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Monday, September 30, 2013

The problem is the tests, not our kids.

It happened officially in New York State last spring, and is happening slowly, but surely in our own neck of the woods with Pennsylvania's Keystone exams. The Common Core State Standard aligned tests are not only an unreliable measure of our kid's knowledge (I blogged about the NY tests here.), but are altering the ways our schools are putting kids into remedial classes. Parents in high achieving school districts have had enough, and are seeing clearly that the problem is the testing, not their kids.

 One NY parent stated, "...My daughter was extremely upset, (starting high school) and having to take a remedial class. Shouldn’t it matter that she’s always been an A student?”

Yes. It should.

Never before have children been pulled out of their classrooms and put into remedial classes at the rates they are today. Students are usually left in the least restrictive environment unless their academic grades, along with other evidence, like teacher observations, parent observations, test data, and other anecdotal input from guidance counselors or school counselors indicates they need a more restrictive placement to meet their needs.

Due to the unreasonable, unfunded mandates of State & Federal Government on our schools, public schools are feeling pressured to schedule a large number of children, whose grades are good, in test prep type classes. Students are having to give up a high school elective or miss a regular course in elementary or middle school. Sadly, they are also internalizing the negative message that they aren't smart enough or good enough, and they think that is why they are in the "special" classes.

Corporate reformers claim that colleges have more students in remedial classes than ever. Has anyone correlated that to the 12+ years of No Child Left Behind and its forced, formulaic focus? Actually, professors have been pretty vocal these days on the topic.

Drexel professor, Scott Warnock, writes that "Standardized tests are destroying education."
He adds, "...for many of our children, writing will never be about exploration, discovery, art, or the challenge of learning complex technical skill. Instead, writing will be standardized, boxed-in, formulaic. It will be an obstacle they need to figure out strategies to get around."

Let's get back to the business of teaching kids without politicians and business models and get those rates down. If remediation is needed in college, let's offer it. I am happy to pay for the extra 3 credits, if indeed it turns out to be necessary...betcha it won't.

Superintendent Ken Mitchell, the new president of the superintendents group, said, "educators and parents have to start working together to express their serious reservations to the state."

“There are kids who are going to get the message that they are not as competent as they thought,” he said. “Eight-year-olds, 10-year-olds, middle-school kids, can be very vulnerable. And you will have children who were already struggling in school who now, in their own minds, have failed.”

 There is a public law, P.L. 94-142, that was written to prevent students with special needs and learning disabilities from being segregated in "special" classes, excluded from regular education courses, and instead, placed in the least restrictive environment possible. We must question if P.L. 94-142 is being upheld when special education students, along with regular education students are being forced to take these remedial classes.

Our children need us to speak up on their behalf. This testing trend/fiasco/sad chapter in education history will pass. Will we just let our children be pulled out, stigmatized, demoralized, and over-tested? Should the Keystone and other state exams drive the decisions our schools are making or should our children's needs?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Common Core Boot Camp

How did public school children become so over tested?

Hint: It wasn't the idea of the schools, or the teachers, or the professors, or the parents, and it was certainly not the children. It wasn't the unions, or the educational researchers. It wasn't the superintendents, the school boards, the principals, or our country's great scientists, mathematicians, journalists, authors, historians, artists, musicians, or athletes.

It's the politicians.  Again.

President Reagan started this trend in the 1980's with A Nation at Risk, and President George W. Bush took it further in 2002 with No Child Left Behind. Today, President Obama sends a confusing message with his education policies and Race to the Top program.

The state of Pennsylvania is one of, "Forty-six states and the District of Columbia (who) submitted comprehensive reform plans to compete in the Race to the Top competition...48 states worked together to create a voluntary set of rigorous college- and career-ready standards." Source: The White House website.

 Those "48 states" really didn't create them. A man named David Coleman is considered the architect of them. It is his personal perspective that our children should write more arguments and less personal narratives. He states that, "It is rare in a working environment that someone says, 'Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

And they really are NOT voluntary.

