Sunday, June 23, 2013

The opting out conundrum

I've had this post in the cooker for a few months. This article about a group of Virginia superintendents stepping up to the plate to protest high-stakes testing (the SOLs) has prompted me to finish and publish it. Also motivating is that I am scheduled to host #vachat this Monday, June 24th at 8 pm where I plan to discuss high-stakes testing. Please join us!

Okay, so last spring we were in the midst of third grade testing mania, which I wrote about here and here. We ended up opting one of our children out of the Reading SOL, which we consider to be the least legitimate of the tests. Although the staff and faculty at our children's school were reasonable, kind, and accommodating, it was still quite a difficult process. We had to write an official letter (which I may include in a separate post), we had several conversations with testing coordinators, we had to accept that opting out meant a big fat "FAIL" on my son's score sheet, and we had to coach our son on how to decline to take the test.

In Virginia, or at least as far as we were advised, there is no code for parent opt-out, so our son was listed as "refusal/disruption" and also given a score of "0"/ FAIL. Luckily, there was no retribution for our son not taking the test. When I asked if he would be placed in remedial reading programs, the testing coordinator laughed and said, "Of course not. We know what strong reader he is." Also, while I've heard of different policies in other districts, according to our county testing coordinator, the policy was that if a student missed an SOL test (we kept him home that day), the school was (despite our letter stating that it was our wish that our son not take the Reading SOL) required to offer him a another chance to take the test. So, there was a bit of theater where someone came by and asked him to take the test and we coached him to say, "No, thank you. Please ask my parents if you have any questions." This was not easy for our son to do as he is not a defiant kid (not in school anyway) and scared to death of attracting any negative attention to himself.

Did we want to go through all of this again this year? Not if we didn't have to. For us, the decision to opt out is a complicated one and unfortunately people at both extremes of the conversation don't do justice to that.

I've heard test-based accountability enthusiasts say that opting one's children out of high stakes testing is akin to opting them out of vaccinations. This is an awful analogy. There is broad scientific consensus about the individual and public health benefits of vaccines (see here for a series of posts I wrote about vaccines a few years ago). There is no scientific consensus on the individual or public educational benefits of high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, if anything scientific consensus seems to be advising against our current regime of high-stakes testing (see here and here). Furthermore, there are ways for parents to opt their children out of vaccines if vaccines will be a threat to their health--think of, for example, children with compromised immune systems. There is no similar way to opt out from testing children who suffer psychological trauma or for whom high-stakes testing is wholly inappropriate. That's why we have severely mentally disabled children and hospitalized children being forced to take tests. But even if my child is not hospitalized or disabled or will not suffer psychological trauma, opting my child out I would not put the rest of the population at risk or pose a threat to public health.

On the other hand, I've heard some who favor opting out compare high-stakes testing to child abuse and collaborating with repressive dictatorships. Educators and public school parents/supporters are in a tough place right now. Do we really need to bash them more than they're already being bashed?

As I've said in the past, it can be hard to balance supporting our local public schools while being in opposition to the undue emphasis on standardized testing, which discourages good practice, erodes the professional trust that most teachers deserve, narrows curricula, and corrupts a rich and meaningful learning process for students. But schools are already judged in great part on standardized test (SOL) scores and this year, teachers in  Virginia, including in our district, are being evaluated in part based on the SOL scores of their students. This puts us in an ethical pickle. Our kids go to a mixed-SES school. It is 50% FRL. As white middle class people, we come from a place of privilege. Our kids do well on these tests. We don't want our individual choice to punish the school or the other kids in the school. What good will it do if the school doesn't make AYP has had to be put on probation and then risk state takeover or closure. Why not leverage our privilege to help keep this good, mixed-SES school open? The school didn't choose to be evaluated this way. What fault of it is theirs? Why should we contribute to their (and our community's) potential sanctioning?

Second, is opting out fair to the teacher? Our children's teachers come to work everyday--they come early and they stay late. They are prepared for class. They give our children as much individual attention as is possible given rising work loads and class sizes. They are responsive to us, responding to e-mails late at night. They are caring. They are underpaid. Again, why should they have to contend with a "FAIL" on their record when they have not failed to do their jobs adequately, if not supremely, and when our children have been well-taught and cared for?

