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 (parcc.org). 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

School Committee Meeting, 20 January 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, January 20, 2016

All members present.

DSC_0162Twenty-seven items were posted on this agenda which included an Executive Session to discuss contract negotiations and consideration of contract extensions for two Assistant Superintendents. Although most of the meeting was routine, there were two points that caused longer discussion: STEM at Lowell High and a move to use the PARCC test this Spring.

There appeared to be a glitch posting the packet and agenda on the LPS website for this meeting as it did not appear on the School Committee website until a day before the meeting. While this was resolved in time for the meeting, there is interest from the community in the agenda; it would be beneficial to also see the agenda in time for people to consider the issues being discussed.  By also publishing minutes for the Subcommittees, more citizens who are interested in the Lowell School System can better understand the issues facing the schools and understand and even contribute meanfully to the decision-making process.

Unfinished Business

The Establishment of Subcommittees and the members assigned to each committee was approved without discussion at tonight’s meeting.

The packet posted on the City of Lowell website and on the LPS School Committee page did not include this information. The Subcommittee webpage has not be updated since last year. So, at this point, the subcommittee member assignments are unknown. 

Motions

Agenda Item 10 (2016/12) made by Connie Martin formally invited the administration and students from Generation Citizen who presented their findings regarding Financial Literacy courses to the Curriculum Subcommittee meeting for further discussion of such a program. This action was a follow-up to last school committee meeting when the LHS group made a presentation of their project to the whole committee.

Agenda Item 13 (2016/13) made by Ms. Martin requested the Superintendent develop a comprehensive plan to restructure the district and accommodate the imminent increases in student population. This motion is very loosely tied to the request for modular classrooms for the Wang School (see Reports of the Superintendent).

Agenda Item 14 (2016/29) made by Mayor Kennedy requests the administration establish a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum at Lowell High and received more in-depth discussion. Mr. Kennedy reminds the committee that he initiated this requests last year from the City Council; the motion was referred to Subcommittee. The Mayor feels that such a curriculum will make Lowell and LPS more attractive to parents and students and cites US News & World Report ranking of STEM High School programs; Massachusetts has 15 recognized programs, Lexington High School being one of them. A suggestion that Lexington’s program might provide Lowell with at least a starting point. One suggestion was to structure STEM at the High School similar to the Latin Lyceum.

Mayor Kennedy feels referring this back to Curriculum Subcommittee will only cause implementation of the program, something he would like to see start in September 2016, to be delayed. There had been some discussion with Headmaster Martin who compared a STEM curriculum to what is already in place. That programs is referred to as Pathways. Quoting from the Lowell High website:

Our Pathway Programs provide opportunities for all students and their different abilities, interests and talents. Whether a student is planning to work immediately after high school, or will continue learning by attending a training program, a technical institute, a college or university, there are courses in our Pathway Programs that are right for every student.

Link here for more information.

In further discussion, Mr. Hoey would like to hear from Mr. Martin that implementing a STEM program is feasible. Mr. Gendron would also like to hear from the Headmaster; however he notes that STEM is already part of the district and wonders about the transition from Middle School STEM programs. In the end, the committee votes to support the original motion that directs the LPS to begin development of a STEM program.

My understanding of the Lyceum is that students must apply to participate in this four-year program or Pathway (we used to call this a “track”). This would be a question for the Committee – is the envisioned STEM High School program going to be for students who apply, or is it a choice in the track of coursework?  What would be the expectation or end-result of a student successfully completing the four year course of study? Parents will want to keep an eye on this as an opportunity for their students.

Reports of the Superintendent

  • Knowledge Bowl update: dates to note are March 7 – March 24, 2016.
  • Quarterly Financials: Amounts spent are consistent with previous years. Some amount encumbered to anticipate spending through rest of fiscal year.
    • Transportation is running a deficit ancitipated to be $179,000 (attributed to increase in transportation needs of SpED students);
    • Insurance account anticipated to have $300,000 shortfall (attributed to employee insurance status changes)
    • Grant funds – 8 new grants since last report resulting in an increase of funding close to $400,000
    • Revolving Account (milk/lunch) has about $2.8 million in account. Ms. Martin inquires about refunds due to parents who had prepaid lunch accounts prior to the free lunch program starting. Those amounts are still due parents, but as reported previously, this presents a logistical problem for City accounting. Mr. Antonelli is working with City to get refunds to parents.
  • Modular Classrooms: As a response to the population bubble anticipated for the Middle Schools in 2016, the District is requesting 2 modular classrooms to be installed at the Wang Middle School. Each classroom ($36,000) plus anticipated design (approximately $10,000) needed as the Wang has no room for additional students. Other middle schools throughout the city will also be taking in students of course (anticipated additional students anicipated for 2016-17 school year alone are 200 plus), but have some way to accommodate them. Students are assigned to Middle Schools from Grade 4 according to Zones, so that the population increase will be felt by all Middle Schools, not just the Wang. By requesting modulars for this year only, the Superintendent will have some time to look at a more comprehensive way to accommodate increasing Middle School student populations, anticipated to continue for the next 4 years.

