Saturday, March 28, 2015

It's over. It's not over. A Few Thoughts from a Few Weeks in the Life of a Test Administrator (I mean teacher).

When we finished OGT week there was little relief. Students had been told that the following week (this week) they'd complete their Student Growth Measures, more tests, this time linked to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System.

In what can only be described as a sick joke, in the middle of last week during the Graduation Tests all teachers received next year's schedule of testing windows. A series of follow-up emails clarify the windows, and assure us that we needn't panic. I wasn't panicked, violently morose would be a more apt description of my state of mind.

On Monday the sunrise was brilliant out windows at the back of my classroom. I introduce the Semester Two Independent Study to much excitement. Student topics range from James Dean to the AIDS epidemic, Vietnam to the Challenger explosion. 

By Tuesday the latest wave of assessment has taken its toll. Student involvement ranges from lethargy, to distraction, to outright agitation. We're accomplishing very little. My attempts at humor, motivation, and interest go largely unrecognized even among the most motivated of students.

At soccer practice Tuesday night one of my players, an 11 year old, asks me, Do you know my favorite thing about the PARCC? I mistakenly think he's asking about a place with trees and birds and swing sets. He laughs, corrects me, and says, I don't have to take them. He and his parents have refused the tests.

Thursday night we attend Family Night at my son's school. We all have a blast playing math and reading games, attending the book fair, catching up with neighbors and friends, having some snacks. I am very impressed that all of the teachers make the scene, however beaten down by a burdensome teacher evaluation and assessment system. In a newsletter the following day, we're informed that the testing window re-opens in a few weeks, right after spring break.

Friday marked the conclusion of completion of the SGM's and make-up OGT's. Relief is short lived, however, when an email arrives spelling out the End of Year testing window which spans April and May. Again, I am instructed not to panic, so I decide I will simply feel defeated instead.

In a moment of excitement, I learn on Friday afternoon that the Ohio State Senate has passed SB3 in order to remedy excessive testing. Then I remember that SB3 does very little (read next to nothing) to remedy excessive testing. (See this blog from 2/13/15).

This week is over. Nothing is over.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wish Us Luck.

I walked into my classroom yesterday morning to prepare for a last day of review prior to the Social Studies Ohio Graduation Test. The students were to take the Science test in a two and a half hour block before attending all classes in an abbreviated schedule where each period is 17 to 30 minutes. They said the Science test went well enough. We were careful not to talk too much about it for test security, though they indicated it was the most difficult so far.

I was ready to goof about economics, taxes, and the Federal Reserve one last time prior to the Social Studies test, before giving a motivational speech. Unfortunately, it just didn't play out well this year. The classes were beat down and generally uninterested. They've taken the American History AIR PBA this month, now four 2.5 hour OGTs, and next week the Student Growth Measure in most classes, a post-test that is administered by state law according to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System.

Honestly, it has always been difficult to get the students motivated for my test, the Social Studies OGT, last one of the week. I'm asking for their best effort. They just want to be done. Never has this been more problematic.

I'm not sure how much longer I can hold onto the role I'm playing as their motivated teacher. I have always maintained a siege mentality, it is us against them. Up until this point, it has been a good motivator (for me and my students), but everyone is so tired. For awhile now I've been asking for legislators to change this system. I'm trying to build bridges, but I'm not sure if anyone listening. 

I'm leaving for school in half an hour. The Social Studies Test is today. Wish us luck. 

We've all had enough.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Call it PARCC, or AIR, it's too much testing.

State Senator Larry Obhof, Medina Republican, had some things to say in the Plain Dealer today, including the idea that Ohioans don't have a problem with the American History and American Government tests at the High School level. He indicated that the public confuses them for PARCC tests (they are written by the American Institutes for Research), but then he said the same public only has issues with PARCC tests, not AIR. Obviously, this is quite inconsistent if they believe they are PARCC tests and Obhof himself says the public opposes PARCC tests. He doesn't see it that way, and claims the A.H. and A.G. tests are not a part of our issues with over-testing. I humbly disagree. They are a part of the new double window testing system requiring two testing sessions in an incredibly disruptive and unnecessary process.

