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.

New tests + new evaluations = chaos

Sheri Lederman

Sheri Lederman

Rolling out new standards, new tests and a new test-based teacher evaluation system — at the same time — is “overwhelming” teachers, writes Amanda Fairbanks in The Atlantic.

New York tied 40 percent of teachers’ scores to their students’ test scores at the same time the state launched new, more difficult tests aligned to Common Core standards.

Sheri Lederman, a veteran fourth-grade teacher in a middle-class New City suburb, was rated “effective” one year and “ineffective” the next.

The state gave her just one out of 20 possible points on the state’s Common Core-test ranking because her new batch of students performed slightly more poorly than her previous class, and teachers’ ratings are based largely on year-to-year progress. Even though these new 18 students far surpassed state averages in both reading and math—and even though Lederman once again achieved high district scores—these strides weren’t enough to overcome the low score on the state portion of the evaluation.

So, Lederman, whose husband is a lawyer, decided to take action: In late October, she filed a lawsuit against the state’s education department alleging that the new evaluations punish teachers rather than award excellence, among other claims. A hearing is scheduled for March 20.

The backlash against both teacher evaluations and the Common Core has gone national, writes Fairbanks.

“A lot of people are saying let’s just throw the whole thing out,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, of the Common Core.

Teacher: Core tests set kids up to fail

Common Core tests set kids up to fail, argues Jennifer Rickert, a sixth-grade teacher in New York, on Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet.

The “New York State Testing Program’s Educator Guide to the 2015 Grade 6 Common Core English Language Arts Test” describes expectations that are way too high, writes Rickert.

At 11 and 12 years old, her students have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical situations, she writes, citing Piaget’s theories.

Yet in the guide, it states that students will “evaluate intricate arguments.”

In addition, “students will need to make hard choices between fully correct and plausible, but incorrect answers that are designed specifically to determine whether students have comprehended the entire passage.”  This is not developmentally appropriate for my students . . .

Students will read passages from texts such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which include “controversial ideas and language some may find provocative.”

Is "Tom Sawyer" too "provocative" for sixth graders?

Is “Tom Sawyer” too “provocative” for sixth graders?

Children shouldn’t be subjected to “provocative language” in sixth grade, Rickert believes. In addition, sixth graders won’t be able to understand these readings because they don’t study the history till seventh or eighth grade.

Some readings will be at the eleventh-grade level. Presumably that’s to challenge the very good readers. Rickert sees it as a plot to humiliate everyone else.

I read, and loved, Tom Sawyer in elementary school.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made a big impression on me when I was in sixth grade. I also read lots of U.S. history and historical novels, so I had the context to understand what I was reading.

Piaget is not a reliable guide to what children can learn, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a critique of the “developmentally appropriate” concept.

‘College Promise’ isn’t likely

From Whiteboard Advisors, Education Insiders predict the future:

Duncan: Drop NCLB, but keep testing


Education Arne Duncan spoke yesterday at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

No Child Left Behind is “tired” and “prescriptive,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a speech yesterday. However, federal education law should include annual tests, Duncan said at a Washington, D.C. elementary school.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind) is up for reauthorization, notes NPR. Duncan said he’d like to start over with a new bill, but retain annual testing.

In his speech, Duncan invoked famous phrases used by both President Obama and former President George W. Bush, the latter of whom introduced No Child Left Behind more than 13 years ago.

“This country can’t afford to replace ‘the fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of, ‘It’s optional,’ ” he said.

Duncan came out against “redundant” and “unnecessary” tests.

Brookings makes The Case for Annual Testing that tracks growth in student achievement, while eliminating most NCLB standards and accountability provisions.

Hill Republicans will decide what happens, writes Rick Hess in his ESEA predictions on Pundicity.  They see Duncan as “obdurate, unwilling to listen, and remarkably disinterested in what the federal government shouldn’t do or what it can’t do well.” So Sen. Lamar Alexander will work with Democratic senators, but Duncan could be out of the negotiations.

Homeschooling faces less regulation

As homeschooling grows, some states are regulating less, reports Motoko Rich for the New York Times. Some 1.8 million children were homeschooled in 2011-12, according to federal estimates. That may increase even more as parents seek to “escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core,” predicts the Times.

Fara Williams teaches son Elijah at home (Photo: Michael F. McElroy, New York Times)

Fara Wiles, who was homeschooled as a child, teaches son Elijah at home in Pennyslvania. (Photo: Michael F. McElroy, New York Times)

Eleven states do not require families to report school-age children being taught at home, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Fourteen don’t specify which subjects should be taught. “Only nine states require that parents have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in order to teach their children.” Half the states do not require homeschooled children to take an outside test.

For example, Pennsylvania no longer requires families to submit their children’s portfolios, as well as the results of standardized testing in third, fifth and eighth grade, to district superintendents.

Regulation can protect children from inadequate home teaching or abusive parents, argues the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Its executive director, Rachel Coleman was homeschooled — successfully — from kindergarten through high school. She collects stories of homeschoolers who say oversight would have helped.

Caitlin Townsend, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Michigan, was home-schooled in Pennsylvania until she was 13, when her parents split up and she moved with her mother to New Jersey, which has virtually no regulations for home-schooling families.

. . .  her mother had used science textbooks that taught the theory of intelligent design and shied away from rigorous math during her high school years.

