Saturday, July 30, 2011

Restrictive and Inappropriate: How High-stakes Testing & NCLB Abuse Sped Students

Friends of the the SOS March & National Call to Action blogged all this month about why they were marching in DC July 30th. And, today, we marched! I never wrote a post of my own, but this guest post by Chaya Rubenstein provides at least one reason for why I marched today and why I will continue to fight for real reform: federal education policy under Presidents W. Bush and now Obama such as NCLB and RTTT, and particularly high-stakes testing, are undermining quality public education. The effects of these policies on special education students are especially harmful and the special ed community has been especially under-represented (I, for example, have not blogged much at all about sped issues). 

Chaya is a retired special education teacher, and is a vice president of Professionals in Learning Disabilities & Special Education. In 1985, she was named Blue Island Teacher of the Year and, as such, was nominated for Illinois Teacher of the Year.  In 1999, her principal nominated her for a Golden Apple Award. Chaya is also a friend of the SOS March. Here's her post:

Not so long ago, teacher Paul Karrer's letter to President Obama in Education Week brought me to tears. Now here's another situation that brings me to tears: special education students who are forced to take high-stakes tests.

In Illinois, these tests are known as the ISATs. At the annual dinner for Professionals in Learning Disabilities & Special Ed., a colleague told me about a student in a self-contained classroom who eats paper. During the high-stakes testing of this past March, this student ate his test. In my experience, students hid under their desks, shaking, refusing to take the test. One student threw his three pointy and perfectly sharpened #3 pencils into the ceiling while loudly proclaiming, "Not taking this, not taking this, not taking this. . ." thus disrupting the other five students in the room, who then lost their concentration. The principal had to be buzzed to come and remove him, but brought him back to the room ten minutes later, saying he was now ready to test; the student repeated his previous behavior. Yet another student returned home from a vacation at 12:00 AM the morning of the test, not having gone to bed until 1:00 am. Her parents were called and yes, they insisted that she take the test; she fell asleep after the first fifteen minutes and continued to sleep throughout the rest of the testing that morning. Another student used her highlighting pen to fill in the bubbles on the answer sheet (remember, #3 pencils only!). One of MANY students with Attention Hyperactivity Disorder NOT on medication got up and wandered about the room during testing. These are but a few--I can assure you, there is no end to these stories!

The misery caused to many sped students (not to mention the loss of REAL education time spent otherwise on test preparation) aside, because they may comprise a subgroup large enough to be counted in the testing results, an entire school may not make average yearly progress. One of the most exceptional and high-performing schools in the country--New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois—was the subject of a Chicago Tribune editorial, "New Trier Gets an F." Why? New Trier did not make AYP this year because the sped subgroup had only 68% (the Math & Reading averaged together) “meet” or “exceed.” (& that percentage is undoubtedly one of the highest in the country for SpEd.—but not, according to the Feds—high enough.) At the middle school where I taught, our sped subgroup made AYP only one year out of six, but that year the English Language Learners (ELL) subgroup did not make it. The Illinois State Board of Education had been told to come up with a better form of testing within a certain time period, which it did not. Therefore, a month before the ISATs, though the ELL teachers had been given an alternative test—the Logaramos, I think—all of the bi-lingual teachers were told that they had to give their students the ISATs! All of us had been giving these tests for years, and we had begun prepping in September, using books and materials we'd already had. We, as Resource Teachers, scrambled, trying to help the teachers prep their students as best they could under the circumstances.

The result? A restructuring of our school, at a great loss to our children--a large number of teachers were sent to other schools, for example: the very dedicated and experienced art teacher (when told she was leaving, the kids asked, "What does art have to do with test scores?"); an extremely talented math teacher who had won a teaching award--sent to the Alternative Learning Center (and his kids had consistently earned the highest ISAT Math scores of the three grade levels!); the sixth grade social studies teacher who was sent to second grade (she tried, but she has been having a very difficult year, as she was a middle school expert and had never taught in the lower grades--now her job is in jeopardy); and, the learning disabilities resource teacher (whose students consistently scored well on the tests) was sent to be a fourth grade teacher. Feeling she could not successfully teach in that capacity, she resigned.

