Why I am opting out – a guide for parents

I am a public school teacher in California and I am opting my 5th grader out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Tests this year.

Here is a link to the Opt Out form for San Francisco Unified.

Here is why:

The tests will not help my child’s teacher know my child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Test scores will not be out until the summer. My child’s current teacher will not be able to use the information to improve instruction in any way for my child this year.

My child will lose many hours of instruction in order to prepare for and take the SBAC tests. This time could be used for more meaningful instruction, such as doing an interesting reading project, a social studies, math, art, music or science research project or doing an end of the school year play.

The computerized test interface is clumsy and frustrating for students, and not based on cognitive development. It’s not likely that younger students can type as fast as they can handwrite; the multiple tabs and windows are difficult to navigate, and students at different schools will be taking the tests on a multitude of interfaces, thus rendering invalid the test results. Taking the test on a desktop with a large screen, on a small laptop and on an iPad are different experiences. Here is my blog post about taking the SBAC practice test. Here is one from a fourth grader’s dad. And here is one from a parent in Seattle. While computer skills are important, the skills needed for taking this test do not match how professionals use computers in their work lives, nor how students learn and best demonstrate learning. Children learn to read more quickly, generate more ideas and retain information better when they learn to write by hand.  And college students also learn better when they write notes by hand instead of on a computer. 

Standardized tests do not help poor, minority, English language learner and special ed students. These groups of students historically score low on standardized tests, in addition to particularly bright students who will often “overthink” answers. Low scores on standardized tests have created schools serving large numbers of these students into reward and punishment test prep centers, with fewer opportunities for enrichment and engaging lessons that higher socio-economically advantaged students have access to. More and more African American and other educators are defending the Opt Out Movement as an antidote to the systematic racism in our society in which poor and minority children receive fewer educational dollars and resources, and are viewed as “deficient”. Check out these powerful articles: this article or this article or this article or my own blog post on the issue.

Barack and Michelle Obama, along with many other well-educated and wealthy parents, have opted their children out of the national standardized tests by sending their children to private schools. Private schools offer smaller class size, enriching project-based curriculum, individual learning plans and a well-rounded education that includes humanities, arts, sciences, maths, world languages, physical education, extensive field trips, and community projects. Teachers and parents in these schools are not requesting that students take more standardized tests such as the SBAC, and they do not publish the scores of the tests that they do take. Public school students should have access to the same educational models that our most advantaged citizens have. Here is the beautiful Sidwell Friends school that the Obama children attend.

My child’s teachers may be rated on the outcome of how their students perform, regardless of school demographics and regardless of how much I believe my child has learned (or hasn’t). Although my child’s teachers will never see my child’s test to learn from it, they will need to take time from other essential instruction to teach students to perform on this test. Educational researchers have stated that the tests should for diagnostic purposes only, and should not be used to rank and sort teachers. Race to the Top (RTTT) mandated under the Obama administration coerced states into accepting a teacher evaluation system based in part on how their students do on the state assessments. This and other merit based plans do not improve student learning as borne out by research, but do lead to higher incidences of systematic cheating, questionable teaching practices and a narrowing of the curriculum.

There is no evidence to support that high stakes tests improve student learning. The accountability system set up by No Child Left Behind did not boost achievement, according to the National Research Council and many other peer-reviewed educational research. Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, has written books on the misuse of standardized testing in China and in the United States. He predicts that the U.S will lose its creative entrepreneurial edge by subscribing to the merit of standardized tests. He states, “we will see a further narrowing of the curriculum and educational experiences. Whatever innovative teaching that has not been completely lost in the schools may finally be gone.”

The cut scores are arbitrary and set with a political vision rather than an educational one. Last year, 70% of NY State students scored below proficient on the PARCC Common Core tests. This was a political decision aimed at making more families question whether public schools were doing their job. It backfired, NY changed the cut scores, and many New Yorkers are opting their students out of this year’s tests.

The SBAC are an experimental attempt to assess student proficiency on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). However, the CCSS themselves are still experimental and controversial in many regards. Very few teachers were involved in creating them, and many of us are quite skeptical of their claim that they can do what they propose: “to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live.” The standards were never tested on cohorts of students before their exceedingly quick implementation. Here is a detailed explanation of the 24 “work group” committee members who developed the standards. Here is a nice sheet about their how they were developed and the money behind them. 

Opting Out is a great democratic tool to fight the corporate takeover of public education. Many articles and books have been written about the loss of public school management, curriculum, and the overuse of testing due to well funded corporate interests.  Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, said it this way, “This growing struggle over the future of American education may be proxy for the future of our democratic republic.”

Love the Common Core standards or hate the standards, when new standards are forcibly implemented by top-down federal initiatives without proper time to develop them, you end up with shoddy teaching, shoddy materials and shoddy tests. This article is about Jason Zimba, one of the authors of the CCSS math standards, who despises how his daughter is learning math with the new standards in place. He spends his weekends reteaching her so that she will love math as he does.

Opting out of the SBAC tests can help politicians understand that parents want well-funded schools, well-prepared teachers, small class sizes and respect for children. It may feel like an act of disrespect toward your child’s school or teacher; on the other hand, it is likely that your teacher will applaud your decision to support a better public education system with better funding, better teacher support, and fewer distracting standardized tests that eat up instructional time.

Ask your child’s teacher about opting out and providing an alternative project during testing time. My child will be reading books with younger children, writing stories, and working as a Junior Coach. Talk to other parents about your decision to opt out. There is a huge movement that is growing from all sectors of society. Get familiar with alternative educational resources for standardized testing:

United Opt Out

National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Authentic Assessment – Fair Test

Alternative Assessments – Washington Post

Linda Darling-Hammond on standardized testing in the implementation of the Common Core

Diane Ravitch’s blog – a resource on public educational issues

Retired Oakland teacher Anthony Cody’s educational blog

Thank you for reading,

Maestra Malinche

“High-stakes testing is America’s Faustian bargain.” Yong Zhao

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