Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy Releases KIDS COUNT Data

I had an amazing opportunity today to speak at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy’s annual conference, highlighting the Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. I knew about the Casey Foundation and its work on behalf of our children.

There was a legislative panel before the sharing of the Kids Count data, and our closing remarks. Jason Nelson, Scott Inman, AJ Griffin, and Anastasia Pittman responded to questions about child welfare, the foster care system, social services. I found them all well informed and certain about their opinions.

I learned that Representative Nelson will again introduce a voucher – scholarship – bill, as he beats the drum for choice…but parent choice is not extended to third grader parents. He decried HB2625 and again insinuated that children who didn’t pass the test last spring cannot read. No mention of the fact the test is not a reading test, and gives no grade level. No mention of the sliding cut score, or the fact that third graders DO read…some not at level. He talked about his conversations with us…he loves to ask us how much is enough in support of public education. He says when he asks, people tell him it’s a trick question. MY concern is his numbers. According to NPS, state support is $3000 per child, which works out to $17 and change a day. He used a number of $7000 that the state spends per child. I’ll be looking this over.

I will also be looking for research that shows retention is detrimental to younger students. He says everyone sending him links address older students. I found one link on my phone, but will be looking for more.

During the question and answer, I chose not to confront him. I was a guest and it was not the right time or place to challenge him.

Inman was a fiery supporter of poor kids and their parents – listing health care and the harm of our current tax practices as harmful to our most vulnerable citizens. He got the last word on the new tax law, and Griffin shrugged her shoulders and said she wished he didn’t have the last word.

Following is my speech…with additions (I cannot stop revising!!) in italics. I was thoroughly impressed by this group and am eager to be more involved.

I want to thank the Institute for Child Advocacy for inviting me to speak at your Kids Count Conference and talk about solutions to the harmful high stakes testing culture in our schools. 

My message today is change will be both relatively easy and extremely challenging.

The relatively easy part is this: we need to put standardized testing back in its proper place in schools. This will mean repealing the high stakes currently attached to testing. Then the test becomes one assessment among others. A snapshot that contributes to an accurate picture of our students’ learning. High stakes changed the purpose of testing, the amount of testing, and the reality in the classroom.  Removing the high stakes returns standardized tests to their proper place in schools: not any more important in our decision making than other assessments and observations. Standardized tests have a role in the classroom. The norming lets us compare our students with larger populations. The criteria let us measure our students against standards.

Repealing the high stakes to our standardized testing will mean fewer hours spent preparing for tests…that is one of the greatest advantages. Since the tests would be no more or less important than other assessments, teachers could add science and social studies back into the curriculum. Art and music and PE wouldn’t be seen as taking time away from test preparation. Students could play at recess, without teachers feeling pressured to add more bubble-test practice. Teachers could actually individualize instruction and teach to each child’s strengths. Learning would once again be authentic and focused on students, not tests.(MAN, should have thought of that BEFORE driving away from the Conference!).

Removing high stakes means choosing appropriate measures of achievement, having results in time to adjust our instruction, communicating accurately to families about their child, and forging partnerships to address the child’s needs.

Starting with our third graders, students will be tested with an appropriate reading test that clearly shows reading levels, weaknesses and strengths. Everyone involved will understand the diagnostic purpose of the testing.

Our current high stakes third grade test does not do this. It’s a reading/language arts test. It does not give us a reading level…its passing score, or cut score, can be changed every year, before or after the test has been taken.

Last year’s third graders knew if they didn’t pass the reading/language arts test, they would not pass third grade. The good-cause exemptions turned out to be less helpful than we hoped. Students took the test, in fear of repeating third grade.

One friend, a third grade teacher, with a third grade son , learned her son accidentally skipped a page in his test booklet. The mistake was found late in the testing, and he could not be cajoled into redoing his work. He was completely fatigued…finished. He failed the test and was required under law to take another test in order to show he read at level.  High stakes required too much from this 8-year-old.

Another friend, also third grade teacher told me of a mother how came to her door, with her daughter. Both in tears. “She can’t fail this test. She can’t.” My friend’s question: “Is this the way you want your child to start third grade?” The test is not the culprit, sucking the joy of learning from our classrooms. It’s the high stakes nature of the testing.

One of the indicators in the Kids Count data was Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as divorce or death, or the stress of illness. I have heard from researchers that the fear of retention, and retention is as stressful for our young children as the loss of a family member. We need to find ways to help struggling readers without adding to their stress levels this way.

Then, HB2625 was passed, vetoed, and the veto overridden. I was there on that override vote…I lobbied for it, and I celebrated. The new law temporarily does part of what I’m proposing. But there are still high stakes.

Now a committee of parents, third and fourth grade teachers, reading specialists will make the decision together about placement.  Educators and parents will examine all the data, not just one test score, and they will make a professional recommendation. If the entire committee agrees to promote, that agreement must be ratified by the district superintendent.

The new law will protect third graders for two years…but not my second-grade granddaughter and her classmates. More work must be done. I’m ready for this work.

We want all third graders to read, and make no mistake, they do. Every one, except the most severely disabled. Do they all read at third grade level? No. They began their formal instruction just a few years before, at widely different levels of readiness, and they progress at their own rates. The KIDS COUNT data highlights factors that affect achievement in our youngest students, shows us why some lag behind. To require every third grader to read at third grade level is an impossible goal. We need to help each child be a better reader today than she was yesterday.

Putting standardized tests in their place is only my first suggestion, and it’s much easier to implement than my second. We must create a new culture of support and respect and partnership. Edgemere Elementary School here in the city is creating that culture, transforming itself into a community school with wrap-around services for families.

Edgemere was mentioned by the speaker talking about health care…she said they were working together. During the break, I met a man whose company was partnering with Edgemere. It’s exciting to hear how this school is already finding fans.

We need to go no farther than Annie E. Casey publications for recommendations. These are not as easy to implement as repealing high stakes. They will be expensive; they will demand a systemic change. But our children are worth this commitment.

From the publication DOUBLE JEOPARDY:
  • ·         Aligned curriculum, standards, assessment for Pre-K through 3
  • ·         Consistent instructional supports and learning environment
  • ·         PreK for all 3-4 year olds, and full day K for all 5 year olds
  • ·         Teachers with bachelor’s degrees, certified in early childhood
  • ·         Small classes
  • ·         Partnerships with schools and families
  • ·         Address chronic absenteeism
  • ·         Summer reading programs
  • ·         Parent education
  • ·         Access to affordable health care.

  • ·         Support parents so they can effectively care and provide for their children
  • ·         Increase access to high- quality, integrated programs for children birth-8 beginning with investments that target low income children
  • ·         Develop programs and data systems to address all aspects of children’s development and
  • ·         Support their transition to elementary schools and related programs

So, I propose we replace the culture that tests and punishes with a culture that supports families and ensures our children enter school ready and able to learn and grow.

Our students need us to take action. Now. A