Mechanizing… childhood?

American students, it seems, cannot compete with their Singaporean or Chinese counterparts, as measured by PISA scores. Our lack of prowess on the PISA seems to justify the test-heavy, hyper-achievement-focused competitive world our children live (and learn) in these days.

And that’s why Americans are spending upwards of 8 hours testing 3rd graders’ ability to do math four different ways and figure out which “deep reading strategy” is really the right answer. That’s why we have the Common Core State Standards, and why we point fingers at anyone who’s doing better with a cry of, “They cherry-pick their testing cohort!”

Um, maybe. But so what? We are talking about tenths of percentage point differences. And why? So we can “compete.” Why? Why is that competition important?!?

I’ve been asking this question for three years. I’m not the only one still waiting for an answer.

The difference in teaching methods is how we got the CCCSS in the first place. I think it’s awesome that educators recognize that not everyone learns in the same way. It’s also true that testing 3rd graders to make sure they are on track as 11th graders is ridiculous. We are trying to mechanize teaching (or more appropriately, we are trying to mechanize students) even further than we already have, and we want to quantify things that really can’t be quantified. I had chronic “not working up to her potential” grades as a child, and I tanked on standardized tests as soon as I figured out that the stakes were high (when I didn’t yet know what the stakes were, I did well). And yet, I’m constantly learning and trying to learn things, information, skills. Isn’t that the people we want running the show? Critical thinkers and lifelong learners?


And then I got the test notice…

It’s been a banner month for testing in Chicago. Test companies: billions, students: 0.

As I’ve mentioned before, I sit on the Assessment Review Task Force in Illinois. A task force that is quickly proving itself to be a puppet for the state. We met in December, canceled in January because of the governor’s swearing-in, I skipped February because CPS canceled school, and we met virtually in March. The virtual meeting was a clever move on the part of the chairs, who had us all on mute and removed two-way or group communication via the webinar format, removing all opportunity for discussion both while motions were made and throughout the meeting. Can someone explain to me how this follows OMA?

A survey was sent in late February to 150 district superintendents, asking them to forward it to their principals, teachers, parents, and students, and to answer questions about standardized testing practices in their districts. In this “random” sample, a scant 1/3 of districts responded. We don’t know which districts they are, because knowing skews the randomness (or so they told us). I believe that CPS, the largest school district in the state, either held or selectively responded to the survey because none of the CPS task force members  (a principal, a teacher, a parent) reported seeing or hearing about the survey.

The optimist in me wants to believe that my frustration can be explained by my lack of survey / stats knowledge. The realist in me is cynical.

Our chairs stressed that random sampling is, by nature, random and responses are not forced. A certain number of responses were rude. But barely over 200 parental responses and less than 50 student responses from 36 counties will be the basis from which this task force will report its “findings” in May. Um, what?

Overall, parents’ perception of tests was not assessed in the same way as that of teachers, principals, or superintendents. The latter group was asked to rate advantages and disadvantages of tests. I can only assume the writers thought parents were too stupid to understand terms like “measures student progress,” “informs educational practice,” or “informs placement decisions,” or “loss of instructional time,” “disrupts normal schedule and activities,” or “increases student stress and anxiety.” Those terms are how the approximately 300 superintendents, principals, and teachers got to respond to the survey, and represent the top three advantages and disadvantages on every question.

Instead, parents rated three things – information conveyed from the district, the helpfulness of that information, and impact on a “typical school day.” Thanks to the ARTF, I just got the 101 course on survey bias.

The ancillary comments spoke volumes about how parents really feel. Five comments were about student stress. Four comments were about test/prep. And three were about how well parents are able to compare their students to other students. I can only assume that those families themselves skipped the chapter on early 20th century philanthropy and the comments of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “comparison is the thief of joy.”

Rather conveniently, in the data that was recorded, the frustration and anxiety of parents, teachers, and students over test prep/performance was made to be a non-issue. Maybe I am too deeply affected by my own mounting frustration with tests and over-testing in modern America to see this issue clearly. But I think there’s a message to be found in the data that may not make it into the written report: 247 votes for “disadvantages: loss of instructional time;” 169 votes for “advantages: measures student progress.”

My kids’ school is spending the week taking the PARCC. The Girl has a running tally of all that she’s missed because of standardized testing: Spanish class, lifesavers, homework, progress on her Western Civilizations project, her teachers’ respect. If we go back a few weeks to NWEA testing, her tally grows ever longer to include recess and opera class. The PARCC, which she isn’t taking, is ostensibly to show that in eight years, The Girl will be “ready for college and career” when she graduates from high school. Couldn’t we worry about that when she is closer to being developmentally ready to be launched out of the family nest and into college and career?

