Category Archives: Assessment

Understanding the “Every Student Succeeds Act”

Congress appears to be poised to pass an overhaul of NCLB, and in a convenient move have maintained the four-letter acronym standard. While time shall tell if “Ess-Uh” will have more staying power than “Nickle-Bee,” there are probably more pertinent issues to consider. Before doing so, however, it is worth noting as a good lesson in civics that buried at around page 914 (of 1061) of the Every Student Succeeds Act is a posthumous pardon of a early 20th-century heavyweight boxer convicted on racially motivated and thus baseless charges. But I digress (as does the bill, clearly).

The things to consider paying attention to…with citations to the page number of this document, the published text of ESSA, as relevant to the topic:

Testing
Not gone. In fact, not changed all that much. The federal government will still require testing at the same grade levels it currently does (page 54), but what will be different (to an extent) appears to be how these results will be used. Rather than nationwide, uniform and unrealistic goals (100% proficiency by a year ago), states will have the power to establish appropriate goals, have these goals reviewed though some as-yet-to-be-determined process, after which they would be submitted to the federal level (starts on page 80). If the assessment and accountability plans designed at the state level are rejected at the federal level, states are guaranteed a hearing.

Significantly, standardized test scores are no longer the main means of judging a school’s effectiveness. Rather, a combination of factors must be considered, with test scores being part rather than all (page 85).

Interestingly for those of us at the secondary level, the bill also appears to open the door to use of tests such as the ACT and SAT as the high school standardized test (source).

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High School Redesign?

Last week, the Obama Administration announced the offer of $375 million to support what it calls “Next Generation” high schools in an effort to improve graduation rates and career and college readiness (with a distinct emphasis on STEM as the be-all, end-all solution).

I am not anti-STEM, but I do not believe that preparing students for STEM careers ought to be the sole valued purpose for school redesign. As I read the press releases and fact sheets, I also see repeated references to innovation. Paired in the right sentence, “high school redesign” and “innovation” are truly exciting. However, if the word “innovation” is intended to mean “more STEM,” then I don’t think we’re heading down the right path. Adding more science and math is not a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t amount to innovative redesign. If we are going to truly redesign what high school looks like, we need to do more than revise the course catalog or offer more internships in the community (also a major theme in the redesign literature released last week, also not a bad thing, but also not really a realistic “innovation” for all communities and all students).

Ultimately, adopting new standards, offering new classes or internships, layering on teacher accountability measures, or mandating exit assessments will not broadly result in school reform until we address the one resource that no school reform movement has meaningfully addressed: time.

By this I do not mean adding more time to the day or even the school year. I mean that we need to utterly rehaul how we structure the time both teachers and students spend at school. And by how we structure time I also mean whether we structure time.

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Stop Confusing Assessment and Accountability

“While some tests are for accountability purposes only, the vast majority of assessments should be tools in a broader strategy to improve teaching and learning. In a well-designed testing strategy, assessment outcomes are not only used to identify what students know, but also inform and guide additional teaching, supports, or interventions that will help students master challenging material.”

(Source)

The above passage is from an October 24 United States Department of Education  Fact Sheet about “overtesting,” which tacitly acknowledged that the “accountability and assessment” movement in public schools has surpassed ridiculous proportions. The first page of the Fact Sheet even contained a half-hearted mea culpa that the federal powers bore “some of the responsibility for” the current norm of “unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students,” which has ended up “consuming too much instructional time… creating undue stress for educators and students.”

I absolutely agree that “overtesting” is a major problem. The Fact Sheet calls for a cap of 2% of instructional time being devoted to standardized testing (which still amounts to between 20 and 22 hours of standardized testing per kid, per year). This is a start, I suppose.

My bigger issue, though, comes in the paragraph I included at the top of this post. Specifically that opening clause: “While some tests are for accountability purposes only.”

I want to make this clear: No test should be used “for accountability purposes only.” Ever. Period.

