Prepares Your Child for Standardized Tests!

I did a casual Amazon search for math curriculum that might help guide me in teaching my son at home. I wasn’t looking for anything particular, but one of the top results caught my eye. It was a DK book series called Math Made Easy. The previous link takes you to the second grade book, but all the books tout the same “benefits” of  buying this book including:

  1. Prepares your child for standardized tests
  2. Supports National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards
  3. Builds math confidence
  4. Includes parental notes and answers

So the number one reason to buy this book is to prepare your child for standardized tests.  It isn’t until number three that the book purports to help your child in any way! And this is a book intended to be used at home to practice skills learned in school, according to the description. That makes sense. The major skill taught in school is to do well on standardized tests. Forget curiosity. Forget the deep desire to engage in real learning. Nope, learn how to answer test questions. That’s all that matters, so why focus on anything else?

When one starts looking at curriculum products, it becomes apparent that the main selling point is that the products promise to prepare children to do better on Common Core assessments. Take the Ready New York CCLS products from Curriculum Associates. Of course their product provides “rigorous” instruction. But they go on to say “It Works!”:

In states like New York that are already using the program, Ready is already making a huge, positive impact. A recent study in New York found that schools using Ready had a significantly higher percentage of students achieving proficiency on the new 2013 Common Core state assessment than schools that did not use Ready.

There you have it folks. If your goal to to produce students with higher test scores, then Ready might be your product… at a price, of course.

Let me switch gears here for a moment and talk about one type of assessment that students are being prepared for in school. These are state-approved, third-party computer-based assessments that schools in NYS are required to use. They are often used for pre-testing, post-testing, and various benchmarking along the way. We already know that our schools have spent more to implement Race to the Top mandates than they received through the grant program. Part of the spending goes toward the purchase of a chosen assessment system. My school chose STAR, a product by Renaissance Learning. But this expenditure isn’t a one-time deal. These assessments require more computers and bandwidth, with constant maintenance and upgrades. The software itself is already becoming obsolete and Renaissance Learning is kind enough to offer current STAR customers an “affordable upgrade” to the latest STAR 360 products. Where does it stop? And when is enough simply enough? As far as corporate profiteering is concerned—never. And until the testing obsession stops, we cannot expect to stop spending for the latest technology and software to support the testing.

Read more about why I opted out of STAR assessments here.

Read more about these types of tests and the considerations about refusing them here.

And, more about these tests here.

The desire to produce successful test takers has led to various forms of celebratory dances, psyche-you-up songs (here’s another) (and another) (and yet another), the promise of special parties, and threats to take away privileges if students opt out. At my school, children in one grade were rewarded with over-sized, fake $10 bills for every ten points they raised their STAR score. The sad part was that the children were quite aware of where they stood in comparison to their peers.

New York State made history this year when approximately 200,000 students refused to take the state tests in grades 3-8. This boycott isn’t likely to subside anytime soon, but in addition to this type of opt out, we need more parents to ask serious questions about all types of testing being done in school and evaluate the so-called merits of these tests. Furthermore, we need more parents to say no to these unnecessary standardized tests and pound the nail into the coffin of corporate influence in our schools. If no one takes the tests, the assessment products are no longer needed as well as the supplemental test prep products and everything else tied to the culture where test scores currently reign supreme.



Why We Opt Out of STAR

New York State testing season for grades 3-8 is looming in the near future and activists are finalizing their opt-out plans.  I support all of these parents and their children!  We are not facing any high-stakes tests this year, but did you know that there are many other assessments being forced on your children–Assessments that have nothing to do with enriching, child-centered learning?

My son is only in Pre-K.  But the Common Core has already laid its filthy fingers upon him.  The absurd logical reasoning is that if we force rigor and high standards down this low, the kids will ignore their own natural stages of physical, emotional, and cognitive development and respond accordingly, learning better and faster so that they can be ready for menial employment college or career after graduation.  And how else can we expect our kids to shine on their state tests if we don’t start the rigor early?  It’s interesting if you look up the word rigor in the dictionary… the associations are mostly negative, yet this is a word used quite often by backers of the Common Core.

