Posts Tagged ‘standardized testing’

In case you are wondering, as many are, what the heck is this Common Core stuff anyway, here are some links to blogs with a crash course in their history, and what is not right with them.

A lot of the confusion is due to the Common Core State Standards organization itself, which has inaccurate information on their website. Much confusion is due to really bad curriculum labeled as Common Core – which is simply bad curriculum and doesn’t have much if anything to do with the new standards. But there is now a new kind of bad curriculum, which mindlessly follows the Standards, clause by clause, as if you can teach grammar one day and comprehension the next.

Recently too there has been confusing criticism, coming from the Tea Party and far-right political groups, of the Common Core State Standards, and the Obama administration’s education program, not only for federal overreach (which is, indeed, one of the biggest problems with the current federal education policy), but also for what used to be called Secular Humanism in curriculum. Their issue is that public schools teach kids that our country is not perfect, that the world was not created 6000 years ago, and that Muslims and gay people are ok. This has nothing to do with the Common Core State Standards.

There is also confusion from radio and magazine pieces labeling good classroom practice as Common Core, when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

Here’s an article about the NPR (National Public Radio) problem with covering Common Core: http://www.current.org/2014/09/gates-funding-spurs-doubts-over-pubmedias-impartiality-in-education-reporting/

I had wondered, about some articles I heard on NPR that made no sense – where what teachers were doing and said they liked about the Common Core, are not actually in the Standards. You should definitely take a look at the Standards themselves.

I heard a story recently about how Bill Gates was having similar problems with his work in Africa, where they are starting to learn that you don’t swoop in from above and fix things. You need to talk to people on the ground, find out what the problem is, work with others.

This is a good story, about the Gates involvement: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html

But here is what I think is the best summary I have seen of the problems with the Common Core State Standards: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/17/four-common-core-flimflams/

Even though Alaska did not adopt the Common Core State Standards, we actually did. Look at the Alaska State Standards and the Common Core side by side. That was one interesting thing Alaska State Rep. Reinbold had in her recent slide show – the certification from our Commissioner of Education to federal DOE, certifying that the Alaska Standards are “virtually identical” to Common Core – which they had to be to get a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

One more article, a speech by Diane Ravitch, who rocks. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/01/18/everything-you-need-to-know-about-common-core-ravitch/

And, my Common Core essay.

Sitka’s district leadership is gung ho on Common Core/Alaska State Standards, as are I bet most administrators around the country. As far as teachers, you’ll find a range of opinions, from being profoundly insulted, to eager for guidance. A big problem is that the Standards are very poorly written and hard to interpret, which causes stress when teachers are being judged by how well they get the kids to pass the tests based on them.

The premise of the Common Core is seductive, to administrators, politicians, and even some teachers – the notion that all you need is a list, you teach everything on the list, you’re good to go. Unfortunately, learning doesn’t work that way. Teaching is an art.

I got to see the Houghton Mifflin program for middle school (Sitka schools are looking at spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new “Common Core Aligned” textbooks). They reduce English to mindless test practice. The entirety of the workbook for the year consists of “close reading,” which, as in the Common Core, means taking a short, mediocre piece of writing, and finding particular sentences and words in it. Far from requiring analysis or critical thinking, it requires no thinking at all.

But as for the tests, one teacher told me she saw sample questions and it made her cry, knowing her lower-ability kids would not be able to do it. Bad as the standards are, the real crime is that they were written as a template for practicing for new, harder tests.

The CCSS are poorly written, hard to interpret, and students (schools, and teachers) will be judged on the tests based on them, so there’s more confusion and fear than anything. That is probably why one English teacher is actually WANTING a curriculum that will hit all the Standards, as a safety net. That’s my sense, also, with the District.

Tonight I heard that some teachers are saying they won’t be teaching anything not in the standards. This is really short changing their students.

So it’s a big, old, entrenched problem – the federal requirements for testing (driving the frenzy for curriculum that will prepare students for the tests) are top-down and have nothing to do with improving schools. Our schools are pretty good, and potentially could be even better. Common Core and all the testing is so expensive, not transparent, and so obviously stupid, that this paradoxically might mark a change in the tide, and we can get back to pursuing excellence in education, by doing things we know work – instead of spending millions on things that do not, and in fact diminish the quality of our schools.

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What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards are lists of what students should be able to do, in each grade from kindergarten to 12th grade, in English and Math. They are endorsed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, but privately funded and developed. Released in 2010, they have been adopted by 48 states.

