I Hate To Say It….

I’m going to say the three words that make most educators today cringe…. HIGH… STAKES…. TESTING…  Just when I was feeling relaxed and feeling pretty good about the past school year, I got a peek at our 2013 PSSA results (the Pennsylvania dreaded state tests).  What a disappointment!  From an overarching perspective as the Reading Specialist, I can say that we have put pieces into place that should have made an impact on student achievement.   However, here we are in 2013 and for the past 8 years have been trending pretty darn flat no matter what we try.  Let me give you a little background information and then maybe you can give me the silver bullet that will fix everything (wouldn’t that be awesome if there was such a thing?)

An overview of our district follows: 

We are a district that has funding for adequate staffing.   We have state of the art technology and newer facilities.   We are not a rich district, but we are by no means poor either.   We have a diverse student body including ESL, IEP, autistic support, life skills, emotional support, and multiple disabilities.  (Keep in mind though that many of our more handicapped students do not take the PSSA)   Our local Intermediate Unit stays current with educational topics, and offers a variety of additional workshops

Some of our district initiatives include:

Our district began implementing the RtII (Response to Instruction and Intervention) framework about six years ago and has been tweaking it ever since.   Every grade level has additional support staff to help with Tier 2 and Tier 3 instruction.  Our professional development has been more targeted to focus on specific needs.  A new reading program was purchased for the 2012-13 school year for our K-6 buildings that align with the Common Core Standards.  During the 2012-13 school year all grade levels met on a weekly basis with the Reading Specialist, ESL teacher, Title I staff, and Learning Support teacher.  These meetings were geared toward tracking student progress and making instructional changes.  This past year we worked with grade level teams to realign our curriculum with the Common Core Standards.

Where do we go from here?

It is almost impossible to talk about high stakes testing without also talking about accountability.  Systems of accountability seem to have become more visible since the advent of NCLB, which has tied public funding to student academic achievement.   By 2014 (yes, that’s next year… YIKES!), we are to have 100% of our students proficient on these tests.   Also, next year our district (along with the other districts in PA) are implementing a new teacher evaluation model that’s partly tied to student achievement as measured by these high stakes tests.  I’m sure we all wish high stakes testing would just go away.  Unfortunately, it’s driving some educators to cheat on test administration,  or some excellent educators to leave the profession altogether.  Here is an article written by a Florida teacher who chose to quit: http://www.gainesville.com/article/20130414/OPINION03/130419828

Excuses…. Excuses…. I’m sure that when this achievement data is shared with all of the district staff on the August in-service day, we will be able to come up with a thousand and one excuses of what happened.  It was too hot that day!  The testing schedule was a nightmare!  It’s this group of kids… their attitude stinks!  These kids are so low!  We don’t have enough support staff!  Our class size is too large!  It’s those darn ESL and IEP kids that keep pulling our scores down!  And to be honest, I don’t know why our scores stay stagnant.  We all are guilty of wanting to pull excuses out of the air because we feel that we’ve done the best we could do, so it must have been some other factor.   I can just say that there will be many dejected teachers sitting there that day.  What a way to build morale to start the school year.

One horrific solution!  I’m not sure how many of you have read about Florida’s 2012 solution to this same problem.   Many districts are struggling with student achievement of students in some of the subgroups.  These would include Blacks, Latinos, IEP, Low Socioeconomic, etc.   These are typically the subgroups that we need to be paying particularly close attention to during the entire school year to ensure they are making adequate progress.  However, in Florida they came up with their own solution.  Expectations for achievement are dependent upon a student’s race.  Yes, you heard me correctly!  If you are an Asian student you will be held to a much higher accountability than if you are Black or Latino.    By lowering expectations, helping them or harming them?  Obviously there are many  people out there that agree with this solution or else it would have never been approved by the Florida State Department of Education.  What are your thoughts?  Here’s some more information on this situation in Florida:  http://tampa.cbslocal.com/2012/10/12/florida-passes-plan-for-racially-based-academic-goals/

What is the solution?   That is the question I pose to you… What is your school or district doing to try to increase student achievement?   Should we hold different students to different levels of expectation?  How are the teachers in your district held accountable?  Is your state also implementing a new teacher evaluation system soon that is tied to student achievement and growth?  How do we know our districts, schools, and teachers are doing everything they possibly can to ensure student academic success?

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9 thoughts on “I Hate To Say It….

