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What follows is a letter I wrote to my state legislator a few weeks ago. She listened and was positive in her response and for that I’m grateful. We’ve worked hard to make the best of PARCC testing and to make it as doable as possible for teachers and students. I decided to share the following letter more widely after watching our first three days of PARCC testing.
We intend to see this testing through because much has been invested in training and preparation by students and adults. Completing this task is also our job. Hopefully, this is a learning experience that will help us avoid repeating this type of testing again.
I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I am not a statistician or state policy expert. I am a school principal with ten years of teaching experience prior to becoming a principal. My views on the cost of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) are from the school level, observing teachers and students every day in the classroom.
I apologize for stating the following “qualifications,” but want to make it clear that I take education seriously, expecting accountability from students, teachers, and myself. In 2006, I was selected as a National Distinguished Principal representing the state of Arkansas. I’ve completed Phase III of the Arkansas Leadership Academy’s Principal Institute and have served as president of our state’s elementary principal association and more recently, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators in 2013-14. We, along with the other schools in our district, received rave reviews from the AdvancEd team site visit last year. We embrace accountability!
I recently wrote a short history of assessment in Arkansas for our parents, trying to frame PARCC in positive terms with hopes that we will see changes. After taking students through the Infrastructure PARCC practice, I am now truly appalled at how we are going to assess students in Arkansas. Implementing the Benchmark Exam was a challenge, but doable, and its use has helped us make great gains in Arkansas. I supported the implementation of more rigorous assessments and became deeply involved in working to improve students’ reading, writing and problem solving skills. I see value in the Common Core State Standards and have supported their implementation in spite of occasional pushback from stakeholders. The implementation of PARCC takes us to a sad place in Arkansas schools.
The cost per student for the PARCC is $23.97 plus a small administrative fee according to the PARCC website. The true costs of PARCC are incalculable and depend on many factors at the local school level.
For several years, school districts have made their best guesses on what technology would be needed for PARCC assessments, and millions of dollars have been wasted in some districts. Information from Pearson to district technology specialists has changed over time, causing false starts and inefficient use of funds as districts tried to anticipate and prepare for future needs.
The PARCC is costing our students immense losses in learning content and quality. Schools are trying to teach students specific technology skills simply so they can take the PARCC. These technology skills are not occurring at developmentally appropriate times for students. Many states have been giving computer-based assessments for several years, but these tests did not require students in the third grade to toggle between multiple pages and passages to answer a question. The PARCC requires keyboarding skills that are not appropriate for 8-12-year-old children.
The testing window is costing instructional time in an already short school year. The Performance Based Assessments (PBA) window is March 9 – April 9. It will take four weeks if the weather cooperates, for our school to work through the first round of PARCC due to limited number of computer labs and a desire to avoid exhausting students with all-day testing.
The End of Year (EOY) assessment window is April 27-May 22. It will take our school two uninterrupted weeks to complete this assessment with all of our students. Together, testing will occupy six weeks on our campus if there are no unforeseen interruptions. On any given day, rather than students acquiring technology skills needed for their future, computer labs will be occupied by students taking the PARCC. Long testing windows will cause instructional schedules to be in flux during these weeks, complicating lesson planning and the orderly sequence of instruction.
For a high school principal’s view of PARCC with a focus on instructional disruption I recommend the following: Surely You Can’t Be Serious by Mikkel Storaasli
PARCC Costs in terms of positive school environment:
School personnel are being misused because of PARCC. Our school is grades 3-5, so all grade levels are tested. Our assistant principal and literacy intervention teacher have spent countless hours developing a schedule that allows students to complete the PARCC. Our counselor has spent hours preparing for PARCC administration and training teachers to administer the PARCC. Meeting the psychological and emotional needs of students is more challenging because of the divided attention from all of these staff members.
As principal, I assist with test preparations but a larger amount of my time is dedicated to implementing a new statewide teacher evaluation system currently in its first year. During teacher observations and evaluations I have been focused on trying to provide encouragement for students and teachers facing an unreasonably difficult and developmentally inappropriate high-stakes tests.
