Moratorium on using test results?

The Gates Foundation, which poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of the Common Core standards and is generally a strong proponent of high-stakes standardized testing, now says we should hold off on using the results of tests aligned with the new standards when making critical decisions.  Specifically, the foundation has called for a two-year moratorium on using test results to make high-stakes decisions with respect to teacher evaluation or student promotion.

This is a welcome development and an important acknowledgement that it will take time to develop Common Core-aligned assessments that actually provide teachers and District officials with valuable data about student learning.  Until then, we should be very wary of using the results of the annual state tests to evaluate programs, students, teachers, or principals.

In other words, when the Gates Foundation says to go slow on using the results of Common Core-aligned tests for high-stakes decisions, that means: go very slow.

What we teach when we teach things like confidence

For the second year in a row, I taught a before-school mock trial class to a group of 16 Rosa Parks fifth graders.  I taught the class with a former student of mine, James Stevens, and my daughter Rachel, who is in 6th grade and is an “alum” of the program.  Two other Longfellow 6th graders helped us out during the 16 weeks, as we taught the kids about persuasive argument, trial advocacy techniques, and the basics of our criminal justice system.

As it did last year, the class culminated in a mock trial presentation at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law moot courtroom, in front of an audience of 80 relatives and teachers, a jury of 12 kids, and a retired Alameda County Superior Court judge. (Some great photos here.)  After the trial, which was last week, the parents presented each of us coaches with a framed “word cloud” that represented the most common phrases the kids used to describe what they learned in the mock trial class.  Here it is:

Mock trial word cloud

I found this gift extremely touching, and I am proud of the impact we had on these kids.  But I am sharing the word cloud here because what struck me as I looked at what the kids said they learned – and what their parents were thrilled they had learned – were things like “confidence” and “public speaking” and “bravery.”  Many of them apparently told their parents that the mock trial class made them “feel smart.”  These are all qualities that parents want their kids to develop in school, and in life.

This is what I mean when I (and many others) talk about teaching what cannot be assessed on a standardized test.  We want our kids to emerge from elementary school, among other things, confident.  Confident in their intelligence, and in their ability to articulate their beliefs, to speak in a room full of people, to apply what they know to a new situation.  We want them to love learning, so they stay in school, explore their passions, feed their curiosity.  We want them to know how to work as a team towards a common goal.  When we focus too heavily on the results of annual standardized tests, when we make them “high-stakes,” we send a clear message to parents, teachers, and principals that the most important thing to teach is what is on the test.  And that relegates to the sidelines a lot of other traits and skills we want our children to develop in school.

Kindergarten Play

New York has led the way in showing the nation what not to do when it comes to education reform.  Recently, this article made the rounds.  It spotlights a New York school’s decision to cancel the annual year-end kindergarten show because of concerns that the kids were not going to be sufficiently ready for college and career if they took time away from their studies to put on a play.Rosa Parks Play  Of course, that’s ridiculous.  And, as the article suggests, it is emblematic of the fact that “[k]indergarten (and even preschool) has increasingly become academic — at the expense of things such as recess and the arts — in this era of standardized test-based school reform.”

Fortunately, we have teachers in Berkeley who understand the value of creative play and project-based learning – in all grades, but particularly for our youngest students.  Our three kids have all had the same, wonderful kindergarten teacher, Lynda Arnold, a veteran of BUSD and herself a Berkeley parent.  Every year, Teacher Lynda directs an elaborate kindergarten play, often with the participation of all kindergarten classes at Rosa Parks.  This year’s production of “Really Rosie” involved over 100 students and three performances, and it brought down the house.  (You can see photos and videos on the Rosa Parks Facebook page.)

Lynda’s “Director’s Note” on the back of the program is worth reading and I’ve pasted it below:

Lynda's note



Narrowing of curriculum is an equity issue

This piece says what I think we all know, namely that “extra-curriculars” such as music, art, and foreign languages are actually central to learning.  And not just because they make kids “well-rounded”; they actually improve cognition, and teach valuable skills.  Research shows that musical training, for example, “produces long lasting changes in motor abilities and brain structure.”  As the author states, “Concentration, strong recall skills, evolved communiPaintingcation skills, and being a good team player are just a few of the benefits research shows music, foreign language and physical education have on a developing mind.”

These subjects are being pushed out of the classroom curriculum as high-stakes standardized testing dominates the K-12 landscape.  The narrowing of the curriculum in this way has many obvious drawbacks, but one that deserves more attention is the equity concern.

A lot of parents in Berkeley can afford to supplement their children’s education with these programs, but many more cannot.  And they shouldn’t have to.

Accountability without standardized tests?

I love this story from KQED about a school district in Colorado, because it is an example of local educational officials showing leadership when it comes to challenging our high-stakes standardized testing culture.  The Douglas County School District, outside Denver, is advocating the use of performance-based assessments, which test not only what children know, but how they use what they know.  District officials in Douglas County are not trying to avoid accountability, or even do away with standardized tests altogether.  But, they recognize that a focus on one year-end test can narrow the curriculum, constrain teaching, and inhibit student learning.

Most inspiring to me is the acknowledgement from the lead district official in Douglas County that the positive aspects of the new Common Core standards will be lost if the focus on standardized testing continues:  “While she finds the Common Core State Standards promising as an outline of the skills students should learn, she worries that if the implementation boils down to focus on how schools do on the assessments, then all the effort will end up looking a lot like the last 14 years of high-stakes testing.”  Indeed.

Diane Ravitch weighs in

Diane Ravitch has had a fascinating career.  A former top policy maker for President George H.W Bush, she was once a strong proponent of No Child Left Behind and the charter school movement.  Diane RavitchShe eventually became disillusioned with punitive measures that weakened public schools, narrowed curricular offerings, and failed to achieve equity in educational opportunities and outcomes.  She is now one the most visible national advocates for public education, and certainly the most vocal national critic of our current high-stakes standardized testing culture.