  1. When reading the article about Florida I was appalled. Your race should not determine your educational goals! I do believe that there should be different levels of expectation BUT by ability not race. Kind of unrelated but my mom is reading the book Surpassing Shanghai and we have been having discussions about what she reads. They hold every single student accountable for the same exact high expectations. Their culture forces the students to do well. I think we need to just higher our expectations for all students and make them want to achieve that higher goal.
    My IU is implementing the new evaluation but we won’t know the changes that will be made until our in-service. I agree that the evaluation system needed to be changed but I can’t comment on the changes until I see how they will be made. As for making sure that everything possible to ensure student success had been done, it is teamwork. The districts, schools and teachers can have all the resources available to them but the students need to understand the importance as well. Parents need to be involved too. Providing quality education should not rest on the shoulders of one person.
    When you find your silver bullet, I guarantee that you will make millions!! Good luck searching 🙂

  2. Sorry to hear about your score reports, Karen. I can tell when my administration does not want to give us bad news; they realize we face dejection quite a bit in this profession and they certainly do not want to add to it by talking about low scores in a faculty meeting. But it’s the reality of testing and sometimes we have to. My high school just transitioned to the Keystone exams this past year so making that transition was certainly…interesting. Ultimately, the staff likes the Keystone much more than the PSSA and the move to Common Core Standards makes sense. We just need to do a lot of work to get our students “used to” this new test. That’s very sad to say it like that (which reminds me of the title of your post). However, the Keystone seems to be testing students on more higher order critical thinking skills and concise but proficient writing skills (from the Language Arts perspective) and overall, from what we can tell, it’s actually a much better measure of what students should be mastering in high school. So I’m happy to be changing our curriculum to meet these standards. When I started teaching 5 years ago, I did not see a whole lot of structure to our curriculum and a lot of teachers seem to just do what they want. Though I do wish standardized testing would go away, I also see the Keystones helping unify our district a little more than we have been in the past. It’s all a very strange cycle though because in a perfect world, we know students should not be judged based solely on how well they know algebra or how well they can interpret theme. This doesn’t mean we should not have high expectations for ALL students but the method of assessments (standardized like they are) will never get the job done, as all classroom teachers have truly seen over the years.

    Aside from my tangent, my school has implemented extra practice sessions during the school day for students who did not pass their Keystone test. Unfortunately that means they are pulled from their other classes for an hour or more. English and math teachers gave remediation sessions to all juniors right before Thanksgiving so they would be better prepared to take their Keystones in Dec and Jan. Our principals have been asking teaches to pilot the new evaluation system and some did “get it out of the way” this past year. We will all be involved in this new system now so I’m sure my observation will be taking place in the upcoming year at some point. (For us, this is a formal observation that is quite involved with extra steps that are put in place before, during, and after. But once we have it done, we don’t have to have one again for another 3-5 years if I understood that correctly in our last meeting?)

    Whew…I don’t know if I clearly answered your questions. It certainly is one of those topics that gets our heads spinning! Good luck with your students, Karen!

  3. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that standardized testing is really testing out of a true educational context, especially for IEP and ESL students. The kid who struggles with a standardized test, where he’s asked to choose the closest answer to the one he thinks is right, fill in the bubble, and is hyperconscious of the pressure to get it right is often the same kid who last Thursday read a similar essay, wrote his own answer in his own words, and probably a) was closer to being correct and b) understood a lot more. Is it fair to call a test “standardized” that bears no resemblance to how these kids actually learn the rest of the school year?

    I’m very torn when it comes to this issue. As a parent, I think standardized testing sucks, because it takes up a lot of class time and does not measure what kids can actually DO with the knowledge they are being tested on. (Full disclosure: my daughter, who has an IEP, did pretty well on her first Common Core assessments (fourth grade) last year here in Buffalo, and her IEP was accommodated for it.) As someone who works in the private sector, I know that standards have to be in place for growth to occur (how will you reach a goal unless it’s clearly defined?) Is there a way to move standardized testing toward a project-based model, where the knowledge being tested is put into context for kids that they can infer and draw from organically to find the answer?

  4. What a great post for discussion. I work at the community college level, so I am not a part of the standardized testing you are talking about, My kids went to Catholic grammar school and high school, so they also escaped the testing frenzy. (Their grammar school used the Terra Nova test every couple years, I think starting in 3rd grade.) What we are facing now is a state mandate to increase our graduation rates, which to me is counterintuitive since many of our students don’t come to us intending to earn a degree. They have other educational goals and outcomes they are pursuing.

    When I talk to educators who work in the public schools systems here there is pretty much total agreement that kids are spending too much time either preparing for tests or taking them, and that the tests don’t capture a child’s learning and educational needs like other assessments they use in the classroom. What concerns me so much is the big picture of what is happening in education. Tying a teacher’s salary to student achievement, bringing in Teach for America’s young adults rather than professional teachers to fill teaching positions, tying student goals to race as you mention in your post, the whole Race to the Top agenda that has schools competing for funding, and on and on. . . are all moves that in my opinion that undermine public education. One of the most disturbing turn of events is a grade fixing scandal that occurred in Indiana. Schools are rated on an A-F scale, and the story just broke in the news that Tony Bennett, the former Indiana schools chief, and his staff found ways to raise the grade for Christel House (a charter school). Tony LoBianco, an AP reporter, broke the story citing emails and meetings between Bennett and his staff when they found out that Christel House’s grade was a C. The emails reflect their alarm at releasing this information to the public. Why the alarm, you ask? Indiana uses those grades to figure out which schools get taken over by the state, the level of state funding for schools, and whether students can use vouchers funded by the state to attend a private school or whether they need to spend a year in public school first. The person who founded Christel House Academy in Indianapolis and other charter schools in India, Mexico and South Africa is Christel DeHaan, who also just so happens to be a big donor to the GOP. LoBianco reported that DeHaan has given $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett (it’s an elected position in Indiana) and money to other state legislators. According to the editorial “How Much for an A?” by Karen Francisco in The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana, voters elected someone else to the office of Superintendent before learning of Bennett’s closed door maneuverings. And what became of Bennett? He was hired to be the chief of schools in another state. What state, you ask? Florida.