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Secrets Student Share Help Me to Help Them

Irene

This guest post comes courtesy of Irene Smith, an EA ELA NBCT in Yakima, Washington, who teaches English Language Arts, Social Studies and more to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Discovery Lab School.  She and her students produce a full length Shakespeare play every year, and she is currently writing a companion text for The Tempest.

You may find this strange.

I collect students’ notes that they pass to each other. Sometimes I catch them passing their little missives and keep them. Sometimes I find them left on a desk or floor, tucked into a drawer or left on a filing cabinet. My students are aware of my fixation with their notes. Sometimes they even purposefully pass one in class in hopes that I’ll collect it in order to find the “Hi Mrs. Smith!” folded up inside. Some students purposefully intercept or find notes to bring to me.

I never read the notes aloud. I just save them until I’m alone to see what the message is. Mostly they are of relative unimportance- I m bored L. But not infrequently, they are full of mystery and angst.

Middle school students are careless, but I suspect they may sometimes leave these notes in order to let me in on their secret communications, to become more closely acquainted with their private worlds, and to help me understand them better.

Dear people at my school, I’m so sorry I’m weird. I’m sorry I don’t fit in. I’m sorry I don’t look pretty like all of you.

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How Will the NCLB Affect the Common Core?

ccss2By Tom White

The big news out of Washington DC is the long-delayed rewrite of the odious NCLB bill. The House and Senate have both passed their versions, which means it’s now time for them to reconcile and send something to the president. Either bill will dramatically change the Federal Government’s role in education policy in terms of accountability and testing. But what I’m most concerned with is the status of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), since both bills prohibit the Federal Government from imposing or even encouraging states to adopt the CCSS.

This represents a sea change. Continue reading

School Improvement?

We’re in that “waiting season” where we know the tests have been taken, but we don’t yet know what the outcomes will be. For my high school, because of a high SBAC refusal/non-participation rate, and if my reading of this somewhat convoluted document is correct, it looks like we are going to end up in Step Three of Improvement next year, despite passing rates that in the past have not only exceeded the state average but which in many cases are high enough as to be legally suppressed by privacy laws (it’d be too easy to identify the small proportion of students who didn’t pass).

Step Three of Improvement means additional professional development for teachers, offering our patrons public school choice, offering supplemental education services, and also a plan for corrective action which includes moves to “replace specific school staff, change curricula and provide professional development, decrease management authority, consult with an outside expert on your school improvement plan, and extend the school day or year” (source). Like so much around the alphabet soup of state- and national-level assessments, I’m confused by it all, and I sincerely hope that some reader who understands it better than I do will raise a red flag and point out where I’ve misunderstood this all.

Does my school have room to improve? Absolutely. Every school does.

Is the state test and SBAC participation data the data that will best inform what we need to improve upon?

Nope.

On Equity, Privilege, and Testing

equality_vs_equityI believe that annual testing can be a tool of equity, revealing critical data that teachers, administrators, and districts can use to improve their instruction for all students, but especially marginalized populations. Moreover, I assert that we cannot separate issues of race and class from our discussion about education policy around standardized tests.

After fifeteen days of SBAC, my post-testing student reflections revealed a delightful surprise. The biggest complaint was not the lack of breakfast, the poor sleep from a loud, crowded apartment, the fact that many read below grade-level, or even the 81° classroom. It was the lack of time to finish the multiple choice section. One student even wrote a hilarious note to the test scorers saying, “if you want me to pass this, give me more time”. So, despite my irritation with lost instructional time, I look forward to the data because I know my students tried their best.

Since Brown v. Board, our country has struggled to provide fair, equitable access to education for all students. In attempts to “even the playing field”, local government created committees like the Equity and Civil Rights Office to ensure that all students have “equal access to public education without discrimination” (OSPI). Their definition of discrimination includes the usual “race, sex, etc.” but nothing is mentioned about inequitable opportunities resulting from teacher biases that only favor students of privilege. Nothing is noted about the dehumanizing effect of low expectations on students of color.

