Category Archives: Assessment

Making Student Growth Matter

I am no fan of standardized testing, so one of the greatest strengths of our teacher evaluation system in Washington state is that it empowers teachers to use classroom-based assessments (and data) to illustrate how they are fostering growth in students’ knowledge and skills. Closer to the kid always is the way to go, so using an assessment I designed or chose with my learners in mind will always (for me) trump using a corporate product, no matter how “standards aligned” it might claim to be.

One problem that I am seeing throughout my district and in other districts whose staff I support through WEA is that with all the many moving parts of teaching, student growth examination often ends of falling into the realm of “whatever is easiest to count.” Further, as I engage in deeper conversations with teachers who go this route, the whole student growth process becomes an exercise in compliance and thus a box to be checked.

When this occurs, we’re letting ourselves choose to waste our own time.

I have worked with teachers for several years now to design and implement student growth goals, and some patterns are starting to emerge:

What teachers are doing that works: Continue reading

Classroom Management and the Teacher Shortage

Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.

In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.

Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.

When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.

Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)

Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.

Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.

Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.

Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.

Our real problems: Continue reading

ESSA and Teacher Evaluation

1276-essaBy Tom White

There’s a kid in my class who I’ll call Lee because that’s not his name. Lee comes to me from a household that can generously be described as “disorganized.” He consistently arrives hungry, tired and edgy. His study habits are non-existent and he lacks every social skill you can imagine. Nevertheless, I like Lee and I enjoy the challenge of working with him. He’s the first student I think about in the morning and the last one I worry about at night.

But there’s one thing about Lee that I can’t stand: he puts absolutely no effort into any assessment. He knows that tests are completely independent activities; I won’t help him or interfere with his lack of motivation. So he writes random answers without thinking and finishes as his classmates are just getting started.

It’s frustrating.

As you might imagine, Lee’s SBA results from last year were as low as possible. And unless something unexpected happens, I’m predicting more of the same this year.

Last week Mark wrote a brilliant post summarizing the reauthorization of ESEA. No Child Left Behind is no more; in its place we have the “Every Child Succeeds Act,” or ESSA.

Thank God. Because one of the changes concerns the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. To be clear, NCLB didn’t require their use per se, but the Obama Administration granted waivers from the impossible mandates of NCLB to those states that cooperated with their education agenda. And a big part of that agenda was evaluating teachers based partly on their students standardized test scores. Washington State alone refused to do so and paid dearly. We didn’t get the waiver. Consequently, most of our schools are labeled “failing,” including mine.

Under ESSA, individual states regain the authority to figure out how to evaluate teachers. Here in Washington, we use TPEP, which does include a “Student Growth” component, but teachers and administrators are directed to figure out the most appropriate assessments from which to gauge that growth. And since those administrators work in the same buildings as the teachers they evaluate, they’re aware of the children behind those test scores, which is important, especially with children like Lee.

That’s as it should be. I like working with students like Lee. And I have no problem having someone watch how I work with him and evaluate my performance based on that observation. Better yet, watch me and tell me how I can do it better. But using his standardized test scores to evaluate my work is utterly unfair.

So I welcome ESSA. As Mark pointed out, it’s a vast improvement over NCLB, as well as the waiver system that exempted most states from the ridiculousness of NCLB. Especially in the area of teacher evaluation.

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).

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.”