The 62 page manual, New York State Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core actually contains a great deal of wisdom about the development of 4-5 year olds.  For example, it acknowledges that children learn in individual ways and at their own pace.  It mentions “play” in several places and associates the importance of play in learning.  It talks about creativity and imagination.  It cites the importance of social and emotional development.  But much of its thick middle is devoted to what children should know in ELA, math, and science.  All the details make me gag, and I think they could have abridged this document by stating that kids are naturally curious creatures with an inherent love of learning.  Do all that you can to foster this and do not crush their spirit.  But they don’t say this.  ‘Fun‘ only shows up in words like ‘function,’ ‘fundamental,’ and ‘funding.’

Asininely Naturally if we expect certain standards to be reached we must assess the students in one way or another.  Our school uses STAR, a product of Renaissance Learning.  STAR is used to gauge student progress in ELA and math, supposedly for the benefit of the teacher.  Our school declared STAR as the method of assessment for grades K-2 SLOs (student learning objectives).  The use of state-approved 3rd party assessments under a school’s APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) plan is a state mandate as part of Race to the Top.  The meager dollars a school receives from RttT doesn’t even begin to cover what the school must spend on all of these mandates.  By the way, if you’ve ever tried to decipher some of the bullshit information contained in an APPR, let me warn you… it’s a daunting task.  You can find your school’s APPR plan here.

Anyway, back to STAR and why we opted our son out of taking any of those assessments.

  • Using STAR to assess a Pre-K child’s learning progress focuses on an area of learning I just don’t care about right now–ELA.  It doesn’t focus on what really matters to his age-group–namely play, creativity, natural and individual development, socialization–you know the things New York State cites themselves in their big ol’ document.  I’m not against him learning his letters, numbers, and some words… But why must it be assessed formally?  I can see no reason.  They should have nothing to prove at this age!!!
  •  I have no faith in the Common Core, especially at this tender young age and I do not support APPR.  So why would I support a form of assessment that is mandated as part of these systems?  STAR as part of SLOs don’t kick in until kindergarten at my school, but I will never allow my son’s scores on a test to be used to judge his teacher in any way.
  • I do not support a mandate that our school has to pay for. I understand that there are teachers that really like the way STAR works, but it is a product that costs money, and the state requires us to purchase it (or something similar from the approved list), and I worry about the cumulative effect of what all these mandates are going to cost us and what we’ll have to give up because of it.
  • Assessing young children is unreliable.  Any number of things can affect how they do on an assessment, such as hunger, being tired, or stress.  STAR assessments are computer adaptive, meaning that with each correct answer the questions get harder or with each incorrect answer the questions get easier.  Children recognize this, and have been known to answer incorrectly in order to get easier questions.
  • The results of a STAR assessment helps determine if a student needs intervention.  I have heard numerous accounts of students getting services they don’t need because they missed the cut-off score by a couple of points.  Conversely, students that actually need extra help didn’t get it because they did just fine on their STAR assessment.  And don’t forget, if a student scores low, they will be retested over and over again to make sure things are improving… this could mean an assessment every week.  This doesn’t apply to Pre-K, but I have no intention of ever allowing my son to be a pawn in this madness.
  • I believe that his teacher can judge him properly without STAR.  Observation, portfolios, and running records are more effective.  Furthermore, a purchased product cannot judge the things that really matter in a 5-year-old’s development.  Only his teacher can do this!
  • STAR might provide a beautiful data chart for the teacher’s benefit, but I am skeptical.  Why can’t the teacher be present while his/ her students are doing the assessment?  Are we afraid (s)he might help her students cheat?  Or are we afraid (s)he might actually benefit from seeing the process in which his/her kids are participating?  It makes no sense to me.
  • To quote a teacher that I highly respect, “STAR is a bunch of crap.”  Again, I don’t mean to offend those teachers that find value in it, but I don’t share their perspective.  The stories about STAR being misused and overused, and the stories about the results being just plain wrong when compared to what the actual teacher knew about his/ her students have me worried.
  • I also worry about where my child’s data is going when he does these assessments on the computer.  Is it guaranteed to stay local and for the classroom teacher’s use ONLY?
  • I worry about the increased use of computer assessments in general and how much more money this is going to cost our district to increase infrastructure, purchase assessments, and to purchase updates (there are always updates, aren’t there?).  I also worry about the complications of scheduling to get all of these kids into the computer lab for their numerous assessments.
  • Even if STAR wasn’t part of a mandate, even if it was free, even if it was reliable, and even if the data was sure to stay in-house, it could only of benefit a teacher as a secondary and partial tool for evaluation. But there is a real risk in relying too heavily on data alone.  If a teacher does that and ignores his/ her own skills to evaluate students, then they lose focus of their students as people and individuals.  And this might lead to complacency and plain old bad teaching.  To quote a teacher I know, “at least I don’t have to come up with something myself.”