"...the Obama Administration included participation in the Common Core as an eligibility criterion for many of the programs created out of the $110 billion stimulus funds."

If your state wanted to race for the money, it had to adopt the Common Core State Standards. 

 Diane Ravitch questions, "Why did 45 states agree to do this? Because the Obama administration had $4.35 billion of Race to the Top federal funds, and states had to adopt 'college-and-career ready standards' if they wanted to be eligible to compete for those funds. Some states, like Massachusetts, dropped their own well-tested and successful standards and replaced them with the Common Core, in order to win millions in new federal funds." 

She tells us, "If you listen to the promoters of the Common Core standards, you will hear them say that the Common Core is absolutely necessary to prepare students for careers and college. They say, if we don’t have the Common Core, students won’t be college-ready or career-ready. Major corporations have published full-page advertisements in the New York Times and paid for television commercials, warning that our economy will be in serious trouble unless every school and every district and every state adopts the Common Core standards." Read more here.

So there you have it, folks. Our kids are being over-tested, due to the rare bi-partisan agreement of our politicians. And in Pennsylvania, our controversial Keystone Exams were instituted by our anti-public education Governor, Tom Corbett. So if your children get straight A's, but their standardized test anxiety leaves them failing the Keystones, bye-bye high school diploma. 

Sure, they offer a "project" option, but the state threatens us that our kids will have a notification on their diploma that they passed the project, not the test. Oh, the Scarlet Letter approach. Good thing they still read lots of fiction when our politicians were in school. (UPDATE Fall 2013: Scarlet letter removed from transcripts. Read this post.)

All PA students must pass the Keystones, unless, of course, your kids go to private school, religious schools, or are homeschooled students.

We need to tell our state legislators that the Keystones are wrong. Wrong as a graduation requirement, wrong for fostering a love of learning, wrong for rattling the self-esteem of our children, and wrong as exit exams that decrease graduation rates.

Racing "to the top" is not a value that all parents want for their children. I sure don't. My home district is the kind that wants to continually grow, improve, and challenge all students. The parents here don't want a Common Core boot camp.

The tide is turning. The more we speak up and the more we come together to do so, the faster we can get our public schools talking about what really matters—our children, not their test scores.

No one knows what is best for our children more than we do.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Breaking Bad = Breaking Good

Confession: I love the AMC show show, Breaking Bad. It is brilliant. The acting, the writing, the writing, the writing (Did I mention the writing?). I have to wonder if the writers were weaned on the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards, would we have had this kind of out-of-the-box, sophisticated, genre bending writing?

Viewers learn early on that Bryan Cranston's character, Walter White, decides to take a huge risk to provide for his family's future after he is diagnosed with lung cancer. He is a chemistry genius turned high school teacher who seems like he has been put in a little box on the hillside made of ticky-tacky, doing what he was supposed to do... until the moment when breaking bad would allow him to leave his family financially sound.

Walter White teams up with a vulnerable and underachieving, ex-student, Jesse, who turns to him as a father figure and to earn some extra bucks for his own drug habit. Together they cook and sell the world's purest crystal meth, and their violent adventures roll out from there.

 What would you do if you if you knew you had a limited amount of time left on this planet?  That is the question I asked myself last summer as I learned more & more about the corporate education reform movement. I am healthy and, thank goodness, my family is fine, so taking them out of the equation, what remains is work. I love my job. I love teaching.  I love my school district. I am lucky.

But I decided to break bad at school this year - only my breaking bad is a show called, Breaking Good. It stars a phenomenal cast of public school students, teachers, administrators, and a rocking school board. They are all learning about the attack on public education at different rates and each episode focuses on one of them. This season's students are bright, funny, fiesty, and full of vim and vigor. They are engaged in class, debate about current world issues, and are ready to take on the universe. But in the latest episode the students have a bad day. Cue background music by Daniel Powter:

Sometimes the system goes on the blink
And the whole thing turns out wrong
You might not make it back and you know
That you could be well oh that strong
And I'm not wrong


So where is the passion when you need it the most
Oh you and I
You kick up the leaves and the magic is lost...

We lost them because today on Breaking Good students were required to interrupt their usual programming—the lessons they were really into and excited about—for some fall tests to get ready for the spring tests to prepare for the state mandated tests. In each class, students who were just yesterday smiling, engaged, and excited about learning fought for their fifteen minutes of fame as the cameras moved in for close-ups. Some brows furrowed in concentration, pencil tips stood at attention on lined paper, eyes stared at the ceiling, the walls, and often angrily at me. Their expressions varied in this episode, from,  "Please help." to,  "I thought you were different. "

They asked questions and my character had to respond, "I cannot answer that question."
My character is a decent human being. She cares about her students. She prepares them for their tests, but in Breaking Good, the good guys always win. And win they will in next week's episode.

Next week on Breaking Good: With the first round of getting ready for the test to get ready for the test to be ready for the test, behind them, the students have had a weekend to rejuvenate, play video games, de-stress and charge their latte fueled batteries. The teachers will use their distraction skills to waste valuable test prep time, and instead focus on useless and non-tested topics such as foreign language, civics, history, creative writing, art, music, physical education, and other non-essentials. As the fantastic team of administrators walks the hallways, ipads in hand, the camera cuts close and one can see that our school is in good hands. Behind a peeling, weathered and well-worn "ACHIEVEMENT MATTERS" sticker on the principal's lapel, a new word is peeking out from behind. "THINK" it says.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pennsylvania Ignores Testimony and Keeps Keystone Exams as Graduation Requirement

Sad news for anyone who had hope that the PA Board of Education would heed the warnings of school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, civil rights groups, parents & students...

"The State Board of Education approved a controversial plan... to require all Pennsylvania students to pass proficiency tests in science, math, and language arts before graduating. The 13-4 vote to approve the so-called Common Core standards came after state officials said they would limit the proficiency tests to public schools, and agreed not to impose a statewide curriculum or reading lists, or expand the collection of students' personal data."

Read more here.

"The standards are a voluntary initiative, so far adopted by 45 states, that establishes proficiency requirements for kindergarten through 12th grade in the three core areas. Tests in composition, civics, and government would be added later."

They are "voluntary," but states can't compete for $110 Billion in Federal Race to the Top Money, unless they sign on to the Common Core State Standards.

Six concerns (and there are many more) about the tests include:

1. Developmentally inappropriate standards in the early years.

"The core standards being proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are off the mark for our youngest learners. We at Gesell Institute call for a new set of standards for Kindergarten through Grade 3 that adhere to solid principles of child development based on what research says about how and what young children learn during the early years, birth to age eight. The proposed standards for Kindergarten through grade 3 are inappropriate and unrealistic. Policy must be set based on hard data and not on unrealistic goals surrounding test scores."
2. Common Core Standard aligned state exams (Which are Keystones Exams in PA) especially hurt special education students, English-language learners, Black and Latino students and widen the achievement gap in NY. 
"According to the Annenberg report, schools with the highest concentration of special-education students saw a 64% decrease in reading scores and 72% decline in math scores. Those with the most English-language learners dropped by roughly 70% in both reading and math.
Black and Latino students suffered a 56% decrease in reading scores and more than a 60% decrease in math scores from 2012 to 2013, according to the report."

3. If we want our kids to"compete...locally, nationally and internationally..." like Govornor Corbett does, why aren't we following China's lead?

"No standardized tests, no written homework, no tracking. These are some of the new actions China is taking to lessen student academic burden. The Chinese Ministry of Education released this week for public commentary. The The Ten Regulations to Lessen Academic Burden for Primary School students are introduced as one more significant measure to reform China’s education, in addition to further reduction of academic content, lowering the academic rigor of textbooks, expanding criteria for education quality, and improving teacher capacity." Read more here.

4. Our voices are ignored by our Governor and his appointed State Board of Education. This includes public testimony by Charles E. Madden, III, who has served as a Director on the Radnor Township School Board for 18 years. 

He testified that, "Radnor Township School District has always been, and continues to be, a high-achieving district serving a community that expects excellence and adherence to the highest standards of education for our students. Families move to our community so that their children can attend Radnor schools. Earning a 'Radnor' diploma means something, to those who earn it, to the colleges and employers who seek Radnor students, and to all community members who, whether they have kids in the schools or not, contribute to that education."

Both high-achieving districts and students, along side struggling districts and their students are being affected by these tests.

5. Civil Rights Groups, like the NAACP call this a "Quiet Massacre."

Only about one-third of students from grades 3-8 passed the new common core aligned math and reading proficiency tests in NY, down from nearly a two-thirds in 2012. The new tests are more closely aligned to academic standards adopted by nearly every other state, but critics say children weren't properly prepared to the roll out.

Read more here.

Joan Duvall-Flynn, ED D, Education Committee, PA State Conference NAACP states,

"Members of the State Board of Education sit quietly and unknown, but wield immense power over the families of Pennsylvania and the lives of the young. The public has not elected them.  By and large, the public does not know who they are or what they do. And yet, this appointed body controls whether or not our young can move into the future of their dreams and create a stable life.  How? This State Board manipulates, through the regulations it passes, what must be taught in school and who can leave high school with a diploma that will allow them to access further training, careers, or the military."

She continues, "The13 members of the Board who voted on the Keystone requirement know and are fully aware that a single test-score does not reflect a student’s knowledge, ability or potential. They know clearly that the Corbett cuts in funding to public education have caused chaos in school districts across Pennsylvania. They know that many districts cannot provide the materials, technology, supports or human resources needed to prepare all students equally or well."

 Even affluent districts will suffer greatly from the financial burden of this unfunded mandate. 

If it looks like politicians are making decisions without children's best interest in mind, if it smells like politicians are making decisions about education without any expertise in education, if it sounds like politicians are trying to waste our public tax dollars...

Need I say more?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NAACP calls it like they see it...Keystones have an agenda

It isn't every day that one hears things like,   "Eugenics...human rights violation...unspeakable horror...holocaust on our youth and trauma... a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania...depraved indifference...deficient in a moral sense of concern...lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk...LYNCHING OUR OWN YOUNG." 

"The Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches strongly opposes regulatory action that links the Keystone Examination to high school graduation.  We call for the removal from Chapter 4 of Keystone Examinations as a high school graduation requirement."

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness:

only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate:

only love can do that.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Our lives begin to end..

the day we become silent about things that matter.”-Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr.

The PA NAACP has boldly and wisely come forward to speak on behalf of all of our children.

September 3, 2013

TO:  The Pennsylvania State Board of Education
 Cc:   The House Education Committee of the Pennsylvania Assembly
         The Senate Education Committee of the Pennsylvania Assembly
         The Citizens of Pennsylvania

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes that for most people, education is the gateway to the economic mainstream; and that as such, education is a civil right.

For this reason, the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches strongly opposes regulatory action that links the Keystone Examination to high school graduation.  We call for the removal from Chapter 4 of Keystone Examinations as a high school graduation requirement.  We are certain that such a regulation will create a shameful condition that defames the dream of a free society. 

We base our position on the following recognitions.

1 It is clear that the regulation linking Keystone Examination scores to high school graduation is a present day form of Eugenics. Hidden under the cloak of “the business community has asked for an improved workforce”, and “colleges are concerned about the number of students needing remediation”, attaching Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. This is a clandestine social movement that strips children of their dignity and self worth while it fails to address or to access any of the characteristics that lead to successful employment, as delineated on the Pennsylvania Labor and Industry web site

2. It is clear that the regulation linking Keystone Examination scores to high school graduation is a human rights violation.  It is an unspeakable horror for students who have completed the work assigned by their local school district to a satisfactory level to be told that they fail to graduate based on Keystone Examination scores. Such an action will create an atrocity that will rain down a holocaust on our youth and our society as a whole. To deprive young people of their diploma based on single criteria also deprives them of the freedom to prosper in life. Ultimately, withholding the diploma based on single criteria will deprive them over their lives of decent income, decent food, decent homes, and hopeful prospects as well as the security of justice.

3. The potential to destroy the social order is clear.  Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised potentially of up to 60% of our young citizens. It will result in a sea of frustrated parents whose aspirations for their children have been dashed by the actions of the state; and leave them to deal with the life-long trauma imposed on their families.  

4. The disparate impact on women of linking Keystone examinations to graduation is clear.  As a result of a regulation that creates a distinction of high school failure, women will be further excluded and restricted in their economic and social access in an economy where existing pay discrimination has been demonstrated.

5. The cruel and unusual nature of failing to graduate from high school is a life-long punishment that condemns a person to having the doors to life slammed shut and to being consigned to a life of low income, limited housing choice, limited career choice, limited further education choice, and a limited vision for their progeny.

6. The disparate impact of the use of an arbitrary Keystone Examination score as a graduation requirement on students in underfunded schools is clear. Law makers have created a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania. They have brought students unawares into the danger and difficulty of a life of adversity. They have failed to provide the resources necessary to succeed on the exam while an obstacle - success on Keystone Examinations - must be overcome in order to move into a stable future.

7. The depraved indifference of regulating Keystone Examination scores as the requirement for high school graduation is clear and easily substantiated. Much has been presented to the public in the way of data and fact as to the harm of the use of such a tool. Evidence has been presented that questions the construction and content of the test. It is clear that the test does access the qualities needed to predict a good employee. The field of education has long since dismissed a test as a valid predictor of a student’s success in higher education. Given this information, clearly to impose such a regulation is deficient in a moral sense of concern, lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk.

The Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches cannot overstate the profoundly awful impact of regulating Keystone Examination scores as a requirement for high school graduation. It is a human rights violation to block and deter forever human beings from the opportunity to develop their potential and to pursue their dreams. It is abuse of power for the state to set such policy.  This is an action so brutal that it is tantamount to lynching our own young.

Joan Duvall-Flynn, Ed.D.
Chair, Education Committee

J. Whyatt Mondesire,
President, PA State Conference of NAACP Branches

Lorraine Lewis Burke, President

Dr. Liney Glenn, President

Daniel C Bosket, President

Evelyn H. Warner, President

Willie Sallis, President
Esther M. Lee, President

Donald E. Witherspoon, President

Victoria Harris, President
Dwayne Jackson, Sr., President

CHELTENHAM AREA BRANCH Harvey L. Crudup, President

Darrell Jones, President

Greg E. Stewart, President

Tonya Thames Taylor, President

Sheila A. Carter, President
Deborah Brown, President 

John Robinson, President
Dorothy Smith- Frazier, President

Clinton Anderson, President

Sara Gondwe, President

Mr. Donald Jones, CM1887, President

Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr., President

Stanley R. Lawson, Sr., President

Dr. Carolyn Princes, President

Dr. Clea P.Hollis, President

Blanding Watson, President

Gerald Smith, President

Diana Robertson, President

Ocie Paige, President

Sam J. Byrd, Jr., President

Dr. Joan Duval-Flynn, President

Monica Williams-Gregory, President

George Burroughs, Jr., President

Beatrice Cyrus, Secretary

Sidney McKnight, President

M. Lana Shells, President

Joyce Davis, President
J. Whyatt Mondesire, President
Connie Parker, President

Newstell Marable, President

Robert Jefferson, President

Dean Ellis, President

Alice H. Hammond, President

Ronald L. Felton, President

Linda Osinupedi, President

Sandra Thompson, President
Jessica D. Butler
J. Whyatt Mondesire