Why I don’t Care that Test Scores Went Up

My coworkers and I just found out that all of our ELA and Math scores went up this year. According my administration, I am supposed to be thrilled. But I could really care less. If anything, I’m concerned.

Higher test scores do not equal higher quality learning. Some amazing things did happen at my school this year- projects, events, celebrations, experiments, performances, parades, presentations, and yes some quality reading and math instruction. But that’s not why our scores went up. Our scores went up for at least one of the following reasons that have very little to do with meaningful learning:

  1. The demographics at my school have changed and continue to change. Like many schools in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, we started as a school serving entirely low income students of color with a high population of English language learners. A recent influx of mostly white, middle and upper class students has brought many changes- including, I would argue, these higher test scores. Because test scores first and foremost correlate to income, I worry  that prioritizing test scores inevitably makes those mostly white, upper class children more valuable to the school. Which is dangerous.
  2. While standardized tests can never truly capture authentic learning, they can and do reflect how much test prep a school is doing. And this year was all about testing. We sat through meetings about how to introduce testing language in kindergarten, powered through 2 months of “rigorous” test prep in the upper grades, sent home packets and packets of ELA and Math for homework and  stopped teaching science and social studies for weeks at a time. And I guess it “worked.” But at the expense of experiments, collaborative projects, joy, community building, field trips, meeting the individual needs of students and teachers- in short at the expense of what I would consider real learning. Not to mention healthy child development.
  3. These tests are opaque and corrupt as can be, but it is becoming clear that it was easier to get a 3 on this year’s test than last year. Meaning they were scored differently. So kids did better, justifying a future of even more common core test centric”rigor. ” Read this by Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters.

Yes I want all children in NYC to be proficient readers and mathematicians. And I am proud of how hard our students worked this year. But these high test scores have nothing to do with the quality of children’s learning. Moreover, looking ahead, this bump in test scores does not bode well for me, my fellow teachers or my students because it will undoubtedly lead to a renewed emphasis on mindless test prep and data come September- in my school and citywide.

Success Academy schools scored the highest in many grade levels this year.  What they do “works” according to their test scores. But what they actually do  is weed out needy students, endorse abusive classroom management techniques, and prioritize testing and data above all else.This is not real learning, it is not respectful of children and  families  and I would never send a child to a Success school, let alone teach in such an autocratic, inhumane environment.

So, with progressive schools with high opt out numbers like Central Park East under fire, all this celebration over high test scores has me worried. What if more and more schools are compelled to do what “works” to get those high score accolades? What if the few remaining progressive schools that champion child-centered, project based learning instead of test prep are also forced to do what “works”  to get those high scores? What if there is no where left for me to teach?

 

 

 

Chuck the Tests- Project Based Learning is Better

We have effective, research based models for assessing student learning that do not rely on standardized testing. So why aren’t we using them?

A friend of mine recently got hired at one of the city’s performance assessment consortium schools. What is unique about these schools is that the students only take 1 test- yes that’s right, just 1 standardized test in four years of high school. So, instead of wasting valuable time on tests and test prep, portfolios of authentic student projects are used to assess learning and determine eligibility for graduation.

Also unique about these schools- Despite a population comprised of high numbers of English language learners and low-income families, these schools have far higher graduation rates than traditional high schools and an 91% college attendance rate.

How do they do it?

Teacher autonomy and “in depth” project based learning. That’s how.

I met a teacher from Brooklyn International High School at a workshop recently and wistfully listened as she described the year long  history and ecology project about water pollution she had designed with her students.  Meanwhile, in depth, interdisciplinary projects with real life relevance are few and far between in my elementary school because testing and data take priority over everything else.

Which begs the question: why can’t we have portfolio assessed middle and elementary schools too? Why can’t elementary schools apply for the same waiver these schools receive and use performance based assessment instead of torturous tests?  Especially when excellent progressive schools like Central Park East are under threat, why not use these successful alternative high schools as a model and give all schools the opportunity to choose project based learning over testing?