“When I was growing up we always talked about the school officials as the Big Bad Wolf,” said Ms. Townsend, who had to enroll in remedial math classes in college. “What I could have benefited from was a system of evaluation that would have given my mother some red flags that I needed some tutoring in science and math.”

Of course, it’s very common for high school graduates to need remedial math in college.

Homeschooled students use the SAT or ACT — or a community college transcript — to show they’re prepared for college. The expansion of virtual education is making it easier for motivated students to learn at home, even if the parents aren’t masters of math or science.

What’s wrong with U.S. teaching

Why Is American Teaching So Bad? asks education historian Jonathan Zimmerman in The New York Review of Books. Zimmerman reviews Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Garret Keizer’s Getting Schooled.

Goldstein quotes Horace Mann’s praise for female teachers, whose low-cost labor had enabled Massachusetts to create a common school system.

 “How divinely does she come,” he declared, extolling the female teacher, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!”

For centuries, Americans have “lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills,” writes Zimmerman. Now, teachers are expected to ensure students do well on tests, not to mold their characters.

 Who becomes a teacher in America? . . . In the first half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein notes, bookish urban immigrants used the profession to catapult themselves into the middle class. During the Great Depression, especially, teaching attracted people of outstanding academic achievement—including some with Ph.D.s—who couldn’t get work elsewhere.

Since the 1960s, however, the proportion of top college students who have entered the field has steadily declined. Part of the reason lay in the feminist movement, which created new occupational opportunities for women outside of teaching.

Most teachers get a little theory in ed school, writes Green.  They’re expected to learn how to teach on the job, where they’ll work in isolation.

By contrast, many other advanced countries have institutionalized critical commentary by peers and also provide intellectual support to improve skills and learning as part of teachers’ professional practice. Japanese teachers . . .  have designated periods to observe each other’s classes, study curriculum, and otherwise hone their craft. But they also learn a great deal in their pre-service training, which is both more rigorous and more demanding concerning particular subject matter than anything American teacher-education students are likely to encounter.

In Finland, would-be teachers study the subject they’ll teach and then “spend a full year apprenticing in a school, receiving regular feedback from several mentors.” Finally, they research and write an original thesis on a scholarly trend or controversy within their fields.

Many U.S. educators think teachers don’t have to be smart, writes Zimmerman.

So Garret Keizer’s first supervisor worried that he might have too many grades of A on his college transcript to succeed as a high school teacher, and Elizabeth Green concludes her otherwise skeptical book with the much-heard platitude that teachers need to “love” their students.

Keizer is offended by comments like that, and he has every good reason to be. Do lawyers have to love their clients? Must doctors adore their patients? What American teachers need now is not love, but a capacity for deep and disciplined thinking that will reflect—and respect—the intellectual complexities of their job.

“The U.S. badly needs to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else,” Zimmerman concludes.

Why do teachers obsess about not being good enough?  asks Ellie Herman on Gatsby in LA.

It starts with “pathetically inadequate” teacher training, she writes. A “hodgepodge of useless state-mandated courses” didn’t prepare her to deal “with large classes of students who were several years below grade level, many of whom had difficulty controlling their behavior in class.”

Furthermore, “once you’re in the classroom, you’re pretty much on your own.”

Did Obama screw up Common Core?

Did Obama Screw Up Common Core? asks Fawn Johnson on National Journal.  That is, did the Obama administration turn the Core into a political hot potato by using Race to the Top money to push states to adopt the new standards?

Short answer: Yes.

Some Republican politicians are trying to persuade conservatives to support the Core, Johnson writes. But Democratic support is soft — or nonexistent, especially as Core-aligned tests kick in.

The anti-testing zombie apocalypse

Grrrrrr….testing ruin flavor of BRAINSSSZZZSSSS!!!!

Could Congress eliminate testing for accountability? Matthew Ladner has heard rumors of  The Anti-Testing Zombie Apocalypse, he writes on Jay Greene’s blog. I couldn’t resist the headline and photo.

How Core literacy could fail

Common Core’s literacy standards could fail because teachers aren’t being given enough time to make them work, says a lead standards writer, Sue Pimentel.

Teachers need time to develop materials and teaching techniques and “to observe and critique each other’s teaching,” she tells Marc Tucker. “The time needed to transform the way students are taught stands in stark contrast to the rush to evaluate teachers based on old assessments that are not aligned to the Common Core.”

“I think it is clear to anyone with a grain of common sense that there should have been a five-year amnesty on consequences for testing when implementing the Common Core,” says Catherine Snow, a Harvard education professor who served on the validation committee.

This would have allowed for developing the aligned materials.  It would have been fairer and smarter to help teachers focus on teaching and learning instead of assessment and accountability.

Teachers have been given a simplified, distorted version of the standards, says Snow.  They’re told: “Give students complex texts and make them close read and then everything will be fine.”

. . . you can’t give 9th grade students, who have been exposed to a completely different educational regime, the texts associated with much more rigorous standards, and expect them to do close reading immediately.  Introduce these tasks in the first grade and build them up instead of imposing a full-blown version on teachers and students who are totally unprepared for it.

Much of the teacher training has come from the top down, says Pimentel.

Too often teachers are corralled into school gymnasia and told either a) they have to do things entirely differently or b) they are doing the Common Core already and no change in practice is necessary.  Neither is true, and neither will work.

“Without some big changes in the way the Common Core is being implemented, this really elegant vision could crash and burn through poor implementation or premature assessment,” concludes Snow. “And then it will be 20 years before anyone gets the courage to try again.”