It’s Not That Simple….

IMG_2565Senator Charles Shumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi have published their collective ideas supporting public education.  Their 5-point proposal can be found in this USA Today article. I read their ideas with great interest, particularly as recent Democratic administration proposals have not been very supportive of Public Schools and the 90% of students who attend them. Take a look at the often high stakes test-reliant and misguided education policies like Every Child Succeeds or Race To The Top.

I often find it illuminating to read comments attached to news articles, even when my own views are in disagreement with the commentary. I like to try to understand what people who don’t live and breathe edu-issues think.

I try to stay above the fray and not get pulled into debates with anonymous readers. However, today, I couldn’t help myself.  One comment at the end of the Shumer/Pelosi op-ed was predictably that teachers should be judged on the basis of student test scores.

As a former educator, and one who proctored high-stakes testing many, many times, I can’t disagree more.  There are far too many outside factors that can – and do – influence a student’s performance on a standardized test, and quite a number of these influences are out of the classroom teacher’s control to mediate. Education is not the simple act of pouring knowledge into children.

So I broke my own rule this morning and responded to the comment. And this is what I wrote:

…., but I disagree with this. I was an elementary educator and unafraid to take on some of the most difficult to educate throughout my career. In the city in which I worked, that meant students who were learning English as they learned grade level skills and concepts, behaviorally and emotionally challenging students and those children who came from traumatic home situations. Tying my performance as an educator simply to test scores would not tell the whole story of whether or not I was an effective teacher. It would only tell whether or not my non-native English language speakers, special education, and economically diverse students could master a standardized test. Teacher effectiveness and evaluations need to include some holistic assessments and consideration of how academic growth can be influenced by outside factors.

A single measurement is not any way to assess whether or not a teacher is effective. Nor is it a way to measure whether a teacher deserves a merit pay bonus (spoiler alert: I think those merit bonuses kill the collaboration needed to fully support and educate a child).

Tying a student’s performance on a high-stakes assessment does not tell the story of whether or not a teacher is effective.

Data Digging

IMG_0021This article, found in the December 5, 2017 New York Times and titled How Effective Is Your School District, should trigger some more in-depth thought about test results and effective schools. The assumed narrative hyped by press and edu-crats, is that urban school systems, more particularly public urban schools systems, are failing to educate students.

My experience with standardized testing and assessment of children based solely on such measurements has not been all that informative or enlightening. As an example, the last class of fourth grade students I taught before retiring regularly wrote reflective responses to their reading. Their writing was (developmentally) appropriate and most were meeting grade level standards based on the rubrics and inter-rater discussions my colleagues and I used as an assessment guide. Yet the results of their state standardized testing did not reflect that.

One could certainly make the case that, in knowing my students, there could have been a layer of subjectivity which I applied during my assessment, but I don’t think that was true very often. In fact, when my grade level colleagues and I looked at student work, my assessments were most often in alignment with theirs.

So what does this anecdote have to do with school effectiveness?

For most if not all of the years when I was teaching in urban and high poverty schools, I felt as if there were more factors influencing students’ tests and my school’s educational effectiveness. And, as Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy point out in the Times article, by looking more deeply at test results and tracking student growth over time, the rest of the universe just may discover what educators have known in their gut: that when students begin education from trauma and poverty, it may take a bit of time – years actually – to catch up and many students do.

Badger and Quealy refer to third grade students in Chicago Public Schools. Collectively those students are a year or more behind when tested in Grade 3; however, by Grade 8, many of these same children have grown 6 years and are nearly at Eighth Grade performance expectation. To me, that shows a school system that despite being nearly starved to death financially, is able to provide effective education to students, many of whom come from situations of poverty and trauma.

Looking more analytically at standardized test results over time might actually show urban (and southern) schools are actually working. Using a measurement of student growth alongside those performance results shows some remarkable results. Be sure to utilize the graphic further into the article where a reader can add the name of a local district to view that district’s result on the scatter plot.


Could it be that our urban districts are models for effective education?  Here’s some solid data that shows that effective schools are not only found in wealthier communities. And it’s a good place to ask how our urban schools are effectively fostering student growth in educational achievement.

The Test Participation Penalty

I wonder how many parents have submitted a letter to opt a child out of state mandated testing (MCAS2.0)? And in the process of opting-out, were any of those parents called to discuss their choice with the school administrator? IMG_1596

According to the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, parents need to have a choice in a child’s education. It appears, however, that “choice” has limits.

According to state and federal government, there should be a “choice” of educational setting.  School setting is a choice, whether it is public, charter, private, or religious. That’s a good choice according to the government. Using federal funds to pay for vouchers? That’s the current federal proposal. And our government claims that that kind of choice is also a “good” choice.

However, if you exercise your parental judgement by choosing to opt your child out of long, arduous, standardized tests like MCAS 2.0 or PARCC, then your choice as a parent is questionable. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education really does not want parents to make that choice. Why? Because in assessments, unless a significant number of students participate in those tests, the reported results may become skewed or inaccurate.

