Testing worries

Feelings mixed on where to go from here on testing

A study done for state Department of Education has found significant worries about the burden of state and district testing but reported somewhat mixed views about the details of what should be done next.

Educators, administrators and parents who were surveyed for the study generally agreed that last spring’s round of testing went better than anticipated and produced limited difficulties, especially for students. There was agreement that schools need more computers and other devices for online tests, and that the number and length of tests should be trimmed.

“They want fewer, shorter tests,” Sheila Arredondo, one of the researchers who worked on the study, told the State Board of Education during a briefing last week.

There was less agreement on how to accomplish those things, and there were significant differences of opinion among urban, suburban and rural districts.

The State Standards and Assessments Task Force will be briefed on the study today. The review was launched late last year by CDE as public and legislative concerns about testing were building ahead of the full launch of new online tests in 2015. The task force subsequently was created by the legislature. (Get more details on the group here.)

WestEd, a California-based education-consulting organization, did the review at no cost to the state. (WestEd and similar regional comprehensive centers around the nation are federally funded.)

The study was designed to gauge educator and parent attitudes about tests and was not intended to review the content of state academic standards or tests nor provide a cost-benefit analysis of assessments.

In a first phase, researchers conducted 11 focus groups and did a survey of district testing coordinators last winter and spring before the start of annual testing, which this year included new online social studies and science tests and practice PARCC tests in 96 districts.

In the second phase, after testing was finished, researchers had follow-up conversations and interviews, conducted another focus group and re-surveyed district assessment coordinators. Out of 178 school districts, 87 coordinators completed the nine-question survey, 72 percent of those from rural districts, 14 urban and 13 percent suburban.

A report summary cautioned, “Results may not generalize to the larger population. Districts [were] weighted equally – rather than by student enrollment, thus views of rural districts with small student populations have proportionally higher impact on results.”

What the survey found

Here’s the report’s top-level summary of the feedback received about options for changing the testing system:

  • Online testing – Don’t revert to paper-and-pencil tests.
  • Technology – Districts need emergency funds to buy more computers, laptops and tablets.
  • Length of assessments – There’s strong support for fewer, shorter tests.
  • Number of tests – There’s also substantial support for optional school readiness tests and reduction of testing to federal minimum requirements – basically language arts and math tests from 3rd to 9th grade and once in high school.

Surveyors posed several questions and suggestions to district testing coordinators during the second round of work. Here’s a summary of the responses to key questions. Respondents were given four test-reduction options and asked to rate each on a five-step scale.

  • Technology readiness – The top priority for respondents was emergency funding to buy more computers and devices.
  • Amount of testing – Some 45 percent “strongly” supported elimination of new school readiness evaluations, followed by 43 percent in strong support of cutting Colorado testing back to only what the federal government requires.
  • Length of tests – Some 46 percent strongly supported shortening social studies tests while 43 percent had the sentiment about language arts and math tests.
  • Top concern – Asked to rank the biggest testing implementation issues for primary and secondary schools, respondents listed “too many assessments” as the top concern.

People who were surveyed also were asked yes-no-neutral questions on other issues, including:

  • Flexibility – Allow districts to give English tests online but math tests on paper if they choose. 38 percent support, 37 percent oppose, 25 percent neutral.
  • Third-grade tests – Give paper-and-pencil tests to students in 3rd grade, the first year students take standardized tests. 43 percent support, 39 percent oppose, 18 percent neutral.
  • High school test reduction – Eliminate all high school standardized testing expect ACT. 46 percent support, 40 percent oppose, 14 percent neutral.
  • High school test timing – Give science and social studies tests in different years, rather than both in 12th grade. 65 percent support, 13 percent oppose, 22 percent neutral.

See details on responses here:

The testing task force is assigned to make recommendations to the legislature on a variety of testing issues. During their discussion last week, members of the State Board expressed interest in making their own suggestions, and testing is expected to again be a major focus for the board at its September meeting.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.