Let’s Change The World

(An earlier version of this post was published in April of last year (scroll down to the bottom). I’ve updated it in April 2016 and am putting it out there again… because here we are, again.)

Plain and simple, I believe that the current standardized tests in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, given annually from grades 3-8, are poorly designed and age-inappropriate and, ultimately, should be entirely revamped. I’ll go one step more: I think that a lot of families have no idea what’s happening.

Lemme break it down.

1. Testing isn’t going anywhere
Tests have been around since the dawn of schooling (and probably before that; you know that cave people were totally devising hunting “challenges” for one another). Standardized testing in the United States has been around since at least WWI. Pretty much anyone who’s lived in the USA over the last 40-50 years has heard about our “failing” education system, how we don’t “measure up” to other nations, etc. – so, clearly, something had to be done. Hence, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed which, in 2002, turned into No Child Left Behind where – I’m simplifying here – in order to receive federal funds, schools needed to prove that their students were showing academic improvement. That act was met with such vitriol, this past December, the Obama administration rejiggered it into the Every Child Succeeds Act .

Whether or not American schools are, indeed, “failing” is up for intense debate, but the fact remains that standardized tests have been around forever. They offer one small snapshot into one moment of a student’s academic year. Taken alongside the numerous other evaluations that are performed throughout any given school year, they can contribute a few brushstrokes to a child’s academic progress canvas. If these tests are well-written, developmentally appropriate, and accurate, they can also provide some sort of (small) basis with which to compare schools and teachers.

I’m down with standardized testing, as a general concept. I think most parents, teachers, and families are.

2. Common Core confusion
States adopted the Core standards with a very specific goal in mind: money. Not education reform, not improving student learning, not evaluating teaching practices or helping teachers to better their approaches, but cold, hard cash. See, there was this thing called Race To The Top (RTTT) that was rolled out in 2009-2010 that essentially said (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly): Hey, governing people! Want to earn more FUNDING for your states for education? THEN COME COMPETE FOR IT!! All you have to do is prove that you’re evaluating teachers more stringently, identify and turn around failing schools, promise you won’t prohibit the formation of more charter schools, adopt some common standards, and create some nifty data systems! The faster and better you do that, the faster you can earn MORE MONEY!!! It’s like a carnival up in here!

In theory, a set of shared standards isn’t such a bad idea. I like the Common Core benchmarks, broadly speaking. I like the idea of everyone in the US learning some basic, shared content. I like the thought that, if your kids changed schools or districts or moved across the country, you could count on them not being too far behind (or ahead) because everyone’s learning the same stuff at the same time, from poverty-stricken inner cities to wealthy suburbs.

In practice, because of the whole SHOW ME THE MONEY thing, the standards were written in a bit of a hurry – and, many people assert, they were written without any educator input. No, for real: according to many experts, not one single K-12 educator or child development expert was included in the creation of these standards. So they’re a bit off-base in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate for each grade level, by which I mean that they’re asking kids to know a heckuva lot more, and to use an awful lot of more complex thinking, than they’ve done before.

Which, in itself, might not be so bad — maybe even inspiring and hopeful — if the standards had been adopted at a reasonable pace with teachers being given adequate support and training to properly teach the new material.

But because there was money on the line, and because states had to act super fast if they wanted their share, they adopted Common Core with lightning speed. There was no gradual roll-out. No trying-and-seeing to determine if this set of standards was reasonable, achievable, or appropriate. No oversight by anyone in the field of education. Buckle up!

3. Many of the tests are poorly written
Even so – even with way more complex standards written by non-education people that were put into practice before anyone had a chance to review them – things might have been okay had the accompanying tests that were meant to measure performance been good, strong, accurate evaluations. But many of them are not.

