Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Testing and learning have little relationship to each other

Can we just drop all pretense that testing is about learning?

 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gave us annual testing of students in the primary academic areas.  In the beginning test scores were awful.  Then each year they got better.  Everyone denied there was any teaching to the test.  Then came the Common Core.  About 20 states signed on for PARCC testing supposedly to measure progress on the Common Core.  That number is now down to seven states. Scores on the PARCC tests are terrible.  Parents are upset.  States are dropping out or rethinking just how much time should be spent not only on the testing itself but on preparing for the testing.  We are continually told that teachers are NOT teaching to the test.  Believe that and I’ve got a couple of bridges you might be interested in buying.
New York state allows families to opt out of the testing process.  In New York 20% of families have so far effectively said “not with my kid”.   New York has taken another step ostensibly to give teachers a chance to review information that will be on the test.  New York has released 75% of the multiple-choice items for its common-core aligned math and English/language arts tests.  In previous years the department of education has released 50% of the questions and done so during the summer.  This year the questions were released earlier.  In addition to publishing 75% of the multiple-choice questions, New York is now also releasing ALL of the items that require a written response.  It is also allowing parents to review their children’s test booklets.
In a letter to the public, the Commissioner of Education said the purpose of releasing the information was to allow teachers to make informed decisions about curriculum and plan for the upcoming year.  Why would anyone EVER possibly think that this release has anything at all to do with teaching to the test?  The Commissioner also said it was the department’s plan to increase the number of questions released in future years.

When are we going to be done with this charade?  Testing has little to nothing to do with learning.  In fact, much of what we test is not learning at all but memorization.  The real tasks of education, teaching problem solving, working in a multi-cultural diverse environment, and developing job skills can’t be tested with computer or paper and pencil at all.  The entire testing process is a game to play “gotcha” with our teachers.  We need to find the courage to get rid of the poor teachers, support the ones who are doing the job appropriately and provide an education for our kids that will serve them after they leave school.  Stop pretending testing has anything to do with that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Want to do nothing? Refer to a commission.

Want to do nothing?  Refer to a Commission.

The Maryland General Assembly adjourned the third week of April.  During the session legislators heard lots of concerns about the amount of testing in Maryland’s public schools and the amount of time both the testing and the preparation for the testing were taking away from instruction.  People wanted the legislature to take some action to help.   BUT the legislature did what it frequently does with thorny issues.  They referred it to a commission.

Commissions and committees, democracy’s way of kicking the can down the road.  Now the Commission will soon be coming out with its report.  Mostly the report kicked the proverbial can down a couple of alleyways called local school districts.

One of the charges to the Commission was to determine whether some assessments are duplicative or otherwise unnecessary.   But the Commission didn’t do that.   The chair, a Montgomery County High School principal, said the Commission could not respond to that question because they did not have sufficient information.  The chair also said he wasn’t comfortable telling local districts what to do.  Whatever happened to State guidance here? And if the State isn't comfortable telling locals what to do, they sure haven't shown that to date.

Local school boards will need to accept or reject the findings and recommendations of the Commission by September 1 and send their responses to the State Board of Education which must also “accept or reject”  and pass its recommendations on to the Governor and the General Assembly by October 1.

So what was the major production of this Commission?  The Commission recommended the creation of committees on assessment in each of Maryland’s 24 school districts.  Nothing like taking a firm position on testing!  The House of Delegates had passed a bill to limit testing to 2% of instructional time.  The State Senate did not pass the bill.  The Commission declined to support that measure and said it was too simplistic.

Most of the testing is the result of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).  The PARCC tests are supposedly designed to measure progress in the Common Core curriculum.  Initially, there were 20 states in the partnership, most of them on the east coast and into the Great Lakes region.  That number has now dwindled to only six other states besides Maryland.  Clearly, the reduction of testing is trending.  Probably would have been a safe bet for the Commission to take a position.  But, hey taking a position is not the purpose of a commission or a committee.  The purpose is to kick the can down the road and to provide cover so that legislators do not have to make a decision that could possibly be controversial.  By that metric this Commission did its job.  The full report will be out July 1.  I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How much benefit is a benefit?

How much benefit is a benefit?
The Supreme Court has asked the Solicitor General to advise it on whether or not to decide a case regarding how much educational benefit meets the requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act better known as IDEA.  In 1975 President Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA).   It, in essence, created a special class of citizens, handicapped children, who were entitled not only to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) but also to an individual education program (IEP).
Appropriate!  Now there is a word.  Since 1975 school districts, parents and the courts have tried to decide just what that means.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, recently ruled that a Colorado child with autism had received FAPE because his educational program provided him with “some educational benefit”.   Other courts of appeals have adopted a higher standard and said that the IEP must provide a “meaningful educational benefit”.  It is typical that in these cases of disagreement among federal courts of appeals the Supreme Court gets to decide.  This decision probably won’t come until the next session of the Court but the advice of the Solicitor General will weigh heavily on the decision given that this is an interpretation of a federal law.  Yet another reason for people who care about children with disabilities to vote carefully in November.
Let’s look at this situation from the point of view of a house that needs a new roof.  The roof is damaged and leaking.  But the homeowner cannot afford or chooses not to afford a high quality new roof.  So the homeowner decides to put a decent roof on half of the house.  The rains come and the plan does not work out so well.  The half of the house with the new roof is still damaged by the bad weather coming into the house from the side with no new roof.
A neighbor sees what the homeowner has done and she decides to replace her whole roof.  But she also only wishes to spend a minimal amount of money.  So she purchases the least expensive roof possible, but does her whole house.  In a few years she finds that this is not such a good plan either.  The cheap roof develops leaks and does not wear well.   Before too very much longer she finds herself needing yet another new roof.
A third neighbor watches all this and realizes that a roof is of considerable importance to a strong protective house.  So this neighbor decides to forego season sports tickets and buys a good roof of high quality minus the bells and whistles. 
This analogy fits how we educate children with disabilities.  We can cry we are too poor to do a complete job so we do the job half-way.  This approach yields graduates who are not prepared to be contributing members of society and who need more adult services.  The same taxpayers are footing the bill; it is just a question of whether the money comes from the right or the left pocket.
Or we can pretend we are providing an appropriate education for a child as long as the child receives “some educational benefit”- whatever that is.  I would like to ask the judges in the 10th Circuit if they believe “some educational benefit” would be appropriate for their own children or grandchildren.
Or we can cover the whole educational program with a “meaningful educational benefit”.  People frequently say we can’t afford a Lexus for all kids.  But think about the money spent on the roofs of neighbors one and two.  A half roof was NOT better than none.  And a poor quality roof only wasted the money spent on it since it needed to be repaired and replaced.  This is also true about half-way educational programs or education-lite programs.  These don’t do the job for the students or the taxpayers so they are both a waste of lives and of money.

Whether you care more about money or more about children, a “meaningful educational benefit” should be provided to all kids.  It is why we spend any of our money.