I appreciate that others may do this moral calculus and decide that opting out is for the greater good, but I could not in good conscience do this again given the above-stated considerations.

That all being said, I don't blame people for opting their children out. I think we should all have that as a genuine option and it makes me angry that we don't. When my studious, vigorously-reading children come home from a day of high-stakes reading testing wiped out, anxious, and fearful that they've failed "because many of the questions had more than one right answer," it is crazy-making and heart-breaking and can make me feel like a bad parent for not opting out. After all, we can opt out of family life education and other programs that we deem harmful or inappropriate. I am heartened when I see voucher and parent trigger advocates also advocate for parent choice about standardized testing. Unfortunately, this type of consistency is rare.

Sadly, it is not just the tests themselves that are problematic. NCLB dictates that that students be tested in reading and math every year from third through eighth grades and then once in high school and that schools meet certain benchmarks on those tests or face punitive consequences. The state of Virginia goes beyond that and requires SOL tests in multiple subjects. I believe those to be wrong but I acknowledge that individual districts and schools have no control over these mandates. I am also glad in a warped way, though deeply ambivalent, that at least the science, social studies and writing tests protect in some way the teaching of those subjects.

But then many schools go beyond simply giving students a brief tutorial in test format and then administering the test There is constant testing, test prep and test build-up: benchmark tests, multiple choice assessments in the same format of the SOLs, practice tests, test pep rallies, prizes for receiving certain scores on the tests, and skipping art, music, PE, science, social studies, foreign language, and sometimes recess to do test prep or because of testing. Paul Bruno wrote a good post about how schools build up testing and contribute to test anxiety. They are trying to motivate students and to engage them in the process and to normalize testing, but they are really just normalizing the anxiety.

So what we ultimately decided to do (yes, I'm finally getting to the end of this long post) was to opt our children out of the non-requirements as possible. We said no more cold reads, benchmarks, or practice tests. We picked them early the day of the pep rally. We do know explicit test prep at home. But even such an approach is not so simple. There are only so many days of school they can miss and that we can make arrangements  to miss work, and test prep (especially the reading tests prep) is ubiquitous and often not in as obvious form as a test prep booklet.

The best education is one that involves a rich and diverse curriculum where kids learn lots of stuff and read lots of books. Good leadership or bad, America's public schools students largely aren't getting that right now. Test prep and practice does not facilitate a rich and meaning full education and what's more, it doesn't even facilitate a meaningful boost in test scores.

So, by all means lets protest and work to end poor education policy and end high-stakes standardized testing. In the meantime, I am mostly willing comply with what is required. But I vigorously protest all the rest; it's not necessary, it doesn't work, and it's poor practice.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

UPDATED: Putting off rich curriculum means putting off reading proficiency

Recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proposed and the General Assembly approved a bill that allows elementary schools to apply for waivers from high-stakes science and social studies testing (aka SOLs) for third graders. So far this testing season, approximately twenty-five public elementary schools have availed themselves of this waiver. The idea is that before struggling readers can learn content they have to master reading comprehension.

Virginia's Deputy Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqui thinks this is a good idea:
The law, which expires in 2015, is a kind of a pilot program, Siddiqi said. He said that schools with low reading pass rates often have low pass rates in social studies and science because the two are connected. “It’s not about what they know,” Siddiqi said. “They are struggling with comprehension.”
On the one hand, I am all for reducing standardized testing in Virginia. I also acknowledge that the the intention here is worthy: to help struggling students, to not set them up for failure.

However, I'm afraid that the logic is misguided and that this will mean a decrease in social studies and science instruction and an increase in reading test prep. Yes, reading is a gateway to learning and limited instruction in reading strategies can be helpful, but the reason these students are struggling to comprehend what they read is because they aren't learning enough content. It's true that "it's not about what they know;" it's about what they don't know and what they won't know if they spend so much time studying reading as a subject. A valid test of reading would have passages related to the subject matter (in science, social studies, literature, art, music, pe, etc.) the students have already been taught.

Putting off content-rich instruction to "focus on reading" will only serve to put off progress in reading proficiency.

UPDATE: Lisa Hansel picked up this post as well as  this great commentary by Robert D. Shepherd in a post on the state of language arts instruction and curriculum in the context of the Common Core Standards. While I was thrilled she chose to highlight my post, I wanted to clarify where I stood on the Common Core Standards and on Virginia's decision to not adopt them.

