Why I’m Not Opting Out


Katie Taylor is a recently renewed NBCT (AYA/ELA) and serves as the Deputy Director for the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. The views represented in the blog post are her own and not representative of the organization for which she works.


Why I’m Not Opting Out

My third grade daughter came home from school on Tuesday, “too pooped to practice.” This is unusual for her, because rain or shine she cannot wait for Tuesdays and Thursdays because those are “soccer practice days.” She wasn’t ill, the weather was perfect for practice, so what gives?

Tuesday was SBAC testing, the third one so far in the last two weeks. When I sought the source of her exhaustion, I calculated that excluding stretch and snack breaks, recess and lunch, 4.5 hours of her 6.5-hour school day was spent testing.

4.5 hours in front of a screen, taking a test. Looking at her face, my mother bear instinct kicked in and I thought,  “I’m not having her go through this again” despite the fact that she still has at least two more days of testing to go.

And yet, after thinking it over, I decided not to opt her out of the rest of her tests.

I’ve been an educator for 18 years, a National Board Certified Teacher for 10, and a parent for 11 years. As an educator with children in public school, it is sometimes difficult to find the line between when I am engaging as an educator and when I am engaging as a parent. This year of testing has been particularly hard from both stances.

As a parent I am tempted to excuse her from testing, the educator in me knows the undue burden it would do to the other children, teachers and administrators at her school. Her discomfort was for a day, and no more than 5-7 partial days in one month. The pain inflicted on teachers and schools for low participation and low-test scores lasts entire school years.

I believe the solution lies in removing the punitive nature of what the test scores mean for schools in terms of resources and performance evaluations. I do not believe that my pulling my daughter out of school during the state tests accomplishes that. Being part of public education is being a part of a collective community, and I fully recognize that there are parts of her community that do not have the luxury of opting their children out for a myriad of reasons. For many of these families, the high-stakes tests are even more high-stakes since it’s many of these children’s scores on which resource allocation decisions are made.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like how much my children are tested, but I also don’t have any interest in returning to a time when it was okay to ignore the opportunity gap. Her teacher doesn’t want to spend his time testing, nor does her principal and I won’t affect a change in that outcome by having my daughter miss testing days.

As an educator and as a parent, I can make a change by being active in policy conversations and using my voice to change current and future testing practices.

As a parent, I can do what I did this week – listen to my daughter’s concern, tell her I’m proud of her perseverance and that all I want is for her to do her best, and then take her out for ice cream and tuck her in bed early with a good book.

Tom White, Mark Gardner, Cheryl Hackinen, Brenda Woods Stingily liked this post

Teacher Walk Outs and Work Stoppages


This is something I was hoping to go through my whole career without having to face.

I am so incredibly torn over the issue of teacher walk outs or work stoppages in protest against the legislature’s non-support of public education. I understand that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that the goal is to draw the public’s attention to the issue.

On one hand, a teacher walk out or work stoppage certainly gets the public’s attention. The news reports it, the internet trolls chime in about lazy and greedy teachers, and the flames of what passes for discourse in our country are fanned once again. The hope: the public will rise up in support of teachers, demand accountability from their elected officials, and tides will turn in favor of  students, teachers, and voters.

On the other hand, I wonder whether it will really have the effect intended.

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Some Thoughts on Opting out

fwy110405 019By Tom

Today was the day when “The Cart” came rolling in. That’s when testing becomes real in my school. The cart full of Chromebooks gets wheeled into your room; the day before your student start with the SBAC training test, and a week before they take the real thing. And as far as I know, every one of my fourth graders will be taking the test. No one’s opting out.

And I’m glad. Continue reading

How SBA Testing Affects Elementary Students

Our school has been doing SBA testing for over a week now. Here are just some of the things I’ve learned about how elementary students are affected by the SBA.

ONE: SBA affects how much work I can assign in my classroom.

As soon as my students returned from spring break, I asked them to pull out their assignment calendar. I asked them to record the due dates for the rest of the school year. There were the standard reading assignments for the trimester. But there were no major projects. No CBA, no science fair, no research project, no big writing project.

The kids didn’t complain, but they were curious. Why?

Because testing is the big project from now to the end of the year.