Parents, is this what we want?

Stephen Round’s resignation from his job as teacher is the third public resignation of a teacher this year.

How many others have privately left the profession?  Then there are the veteran teachers who are counting down their remaining time until retirement.  I know of many.  The best teachers won’t compromise their teaching philosophies–at least they’ll try like hell not to.  But how much more can they take?  How many more will leave?  Or how many good teachers will just give up and relent to the system?  Is this what we want for our kids?  I want the BEST teachers for my kids!  I don’t want the ones who just say “oh well, let me just do what they (the mandates) say.”

With new state and federal mandates overwhelming teachers, it is becoming harder and harder for them to do their job.  The liberty for creative and innovative teaching is being replaced with a one-size-fits all approach.  This is bad for teachers.  I praise the brave teachers out there who have the guts to speak out.

But this particular post is a plea to parents–This is bad for our kids!!!  OUR children are individuals and often require an individual approach.  OUR children learn at different rates and have different strengths and weaknesses.  OUR children come from different home situations and cultural backgrounds.  Some of OUR children are more high energy, some are visual learners, some connect to learning through creative endeavors like art or music, some have learning disabilities, and OUR children’s unique characteristics go on and on and on.  How can we expect to implement a standard that demands all of OUR children to learn in exactly the same way?

The Common Core Learning Standards expect them to do just that.  The CCLS that most states adopted to receive federal Race To The Top grant money claim to provide all schools with rigorous standards in ELA and Math (other subjects to follow) across the board.  They claim to provide students with the education they need to succeed after graduation and they claim to hold teachers and schools accountable.  To be fair, I’ve heard some teachers and administrations state that there are good aspects of the new standards.  But my perspective as a parent sees more harm than good.

I know a (just turned) five-year-old in Kindergarten, who doesn’t get enough playtime.  Every day she brings home at least half a dozen Pearson worksheets.  She doesn’t get a nap anymore and often falls asleep at her table.  And as a result, she often loses recess at the end of the day.  This is the kind of teaching style that comes as a result of the “rigors” of the Common Core.

A mother of a seventh grader in a larger school system says her son is bored in math class because he doesn’t get the challenge he needs.  The teacher’s response is that her hands are tied… that the curriculum for the day gets sent to all the teachers in a top-down approach and that they must teach it on that day and in the agreed-upon method.

A ten-year-old is a good student and does well in his English class, carrying a 97 average.  But he doesn’t test well.  His first progress-monitoring assessment put him in need of services that he really doesn’t need.

A first-grader with autism is a brilliant reader, a skill that she learned with ease at the age of three.  She’s also gifted in math.  But she is bored at school and spends most days in a repetitive cycle of behavioral problems.  The teachers are too busy trying to implement the appropriate (and approved) interventions and won’t listen to the mother.  (She was even excluded from a meeting about her own daughter).

My own son is in Pre-K.  Although they still have a fairly well-rounded schedule with specials in art, music, gym, and library, New York State has decided to add to the federal Common Core mandates, placing certain expectations at the Pre-K level.  Pre-K is the new Kindergarten we are told.  My son is a high energy kid who needs LOTS of play.  Recently he has started to exhibit behavioral problems at school by refusing to participate in the academic learning parts of the day.  I fear he is already bored because those parts of the day come at the same time and in the same way.  A lot of parents are reporting the same thing–that their child doesn’t want to go to school because they hate that part of the day.  We’re not talking about a 10th grader here… These kids are 4!!!  It’s so very sad that they already hate school.  From what I understand, Pre-K never used to be like this.

I admit, being a mother of a Pre-K student has not given me a lot of first-hand experience with the school system.  But stories like these horrify me!  I don’t want this type of data-driven and corporate-driven education for my kids.  Do you?

