Two Poems For The Month Of Testing

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Can April be the cruelest month, as T. S. Eliot declares in his bitterly pessimistic “The Waste Land”? For Eliot, April’s inherent cruelty is — ironically — precisely because of its vitality. April’s burgeoning life force engenders hope in a world that is both dark and hopeless.

But for many public school students and perhaps for teachers as well, the line is literally true: April is the cruelest month of the school calendar. April days that are not devoted to ‘test prep’ are spent on testing itself.

And some of what is going on in this crazy month defies the imagination. For example, critics of testing are having a field day with what they are calling “Pineapplegate.”

Here’s part of what Beth Fertig reported:

A pineapple, a hare and a swift outcry against a handful of confusing questions on this week’s English Language Arts exams have led the state’s education commissioner to scrap a portion of the eighth grade reading test.

The disputed section of the test contained a fable about a talking pineapple that challenged a hare to a race. But students and teachers complained that none of the multiple choice answers to several questions made sense.

In response to the complaints, the New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. concluded the questions were “ambiguous” and will not be counted against students.

“It is important to note that this test section does not incorporate the Common Core and other improvements to test quality currently underway,” Mr. King said in a statement, referring to a new teaching curriculum and standards that are being adopted in New York and other states. “This year’s tests incorporate a small number of Common Core field test questions. Next year’s test will be fully aligned with the Common Core.”

Pearson, a test preparation company, has a $32 million contract with the state to make the exams more rigorous.

Here’s more stuff that’s hard to believe. This is from The New York Post:

State Education Department officials were blind to the feelings of deaf students on this week’s English exams — heartlessly asking them questions about sounds such as the clickety-clack of a woman’s high heels and the rustle of wind blowing on leaves, educators claimed.

One sixth-grade teacher of hearing-impaired kids said they were completely thrown off by a lengthy listening passage rife with references to environmental noises — such as a cupboard door creaking open or the roar of a jet engine.

The kids were then asked to write how a boy who hears those sounds as music in his head is like a typical sixth-grader.

“My kids were looking at us like we had 10 heads. They said they didn’t understand the story,” the teacher said, referring to herself and a sign-language interpreter.

“It was all based on music and sounds in the world they don’t know,” added the perturbed teacher. “They definitely were upset.”

The teacher’s sound criticism was among a host of complaints about the new exams administered to students in Grades 3 to 8 this week, part of a five-year, $32 million deal with the testing company Pearson.

You may have noticed those two stories have one thing in common: Pearson. The giant company is also ‘field-testing’ its questions for next year’s tests — by extending the testing period for young kids this year, sometimes actually doubling the amount of time kids are being tested.

Not to pick on Pearson, but the company is offering $5 Starbucks cards to educators who will fill in its survey … and the opening sentences in the accompanying letter from this education giant contain basic grammatical errors.

In an effort to learn more about the challenges being faced by K-12 educators, would you please spare a few minutes to complete an online survey? It should take less than 15 minutes, and will provide us with very valuable feedback to improve our services and offerings.

The opening phrase, ‘In an effort….by K-12 educators,” modifies the closest noun or pronoun, which is YOU. So Pearson is asking me to fill out the survey so I can learn more?

Pineapples
Pineapples have caused an issue on some state tests.

The second sentence is compound, one subject (it) and two verbs (‘should take’ and ‘will provide’), and the grammatical rule is clear: no comma.

Much of the uproar seems to be coming from teachers, and cynics may suggest that’s because their ox is now being gored; after all, these tests are now being used to grade — and fire — teachers, so of course they are paying closer attention. Perhaps some teachers are late to the party, but so what! They’re here, and teachers like Anthony Cody have been in the forefront all along.

Some parents are fighting back against high stakes testing. Parents in Colorado, California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Indiana have opted out of high stakes testing for their children and have kept (are keeping) them home. A group with the impressive-sounding name of United Opt Out National is trying to coordinate the effort.

Peggy Robertson, a former public school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, leads the group, which she acknowledges has about 1,427 members — and no money — right now. “We are not against either testing or assessment, just this high stakes testing madness,” she told me. The number of Colorado families who kept their children at home last year was “five times more” than in 2010. It’s still only a few hundred, but Robertson is convinced that the numbers will grow “as more people become aware of the harm these tests are doing.”

And not just parents. Peggy shared a link to a letter from a New York principal.

There’s also a national effort, one that began in Texas, to slow down the testing express. As of April 23rd, 380 school boards in Texas, representing 1.8 million students, have signed this petition; that’s been rolled into a national petition.

What’s the alternative? This short piece was written by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons (Teachers College Press). It may make you think twice about the course we are on.

But it doesn’t follow that we could just ‘blow up’ our increasingly centralized approach and do what Finland does. Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving believes we need a new kind of school, one in which teachers have largely autonomous control. I’ve just finished reading the galleys of a new book, Liberating Teachers, that argues that position persuasively. Currently there are around 60 schools with autonomous teachers, cutting across all sorts of arrangements — district, chartered and independent. Some are union-affiliated, others are not. Urban, suburban and rural, serving students from preschool to age 21.