We know skipping standardized tests in favor of deeper learning works with our neediest high school students. And we know testing is far more cumbersome and developmentally inappropriate for young children than it is for teens. So there is no reason not to bring this successful model down to our youngest students.

If we really want to offer parents “school choice” we need elementary, middle and high schools that go beyond data factories. Alternatives like portfolios, project based learning and performance assessment should be an option for children of all ages- not just high school students.

The Power of Play

Friday was the last day of testing. Day 3 of the math was brutal by all accounts and after 3 days of standardized sitting, it was clear to everyone who was paying attention that our kids needed to get outdoors.

So on Friday afternoon, I brought my class to the yard for some extra outdoor play time and discovered at least 6 other classes already at play. There were 2nd graders, 3rd, graders, 4th graders and 5th graders all outside in our giant schoolyard together.

It was pretty magical. There were mixed age games of kickball and football. There were races and climbing. There were kids acting out stories and kids running through the yard, holding hands in a chain.

One 7 year old leapt by me, exclaiming, “It is just such a beautiful day!” Another student ran up to me in the midst of a very intense soccer game to ask me if I knew who had discovered the earth’s magnetic field. “William Gilbert!” he told me, and then dashed back to his game.

A third grade girl quietly sitting by herself told me that her favorite thing to do during recess is to imagine fantastical creatures and then write poems about them in her head. Another girl ran up to me and said, “I figured out why we came outside instead of doing science- it’s because we’re using kinetic energy and sound energy when we’re outside and because of motion!”

Very little instruction happens during testing because the exams exhaust children’s reserves of stamina and attention. This particular day, all I did was monitor a hallway, and take 2 classes out to play. Initially, I had dismissed the day as a waste of time  because “I wasn’t teaching anything.” But it wasn’t a waste of time. Not because the test was worthwhile in any way. It was not. But because we played.

Kids need play. It is how they learn. It is how they process new ideas and become themselves. This is something study after study has shown- that children learn best through play, through social interaction, through exploration, through movement- yet we continue to insist that real learning happens silently at desks in front of “rigorous” worksheets.

Getting outside last week was a powerful reminder that play is not separate from learning- play is learning. We should be doing everything we can to make our teaching more play based, not cutting recess and choice time out of our schedules. And we should remember that play is never, ever a waste of time. Rather, the best teaching happens when students explore, make choices, use their imaginations, build and move- in short, when we finally let kids put their packets down, get out of their seats, and play to their hearts’ contents.

 

 

 

 

The Real Opt Out Movement

Teachers, parents, students and administrators all have been threatened with consequences for opting out and challenging  DOE mandates.  Principals have been force fed talking points on testing, teachers have been threatened by the chancellor and parents have been fed a confusing mixture of threats and misinformation to keep them from opting out- and more important, to keep people from questioning the top down directives coming from federal and state governments.

The real story of opt out is the thousands of people- children, parents, teachers and principals who wish they could opt out but do not.

I spoke to a parent the other day who told me she hates the tests, her son hates the tests and is miserable at school but they are not opting out because…

1.The administration has put a lot of pressure on parents around testing

2. Her son is worried about what his peers would think if he went to another classroom during testing

3. They are nervous about getting into a public middle school without 4th grade test scores.

All understandable- especially for low income parents with few options for middle and high school. Just like it is understandable for teachers with mortgages and families to fear speaking out. So many teachers I work with fiercely oppose high stakes testing and  wish they could bring creativity and empowerment into their classrooms instead of test prep, but they don’t want to put their jobs at risk. And I’m sure that there are school leaders out there who wish they could use their budgets to hire more teachers instead of paying for test prep materials and curriculum. Taking or administering these tests is by no means an endorsement of high stakes testing.

So for every family that opts out- know that there are 3 families who wish they could. For every teacher that speaks out, there are 3 teachers who would say the same thing if they felt safe. For every principal who writes a letter or stands by their school’s commitment to children over data, there are 3 principals whose positions are too tenuous for them to take that stand.