Why, in such a large country like the United States with such a rich and diverse lot of people, would we want to set the same standards across the board?  I’ve heard it before, like at the Common Core Informational Meeting at my school.  Parents are scared.  They want their children to succeed.  They hear high standards, and they want that for their kids.  Who doesn’t?  I don’t know a single parent, educator, administrator, or extraterrestrial that would disagree.  But the Common Core Learning Standards, aren’t really about standards.

The Common Core Learning Standards are about control.  And they are about money.  As a parent, I am extremely bothered that local control, and even local input, is being pilfered by policy makers that have no real experience teaching.  I want a teacher to decide HOW they are going to educate MY children.  I want a teacher to decide what lessons to teach and how they are going to teach them.  If a teacher sees some merit in certain aspects of the Common Core, then they should be allowed to implement them in THEIR OWN WAY.  No teacher should be so hindered by all the details and mandates of a system that they come to detest teaching!  And if a teacher is in control, then I know who to talk to if I sense a problem with my children. 

High standards are not the issue.  However, it is the underlining details of the Common Core that should be unacceptable to parents.  We all need to be concerned about the increasing number of high-stakes tests and other frivolous assessments that are tied to the Common Core.  OUR kids are taking more tests than at any other time in our nation’s history!  We are the only developed country to test OUR kids in multiple-choice format!  These tests are not accurate portrayals of OUR children’s learning.  Yet they are the cause of a lot of unnecessary stress and they consume many valuable classroom hours–not only for taking the test, but also in test preparation.  Not only are OUR kids being judged by their test score, reducing them to merely a number, our teachers and our schools are being graded by the results of these tests.  It is no wonder that when so much is riding on these tests, that a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ will arise.  My principal assures me it won’t happen here, “…we won’t let that happen.”  If it hasn’t happened yet, it will… even great teachers having a breaking point… and if your job security is riding on this (or your sanity)… you’d better make sure that those scores are good.

On top of all of the high-stakes tests, all of which are developed at an enormous financial cost by an external for-profit corporation, all schools are being REQUIRED to purchase a method of student evaluation that has been approved by the state.  My school chose STAR, a product developed by Renaissance Learning.  These are computer-based assessments that test a student’s learning progress in ELA and Math at the beginning of the year, called baseline testing, and then retest later in the year to gauge their learning progress.  When students fail to test well, they are given a prescribed method of intervention and then retested and retested, sometimes with the suggestion to retest every week.  Is this how we want OUR children’s experience with learning to look like?  Although my son has yet to face any high-stakes testing, we have already committed to opting-out!  We have taken this a step further and also opted-out of the STAR assessments.  My apologies to the teachers who find STAR useful, but I will not allow my children’s data to enter the system for the benefit of the government or the profits of Renaissance Learning.  We, as parents, should be outraged that are children are being treated like guinea pigs when companies like Pearson Corporation send out their field tests that have no benefit for OUR kids or our schools.

Many schools have seen disastrous changes.  But, if your school is like my school, then you have yet to see the full fallout of the Common Core mandates.  We are a small rural school, fairly insulated for the moment.  Parents in my district have yet to see what some other schools have already sacrificed.  All in the name of creating better test takers, art, music, PE, recess, field trips, and many other valuable learning outlets are being grossly cut back or eliminated.  Even with these programs still in place, teachers in these fields are being asked to adapt their lessons to buff up ELA and math Common Core standards.  Must we wait until the shit really hits the fan, when even the schools that have managed to keep their heads above water, trying to make the best of the new mandates are going to be forced to make drastic changes?  Budgets are finite.  And when the meager funds given by RTTT run out, who do you think will end up footing the bill when schools are forced to pay for assessment systems, tests, computer infrastructure, the constant updating of software, not to mention test prep materials when it turns out that our kids’ test scores aren’t high enough?  Then you’ll see the cuts.  We, as parents, should be outraged about the direction in which OUR children’s education is headed, and about how OUR tax money will be spent!