I’m making an assumption/interpretation that the other schools have some ability to include more students with some scheduling or repurposed classrooms. For example, at the Lincoln School, there are 5, not 4 Fourth Grade classrooms this year accommodating an increased bubble class that has been making its way through the Lincoln School since Kindergarten. The “extra” classroom was originally a faculty meeting space; and had several other purposes since the building was constructed; once the bubble class “graduates”, a new program will be housed in that classroom space.

  • Project LEARN and Grant Updates. District continues to work in partnership with UML and MCC. Project LEARN has been very active thus far in helping schools to raise funds.
  • Personnel Report accepted as a report of progress.

New Business

Item 18 (2016/31) requested permission to post the position of Part-Time Office of Accountability Developer. The funding for this position is available through the end of the fiscal year (June 2016) using Title I funds. There is a lot of confusion about what funds are available for (student programs?, teaching staff?, consultants?); Dr. Khelfaoui is looking for someone with experience in Accountability to assist with rolling the currently organized accountability endeavors into the new strategic plan. Passes 6 to 1 (Ms. Martin votes no). Request for an organizational chart to help Committee Members understand realignment of duties and responsibilities.

After approving the request to post Accountability Developer and a transfer of funds to Teacher Academy, the big ticket discussion came up: Adoption of PARCC test for this spring (Agenda Item 2016/36). 

Superintendent Khelfaoui is requesting that the School Committee, which had previously rejected PARCC test in October 2015, now approve administration of PARCC in the Spring. Originally against using the PARCC test in Lowell, but now making the request to move to PARCC, Dr. Kehlfaoui cited the following:

  • While the online test administration for the pilot program in Lowell was disasterous (expensive, infrastructure demands), Commissioner Chester now allows that test can be administered in pencil/paper format. The Commissioner had visited Lowell on January 6, 2016.
  • Although we have great schools (shout-out to Bartlett for attaining Level 1 status), some schools are at Level 3 and preciptiously close to Level 4 even though the teachers are working hard to prevent this. Just one Level 4 school means the entire district will be designated Level 4; negating the extraordinary good work of schools at Levels 1 and 2 as well as any progress being made by Level 3 schools. It also will mean that, as a Level 4 District, there will be consequences impacting how the schools are managed (see the Commonwealth’s takeover of Lawrence and Springfield as examples).
  • Commissioner Chester has offered that any Massachusetts school district using PARCC this year will be held harmless. Meaning that test scores that go up will count toward moving a district UP, test scores that go down will not impact the school by moving it toward a lower level or designation. Note that while the school district is going to enjoy this breather, teachers may or may not – test scores are under discussion for consideration in teacher evaluation.

Mr. Gignac opened discussion by expressing concerns about PARCC and the lack of information available in the packet. He expresses his concern that there has been virtually no discussion or public input, and that there is pressure to make the decision (PARCC or MCAS) now. Mr. Gignac learned that some accommodations for IEPs are still disallowed. He has also discovered each test is to be completed within a specified amount of time where MCAS was not. Mr. Gignac says our students deserve the best education NOW; does holding the results harmless negate thorough analysis of data? He is puzzled that the deadline for making the decision to test using PARCC has passed, yet the School Committee is being asked to approve PARCC use tonight.

Discussion continued with school building administrators expressing that PARCC was enthusiastically being embraced by their building teachers. Jennifer McCrystal had spoken with DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to clarify the use of accommodations that were previously available in MCAS, and she had answers to many questions. Ms. McCrystal has committed to explaining this fully to interested parents and anyone else at the upcoming SpED Parent Advisory Meeting.

Paul Schlictman spoke about test from his vantage point as a district administrator and school committee member (Arlington). As the pool of schools taking MCAS shrinks, if Lowell continued to administer MCAS this school year, the probability of more Level 4 designated schools will likely increase (fewer schools taking MCAS will mean that Lowell Schools will be compared to a small subset of Massachusetts schools which increases the odds that any struggling school may find themselves with a Level 4 status). Ms. Abrams, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, states that while MCAS had served us well over nearly 20 years, students are ready for the rigors of PARCC because teachers teach to standards not to test.