So, I ask: what was the gain here? The students lost many, many experienced, well-liked, respected and highly caring teachers because a small number of students--who shouldn't even be tested on these particular tests in the first place--did not make the grade. Many people do not understand that the alternative assessments are only given to those students who are “developmentally disabled” (the old classification was “mentally retarded”). Therefore, even if students have severe learning disabilities with social/emotional disorders, even if students have Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (even just Attention Deficit Disorder is debilitating) and are not on medication (tending to be the case in low-income areas, where test scores tend to be lower), if the subgroup is large enough, test scores are counted, and the entire faculty is held accountable for them. (Our wonderful principal lost his position, as well.) Teachers who stayed on at the school do not think that the sped population's test scores improved this past year. (It has been said that the school did not pass this year, as well.) In fact, one of the sped teachers who was hired to replace another was recently fired for continual verbal abuse and for pushing a student. The learning disabilities resource teacher hired to replace another (this teacher not trained in specialized reading programs such as Wilson) is being re-placed into general ed reading and language position for next year.

But here is an even worse scenario: the new measure for determining learning disabilities (and it is supposed to be only for diagnosing learning disabilities, not for other learning problems) is now something called Response to Intervention (RTI), an agonizingly slow and often questionable (districts all over the country are utilizing/interpreting it in may different ways, with various, lengthy timetables) method. RTI is being used as an excuse to keep students from receiving sped services, thus accomplishing two things often beneficial to a school district, but not to the children: 1) the sped subgroup can be kept under the number that would make it eligible to be counted in the test results, and 2) school districts save money by not having to service these students.

Besides Mr. Karrer’s letter, Arne Duncan's recent dialogue in April with the Council for Exceptional Children, prompted me to write this. In it, Secretary Duncan acknowledges that sped students are testing behind the general population, and yet, even though the kids are not reading/working at grade level, they still need to be involved in this testing and must be tested at grade level in order to “raise the bar” and have high expectations set for them, so that they will be able go to college! Having been a sped teacher for thirty-five years, every dedicated teacher I know has the highest expectations for his/her students. I, for one, expected that ALL my students could succeed in college (I taught LD resource) and always told these middle school students--as well as their parents--to start researching colleges.

Yet, I ask, what does that have to do with this ludicrous testing program?! How does this help them go to college? A highly touted school here in Chicago, Urban Prep, had 100% of its students accepted to college; however, the school's test scores have been poor: the school has not made A.Y.P. It serves as proof that students can and will do well in their studies, even if they don't necessarily test well.

Finally, some time ago, I had read in the National Education Association Advocate about a group of special education teachers who did not administer state tests to their students as it was believed (as per school board policy &/or by union contract) that parents could refuse to have their children tested. As the teachers were charged to do so, they asked all the parents if they wanted their children tested. The parents said no, and the testing day(s) came and went with the teachers actually teaching and not testing their classes. Subsequently, the teachers were reprimanded for this, having letters placed into their files, along with other sanctions.

In conclusion, it is my hope and the hope of my colleagues that the mandated testing of all sped students will stop this year. Some sped students should be tested, of course, but that needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis (to be written into the I.E.P.) by teachers and parents. This is but part of a greater solution to repair our federal government’s damaging, restrictive, and inappropriate education policies, but it will help enormously. Our students deserve no less.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hey Accountability Hawks, Put Down Your Pitchforks!

I had a jumbled draft of a post written out on the Atlanta cheating scandal, but then this piece in Slate by Dana Goldstein laid out much better most of what I had been thinking. Additionally, Yong Zhao wrote a very comprehensive and thoughtful series of posts on the same topic which is worth a read. 

I already expressed the crux of my opposition to high stakes testing here, though lest some accountability hawk call me a “test hater” (though I do hate taking standardized tests), I do recognize that standardized tests can be valuable diagnostic tools as well as give valuable information. Furthermore, assessment generally, including yes, tests, is a key part of the teaching and learning process.