These tests exhaust the kids. I can’t load on some other major project and expect them to do well—either on the testing or on the project.

It wasn’t always this way. Not many years ago I did big projects right until the last week of school. (I drove the district tech director crazy insisting he keep the online grading system open right up until the last day of school!)

Not any more.

TWO: SBA affects my team.

Four of us teach math at the same time, but we don’t test on the same days. We have to cancel math on all the days that one of us have an SBA scheduled. We are losing about three weeks of math.

THREE: SBA affects the whole school.

For the entire testing period, all the computer labs in the school are reserved for testing use only. No classroom use of labs. For weeks.

FOUR: Elementary students are not proficient typists.

One third grade girl worked diligently all day on her first test. She finally stopped—paused—at the end of the first day. She had finished questions 1-8. There were 43 questions on the test.

FIVE: Elementary students have limited attention spans.

One fourth grade boy, after an hour and a half of hard work, simply gave up. He tipped back in his chair, looked straight up at the ceiling, and started randomly pressing keys. From what his teacher said, it’s not a matter of him not caring about school or grades or doing well. He just wanted the endless nightmare experience to be over.

SIX: Elementary students are impulsive.

You can give them directions at the beginning of the test. You can say, “This is a two-day test so DON’T hit end when you stop your work at the end of the day today. Hit pause.” You can emphasize and explain the directions. But at the end of the day, there will still be kids who hit end. They aren’t going to stop to think. They aren’t going to stop to ask. In their little kid minds, that’s what makes sense.

Of course, as far as the SBA goes, they are now locked out of any review of what they did the first day. They can’t even go back and look at the article they were reading in order to get information they need to help answer questions or to do the required writing on day two.

They cannot get unlocked.

And there is nothing anyone can do. Their teacher can’t unlock it. The administrator can’t unlock it.

One quick, thoughtless motion by a child hobbles their second day of testing. Because, oh yes, they still have to take the second day of the test.

SEVEN: Has anyone noticed that elementary students don’t process the written word as well on the computer screen as they do on paper?

And haven’t you found that to be true in your own life? I have. I can proofread a paper on the computer multiple times and think I’ve found every mistake. Then I hit print. The moment the paper comes out of the machine, I see errors I missed on the monitor.

This weekend my husband and I hosted a young couple in our home from China. Yuhao has an MA in computer engineering, and Victor is at UW doing research for a PhD in business administration.

We asked them what testing was like in China. Victor said they were tested on paper. Less important tests were given on cheap paper. Important tests were administered on very fine paper. He said he always did better work on the better paper.

I know I used to buy very high quality writing paper for my class for final draft written work (back before we did almost all final drafts on computers). My students put much more effort into making their work the best quality they could produce when the paper itself was beautiful.


Make the elementary SBA tests shorter. No day’s test should run more than one hour for an elementary student.

Go back to paper and pencil tests for elementary students.

Feeling “Distinguished” …but Being “Basic”


Over the last few years, a confluence of ed psychology fads, being a parent, and trickle-down acronymage has had a profound effect on the way I see myself and my students.

When the “Growth Mindset” fad hit education, it like every fad before it risked being distilled down to soundbytes and sloughed off as trite. Though I was actually not a fan of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (I tell folks that there are about seven really good pages in there) the idea is simple, brilliant, and exactly what I needed at this stage of my life and career.

In my teaching, growth mindset manifested in my drive to make learning progressions clearer for my students so they could understand “what growth looks like” rather than blindly throwing darts at an unclear target (“Will this one get an ‘A’? Let’s give it a shot…”). Showing a student who is operating at an “F” level what an “A” looks like isn’t helpful: Showing what a “D” looks like makes growth seem possible.

Around the same time I was reading and learning about growth mindset, I found myself sitting at the dining room table watching as my eldest son deflated when I pointed out the one (one!) error he had made on his weekend math homework. I realized that growth mindset needed to be considered in my parenting as well as my teaching.

And simultaneously: TPEP.

I’m National Board Certified (and working on my renewal). I’ve received awards and been teacher of the year (ain’t I special). Even RateMyTeacher has nice things to say. And when I’m honest with myself on my evaluation, there are some “Basics” in there.

As there should be.

