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Monday, December 16, 2013

The Common Core Cliff Notes...

 But better.

The title of this book may seem like an exaggeration (based on Stephen King's, Children of the Corn), but it the easiest Common Core primer yet. Nielsen's voice is that of a friend or trusted colleague. He speaks the truth in an easy-to-read style, and it is a quick read. Read Diane Ravitch's, Reign of Error, for a scholarly look at detailed facts based on her sharp analysis of US Department of Education website data & political knowledge. Read this to easily put the puzzle pieces together. 
Nielsen notes the 3 parts of the Core that tie everything together:

1. The architects of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
2. The standardized testing that accompanies the CCSS.
3. The privatization movement that that closes "failing" schools and sells them to charter operators.

One note: When he writes "poor" or "urban" public schools, mentally replace with "ALL" public schools. 

Nielsen writes, " Why are we telling our state education leaders that it's okay that Timmy hates school and can't come up with an original idea, but he sure can pass the end-of-the year test like nobody's business?...Why are we telling our state governments to use our teachers and our children as pawns in field tests and other schemes that are disguised as education?...Of course, we are not telling them any of this..."

"Our schools have been quietly taken over. We are no longer teaching the skills and concepts that our kids need for the complex, unpredictable, 21st century; we are increasingly teaching the skills that billionaires want their workforces to have in order to boost their profits. Gone are the days of creativity, personal growth, teamwork, and dreams; here are the days of nationalized pigeonholing, segregation, and dysfunction."

You may think this is hyperbole, but read the book to find out why Nielsen's resignation letter went viral. It is hard to believe, but this stuff is really happening.

Here is a sample from his letter:

"I will not spend another day wishing I had some time to plan my fantastic lessons because administration comes up with new and inventive ways to steal that time, under the guise of PLC [Professional Learning Community] meetings or whatever. I’ve seen successful PLC development. It doesn’t look like this.

I will not spend another day wondering what menial, administrative task I will hear that I forgot to do next. I’m far enough behind in my own work.

I will not spend another day wondering how I can have classes that are full inclusion, and where 50% of my students have IEPs, yet I’m given no support.

I will not spend another day in a district where my coworkers are both on autopilot and in survival mode. Misery loves company, but I will not be that company.

I refuse to subject students to every ridiculous standardized test that the state and/or district thinks is important. I refuse to have my higher-level and deep thinking lessons disrupted by meaningless assessments (like the EXPLORE test) that do little more than increase stress among children and teachers, and attempt to guide young adolescents into narrow choices."

Our kids called, they want their schools back.
Read the book.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Overtesting is Driving Away the Best Teachers

(Are you a supporter of public education and concerned about the overtesting of our children in the Suburban Philadelphia area? If so, please like this new facebook page:
Overtesting is driving away the best teachers. Ever wonder why there are so many new tests to assess our kids in the fall and spring (often called benchmark assessments)? The State is testing our children even more to use their scores to evaluate teachers & principals... Even if a teacher doesn’t teach a tested subject!

Pennsylvania Public School Teachers will be evaluated 50% by our kid’s data.
In a NY Times Op Ed, a teacher questions this practice: "… Why do we want a narrow, inaccurate, partial and costly evaluation of teachers through additional student testing? It flies in the face of the best that our “Common Core Standards” promises and demonizes teachers, chaining them to a myopic view of their job: pushing students to constantly meet meaningless short-term goals...If the purpose of evaluating teachers was to help improve instruction, we wouldn’t be testing children overtime and further narrowing curriculum to figure it out. We would be developing tools to measure the quality of the instruction teachers provide every day, and we would focus on only those qualities of sound teaching that are critical to student learning.

How long can our best teachers hang on in this plunge to the bottom? Sadly, I think we’ll find out sooner than we’d like." 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Double Dare you to send an email to a teacher - I did.

