Test Prep Vs. Learning

Which do you choose? It is either/or. You can’t have both.

A. A school in which students have a schedule dominated by Common Core-aligned test prep, such as the one described in the illustration above.

 B. A school in a district in which learning is the priority and in which parents and guardians could receive a letter stating that priority, such as this one from the Superintendent of Patchogue-Metford School District on Long Island.

SBAC: The Beginning Of The End

So what did we learn from the release of the SBAC scores? What did we learn after spending more than 2 million dollars of state money and countless millions at the district levels to get these scores?

Not much.

We did learn that the achievement gap has not been in any way affected by implementation of the Common Core. I have been in a position to analyze CMT and CAPT scores over many years, and the SBAC scores tell the same story as the CMT and CAPT scores. That story is that students in affluent communities score significantly higher than students in poor communities do. No administration of a test will ever change that fact. No set of national standards or standardized test on those standards will ever “close the achievement gap”. First of all, high scores depend on the quality of the lives children have outside of school much more than what happens in school. Secondly, if the national standards and aligned testing did raise scores, then all scores would go up, both those of the students in affluent districts and those in poor cities. So the “gap” would be unchanged.

We did learn that charter schools, even with their cherry-picked student bodies, did not do better than many public school districts which do not restrict their student populations of special education students, English language learners, or students with behavioral issues. For example, SBAC 8th grade math scores for charter schools ranked 63, 67, 71, 74, 100, 103, 107, 119, 123,130, and 133 out of 133 reporting districts and schools. Of course, many of those charter schools had better scores than the districts from which their students came and should be expected to have better scores than the students’ originating public school districts because the charter schools have siphoned off some students with drive and potential from those districts.

We did learn that the SBAC scores tell us nothing about the learning going on in Connecticut schools. We can’t tell what schools just paid lip service to Common Core Standards and what ones focused almost exclusively on the Common Core. Without a doubt, the schools with scores demonstrating under 20% proficiency on the SBAC spent more time on test prep than the schools in affluent districts with higher SBAC scores. Yet we are told that schools must limit their curriculum to Common Core so that the school’s test scores will improve. It makes no sense. Some districts which had curriculum dedicated to the Common Core and teachers who taught to it diligently had low test scores, and some districts that just about ignored the Common Core in curriculum and practice had good scores. High test scores and teaching to the Common Core had  zero correlation.

We also learned that SBAC scores tell us nothing about students’ real competencies. As anyone who has an understanding of how to teach students to be thoughtful readers, effective writers, and competent thinkers knows, the more a teacher teaches to the Common Core ELA standards, the farther away those students will be from being thoughtful readers, effective writers, and competent thinkers. So the actual achievement gap will widen between the students in the affluent communities and the students in the cities with their increased test prep due to the low 2015 SBAC scores.

The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts lack any research base whatsoever and have no evidence that they will produce “college and career readiness”, yet we restrict our neediest students to that Common Core regimen due to our misplaced reliance on the SBAC scores. Just because a PR firm was hired to promote the Common Core Standards and that PR firm, through focus groups, determined that “rigor” was the word that would sell the standards to the American public does not make the standards or the SBAC test rigorous. Neither of them is. The Common Core ELA standards teach a discredited way of reading and an inadequate way of writing, and the SBAC test is an exercise in “Gotcha”.

We did learn from the 2015 SBAC test that opting-out is going to be an influential part of the narrative about assessing learning in the future. For example, in West Hartford, Conard High School had an opt-out rate of 5.5% and Hall High School had a 61.4 % opt out rate. What then can we tell about the two schools in the same town? Does Hall have more students who have applied to competitive colleges and do not want their excellent records of good grades and SAT scores hurt by a test designed to produce low scores? Does Hall High have parents who are more savvy than Conard parents and who are making a statement about their values and the kind of learning that they want for their children? Is learning richer and deeper at Hall than at Conard so that students and their parents seek other kinds of demonstrations of student achievement?

Also, are Westbrook High School, North Haven High School, Hartford Public High School’s Law and Government Academy, Daniel Hand High School in Madison, and E.O. Smith High School in Storrs places where the emphasis is on real learning because more than 85% of the juniors in those schools opted-out of the 2105 SBAC math test? School by school, parent by parent, district by district, those questions will be explored now that Connecticut has completed its first year of SBAC testing, and, if we can judge by what is happening in New York where implementation of the Common Core and the taking of a Common Core aligned test is a year ahead of Connecticut, it seems reasonable to believe that opting-out will increase.

Over this past year of SBAC testing, some told the story that we need SBAC to close the achievement gap. That story is wrong. Closing the achievement gap will never happen with standardized tests. Some told the story that we need SBAC to gather data in order to compare schools and districts. That story is wrong. SBAC data is same-old, same-old; we had it all along with our state tests. Some told the story that we need SBAC to gather data about individual students and the skills they need. That story is wrong. SBAC doesn’t address students’ learning needs; teachers do. Some told the story that SBAC measures what students need to learn, but that story is terribly wrong. Those telling it must not be educators. They must not know what real learning is or what students need to be prepared to do.