NWEA is supposed to provide more immediate feedback. Except all that has happened for The Girl is that she spent three hours on the math portion, and proved that she is now past where she is expected to be at the end of 4th grade. There may be differentiation for the class in aggregate; we’re both waiting for more challenging work to come her way. (On the upside, at least she got to join the math team.)

And then today, I got the notice that STEP testing will begin next week. My reaction is only this: you have got to be kidding me.

What kills me, what absolutely kills me about this is that STEP is actually a useful tool. It is a local assessment that tells The Girl where she needs to develop and hone in her literacy skills. It doesn’t necessarily tell her how to get there, but it does tell her what specific skills she needs to become a better reader. Although it is a standardized, normed assessment, STEP is not comparative or, ultimately, competitive.

But on top of this version of March madness, it’s just too much. It is TOO much. It’s like CPS decided that it couldn’t possibly use the only month in the school calendar that is without a holiday, break, or professional development day to you know, actually have school. We have a six-hour-and-20-minute instructional day; why not use it on, you know, actual instruction?

All this testing – to what end? A competition just for the sake of having a competition–much like the 1st grade girls who, to pass the time, form a club on the playground and exclude children at random, creating and enforcing their own code or hierarchy of greater than / less than.

Opt-outs, refusals, and rebuttals

I’ve been talking about the PARCC since August. Early this week, CPS announced that all students in grades 3-8th would be given the test. And now everyone else is (finally?) talking about the PARCC with me.

Ultimately, it’s up to The Girl and The Boy (The Tot Who’s Not is as-yet too young) as to whether or not they take the test. If I had my way, they would opt-out. If The Dad had his way, they’d take the test. So we are very split in our household and we have spent countless hours this week talking this over.

The way the law is currently set, parents cannot opt their children out and the state/ district / school can mandate the test. I disagree with this, but in this case, because I have children who can talk and advocate for themselves, they can make the decision for themselves. The Girl is resolute: she will not take the test. She took 4 hours of NWEA testing last month*, and we’re both waiting for differentiation to materialize, so I can’t say that I blame her. (Unbeknownst to me until today, she’s been running her own little persuasion campaign among her classmates, suggesting that they also refuse the test.) The Boy has already aced his sample / prep for 6th grade ELA and he wants to take it. (I suspect this cheerfulness may peter out around day 2 of the testing window.)

If I got to choose and my opinion was the only one that mattered, I would opt The Boy and The Girl out of taking PARCC, specifically, and any high-stakes standardized tests generally. Here’s why:

  • The test has never been normed. That means our state pays for the test and then our kids take it and then Pearson gets the cash from aggregating and norming the data as they resell the test to other states / districts next year.
  • Too many standardized tests already. The Girl estimates that she’ll spend 22+ hours this year in standardized tests. She’s in 4th grade. Note that she didn’t include regular classroom assessments in her calculation — only time spent in STEP, NWEA, PARCC, REACH, etc.
  • Data is a snapshot in time, not useful for anything for The Boy or The Girl. NWEA is an interim assessment; PARCC is a summative one. NWEA spits out the results in less than two weeks; the results can inform a teacher’s instruction of my child in that year (maybe, if we’re lucky). PARCC results will be like the ISAT scores — you get them 6-8 months later. How are you supposed to use that?
  • I don’t think the mayor (any mayor) can take another political nightmare of changing the SEHS-eligibility to the PARCC. The uproar after the Diocese was told that its kids had to take the NWEAs instead of the Terra Novas is not one that anyone with a brain wants to repeat.
  • How much test prep practice does a kid need? And how young? As my daughter said, “By the time I’m going to college, there will probably a whole ‘nother test required for admission.”
  • Because there’s nothing tied to it this year, it’s like last year’s ISAT – what’s the point?
  • I am absolutely against the idea of using student test scores to evaluate teachers (VAT = 30% of teacher evaluations) and I don’t want my kids’ test scores to be used for that purpose.
  • I took the sample 3rd grade ELA and it is freaking hard. If that is what the standards say a 3rd grade kid should know, I would suggest that CCSS are too rigorous. My children don’t need another measuring stick / anxiety inducer. Most children don’t need this added stress.

