PARCC Week, Day 3: Dangerous Liaisons

Who is this Mitchell Chester and why is he so invested in PARCC testing?

IMG_0021Mitchell Chester is the current Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts. Think of that as a district superintendency, but on a state level. He was unanimously selected to be Massachusetts Commissioner of Education in 2008, following a 7-year stint in Ohio as Senior Associate Superintendent for Policy and Accountability in Ohio’s Department of Education.  His career path began as an elementary teacher in Connecticut and progressed through various administrative positions at school, district, and state levels. All of which makes for an impressive resume.

However, here is where I think Dr. Chester has gone off the rails: PARCC.

Mitchell Chester currently serves on the PARCC governing board. Up until November 2015 when he was quietly replaced by the Governing Board Member from New Mexico (Hanna Skandera), he was the Chair of this group whose responsibilities include the following, to quote PARCC.org website:

The PARCC consortium Governing Board makes major policy and operational decisions, including decisions related to the overall design of the assessment system, adoption of performance levels for the assessments, and modifications to PARCC’s governance structure and decision-making process, as necessary.

The Commonwealth’s Board of Education was determining whether or not to mandate PARCC as the replacement for MCAS at the same time that Mitchell Chester was seated on the PARCC Governing Board.

Interestingly, Dr. Chester was replaced as Chair of the PARCC Governing Board shortly after Massachusetts declined to use PARCC assessments state-wide.

At the same time Dr. Chester was Chair of the Governing Board at PARCC – the assessment test proposed as the accountability assessment for the Commonwealth. The Pioneer Institute, an independent think tank, outlines reasons that Dr. Chester’s connections to the PARCC Governing Board were problematic in this post from July 2015.

Move forward to November 2015 when the Commonwealth’s Board of Education was to vote on whether or not to commit to PARCC. By this time, it was clear that the public was not in favor of being railroaded into a PARCC commitment. However, miraculously, just as the Board was meeting to make this decision, Dr. Chester was able to come up with a compromise: Massachusetts would create its own assessment to replace MCAS. The new assessment would be called MCAS 2.0 and would be a hybrid of PARCC and MCAS.

Gradually over the next weeks, the independence of MCAS 2.0 from PARCC was whittled away. At first, the new assessment would only have the look and feel of PARCC; the new hybrid assessment would be developed just for Massachusetts.  Next came the news that PARCC decided states could purchases/contract some of the PARCC test if the whole was not desired. The decision to allow a la carte test items suspiciously coincided with Massachusetts’ rejection of PARCC as their state-wide assessment.

Questions remain concerning the percentage of PARCC test items to be inserted into PARCC, but I have read percentages ranging from 70% to 90% PARCC.   Could MCAS 2.0 just be PARCC with a new name?

For the life of me, I cannot understand how this is not called out as a blatant conflict of interest. While Dr. Chester’s boss, Governor Baker, doesn’t seem to think there is a problem (see WBUR interview and report), the Commissioner’s connections to the PARCC Governing Board seem just a little too cozy.

Here are some weblinks for further reading:

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 (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.

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.

School Committee Meeting, 21 October 2015

DSC_0044_edited-1What follows are some highlights from a very lengthy School Committee meeting. In place of a bulleted list of meeting agenda items (the meetings are televised and rebroadcast by LTC), I’ve included some explanatory commentary. Why?  Education issues are often fairly complicated; we use too many acronyms and assume what is obvious to those of us who live in the educational world is just as obviously clear to those who may not.

I decided to make School Committee Meeting commentary part of my education blogging for several reasons, the main purpose is to clarify why we should all care about and pay attention to local decisions impacting our schools. When we all understand the implications of decisions and work together to support Lowell on the path to becoming one of the great urban school districts, everyone, but especially our children, benefits.

So here is my first offering, a synthesis of the major points of the meeting.My own opinions are highlighted in italics. If you have suggestions and or commentary that might make these posts more informative and helpful, I welcome them.

Meeting Wednesday, October 21, 2015

All seven committee members were present for this meeting. The Spotlight on Education portion of the meeting highlighted the achievements of the Kindergarten through Grade 8 Summer Math Program.

