More is Less

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Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost our collective minds when it comes to early childhood education.  This morning, I found this well-written article, from January 2016’s Atlantic: “The New Preschool is Crushing Kids“.  Thoughtfully written by author Erika Christakas, the idea that our education system has shifted from a “protected” childhood to a “prepared” one resonated. Ask educators and you will hear that what used to be taught in second grade, is now a requirement for first grade. First grade expectations are have moved down to kindergarten. And preschool? Yes, preschool is filled with academic skills.  It’s the trickle down theory of education.

According to Christakas though, all of this new “rigor” may not translate into academic success.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.

Could it be that by forcing young children to perform academic skills at such an early age is killing their curiosity and love for learning?

Our schools seem to focus on the “cognitive potential” learners, even those of a very young age. When test scores are published and reported, we hear about gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged learners.

In my experience, such gaps are a function of a child who needs more time to experience the world, to learn the language used in school, to converse, to listen, and to experiment. It troubles me that in place of deepening and enriching the experiences of young children, young learners are subjected to more seat/paper/desk work. In an impatient rush to boost test scores and school ratings, there has been a misguided effort to push academic skills and concepts earlier and earlier at the expense of learning that is developmentally appropriate.

I was taught that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I believe our edu-crats need to take heed of this adage. More is definitely less for our youngest learners.

Happy or Proficient?

IMG_0021Our good friend and UTL president Paul Georges shared this article with me this morning: “Is a good teacher one who makes kids happy or one who raises test scores“. If you read nothing else in this post, migrate to EdWeek and read that article.

For educators, this is the question above all questions because doing one thing does not necessarily compliment the other.  According to the EdWeek article, a recent study found that, on average, a teacher who managed to raise test scores was worse at making students happy. Here’s the study from David Blazar in MIT Press- read it and weep.

Over the course of my career, I have been an MCAS test administrator (admittedly only for the “legacy” version – whatever that descriptor means). I’ve felt the dichotomy of creating a positive and joyful learning environment for 3rd and 4th grade students and the pressure of removing high stakes testing monkey from our backs. Don’t forget the weeks of “preparation”.

I have no great love or respect for high stakes testing nor for the value of high stakes testing. It did not inform my teaching in a timely manner as the results from the Spring arrive on a teacher’s desk in October. How helpful is that?

What testing in the era of No Child Left Behind and its successors does accomplish is the creation of a toxic and stressful environment for everyone. The joy of learning and exploring is sucked right out of the room; curricula are narrowed and teachable moments left in the dust.

Of course in a perfect world teachers could just not worry about test scores. The reality, however, is far more harsh and possibly devastating.  Agree with it or not, state Departments of Education (including our own here  in Massachusetts), periodically attempt to tie student high-stakes test results to teacher evaluations. So far, thankfully, that effort in Massachusetts has failed.

Kids and teachers are more than a number. Isn’t it time schools used other measures beyond a test to evaluate learning and schools?

PARCC Week Day 4: Time Matters

IMG_0021If you haven’t yet looked at the PARCC sample tests available, you should (link here). It doesn’t matter what your connection might be to education – parent, teacher, child – take a look. The practice tests are available in both paper-pencil and computer form, but if you can, try out the computer based test (CBT) because that is the direction that high-stakes tests are headed by 2019. And as you work through the practice test, imagine yourself as a student taking these assessments.

The test administrator’s manuals gives some insight into how our students will experience paper-and-pencil version of PARCC this spring.  First of all, the tests which are now called units have time limits. This is a big deal and here’s why.

Prior testing using the MCAS assessment was untimed, meaning that a student could work for as long as needed to complete the exam as long as school was in session. The only limit to testing time was that the test had to be turned in at the end of the school day. I was a test administrator for MCAS for the 9 years I taught Grades 3 and 4. My students always needed additional time over the suggestions from MCAS to complete each test. Each year, the students used the time to work carefully.

Students who are designated as English Language Learners and/or have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan may have additional time to work on tests, just as allowed on the MCAS test. This is clearly outlined in PARCC’s Accommodations Manuals (see Appendix E here). That is good news for those students; however, there are many students without such plans for whom a timed test will not be beneficial.

The majority of my fourth grade students needed 3 1/2 or more hours as they carefully read, reread/reworked passages and problems, checked and transferred answers diligently to bubble (answer) sheets. They worked carefully and diligently to check and re-check questions and answers, going back into texts often to make sure they had made their best answer choice based on evidence from texts or had calculated a mathematical problem correctly. We ask our students to slow down, understand the task, and take apart the text or problem carefully to arrive at an answer. Now they need to hurry up.