The demonizing of teachers may be something you are unaware of—or maybe you have heard teachers disrespected in the news.  Perhaps you heard the way newly re-elected Governor Chris Christy, treated a NJ teacher who had the nerve to ask him why he called NJ public schools "failure factories" when their test scores are near the top in the country.

As an avid reader, I know about the micromanaging and unscientific teacher evaluation practices that are being instituted in our country (in cities, suburbs, and rural districts - yes, most likely yours, too.). As a parent, I can see the difference in the way my children's teachers are being told what to have kids read, what kind of tests to give, when to give them, and to collect data, data, data, in just the four years between my oldest and youngest child. Same school. Same teachers. Multiple disappointing changes. Too much test prep. Too much multiple choice format - even in math. Too little autonomy for highly qualified and educated teachers.

In this Salon article, David Sirota states that we need a war on poverty, not on teachers & unions. 

He writes,  " ...we know that American public school students from wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. This proves that the education system’s problems are not universal — the crisis is isolated primarily in the parts of the system that operate in high poverty areas."

  "...we (also) know that many of the high-performing public schools in America’s wealthy locales are unionized. We also know that one of the best school systems in the world — Finland’s — is fully unionized. These facts prove that teachers unions are not the root cause of the education problem, either. After all, if unions were the problem, then unionized public schools in wealthy areas and Finland would be failing."

I am always amazed and dismayed at the incredible spin that some people are able to put on news about our public schools. Our wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. Great. Then leave them alone and let the teachers teach their hearts out. It's not the unions. Finland, with the best public school system in the world, is fully unionized. Scratch that myth.

Hey, it's the poverty...

David Sirota adds, "....If (The US) were serious about education, then our education discussion wouldn’t be focused on demonizing teachers and coming up with radical schemes to undermine traditional public schools. It would instead be focused on mounting a new war on poverty and thus directly addressing the biggest education problem of all."

Here is what I did and what I challenge you to do. I went to my 5th graders conference and told her teacher that I didn't want to discuss any data. He seemed to have a twinkle in his eye when the statement registered in his mind. 

 I asked him about my daughter as a learner. Does she seem excited to learn? Does she work well independently? In groups? Does she participate? Does she enjoy writing? Reading? Math? Social Studies? Science? He expertly answered all of my questions and more. He asked me what I wanted for her in school this year. HE ASKED ME WHAT GOALS I HAVE FOR MY CHILD. I know my child better than the state and I happily shared my goals. Then, this teacher proceeded to take notes, and design a special book club that would read for pleasure (FOR PLEASURE, I SAY), so my child could get into the reading zone and learn to like reading, which is my goal. 
No passages, no bubble sheets, no test prep. 
Reading for pleasure, as it should be.

So I wrote him an email the next day sharing that I was thrilled my daughter was in his most capable hands. And he wrote me back that I inspired him. And I wrote him back that he inspired me. And now my daughter's teacher knows that he is valued and respected more than any numbers could ever show. And I bet that my daughter's year will be just a teeny tiny bit better than if I didn't tell her teacher that he rocked.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

PA Keystone Exam Update, Cheers or Jeers?

Just a little education update on the state of Pennsylvania's new graduation requirement  from The Pennsylvania School Board Association.

 Every Pennsylvania parent of a child who will be graduating in the year 2017 or after, must learn about the Keystone Exam graduation requirements. There are currently 3 subject areas tested, with more to come.


"The state removed language requiring the transcript to designate whether the level was achieved by taking a Keystone Exam or by a project-based assessment..." 

Should we celebrate the removal of the "Scarlet Letter" on the transcripts of students who take Keystone projects (for kids who have difficulty passing the exams)? Nah, the Keystones should have been eliminated as a high stakes, graduation requirement. This is a really tiny "Cheer."

The state threw us a bone on this one. Our kids who take the project will now not look as bad to colleges as the state originally intended.


Just when we were wondering if we can opt our kids out of this, we learn that we may for religious reasons... but our children still have to do the project. I recently learned that the project for Algebra 1 is... DRUM ROLL, PLEASE.... an on-line assessment that takes 8 - 10 hours before or after school. It sure sounds like a longer, on-line version of the paper exam.