Whatever we end up saying or doing-triple it- because that’s how powerful this movement really is. That’s how many of us want to see the end of high stakes testing. That’s how many of us want teachers to be respected and nurtured- not sorted and punished. That’s how many of us want to see children learning more than ELA and math. That’s how many of us want to see creativity, community, collaboration and joy in our public schools. Opt out numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Untimed Testing is Not a Solution

 

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

Make no mistake. These tests hurt children. And removing the time limits has done nothing to change that.

She was not the only one. Many 3rd-5th graders at my school took at hours  to finish their ELA tests over the last three days. When most students take more than 70 minutes- can you really call it a 70 minute test?

Children should be challenged. But challenges should be meaningful, differentiated and developmentally appropriate. No matter how many superficial concessions the state makes, this is not meaningful, not differentiated and certainly not appropriate for young children. This is torture. Opt out.

A Child Opts Out

Yesterday was the first day of the state ELA test. I spent the morning in Pre-k with one 3rd grader who is opting out. Because of his struggles with attention, sitting still for two hours filling in multiple choice bubbles would have been torturous for him. Even so, he was a little embarrassed at first to have to hang out with the little kids while his peers were testing.

But that soon changed.

In pre-k, much of the day is spent in centers. Children choose what to do and who to play or work with and their options are multi-sensory, open ended and creative. Because of this, our pre-k classrooms are a learning wonderland. The kids are excited about everything- reading, building, sensory explorations, art, animals, singing, exploring shapes and counting at their “numberland” math center. Not only do they have agency over what and how they learn, but also, time in every day is devoted to cultivating valuable social-emotional skills. Which makes for some happy kids. So happy and motivated that they are  veritable learning sponges- absorbing and practicing new skills at an amazing rate.

So what did this third grader choose to do in Pre-k? He helped some students build a tall tower and explained to them how to make it sturdy.  Then, he observed bee and butterfly specimens and played with bug puppets.  I listened as he played and overheard a pretty high level conversation about insect bodies and how pollination works, reminding me that young children need time to internalize new concepts through play.

When it was time to go back upstairs to third grade he left reluctantly and said, “I wish third grade was more like pre-k. ”

Me too.

This is why we should all opt out. Because he’s right. 8 year olds also need play. They also need sensory experiences.  They also need choice. They need so much more than we are giving them. All kids, not just 4 year olds, deserve to be happy, motivated and engaged in developmentally appropriate learning.

 

 

Testing Season and Why Everyone Should Opt Out

Testing season at my elementary school begins after February break and ends with the conclusion of the state math tests in mid-April. Like many schools, our students are subject to test prep “units” at this time of year that include practice tests, stamina building exercises and test taking skill “explorations.” It is the worst time of year for teachers, students and families, yet at my school, inexplicably, no one is speaking out and no one is opting out.

So to parents out there, here’s what really happens in testing season…

  1. No one teaches science or social studies for 3 months. The number of teachers who have told me ” Oh I’m only doing read alouds for science because of test prep” or “we’ll do that activity after testing” is disturbingly high. This time of year, its all about those 3 Rs. This is a reality across the board- whether schools do a test prep “unit” or do test prep all year- science and social studies always get cut. 30 years from now when we are faced with the next global warming like debate, we can thank high stakes testing for our ignorance.
  2. Reading, writing and math become exclusively pencil and paper tasks and last all day. Reading, writing and math can and should be engaging and meaningful, but in test prep season kids often don’t get to choose what they read or write about, and are fed poorly written passage after passage. Kids should be reading books! Not passages followed by short responses and multiple choice questions. Besides, what’s the point of writing if you’re not allowed to write about anything interesting? ( like STORIES! Remember when kids used to write stories?)
  3. No trips, no fun,  no emotional support. There is so much pressure on teachers to get high scores- so not only is the academic curriculum narrowed to ELA and math, but many teachers sacrifice all the things that keep kids motivated and foster social skills- like trips, games and opportunities for play. At my school we’re not allowed to go on trips with 3rd-5th graders for all of testing season. We all know that what children need to learn is uninterrupted practice with reading packets and multiple choice questions… Oh wait, is that it?
  4. Even students who have disabilities, or are English language learners have to test prep. Even if they can’t read. At all. They have to “practice”  too. I had a student cry for over 30 minutes the other day because his classroom teacher was going to make him finish his ELA packet. He is a smart and vivacious kid who is normally super excited to come to my class and always had great ideas. But he cried for the whole period. The whole period.
  5. The homework gets insane. Like packets on top of packets. Plus many schools have Saturday classes for extra test prep! Because every day and night is not enough!
  6. Everyone is grumpy.  This might not seem important, but you try teaching 30 grumpy, jittery, stressed out kids or leading a staff meeting with angry, sleep deprived teachers. Let me know how that goes.
  7. Finally, it trickles down. All this testing frenzy does absolutely trickle down to the younger grades. Especially in testing season. It is around this time of year that the administration “suggests” incorporating testing language and skills for kids as young as pre-k and we are told to plan ways for first graders to be more “test ready.”