I was thrilled to see the other day that she had chosen to spotlight one of my blog posts on her own blog.  Her post concluded:

Ty is a graduate of the public schools in Berkeley, so is his wife. Both his parents worked in public schools.  I bet he would be a great addition to the Berkeley school board.

Thanks Diane!

Parents who challenge the status quo on testing

I am posting this piece by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker with the caveat that California is not New York, and the disastrous experience New York has had with the Common Core will hopefully not be replicated in Berkeley, or anywhere in our state.  Moreover, there has not been much of an “opt-out” movement in Berkeley among those who don’t like the idea of their children spending precious instructional hours practicing for tests that are of limited value to students, parents, or teachers.  But I am posting the piece because I like how Mead describes the motivations of parents who challenge the status quo with respect to high-stakes testing:

[They] are not motivated by a deluded pride in their children’s unrecognized accomplishments, or by a fear that their property values will diminish if their schools’ scores’ drop. They are, in many cases, driven by a conviction that a child’s performance on a standardized test is an inadequate, unreliable measure of that child’s knowledge, intelligence, aptitude, diligence, and character—and a still more unreliable measure of his teachers’ effort, skill, perseverance, competence, and kindness.

I also appreciate her point that “parents who are least equipped to speak out are the mothers and fathers of the children who are most vulnerable—the most likely to have their educations diminished by months of repetitive test prep, most likely to find themselves reduced to the statistical data at the wrong end of the bell curve.”  After all, it is entirely consistent to challenge the status quo on testing and still hold the belief that racial predictability in student achievement is inexcusable.

To this point, thankfully, New York’s experience has not been ours.  If we (parents and teachers) are vigilant, we can work to ensure that we avoid the mistakes that have been made in New York.

What will state testing look like this year?

There has been a lot of confusion and uncertainty around the state testing regime this year, and I thought I would take a stab at explaining in simple terms where things stand as of today:

With the move to Common Core, it was only a matter of time before the old CST tests were retired.  But because the new tests, based on the Common Core standards, are not required until next school year (2014-15), there was a question about what to do this school year.  California education officials decided to do away with the old CST tests, and administer only a “field test” of the new Common Core-based English and Math tests this year.  These tests, which will be administered via computer, are being developed by a group of educators and policymakers called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  Under California’s plan, students in grades 3 through 8, and 11, will have to take the SBAC field tests this year.  Each student will take the field test in Math and English, but no individual scores will be reported, so the “validity and reliability” of the tests can be assessed before any consequences are attached to the results.  In other words, this is just an opportunity to “test the test.”  The tests are supposed to take 3.5 hours per student and will likely be administered in 45 minute increments over a long testing window from March through June.

The Legislature passed this law, called AB 484, and Governor Brown signed it in October.  According to the lead sponsor of the bill, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, “It’s time for a clean break from assessments that are out of date and out of sync with the work our schools are doing to shift to the Common Core and help students meet the challenges of a changing world.”  (Note that students in the 5th, 8th, and 10th grade will still take the old CST science tests this year, and the scores will be reported.  This is because the new science standards have not yet been finalized.)

The federal government, however, has pushed back, and wants California to administer the old CST tests this year, based on the old state standards, so that we will not miss out on a year of test scores.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan has threatened to withhold billions of dollars in federal aid if California does not administer – and score – the CST tests.  Thus, there is a game of educational chicken going on.  California officials have called Secretary Duncan’s bluff, and consensus in the educational community seems to be that eventually Duncan will blink, allowing the one-year break from reported scores.

For now, the bottom line is that Berkeley students in grades 3 through 8, and 11, will have to take the field test in either English or Math this spring, but individual scores will not be reported to anyone. In my view, this temporary reprieve from high-stakes standardized testing is a welcome relief, particularly in a year marked by so much change in the K-12 curriculum.  The question it raises, though, is how much time is going to be spent preparing for these “tests of the tests”?  BUSD is legally required to administer the field tests.  But we have a unique opportunity to dispense with any test prep this year.  Let’s see what happens when every instructional minute is spent on student learning, and not one is spent on test-taking strategies.

Common Core and high-stakes tests

I posted this over on my Facebook page, but thought I would do so here as well.  One of the things I would love to do in this campaign (and on the school board) is spark more conversation than I think currently exists in Berkeley about the damaging nature of our high-stakes testing culture. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Common Core, but we need to make sure we don’t become overly obsessed with the new state tests. Charles Blow‘s op-ed (from a couple months ago) nails it: “Because we insist on prioritizing testing over teaching — punishments over preparation — we run the risk of turning Americans off one of the few educational strategies in recent memory that most people say we need.”  The demise of the CST (also called STAR) tests, and the advent of the Common Core, is an opportunity for us, as a District, to re-evaluate how much emphasis we place on the results of the annual state tests.  We can’t ignore them, but I believe we can exercise more discretion in terms of how much weight we ascribe to their results.

Blow’s op-ed has some blind spots (here’s Diane Ravitch’s take on his citation of the Broad Foundation and international test scores, if you’re interested), and his unconditional endorsement of the Common Core standards seems premature to me.  But I like how he captures the effect our high-stakes testing culture has on the ability of teachers to practice their craft: “We have drifted away from the fundamentals of what makes a great teacher: the ability to light a fire in a child, to develop in him or her a level of intellectual curiosity, the grit to persevere and the capacity to expand. Great teachers help to activate a small thing that breeds great minds: thirst.”

It’s important for parents to know that the Common Core does not mean an end to annual high-stakes tests.  More to come on this subject.