For one thing, they – like the standards – are written by non-educators. (I understand that in New York state, the tests before the Common Core-based evaluations were also written by non-educators, so this is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their authorship, the tests have been found to be riddled with errors. The test questions themselves, especially on the ELA portion of the exam, are often written at reading levels two to nine grades ahead (asking, say, third graders to read and evaluate passages that are actually appropriate for 5th- 12th graders).
Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 5.43.27 PM
These are taken from the PARCC ELA test…

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 5.43.48 PMYes. Our eight year-olds are probably familiar with the idea of “luring” someone into “a false sense of security.”

Many of the test questions are vague or even deliberately misleading, which makes choosing the answer more of a guessing game than a true demonstration of understanding.

4. The results don’t mean anything
Given that the tests are badly written, error-filled, and are developmentally inappropriate, it seems safe to say that their results don’t really mean much. Additionally, since student results aren’t provided until the end of summer (or even into the start of the next school year), the child’s teacher can’t use the scores to adjust his or her instruction to better serve those kiddos.

Sure, in theory, a teacher could look at the results from last year’s class, see a deficiency in a particular area, and think, “Oh, I guess I didn’t do a good job teaching Main Idea. I’d better work on that with this year’s batch of students.” In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of teachers try to do exactly that. But the information that teachers are given – at least in New York – is rather limited.

Teachers aren’t allowed to see the actual questions from the test, nor to know ones were answered incorrectly – they only receive a broad overview of concepts and standards and whole-class percentages rather than individual student breakdowns. Did last year’s students really not understand Main Idea, or were the Main Idea questions vague? Were they deliberately misleading? Were they “sample” questions that are thrown out there each year just to see how kids do on them? Were they just plain incorrect or filled with typos?

Even if the data was reliable – there’s one final catch: the passing score changes from year to year and is determined… AFTER THE TESTS HAVE BEEN SCORED. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but I’m not. Movable passing scores!!

5. Teachers are more than just a (faulty) number
Here’s where things get really personal for me. Let’s just backtrack for a moment and pretend that the current tests are awesome. Let’s pretend that they are appropriate, accurate, and superbly written. Even if this were the case, I think we can all agree, still, that they represent merely one moment in a child’s education, several hours out of their lives. They don’t actually demonstrate all that children have learned – not even the best tests in the entire world – because most of what we call “learning” cannot be shown in a two-dimensional standardized test.

What standardized test results really show us is how well individual children tested on a particular day. And yet many states have decided that test scores do accurately demonstrate how well teachers are teaching, often counting the scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

And let’s not forget about the rest of the teachers. Tests are given at only at certain grade levels in certain subjects – meaning that that the majority of teachers do not teach these subjects/grades. K-2 teachers? 9-12 non-Regents class teachers? Gym, music, art? Science (students are tested in science but not in every grade), social studies/history, foreign language, library, computer, home ec, graphics…? 

And yet 50% of their evaluations are also based on test results. Based on the performance of students they may never have laid eyes on IN SUBJECTS AND GRADE LEVELS THAT THEY DO NOT TEACH.

This is fair, appropriate, or okay because… why?

6. Greed is a powerful motivator
For decades now, politicians have been talking about how American education is failing. Thus, politicians find it pretty easy to gain financial backers for education reform. After all, once a school is determined to not pass muster, something must be done — new curricula, new textbooks, new resources.

One of the largest supporters of Common Core is Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its adoption. While I believe that Bill Gates genuinely wants to help, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft and Pearson – one of the largest producers of Common Core materials – have banded together to get additional Microsoft resources into schools.

Many people have taken issue with the fact that companies such as Pearson [which authored a) the Common Core standards, b) the great majority of the current Common Core tests, c) the “modules” of instructional materials that are sold to schools to prepare students for said tests, d) and – as of 2015 – the teacher certification examinations in eighteen states] is a business company, not a company run by education or child development professionals. (I acknowledge that pre-Common Core, tests were still written by contracted, outside companies; that still doesn’t make it right.)

That would be galling enough, but even more maddening is that Pearson is positively rolling in the money it is making off of its materials. Since Common Core was adopted so quickly, school districts had to act fast to provide their teachers with adequate curricula resources. Who better to provide that than the author of the Common Core standards? Enter the Pearson instruction modules! Need additional support materials? Pearson’s got those, too!