We are told it’s necessary, like I heard at my school… “But we need to produce better readers.”  In my opinion our kids need more art, more music, more free play, more time to think creatively, more teachers with the freedom to innovate!  And my response to this talk about assessments and accountability and raising standards… why can’t we accomplish this locally?  Either our school was okay to begin with and this nonsense has no bearing whatsoever, or we know that our school needs some help and maybe if the government would put additional resources where they are actually needed, these particular schools will be able to make the necessary changes at the local level.  Teachers need to hold their students accountable.  Administrations need to hold their teachers accountable, and BOEs need to oversee what’s happening within their schools.  And guess what?  We parents have to privilege of speaking up WHENEVER we have concerns about ANY aspect of OUR children’s education.  Nobody can silence parents.  Nobody can oust us or reprimand us?

I want my son to love school.  I want him to love to learn.  But I fear in the current system of mandates, education is becoming homogenized.  I imagine that many will become bored with school and as a result become bored with learning.  In the words of Stephen Round, do we want our children to experience “a confining and demeaning education?”  I want my children to grow up with a free imagination, high level of creativity, and immense powers of critical thinking.  I don’t think they’re going to get this from the Common Core.

We need more teachers like Stephen Round to remain in the profession.  Instead these excellent veteran teachers are heading for the door.  Those that remain are afraid of speaking up.  When they do, they are considered trouble makers.  I’ve heard stories about some being asked to take early retirement.  To others it is suggested they might find another line of work.  When good young teachers, who we desperately need, enter the field, how will they perceive this treatment of their veteran colleagues?  To whom will they look, when they have questions or need advice?  Call me a pessimist, but I see a future generation of teachers who won’t question what is being handed down.  They won’t know any better.  And I do not want this for my children!  We should not want this for OUR children!

We need more teachers to speak up and expose the limitations of the new mandates.  But more importantly, we as parents need to listen to them and we need to become informed ourselves.  Then we need to speak up!  We need to voice our concerns and we need to tell our teachers, our administrators, and our representatives what WE want for OUR children.  They have to listen to us.  We cannot be silenced.  We cannot be ousted.  We don’t have to be intimidated by top-down pressures.  These students are OUR children.  We have to decide what’s best for them and make our voices heard.  My son’s teacher knows how I feel about the Common Core and assessments.  Our principal knows.  I’ve written to each member of our Board of Education.  I’ve written to president Obama and Arne Duncan.  I’ve commented in the appropriate sections at Pearson Corporation, NYSED, EngageNY, and other education-related websites.  But these entities need to become overwhelmed with our concerns–with our voices.  If we reach a critical mass of parent-outrage, we can see change.  

It’s intimidating at times, I know.  There have been moments when I really doubted my position, moments when it just didn’t seem worth it, and moments when I just didn’t think I could make a difference anyway.  But parents… We have to be the ones to carry the title of ‘pain in the ass’ and let nothing go unscrutinized.  We must call for an end to the rigmarole that education has become. Alone we just a drop in the bucket, but together we can bring that bucket to overflowing!

My 15 Minutes…

…not of fame… but of pointless parent-teacher conference.  Yup, that’s 15 minutes that I’ll never get back.

It’s not my teacher’s fault, I guess.  She certainly does love the kids, and she is caring and involved. I imagine that she was once a clever teacher, before her curriculum was dictated and she turned to teaching using Pearson print-outs and the overwhelming focus on ELA.  (PreK is just starting with math, or so I gather from one of the latest Pearson unit worksheets).

Anyway, I had been waiting to offer my verdict on what was going on in the classroom until this conference.  I saw a lot of Pearson coming home, but I hoped that maybe something else was going on besides that–something good and wholesome!  I was hoping these alternatives to Pearson would become apparent at the parent-teacher conference, but alas that did not materialize.

Folks, 15 minutes doesn’t give a lot of room for questions.  So I really just listened.

First I was given his art– three papers, one of which was a pumpkin, with crayon scribbled all over them.  Ok, no real complaints yet.  Then I was given his report card, which was actually created by the school!!!  The kids got a grade of 1-3 (1 being the highest) in categories like, “Shares most of the time,” “Expresses self freely,” “Listens to stories,” etc.  My son excelled with a 1 across the board.  I think I was supposed to smile and beam with pride at this point… but I knew all of this already.  He’s a great kid with a nurturing upbringing.  I had no fears about these qualities developing naturally within him!  OK, still no major complaints.