ISBE Assessment Review Task Force

Like Michael Beyer, I sit on the Assessment Review Task Force of the Illinois State Board of Education. I was appointed as one of two parents on the task force, an appointment that I achieved through my affiliation with Illinois PTA. Like Mr. Beyer, I thought the task force would be a symbolic olive branch rather than a body with actual input.

The meeting started with brief introductions in Chicago and in Springfield, and continued with a set of presentations from Dr. Diana Zaleski, the ISBE project administrator and taskforce co-chair, and Dr. Jacob Mishook, a consultant from Achieve, Inc., about the state’s “balanced assessment approach” and a tool for assessing and inventorying the assessments, respectively. At the end of Dr. Mishook’s presentation, the floor was opened up to questions.

And immediately, the aura in the the room changed completely. Bam! Right out of the gate, state senator Kim Lightford changed the tone of the conversation by saying something like,  “Hey, I created this taskforce when the General Assembly approved the PARCC last year and I need to see that mandating this test across the state makes sense.”

The room practically erupted as representatives from the Illinois Association for School Administrators, Illinois Principals Association, Illinois Association of School Boards, and Illinois High School Districts Organization, as well as assessment expert Dr. Terri Pigott (Loyola) and 2-year-school representative Dr. Julie Schaid (Elgin Community College) clamored to add his or her opinion to the discussion. It was a good discussion. (I got a peep in as well, as did the CTU rep Monique Redeaux.)

The meeting itself was also a great source of information, and I consider myself a fairly well-informed parent on the topic of standardized testing. In previous discussions with my fellow advocates at Illinois PTA, “testing” is a non-issue outside of the city. Or so they tell me. (I find this a bit hard to believe.) While I know that there are few districts in Illinois that are subject to the number of high-stakes and standardized tests as there are in Chicago, I also know that ISBE requires districts to administer sets of tests outside of the ISAT or PARCC. These, according to Dr. Lewis Cavello of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, are tests that measure RTI and student growth data, among other things. He noted that ISBE allows districts to choose which ones to administer, but the menu list of options is still a menu list of options. And, as he and others noted, some districts are able to afford the “best” ones and some are not.

Oops, there’s that darn inequity again.

Working back around, the ARTF tasked itself with inventorying some regions, districts, and schools to see what the assessment load really looks like among Illinois schools. I’m not yet sure how a group of 20 without a budget and a scant 3-hour monthly meeting is going to accomplish that before June. But whatever the ARTF drafts, it’s not necessarily setting policy for the state. As Sen. Lightford noted, the ARTF is supposed to provide information, not necessarily recommendations.

This brings me to the point of this post. While I was able to represent some parent views during my comments last month, I would like to speak with a greater voice in subsequent meetings. My opinion represents a larger point of view, but I’d like my own data to back it up. Or anecdotes that don’t involve my 9-year-old.

So here it is: what is your opinion of standardized testing that public school children must take? Do you understand what all the tests are for? Do you know the difference between formative, summative, and interim assessments? Do you know if or how your children’s standardized tests inform curriculum and teaching within the school building? Please leave a comment.

Petition for Illinois to delay the launch of the PARCC test

As I wrote in October, the PARCC is a headache-inducer. I took the ELA sample, but CPSobsessed took the math version. RYH is addressing this through a Move On petition as well as a look at testing and authentic assessment at an event next week.

CPS Obsessed

You may have seen posts from Raise Your Hand already, but I’d urge people to consider signing this petition to ask the Illinois State Board of Education to delay the launch of the PARCC as the high stakes test in IL until some issues with the methodology are refined.

CPS itself is also in favor of a delay (which indicates the mess that this test is in.)

CPS and BBB alone don’t have the authority to delay the test launch since it’s a state decision.  To let ISBE know that both CPS and parents support delay, more signatures are needed on the petition.

Try the sample test here:   (I’ve tried it and it’s horribly, horribly clunky and cumbersome to use, particularly for math. As a research person, I see multiple ways that this methodology will contort the scores as a way to represent how much a child knows.)

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Standardized Testing Redux

For the past yearish, I’ve been involved in Raise Your Hand’s research project on a high-quality education. As part of the project, we looked at the history of and research around testing and assessments. I didn’t realize this until recently, but the pace and import of standardized testing really has changed since I was a child.

When I graduated from high school, I was handed a stack of paperwork two inches thick. I glanced at it and then filed it away in a large box that contains my childhood journals, random term papers, and other written work. I recently took out this file and discovered that the paperwork contained my academic record, an academic portfolio of my learning from K-11th grade. Continue reading