It is time to end SBAC. It is time for a new story. A true one.

Monkey Business: The Failing Of Connecticut’s Children

The Connecticut SBAC scores will be released by the State Department of Education any day now. The scores will be low. You will be told that the low scores are because the SBAC tests are RIGOROUS and our students don’t measure up.

Don’t believe it.

First of all, the test can’t possibly be rigorous because the Common Core Standards on which the tests are based are vapid. The Common Core English Standards do not teach students to be thoughtful readers, deep thinkers, or effective writers so the SBAC exams do not measure those competencies.

Secondly, we have no idea if what is tested has predictability for the students’ future success in the next grade or college because no one checked with teachers in higher grades or with college professors to see what competencies students will need. The Common Core English Standards were written by makers of standardized tests and are comprised of what can be measured by those tests, not comprised of what students need to learn.

Lastly, even though the Common Core has a low intellectual bar, most students will fail the tests because the passing grades have been artificially set. Last November, before any students had taken the 2015 SBAC tests, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, representing Governor Malloy, signed an agreement that the 2015 SBAC tests would fail 59% of high school juniors in English, 67% of high school juniors in math, 56-62% of third through eighth graders in English, and 61-68% of third through eighth graders in math.

When the majority of Connecticut children are soon told that they are failures, it is not because some absolute measure with objective criteria determined that but because a test was designed to fail them.

By other criteria, Connecticut students are highly successful. For example, since 1992, Connecticut, along with Massachusetts and New Jersey, has had the highest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in the country, and Connecticut ranks 5th in the whole world, outranked by only three countries and the state of Massachusetts, in reading scores of 15 year olds on the international PISA test. And we as a state have accomplished all of that with the highest achievement gap in the country and without excluding our lowest performing students from participating in those tests. as some other competitors do.   Somebody, mostly our kids, are doing something right. Yet most of them will be deemed failures next week.

There is something very wrong with this picture.

I have worked with hundreds of Connecticut English teachers and am confident that they all could design tests that would fail 2/3 of their students. But I don’t know one teacher who would do it. That’s because they are educators and not politicians using manufactured test results to advance political agendas.

Those English teachers and I know how to design rigorous exams. We know how to teach so that all students who do what we ask of them and put out good effort each day in class will demonstrate competency on rigorous assessments. We also know that some of those students will perform in truly exceptional ways on the assessments and know that an occasional student will accomplish even more than we imagined and thrill us beyond our wildest dreams. We teach students the skills and then see how far they go with them. We teach for success.

Last January, I reviewed a midterm English exam with high school students who had just taken it. They had their graded exams on their desks along with a description of the competencies the exam asked of them. Those competencies were:

  • Asking their own complex and multi-layered questions as thoughtful inquiry.
  • Engaging in active and critical reading of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and films.
  • Thinking analytically as they independently interpreted challenging literary texts.
  • Thinking imaginatively as they made connections between a historical or fictional character and their own lives and creating a persona to write about that connection.
  • Engaging in narrative thinking as they told the story of their own learning.
  • Collaborating with others in order to strengthen their own interpretations and evaluations.
  • Writing essays which demonstrated their ability to revise and strengthen a piece over time as well as writing essays in a timed classroom setting.
  • Using correct grammar and usage.
  • Demonstrating focus, energy, and passion as they prepared for and participated in the two-hour exam.

Those students knew their exam was rigorous. Those students had been taught how to succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. Those students, therefore, did succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. After comparing their exams to the list of competencies, the students ascertained their strengths and determined what they needed to work on in the next semester. And, for sure, these students knew they were not failures.

Not so when the SBAC scores come out. Most students will consider themselves failures. Or, perhaps, the Connecticut State Department of Education will do what the state of Washington did and lower the passing grade to keep educators and parents quiet about the low test scores. Either way, the message of SBAC hurts kids. Either way, SBAC is not about teaching and learning. The truth is: The SBAC test is political monkey business.

It is our job as citizens and parents to tell students the truth about SBAC. It is our job as educators to keep teaching and assessing students in real and honest ways.

Otherwise, we adults are the failures.

Say No to SBAC

Connecticut currently mandates the testing of public school students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11 with standardized tests produced by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC). I am opposed to SBAC testing for English language arts because those tests neither measure authentic achievement nor foster students’ growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. Here are 10 reasons to STOP the harmful SBAC testing.

  1. SBAC tests are not rigorous.

The tests do not demand complex thinking. The tests are aligned to the Common Core standards, and the content of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts is inferior content which does not serve to develop students as motivated, engaged readers and effective writers.

