the test electronically.  Ponder that for a minute, does anyone else see a problem?

I teach third graders. I know younger people do not have the same adjustment to reading directly from a computer, but developmentally speaking, I just don’t see 8 and 9 year olds being able to focus on a screen, read the test, scroll around, scroll to the question, in a perfect world scroll back to check for accuracy of the answer chosen, click, and repeat ad nauseum. And that’s just a reading based test.  Let’s talk about math.  I’m picturing lots of guessing because using a scrap paper to figure something out accurately will be too much. Eye-hand coordination issues? Tough darts.

So that’s just the developmental/mechanical issue.  I suppose that the expectation might be that teachers practice the mechanics of electronic test taking. So now we should teach taking the test?

Then there’s logistics.  I have one aging iMac in my classroom, 2 if you count the one I use for personal work and to connect for demonstrations for the larger group. So with a classroom of 24 student – normal for my district – I can accommodate 2 students at a time while the rest of the class does….. what? We have a lab – without an Instructional Technology Specialist this year due to budget cutting. Now one entire classroom of students could take the test at a sitting, but they are right on top of each other. And we have 8 classroom vying for computer time – 4 thirds and 4 fourth grades.

Don’t even begin to think about technology failures.  ALL of the equipment, even the latest and greatest in the lab, is subject to failure: network, electronic, power. I believe there is ONE network guru for the entire system’s multiple elementary schools. So when the system goes, or as happened yesterday, equipment is slowed to the point that a screen refresh takes 60+ seconds, that won’t affect the testing?

Keep reading this article and you’ll probably discover more. The Commissioner of Education also floats the thought that the new Common Core exams could be used to progress monitor student achievement in addition to MCAS.

Maybe the first and second grade teachers won’t mind taking over the third grade curriculum so we can get all this testing accomplished?