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Make Fun A Top Priority

The morning of the state science fair, I asked all the students gathered in my room what they had learned from their projects. They told me lots of specific details about their individual projects, from the behavior of worms to how difficult it is to make cheese. I asked what they learned about the scientific process. They talked about problems they had controlling variables and how they learned to write better conclusions.

Then I asked how many thought science was fun? Hands shot up all over the room. I threw my fist in the air and announced, “I won!”

After we got back from the fair, we debriefed. I passed out the class’s ribbons and awards. We had lots of second place ribbons, some third place, six first place trophies for “Best in Category,” and two Special Awards. As a team, for our first time at the fair, we felt we’d done a pretty good job.

I reminded my students, “Look how well you did. Not bad when you consider my number one priority for your science fair project was that you have fun.”

One boy quickly added, “But you also set really high standards.”

I said, “Ok, that was my number two priority. But my number one priority was that you have fun.”

A week or two earlier a parent had come in and commented on how her child hadn’t chosen a very important topic. I said I didn’t really care. As long as the student found it interesting and was doing a good job of following the scientific process, it was fine with me.

As I told that mother, elementary school is about getting them engaged. It’s about building positive attitudes. It’s not just about making them learn—it’s about making them want to learn.

If I can make them enjoy science—and math and reading and social studies and writing and everything else I teach them—they will go on to middle school and high school and want learn those subjects more deeply.

If I don’t build the positive attitudes now, then when they continue in those subjects in middle and high school, their secondary teachers will be fighting such an uphill battle.

The truth is, I have a really good researcher backing up my claim that building positive attitudes in elementary school can—believe it or not—be even MORE important than being the most highly skilled teacher in the field.

Benjamin S. Bloom, the educational guru who developed Bloom’s Taxonomy, led a team of researchers who worked with immensely talented young people in six fields of endeavor. They published their findings in a hefty book called Developing Talent in Young People.

Here, briefly paraphrased, is how the researchers described the initial teachers of these extraordinarily successful individuals.

At this stage the best teachers are described as being good with children and someone the children are comfortable with. They are supportive, warm, loving, caring, nurturing. They give positive support and rewards like stars and stickers and smiling faces on papers. They are a “second mother.”

They are not necessarily leaders in the field. They don’t necessarily have the highest skills themselves. Their gift is they make the field of study enjoyable for the children. They can make beginning lessons seem like fun.

If you want to read the full summary/review of the book, go to my Teacher Resources page and look under the Education section.

Somehow, in the race toward rigor, the idea that we need to make learning enjoyable seems to be slipping off center stage. I object. At the elementary level, I believe the two goals are equally important.

So I know it’s testing season, but go ahead—this spring concentrate on making learning fun!

National Board Revises Its Scoring System

By Tom

In my last post I pointed out some recent changes the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has made in the renewal process, which is how NBCTs keep their hard-earned certificates alive and well. Today I’m turning my attention to something I briefly alluded to in that post, namely the actual scoring system: the amount of points the NB assigns to each part of the assessment process.

Picture1Take a look at Figure 1. (If you click on it, it’ll make it bigger.) As you can see, Component 1, which focuses on content and pedagogical knowledge, accounts for 40% of a candidate’s total score. The other 60% is shared by Components 2 through 4, with Component 3 getting the lion’s share. (That’s because Component 3 involves submitting two separate videos, along with corresponding written commentary; it’s actually twice as much work as Component 2, so it’s worth twice as much.)

Astute readers will note that this pretty much lines up with the NB’s past system, in which the Assessment Center Exercises were worth 40% of the total score, and the four entries were worth a combined 60%. The rationale, as I understood it, was that the NB values both knowledge and accomplished practice, but it values classroom practice a little more. Actually, 20% more. And I think most teachers would agree with that balance: knowledge is important, but not as important as what the teacher actually does in front of the students. Furthermore, if you look at the NB’s standards for any of the 25 certificate areas, you’ll notice that there’s a standard focused on content knowledge, along with about ten other standards that deal with applying that knowledge to classroom practice.