The article also features Obhof praising himself for his very patriotic "Founding Fathers Bill" SB165 which requires the teaching of American Historic Documents (like the Federalist Papers, Constitution, Northwest Ordinance, and Ohio Constitution) at multiple grade levels in the Ohio curriculum, tested at multiple levels (I assume still not a part of our over-testing problem). I have no issue with Ohio students learning historic documents, but I do take issue with the redundant nature of re-teaching them at multiple levels. I also take issue with their inclusion in the 10th grade American History curriculum completely out of context. The course curriculum, created in Ohio, spans 1865 through the present, while the documents are all from far earlier. They are also required by the American Government curriculum in 11th grade.

If you're interested in the article featuring Senator Obhof, copy and paste this

The following is the email I sent to the good Senator. I hope he is willing to consider my point of view.

Senator Obhof,

I am a history teacher at Elyria High School writing to address comments you made in an article today in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. First, stakeholders in education, administrators, parents, students and teachers ARE in fact concerned about the AIR tests in American History and American Government. You said yourself in the article that people use the term PARCC for all of the tests. While we know this is inaccurate, it does indicate that there are issues with ALL tests. Yes, some complaints are PARCC specific regarding inappropriate common core standards and reading levels on the tests. The issue you are choosing to ignore that includes the social studies tests is that they were designed to be PARCC-like. They use the same faulty technology, have the same issues with multiple source questions, and force testing in two windows, Feb/Mar and Apr/May. Contrary to your comments in the PD, this is still too much testing. I have been, and will remain active in the political process to limit testing to the former, OAA/OGT, system, if not something even less intrusive than that. You and your colleagues have created an assessment mess in Ohio that needs to be fixed. I do not seek, however, to place blame, only to facilitate positive change. 

I realize that this testing shift was not created by your SB165. That bill, however, is problematic in itself. While I appreciate your patriotism and dedication to these historic documents, I believe that requiring them at multiple grade levels is a bit redundant, and has them taught outside of their historic context in American History. The A.H. curriculum in grade 10, as I'm sure you are aware, deals with content between 1865 and the present. The documents are all relative to events prior. Now, as professional educators we are actively looking for ways to meaningfully include the documents in this odd context. I would, however, argue that they are better suited for the government curriculum in which they also appear.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Chief Assessment: OGT day one.

The high school where I work achieved an "A" last year in its indicators, meaning we accomplished a passing rating according to the state of Ohio (a high enough percentage of students passed) for 9 out of 10 assessments. This is not uncommon, but something of an accomplishment for an urban district with economic and demographic characteristics such as ours. This is to say that typically minority students and/or students from a low socioeconomic level tend to find less success on standardized tests. I'm not trying to be crass. Many researchers would agree that what these tests do best is to measure economic well-being.

With that said, I should be somewhat proud of the "A." The thing is, I'm pretty sure (and you'll forgive my language) that I was busting my ass and doing exemplary work when my school rated lower. I'm also quite certain that there are many other teachers in my district, and elsewhere, working in buildings with lower ratings who are killing it. They are working diligently to convey academic skills and content knowledge while inspiring their students to greatness. On the flip side, I'm guessing that there are teachers in well rated (read affluent) districts simply phoning it in. Now before you get terribly irate out there in Beachwood or the village of Indian Hill, I'm sure that you have your share of quality teachers too. My point is that we are using a ridiculously ineffective means to measure or grade students, teachers, buildings, and districts.

My students took the Reading OGT today. They will take the test in my content area on Friday. The furthest thing from my mind will be the rating of my school. I am concerned for the well being of my students, their levels of stress and confidence, and their ability to pass the test for the sake of their own graduation. My urban high school is currently beating a system under which it was not expected to be successful, and as that relates to students I am proud. However, regardless of the state of Ohio's A, B, or C, I am confident in the quality of work that my students and I are doing, and that's my chief assessment.

Incidentally, if you don't buy my allegations that standardized tests measure household income, then check out the information that follows. These are the top ten Ohio School Districts based on the state's Performance Index Ranking (from an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer 9/12/14). The dollar amount that follows is their Median Household Income 2009-2013 from the US Census Bureau.