While consistent standards is a good idea, the Common Core State Standards are not very well done, in English or in Math. The authors were not experts in education, wrote them in only six months, the standards were never field tested, and there is no mechanism for fixing various problems with them. But, they are no worse than most previous standards.

The problem is that they are part of “standards-based reform,” an approach to education based on high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, 14 of the 24 Common Core authors are from standardized testing organizations.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, in force since 2002, made federal funding contingent on raising test scores every year, for a 100% pass rate in 2014.

In order to get a waiver (and federal funding), 40 states, including Alaska, had to sign on to the Common Core State Standards; more teacher evaluations; more charter schools; and new, harder tests, that must be taken electronically.

According to our district superintendent, the Sitka School District is looking at spending 1.6 million dollars for these mandates in the waiver: new curriculum, hiring extra personnel for teacher evaluation, and equipment for the online testing. The state of Alaska paid $25 million dollars last summer, for the new tests.

The waiver requires that by 2017 half of a teacher’s evaulation be based on students’ test scores, even though the teacher’s influence on student test scores – from 1 to 14% – is so small it can’t be separated from other factors. Why would we create such an incentive for teachers to focus on test scores, and to avoid low-performing students?

A study by the Carnegie Corporation predicts that the new, harder, Common Core tests will double the high school drop out rate. And, the new tests have to be taken on line, which has resulted in expense and logistical problems.

We already know that high-stakes standardized testing does not improve education, and there is no reason to think that harder tests, new standards, or teacher evaluation will do anything, either.

So why are we doing what doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, standards-based reform has been the American approach to education for 30 years. It is based on an obsolete model of learning: that education is the passive transfer of information, so the teacher just has to know the material, nothing more.

But a good teacher is not an information delivery system – she is more like a coach. Think about the great teachers you have had. Even if it’s the state capitals, or biology, it takes a good teacher to help kids get it. A good teacher has a fairly sophisticated set of leadership, psychology, and people skills, in addition to a mastery of her subject.

Standards-based reform does not expect – or allow – teachers to develop these skills. It is an attempt to fix education from the top down, without addressing the way learning actually works. That is why standards-based reform, educational technology, and MOOCs, among other initiatives, have been failures.

So why is it being promoted at every level of public education? Some is because teachers, as a class, have never had much status in America. Some of it is a sincere belief that this approach could work: Bill Gates has put hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and promoting Common Core State Standards, in the stated belief that the market can fix education: with common standards, industry can compete to create the best products.

Indeed, standards-based reform is very good for business: the K-12 ed tech market was $8.4 billion in 2014, up from 7.9 billion just the year before. Charter school companies, consultants, and hardware suppliers also make healthy profits.

Since we are up against an entrenched paradigm, and substantial commercial interests, what can we do at the local level? We can ask for evidence that what we spend will improve education. Testing does not improve education. Small class size in early elementary, on the other hand, is proven to result in higher graduation rates.We can encourage our district to involve the teacher workforce in designing improvements.

As education scholar Dr. Yang Zhao said in his talk, there are models everywhere, around the world, around the country, here in Sitka, for programs that work. We can just copy what works, whether it’s integrating art, or the way a particular teacher gets kids excited about algebra.

What if it’s the law, as it is, to spend our money on more teacher evaluations, new tests, new, unproven curriculum? Well, last I checked, this is a democracy. We can stand with our districts to press the legislature, the state board of education, and our Congress to roll back the focus on testing.

The Common Core State Standards could serve, for now, as a minimum, with modifications for their documented deficiencies. There is no reason to get new curriculum that is “aligned.” For one thing, the new standards are not that different from the old ones. But the main reason is that the Common Core State Standards were written expressly as a template for standardized tests, and the last thing we should be doing is desigining curriculum around tests. That is the heart of the problem with standards-based reform.

If you just have to test, first figure out why. If it’s to make sure a school is good, you certainly don’t have to test every kid, every year. Standardized tests provide no information a teacher can’t get (and doesn’t already have) using such tools as the “quiz” and “class assignments.”

Instead we can build on existing curriculum, and improve it based on sound teaching practice – integrating the arts, field trips, inquiry, and science – none of which is in the Common Core.

We need standards, and evaluation, that are based on what we really believe students should be able to do, not going by what some small D.C. testing group decided.

We can focus on teaching as the highly skilled craft it can and should be. Not preparing kids for taking a test, but preparing them for life and citizenship, through an education rich in content, that fosters a love of learning.

