Tuesday, May 26, 2015

There is testing and there is testing

Most people do not realize there are two basic ways in which tests are scored.   The scores on some tests are "norm referenced".    On those tests the scores of all participants are ranked by number of correct answers.  Then the bell curve is superimposed on those scores.   In doing this a specific percentage of test takers are given very low scores, average scores and very high scores.  These scores are called standard scores since they depend on the test standards that are pre-established.   So let's say a person takes a test with a group of other test takers, all of whom are VERY good at what the test is testing.  Under the norm referenced system, an individual who missed very few questions could still get a low score because in comparison to the other testers in the group, she was at the bottom of the pile.  Most college entrance exams such as the SAT and the ACT are norm referenced.  The idea is supposed to be that colleges are interested in how applicants rank in comparison to other high school grads who are seeking entrance.  Most achievement tests and aptitude tests are also norm referenced.
Criterion referenced tests establish skills and knowledge that test takers are supposed to know.  Then test takers are scored on how many questions they answer correctly.  Under this system it is possible for every test taker to get a high score.  These tests do not give you the relative standing of one test taker against another.  The Common Core tests and tests created by teachers are generally considered to be criterion referenced tests.  Common Core tests are supposed to be measuring how much of the Common Core curriculum a child has learned.  Whether they do that or not is an issue for another day. On criterion referenced tests we are all rooting for all the test takers to score well. The high score of one student does not impact the chance of another student getting an equally high score. On the norm referenced tests, all students cannot do well no matter how many questions they answered correctly.  It is the nature of the beast.
  On norm referenced tests we are competing against each other; so if you answer one more question correctly than I do, your higher number correct could kick me lower down on the bell curve.
Both kinds of tests have their purposes and do different things.   Of course, neither addresses the over all question of do tests really matter at all.   What does either type of test tell us that we didn't know to begin with.   When I was a public school supervisor, I would frequently have teachers tell me that they knew in advance exactly which students would do well on a test and which would not.   When I asked the question, then why are you bothering to test at all?;  I would get a quizzical look.  I am still asking that question and still getting that same quizzical look.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What were they thinking?

Fifteen years ago there was No Child Left Behind and its required annual testing that was supposed to  improve the quality of high school graduates and make a high school diploma really mean something.   State testing results were all over the map regarding how proficient students were in the basic academic subjects.  Some states looked great, but the tests were easy.   Other states not so great, but the tests were harder.  The governors rebelled.  After all education is one of the biggies for governors' bragging rights.
So five years ago, the state governors got together with the state commissioners of education and created Common Core.  This curriculum-not a test- would be an almost national commitment to a curriculum.  All but five states signed on.  Every curriculum needs a test (or not).  So two consortia were born.  Smart Balance does most of the center of the country and a few costal states. Partnership for Assessment for College and Careers (PARCC) does most of the costal states.   States are dropping out of these testing program like innocents leaving the mideast war zones.   The latest to vote is Maine which says it wants out of Smart Balance.   Maryland, that does not have a formalized method for families to opt out, has the largest rate of opt out by absence of any state in the union.
So here we are, 15 years after NCLB and 5 years after Common Core.  Certainly education results have improved dramatically with these great and VERY expensive programs.  Fifteen years ago before NCLB, the United States ranked 28th in the world in student achievement.  We added Common Core and now we are going somewhere.   Indeed the new rankings were recently released.  After billions of dollars spent on curriculum alignment and test creation, millions of tortured children taking tests and thousands of teachers wrestling with their consciences on the purpose of the whole mess... Drum roll please!!   The United States of American now  ranks 28th among the nations of the world.  Yep, that was not a typo.   No change whatsoever in relative ranking.
What exactly is the point of this whole thing?  Beats me.
An organization called Achieve which is aligned with Common Core has issued a report that indicates the gaps between state testing and the Common Core testing.   New York is best with only a 5% gap, Georgia is the worst with a 60% gap.  No wonder those educators were having to cheat on the national tests.
Problem is no one is asking the question of why are we testing at all.  And what are we testing.   Other testing shows our kids know next to nothing about how our government runs and these kids will be voters in a few years.  Educators, please get up off your very weak knees and take control of your profession and our kids' lives.   We are letting politicians run education and you know what a mess they have made out of government.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

We are family!