I also begrudgingly acknowledge that the high-stakes accountability movement and NCLB did get some kind of ball rolling. As an ESOL teacher, I appreciated that schools could no longer send English Language Learners off to the basement to be taught by the PE teacher with an extra planning period or tell them to stay home the day of the tests. I remember patiently explaining to the 6th grade science teacher in the rural Central Virginia middle school where I was teaching that my job was not, in fact, to chaperone his nature walks, but to support him in delivering linguistically appropriate science content to our shared ESOL students.

But whereas pre-accountability, some public school kids were fed nothing and some were fed junk and some were fed a balanced but utilitarian meal, some were fed a gourmet feast, and some … you get the point, the policies of NCLB and now RTTT seem to be ensuring that most kids are fed Mc Donald’s. As Justin Baeder explains here, accountability has gone way too far. Insufficient and unhelpful teacher evaluations and seemingly no accountability in the past was no good, but unhelpful and inaccurate teacher evaluations and accountability that encourages bad practice is also no good. As my father constantly reminded me growing up, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Responding to the cheating scandal in Atlanta, various edu-leaders and pundits have declared that test-based accountability is not at fault, that instead, we must dig ourselves deeper into the high-stakes testing accountability hole, clamp down on testing security, and hunt down the cheaters. These people are constantly calling for “innovation” in education, but there’s nothing innovative about an arms race. In response to crises, this is what the invariably impetuous American political elite do: declare war on abstract concepts. The most destructive examples I can think of are: Prohibition (The War on Alcohol), The Cold War, The War on Drugs, and The War on Terror. There is arguably a War on Bad Teachers right now. It looks like we have a War on Bad Parenting brewing (I have a post on this bad idea in the works), and if these law and order and data obsessed folks have their way, we’ll have a War on Cheating.

As all these “wars” do, a War on Cheating will divert even more of our limited resources from proactive and positive forces to destructive and negative forces. In this case, from teaching and learning to test-prep and testing. There will be an even more reactive and draconian approach to struggling schools and learners than NCLB already takes. Part 4 of Yong Zhao's series of posts describes in chilling detail the testing security measures taken in China. Is this what we have to look forward to? Is this how we're going to Win the Future By militarizing K-12 assessment? If what the Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General did to this family is any indication of what cracking down on cheating will look like, it won’t be pretty.

A law and order solution to what happened in Atlanta (and New York and in Philadelphia and in DC and in New Jersey and in Florida and in. . . .) will do nothing to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools, nor will it stop the cheating. Rather than doubling down on what’s an already bad policy and adopting a wrathful response (speaking of which, are the accountability hawks prepared to punish those members of the Atlanta business community who were complicit?), I call for a truth and reconciliation process. Let’s examine what happened and find out what went wrong. Let’s learn from our mistakes and let's fix our broken education policies. And then let’s recognize that the best way to gather useful information from tests is to stop misusing them and remove their punitive stakes.

And then, please, let’s get back to thinking about how to best educate our children.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Petrilli on Educating Poor Kids is Problematic

One of the few conservative edu-pundits I follow is Michael Petrilli. I disagree with him that high-stakes testing, rigid accountability schemes, disempowerment of teachers unions, and a focus on hiring and firing policies will lead us down the path towards better education. And he seems entirely too focused on specific outcomes, compared to improving the overall quality of teaching and learning. But he has some ideas worth considering and has great insights into the political process. Plus, he is reasonable, thoughtful, and open to respectful debate.

This recent post of his (and he wrote a similar one a while back) explored two questions:
"First, whether affluent parents should be satisfied with the public schools to which they send their own children. And second, whether those same parents can be energized to fight on behalf of school reform for the poor." 
Given the positive things I say above, I had to read the post several times before I figured out why it bothered me so much. 