7. Teacher demoralization
I’m just going to put it bluntly: because of all of this Common Core testing and the hoopla surrounding it, many of our teachers* feel like crap. They have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the jobs they were doing weren’t good enough. No matter how well-liked they were, how many kids graduated from their classes, how many years they’d been teaching, how many children they taught to read or how to multiply, how many hours they stayed after school, how many hungry children they fed, how many concerts they attended… it wasn’t enough. They have to change, fast. And if they don’t? Their very jobs are at stake.

All of the teachers I know – the ones for whom I sub, the ones with whom I sub, the ones with whom I went to college, the ones with whom I used to teach, the ones who teach my own children, or the ones I’ve met along the way by happenstance – have said, unequivocally, how much they love teaching. They love their students. They are fiercely proud to be educators. But it is getting hard – really hard – for many of them to continue. You hear talk of those who are seriously considering leaving the classroom because they can no longer teach; now, they have to teach these modules, teach to the test, jump through hoop after hoop. It’s exhausting and maddening.

Losing our teachers would, obviously, be a tremendous problem; that problem is compounded by the fact that there has been a steep decline in the number of new teachers being certified in recent years. Even those who do decide to enter the profession don’t stick around for long.

To be sure, teachers have often felt under-appreciated, misunderstood, and underpaid, but rarely has their ability to do their job been so strongly questioned. Never have they been so micromanaged. We are losing some of our best teachers. We aren’t getting enough new ones. This is happening right now, all across the country, and it is terrifying.

(*Obviously, I realize that I’m speaking in very broad terms here. I have not interviewed every teacher in the nation. But I am certain that the teachers with whom I have spoken – and this is a helluva lot of teachers – have expressed their dejection, sadness, and frustration.)

8. How do we get an objective measure?
Many people who acknowledge the shortcomings of these particular tests maintain that we need them because we need some objective measure of how our kids are doing in school. We need some way to compare teachers, schools, and performance, from rural West Virginia to suburban Idaho to inner-city Houston. We need to be able to determine teacher growth and student success. Kids from the most poverty-riddled communities deserve access to the same quality education as their most affluent peers.

I hear that. I absolutely believe that all children deserve a quality education; the disparity is, indeed, unfair. I also think it would be great to, say, move across the country and be able to glean, at a glance, how a school or district compares to another.

But here’s the thing: I think we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist – not because we haven’t figured out how to do it, but because it’s just not possibleMaybe education and learning aren’t things that can be measured any more than a musical performance can be measured. Maybe teacher growth and student success aren’t confined to numbers. Maybe a one-size-fits-all assessment works nicely for obtaining a driver’s license but not so well for determining whether or not fifth graders can identify subplot or if their teachers are doing their jobs. Test scores do not indicate success or failure; they are merely numbers.

9. Quite whining! How about some solutions or ideas?!
I’m not saying that we should give up. I’m saying I think we need to – dramatically – change our approach to how we evaluate education, students, and teachers. In my Magic Wand World, I’d take a (lot of) page(s) out of Finland’s book (it is well-acknowledged that Finnish students perform among best in the world at international exams) and our teachers would be as well-respected as as well paid as our doctors.

Since it’s unlikely that we’re going to adopt too many of Finland’s ideas, I suggest that we work with what we already have to reconfigure our view of success.

  • We should de-couple the current standardized tests from teacher evaluations, period.
  • We can keep the Common Core – as I said, I like those standards – but only as a portion of what each child should learn; we need to leave the rest up to individual states, districts, schools, and teachers.
  • We should give teachers several years to become familiar with the Core standards so that they can rework their lesson plans, see where there may be deficiencies, and take it from there.
  • Standardized tests aren’t going anywhere (in the USA), but we should have new, fair, developmentally appropriate tests that have been written by educators from across the K-12 spectrum.
  • Those tests’ scores should come back before the school year is over so that the students’ current teachers can use the data to inform their instruction.
  • And then those numbers should be just one of many other things that combine together to form our opinions of teacher success and student learning. Let’s factor attendance into the equation. Graduation rates. The percentage of high school graduates who go onto college. Post-graduate success. AP exams – how many are given? What are the scores? Teacher-student ratio. Teacher retention; how many are still teaching there after three years? Five? Ten? Extra-curricular activities. Class sizes. Poverty levels. Parent involvement. Principal and superintendent evaluations. Student portfolios. Additional test scores.