Paul Georges, UTL president, spoke about the Union’s objection to all high-stakes tests and the punitive nature of tests like PARCC. While understanding that this is a difficult choice, he states that tests like this are punitive.  State Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester has recently been quietly removed as PARCC Board chair (link) and seems to have a ulterior motive in pushing PARCC. Corporations standing to make money on the change (Pearson Education) are pushing out this test and the high-stakes test agenda with little or no regard to expertise of educators.

Mr. Gendron says adopting PARCC, especially since the online requirement is removed, will buy time to find out about resources. (The Commonwealth is only offering E-rate which pays for infrastructure and not for hardware) Mr. Hoey echoes the sentiment that testing is punitive and states that having been on the School Committee when MCAS testing first began, he feels that children are being damaged by testing. Connie Martin also expresses reservations; however, will support adoption of PARCC as it appears as the District’s “only choice”. She is not enthusiastic.

In the end, the move toward PARCC was approved 5 yes, 2 no (Mr. Gignac and Mr. Hoey).

As this is mainly a report, I have tried to restrict my commentary in this post. However, it is clear to see that this is a decision that will cause our students – all of them, a great deal of stress. It is also clear that the PARCC issue really puts our school system in a difficult position. 

The Commissioner of Education’s recent visit to Lowell seems to indicate that he has put Lowell in his sites. Readers may recall that during his recent visit with the Murkland School, on one hand he was complimentary about their phenomenal success and with his next breath advocated a move toward PARCC and “encouraged the district to re-think its decision to stick with the MCAS state test this spring.”  Amelia Pak-Harvey’s story covering this visit can be found here.

I have many concerns about the PARCC test, or any high stakes tests actually, and our students, primarily English Language Learners (30% first language not English, 25% English language learners in district from Massachusetts DESE website). After having looked at the PARCC consortium and the web-based test samples for the last 3 years. I have concerns about this test when states that used to be part of the PARCC consortium leave it, sometimes after administering the test one time (Washington Post).

I have concerns when I hear that there are set limits on the amount of time for each subtest. I have reservation that fitting 7-8 test periods into a short test window (April 25-May 27 per DESE) will lead to test fatigue, students who are exhausted from days of testing.  

 I am relieved that paper-and-pencil versions will be used as the technology layer is one many of our students are not yet ready to conquer.  I appreciate that the English Language Arts test does not take place in early March as testing children on one years’s growth at the seven month point in a school year, as MCAS did, seems to be set up for failure.

I have a concern when a PARCC Executive Board member appears to be applying the hard-sell with school districts across the state (not just Lowell as it turns out) by making deals that ignore passed deadlines. That alone makes me wonder what the ulterior motive might be. We have recently learned Mr. Chester lost his chairmanship of the PARCC board. He is still a member of the PARCC Executive Board, however, and that, in my opinion is a conflict of interest concerning objectivity and this test.

Pragmatically, I understand the rock and hard place that caused the PARCC vote to pass. No one wants the specter of a Level 4 designation and the consequences that could accompany it (demoralization of staff, loss of local control, installation of school overseers) and by taking the “deal” (that being the incentive to not hold scores against the District) the LPS can avoid that.  Reading between lines – what was said and left unsaid – there was little choice for the Committee. What is unavoidable is that our students will be put through the wringer with a new assessment that may or may not provide useful curricular data, no performance data, and may still be used as a tool for teacher evaluation.

I plan to write about this in depth over the weekend from the perspective of a teacher who was in the midst of high-stakes testing in a lower performing school.  {Edited to include link 23 January 2016}

Executive Session

The committee ended the public portion of the meeting and went into Executive Session for the contract, litigation updates and to consider extensions of contracts to the Assistant Superintendents.

The link to the meeting packet can be found here.

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.

Unintended consequences

Most of the time when I see this phrase, it’s not a good thing. Today, however, there was an unintended consequence that fell into the plus side of the education balance sheet.

In anticipation of state testing, my students have been practicing writing to a prompt for a couple of weeks. This week, we practiced using this prompt from MCAS:

Think about a memory you have of a teacher. The memory could be something funny your teacher said or did, something your teacher taught you, a field trip you teacher took you on, or a time that your teacher made you feel proud.

Many children wrote about their Kindergarten teacher, or First or Second Grade. But one of my quietest students, unexpectedly wrote about me! Since the essay is about 6 pages long – dialog included – I won’t subject readers to the full writing. I certainly did hear my own voice projected through this student’s writing – some of the dialog describing a multiplication lesson seemed to come right out of my mouth with amazing accuracy! Hmmm, maybe I should be checking for recording devices?