    So my take on this issue is that we have to get big money and corporate America out of the education “business.” There is too much money to be made with testing, charter schools, etc. Even Teach for America is using public funds to send young people into classrooms with 5 weeks of training. Diane Ravitch’s blogpost from 6/25/13, Wisconsin Invests in Super Rich TFA, cites that TFA has $300 million dollars in assets and Wisconsin is still paying them $1 million to place 70 TFA people into Wisconsin schools. They may be wonderful young people, but they don’t necessarily have a commitment to being educators and they are occupying positions that professional teachers could be working in, people who have made a commitment to becoming educators and chosen teaching as their intended careers.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/tony-bennett-indiana_n_3672196.html

    http://www.journalgazette.net/article/20130729/BLOGS13/130729491

    http://dianeravitch.net/2013/06/25/wisconsin-invests-in-super-rich-tfa/

  5. Karen, I don’t even know where to begin! It sounds as if your district and the educators working within it are doing everything in their power to improve testing outcomes, including having the support staff in place and the newly implemented Response to Instruction and Intervention. My mother-in-law has been a Special Education teacher for almost 30 years now in a small, rural community in southern Illinois. She too has had to deal with teacher evaluations and promotions being tied to test scores. The experiences that she shares break my heart! And this performance based assessment is also making its way to the Community College level. Our funding is now going to be tied to graduation rates. Can any one else see the problem with this?!

    While effective teachers and teaching strategies can make a difference to some students, a student’s success rate is not solely determined by the educator in the classroom. There are so many other variables that I rarely hear mentioned, which as Allison points out, include parental involvement. However, if a child comes to school hungry, stressed because of family issues (i.e. Mom was just laid off from her job), scared because of school yard bullies or neighborhood gun violence, then even a magically gifted teacher would be hard-pressed to make an impact on that child’s learning outcomes. Until we approach education more holistically and less on the “product” outcome, we may just be turning in tragic circles.

    This leads me to the story out of Florida! Shocking to say the very least. This smacks of discrimination, and I hope to high heaven the ACLU and teachers unions are all over this. Part of me can’t believe that this issue is not dominating the headlines…then again, given the sorry, ratings driven, corporate state of our 24/7 news coverage, I should know better.

    Karen, I don’t think that I have offered any solutions–just piled on to the existing list. However, this discussion gives me heart that the real solutions are not going to come from Washington or state officials who have never taught a day in their lives, or even from well-intentioned administrators. The change that our students deserve is going to have to come from educators, parents, and communities who understand the importance of education. We need an all hands on-deck approach. If it helps, I recently took a seminar online where our instructor shared this video with us. It is about Jamie Vollmer, a business person of all things, who was once critical of public schools. The video starts off dryly, but hang in there. I think it’s worth it given this conversation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9TUrHMZMno

    1. Great observations Sandra. I loved the youtube video! Related to that, Diane Ravitch has a really interesting post titled “Poverty in America: Why It Matters.” In it she challenges the argument that many in the “reform” movement tout that if all teachers were great and didn’t accept any excuses, all children would perform at the highest levels. would have high test scores, there wouldn’t be an achievement gap . . . in other words, problem solved. Here’s the link:

      http://dianeravitch.net/2013/07/31/poverty-in-america-why-it-matters/

  6. We should have high expectations for all our students and also evaluate them individually. We are of course evaluated in our district individually and also by our test scores as a district.

    I’m not sure fear works to truly get the best results from either kids or adults. I’m sure it works as a basic motivator, but I’ve found that fear tends to get people to only comply, not to thrive.

    I want our kids to thrive. That’s the problem with high stakes testing. It’s often seen as punitive for both the kids and teachers. My thoughts are that we need to focus more on our students as people and how we can help them improve themselves and much less on standardized tests. Nobody says “my favorite teacher was Mrs. Smith, she really helped my standardized test scores.” They will say, “my favorite teacher was Mrs. Smith. She believed in me when nobody else did. She taught me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to if I worked hard. She cared about me. I will never forget her.”

  7. While I would like to say that I am shocked at the Florida situation, the reality is that it is hard to be shocked by ANYTHING from Florida! The state of the hanging chad, voter disenfranchisement and stand your ground…of course they would approve something this idiotic. Holding students to different standards is simply wrong. Don’t these people know anything about self-fulfilling prophecy and expectation theory? Do they realize that they will get what they expect? Do they understand the inherent bias in standardized tests? I guess if this does not work they will simply have segregated schools…Black schools, White schools and Asian schools. What a huge step backward for America if this is allowed to stand.

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