         1) Wyoming City.                                 $106,912
         2) Madeira City.                                   $87,750
         3) Solon City.                                      $97,181
         4) Oakwood City.                                $99,975
         5) Rocky River.                                    $67,926
         6) Indian Hill Exempted Village.           $207,069
         7) Ottawa Hills.                                   $111,364
         8) Beachwood.                                   $79,722
         9) Mason.                                           $85,679
        10) Chagrin Falls.                                 $57,434

For comparison's sake, I teach in Elyria. Our rank is 548 on that list. Our median income: $41,600. Our neighbor to the north, Lorain, ranks 602 with a median income of $33,610. Finally, Cleveland is ranked 607 on that list and has a median income of $26,217.

Perhaps you'd still argue that this is merely a coincidence.  You're a skeptic. I like that. Well, do some more research on the correlation between test scores and income, test scores and poverty, rates of free lunches, whatever angle you want to take. What are we measuring?

Friday, March 13, 2015

I'm dreaming about these tests.

Well, next week is the Ohio Graduation Test. I've always sort of joked that this is the week when I earn my money. As you'd imagine, the entire American History course that I teach is based upon the state of Ohio's curriculum, and so geared toward the test. In a sense, I have spent the entire year in test preparation. The sources we use are of comparable length and content to those on the OGT. My class tests are common assessments given by every American History teacher in my building. They measure each state standard individually and were written collaboratively to look like the OGT. My students write 2 point Short Answer, and 4 point Extended Response because that is what they will write on the OGT. None of these (or a multitude of other) decisions have been made because they are intellectually sound or because they promote meaningful learning. These are decisions made to facilitate the passage of a test. We would "just teach", except that these students don't graduate if they don't pass. On the whole, if they don't pass the school doesn't rate well, the voters become disgruntled, raising funds becomes problematic, and the product suffers further. And so, as teachers, administrators, curriculum specialists, stakeholders, we make decisions.

I'm dreaming about these tests, he told me on Wednesday. I could tell by his delivery that these were not good dreams. He seemed terribly unsettled. We'd just finished a collaborative study activity on Industrialization, the first unit of the year and also the most expansive. I don't spend a terrible amount of time on review, and simply cannot review everything. Our focus is based upon timing of content, and the data I've collected from unit tests and other forms of less formal assessment. We focus on the weaknesses, and use our time wisely. With that said, I believe that this is time that could be better spent. I pointed out to my student that we were simply refreshing our memories, that his unit test scores had been fairly good and should be a sound predictor of success on the OGT. He still looked uneasy. I told him that I dream about them too. That seemed to calm him a bit. I did not tell him that I will likely not sleep much over the coming week, that I can't seem to shake back and stomacheaches from the tension, and I've been having panic attacks at odd intervals.

In a later class, later in the week, I was discussing test security protocol with students. A young lady asked, What do we do if our test materials become soaked with our tears? I imagine, like with any test materials damaged by other bodily fluids, we would seal them up and send them to the state. I'm sure she was joking. We joked about it again later, but with every joke comes a bit of seriousness. While I don't anticipate any of my students will sob their answer documents illegible, I'm sure they'll experience smaller doses of the same feelings...anger and frustration, helplessness, fear. 

I've heard a lot of people say things like, they'll have to take tests as adults...they might as well get used to it. O.K., I understand the sentiment, and wouldn't necessarily disagree that learning to perform in a stressful situation can be of some benefit. However, there is a natural level of stress that already exists in the given coursework undertaken by any student. I'm seeing kids taking a full schedule of advanced classes, participating in athletic or artistic activities, holding down jobs, caring for siblings, parents, grandparents, volunteering in their community and somehow pulling off this balancing act. Believe me, the average adolescent encounters unprecedented sums of information, demands on their time, and stressful interaction on a daily basis. These are tests. They are used to it, but that doesn't make high-stakes state assessments a logical, or sane, or necessary addition to their educational career.