Using information posted on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website, click the following link to see the number of “units” and test times for Grades 3 through 8 this year. PARCC Times

This schedule will be challenging for many. The PARCC administration “window” (time schools may schedule the tests) is April 25 – May 27.  April 25 is the first Monday after returning from school vacation and unlikely to be a test date. If the scheduled Early Release on May 4 remains, that would probably not be a test date either since the students needing additional time would have their available test time cut short. For this same reason, schools correctly will hesitate to schedule more than one “unit” in a school day. For a classroom teacher, moving ahead with new topics of instruction when ELLs or students on IEPs are still testing and out of the room makes the balance of a test day difficult to plan for.  Here’s hoping that temperatures during the four weeks of the test window are not extremely hot.

Even without a move to computer based testing this year, new test times will most likely make an impact on our students. Will students react to this more compact test window or new time limits during standardized testing?

PARCC Week, Part 2: Pearson

IMG_0021If you’re inside Education, you’ve probably got a good idea or at least name recognition for Pearson Education. And if not, well to paraphrase Lowell’s own Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Pearson is a prime example of the corporate take-over culture that infects business today.  Corporate giants adhere to a business model in which companies bid and buy smaller companies or competitors, mostly to get an already successful product developed by the second company. In lieu of development, one enterprise simply raids the pantry of another company, usually keeping the piece that they want to profit from and getting rid of most everything else.

Pearson has raided many of the educational publishing houses such as Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, Heinemann, Scott Foresman, and Ginn. Sadly now that Pearson owns them, many have ceased to exist as independent imprints.

Once Pearson obtained the lion’s share of the textbook publishing market, they moved on to the next great profit center: assessments. Pearson owns and manages the rights to several assessments that should be familiar territory to educators, such as DRA2 . Not surprising, Pearson has the rights to PARCC. Pearson was the successful bidder to the multi-year multi-million-dollar PARCC test. PARCC Inc. or PARCC Org. – Pearson has their hand in both.

When the PARCC Consortium, the group banding together to use PARCC as the required standardized assessment, began, there were 26 states committed to using this test.  As State Departments of Educations got a good look at test administration, the costs, the technology requirements, and experienced the delays in score reporting, many dropped out of the PARCC Consortium. At this writing, there are SIX remaining commited to administering PARCC (Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, plus D.C). Whether this is a factor or not, layoffs were announced this past week at Pearson.

Not to worry! States can also contract for parts of the PARCC test. Offering individual test items or parts of subtests seems to be a recent development to respond to states who are, shall we say, “uncomfortable” with the PARCC test in its entirety. States like Louisiana and now Massachusetts, have floated the idea that their replacement hybrid assessment, named MCAS 2.0 in Massachusetts, may contain a significant proportion of PARCC test items.

Pearson may be disappointed that the gravy train is not stopping at their corporate headquarters. However, it appears that they will manage to make a profit on PARCC one way or another.

Link to next post here.






PARCC Week, Day 1: Intro to Standardized Testing

As I sat down to write about my personal opinions about PARCC and standardized testing in general, I came to the realization that a single post might not be enough. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be posting about PARCC and some of the reasons it merits the attention of anyone connected to students – parents, teachers, and community members. This is the first entry of this series.

IMG_0021This week our local School Committee voted to change the Spring 2016 assessment tool from the previously approved (October 2015) Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to Parternship for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). The deed is done, but that doesn’t mean it has to stand forever.

As a third-grade and fourth-grade teacher for the last 9 years before I retired in June, I had quite a bit of experience with MCAS. My students were never part of the PARCC pilot, or try-out tests, but I have taken a good, long look at what PARCC releases on their website ( I reviewed test items as part of my personal work as educator as well as when I was a part of the team re-writing math curriculum to align with Common Core Standards.

Preparing students who are barely 9 years old for hours-long testing involves teaching test taking strategies. This does not mean teaching to the test. It means basic skills such as teaching students to scan questions prior to reading a passage, reading the italicized introduction to a reading passage, highlighting using allowable tools, staying within boundaries of open response question/answer areas, erasing bubble sheets, and making only one answer choice, ensuring that the whole test has been answered and no items left skipped, reading test items and dealing with tricky and subtle changes in wording, and it means preparing to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. Some may think that those listed strategies should be assumed; I would remind you of that old saying: ” when you assume….”. None of this is second nature to a 9-year-old.