These schools are invariably small (like schools in Finland) and less reliant on standardized assessments (like Finnish schools).

And now — a final poem for April, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lovely sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?”

I first thought it should be “How Do We Test Thee? Let Me Count the Ways” until I realized that we basically have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to testing. No way to get a sonnet out of that.

So I went back to the drawing board and produced the following (with apologies to EBB):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Is it A? “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

Or B? “I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

C? “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;”

D? “I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.”

Or “All of the Above?”

Please mark your answer below with a No. 2 pencil, taking care to fill in the box completely without marking the area outside the box. If you do not follow directions, the machine may not be able to read your answer, and you will be marked down accordingly.

___________________________________________________

A Trifecta Of Sins

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A comprehensive report in late March by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides strong evidence that adults in as many as 200 school systems have been cheating on their students’ standardized tests.

We looked at this for NewsHour in 2011:

Because I spent three years chronicling the tenure of Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC — another city with a spate of thus-far-unexplained ‘wrong to right’ erasures on standardized tests — I am interested in this story. I’d like to know if anyone cheated in the DC schools. If so, who and why?

But a teacher I correspond with occasionally brought me up short recently. My focus on actual, literal cheating — physically changing answers or giving kids answers in advance — is too narrow, this teacher wrote.

Here’s part of a recent letter:

“While I know that the cheating scandals may be considered important, I’m frankly a bit disappointed that this is the focus because the cheating scandal doesn’t really matter in terms of the students and their futures, which should always be the focus of anything related to education. What matters is the lasting damage that is being done to them as a result of the increased pressures being put on the school system over these tests. The lasting damage is the closing of schools with no thoughts as to the repercussions on the community, the constant rotating principals, the removal of teachers connected with the community, the privatization of public schools and property, the fact that schools budgets are getting slashed while the administrative central office expands and gives money to private contractors in huge quantities that accomplish nothing, the constant lack of knowledge about our future in the schools, the increasing class sizes and removal of resources from our neediest schools, etc. The cheating scandal is next to nothing; that is a product of the testing obsession as a whole, something that Michelle Rhee certainly fed, but it is far from the worst part of her tenure. Those test scores mean nothing about how prepared our children are for their futures–whether or not there was cheating.”

Testing
Some think we haven't hit bottom yet.

Supporting her argument that the real issue is preparing kids for their futures is a new report about the arts in our schools, hard data confirming what most reporters have known for a long time: for at least 10 years, the arts have been disappearing from schools populated largely by low-income kids. The report is from the U. S. Department of Education. It tells us that fewer public elementary schools today offer visual arts, dance and drama classes, a decline many attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading. Most high schools with large numbers of low income students do not offer music. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told reporters that cuts are likely to continue into the next two years because education funding has been slow to pick back up. “We haven’t hit bottom yet,” he said.

In other words, we’re cheating kids on their tests and stealing essential courses like art and music from them! Add to that, we are lying — because when kids get phony scores telling them they are proficient when they need help, that’s an out-and-out lie.

At what point does this trifecta — lying, cheating and stealing — become a felony? Seriously!

In the face of this disheartening news, one has to ask, “who benefits?” I’m stumped. Certainly not children, parents and teachers. Could it be the testing companies? Perhaps it’s the bevy of expert ‘consultants’ who advise school systems on how to raise test scores, how to calculate the ‘value added’ that individual teachers provide, and how to make education more ‘businesslike’ and efficient?

A far more important question than ‘who benefits?’ is: What are we going to do about it?

The Values Behind ‘Value-Added’

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Does the current push for “Value Added” measures mean that education has finally figured it out, or is this yet another silver bullet that will fail — and perhaps do more harm than good along the way?

While that is an interesting question, a number of prior questions need answers:

1. What exactly do we mean by ‘value’?
2. Who adds ‘value,’ and how do they do it?
3. How can we enable the women and men now teaching to add more ‘value’?
4. How can we attract people who add value to go into teaching?
5. At the end of the day, what do we value?

Recently I was introduced to Masha Tarasyuk, who spoke no English when she immigrated from the Ukraine at age 6. Masha told me that one teacher at her public school in the Bronx took her under her wing, supported her when she got down in the dumps and never stopped believing in her. Masha eventually graduated from Barnard and the Fordham School of Education and now is a Teach for America corps member at the High School for Medical Professionals in New York. She’s giving back, helping others just as that teacher helped her (and Masha is in her third year, by the way, even though the TFA term is just two.)

Surely that teacher ‘added value’ to Masha’s education, but, judging from the way Masha told the story, the value had less to do with her academic achievement and more to do with the emotional connection.

I’d like to believe that everyone reading this had at least one teacher like that, someone who made a huge difference in your life. We did a series on it, available at our YouTube channel.