Picture2Which brings me to figure 2, showing the breakdown within Component 1. Notice that Component 1 has four separate parts: three Constructed Response Exercises (CREs) and one 45-question multiple-choice test, known as the Selected Response Items (SRIs). The CREs are not new; the NB simply selected three of the six Assessment Center Exercises and re-purposed them as CREs. The SRIs are new. The NB essentially took the content knowledge previously addressed by the three abandoned Assessment Center Exercises and used multiple-choice questions to address it instead. Easy-Peasy.

But here’s the interesting thing. The 45-question multiple-choice test is now worth 20% of a candidate’s total score. That’s kinda a lot. In fact, as you can tell from my pie chart, it’s worth more than either Component 2 or Component 4. The only part that’s worth more is Component 3. Frankly, I find that indefensible.

As I said earlier, content knowledge is important. Real important. Teachers need to know what they’re talking about. But I honestly don’t think a 45-question multiple-choice test should trump Component 2, which focuses on a teacher’s ability to analyze student work. In fact, I’m not even sure the 45-question test should count for more than either of the three CREs.

If I could offer a suggestion, it might be more appropriate to simply award 10% to each of the four parts of Component 1. In fact, that’s exactly what I told the National Board a few weeks ago when I had a chance.

What do you think? The National Board values our feedback, and like I said in the last post, this is OUR National Board. Let them know.


The Stories We Tell and the Stories They Hear


Teachers love telling stories.

These stories fit into three categories.

1) the “checkout-how-AHMAZING-my students-are-because-they-did/said/produced-this.”

See this incredible comic of the Great Depression? But did you READ this analysis of Hamlet by one of my IEP students?

2) the “listen-to-this-incredible-issue/idea- [insert name of awesome colleague]-and-I-had to-address-the-problem-with _____ [insert problem that keeps you awake at night].”

So I tried that strategy you suggested and increased my homework turn in rate from 75% to 95%!

3) the “OMG-you-won’t-believe-what-this-student/parent/admin said/did!”

I woke up to this email…

Assessment data loves to tell stories too. The stories are a meaningful way to bring numbers and facts to life. Generally, there are three stories the data communicates. First, it tells us how students are meeting established standards. Second, it tells us how students are growing. Third, it tells us where instruction needs to be changed or modified.

In our current educational climate, the primary storytellers are politicians, ed reform groups, or other “experts” who want fixate on the first kind of story. They want to focus on high stakes summative, standardized assessments like End of Course Assessments and the Smarter Balanced Assessment. They want the data to tell us how students are meeting established standards. This story is what many stakeholders are using to drive federal and state policy, particularly changes in teacher evaluations. This is the second consecutive legislative term where significant effort has been made to include standardized test scores in teacher evaluations through legislation (SB 5748). While that bill is dead, the idea of using testing data as a part of teacher evals was a recently added to a professional learning bill being reviewed (HB 1345). It seems WA legislators are determined to include summative assessment data in the teacher quality discussion.

I believe that this fixation on just one type of data story (particularly spinning it to say “gotcha”) is why many teachers are up in arms. This is the concern that my fellow blogger, Spencer, addressed in his piece “How to Take An Arrow to Your Head”. Spencer captured this well by voicing how many teachers, myself included, recoil at the thought of using student test scores in their evals because it appears we are getting punished for factors beyond our control, such as systemic poverty, chronic absenteeism, and a host of other societal ills that negatively impact student achievement. Many teachers are fearful because the voices that dominate the discussion on assessments and “accountability” seem to have a myopic view that testing will remove bad teachers from classroom and focus the discussion on student achievement rather than student growth. In fact, last year I compared The Department of Education to the pigs in Animal Farm when I wrote about why teachers in this state could not accept the inclusion of test scores in their evals in order to save our NCLB waiver.

Another year of learning, reading, and thinking changed the way the legislature and some of my colleagues think and talk about assessment data. Examining the language of HB 1345’s amendment reveals this change. First, the idea of statewide assessments as being one of multiple measures. This means that there is more than one story being told and heard. From multiple viewpoints, we can truly get an accurate picture of how our students are growing in the classroom under the guidance of an effective teacher. The next important detail in the amendment is that “assessments must meet standards for being a valid and reliable tool for measuring student growth”. Standardized assessment have long been critiqued as invalid and unreliable. However, with the new CCSS assessment there is promise of rigorous testing that asks students to perform at a level necessary to be career and college ready. My friend Joe refers to it as the first “high-quality standardized tests” he has witnessed as far back as when he was in high school piloting the WASL. His hope, like mine, is that the current SBA assessment suite, although not by any means perfect, can provide one source (out of many) of data that can be used in meaningful conversations about teacher effectiveness, classroom instruction, and student growth.

