I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! Last night was the fourth of a series of informational meetings hosted by our school’s principal. Why the mixed emotions? Besides my husband and me, only 2 other parents showed up! Is apathy even a strong enough word? Amongst education activists it has been said that teachers need to speak out more about what’s going on. But at my school, I’m taken aback taken by the parents that apparently don’t seem to mind what’s going on with their own kids! I must commend our principal for attempting to open a dialogue about some really drastic and serious changes going on in education! And nobody cares to show up to hear what she has to say!
Last night’s topic was “Assessments.” During the first meeting we discussed RTTT and what that means for all of us. The second and third meetings explained the Common Core Standards and their shifts in ELA & Math, respectively. Last night’s meeting was again largely “factual” with EngageNY’s propaganda on the smart board for all to see. But this meeting was a little different. Until now, I had been frustrated with our principal’s seeming neutrality on current education reform. I could never tell where she stood, if she secretly agreed with me, if she actually supported my stance, or if she was secretly cursing my meddling ways. Last night, not only did I get a sense that she disagreed with aspects of the assessments, but she even made reference to certain flawed elements of the New York State tests in ELA and Math.
I won’t go into minute detail on the “facts” as one can easily go to the EngageNY website. Let me briefly outline some of points we discussed.
The New York State tests are now officially tied to the Common Core Learning Standards that our state hastily adopted in order to secure federal Race To The Top grant money. The tests will mimic the “high standards” and “rigor” brought to us courtesy of the Core–”standards” that, although untested, will supposedly guide our students on their path to “college or career readiness.” We’re told that we’re working backwards. We look to where we want our students to be and then we work backwards, upping the standards each step of the way so they can reach the goal. That means, for example, that Pre-K kids are learning what Kindergartners used to learn, and Kindergarten is the new first grade, and so on and so forth.
The new New York State assessments for grades 3-8 are unlike the old state tests. One point I found particularly bizarre is that these new tests are apparently top secret, literally held under lock and key. Nobody EVER gets to see what the questions are like besides the students taking the tests. Teachers might be able to read the test during its administration, but they will most likely be too busy proctoring–not their own classes, of course because we wouldn’t want them to actually benefit from witnessing the testing process of their own students. (Plus, those scoundrel teachers just might cheat you know! ) In the past, teachers were at least able to review the test after it was administered to see what the content was and perhaps gain some knowledge as to why their students did good or bad. Not anymore! The teachers never get to see them in any real depth. The principal must count the exams upon their arrival at the school. Count them again while administering, count them upon retrieval, and once more before shipping them back NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN! Why the secrecy, I ask? It makes no sense. If the state insists on the benefits of testing, wouldn’t it make sense to give the teachers as much information as possible, in order to improve their teaching in the future.
This is when our principal came out with the fact that she was in complete disagreement with this new policy. She even wrote several letters to NYSED voicing her concerns and pleading with them to be more forthcoming with the testing content. She was told, “this is how it is,” and that was that… no further response. I thanked her for her efforts.
We talked about how these tests are going to be much harder than the old NY State tests, and that we shouldn’t be surprised when our students–and students across the state–do poorly on them this first year. We talked about the inevitable increase in students who will be required to receive AIS, and the burden this would place on our resources. We learned that AIS has been an unfunded state mandate for years. We asked how our school would cope. Our principal said, she didn’t know, that it would be a struggle. Again, she shook her head in clear disapproval of this inevitable outcome of the new Common Core tests. We talked about the questions and how they would be constructed with possible multiple choice answers taken directly from students’ previous mistakes on tests. It’s almost like a cruel game to trick the kids and watch them fail.
We reviewed the shifts in ELA and Math and how these shifts will be reflected in the assessments. I think we all agreed that the tests are geared for a certain kind of learner and that they would be an unfair assessment of many students’ actual abilities. Again, it was clear that our principal also shares these concerns. She told us a story of her son, who had always been a poor test-taker, consistently scoring 1 or 2, and being in and out of AIS. As a parent, she constantly urged him to work harder and do his best until one day he said something that was an ‘ah ha’ moment for her. He turned around and said, “Stop treating me like I’m an idiot because I’m not!” Now he’s a junior in college and doing quite well. She fully recognizes that those test scores were no indication of who he was or is. It was commendable that she told this story because it is evidence that she sees the flaws in assessing students by one high-stakes test.
One of the things students must now do in ELA is draw more complex conclusions from a particular text during a written part of the test. This was one aspect of the shifts my principal seemed against because it does not take into account who these students are and how they’ve been shaped by personal experiences. Students are not allowed to write about any personal experiences or knowledge gained outside of the text. Let’s say the text is about frogs. It doesn’t matter if you spend your summers trudging through ponds and catching frogs and learning about them first hand. If it isn’t in the text, it doesn’t matter. You must draw conclusions from the text.
The Common Core claims to focus on success in the real world, but with math there is only one acceptable way to show your work. It doesn’t matter if there are ten ways of discovering the answer. If you don’t show your work in the proper way, you lose points. There is a big focus on “using math in the real world,” according to the Common Core shifts. An example I mentioned in a prior post was calculating a tip. There are several ways to do this, but only one way to gain points on the test–Too bad for the students who don’t get it that way, and understand it another way. Now, I consider myself a fairly intelligent, fully functioning member of society. If I have a problem that involves math, I’ll use whatever means necessary to solve it. That’s real world!