Charlotte Danielson’s comment in Education Week about these new assessments is revealing: I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck.
Go to the following link for information on the readability levels of PARCC and why most children will “fail” the PARCC.
Other countries we envy are not administering PARCC-like assessments. They are elevating teacher professionalism and pedagogical skills. Below are a couple of excerpts from Linda Darling-Hammond, summarizing differences between education in the United States and Finland, pointing out that our practices are in almost direct contrast. She begins by describing the challenges of diversity in Finland. We usually hear cries that other countries don’t deal with diversity, but Linda Darling-Hammond argues a different view in “What We Can Learn From Finland’s Successful School Reform.”
Although there was a sizable achievement gap among students in the 1970s, strongly correlated to socio-economic status, this gap has been progressively reduced as a result of curriculum reforms started in the 1980s. By 2006, Finland’s between-school variance on the PISA science scale was only 5 percent, whereas the average between-school variance in other OECD nations was about 33 percent. (Large between-school variation is generally related to social inequality.)
The overall variation in achievement among Finnish students is also smaller than that of nearly all the other OECD countries. This is true despite the fact that immigration from nations with lower levels of education has increased sharply in recent years, and there is more linguistic and cultural diversity for schools to contend with. (Sahlberg, 2009)
In the United States, teacher education is somewhat haphazard and lacking in rigor and relevance. Educators in the U.S. are routinely belittled and disrespected, especially in the absence of their voice where educational policies and practices are concerned. The following summary by Darling-Hammond describes the contrast:
Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense—plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows:
- Resources for those who need them most.
- High standards and supports for special needs.
- Qualified teachers.
- Evaluation of education.
- Balancing decentralization and centralization.” (Laukkanen, 2008, p. 319)
We have been the envy of other countries because of our students’ innovation and creativity. If we continue down our present hyper-assessment path, we will lose the qualities that make us competitive on the world economic and political stage. A first step will be to take a long and serious look at how we assess student learning and move quickly to bring balanced approaches to measuring student growth without forcing out creativity and the joy of learning.
Click to open the newsletter or read my short, personal history of testing below.
From the Principal: A short history of testing….
Looking at testing and accountability is like seeing a long arc across a number of years. I remember taking standardized tests as an elementary school student. We never received any results from these tests and usually didn’t even know they were going to occur.
When I was a teacher, the Minimum Performance Tests (MPT) were given. I was offended that my students could only show minimum levels of learning on this test. We found that results from the MPT didn’t mean much since most students could do all of the tasks. Some teachers prepared for these tests by teaching everyone at minimum levels. Not good.
In my early days as a principal, we gave the Iowa , and later the Standford tests. These were challenging and gave us good information about the learning of our students. These tests also gave us national comparisons of our students’ learning. Very good!
About sixteen years ago the state began to administer the Benchmark Exam. This test was very challenging but gave us good information about our students’ learning. We used the results of these tests in our student-led conferences, and our students had a good understanding of their past performance on this assessment. They also had a good understanding of their goal for the future on this test.
During the first few years of Benchmark testing, students scored low because of the new format and showing learning in ways that were more challenging than in the past. The Benchmark required students in grades 3-8 to give written responses to high-level questions and prompts in reading and math. We made adjustments in our teaching and some adjustments were made in how the Benchmark was administered. The Benchmark Exam became a good assessment over time.
We are now at the point of another change in how we test students. Students are being prepared to take the tests on a computer over content that is at a higher level of difficulty than ever in the past.
With change comes stress. As adults, we’ve felt stress due to change, but our challenge is to assist our students in dealing with change while managing the stress they might feel. Teachers have attempted to prepare students for the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) while continuing to provide a well-rounded learning experience for students. Taking this set of assessments will be a learning experience for students, parents, and teachers.