My current concern is regarding the equity of testing data and the privilege it is to “opt-out”. Shortly after my post, a handful of civil rights groups declared opting out was hurting kids The following day a rebuttal appeared arguing these groups are wrong. Reading both articles, one gets a sense that–no surprise–we need more nuance in our discussions about standardized testing. For every “pro” news article, a similar “cons” source will pop up. All stakeholders provide evidence to support their point of view–most of which are insulated by their own beliefs on race and class in America. Few, it seems, acknowledge these limitations. I am certainly no expert on the topic. However, through my research, I am learning the following:

1) Annual testing is a critical component to holding politicians and education accountable to students and their families (see my new fav blogger– Citizen Stewart). Enough said?

2) Despite some effort to enlist people of color in the movement through advocacy and multi-lingual documents, privilege remains a significant and unexplored component of the opt out movement.

I’m certainly not saying that taking a standardized test is a privilege. But the people who opt out have a certain societal privilege. Privilege is what makes opting out a low-stakes exercise in civil disobedience rather than the “academic death” it can be for families and students of color (Stewart).

3) Concealing data gleaned from standardized testing is a civil rights issue.

While all don’t exactly agree, communities of color are writing about the opt out movement as a civil rights issue because standardized tests provide data to measure inequalities (check out recent article and this piece “The Civil Wrongs Movement” ). On the one hand, critics argue that the ranking and sorting of students is detrimental to the learning. On the other, data gives teachers and schools an opportunity–and this is what we’ve termed the “opportunity gap”.
If we remove data we are erasing information (again see Stewart, episode 9).

4) Just because it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we have the right to erase the data.

I was heartbroken (and angry) when 2/3rds of my 4th period were failing English at semester. I had to accept it and find ways to change the numbers–not by ignoring them but by changing what I did in the classroom. I asked a trusted colleague to map classroom discourse, switched up my routines, and intentionally problem solved. Although it’s not perfect, more kids are passing and excelling this semester. To me, that’s a win.

While I doubt very few opt-out advocates actually want to erase data, their movement has perhaps unintended consequences. Who is the population that is least harmed by this “erasing” of data? Families with economic power and white. We need data to hold ourselves accountable. We can’t have an honest conversation about who we are leaving behind without the data. Using common assessments is a way to reveal gaps for all students, especially traditionally marginalized or underserved. We could spend hours analyzing the ways students are discriminated against on a system wide level, yet once again I will say that discrimination via low expectations for students in poverty or students of color by teachers and other adults remains a primary barrier. Hence, my next point.

5) The way we talk about data reveals our personal biases, privileges and internalized racism.

Notoriously, low test scores get attributed to innate cultural differences and inadequacies, “absent fathers”, and apathetic communities. This is dangerous logic. If I say things like “these kids can’t do that kind of work” or “this just shows they aren’t really Honors kids”, I reveal hidden prejudices in my practice few are willing to call me out on. My experiences with certain educators–many but not all who are white–exposes a need. I heard one opt-outer say in regards to the SBAC that, “We know they [the students of color] will be viewed as failing”. First, “we know” indicates her confidence. Second, “will be viewed as failing” implies this is the only way one can view student scores. I can’t help but think this person has low expectations of students of color. We haven’t seen the data from the SBAC. We don’t know which students will pass or fail. We don’t yet know to what extent the data will be useful. We need to examine how we talk about or represent students of color in our conversations about data. Are we assuming results before they happen? Are we blaming outside factors rather than trying to find the solutions to equipping these students better? Are we masking our own biases, hiding behind a movement?

6) We need more data. More data does not mean more testing. See Nathan Bowling’s post “On Having One’s Cake and Eating it Too”.

