Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dear Swish -- Letters About Testing

One of the joys of social media is keeping in touch with my former students...I see pics of their families and get to interact in their lives. Invariably, our conversations come around to books and reading.

I received this message from a former student, Amy...our conversation about testing, and what young parents need to know about testing, grew. I'm sharing (with her permission), our discussion.

Educator friends, What did I miss? What other advice do you have for Amy and other parents sending their children to public schools? I want all 'my' parents to approach public education with their eyes open, asking the right questions. My words to Amy are in italics.

Hello Swish!

I hope everything is going well with you! I want to ask your advice. My son, E,, is six. I've been homeschooling him for preschool and kindergarten. We are wrapped into a great home school group with park days every Tuesday and nature days every Friday, plus he gets to see his all-ages friends in plays, and we do a Shakespeare festival twice a year where the kids act out scenes, recite sonnets... It's awesome.

HOWEVER. I am tired. And I know it's only going to get more academically demanding as the grades go by. I want to be 'just mom' instead of trying to be everything. So I'm putting him into our local public school for first grade in the fall.

We're in California so I'm not sure how similar the standardized testing is to Oklahoma's, but that's what I wanted to pick your brain about. You've had a front row seat to that. I think you and I share the same view of them; they are a poor assessment tool, stressful for kids, undermine a teacher’s methods and take away time from other worthwhile subjects and classroom opportunities.
I'm waffling between starting a local opt-out movement at this school, or just having him take the tests and not worry about it. I don't believe there's any testing here before third grade, but if I'm going to make any waves it's probably better to start early than late.

What's your advice about standardized testing to an individual parent just getting their kids started in today's schools?

Anyway, that's the question. But I'll tell you some fun stuff since I'm already here. E. is six, and he's a bit wild, but very funny. J. is three now, and she's very sweet and sings a lot. E. LOVES to be read to. My husband or I read to him for almost an hour every night. He loves chapter books, especially if they are slightly age inappropriate, and will hardly look at picture books anymore! J. also loves to read, but she loves Dr. Seuss. She loves him so much that she has memorized The Grinch and recites it to me in the car pretty often. We all go to the beach and on little hikes often. There is so much cool stuff to do here, it's a fun place to raise kids.

I've been reading a lot. Finally got the bookshelves of my dreams lining the wall in my bedroom. And now I'm just trying to make a dent in all the books I have on them! It's been wonderful. I'm on a Norse mythology kick right now.

Hope you are doing great. I think of you often, and I'm glad I get to keep up with you a bit on Facebook. 

Love, Amy

AMY!! It doesn't surprise me that you're a hands-on, reflective parent! Your life with your kiddos sounds grand.... You've packed a lot here, and I'll need time to look for resources. There is a national opt-out group, so you might search to see if there's a CA group. You want to know if test scores are used to: *Grade schools *Evaluate teachers *Promote or retain kids. Those are all bad, bad, bad.


Then, we talked about books (as my students know we will!)…Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology—Amy has always been a passionate reader, and I remember with fondness the books we would read together and discuss…I miss her, and all my other students…


So, Have you gotten any info about what test scores will be used for? That's important information, because it predicts the direction of the pressure on parents to NOT opt-out.
If the state has some kind of school grading system (we have A-F), counselors and principals will be after high-performing kids to test...since their scores will contribute to the school's grading system.
 IF there's a 'value-added measure' which evaluates teachers on the 'growth' students show on standardized tests, kids who are 'teachable' -- most apt to show growth (NOT the very low or very high-performing kids) are the ones a teacher will who can show growth. Think of it. Gifted kids who are already at the 98th or 99th percentile have NO room for growth!! So that could adversely affect a teacher's evaluation. Teachers will be 'fighting' for those kids in the middle who have room to grow, but are NOT high-maintenance' to teach.
IF the state requires (as we do) that all 3rd graders pass a specific test to be promoted, then those kids who have NOT had the rich toddlerhood your little ones have, who are just developing a little slower than the norm, who are traumatized in the countless ways kids can be traumatized, will suffer.
In OK, 3rd grade reading and 8th grade reading are high stakes FOR KIDS. No drivers license until you have an 8th grade reading level. NO 4th grade unless you pass the third grade test. Problem is, neither of these are tests that measure a reading level...they just count the number of questions correct, and students must match a 'magic' score to prove proficiency. Oh, but wait!! That magic score, also called a 'cut score?' Teachers and students don't know what that score is when they're testing...everyone takes the test, scores are recorded, AND THEN the cut score (pass score) is set and students learn if they ‘passed’ or not.  Lunacy.