  1. SBAC tests are not field-tested for college and career readiness.

No one knows if a good score indicates that a student will be successful in college or careers or if a poor score indicates that a student will struggle in college or careers. According to Joseph Willholt, executive director of SBAC, there is a “large validity question “ about the tests in regard to college readiness.

The SBAC tests do not measure the skills students will need for the global workforce. Those needed skills are: to pose and shape critical questions, to collaborate with others of different cultures and points of view, to communicate effectively orally and in writing, and to use meta-cognitive skills (learning how to learn skills) when facing new problems. Other countries with which we compare ourselves measure those skills because they have standards for them, but we have neither the standards to teach those skills nor the SBAC tests to measure them.

  1. SBAC tests are not developmentally appropriate.

The Common Core English Language Arts Common Standards were not written by educators or those with knowledge of child and adolescent development. They were written by employees of testing companies. The content of the standards and of the SBAC tests is simply what test makers determined could be measured on standardized tests, not what is appropriate for students to learn or what fosters student growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. The National Council of Teachers of English did not endorse the Common Core because of the content of those standards,  the content SBAC tests measure.

  1. SBAC tests are capriciously graded.

The passing grade on the tests is arbitrarily set. On the high school SBAC tests, the passing grade is set such that 70% of students will be labeled as failing the math portion and 60% labeled as failing the English portion. The passing grade on SBAC has been set at what the highly respected National Assessment of Educational Progress considers a B+/ A- performance. SBAC labels all those who score a B or lower as failures.

  1. SBAC tests serve to widen the achievement gap.

The more time students spend preparing for SBAC tests, the less education they will have in authentic literacy learning. Time spent in test prep for SBAC robs students of reading, writing, and collaborating experiences which develop literacy skills. Schools with a history of low test scores spend concentrated time on test prep; schools with traditionally high test scores do not spend time on test prep. Therefore, the gap between those graduates with genuine skills in reading, writing, and collaborating will widen with students of privilege receiving a notably better education than students in schools with historically low test scores.

  1. SBAC tests discriminate against Connecticut’s neediest students.

Since all standardized test scores correlate with family income, many children of poverty will fail. How long will students be motivated to learn and how long will they stay in school if they fail tests in 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade? Not only are impoverished students receiving a poor education with Common Core but their dropout rate will also increase.

  1. SBAC tests narrow the curriculum.

Preparing students for  SBAC tests requires a high school English curriculum that strictly adheres  to the Common Core. That adherence severely limits  what students read, what thinking skills they learn as readers, what students write, and what kind of thinking skills they learn as writers.

Common Core limits the amount of literature read and totally eliminates teaching students the skills of questioning, making text connections to themselves and their world, and analyzing multiple and divergent interpretations  that reading literature offers. None of those skills are assessed on the SBAC test so are not part of the test prep curriculum many schools have adopted.

Similarly, that test prep curriculum  does not develop students as writers and thinkers. High school students are tested only on how they write formulaic arguments, graded either by computers or hourly employees hired through Craig’s List  and not required to have knowledge about the craft of writing.   Therefore, students do not have a curriculum rich in writing experiences  which develop their inductive, explorative,  and narrative thinking – all keys to success in higher education and the workplace.

  1. SBAC tests encourage poor pedagogy.

Because of the high stakes of the SBAC tests, English teachers, especially in schools with a history of low standardized test scores,, prepare students for the test by adhering to the pedagogy prescribed by the Common Core. It, however, is a flawed and discredited pedagogy prevalent in the 1940’s and 50’s and does nor prepare students to think complexly. Not only does that pedagogy severely restrict students’ development as readers and writers, it discourages many of them from even wanting to become readers and writers.

  1. SBAC tests will not “level the playing field”.

Connecticut is already doing well with literacy education.

Connecticut ranks higher than 62 nations in the reading performance of 15 year olds (according to the 2012 PISA- Program of International Student Assessment) and ranks highest in the country in reading performance of high school seniors (according to NAEP, the nation’s most authoritative measure of academic performance in reading and math). If standardized tests are thought to give us useful information, we already have that information.

We know that affluent areas of Connecticut provide an unparalleled education for their students, and we know that where students are impacted by poverty and racism, those students suffer. To level the playing filed, we need to provide for impoverished students what their more privileged peers have been given and standardize opportunities for learning for all students.

  1. SBAC tests teach the wrong values.

The tests teach children that competition, beating out other schools and other students, is what matters instead of the student’s own learning, the student’s own passion for ideas, the student’s own growth as a thinker, a reader, and a writer.

Connecticut educators can design assessments which measure the achievements students really need for their future. I have done considerable work with teachers in both affluent and impoverished districts to design assessments that measure critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and oral and written communication for students of all abilities. Student achievement always exceeds original expectations when teachers are invited to do this work.

We CAN improve achievement in Connecticut for ALL of our students but not with SBAC tests.