Education “success” cannot be measured by any one, single thing. I will happily sing you the praises of my daughters’ elementary school, which I adore, but none of those praises – from small class sizes to close relationships with other families to the devotion of the teachers to their annual Halloween parade – has anything to do with test scores.

10. Become informed… and then do something
I’m not really the “take a stand” type. More typically, I talk and think a lot. I write letters, I sign petitions, I discuss with family and friends. With this, it was different. I’d been talking, for years. I’d been signing petitions. I’d been writing letters, dozens of them, from the governor to my locally elected officials.

Finally, last year, it became clear to me: talking, thinking, letter- writing, and petition-signing weren’t working. Our legislators weren’t listening. And in the meantime, our children and teachers were suffering.

Enough was enough. And so, after much research and consideration (and after having participated the year before), our 4th grader opted out of the tests. She was extremely nervous about taking them – and we were extremely upset that her teachers were being evaluated based on student scores on poorly-designed tests – so it seemed like an appropriate solution. Turns out, many, many parents and children in New York state came to the same conclusion. As I wrote last year:

To paraphrase the incomparable Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. Parents and teachers are speaking up. We are knowing better. I hope, as our voices swell – whether our children take the tests or refuse them – that our politicians will hear us and that, some day, they will do better, too.

You know what? Our New York legislators heard us. BY GOSH, THEY HEARD US! Our voices swelled and our message was clear: This situation needs to change. And so the change has begun. Test scores are no longer being used to evaluate New York teachers (CAN I GET AN AMEN!). Students may now take as much time as they need to complete the exams. As of next year, Pearson will no longer be writing the tests or curricular materials. NEW YORK IS TRYING TO DO BETTER.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Because of the changes that have been made, my husband and I did not feel as strongly about refusing the testing this year, instead leaving the decision to our daughters (after sharing the above information with them, to the degree that they can understand it). Our oldest, again, has opted out; her younger sister is taking them. We feel very comfortable being a house divided.

No, the tests aren’t perfect (then again, what is?). With the exception of tying them to teacher evaluations, everything else remains (essentially) the same, so there remains (much) work to be done. (While I appreciate the removal of the time limit, it seems that some students are taking up to 6 hours per day to finish their tests… which is not exactly “doing better”…) Still, I acknowledge and greatly appreciate that changes are being made. It’s a step in the right direction.

Some analysts and educators argue that high-stakes tests should be banned, period. Others claim that the tests are successful. Although they’re reaching different conclusions, they’re doing so after having thoroughly done their homework (a pun!).

And that is what I encourage everyone to do: learn more, then go from there. Find out who writes the tests in your state and how teachers are asked to teach the material. Read up on others’ opinions about how valid and appropriate the tests are. Discover when the test results are returned, what information the teachers and schools receive, and how they apply that information. Learn whether or not your child’s educators are evaluated based on test scores. Inquire about what your options are.

Then, if you feel that the tests are not measuring up, ask for better. If you feel like they’re cutting muster, speak up! Maybe that looks like writing letters. Maybe it’s signing petitions. Maybe it’s attending town hall meetings. Maybe it’s talking with neighbors and teachers and administrators. Maybe it’s opting out. Maybe it’s opting in. Maybe it’s a little of everything and a lot of other things, too.

No matter how you feel about Common Core and the state tests, I think we can all agree that our nation’s children deserve awesome. Let’s work together to be thoughtful, committed citizens. Let’s help our children receive the awesome they deserve. Heck – let’s change the world.

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