I was also shown several picture print-outs that the kids color in with crayons “to develop hand strength.”  I hate to see kids doing copy-art like that.  It does nothing for the individual.  Would it be too much trouble to develop hand strength while having the child make his own picture?  Anyway, back to the print-outs.  Most were scribbled in with one color, but we got to one that had multiple colors of crayons all over it!  My knee-jerk reaction was “finally some passion in these exercises!”  But quickly I was deflated with his teacher’s comment that he “got a little sidetracked on this one.”  HUH?

Then we got into his assessment.  NOT a STAR assessment.  We opted out of that.  But his teacher did sit down with him and present to him various exercises to rate his development.  First of all, I was thankful that she did the assessment herself and that it was one-on-one.  But I was also annoyed that it was about a dozen sheets, all made my Pearson.  The exercises consisted of the student having to determine which group of characters were the letters, for example; or which letter makes the ‘tuh’ sound?; or which is the letter ‘B’?  Again, he “passed.”  And again, this was nothing I didn’t know already.  And to be honest, nor did I really care.  If he didn’t know ‘tuh’ I was pretty sure it would come to him eventually.  One question was completely asinine.  “Which version of the word was written the best?”  Then the word ‘DINNER’ (or something) was written in four different ways, with one supposedly being the correct and neatest way to write it.  I said it was a ridiculous question, highly subjective.  I kind of liked the wavy version myself– almost calligraphy!

Anyway, why didn’t I care if he did well on these assessments, you wonder?  Because they are just a small part of his natural development at this stage and I don’t see why we place such a huge focus on academic learning in these young children.  It would have been different if there was more proof of process-based learning.  There was little talk about art.  There was no talk about music, except for the fact that he likes the Ghostbuster’s song.  I wasn’t given much indication what he enjoyed most about school, or what interests him.  There were only brief comments that referenced him as an individual.  Most of the formal stuff had to do with how well he fits protocol.  I would have gotten more from a 15 minute anecdote about what he did at recess one day!  In fact, every day I ask him what his favorite part of school was, and every day he answers “recess!”

I was also told that his pencil grip was poor.  The teacher wasn’t concerned and recognized it would develop in time.  And I couldn’t give a flying f***.  All of this focus on learning to read and write so young, everybody following scripted curriculum.  Didn’t anyone notice that when he is given the freedom to make his own drawings that they are always treasure maps?  I would have liked to talk about his fascination with pirates and ships and buried treasure.  I bet he’d learn ‘tuh’ if you associated it with “Treasure!!!”

My son loves to write though.  He revels in possessing little books and journals and he fills them with all sort of drawings, letters, his name, numbers.  He recently received an old unused store ledger from a friend of mine who is so attuned to who he is and what drives him.  Needless to say, he just loves it and is always “doing his work” inside of it.  He brought it to school one day, but he is only allowed to write in it during free-play.  Here’s a thought, he might be more inclined to learn the letter of the day if he could do it in his special book.  Maybe, just maybe, this crazy notion of excelled learning might actually be more effective if you let kids connect to it in their own way.  And maybe some of them just aren’t ready, and that’s ok too.  But take away a kid’s passions, his excitement, his space for creativity, and you disappoint him.  Do it on a regular basis and you ruin him!

And in regards to the Pearson print-outs that my son brings home on a regular basis.  I was told that my son was ready for reading.  He’s an “emergent reader.”  It was suggested that I use the print-outs as an aid to learning the words as we read along, pointing to each word as we go.  (I was given an honorable sneak preview to the future print-outs that will be coming home–simple sentences).  We parents have already been instructed with notes home to review the Pearson worksheets with our children–learning through repetition we are told.  Anyway, NO THANK YOU!  I will read real books with my child.  And if he shows an interest in reading, then I will certainly encourage it and work with him.  But if he shows the same interest he shows to the Pearson sheets, which is NOTHING, then I will wait patiently for the desire to read to emerge in him on its own.  He’s not yet 5.  He’s got time!  And I’m not worried!

15 minutes was over in no time.  The teacher apologized for the rush, explaining that’s how these things are.  I didn’t mind really, saying I understood and that she could always tell me anything through a note home or a phone call.  I thanked her for “assessing” my son herself and stated again my opposition to Race To The Top, The Common Core, and to the ridiculous emphasis on state assessments.  No one in the room, not the teacher nor the two aids who were putting things away, even pretended to acknowledge what I had just said.  Like the elephant in the room, it was completely ignored.