Common Core: When Opinions Become Facts


For all thirteen years of my career teaching high school English, one consistent skill that I’ve sought to impart upon my students is the habit of using concrete evidence in support of opinions formed or conclusions drawn.

The “why” is simple. Responsible citizens must form opinions about complex issues in order to participate fully and productively in not only their work lives but also their personal lives. Those opinions, no matter what they be, ought to be based on a thorough analysis of whatever facts are at hand on an issue.

Seems simple enough, unless there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what a “fact” even is.

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You Can Lead a Child to Testing, But You Can’t MAKE Him Try

There’s a lot of chatter in the lunchroom lately about test scores and pay, and how teachers will want to change positions if their pay is tied to test scores. “No one will want to teach third, fourth, or fifth.” “I’ll want to switch to second grade.”

Then I hear, “At least you won’t have to worry, Jan. You teach gifted kids. All your kids pass all the tests every year.”

It’s true, most of my highly capable students have the ability to pass most of the tests that are thrown at them. Having the ability to do well doesn’t necessarily mean that they will perform at that level.

Last week I asked my students, “How many of you want to go into computer programming when you grow up?” Hands shot up around the room. I said, “You need to be good at writing.” One boy jerked his hand back down as fast as he had originally thrust it up.

Honestly, what conceivable motivation can I offer that boy? He’s dreamed of working in the computer industry; I’m sure he’s pictured himself spending his adult life designing video games and having a job that’s more play than work. But he is willing to give up his dream—in a heartbeat—in order to avoid the dread task of writing.

Over the years I’ve had several students who are stubbornly resistant to writing. They may start out strong on a writing piece with a great initial idea but then peter out fast and dribble down to nothing.

Here are the kinds of help I can give my reluctant writers in class:

I can give them the structure and encouragement they need throughout the writing process. “You need to develop those ideas.” “Don’t stop there, I want to hear more.” “Wow, that’s great. What happens next?”

But, oh, how they balk at doing more than a single draft. Writing anything once is painful enough. Making changes and writing it again? Pure torture! “You need to read it aloud now. Does it make sense?” “Can you use stronger verbs, more precise words, or some great figurative language?”

Finally, finally, they are supposed to edit for conventions. They are long past tired of the piece by now. They just want to be done, so every single time we get to the editing stage in class projects, I give a pep talk to the class about how important editing is. “I know it’s hard. Conventions weren’t invented to make it easier for the writer—they were all invented to make life easier for the reader.”

All the help works in the classroom where I can ride herd on all my little mavericks. Even my reluctant writers can produce excellent, quality work when they get the support they need.

Here are the kinds of help I can give those writers during testing:

On the day of the ELA performance task, all my students will go in knowing what they need to do and how to do it. They will walk in knowing they need to be meticulous and thorough. It’s nothing new. We’ve practiced those skills all year.

I can guarantee my reluctant writers will be the first ones done with the test. I can picture the student a couple of years ago who popped up an hour or more before anybody else. “I’m finished!”

I asked him (through gritted teeth), “Are you sure you’re done?”

Big grin. “Yes!”

“Did you answer every question?”


Short of cheating, I can’t do anything more. I can’t say, “It’s not a race. You need to go back and read your piece and see if you can develop your ideas more thoroughly. Are your ideas organized well? Can you express your ideas better? Now go back, sit down, and do a proper job.”

For most of my students, that speech would be enough to get a significant improvement out of them. And if I could give them a couple of pep talks along the way—without looking at their writing at all—they would produce the kind of writing they are fully capable of creating.

I’m not allowed to do that.

Yet some people want my pay to be based on how well my students test.

My point? A test is a measure not just of academics but of motivation. If it turns out my pay is going to be based on how well my students do on the SBA, then I want to be able to properly motivate my students during the test.