We talked briefly about technology and the use of calculators during the 6th grade (I believe) assessment. The state requires the use of a particular kind of calculator, which they do NOT furnish to the schools. It is the burdon of the schools to purchase the necessary equipment.
Another math shift is “build skills across grade level.” This would make sense if it wasn’t tied to an assessment. If fact, because it is tied to an assessment, it seemed like an open admittance that teachers would indeed have to teach to the test. For example, math is broken up into segments or “modules,” and anything taught in the segment following the assessment will be assessed the following spring. Teachers are worried about students forgetting that knowledge over the long summer break. So they must reteach it the following fall so that they can continue “building.” And I don’t have a problem with reteaching or refreshing any information, but it is the spirit in which this is done that bothers me. It is retaught for fear of the students doing poorly on a test.
I’ve stated in the past that I am not against high standards. There are things in the Common Core that sound great in theory, like delving more deeply into fewer topics, or understanding why the math works. My problem with the Common Core lies in its reliance on state tests for assessment. This, in my opinion, is the driving force for turning the idea of Common Core Learning Standards into a teach-to-the-teach, one-size-fits-all, homogenization of education. The idea of working backwards from an end goal works also in theory. But it leaves out the fact that all students learn differently. They have different strengths and weaknesses. Some have learning disabilities that make these assessments very difficult for them and an unfair method of assessment. Some students learn visually. It creates stress for the students and the teachers. It leaves little time for project-based learning and personal interaction between student and teacher. And there is the very real occurrence of forcing learning on children that is developmentally inappropriate, especially if we’re forcing standards down to the lower elementary grades. If we truly want high standards and rigor, then we need to strip away the assessments. That, in my opinion, is the only way to successfully tackle any real system of standards. Let it be done locally with a local measure of assessment. Take the pressure off, and teachers WILL find their own way– a way that’s beneficial to their students as individuals and to real-world preparedness. There is too much focus on the tests. Even our principal seemed to agree.
The hour long meeting was over and there wasn’t much time for questions. As there were only 5 people in the room, we asked some questions, raised concerns, and discussed issues throughout the meeting. But at the end there were some things I wanted to share. Our principal kept trying to reassure us as she discussed the assessments. When she stated that our students would do poorly, she reminded us this was the first year of Common Core Assessments. When she mentioned the expected high number of AIS students, she reassured us that they could be evaluated and removed if they didn’t need to be there. She assured us that the teachers were working hard to make the necessary changes and to prepare our students—that we could expect better results next year. I sat there and thought to myself, I’m not worried… my children will NEVER take these tests.
One parent sat dutifully taking notes with unquestioning obedience. Her comments and concerns seemed to indicate that she was only interested in learning what was to be done so that her child(ren) would succeed on the test. I brought copies of a fact sheet from Fairtest.org. Even when I kindly offered everyone in the room a counter-perspective to what we’re seeing by EngageNY, this parent was not interested. She did not take my sheet. For me, it confirmed that there are and probably always will be a great number of people who will never question the value of what’s being handed down.
At the end, I thanked my principal. And I meant it wholeheartedly. But I added, “I know you are trying to ease our minds. You already know my position on this issue and hearing this information only strengthens my resolve. The flaws of these tests are even more apparent to me. I say this in the spirit of open and honest communication and to reaffirm my commitment to working with you and not against you.” I told her about the Opt-Out Informational Event I am co-hosting in April, and I invited her to come. I also gave her a copy of the Refusal Letter template that has been working so well for parents across New York State. I explained how it uses NYSED’s own language, which should alleviate any conflict the school might have about honoring a parent’s wishes, while still following the State’s regulations. I tried to alleviate any fear she might have concerning the loss of funding if students opt-out or refuse. I also gave her our Common Core Opt-Out form, explaining that although I view it as largely symbolic, I would like it included in my son’s file. I want it on record that I am against this Common Core experiment–at least the way it is currently being implemented and tied to testing. I also talked about the growing number of communities that are passing resolutions against high-stakes testing. She thanked me for the information, and I really do think she gets where I’m coming from.
Our principal is interested in continuing the dialogue, which is great news! She again expressed an interest in hosting a variety of topics and she asked for suggestions. My suggestion was “test anxiety.” I’v heard several stories in our school of kids that are very worried about these tests. They are afraid of failing themselves, failing their teachers, failing their parents, and even their schools. I’ve talked to parents, and aunts, and uncles who are reporting stress-related headaches and stomachaches. I believe it’s something we need to bring into the open and have a discussion. Our principal agreed and added that the teachers are just as stressed out. Further proof that this teaching system is flawed and unreasonable.
My son is in Pre-K right now. We do not face high-stakes testing this year, nor for the next several years (hopefully). I am, however, glad to be in this fight against excessive testing. I’m doing it for my children’s future, but I’m also priveleged to pave the way for parents who are stressing with the reality of these tests right now! I am confident that if any other families in my small district decide to opt out, that they will find a cooperative administration. I think I’ve been open and active from the beginning and have made a good case for my beliefs. In the beginning, I felt like I was seen as a worrying outlier. But now I feel like they are starting to understand the sense that I am making.