STAR Assessments, part 2

It’s clear to me now that STAR assessments are not all that good… at least not from my perspective.  Yes, they give immediate feedback to the teachers.  Yes, compared to other testing systems, they are short.  But when you weigh the pros and cons of using STAR, I have to come out against them.  I will continue to opt my children out from all standardized tests, including STAR assessments.  I can understand why some teachers see the positive side of STAR… I guess if you’re forced to choose a system of assessment for your school, STAR is one of the better choices and I suppose teachers have to make the best of it.  But as a parent, I will not relinquish my choice to say “no thank you!  This does nothing for us!”

I presented my last post to several wonderful FB support groups and received some great feedback, much of it from teachers who use STAR themselves.  Nobody had anything completely positive to say.

Like all tests, they are being overused, with some teachers being told they should administer a STAR assessment every week!  Would you want your child doing this every single week?  I wouldn’t!  I consider this valuable hours wasted at the expense of real learning.  There is also the danger of administrators (and some teachers) relying on STAR too heavily.  In this way, students are seen more as data rather than as individuals.

STAR is just one indicator of how a student is doing, and depending on the day it isn’t even a reliable indicator.  I was curious if STAR focused too much on vocabulary and short-term memorization skills.  One person said this, “the ones we give supposedly test reading level, but the sentences are out of context, timed, and do not include comprehension. No good teacher would ever consider it a conclusive reading diagnostic piece.”

For those of you unfamiliar with these assessments, they are done on the computer.  Many schools don’t even have the computer infrastructure to administer these tests in a timely manner, with classes fighting over computer time.  Only the richest schools won’t be burdened.  But most of us will have to deal with this added financial stress, not only to pay for STAR, but to upgrade computer labs as well.

To one teacher, STAR is “Not authentic, in my opinion, to sit students in front of a computer screen and have them complete brief multiple choice exercises on their own…  Too many variables and too unlike real life (or even ridiculously invalid, isolated and sanitized state assessments), in my opinion, to base evaluations on. But it’s an easy way to churn out numbers, and THAT’s the new money is speech, corporations are people, people are numbers approach.”

Rural Teacher had this to say in a comment on my last post:

Here’s what I know from my limited (my first graders have been tested twice on the Early Literacy STAR) experience: YES, there is immediate data – percentile ranks, range of proximal development (how much we can expect a child to “grow”), estimated oral reading fluency, estimated reading level, amount of growth or decline. It also spits out handy, dandy parent reports and detailed skills based reports for teachers. HOWEVER, all this data tells me NOTHING REAL as a teacher. All it does is give some support to my observations. I don’t watch them take the test, so I have no idea which questions they answered incorrectly – which is what I really want to know. I learn more from wrong answers than from right ones. I also have one case where a student who took the Early Literacy test (which is all read to them) is now considered to be a reader, when I KNOW that this child is NOT reading at the estimated level that STAR tells me.
Our school is using STAR as “Progress Monitoring” only and NOT as our local growth score. I believe that is a decision that is made at the local level, but STAR is absolutely an “APPROVED VENDOR” for that use. We purchased STAR because it was the cheapest and honestly, the shortest tests we could buy. A testing session lasts about 30 minutes – so I guess if a district HAS to use something, I would prefer it to be a 30 minute ‘test’ than days upon days of testing.
I got the parent STAR reports for my sons in READING, because the MATH doesn’t go beyond Geometry and they’re both past that. My sophomore should be choosing books (according to STAR) in the range of 4.8 (fourth grade, eighth month) and 10.1 (tenth grade first month). My senior should be choosing books in the range of 5.0 to 13.0. I guess that means that if either of them chooses a 5th grade book for a book report, it would be acceptable?? I wouldn’t stand for that as a parent! The parent report claims that the teacher will be using these test scores to “help develop his reading skills through the selection of books for reading practice at school.” but both of them are in classes where the whole class is reading the SAME BOOK ! When parents brought their STAR reports to conferences with me, I told them to basically ignore the report (it was from September) and I talked to them about what I SEE in my classroom and explained why I either agreed or disagreed with the test report. ALL of the parents were HAPPY to put the damn report away and actually TALK with me about what their child is doing in school.
WHEW- didn’t think I would have that much to say, and I don’t know if I helped you at all in getting information, but thanks for giving me a place to have my say about STAR!!