I recently had a conversation with a parent about the impending state tests. This is a parent who has told me that she is thinking about withdrawing both her children from our school and sending them to a progressive private school because, as she put it,  “they’re bored.”

She said that she wasn’t planning on opting out her children because they hadn’t expressed any specific anxieties about taking the tests. Then she told me that they don’t like school anymore and that is why she is thinking about transferring to a private school.

Parents out there- if your child is bored at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child is especially frustrated and emotional at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child has suddenly stopped going on trips or learning anything in science and social studies, it is because of testing. If your child is coming home with boatloads of homework that make no sense to you, it is because of testing. If your child hates school and finds it all too hard and confusing, that’s probably in some part because of testing too. If any of this sounds all too familiar- you should OPT YOUR KID OUT.

Send a message that a narrowed, autocratic, undifferentiated, and developmentally inappropriate curriculum is not OK for any child!

There are some lucky schools out there where the administration eschews test prep and almost all the students opt out. And you know what they do at those schools?  They teach. And learn. Real stuff. Projects. Science. Social Studies. Critical thinking. Art.

All children deserve real learning. All children deserve differentiated teaching that meets their needs, not the agendas of corporate reformers. All children deserve to be engaged, respected and inspired at school.  Even during testing season. OPT OUT.

 

 

 

.

Why Teachers and Parents Should Vote for Bernie

K-12 education has not been a topic in the democratic primaries, leaving public school educators and parents wondering who would be most likely to scale down federal and state education “reform.”

So why should public school teachers, opt-out parents and anyone who believes in public education support Bernie Sanders?

Here are 6 reasons.

  1. Sanders voted against No Child Left Behind, the grandfather of Ed reform. .
  2. Sanders is skeptical of “alternative routes” to certification: ex: TFA, Relay, Teacher U= replacing lifetime educators with short lived script followers.
  3. He said this: “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” He also has talked about investing more $ in public schools and replacing the use of property taxes to raise money for schools because of the inequality that system creates.
  4. Vermont is one of the few states that does not allow charter schools. Rather they allow for school choice within the public school system. This brings a valuable perspective to the table.
  5. Sanders is the only real pro-labor major candidate in recent history. If anyone is going to support unionized teachers- at public schools or unionized charters, it is Bernie.
  6. Neoliberalism has been very bad for education. Hillary is the quintessential neoliberal. Think the punitive test and punish/ test and underfund of Race to the Top, think school closures, think corporate consultants invading schools, think Bill Gates and his campaign for testing and the common core, think the de-professionalization of teaching and the feds buddying up to tech companies and big business to “reform” schools. Think about what has been like to be a teacher for the last 8 years- punishingly demoralizing and frustrating. While Hillary has managed to make statements both for and against public schools, and for and against unions, it is likely she’ll ride the Obama/ Duncan/ King train to fully “reformed” schools.  We don’t want that.
  7. And finally- Reformers would have you believe that education is in crisis because of teachers and their unions, but want to know the real crisis in education today? POVERTY. Bernie Sanders has been fighting for equality and against corporate greed for his entire life, and is the only candidate truly seeking to address the rapidly increasing inequality in this country. If we really want to do what’s right for children, we’ll choose the candidate who is fighting for their futures and their families- free college tuition, a living wage, affordable housing and free healthcare.