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daumen3I recently took part in a 48-hour playwriting “Bake Off” conducted by Island Institute and Rasmuson Foundation Artist -In-Residence Dipika Guha. The group brainstormed myths and fairy tales and chose the children’s story Little Suck-A-Thumb, written and illustrated by Heinrich Hoffman in 1845. The story was meant to be funny, and apparently it was, in Germany in 1845, but it is about a boy who is punished for sucking his thumbs by having them cut off by a tailor.

There were other elements we came up with to incorporate, such as a monologue, a fox, and a transformation.

Click here for the play as a pdf.

Digital Learning

Scene One

A city council meeting in a small town. Fluorescent lights buzz.

MAYOR: Next up – on our agenda – is – uh – our consultant here on the School Assessment project.

(slick, unhealthy looking gentleman in a turtleneck and blazer stands up and comes to take a mic)

SCISSORMAN: Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Todd Scissorman with Whacker Strategies. I’ll just start this interactive media presentation . . .

(he tries to get a projector to work but it won’t, and everyone ends up coming up and trying to make it work: Is it the internet connection? Are you running Windows? Oh, Mac? Maybe you can use my phone as a hot spot? Where is the sound – do you have this on a usb? Finally they give up.)

Ok well I’ll just talk then. Our firm has been very successful in coming up with 21st century strategies. As you know, your public school test scores and graduation rates are very bad. Well, this is the 21st century, and, folks, it’s not about pencils and paper any more. How are you going to get your students to meet the new, rigorous, standards of today and that’s coming down the line?

Incentives. If a child scores below average, we chop off a thumb. If that child does not improve, Whack!! (he makes a chop with his hand on the table, startling the group) he, or she, loses the other one.

We don’t have any research but anecdotal reports suggest that children are highly averse to losing a body part, and, faced with this consequence, will do anything they can to keep them.

And yes, we have heard concerns from parents that maiming children may interfere with their futures. I want to give you reassurance, however, that, statistically, children who can’t – or won’t – achieve a passing score on the first grade assessments, are very unlikely to amount to anything, anyway.

Which reminds me of a joke. Ever hear the one about the street drunk with no thumbs?

(another man hurriedly comes up to the microphone)

SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT: Hello, yes, as you know, I’m the leader of the new education leadership team here, as you know your test scores were so bad that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent us in as a sort of SWAT team.

Your former superintendent and administration team, and your school board are in a safe place, they are happy and have all they need.

Mr. Scissorman comes highly recommended. This approach is very promising. To give you a little history, in schools with high test scores, they achieve this by posting the children’s test scores on a wall, called a “Wall of Shame,” where all the other children can see how they did, which is an incentive for the kiddos to work harder and raise those scores.

Well, we’re taking that a step further. Already we have had a lot of success making testing stressful, to the point of tears and sleep problems. But this isn’t good enough! As you know, high test scores mean children are graduating college- and career-ready. We need to raise the stakes.

MAYOR: Thank you. Any questions from the Assembly?

ASSEMBLYMAN 1: Well, I’d like to know, how much will this cost.

SCISSORMAN: Actually, you probably already have the tools here in your district. We recommend, however, that you purchase the Apple iDigit device, and you will need teacher training with that in using this device. You do need one teacher device for each classroom to avoid cross contamination, as well as individual digit devices for each student.

ASSEMBLYMAN 2: if we do both thumbs at once, will that save costs?

ASSEMBLYMAN 3: This is ridiculous. It’s got to be about the kids! We cannot be worrying about costs.

MAYOR: Anyone from the audience?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve been listening to this –

MAYOR: State your name, please.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Joe Blow and I’ve lived here for 42 years. So I’ve been listening to this debate, and I just wanna know, why don’t you start with a toe, for God’s sake?

ASSEMBLYMAN 4: So, what do we do when we chopped off both their thumbs.

SCISSORMAN: I think we can say that this produces a child who is empathetic, and resigned to their fate.

Scene 2

TED Talk

SCISSORMAN: We do have evidence, that, the more kids try, to work devices, when they have no thumbs, the more frustrated they get.

Now, some people try to do things the same old way, and hope for different results. Our approach is innovative, and we’re seeing results.

(takes off mask – he is transformed into BILL GATES. Applause.)

BILL GATES: By tying teacher performance in raising students’ test scores to retention of their digits, we have a powerful tool to transform teachers and learning in this country. Eventually, we will weed out the lowest performing teachers, because they won’t have any fingers left.

Now, when we make tests harder, how can we expect kids to be able to pass them, when we have no actual mechanism to improve teaching, and in fact, have taken away the teachers’ sense of control, creativity and self respect?