"Parental opt-out – The regulation gives parents/guardians the right to review any state assessment to determine whether the assessment conflicts with their religious beliefs. In asserting a religious objection to the assessment, a parent/guardian must explain the objection in their (sic) written request for excusal. 

Project required for opt-out students – Students who are not taking Keystone Exams under the parental opt-out provision must take the project-based assessment for each subject area required for graduation. This provision was added in the March draft."

Q: Is there a religious opt out for the Project Based Assessment

A: The religious opt out applies only to state assessments. Chapter 4 defines a state assessment as "a valid and reliable measurement of student performance on a set of academic standards as measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment or the Keystone Exams." Thus, the religious opt out does not apply to PBAs.

Did the state of Pennsylvania actually just admit that its projects are not a "...valid and reliable measurement of student performance on a set of academic standards..." ? Hmmm....

Here are the most recent Pennsylvania Department of Education Keystone results, from the spring 2013 exams:

38.6 percent of 94,939 tested students passed the Algebra I test.

35.7 percent of 46,998 tested students passed the biology exam. 

49.9 percent of 42,815 tested students passed the English literature exam. 

They want us to think that our kids have failed because our schools have failed. Yet we know their tests have failed. It is wrong to send the message that our kids aren't successful from one high stakes exam.

"Tracy Karwoski, a parent and vice president of the Garnet Valley School Board in Delaware County, said her daughter, whose weighted GPA stands at 3.987, isn’t a great standardized test taker and is very concerned by them. Karwoski’s daughter took the algebra I exam, one of three proposed, and has not scored proficiently on one yet.

“'It’s painful to hear a child ask repeatedly if she’s stupid. Again, from a student with a 3.987 GPA,' Karwoski said."

A 3.97 GPA suddenly isn't enough, according to Governor Corbett. 
I wonder what his high school GPA was...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Common Core Disorder Hits the Burbs

ALERT: This just in from a suburban parent in New York State.  Does your child have any of the following symptoms:

-Sudden or gradual loss of passion for school
-Loss of interest in school or learning
-Math anxiety
-Writing avoidance
-Learned resistance to reading
-Sudden drop in confidence
-Makes statements such as, "I am basic," or "I am below basic."
-Sadness or anger towards school or learning
-Stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting

If so, your child may be suffering from what is widely being referred to as Common Core Disorder. Common Core Disorder is affecting children in grades K-12 in states that have adopted the National Common Core Standards (such as New York State) or adapted them and created their own (such as the Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards).

All school districts are being affected, even in the most affluent suburbs.
In this open letter to parents of children throughout New York State, New York State Principals announce,  "Your child is so much more than a test score, and we know it."

Wow. That is the kind of straight shooting we need around here. Everyone knows that New York State used to really value their tests. When I was a kid I felt badly that my friends from NY had to take Regent Exams. But they did, and no one seemed to suffer from Regents Disorder...

The principals say, "Testing Has Increased Dramatically: We know that our students are spending more time taking State tests than ever before. Since 2010, the amount of time spent on average taking the 3-8 ELA and Math tests has increased by a whopping 128%! The increase has been particularly hard on our younger students, with third graders seeing an increase of 163%!"

I'd say my kids have been hit especially hard here in Pennsylvania in grades 3, 5, and 8. And now with the Keystone Graduation Exams, all of high school seems to be one big, stressful series of high stakes standardized tests.

The NY State principals also report, "The Tests were Too Long: We know that many students were unable to complete the tests in the allotted time. Not only were the tests lengthy and challenging, but embedded field test questions extended the length of the tests and caused mental exhaustion, often before students reached the questions that counted toward their scores. For our Special Education students who receive additional time, these tests have become more a measure of endurance than anything else.

