Teachers: We have no say in policy

Teachers’ voices are ignored at the district, state and national level, say public school teachers interviewed for Center on Education Policy survey. At the school level,  53 percent of teachers said their opinions are considered most of the time.

A majority of teachers believe they spend too much time preparing students for state and district tests and 81 percent said students spend too much time taking required tests.  Most math and English teachers said they’re using data from tests to improve their teaching.

While most teachers received a performance evaluation in 2014-15, only about half found the feedback they received helpful.

Overtested? Not really

“The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” says Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher

Analyzing PISA survey data from more than 70 countries, Schleicher concludes that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the frequency of standardized tests, writes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

High-performing Asian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium test often, he said. “More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month,” reports Barshay. “In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test.”

Only 2 percent of U.S. students take standardized tests every month, while the OECD average is 8 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said they took a standardized test once or twice a year. That’s “about the same share as in Finland,” writes Barshay.

Perhaps Finnish schools spend less time on test prep.

Endless testing? High stakes? Not really

U.S. schools don’t test as much as people think and the stakes “aren’t really that high,” argues Kevin Huffman, a New America fellow, in a Washington Post commentary.

“In an apparent about-face from his administration’s education policy over the past seven years,” President Obama said last week he wants to “fix” over-testing, writes Huffman. The administration wants to limit testing to 2 percent of classroom time.

Testing averages 1.6 percent of class time, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. In Tennessee, where Huffman was education commissioner, state-mandated tests took seven to 10 hours per student per year, less than 1 percent of class time.

“Where students spend too much time taking tests, local schools and districts — not federal or state policies — tend to be the culprits,” he adds.

Due to federal pressure, more states now evaluate teachers based partially on their students’ test scores. All use “multiple measures” and “nearly all teachers perform at or above expectations.”

When schools are evaluated, “significant interventions” are targeted at the bottom 5 percent of campuses, he writes.

“Many schools spend too much time on mind-numbing test prep, sitting kids at their desks and going over endless multiple-choice questions,” Huffman concedes. There’s little evidence it improves scores.

Test prep for 5-year-olds

Test-prep-for-5-year-olds-is-a-real-thing, writes Phyllis Doerr, a New Jersey kindergarten teacher, in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

For the vocabulary test, the teachers says a word from the “nursery rhyme” unit, then reads a sentence with the word.  If word is used correctly and the sentence makes sense, students are supposed to circle a smiley face. If the word is used incorrectly, they should circle a frown.

“This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed,” writes Doerr.

The practice started with “market” from from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” “Who can tell me what a market is?” she asked.

One boy answered, “I like oranges.”

“Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?”

. . . Another student chimed in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nodded.

. . . Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

Students — those paying attention –nodded their heads.

“Girls and boys, look at me and listen,” I said. ” I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?” At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

Teaching vocabulary is valuable, but testing is meaningless and wastes time, concludes Doerr.

Is it so difficult for five-year-olds to understand whether a sentence makes sense? Does a no-stakes vocabulary test have to be stressful?

Subtraction rhymes with fraction

Fifth graders chant math rules to prepare for Common Core tests. It’s a very long chant . . . but it rhymes. Sort of. This sounds like the sort of rote learning the Common Core was supposed to end.

‘Opt out’ of test prep, not testing

Opting out of standardized tests doesn’t help improve schools, argues Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. Instead, parents should pressure schools to stop wasting time on test prep.

Instead of refusing the tests, I’d love to see parents march into the principal’s or district superintendent’s office with a simple proposition (or a threat, if you prefer): “You don’t like tests; we don’t like tests. You don’t want to narrow the curriculum; we don’t want that either. You hate the pressure of testing; we hate the pressure put on our children. So here’s the deal. Teach our children a rich, robust curriculum – science, history, art, music, gym and recess. Don’t bother with test prep. Don’t narrow the curriculum to make more time for tested subjects. If you do, our kids aren’t taking the test.”

Test prep “can suck the life out of a school’s curriculum,” Pondiscio writes. Furthermore, “it’s ineffective – particularly when it comes to reading comprehension.”

But standardized testing has created data that’s “shined a bright light on the dismal job we have done as a nation educating low-income children, black and Hispanic children, and other underserved subsets of kids.” That’s “birthed a flowering of choice and charter schools, and driven an age of education dynamism that while far from perfect, has generally benefited low-income children.”

Teachers give low grade to PARCC exam

PARCC — the biggest Common Core testing consortium — has put sample test questions online.

Teacher Peter Greene, who blogs at Curmudgucation, found lots of problems with the practice test for high school English.

To start with, PARCC must be taken on a computer. It’s “a massive pain in the patoot,” writes Greene.

 The reading selection is in its own little window and I have to scroll the reading within that window. The two questions run further down the page, so when I’m looking at the second question, the window with the selection in it is halfway off the screen, so to look back to the reading I have to scroll up in the main window and then scroll up and down in the selection window and then take a minute to punch myself in the brain in frustration.