But the words that this child wrote, the words that expressed this child’s feelings about me were that Mrs. Bisson “teaches in a funny way and gives you advice on how to remember important things”. What more could a teacher want than this?

After a difficult, stress-filled week at school, this child’s test prep (!) essay had the unintended consequence of lifting one bone-tired teacher’s spirits.

And that’s a wrap….

Yesterday, we – my class and I – wrapped up our standardized state testing for 2013.  What a long, strange, trip it has been.

Starting last March with our Reading MCAS test, my students have been demonstrating their knowledge of third grade skills.  That’s right, last March, when we were 7 months into our academic year (minus the week of snow days), my students had to demonstrate their end of year proficiency in Reading.  I may not have been the best math student on the planet, but I know that 7 months does not equal an entire school year.

Yesterday, students completed their Mathematics tests. They worked so hard it is easy to forget that they are not taking the SAT or PSAT; they are 8- and 9-year olds performing on tests that take unbelievable amounts of stamina even if you are older.

Kids are kids. While one child finishes a 45-minute test in 20 minutes, another will take twice or three times that time. One student completed the test twice – she literally went back to each question, reworked the answer and then wrote a sentence or two explanation for why her math was correct.  Two and one-half hours later, she finished this 45-minute test. After months of telling kids to “check, check, and double-check” your answers, I certainly was not going to discourage her effort!

We had the usual events out of our control: no glasses…. sick…. Hopefully the impact of those variables won’t be too great; however, my experience with MCAS – and now that it plays a part in my own teacher evaluation this becomes more important – is that it can have an impact and I do need to document just in case. Sad but true, MCAS is not just about student achievement.

So yesterday we put a period at the end of “MCAS 2013”, and today we return to our regular classroom routines. I can’t put a quantifier on it, but the classroom mood sure seems a lot lighter.

 

Go Ahead…. Make My Day

My students started their state testing yesterday.

While it continues to aggravate me that my kids are getting tested as if it were the end of the school year (which, believe me it is not!), the test is here and we need to deal with it. By the way, did I mention the test is scheduled before the second trimester has ended? And that this year the students will have had a week’s less of instruction because of the snow days we’ve piled up here in Massachusetts?

In the end, all I can do is ensure that my students have some strategies under their belts: strategies for decoding those challenging words – especially important for my English Language Learners, strategies for deriving word meaning within context, strategies for understanding what they’re reading, and strategies for making the best out of this testing situation.

I have no idea how my students did on yesterday’s test. I am not allowed (by law!) to even take a look through students’ completed test booklets to see that they haven’t skipped a question. I do know that I saw children who are 8- and 9-years-old diligently reading (read the directions, read the italics, read the questions, THEN read the selection), and underlining, and rereading, and writing.

If effort and persistence were something we were assessing, every single one of my kids would be proficient. And that makes my day.

Madness of Another Kind….

There are no brackets. There are only anxious and tense teachers and students. Stressed to the maximum. And the cracks are starting to show.

We are in the middle of our test marathons. Last week it was MEPA – Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessent, given to 15 out of my 22 children to assess their growth in English. This week – today actually – we start the Reading MCAS. Fifteen out of my 22 students will have endured two high-stakes and grueling tests within the space of 2 weeks.

Walls are covered or stripped of anything that could remotely be thought of as a study aide. Last year I had to rip desk tags from tops of desks because the tags had the audacity to show the cursive alphabet. I’ve covered birthday charts, removed math words, and even turned the labeled genre baskets in our classroom library around. No cheating.

This year we have a new feature to testing that will not prove anything except that 9 year olds are not adept at checking their test booklets. We teachers have always been sworn to not look at the questions/test materials on the MCAS – please explain how I proctor students to ensure they do not go on to another section of the test that is off-limits when I can’t look at the test <sigh>.

Students – those very same 9 year olds – must check their own test booklets to ensure they haven’t forgotten to fill in a bubble answer. This is new and worrisome. If you’ve ever met a 9 year old, you know they are not usually meticulous about details. If they turn 2 pages of a test booklet at a time and skip 6 answers, for them, that is an “oops” moment. And it is frequent. It is making me very tense because my students need every answer they can muster and to punish them for normal kid-stuff seems mean. And maybe meant to up the ante in proving teachers don’t know what they are doing.

I feel like there is so much more my kids could know of third grade curriculum before being tested. And there is, of course. It is mid-March; school does not end for 90 days – one-quarter of a school year later. What could possibly be the motive for testing children on end-of-year skills 3/4 of the way through their learning cycle? Seriously?

The cracks are showing. Kids are acting out. Teachers are not smiling. No one is happy.

Welcome to March Madness – public school style.