This test will probably change in the future, but high-stakes testing will not go away. When I read the learning standards of our state, these are things that I want my children to be able to do. But, I want them tested fairly and equitably. Testing that is beneficial for students will require change and improvement over time as we saw with the Benchmark Exam. Also required will be changes in how we as teachers and parents prepare our students.
Our governor is putting together a task force to study our state’s curriculum and how we test our students. This is a good idea and I’ll share input based on what we learn while watching our students test this year.
My hope is that we will see improvements in how we test our students while holding to standards of learning that we all want our children to achieve. Let’s give our children encouragement and let them know that we’re proud of their work. Regardless of how our children are tested, we want them to do their best and be able to show their learning.
Written for the December 2013 newsletter of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
I was sitting next to a wise and experienced superintendent at AAEA in August. During a short conversation he said, “I’m concerned about the principals in our state. With everything that is coming down on them right now, I’m afraid we’re going to see burnout.” This comment caught my attention and privately I thought, “Not me. I’ve never had a problem with burnout.” Funny how those little arrogant thoughts come back to bite you. While I have not experienced serious burnout, I have felt completely overwhelmed and inadequate at times.
You may have experienced taking a drink from a garden hose as a child when the pressure turned out to be greater than expected. You ended up with a nose and throat full of water. As an educator, I feel as if I’m drinking from three firehoses at once. My “big three” are Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), and Teacher Enhancement and Support System (TESS). I thought there was a fourth firehose with LEADS (the principal evaluation system), but I told my superintendent after the training that I downgraded it to the garden hose variety. In light of the “big three,” it just does not rise to the same level.
Two of these “big three” firehoses have the potential to positively impact education in Arkansas if implemented in an intelligent and balanced way. My belief in the benefits of PARCC is on hold for now. Any one of these “big three” should be a focus for 3-4 years to ensure thorough and clear implementation, but that is not an option.
I find great value in Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, but even the piloting phase of TESS seems rushed and sometimes unclear. I do not see this as the fault of the leaders of TESS, but regret that the law does not provide for a more gradual rollout. It would also have been nice to hear directly (on video or in person) from some of the scorers (those education experts sitting in the corners of video lessons we watched).
On our campus, we’re presently doing walkthroughs, informal (formative) and formal (summative) observations. Going through the process with a novice teacher recently was very rewarding. Her reflections on the lesson observed were specific and insightful. We’ll continue to revisit her Professional Growth Plan and formative observations throughout this school year, but just the formal observation, sorting and scoring evidence, and pre and post conferences occurred over a four-day period and took a number of hours.
With practice, we’ll get faster and this is where a major portion of our time should be spent, but I fear the process will become rushed and less effective as time grows short. To add another challenge to the mix, it is important to maintain positive relationships with teachers as we implement TESS. They are overwhelmed, too.
In general, CCSS and PARCC both warrant much greater volumes of professional development than we have been able to invest. Over the last two years, our teachers have spent approximately 100 hours on CCSS and PARCC, yet we’ve only scratched the surface.
For me, PARCC looms out there like some great unknown. By studying sample items, we get some indication of the type of challenges we’re looking at, but great uncertainties surround the administration and readiness for these assessments. Charlotte Danielson’s comment in Education Week about the new assessments is revealing.
I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck.
Some large strides have been made in the past when we faced difficult issues. I am hopeful that we’ll see new gains in our future as we struggle through the present trials. The task here is to do good work and stay focused on what is important and under our influence. Nothing fights burnout like doing a few things well and having a positive impact on others.
When I feel overwhelmed I like to do the following:
1. Visit the self-contained special education classroom with our most severe special needs students. As I witness the magic of teachers working with students struggling with major physical and mental challenges, my perspective comes back into focus.
2. Sit down at lunch with students and have a conversation. From these visits, I learn what is, or is not, working for them and what they are thinking.