The issue of test participation rates is part of the newest federal education act, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). The current DESE draft of Massachusetts’ ESSA application states that:

E. Participation Rate. Describe how the State is factoring the requirement for 95 percent student participation in assessments into its system of annual meaningful differentiation of schools consistent with the requirements of 34 C.F.R. § 200.15.

A school’s summative performance level will be lowered if that school assesses less than 95% of students in the aggregate or for any subgroup that meets a minimum N size of 20.

Broken down to simpler terms, this statement means that if a group of parents decides that MCAS 2.0, the standardized test in Massachusetts, is harmful to their child, the entire school and school district could be penalized. The penalty is to lower a school’s rating (Level 1, high to Level 5, low) by one level if less than 95% of students eligible for testing participate.

Here’s a mathematical example: A Pre-K through Grade 4 school may have 500 students. The two grades that participate in state testing within that school are Grades 3 and 4. Perhaps there are 100 students in each of these grades (200 total). If the parents of 11 student request that their children be excused from MCAS 2.0, as is their parental right, then according to the regulation, the state will lower the school’s level rating by one.

I believe a new feature of the ESSA draft is that participation rates apply to subgroups of students. An example of a subgroup would  be a group of students from a given school who are also identified as English Language Learners, Students with Disabilities, or Economically Disadvantaged students.  Applying the 5% non-participation rate penalty, if there are 25 children identified as Students with Disabilities in Grades 3 and 4, and parents of as few as 2 students choose to opt them out, then the school’s level rating could be lowered.

The stakes for building and district administrators to maintain excellent school ratings are quite high, and therein lies the conflict between parental choice and the unfair penalties for participation rates. The feds bully the states, the states in turn bully the districts, and the principals and parents are caught up in a conflict of choosing what is best for students.

Parents should not have their decision as to whether or not to subject their child to standardized MCAS 2.0 testing questioned if opting-out is truly a choice. If too many opt-outs skew the test results, maybe it’s time to look at the value of the assessment.

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

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.

The Joyless Pursuit of Excellence

Last Friday as I watched one of my favorite weekly shows (Greater Boston‘s Beat the Press segment), I heard panelist Margery Eagan describe the atmosphere at the Boston Globe as the “joyless pursuit of excellence”. In our local newspaper world, there is no doubt that the Globe is a superb paper and even when I don’t agree with their editorial positions, the articles are well-written and in-depth.

What I didn’t know until Eagan’s comment, was this phrase is commonly associated as the motto of (former) editor Marty Baron.

The more I considered this phrase, the more powerfully I was struck by its connection to the educational environment today. So often educators – and administrators – talk about the stress of preparing students for assessments, or adhering to standards of achievement. I  don’t know anyone really who isn’t committed to their students and to helping those children learn, yet we are all always feeling as if what we do does not measure up.

Even the joy of seeing a student who is (finally) “getting it” becomes overshadowed by the fear that it wasn’t on the time schedule thought up by some faceless bureaucrat in a faraway place well-insulated from actual children.

Certainly we all want to be excellent educators, and more to the point, we want our students to be excellent too. But as to joy? Those moments seem elusive.

I don’t have a solution except to become more cognizant that, along with the stress, we all need a lot more joy. I need to make my journey a more joy-filled pursuit of excellence.

Opening the Newspaper Can Hazardous to Your (Mental) Health

Caught a news article in today’s Boston Globe – which you may or may not be able to read depending on whether or not the Globe is instituting its $16-a-month subscription fee.  Here it is, just in case: State aims to test its youngest students (October 2, 2011).

I’m relieved to hear that this is not an “early MCAS”, that kindergarten students won’t be tossed out of kindergarten (really? that was on someone’s radar?), that Kindergarten students won’t have to fill in bubble sheets or write essays.  If the Globe article is correct, the assessment will be used to determine what resources early childhood students may need. And while this is laudable, I agree with the Boston Public Schools director of Early Childhood education – we already assess students quite a lot – in Boston’s case, there are 14 other assessments; is there really a need for another? It appears the answer is in making the state eligible for grant funding offered through RTT…. hmmm, is that reason enough to put 5-year-olds through another battery of tests?

The Globe article continues to point out that 3rd grade MCAS scores are flat; that scores in high-poverty cohorts haven’t improved much.  Well, there’s a shock; and here’s a factor that won’t require anyone to test a 5-year old. Poverty and the traumas students deal with are a gigantic factor in whether or not students in the urban school districts cited as not performing can test as well as more affluent peers.

You see, when you come to school hungry you can’t think. When your family has been kicked out of your apartment, when the power is turned off, when the world around you is one big sh**storm, you probably won’t do well on a standardized test. Dare I say that test-taking may not be the most important part of your day?

Until we get serious about providing a social safety net for those who are most vulnerable, you can test kindergarteners, third graders and any one else you want. The results will be the same – and all that will be accomplished is that a company who writes and provides scoring for a test will get rich.