Value Added
Is value-added data truly accurate?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have to be aware of the recent value-added study by economists from Harvard and Columbia, positing that students who have truly effective teachers for a few years of their education end up making lots more money. Much of their findings are conjecture or at least extrapolation, and the authors were careful to warn against basing policy decisions on their study.

The economists measured ‘value’ with test scores, of course, because that’s what is available. Bubble tests results are how we keep score, at least for the moment. And if the kids in Teacher X’s classroom always seem to do well on those tests, while the students in Teacher Z’s classroom always seem to do poorly, why shouldn’t we draw some conclusions about the value each teacher is adding?

It is a stretch to connect better test scores to attending a better college, getting a better job and eventually making more money, but even if the connections are flimsy, we surely need more teachers who can motivate their students to do well.

Nick Kristof, the well-respected columnist for the New York Times, ignored the caveat about policy recommendations and made some: pay effective teachers lots more and fire ineffective ones. But it didn’t take Kristof’s words to energize politicians like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all of whom are pushing value-added measurement as a way of doing what Kriistoff recommends.

That’s a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent, if you’re keeping score, which suggests that ‘value-added’ is either a non-partisan idea whose time has come — or a mad rush to judgment.

But let’s dig deeper? What do truly effective teachers do that adds value? Can those skills be taught?

The father of “value-added” measurement is Dr. William Sanders, now nearly retired in North Carolina but still very much engaged. He has not been fond of some of what I have been writing in this blog about bubble tests and, ever the gentleman, asked if I would be open to having a conversation.

Which we had recently.

A good deal of what follows is based on our 96-minute phone meeting, several days ago. What Dr. Sanders wanted to explore was the ‘how’ of value added. What is it that excellent teachers do that adds value to their students’ learning? Can a trained observer see what excellent teachers do that no-so-good teachers do not?

Here’s where it got interesting. Bill told me that teams of observers cataloguing the classroom behaviors of teachers from both groups could not find differences in their behavior. ‘Look again,’ he told them. Still no luck, they reported. ‘Look some more,’ he directed.

Eureka. The truly effective teachers, his observers finally figured out, were able to provide what’s called ‘differentiated instruction’ (treating kids individually according to their needs) and able to disguise what they were doing, so that the children were not aware of the different treatment.

These teachers, Bill said, don’t see a classroom of 25 students; instead, they see 25 different kids and figure out the best ways to reach them. And then they camouflage the different treatment lest some kids feel like Robins and others like Crows in those infamous reading groups.

They do not spend hours or days on test preparation. (Administrators, please read that sentence again!)

Do some teachers intuitively know how important it is to disguise what they are doing? If not, how did they learn to do that? He’s a fan of Teach for America because, he says, the data tells him that those teachers are more likely to be truly effective than teachers from traditional schools of education.

What’s the evidence, I wanted to know? The old Tennessean cited his research in Memphis, where, he said, for three years in a row the cadre of TFA teachers outperformed teachers who attended Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee, using student achievement scores as the measure of performance.

Bill suggested that it was not the TFA summer training that makes the difference as much as the caliber of their recruits. When society opened up more opportunities for women, he reminded me, the entering ACT scores of those enrolling in education and home economics fell dramatically. Since the late 1960s, he said, talented young women are likely to enroll in other departments. Today, women make up half or more of those studying to be lawyers, doctors and veterinarians.

“TFA is bringing capable people back into the teaching pool,” he told me. If Bill is correct, then one sure-fire way to ‘add value’ in education is to recruit more people like the men and women who apply to Teach for America.

How do we entice them to become classroom teachers? With about one million teachers approaching retirement, TFA’s corps of 15,000 teachers is not the answer. We have to appeal to hundreds of thousands of talented young men and women and convince them that teaching is a respected and rewarding career.

Ask yourself if what’s going on in the public arena now is likely to attract people into teaching. Are the heavy-handed campaigns by politicians like Governors Christie and Cuomo (and the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio) helpful? Is Mayor Bloomberg’s effort a step in the right direction? Is Michelle Rhee’s campaign to restrict collective bargaining and tenure likely to persuade talented young men and women that teaching is an appealing career? Are union leaders who oppose charter schools ‘on principle’ adding value to the teaching profession? When union leaders insist that teachers cannot be held accountable for student learning, are they elevating the teaching profession?

As the lawyers say, asked and answered.

Surely an important part of the value of an effective teacher is her ability to connect with individual children, her willingness to become emotionally attached to her students as individuals. (I write about this at some length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Those teachers need the time and space to make connections, but today teaching seems to be all about higher test scores. In an earlier piece, we explored the impact of test pressures on young readers:

Maybe it’s time to figure out the impact on young teachers, too?

Because evaluating teachers using student achievement scores is here to stay, it’s in teachers’ interests to argue for better measures of achievement. We need better ways of assessing the value that teachers add to the lives the children they teach, beyond test scores.

What do we value?