Hey, they did that in Pennsylvania's state tests last year, too. The tests was more about endurance than assessing what the kids knew. My older daughter had to go to the nurse at the end of day one of a state test. And WHY are they embedding questions that DO NOT COUNT (field test questions) in these high stakes tests? Is there no respect for our kids? Private school students do not have to endure this, and neither should ours.

These tests are literally making kids sick: "Children have Reacted Viscerally to the Tests: We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, 'This is too hard,' and 'I can’t do this,' throughout his test booklet."

And setting aside compassion for a moment, we don't know, "How Much this is Costing Already-Strained Taxpayers: We don’t know how much public money is being paid to vendors and corporations that the (state) contracts to design assessments, nor do we know if the actual designers are educationally qualified."

Thank you to the New York State Principals who were brave and bold and honest. 
It takes true leadership to call it like you see it. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of our children, it is time to object. This has gone on too long and been taken too far. No one wants this kind of education for their children.

The cure for Common Core Disorder? Parents and loved ones who stand on top of tall buildings and shout that they have had enough. Tell them to stop overtesting our children. This isn't learning. This isn't student centered. This isn't accountability. They can't fool us. And they clearly can't fool the principals of New York State.

The principal's end their open letter with the following. It is what I want our school leaders from the District Office to the classroom to say to us. These principal's rock:

"Please know that we, your school principals, care about your children and will continue to do everything in our power to fill their school days with learning that is creative, engaging, challenging, rewarding and joyous. We encourage you to dialogue with your child’s teachers so that you have real knowledge of his skills and abilities across all areas. If your child scored poorly on the test, please make sure that he does not internalize feelings of failure. We believe that the failure was not on the part of our children, but rather with the officials of the New York State Education Department. These are the individuals who chose to recklessly implement numerous major initiatives without proper dialogue, public engagement or capacity building. They are the individuals who have failed."

Brave. Bold. Honest. Thank you.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Maya Angelou & Judy Blume Against Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts

And they let the President know it. Well, that's my take on it. Read below and see what you think:

“All children must have the freedom to grow, to evolve, to develop,” explains acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, who spoke at President Obama's inauguration. “We parents, authors, illustrators are standing up for our children. We desperately need you and your administration to stand with us.”

More than 120 leading authors and illustrators of books for children, including several national award winners, are calling on President Obama to “...change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature.”  
 Yes, that is what I want for my kids, for all kids: creativity, exploration, and a love of literature. SOLD.

Their letter delivered to the White House states, “Our public schools spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.”

I really love this part:
"We the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators write to express our concern for our readers, their parents and teachers. We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes... We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.

There is a great idea. Let's have our local school districts design authentic performance assessments. And let's do it without hiring a single consultant. We can handle this, folks. Instead, let's buy lots of books & laptops for kids to read, to do research and to work on their assessments & presentations.

I couldn't have said this part better myself:

"Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman who said, 'We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.' Students spend time on test practice instead of perusing books. Too many schools devote their library budgets to test-prep materials, depriving students of access to real literature. Without this access, children also lack exposure to our country’s rich cultural range."

 "This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change."

 They want our children to develop "...a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation." So do I.

Check out the letter to President Obama & see the list of authors who signed it  here. Oh, and they cc'd Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Good idea.

Comment below or write me at if you want to come together in our district or form an alliance from anywhere around the world. Let's support one another as we speak up and demand that our kids deserve more than test prep.

 Let's start now.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Angst of Standardized Test Prep in our House

My 10 year-old daughter is really enjoying 5th grade this year. She has loved her teachers all through elementary school and so have I. It means a lot when your child comes home happy, excited, and feels respected, appreciated, and valued. And my daughter does. I couldn't ask for more qualified, knowledgeable, intuitive, and caring teachers than the ones at her school.

What I can ask is for our state to get rid of the high stakes testing, so her teachers can have the autonomy that all professional educators need to teach kids that learning is one of the most natural and satisfying experiences in life... not formulaic essays that will be assigned approximately 25 times before the spring tests. The test prep is taking a toll on us around here.