I am a supporter of locally developed methods of assessment, but many schools use commercially developed tests such as STAR as part of their state mandates, not only to gauge student progress, but rather as a predictor to how the student will do on the end of the year state tests.  But there is evidence out there that indicates that these tests have little to no predictive ability in regards to how students will do on the state tests, and there is little evidence that they have actually improved student achievement.

A study by the Regional Educational Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, The predictive validity of selected benchmark assessments used in the Mid-Atlantic Region, found that “…that evidence is generally lacking of their predictive validity with respect to the required summative assessments in the Mid-Atlantic Region jurisdictions.”

Furthermore, in the article Exposing the Imbalance of ‘Balanced Assessment‘ (page 14) by W. James Popham, Professor Emeritus at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, interim assessments such as STAR are described as “neither supported by research evidence, nor are they regarded by the public or policy makers as being of particular merit.”  Their biggest advocate?  The for-profit companies that make and market them.

And it is the concept of outsourcing our needs to for-profit test developing companies that seals the NO deal for me.  I’m told that STAR assessments are the cheaper of the choices, but what is it costing our district?  What is the cost of this product each year?  And how much money do we have to pour into new computers and other infrastructure just to accommodate this type of testing?

I recall one teacher at the Geneva gathering who said her district is already spending more on STAR than they get from the Race To The Top grant.  I know that my district only gets a bit over $32,000 over four years.  That’s only $8000 a year!

They are my children and I am and will always be an involved parent and their greatest advocate.  If I continue to choose public education (as opposed to homeschooling), it will be contingent on some good old civil disobedience.  I will continue to question everything and opt out if I have to.  If I am seen as the pain-in-the-ass parent, then so be it.

STAR Assessments, Are they really that good?

Can somebody please help me?  I need to know more about STAR Assessments!

I missed the last board meeting at my school.  My bad, yes I know… But any parent of very young children will attest to that time of day being the MOST difficult.

Anyway, I was informed by one of the board members, who happens to be a friend of mine, that I missed an “interesting” presentation by our two middle/ high school English teachers.  Apparently they had nothing but positive feedback on the STAR Assessments that are used at our school.  They loved getting detailed and prompt results to see which students needed help and in what areas exactly.  My board member friend recounted their gushing praise of the system.  Our younger middle/ high school math teacher had similar praise, which I learned from my sister who is her friend.  I guess that before STAR they had no clue how to evaluate their students???

So, am I the one who is misinformed?

I don’t have a problem using a form of technology like this to aid in student assessments.  STAR products are made by Renaissance Learning, whose slogan is “Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools.”  Enough said for me… I’ve already talked about my opposition to schools being so data-driven.  But if teachers do in fact find STAR so helpful, am I wrong to criticize?

Our principal loves STAR.  During my opt-out meeting with her she stated she would use it even if there wasn’t a requirement for the state.  She also said that STAR was not being used for teacher evaluations, at least not for elementary (as far as I know).  We opted out anyway as there is no good reason for all these assessments in young children.

Is STAR being used to evaluate teachers?  I’ve found it hard to research all the ins and outs of STAR.  Much of the heavy criticism is aimed at the high-stakes state tests that begin in 3rd grade.  I did read that STAR is just one of many state-approved assessment systems used in VAM (value-added modeling), which scores the teacher on his performance.  And I have a problem with value-added assessment. 

My problem begins here:  If STAR is touted as a useful aid for a teacher’s assessment of his/ her students, then why can’t that teacher be present when the test is being administered?  Don’t we trust the teacher?  You’d think the teacher might actually benefit from watching his/ her students answer the questions.  Could it be that the process is just as important as the outcome?

I also do NOT like the idea of our children’s data being compiled in some bureaucratic office.  Anyone else freaked out by all the data-gathering being done out there?

STAR might indeed by innocuous, but it is still a product for which someone has to pay.  When our meager RTTT dollars run out, who will foot the bill?  (We know the answer to this).  And is it worth it when we have so many other things that must compete for our schools finite budgets?