NOW, you need to find out if CA has an opt-out tests are used beyond the intended use: a snapshot of a student's achievement at this moment in time. Then you you want to opt out, or opt in?

One more thing you should know: because many states have stakes for schools, for teachers, and for students, attached to these standardized tests, they add 'benchmark' tests to check identify kids who struggle and lag behind...lots of benchmarks!! LOTS. OF. BENCHMARKS. That's the way schools can be prepared for the bad news of kids not making the grade on a test that will have high stakes for someone. And, these all take valuable time away from teaching and learning, as you mentioned above.

SO, it's not just the 'spring' tests themselves, and how they're's all the “cover-your-a** benchmarks so as not to be surprised at the end” tests. It's all the practice for the tests. That takes more time away from instruction than the actual tests.

ONE MORE THING you need to check is the state's and school's schedule of testing. No Child Left Behind Act (and its replacement, Every Student Succeeds Act – doncha love those titles??) requires states to test all kids in reading and math every year, and one science test, 3-5, 6-8 (reading and math every year, one science test). And then once - reading, math, science- in high school.
Oklahoma added MORE tests – social studies, tests every year 3-8. They also added the high stakes for kids in 3 and 8...and added End Of Instruction tests (SEVEN, when the feds only required three) for kids in high school. And they added the high stakes – students had to pass 4 out of 7 in order to graduate. Last legislative session in OK, they did away with the EOIs and the high stakes, but because of federal law, they still must test reading and math and science one time...we are not sure what this will all look like. But a bill is wending its way through the legislature that will require all high school students to take and pass a citizenship test. One more hurdle place in students’ ways by our state lawmakers, when we have been trying to lighten the load.

You have some homework: ask your school about the testing schedule and any high stakes attached. Ask about benchmark testing (they may call it something's the interim testing before the spring tests.). Google to see if your state has an opt-out group. If so, they will be very helpful in providing information and guidance.

Yeah, I've had a weird educational journey with my kids so far. Preschools out here in CA are crazy expensive, and I met and became close to a homeschooling family while I was actually pregnant with E. So right from the beginning I was researching and reading tons of material on homeschooling methods, educational philosophies (Charlotte Mason!), and curriculums.

There is so much about homeschooling that I love, and think is ideal for learning, but for my particular family it has been just too hard. I spend way too much energy on it, and I feel like for me it's made my children into part of a 'project' instead of just letting them be my kids. So I'm able to see that it's not ideal for ME, but I still have a lot of fear about putting E. into a traditional school. I wonder what is ideal for HIM, and how much sacrifice on my part that should require.

My hope is that our local school will be awesome, and that he will love it. And all the best homeschooling things are things that we can do as a family anyway. Reading, visiting museums, learning about our local plants and animals, artist study, nature journaling... So, I think it's going to work out. And I'm so excited to get a little bit of mental space back when I'm not constantly thinking about homeschooling. So. There's that.

As an English teacher I bet you constantly have old students telling you their life stories, don't you? 

I love it when I can stay close to you all...I'm so stinking proud of all of you and who you've become. Listening to your story, I'm not surprised you threw yourself into being the best teacher/mom you could be. And, yes, it's so tiring. Your first and most important and permanent job is to be their mommy. You'll always be their first teacher and their advocate. BUT you can't be your best if there's nothing left of you at the end of the day. Does that make sense? I love the way you go into a new project with your eyes and heart open, ready to learn. And eager to teach...

Absolutely. They can have many teachers, but they only get one mom. That's exactly the problem, I have nothing left to give them at the end of the day, and nothing left over for myself!
So, I'm taking this thing off my plate and I think we will all be much happier for it.

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