Above is a Pennsylvania State Writing Rubric, much like the ones used to score standardized tests across the county. I blogged about how non-standardized the scoring really is here, in my review of Todd Farley's book, Making the Grades; My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry. After tonight's homework, I got a really clear picture of the subjectivity.

The Teaching & Learning Company, in Carthage, IL thinks the essay above is an exemplar for 5th grade writing. I love my cat, but I would never expect him to watch the same shows I do... no matter how long my day was. Come on, Teaching and Learning Company, keep it real!

Many English teachers I know, including myself, have printed out state writing item samplers. We are trying to show our students what "the highest score possible," a "4", looks like. With much respect for all the hard work our kids put into these essays... what ever happened to creative writing? This type of writing must be as boring for the kids to write as it can be for us to read.

This speaks for itself...

This is what a 5th grade test prep looks like in our home.  Fifth grade is the first year that a written component of our state test is given. And right here is where the corporate reformers hope we parents will break. I am not pulling my child out of our outstanding school district. I am, however, telling my daughter the truth about standardized tests.... We are discussing opting out.

I really hope my district carefully considers how much weight test prep work should have on a child's report card grades (a more accurate measure of academic success). What we must keep in mind is   the ever important, but non-measurable, impact test preps can have on fostering a love of learning.

Don't worry, we don't need test scores to know our schools are great. What we need are parents who know there is little value in the data derived from this ridiculous process.

If private school kids don't need it, then my kids don't need it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Opting Out or Storming Their Corporate Offices with Pitchforks?!

 Exciting news, readers! The day after I posted my review of Making the Grades, by Todd Farley, he emailed me. As you know, I have an ever growing wall of fame of my intellectual rock stars. I felt as delighted to hear from Todd as some of my students would be to hear from the rapper, Drake! He wrote me:

 "Naturally, I have a Google alert to tell me when something is written about my book, so I saw your post about it/me yesterday. Just wanted to say thanks for the shout out."

No need to thank me, Todd. You are the rock star who outed the standardized testing industry. You deserve a trophy. A gold medal. At least a free dinner at The Olive Garden (Nah, come to town, we will take you out to BlackFish, seriously our treat. We love it there and we owe you big).

Readers, I personally loved reading this book in print. My yellow highlighter was running out of ink there were so many sickening, scandalous things to mark. That said, Making the Grades, is now available on Kindle, where you can underline and highlight electronically (which can also be quite satisfying).

 I read somewhere that Todd now has kids of his own and asked him if he would opt them out of standardized tests. Here is his response:

 "As for us, when my two boys go to school, I can promise you that Pearson et al will have no say in their lives/futures/educations.  I've been much too deeply involved in the development and scoring of tests -- for Pearson, ETS, ACT, AIR, Riverside Publishing -- to think that the testing industry is anything other than one enormous, lucrative boondoogle for those companies (and, okay, me when I worked for them). What, when I want to hear how my children are doing in school, I'm going to ask for the input of a bunch of multi-national, for-profit corporations in a completely unregulated industry that has a history of errors?  Ridiculous idea.  Opt out?  I won't be opting out if the standardized testing companies try to get involved in my sons' educations--I'll be storming their corporate offices with pitchfork in hand......"

   "...storming their corporate offices with pitchfork in hand..." 
 And that, dear readers, is why I add Todd Farley to my rock star wall of fame.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Battle Standardized Tests to the Bitter End

"If I had to take any standardized test today that was important to my future and would be assessed by the scoring processes I have long been a part of, I promise you I would protest; I would fight, I would sue, I would go on a hunger strike or March in Washington. I might even punch someone in the nose, but I would never allow that massive and ridiculous business to have any say in my future without battling it to the bitter, bitter end."
  -Todd Farley,
Author of Making the Grades; My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry

I just finished reading this entertaining, provocative, and deeply disturbing memoir written by Todd Farley, who rose in the standardized testing industry ranks from professional test scorer, to management, and then to consultant. He started in the biz for the higher-than-minimum wage hourly rate, and quit fifteen years later out of boredom and guilt. Farley tells first hand accounts of the scoring and scorers who are holding our children's futures in their hands...and it isn't pretty.