Well, people ask me this all the time: Bill, you don’t know anything about education! They ask me, Bill! How can a technocratic, top-down, high-stakes standardized testing-based system, that has no actual research behind it, and in fact has been detrimental to quality education – they ask me, Bill, how is it that creating a vast new market for private enterprise to market untested products to the government on a massive scale,

they ask me, Bill, how is any of that going to improve education?

And this is what I tell them: Are you kidding me? Why would it?

Scene 3

another Assembly meeting

A fox runs across the stage, with sounds of a fox hunt, bugles, hounds, horses etc. in the background. The Assemblymen follow it with their heads.

MAYOR: And now next up we have Persons to be Heard.

(FOX HUNTER comes up and takes the microphone)

FOX HUNTER: Hi, as you know, fox hunting is a very important part of our economy and our culture and heritage. Well recently we’ve been hit pretty hard by the fewer cruise ship passengers, and then now, we are suffering due to your policy of high-stakes testing. We rely on the young and otherwise unemployable to clean the stables and groom the horses and feed the dogs, and this is having an impact on us, we are having a hard time finding people to do this work that have all their digits.

MAYOR: Thank you.

(FOX HUNTER sits down.)

MAYOR: Any other Persons to be Heard?

(INTERN comes up. She has on Xtratuf rubber boots and trendy clothes)

INTERN: Hello, my name is Emily Emily? And I’m an intern with Sitka Institute for Laudable Initiatives? I’m the Community Organizer Intern for the Community Community program, and the Sustainable Sock Puppet Project?

We grow our own organic soy beans in a community garden, that we then harvest and dry collaboratively, and weave them on Fair Trade looms from Bolivia, and make them into socks that we make into sock puppets.

Although, recently we have had some challenges, because soy beans it turns out do not grow very well in our climate, so – (she brings out a sock puppet and puts it on her hand, and delivers the rest of her piece as if it’s the sock puppet talking)

we are buying socks and craft foam at Ben Franklin. We believe that sock puppets because they only use the fingers can contribute to resiliency and self esteem in our digitally-challenged population, and contributes to the integration of these folks into the greater community.

MAYOR: Thank you. Anyone else?

SCISSORMAN: Hello, I think everyone knows me, I came originally on a contract to provide testing incentives in your schools. Well, now I’ve got on my other hat – I’m here representing the Transboundary River Mines with Unsafe Tailings Dams Inc. We have a new project, starting soon that’s a very exciting development opportunity that will supply jobs for workers without thumbs, “WOOTs” All of our equipment will be specially adapted for use by digitally challenged individuals.

MAYOR:Thank you, Mr. Scissorman, we are looking forward to hearing more about that as it develops.

Is there anyone else, under Persons to be Heard?

ARTIST: Hi! My name is Stardust Cedar Tree, I just moved here yesterday, and I love your community. It just feels so warm and welcoming. Already I’m signed up to help with the Sock Puppet project and I’m going out for drinks with Mr. Scissorman! I am so excited to be here. And one thing, that you will probably be hearing about, yes, I was forcibly put on the ferry in Homer by the Troopers but that was due to a misunderstanding, I was painting beautiful murals on things and I thought people would like it.

MAYOR: Thank you.

Scene 4:

ARTIST, alone on the stage. She is dressed with a scarf, brightly colored skirt, and Xtratuf rubber boots.

ARTIST: I’d never met anyone like him. Like – so – confident – living on this other plane, where, facts don’t matter.

He inspired me to go into teaching, where I could be part of the the implementation of these brave new reforms.

Boy! The classroom was not what I expected! But once we got the kids all medded up on Ritalin, we could actually get things done.

I think of it as an art, really – teaching to the test, seeing how far we can get those scores to come up, without actually teaching them anything.

And we did it! I’m the teacher of the year! And tonight, when I get my award, we’ll be demonstrating some of the new technology that let me – let us – accomplish this amazing achievement.

Scene 5

Assembly meeting again. Artist is standing in front of them.


ARTIST: Thank you So Much for this award! Now, we’ve passed out the student devices, go ahead and strap them on, don’t worry, they’re deactivated.

And now, we’ll put a sample test question on the screen, and you can do your best to answer them.

Can everyone read that? OK now do your best –


ARTIST: Oh, I guess Assemblyman Tim didn’t get that one!

Ok, now for question two –

ASSEMBLYMAN 2: Holy shit! My thumb! I thought these were deactivated!!

ARTIST: oh my god I thought they were –

All the ASSEMBLYMEN and MAYOR: Oh my god! Take them off!!!

(blood is spurting everywhere)

CHILD (without thumbs, pops up): Ha! We hacked it!

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