Happy New Year and Smarter Balanced Assessments in California coming to your child in 2014 or 2015!

Happy New Year to all –

I am finally over this wretched cold, and sort of ready to go back to work tomorrow.

I had a brilliant time over the past few days grading final essays written by my advanced Spanish students, and, as usual, I have been dismayed by the incredible academic gaps that exist between students. Students with educated parents can write a cohesive and logical argument; students without such parents usually produce confusing and disorganized sentences that spin around disconnected ideas.

It took me years to learn how to write; and I am still trying.

Even with tons of my own work to prepare my students for such a writing assignment, the results show clearly the haves and have-nots.

Writing is a difficult life-long skill that many many high school students simply don’t get a good opportunity to develop. How can they when their public school teachers have 35 students in a class, five classes a semester?  How are students able to get the individual attention, the critical feedback and the encouragaement that they need in order to get better at producing logical organized thought?   And what was I thinking?  Each paper takes me 10 minutes to grade and there are almost 70 of them!!!!  I need an assistant or two!

I imagine that the Common Core State Standards are supposed to help us fix these issues like the national critical thinking gap – I like to think that, at least.  The ELA standards focus much on critical thinking and writing – and they are decoupled from one particular curriculum, so as to make it just as much the science, social studies and Spanish teachers’ jobs to help students develop these skills as the English teachers’.  I love this idea, in theory. But, the year that Common Core is rolled out in California is the same year that class sizes go up in my district, and much of our Professional Development is spent on trying to figure out computer software that will help our students with the new computerized Common Core tests (not to help students get better in writing, mind you, but just to get the district ready for computerized testing itself).

So here is why I haven’t written since October.

In early October, the faculty and staff of the high school where I work spent 45 minutes or so taking the new Smarter Balanced practice tests for the Common Core.  On the following website, you too can take a practice test, in math or ELA, in 3rd grade, 8th grade or high school, and you can see what it is all about.  I ask you to please do so, so that you know what our kids will have to go through.

https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/

After attempting to take a few of the tests, I became utterly depressed and I actually shut down.  I really lost sleep for a few nights thinking about these stupid tests!  Eventually, I did write to the tech coordinator of my district with specific feedback, but here is my brief takeaway from my humble experience:

–       The computer based tests that many California students are required to take this year are still in beta stage, full of glitches, bugs, annoying pop-ups and randomly assigned control keys! The math portions actually did not work on ourschool computers!

–       The tests are extremely user unfriendly; and are not similar at all to instructional materials that students use in class!

–       If students use computers with small screens or tablets, the reading requirements are ridiculous!  Scroll through 4 different articles of text in a small window and simultaneously analyze them critically without being able to scan them whole or write notes on them?  I have a Masters Degree, and I can’t keep that much information in my head; I doubt most high school students could do better. But why would they even want to? This test doesn’t grant them anything except a headache!

–       Answering the muliple choice questions are confusing, and made me think the computer was telling me which one was the correct answer before I made my choice!

–       The third grade questions made my head spin- there were so many correct answers to choose from! And often, I didn’t understand what it wanted me to do or think.

–       How will this actually convince students and teachers to take it seriously?

–       Why is so much money going into this?  Who is making money off of these tests?

–       How will an entire high school get every single student to take the tests in a short time frame? How do we get enough computers?  Is this an educational goal to have more computers than we need during the rest of the year just so that we can give students state tests?

–       Will our schools have the resources to hire the multiple techs needed to fix every problem that comes up as students take these tests?

–       Should third graders really be judged by how well they can type on a computer? Shouldn’t they have an art teacher or a librarian or a really good social studies fieldtrip learning experience instead of spending money for the purposes of this computerized test? Can’t they learn how to type in middle school, and spend a whole class period daily learning the skill well?

–       Can the Smarter Balanced Assessment actually ever be a quality assessment tool?  Will most students be able to demonstrate their learning effectively? Will students be motivated to do well and try their best? Will students be distracted by the software itself? Will students be better off taking this test or engaging in classroom instruction? Will teachers get the results they need to inform their instruction?

So, ugh.

In the meanwhile, I traveled to New York, talked to my sister-in-law who complained non-stop about the effects of the Common Core on her two elementary school aged daughters (“everybody in New York hates it”); and I have continued to read about the uproars in New York about the Common Core.  For those of you who have not followed the major news: the tests showed that 70% of New York students are below standards and almost no English language learners or Special ed students passed; parents and teachers and superintendants have been fighting the rollout of Common Core there and feel that the Board of Regents is not listening to their complaints; then US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, made fun of the “white suburban moms” who found out that their kids weren’t as smart as they thought they were.

Here is a really good article written by several NY superintendents who argue against the Common Core standardized testing regime

Valerie Strauss’ article about Arne Duncan’s reaction to the parents who are complaining about the Common Core – “white suburban moms”

An article by Stanford Education Professor Larry Cuban about the iPad rollout disaster in Los Angeles:

An article about Long Island parents and teachers opting out of the Common Core testing.

And one more brilliant article by Deborah Meier on the problems with standardized education in forming democracy  :  “Maybe it boils down to this. I want my child’s schooling to be the responsibility of someone I can talk to—eyeball to eyeball.  I want a lay board and faculty that I can try to persuade, and that is— in the end—accountable to a democratic process that rests with citizens I can, with my limited resources, influence. . . In the end, I simply want for all children what the wealthiest count on for theirs.   A close-to-impossible task in a society as unequal as ours (and growing more so daily), but human beings have accomplished impossible challenges before.”

I love Deborah Meier.

So, if there isn’t enough to be wary of, I give you this one more topic of concern: many parents and teachers are also concerned about the “data sharing” of students’ records made possible by a system called “InBloom”.  I am trying to figure out if this is a real concern; I imagine that it is one more thing we Californians should be paying attention to, although so far Jerry Brown has been a fairly good in this area.

Mercedes Schneider is an English teacher blogger who has researched Common Core and InBloom and this is her latest.  The resulting comments are fascinating and include commentary by the power players in question.  And, if any of you are up to it – enroll yourself in Thursday’s webinar about whether parents have a right over their children’s school data being shared by private corporations.

http://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/beware-of-data-sharing-cheerleaders-offering-webinars/

Mercedes Schneider is a great blogger, a great researcher and a great writer!  I could definitely learn something from her!

I am sorry to have written so much, but, really, should public education be this difficult to navigate?

Maestra Malinche

“It is what we are excited about that educates us.”- Mike Rose

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