3. Take action! My mother often says, “When in doubt, take a step.” When that nagging sense of being overwhelmed tugs at my mind, I look at my plan and get busy. There is no time for burnout when you are doing work that matters and meets the needs of others.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you have plenty of company. Gain strength and encouragement from your peers in the AAEA. When you reach the point of frustration, call a trusted educator and express that frustration. I’ve done this on at least two occasions this year and found it very helpful. If you don’t have an action plan for fighting burnout, make one. Keep it simple and focused on where you can make the biggest difference for students and their teachers.
Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators’ newsletter, November, 2013
I have a bookshelf filled with maps, some of where I’ve been and some of where I want to go. Sometimes I’ll trace an imaginary path on a map trying to visualize the contour of the land or the view above treeline. Later, when I travel the actual trail, I’m always astonished by the beauty, realizing my imagination didn’t come close to seeing the magnitude of the place.
On a second trip to Santa Fe Baldy in New Mexico a fellow principal and I looked at our map and saw a small mountain lake located just a couple of miles over a ridge from where we were camped. We decided to explore Lake Katherine the next day. What we found was a pristine snowmelt lake bordered by spruce forests and steep snow-covered rockslides. I carry memories of that beauty in my mind to this day.
Without our map we would have missed what became a highlight of our trip. Having a map opens new possibilities. If you can orient yourself and determine where you are, a map can help you find your way to some pretty neat places.
I recently visited our third grade classes over several days. I knew from their curriculum map that they were representing data so I had a preconceived idea of what I would see. The reality of the learning and engagement blew me away. Students were excited about the data they’d collected. They worked in teams, determining how best to represent their data to the rest of the class. Some used line plots or bar graphs while others chose to show their data with pictographs. The teachers provided sentence stems so students could practice using carefully crafted language to express their findings verbally to their classmates.
What I saw in those classrooms was evidence of teacher collaboration around a shared curriculum that had been developed from Common Core State Standards. I heard similar language and saw similar (not cookie cutter) approaches to teaching. Teachers were using formative assessment and curriculum maps to determine where students were and how to move forward. Best of all, students knew their locations and were excited about their future direction.
As educators we sometimes hear comments about how limiting required standards and curriculum maps are as if they stifle our creativity. These are not lockstep scripts for teachers to follow but outlines of instructional direction which expert teachers can use to “stay found” on a path of learning. Far from limiting our adventures in learning, deep knowledge of the curriculum opens possible side trails that might lead to significant learning for students based on their interests and skills. A good map gives us the confidence to explore levels of learning we might otherwise miss.
Enjoy your learning journey. Remember to pack your map.
“Students will engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” From K-5 Common Core State Standards for Literacy
I recently read this while involved in an early morning grade-level meeting. Afterwards I was observing in several of our classrooms and began to think back to when I was in school.
Schooling has changed greatly…for the better! Most of my schooling was spent at a desk in a row (toward the back of my class since we often sat in alphabetical order). The teacher stood or sat in the front of the room at all times and we sat in our desks at all times.
I learned to line myself up carefully with the student in front of me to essentially disappear when teachers asked questions. Makeup work was easy to get because all you needed was the textbook and stack of worksheets missed. I have no memory of discussing content or learning with other students. I have few memories of doing this with teachers. I have no memory of a teacher writing and sharing his/her learning.
All of the above things about school have (or should have) changed. Much of the work we do in today’s world requires communication and teaming with others to accomplish a task. In my work I rarely sit at a desk for extended periods of time. I rarely work alone but work with others to get things done. I rarely have a “worksheet” or form to fill out but often use writing to clarify my thinking or communicate with others. I rarely refer to a “textbook” but often refer to professional journals, websites, blogs and e-books to gather information. I often use technology to collaborate with educators, community members, and policy makers.
Facilitating collaborative learning is challenging, but our teachers are making great efforts to do this. It requires deep planning and thought. It’s much easier to just dispense information but young people (and older people, too) have little patience for constant lecture.
We are about to step into 2013 and a world filled with change and challenge. If we focus on instruction that helps our children work together, they will have the tools to improve our world. If we retreat from the requirements of Common Core State Standards and their emphasis on teaching collaboratively, we will leave our children a legacy of decline.