One of the first agenda items to receive close attention was Item 7, a motion to go on record in opposition to the PARCC Tests (Partnership to Assess Readiness for College and Careers) by Steve Gendron.  After discussion, the committee has decided to approve communicating opposition to PARCC with a “friendly amendment”. The operative words “at this time” expressed the reservations discussed: namely that the PARCC will be very expensive in terms of time and equipment and, at this writing, those expenses seem to fall on local school budgets. I have previously written about my own concerns regarding PARCC tests and will reblog those posts separately.

As the Lowell Schools, and most of the schools across the US, are currently tying curriculum to the Common Core Standards, there could be a perceived disconnect between the curriculum (Common Core) and the standardized tests (MCAS, PARCC and Smart-Balance used in some states). This is a complicated issue as the Common Core standards themselves are controversial, and there are efforts underway to return Massachusetts to prior curriculum standards.  

Additionally, Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Education (DESE – Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), just this week suggested the PARCC could be replaced by a hybrid of the MCAS (current) assessment system. (see link to Commonwealth Magazine). This hybrid is referenced as MCAS 2.0. It is unknown whether MCAS 2.0 will just look like a mildly reworked PARCC, thereby not making any substantive change. Mr. Chester is also head of the PARCC Consortium, a group formed to advance the use of this test throughout the US as a way to test Common Core standards. In my opinion, if even the Commissioner who has a bias toward adopting PARCC,  is abandoning this assessment, there is reason to question whether or not to adopt it at all.

As for the expense of PARCC implementation in Lowell, there are several factors. The technology infrastructure was overloaded last year when a pilot, or small group of schools experimented with the test administration on iPads and laptops.  Additional technology infrastructure and hardware would be required. Estimates are currently in the $2 million range. That’s $2 million that Lowell does not have laying around. In the words of Mr. Leary, the state (or feds) need to “fund the mandate”. 

Newcomer Programs and Additional ELL Teachers

As an urban district, it is not a surprise that Lowell has a rather large population (29%) of English Language Learners which include newcomers. Mr. Leary noted that the newcomer program costs were reimbursed (by the state?) at about a 50% rate, leaving the City and School Department budget to come up with the rest.  Given the 29% ELL population, the shortfall numbers will not be sustainable and will impact other budgetary items and programs.

The School Department prepared a detailed rationale and analysis of the need for assistance and issued a letter to our congressional representatives at the federal level.  The Committee has requested that Dr. Khelfaoui and his administration continue to keep the need for (financial) assistance on the minds of legislators at both state and federal levels and perhaps work in coordination with other schools in similar circumstance to bring this to the forefront.

In a related agenda item, Lowell Schools have requested 5 additional ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers to support the mandated 45 minutes per day support for higher performing ELLs (English Language Learners) and 90+ minutes per day support for early English acquisition students. Performance levels are tested and tracked via yearly testing. Note: All classroom teachers are required to have an “endorsement” on their teaching license that they have been trained in differentiation techniques for ELLs. An ESL teacher has more specialized training to help students acquire English skills needed in content areas, for example.

The School Committee supported this motion; the funding for the 5 positions will be presented at the next meeting. Funding is pending approval at the state level to transfer money from an Early Childhood revolving account.

Other Agenda Items

Two other agenda items were discussed more thoroughly: a motion from Kim Scott to address quality of food in the cafeteria (including returning to in-house food services) and a review of the District finances.

As the contract with Aramark is expiring this year, the Committee members would like to survey students and families about the food quality, and review Aramark’s performance ahead of any decisions to renew or revise the food services contract.

A review of the budget expenses by Mr. Antonelli revealed that the district has expended or encumbered about 18% of the budget and this is considered within the normal range of operations.  There is a concern, however, that the budgeted amount for insurance will show a deficit by the end of the fiscal year. This seems to be due to more employees choosing the indemnity plan. When questioned further, Mr. Antonelli explained that the budgeted amount is derived after consultation with the City CFO and generated prior to the Open Enrollment period when employees choose their insurance plan. Therefore, while the budgeted amount may be a “best guess”, there are factors which can cause it to be inaccurate.

The agenda and meeting packet for this meeting can be found at this link.

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.