Teachers will have to prep students to handle the format.

Questions focus very heavily on finding things in the text that support answers. The first question asks which three out of seven terms in the text on DNA testing in agriculture “help clarify” the meaning of  “DNA fingerprint.”

If I already understand the term, none of them help (what helped you learn how to write your name today?), and if I don’t understand the term, apparently there is only one path to understanding. If I decide that I have to factor in the context in which the phrase is used, I’m back to scrolling in the little window . . . I count at least four possible answers here, but only three are allowed. Three of them are the only answers to use “genetics” in the answer.

I tried the practice reading test for grades 3-5. I picked the meaning of “master” with no trouble. Which sentence — out of four choices — helped me do so? None of them.

When the high school test moves on to literature, it demands that poetry has one meaning only, complains Greene.

Reading the text closely is a waste of time, he writes. He can do better by reading the questions and answers closely, then using the text “as a set of clues about which answer to pick.” 

Another section features Abigail Adams’ letter to John Adams calling for women’s rights. Questions focus on “her use of ‘tyrant’ based entirely on context,” Greene writes. “Because no conversation between Abigail and John Adams mentioning tyranny in 1776 could possibly be informed by any historical or personal context.”

In short, he concludes PARCC is “unnecessarily complicated, heavily favoring students who have prior background knowledge, and absolutely demanding that test prep be done with students.”

PARCC won’t produce reliable results, writes Michael Mazenko, a Colorado teacher. He tried the seventh-grade reading test, which contains passages from The Count of Monte Cristo.  That’s too hard for seventh graders, Mazenko writes.

And, like Greene, he thinks the computerized format strongly favors the most computer-savvy students.

Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

Inside a Chinese test-prep school

Students leave Maotanchang High at the end of a 16 1/2-hour day. (Photo: Sim Chi Yin/VII, New York Times)

Rural Chinese parents pay for their children to attend high-pressure test-prep schools like Maotanchang High, reports the New York Times Magazine. Students must pass the gaokao test — the sole criterion for university admission — or face a life of manual  labor, like their parents.

Yang Wei starts his first class at 6:20 am and finishes his last class at 10:50 pm, writes Brook Larmer.  After taking the Sunday morning practice test, he gets three hours of freedom. He shares a tiny room with his mother, who quit her garment-factory job to support him in his final years.

. . . the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. Even at the liberal bilingual kindergarten my sons attended in Beijing, Chinese parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables and proper Chinese and English syntax, lest their children fall behind their peers in first grade. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”

Unemployment and underemployment is rising among new college graduates in China. Yet, “the competition is fiercer than ever,” says Jiang Xueqin, an assistant vice principal at Tsinghua University High School. “And rural students are getting left behind.”

Perhaps nobody on campus is more motivated — and exhausted — than Maotanchang’s 500 teachers, whose jobs hinge on their students’ success. Base salaries for teachers are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-­school wages, and bonuses can easily double their incomes. For each student who gets into a first-tier university, the six-member teacher teams (a head teacher and five subject teachers) share a $500 reward.

. . . The head teachers’ schedules are so grueling — 17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students — that the school has decreed that only young, single men can fill the job. The competition to hang onto these spots is intense. Charts posted on the walls of the faculty room rank classes by cumulative test scores from week to week. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired.

On campus, decorative rocks bear the school’s motto: “We don’t compete with intelligence but with hard work!”

Yang was “ecstatic” to qualify for a second-tier regional university. His childhood friend, Cao, failed the gaokao. Days later, Cao “left their home village to search for migrant work in China’s glittering coastal cities,” writes Larmer. “He would end up on a construction site, just like his father.”

Those who can afford it try to go to high school and/or college in the U.S.

Exam schools pushed on admissions

New York City’s elite high schools admit students who excel on a 2 1/2-hour exam. A majority are Asian-American. Only 12 percent are Hispanic or black. The teachers union and a group of Democratic legislators want to use multiple measures, including grade point averages, attendance and state tests in addition to the current admissions exam.

Advocates of the bill say using one test favors students whose parents can afford tutoring to prepare for the test.

However, at six of the schools, at least 45 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the city.

Many of the high-scoring Asian-American students come from immigrant families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Simcha Felder, hopes to add subjective criteria such as essays, community service, interviews and extracurricular activities.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also backed a holistic review. “If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” he said.

Political support is weak, reports the New York Times.

Mayor de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, said last year that the test should not be the only way to qualify for the elite schools. But he hasn’t come out for the bill yet.

Alumni groups are opposed.

While expressing support for increasing minority enrollment, in ways like providing them with more test preparation, Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that the existing system was simple and had “a number of benefits,” including “no favoritism, no bias, whether intentional or subconscious, no politics.”

There may be political support to revive the “Discovery” program, which gave intensive summer help to students who just missed the score cutoff to help them qualify by September. The program lost funding due to budget cuts.