Both Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalites: Children in America's Schools, and Alfie Kohn, (one of my educational rockstars), author of The Case Against Standardized Testing, wrote blurbs on the book and call it a "...searing challenging to the powers that be," and "the kind of book you will be telling your friends they've simply got to read." That is why I am telling you, readers.

Top Ten Reasons to Read, Making the Grades:

10. The first chapter is titled: Scoring Monkey
During his training, Farley questions the process. His co-workers tell him that, "Basically, we are just a bunch of scoring monkeys. No thought required. Just click. "And he did. "I had just become a professional scorer," he reports.

9. They only look at our kid's work for mere seconds
"Most of the (4th grade safety posters) were on our screens for no more than seconds. The ones that were confusing we may have looked at longer, but eventually we just clicked a score button, any score button, to make them go away."

8. Scorers are temporary employees, who are not as invested in scoring as the public may think.
"Vincent was studying to take the bar exam...during our work day: he kept a law text open on his lap all day, every day, and as many times as (our boss) asked him to shut it to concentrate on his scoring work, Vincent said, "I'm scoring, I'm scoring."

7. Professional scorers read about 30 essays an hour: a two or three page essay every two minutes. Farley reports that now automated scoring systems are here and they assess our children's hard work in seven seconds! "Even if those programs don't know what an essay says, that's still a helluva time."

6. Sometimes professional scorers have a good sense of humor.  
"We watched (a manager) respond to a question from one of his people about an essay's score, by taking the essay, holding it up to his head without even glancing at it (a la the Johnny Carson 'mind-reading' bit from the Tonight Show), and announcing, "Carnac says this essay earns a 2."

5. You can make big bucks writing questions to torture children. 
"Lazing about my apartment, scratching the ears of my cats and joining them for frequent naps, I wrote numerous multiple-choice questions and short stories...(In the year 2000) the questions paid $25 a pop, and the stories paid $500...I (was) convinced I'd found my destiny..."

4. Pearson has Pentagon-type security. 
"...even more important than keeping people out was Pearson's intention to keep secret everything going on inside those doors. On the building's main entrance was a sign prohibiting all cameras and recording equipment from the site, and the first thing one saw when passing through the door was a bold pronouncement proclaiming, 'Camera Phones Will Be Confiscated.'"
Pearson scorers even had to sign confidentiality agreements.

3. See no evil....hear no evil....
"Pearson management knew they had employees on site who were incorrectly scoring student responses that would ultimately make up the 'Nation's Report Card'."

2. Psychometricians advised managers not to do too good a job scoring. 
"...the ETS psychometrician in Princeton (said), don't do too good a job scoring..that's not our official stance of course...I'm just saying don't go overboard. Maybe use some of the less good scorers..." Farley thought, "Her request had been...shocking...she cared more about getting a reliability number than she did about the correct scores getting put on the papers."

1. "I don't believe the results of standardized testing because it is the most inexact of sciences."
Farley says, "It seems to me entrusting the education of this country's children to 'professional scorers' in far distant states instead of the men and women who stand in front of their classrooms each day is about as smart an idea as entrusting your health not to the doctor holding the stethoscope to your heart but to some accountant crunching numbers in Omaha. Personally, I'd trust the guy who's looking me in the eye."

When I was growing up the SAT, ACT, MAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, NTE, Praxis, etc. were our concerns. We had dreams. We knew we had to face our fears and take these tests if our goals included certain types of higher education. That was stressful enough.

Today politicians are using standardized test scores to threaten our children with having their high school graduation denied, their schools unfunded and closed, their principals and teachers fired, and Farley says he'd battle it to the bitter end...

Perhaps our politicians don't know or don't care, but we sure do. It's time to act.