"The No Child Left Behind backlash in the suburbs isn’t due to concerns that the law isn’t working to fix urban education. Plenty of evidence shows that it’s helped. The anger comes from a feeling that the federal law is starting to make middle-class public schools worse–or at least worse in the eyes of their customers."
I agree that NCLB is harming the quality of education in middle-class and more affluent schools alike--I've not heard or read otherwise from those parents. But I vehemently disagree that NCLB "is working to fix urban education." Where's this "plenty of evidence"? Juked testing stats? I would argue, in fact, that the poorer the population of any school (which often means the lower the test scores), the more draconian and harmful the interference of NCLB. I am NOT saying that it's worthless to invest in quality education of poor kids until we fix poverty--far from it. I am saying that NCLB is interfering with quality pedagogy and curriculum in ALL schools, especially in poorer ones. 

"The second question, it seems to me, will soon be answered by Michelle Rhee’s new endeavor, Students First. Rhee’s potential donors and supporters surely include many well-educated, well-to-do parents; she is encouraging them to contribute money and time in order to fix the schools of other people’s children, not their own. (Teach For America alumni–sensitized to the plight of inner-city education–will play a key role, I would bet.) The gambit is whether a “social justice” pitch to fix urban education can resonate–and be sustained–with people with the resources to engage politically, but without a personal stake in the fight. Time will tell whether Rhee can pull it off."
So affluent people's dedication to improving education for poor children is measured by the amount of money they fork over to people like Michelle Rhee and organizations like Students First? Really? First of all, where's the evidence that Michelle Rhee is "fixing the schools" of anybody's children? And wasn't it the affluent DC residents who overwhelmingly supported her while the ones who didn't were the poorer people whose schools she was supposedly fixing? I have no tolerance, either, for Richard Whitmire's cringe-worthy thesis that the poorer, black people in DC were too ignorant and full of race pride to realize that Rhee-form was good for them.

Lobbying groups like Stand For Children and Students First give money to politicians, many of whom these days advocate for policies that are harmful to the poorer people they profess to want to help, not to schools or to classrooms. Does Petrilli actually believe the only way to help poor children is via expanding our dysfunctional, lobbyist-run political system and buying politicians? How does that help improve the quality of education for poor kids? "Fixing the schools" is actually long-term and painstakingly difficult work that requires collaboration with educators and local communities. Rhee turned her back on many of the community-based groups working for school reform in DC and many lost funding as affluent and influential citizens decided, as Petrilli seems to, that all would be will since Michelle Rhee was there to "fix the schools." A more proper measure of their dedication would be the extent to which more affluent people a) support SES-integrated schools, b) support the poorer populations and schools in their own district, and c) support grassroots and community groups that work directly with poorer families. See here, for example.

"The best schools for children of poverty focus on all aspects of their students’ development. At the same time, they look a lot different than the schools affluent families send their kids to. They are more focused on making sure their charges have mastered the basics; they spend a lot of effort inculturating their kids in middle-class mores; they give regular assessments to diagnose progress." (Emphasis mine.)
Neo-liberals like Mike Petrilli, Matt Yglesias, and David Brooks can cite research showing that some schools (translation: KIPP) are very good at boosting some poor kids' performance. But these schools differ from traditional public schools on several dimensions: massive resources, often high attrition, longer school days, more books, longer school years, a richer and more varied curriculum, and sometimes yes, "a different school culture." I have no problem with more emphasis on basics for those who need more basics (as long as that doesn't mean reading strategies or test prep), but I have a huge problem with the idea that "inculturating their kids in middle-class mores" helps kids to succeed academically. The assumption there is that the reason these kids are poor students is due to their parents' values or morals rather than due to the lack of privilege they were born into. (And please don't tell me that when Petrilli, Yglesias, Brooks, and their conservative brethren say "mores," "moral culture," or "bourgeois norms" in this context that they mean good study habits. These men are educated and write for a living. If they meant "habits of a good student," then that's precisely what they would say.)

Petrilli's desire to help poor children and to improve the quality of our education system is genuine. Since I find it valuable to hear the ideas of those with different views, I will continue to listen to what he has to say. Unfortunately, this and other posts show that many of his solutions to the achievement gap are superficial and ideological, failing to address the roots of the opportunity gap: gross societal inequities. Furthermore, like Brooks and Yglesias, his assumptions about human behavior and the causes of poverty are based on assumptions and a philosophy which is, thus far, irreconcilable with my own.