Here's what I said in the comments:

Thank you so much for picking up my post--I am flattered. I can empathize with your optimism about having a set of national standards. I am also in favor of having a broad set of national standards.  
However, though I respect that you are comfortable doing so, I am not comfortable endorsing the Common Core Standards as a step forward, nor do I harbor any regret thus far that Virginia has not adopted them.  
Although I am by no means an expert, from what I have read (see my commentaries here and here), the Common Core ELA standards at least in practice seem to facilitate more of the same approach to Language Arts instruction as before, meaning heavy in the out-of-context texts and reading strategies department. I also share Paul Bruno's skepticism as stated in his comment on this post. Even if the standards are appropriate and strong, I don't see how they can succeed if they are being filtered through such a rigid and corrupting accountability structure (see my commentary here).  
Finally, from what I can tell, the process by which the Common Core Standards and associated assessments was not transparent or inclusive of stakeholders. And now, there is no real means by which to provide actionable feedback and for modifications to be made before they hit the Big Time. 
From the standpoint of a parent, teacher, and advocate, the distance between me and the top is much closer and the route much clearer to the district and state level in Virginia than to the Common Core level (does anyone even know where that is?)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

When the Common Core is old wine in new bottles

I have been enjoying Education Week's series about the Common Core Standards in action. The second article depicts classroom practice in a DCPS middle school Language Arts classroom. I found this post especially intriguing--I felt like a fly on the wall reading it.

This is what impresses me:

First of all, it does seem like the teacher has a certain amount of freedom--not much of the what (the curriculum), or the how is being dictated. It does seem like the standards are doing what they are supposed to do: guiding. Also, the use of coaches are apt and administrators get that the students need a lot of guidance and that they can't go straight to "grade-level" texts.

Second, the authors and the art that the students are reading and studying seem amazing. Many of the assignments also seem worthy. I would want my own children to read those authors and texts (though, in full--I'll get to this) and write such essays.

Finally, learning grammar, vocabulary,and literary devices as the students are doing in Ms. McNair-Lee's class is a good idea (and all the better that they're doing so not isolated from the text). This serves not so much to develop them as readers but to develop them as writers (though, yes, one must be a good reader to have a shot at being a good writer).

Here's what troubles me:

He [the student] gets the material one-on-one but not on the assessment. Okay, so the kid is reading the book and getting it, but this isn't reflected on the assessment. Therefore, we are failing him. Because it's all about the tests, not about what the kid actually gets and learns? This is where I would say that there is something wrong with the test. Except we can't because in the current climate the test is all mighty.

There seems to be a lot of practice that happened just the same as pre-Common Core standards, but just that the Common Core texts are more "complex." As I said before, it is a step forward that they are reading such texts and authors, but I noticed that they are often not reading entire texts but "excerpts." Yes, see with the old standards, students read "passages." If no one is reading whole books, it doesn't matter if you call them "excerpts" or "passages" because the students are still not reading whole books or whole articles or collections of poetry.

It is good practice to have students cite evidence from the text when they make arguments. But otherwise, students are also still practicing things like finding the main idea, making inferences, and using context clues to figure out meaning of words. Also, I fail to see the difference between doing a "close reading" of an "excerpt" (Common Core) and "attacking a passage" (old state standards) I have said this over and over and over again (and I will say it again in the future): Reading comprehension can't be taught. As in you can't teach someone to comprehend what they're reading. If reading is not a skill, then reading is not a skill. Finding the main idea may be a strategy, but you either know how to do it or you don't. You can't practice it and get better at it. Same with making inferences. These are strategies that can't be practiced and the ability to successfully complete such strategies is highly dependent on background knowledge. I thought the Common Core was supposed to deliver us from the misguided emphasis on reading strategies. But at least from this account, it doesn't seem to be.

And this leads me to two more points. One is what I argued here, it doesn't matter if the texts are more complex, it doesn't mean teaching reading strategies and reading as a skill works any better to make kids stronger readers. Simply promoting what students are reading from "simple" to "complex" and from "passages" to "excerpts" will not do the trick. There is not some dial on the rigor-o-meter that you turn up and presto our "scholars" are all career and college ready.