You know the story.   Your kids and their friends just live in typical families.  Uhhh, just exactly what is that, this "typical family"?   Most of the books we read in school show a mother, father, 2 kids and a dog.  The dad brings home the bacon and the mom cooks it.  That is so old school.  In fact, it is over a half century (1960) since the majority (66%) of our families met this configuration.   Things have changed quite dramatically since then.  Today only 22% of our families meet this model.
In this economy 34% of our kids are being raised in dual income homes with married parents.   The biggest plurality is a mix of single parents, grandparents, LGBT parents.   Factually, a "typical" family no longer exists.  These  changes mean a huge amount to schools.
Schools are still functioning based on outdated assumptions.  Parent participation programs are still very often held during the day with the expectation that the none income earning parent will show up.     Often parents can't take time off from work to be there so participation defaults to a limited number of families.  Language is also important.  Teachers need to understand that the old rubrics no longer exist.  Questions that ask children of LGBT families, who is the mother and who is the father are meaningless and confuse children.  Likewise, gender expectations for children are defeating to children who do not want to be confined by them.  Those kinds of expectations also affect how kids develop their talents.
Programs in schools need to be re-titled.   Father-daughter events or mother-son teas may unmeaningly exclude large groups of families.   Even more importantly these named events make kids without a father present in the home or a son without a mother feel somehow less-than the other children in the community.  Changing the names of these events to something like Parents and Pastries is much more inclusive and make everyone feel welcome.
 Having kids develop a family tree often causes kids who have been adopted to struggle with how to fill in the blanks.  In discussing genetics, make it clear that even biological kids don't necessarily look like their biological parents.
Watch for language in bureaucracy.  Lots of married, two gender families still have different last names.  Forms need to allow for that and not assume last names are the same. They need to make room for multiple parents, allowing step-parents to also be included. Salutations on announcements sent home can be addressed to Harbour School families rather than to dear mom and dad.  It seems like a no-brainer today for posters and books to show a wide variety of family combinations.   These are available.  Families aren't just mixed race; some are single gender; some have children with disabilities; some are single parent; some have grandparents as the primary parenting people.  Posters and books that show these combinations send a visible message that the school gets the new reality and all are accepted.
Educators are big talkers, so it is hard for us to shut up and listen.  We can ask some very good questions of families: Tell me about your family.   What are the things your family likes to do together?  Is there anyone else besides those people in your home who support your child or who help you and your child?
Families are made up of all sorts of incredible combinations.  Sometimes they live together, sometimes not.  Some families are small, some are large.  The main thing about families is that they love and care about each other.  As educators we need to support that love however it may appear.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lifetime Warranty

Oh for the good old days!   Becoming a teacher meant you had a job forever AND would get an annual pay increase whether you earned it or not.   Well the salary wasn't that great, but the benefits were.   Lots of holidays, good health care and not such hard work.   And things did improve. Salaries got much better, and holidays and health care stayed great.
Then a funny thing happened.   Salaries got so good people began to notice.   And then there was this element of kids graduating without being able to read or speak in a coherent sentence.   Higher ed began to complain; they were spending too much on remedial education for freshmen.
Then the federal government stepped in.   Never a good sign.   Students would need to be tested every year to make sure they were learning what really counted-English, science, and math.  I won't go there today.  Testing wore the students and teachers out.  And after 30 years there were no discernible differences in student achievement after the testing than there had been before that very expensive program went into effect.  So the next step was to tie teacher evaluation to test scores.   Yet another terrible idea.
Good teaching is a lot like pornography.  The Supreme Court once decreed that although it could not define pornography, it knew it when it saw it.  Every one knows an amazing teacher within the first five minutes in the classroom.  Each amazing teacher is different.   And being an amazing teacher for one student won't make you an amazing teacher for a different student.  Why can't we recognize that reality.   Measuring good teaching by student test scores is just plain dumb.  BUT test scores do matter at some level.
New York state has stepped into the breach with a plan of its own.  Teachers will now be evaluated by both test scores AND observations.  And at least one of those observations must be done by someone from another district.  Teachers cannot be scored about the second lowest ranking unless students are making satisfactory achievement growth.   What is satisfactory achievement growth varies by student, so we will need to see how that word "satisfactory" winds up being defined.  Here is the wonderful element.   No student may be assigned for two consecutive years to a teacher who has been rated "ineffective".  Tenure now require four years experience and that teacher must be ranked "effective" or higher for three of those four years.   WOW! just living and breathing is out the window to get tenure.  The turnaround period for teacher dismissal is now reduced to 90 days for the process and school districts must move to dismiss teachers who receive three consecutive years of ineffective ratings.
Teachers and districts aren't the only ones who will be held accountable.  Graduate level and leadership training programs will need to have stiffer entrance qualifications, a minimum score on an entrance exam and a 3.0 grade point average.  There is some leverage on the grade point average.  If fewer than 50% of the graduates fail the licensing exam, the program will be suspended.
New York state is getting serious about the quality of its education programs.   And Governor Cuomo is considered a liberal Democrat.   Lucky for the unions he isn't a Republican or things could really get tough.  Unions are up in arms.  Always a good sign that something is good for schools and kids. Yep, it is looking more and more like that lifetime warranty once a teacher, always a teacher maybe showing some cracks.  Or maybe lifetime is not as long as it used to be.