Forget the NEA, AFT endorsements. Bernie Sanders is a better bet for teachers.

 

http://prospect.org/article/what-would-sanders-administration-do-k-12-education

http://edexcellence.net/articles/bernie-sanders-quotes-about-education

http://www.aft.org/election2016/candidate-questionnaire-bernie-sanders

 

Let’s Be Real: Testing Is All Year Long

People are arguing about whether testing in NY state conforms to Obama’s theoretical 2% cap on testing time.

But let’s be real. At most schools testing takes time away from real learning all year long. Test prep starts on day 1, with jam packed, common core test aligned, “rigorous” ELA and math curricula. This includes test prep oriented curricula and actual testing. Starting in the first week of school, students take formative assessments, summative assessments, benchmark assessments and more on a weekly basis. And of course, from September through May, art, science, social studies and anything creative is relegated to the back burner- taught at most once a week.

And then testing season comes. At my school, starting in February, test prep takes over completely and suddenly the 3rd and 4th graders are anxious, frustrated and bursting in to tears at random moments. This is two months of explicit test practice almost all day every single day. Two months of no field trips, no science, no social studies and lots and lots of practice tests.

To be clear, I do not blame any of this on the teachers I work with. They kick ass and do everything within their power to make learning fun and meaningful for their kids. The power of testing over schools comes entirely from on high- from Cuomo, from Obama, from Gates and the other rich people who think they are experts at everything.

But if you ask a teacher how much time testing and test prep really takes from their teaching, you won’t hear 2%. If we’re being honest, at a typical school- without a strong opt out culture- testing takes around 60% percent of instructional time. If we were to talk about student learning time- including homework and weekend test prep boot camps, that number would go even higher. And then if you consider that nowadays, art teachers, PE teachers, science teachers and early childhood teachers are often asked to integrate the language and values of tests into their teaching every day, the number rises again. I would put my money on this statistic: In most schools,  75% of all learning time is devoted to, guided by, or limited by testing.

If we’re being real, bringing that percentage down to 1 or 2% means tossing out the the whole system. Testing will never occupy such a small portion of the school year when test scores are tied to teacher evaluations and student promotion and the tests themselves are wholly inappropriate. So, please, powerful people out there, either stop pandering to voters with these mythical tiny percentages or actually do something to fix the system you destroyed.

WaPo article on testing time in schools

 

Reclaiming “Choice” for Progressive Education

In the world of education, school “choice” is a destructive illusion. Disenfranchising, underfunding and shutting down community public schools to pave the way for highly authoritarian charters does not offer a real choice for families. Do you want to eat or do you want to go hungry?  Choice is yet another word used to veil the real beneficiaries of school reform: charter networks, corporations and politicians. The concept of choice and charter schools is not inherently wrong, but it is a concept that has been coopted by the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

In fact, it is often the charter schools who really make the choices by excluding children with disabilities and weeding out other high need students. These children typically have the fewest choices already, and education reform only exacerbates the challenges families of children with disabilities face. I taught in a charter school and one of my students who in retrospect was probably on the autism spectrum, was “counseled out” of our school and into his zoned public school. What kind of choice is that?

I say we reclaim the word choice for progressive education. Picture this kind of choice- a school community in which parents, students, teachers and administrators are all empowered to make real choices. Teachers choose how to teach and choose and design meaningful, child centered curriculum. Families, teachers, and school leaders choose to include the arts, physical education and sciences in the school day and families choose from a menu of enriching after school programs and workshops for caregivers.  Teachers and students alike choose what and how to learn, instead of blindly adhering to top down test oriented directives.  Students, families and teachers choose whether or not to have homework and whether or not to take tests. Families choose from a wealth of services for students with disabilities. This is a school deeply rooted in the community, a school with resources and flexibility in how to use them, a school that empowers leaders, teachers, students and families to make choices that matter.