Each year that I administered MCAS, I kept a notecard inside one of my desk drawers. On that card, I noted some factors of a students’ life that might negatively impact test performance. Why? Because invariably when the results of testing were released, teachers are rightly asked to look closely at the results and make instructional decisions to improve.  And now, in a more toxic environment, those test scores can become part of an evaluation of my teaching.

I don’t think my instruction was perfect and there are/were plenty of standards on which I could have done a more effective job. My notes, however, contained items such as “no glasses, broken and not replaced”, “arrived 2 hours after test began” and “upset and crying due to fight at home”. This is the reality of teaching in schools where trauma is high. To disregard the impact of such things on a child tasked with performing on a one-shot high-stakes test is foolish.

I dislike and distrust most high stakes testing. My English Language Learners (ELLs) – some years that population made up 75% of the classroom – are smart and funny and wonderful learners who easily misunderstood some of the subtleties of test language.  They’ll make sense of these tests and learn to deal with them, of course, but it will take more than a few years. Yet the Commonwealth punishes them by designating their test scores “needs improvement” or “warning”. What must that do to a child’s psyche? My students were always more than a number to me, but the Commonwealth doesn’t see it that way.

So through the lense of someone who has been in the room during testing, who has witnessed extraordinary effort of students to try to show their best performance on a snap-shot of their learning, over the next several posts, I will try to explain what it is that makes me even more apprehensive about this new assessment, the PARCC tests.

Next topic: The Corporate Connection

You are more than a number

We are at that time of the year when high stakes test prep is kicked into gear. I try to keep the required and inevitable test prep low-key and casual, if that’s even possible, because, for goodness sake — the kids are 10! 2014-11-25-lincoln-024

Here in my urban classroom, however, the tension and stress can be seen in my students’ actions and words. They have already endured round after round of mid-year assessment. Layering MCAS testing on top of that is like dousing your paper cut in hand sanitizer. Some kids are at the breaking point.

To O who wondered yesterday if he hadn’t been born, would the world (and I) be better off.  You are more than a number.

And to A, a kid with a tough exterior, but so hard on herself that tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped onto her desk because her reading score “wasn’t good.” You are more than a number.

To C who worries if she will “flunk the MCAS” and not go on to Middle School. You are more than a number.

To N who just wants to get a 4 on his report card. You are more than a number.

To all my sweet, hard-working students, who rise up to meet every challenge I throw at them in the best way that they know how. YOU ARE MORE THAN A NUMBER! And I apologize that you have to go through this.

Torn between not giving a rat’s behind and giving my students every strategy I can muster so they can get through this unfair and practically useless test is a non-stop debate I have in my head every day. MCAS tests our students on English Language Arts and Composition when we are barely three-quarters of the way through fourth grade. When my kids get their score – or number – how are they supposed to feel?

So for you, O and A and N and all of “my” kids, I apologize. You are so much more than a test score to me. You are funny, and enthusiastic, and curious, and talented and challenging, and I would never have wanted to miss out on knowing who you all are. You are more than a number, you are infinity.

It’s the poverty stupid

Remember when then-candidate Clinton – Bill, not Hillary – had a sign probably written by James Carville that read “It’s The Economy, Stupid”?

Well, to paraphrase in this age of educators-can-do-nothing-right, I’d like to say that as anyone who scratches below the surface of education knows, it’s the poverty, stupid.

The Alternet recently published an article summarizing some recent research concerning the effects of poverty on students. Read it for yourself here. The conclusion indicates that poor school performance is not about poor teacher performance. It is about hunger and trauma and the social ills that come from worrying whether or not your family will have a place to live when you arrive home or how hungry you will be because there is not enough money to buy food. Want to know more? Get your hands on Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

Educators know that we are not the only factor in a child’s academic “success”, especially when that success is defined by those who would quantify learning by the correct number of answer bubbles on a high-stakes test.

So many factors fall beyond an educator’s control and affect our students: medical care, hunger, lack of housing, parents who must work multiple jobs and long hours, and social factors such as the ones mentioned in articles.

This week my classroom has been battling the flu. Teaching children basic cleanliness routines, to use soap and water in fact, is not that unusual. Telling a parent that a child with a temp over 102 degrees that a trip to the doctor (or more likely the hospital emergency room) was in order – not a dose of Tylenol – is not that unusual.

Poverty and trauma affect children at their core. Kids who are hungry, or worried about where they will get their next meal; kids who don’t have a safe, clean environment in which to stay outside of school – those kids are not focused on whether or not Choice A or Choice C is the best answer to a test item.

Unless we as a society are willing to tackle the ugly and difficult issue of economic equality, I fear the stupidity will continue. It’s not just the teacher, it’s the poverty.