To conclude, I don’t have all the answers. I am growing in my process and thinking but I ask you do as well. I want to end on a final thought by Citizen Stewart, “Civil rights groups are right to push for annual testing and to keep the racially unequal results of those tests front and center. They should continue to fight even when friends oppose them. Let’s not be confused: disabling and sabotaging data mechanisms is usually a strategy of people opposed to civil rights, not those who claim to support social progress.”

Student Perspective on the SBA

I am finally done testing, hooray, hooray. After we got all done, I asked my fifth grade High Cap students to critique the tests for me. I’ve noticed a lot of discussion on Stories from School about what adults think about the SBA. I thought that by this point people might be interested in the kid perspective.

First, a number of kids commented that several questions on the SBA were “super unclear.” On the other hand, they said the MSP was much easier to understand.

Solution? I bet the test questions seemed clear to the test writers. But the questions need to be equally clear to the intended audience—the test takers. The SBA group needs to scrub the tests again for clarity. It wouldn’t hurt to get some children in to do proofreading. (I know kids who would be happy to volunteer! My students gleefully pointed out every spelling and grammatical error they found on the practice tests!)

Second, my students were pretty unanimous that the math tools on the SBA were horrible. For example, they complained it was terribly difficult to put the correct answer onto the number line because the space allotted for the answer was so small. They felt it was far too easy to make a mistake due to the tools rather than due to an error in the math. In addition, they said the math tools for drawing lines were clunky. And trying to fix mistakes was a complex multistep process.

In the same way they were very frustrated with the tools in the ELA test, especially the spellcheck. None of the ELA tools worked nearly as well as normal Word tools worked. The kids could not understand why the test would make them use tools that were less efficient and less functional.

Solution? Supposedly the SBA is designed to test content, process, and critical thinking skill knowledge, right? But the test also introduces the added stress of, “Now also try to figure out how to use unfamiliar, less intuitive, less user-friendly, awkward, badly-designed tools.” Most computers in most schools in the state use Microsoft Office, don’t they? Why don’t we get Microsoft tools on the SBA? By next year!

Third, the students didn’t actually say anything to me about how long the testing took. They just looked more and more dragged out and exhausted as the testing sessions went on. Someone posted on one of the blogs that the testing is “just ten hours.” Not for my class! I had students who spent 20 hours on the SBA with another two or more hours on the MSP. When they finally finished the SBA and the MSP and then had to do STAR reading and math, they moaned. They never complain about STAR testing. But they were whipped after this year’s testing experience.

I’ve never had a class go through a testing marathon anything like this. My National Board testing didn’t take that long. The bar exam doesn’t take that long. But here we are subjecting 10-year-olds to that level of testing.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to subject my child to anything like this. I wouldn’t want to subject myself to testing sessions of this length!

Solution? We had five days of SBA testing. No single day of SBA testing should take more than half a day, max. Really, if you can’t tell what you want from two and a half days of a student’s work, you need to redesign the test.

Finally, I had one other thing about the SBA bother me this year that had never bothered me in previous years, on previous tests. We’ve had writing tasks on tests before. But the ELA performance task was different. It gave kids the extra time to craft a well-developed story.

At the end of the third day of the ELA performance task, after nine hours of testing, I stopped by one child’s computer to ask how she was doing and to see if she was almost done. I happened to see two words on her screen. “CHAPTER FIVE.”

She wasn’t. She went back for a fourth day of ELA PT testing to finish her story. Finally she came back to class, after twelve hours of work, all excited about her story. “It’s really good! It had seven chapters by the end! It ended with—”

I told her she couldn’t tell me what her story was about. That made her sad. And she was deeply unhappy to learn she was never going to see her story again. “But that’s the best thing I’ve written all year!”

Then I went home and thought, “Wait a minute. This story is her intellectual property. It is being taken from her without compensation. Now it’s just going to disappear into the black hole of assessment. She may be only ten or eleven, but she should have the rights to her story!” Even if it’s never published, she should be able to share it with her family and friends.

Solution? As a published author (and not just for this blog), I feel very strongly about this issue. I think she and her parents should demand the return of her story.