Two is that are they learning about any of this literature in context? I can't say definitively that they aren't because the article doesn't address the matter, but NCLB doesn't mandate and DCPS doesn't give comparable history assessments so I am assuming that no, the context, aka history, is de-emphasized or not taught at all. A text's meaning is heavily dependent on the context in which it is written. Truly comprehending a text is heavily dependent on what you know already. This is not to claim that previously students learned about the history or content highlighted in conjunction with reading a text, but, again, the Common Core is supposed to be a vast improvement. You can't do a true close reading of a text and get much out it if you are ignorant of the context of the text-- a "close reading" of a "complex text" puts us in the same boat we were in with the old, supposedly inferior standards.

Finally, and this isn't a Common Core practice per se, but it's emblematic of the reformy approach of which the Common Core is a part: K-12 students aren't "scholars." You're a scholar when you're making a career of studying something, which K -12 students aren't doing yet. Calling them "scholars" doesn't make them so; it's patronizing and propagandistic.

So far students of the Common Core ELA Standards seem to be attacking decontextualized isolated passages and practicing reading strategies which can't be practiced. And there is nothing scholarly or reformed about that.

UPDATE: A critical response to the same article from Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Foundation is posted on the WaPo's Answer Sheet.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Virginia ed tech is for ed testing

The high-stakes testing season in Virginia is drawing to a close. I'll probably have more to say later about this year's testing season, but in the meantime I wanted to address this Washington Post article about Virginia being a "model" for the nation when it comes to on-line testing:

All Virginia students will have to log on to a computer to take this year’s Standards of Learning tests, making Virginia one of the only states to wholly abandon the nearly ubiquitous paper-and-pencil bubble sheets. 
With spring testing in reading and math underway in many schools this week, the move to electronic tests means that Virginia, one of the few states that did not adopt national academic standards, has become a model for the dozens of states that did. Those states are scrambling to meet a fast-approaching deadline to implement corresponding online tests. It took more than a decade of school technology investments and upgrades for Virginia to get to this point.

As I have written ad nauseum on this blog, I am generally opposed to the current high-stakes testing regime. That being said, I acknowledge that on-line assessments are an improvement in principle. However, in practice, there are several problems with on-line testing and I shudder when I hear Virginia is to be a "model" for the rest of the country.

First of all, on-line testing means that testing-related computer skills drive instruction in technology. This leads to, for example, kindergarteners in Virginia being asked to practice over and over again computer skills that they are not developmentally ready to master. Activities like this are frustrating and a waste of valuable time.

Second of all, in some cases the computer version of tests is not easier to manage. For example, many elementary-aged students can not type. But nobody thinks about this before asking the fifth graders to type their writing test. Oooops. The test of writing (which has its own shortcomings) becomes a very frustrating test of typing for which there has been little preparation.

Next, there are all kinds of glitches. My county was all set to test a week or so ago--the students were hunkered down in their classrooms, their regular instructional program cancelled, when the computer system went down. They waited about an hour and then cancelled testing county-wide, delaying it until another day. Add one more day to the testing season. Fairfax County, one of Virginia's largest in terms of student population, has also experienced wide-spread technical difficulties. Remember, it's not just testing that is disrupted by technical difficulties, but real teaching and learning are disrupted for testing--for weeks at a time.

Lastly, and most importantly, the testing drives the technology that's available. From the afore-cited Washington Post article:
To help fund technology upgrades, the General Assembly dedicated nearly $60 million to school districts every year. The state contracted with Pearson, an education publishing and assessment company, to develop the online tests.
At a recent school board meeting in my county the members were getting all excited about all of the newfangled technological tools that are being used in industry and that the students in our district can learn on and about, only to be brought back to earth by an administrator: That all sounds great, but especially with severe budget cuts, remember any technology we invest in needs to be used for testing and hence has to fulfill the requirements mandated by testing. That's right, ed tech in Virginia is being driven by the Pearson-administered SOL tests and not by the tools that facilitate the best and most current learning experiences.

Just as I've said about the Common Core, or any set of national standards, the quality of educational technology and the learning that goes along with it, ultimately rests on the quality of the McAccountability system it's filtered through.

Virginia districts don't really have educational technology departments; they have on-line testing departments. Ed tech is being subverted for on-line testing.