The data the assessments provide is neither timely, nor accurate, nor helpful in any way except to drive future methods of test preparation.  If the goal is to provide a muddied and often inaccurate rating of students, teachers, schools, and districts based upon a limited product, then the tests are doing their job quite well. If the goal is to create a culture of assessment in American education, then we have succeeded. We have become so steeped in assessment, we're dreaming about these tests.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Moment When State Tests Are Visited By Violence.

I wrote the poem below in 2005. I was administering state assessments to kids who were at their last chance...pass and graduate...don't pass and, well, you know. Needless to say, tensions were high. There were only a dozen or so students in the room, and when the incident went down everyone froze, including the other four teachers.

Years before the event below, I was a counselor, locked in the back of a summer camp van with a violent schizophrenic who had attacked an art teacher. She had informed him that art had ended, and he disagreed with his fists. While I had absolutely no experience to prepare me for this, the camp director felt that I had the right demeanor for the job. I took a measured approach. We had a wonderful conversation about his love of art, and he calmed down. I have used the schizophrenic van experience as a starting point for any moments of conflict since.

Anyway, for this reason I walked directly toward the angry student and tried to speak in a gentle tone, like the Dalai Lama. It worked out alright, and nobody got slapped. Incidentally, I have never slapped anyone, nor do I advocate the use of violence, or her choice of language.

When Standardized Test Anxiety Reaches the Boiling Point

"I'm gonna slap that bitch,"
she yelled as I was collecting tests.

She whirled in her seat,
pointed at her target, and
said again, "I'm gonna slap
that bitch." Then,
"ain't nobody gonna
tell me to shut up."

I set down the tests and
walked toward her, "Relax,
there's really no need..."
"I'm gonna slap..." "I know,
I heard you, but
not here, not now."

"Gather your things,"
I said before escorting her
into the hallway.

We'll go for a walk, I thought,
that always helps me
when I'm angry...

Thursday, March 5, 2015

HB 74

In the fall of last year Representative Andrew Brenner made a proposal to limit standardized testing to 4 hours per subject per year. Needless to say, the change would have had little effect at most levels. Because it did not meaningfully impact my students at the high school level, I emailed Rep Brenner to express my concern. I closed my email with the phrase "get ahold of me when you actually accomplish something."

He called me the next day, on the attack, assuming I was a nut job who knew nothing of his bill. When he found that was not the case, he assured me that bill was "just a beginning." I told him to let me know if I could be of assistance going forward.

Well, he is a man of his word. HB74 would limit high school tests to 3 hours per subject per year. In the words of his colleague Steve Huffman of the 80th District, "This will keep our students from being over-tested." I disagree. Below are my thoughts just emailed to Rep Brenner, and will email to all House Reps if this bill goes forward. What do you think? Let Andy Brenner know... 

Representative Brenner, 

I am a History Teacher from Elyria, Ohio. I would first like to commend you on your attempt, however incomplete, to remedy the issue of over-testing at the high school level. HB74's provision to limit testing to 3 hours per subject per year sounds like a significant measure. It is obviously more ambitious than your proposal from the fall that set the limitation at 4 hours. We spoke via telephone when you called my home after I critiqued that bill, and fortunately it went nowhere. 

While 4 hours had almost no effect on the existing system, 3 has little effect. This limit would impact testing in ELA and Mathematics, but do nothing to remedy over-testing in Science and Social Studies. The problem is in addressing this issue strictly in terms of time. This approach does nothing to limit testing sessions (multiple in math and ELA), and ignores the fact that students take the Performance Based Assessment in February/March and the End of Year Assessment in April/May. Regardless of time limitations, this system is terribly disruptive in the way it must be scheduled, and creates a situation where an increase in test review is absolutely necessary. This maintains an increase in testing over the former system which only furthers the culture of assessment which robs our students of instruction time. 

While many will appreciate the waiver for online testing that HB74 provides for 15-16, this only delays the inevitable, necessitating the administration of convoluted, confusing, and inappropriate computer based tests. The proposed system of allowing average Ohioans to comment on standards will certainly provide an excellent forum for people to vent, but really does not equate to meaningful dialogue. A better solution would be a forum of content specialists and teachers without bureaucrats or test company reps. 

While I appreciate the sentiment in HB74, I hope you will consider a revision. Let me know if there is anything I can do to be of assistance.