Three Things I learned About the SBA

downloadBy Tom

Last week my fourth graders took the Smarter Balanced Assessment, better known as “The SBA” or in some circles as “The S-BAC.” This was their – and my – second year with this test, although last year didn’t really count, since no one knew what they were doing and the scores didn’t matter. Now they do. Always the learner, and always the minimalist, I’ve condensed my reflections to three. So here they are; three things I learned about the SBA:

First of all, not everyone hates standardized tests. Or more accurately, not everyone hates this standardized test. And by not everyone, I mean my students. My students didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the “opt-out” movement, and neither did their parents, so for them the test was simply another hard thing we do at school. Other than running them through the training test and the practice test, I didn’t build the test up too much. No one puked, no one cried and none of them lost any sleep. After each of the five sessions, we had a brief discussion about how they felt and surprisingly, most of them actually enjoyed themselves. In fact, 25 of my 30 kids “had fun” during the first session. The number dropped to twenty after the last session, but still; it was hardly the child abuse that some teachers and parents report.

I do have some questions about the performance tasks, especially the math performance task. In the fourth grade SBA, there’s a math section and a literacy section. Within each section, there’s a Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT) and a Performance Task. The CAT is designed to continuously adjust the level of rigor within each student’s test based on their answers to each question. The test gets harder or easier based on how well they answer the questions. The Performance Task is not adaptive. In the literacy section, it consists of reading two articles about a specific subject (ours were about spiders and insects) and answering several extended-response questions followed by a writing prompt. The questions and the prompts, however, were not uniform. Some kids had more questions than others and it appeared that they were randomly assigned to an argumentative, informative or narrative prompt. That seemed a little weird at first, but I guess it makes sense to be ready for each of the three genres. The math Performance Task seemed – at least to me – like it varied widely in terms of the level of rigor. Some kids appeared to have much more difficult questions than other kids, which left my colleagues and me wondering why they didn’t simply give the same questions to each student. It will be interesting to see the scores.

Those questions notwithstanding, I honestly believe this is a good test. Here’s why: The Common Core is a solid set of standards that make sense. They’re well-articulated up and down the grade bands and – at least for now – they’ve been adopted by nearly every state. They might not be perfect (yet) but they’re certainly better than anything I’ve seen in the 31 years I’ve been teaching. So the standards are solid, and the SBA –from what I’ve seen – is well-aligned to the standards. Virtually every standard I taught this year was reflected on the test. I think that in very near future we’ll get a little more accurate aligning the level of rigor in our materials and instruction with that of the test and when that happens, I truly believe things will really pick up in our education system. I really do.

Please join the conversation. But do so respectfully. Testing is a charged topic and it’s easy to slip into a negative, nonproductive rant. But we’re teachers. We know how to discuss. We know to teach people to discuss! Let’s do it correctly.

On Test Scores in Evals and Changing My Mind

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The following post is by Nate Bowling is a 2014 Miliken National Teaching Award recipient and a founding member of Teacher’s United. He teaches AP Government & Politics and AP Human Geography in Tacoma.

The following excerpt is posted below with Nate’s permission, and was originally published on his website, “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind”. His writing represents his own thinking and not a policy statement of any organization/entity with which he is affiliated.

I have always been obsessed with how and when people are willing to change their minds. In my mid 20s I was fascinated by the book Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. Well, that’s not really true. I was obsessed by what Cleaver did after the book. After seven years in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France, Cleaver went on to become a Republican. I was fascinated: how did a founding member of the Black Panther Party become a Reagan Republican? That is a Tarzan swing across the political spectrum in the US. How does one change their mind so much on so much?

All that said, in regards to education policy when confronted with compelling evidence, if we are being true to our calling as teachers we have an obligation to evolve. Or put differently, people who are too stubborn to change their minds when confronted with overwhelming evidence aren’t worth listening to and I want you to listen to me in the future.

To read the full post, go to Nate’s new website “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind”