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Monday, August 11, 2014

Former Senator says, Pennsylvania kids "figured it out" by 8th grade.

It is almost a year since I attended a PA Senate hearing last August about the Keystone graduation exams. In case you don't know, all Pennsylvania public school students who will graduate in 2017 and later, need to pass exams in Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature in order to graduate. No matter if they attend an outstanding school district, have straight A's, have learning differences, text anxiety, or any other legitimate issues.

 Much was said, but one thing retired Senator, Jeff Piccola said in his testimony has stuck with me. After a brief history of the way our politicians developed more school accountability, he testified about why the Keystones and their higher stakes were necessary.

Forgive any minor errors in the transcript I typed from his testimony here. (A special thank you to my student, Eli Werbach, for finding a working link after someone had the testimony removed from the original link.)

"It is important to note that the Keystones are the first instance that the students are held accountable for their academic achievement since Pennsylvania began developing these standards in the 1990's. Heretofore,  the PSSA's could be blown off by the individual students because it didn't count anything for them. And I recall visiting schools in various school districts and elementary school students can be cajoled, and bribed, and encourgaed to do well on the PSSA's, but by the time they get to 8th grade they've figured out they have no stake in the exam..." (Emphasis mine.)

It is with much respect that I ask the former Senator and others on these committees how many 8th grade students they know. I have three children and two have recently been in 8th grade. In addition, I have taught well over a thousand kids. I know all of the kids my children are friends with and the hundreds I met while substitute teaching as a new teacher. The kids are smart. If they are onto the fact that the tests aren't valuable to their learning experience, there is no buy-in. This happens because the children are thinking critically. Eighth graders respond well to authentic and intellectually interesting and challenging performance assessments and projects. If you want them to work harder this won't do it; threatening them with their graduation will only increase anxiety and resentment. They feel it is unfair, because it is unreasonable. They study hard and get good grades. Yet due to these exams, they see the sham in the high stakes scam.

Former Senator Piccola continues, "...Therefore we do need some kind of exam that students know they are accountable for their grade. Heretofore, school administrators and teachers were accountable for an exam that students may or may not take seriously. With proficiency requirements for graduation, the students will certainly view the tests as important. That is only fair to the students. That is something we need in our system to be fair to teachers and administrators."

Sigh. Even best selling author, Daniel Pink, knows carrots and sticks don't motivate. It is my guess that if our politicians actually listened to the testimony given by parents and real education experts, such as the incredible Dr. William S. Keilbaugh, Superintendent of Haverford Township School District, they would have a better understanding of child and adolescent psychology, and the actual financial and human costs of these exams.

And in defense of 8th graders, let me assure you that beneath their sometimes broody facade, their sometimes goofy antics, and their sometimes edgy adolescent attitudes, they are really exceptional human beings. We often react viscerally to the stories about elementary school students being forced to participate in developmentally inappropriate test prep and testing, but it is the same with our teenagers. All children deserve to have a chance to love learning, to learn at a pace that is individualized, to have teachers differentiate instruction in the way only human beings can (not computer programs), and to develop confidence in themselves as intellectuals. We are really cheating them out of a lot if they graduate and never want to learn again.

We shouldn't be making adolescence harder than it already is.

So as the one year anniversary of this hearing arrives, I thank all of the politicians who have reflected on true research, psychology, and best practices. I thank the politicians who have listened and heard the stories of parents and students. I thank them for changing their minds, which is the true sign of intellect and knowledge. Pennsylvania parents urge you to remove the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

NCLB and Race to the Top: The joke is on us.

It sounded too good to be true when waivers from No Child Left Behind were offered to public schools. It was kind of selling our souls though, because the waiver meant commitment to a new set of micromanaging rules from Race to the Top. Did you know that if a state didn't request a waiver from the impossible mandate of No Child Left Behind, "... as of 2014, if only one child in your school does not score as 'proficient' on state tests, then your school must be 'identified' as 'low performing' under federal law. This year, every school (in Vermont) whose students took the (state) tests last year is now considered a 'low performing' school by the US Department of Education." Some think this is a ridiculous law that is setting schools up to wear the DOE's scarlet letter or be bullied into its next bad idea.

Just because they say so doesn't make it true.

It seems that parents and citizens are being fooled by the misuse of student data. If we believe that these test scores define our children, their teachers, or their schools, the joke is on us. If we reject it as an absolute measure (no matter what the media's school rankings say), we have a chance to have our voices heard.

However, Vermont didn't apply for a waiver from NCLB because "... it would have forced the state to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores, which is unreliable and unfair to teachers and students." (And is now happening in Pennsylvania.)

Some people are saying that this misleading labeling of public schools is the government's way of convincing parents that schools are failing our kids, so we will welcome school choice.

Vermont state commissioner of education, Rebecca Holcomb, is treating parents and guardians with respect. She didn't give into the federal government's threats. Instead, she wrote a letter to families explaining that, "Vermont believes that schools have purposes that are no less important (and perhaps more important) than test scores."
Did I mention I love Vermont?

Some highlights from her letter:

“Just this week, a social media company that compares financial products (WalletHub) analyzed twelve different quality metrics and ranked Vermont’s school system third in the nation in terms school performance and outcomes."

“Nevertheless, if we fail to announce that each Vermont school is 'low performing,' we jeopardize federal funding for elementary and secondary education. The 'low performing' label brings with it a number of mandatory sanctions, which your principal is required to explain to you. This policy does not serve the interest of Vermont schools, nor does it advance our economic or social well-being. Further, it takes our focus away from other measures that give us more meaningful and useful data on school effectiveness."

“It is not realistic to expect every single tested child in every school to score as proficient. Some of our students are very capable, but may have unique learning needs that make it difficult for them to accurately demonstrate their strengths on a standardized test. Some of our children survived traumatic events that preclude good performance on the test when it is administered. Some of our students recently arrived from other countries, and have many valuable talents but may not yet have a good grasp of the academic English used on our assessments. And, some of our students are just kids who for whatever reason are not interested in demonstrating their best work on a standardized test on a given day."

"As parents and caregivers, we embrace a broader vision for our children than that defined in federal policy. Thus, we encourage you to look at your own child’s individual growth and learning, along with evidence your school has provided related to your child’s progress. Below are some questions to consider:
• What evidence does your school provide of your child’s growing proficiency?
• Is your child developing the skills and understanding she needs to thrive in school and
the community?
• Are graduates of your school system prepared to succeed in college and/or careers?
• Is your child happy to go to school and engaged in learning?
• Can your child explain what he is learning and why? Can your child give examples of
skills he has mastered?
• Is your child developing good work habits? Does she understand that practice leads to
better performance?
• Does your child feel his work in school is related to his college and career goals?
• Does your child have one adult at the school whom she trusts and who is committed to
her success?
• If you have concerns, have you reached out to your child’s teacher to share your

Read her entire letter here. Be sure to scroll down until you find it.

We must ask our public officials to represent what we think is best for our children.
Do politicians know best or do parents?