Sunday, September 25, 2016

Perspectives on Realism

Having spent a week coming to grips with being labeled a failure by Ohio's Report Card, I've begun to take a more philosophical (and angry) approach to what the scores mean. According to State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, these grades are a small piece of the multitude of evidence that proves the value of our schools. Let's ignore for a moment that it is also the only piece of evidence that the Superintendent and the ODE have made very public. 

What I find more problematic is the premise that teachers like myself, as well as our students, are supposed to be inspired by the label of failure and redouble our efforts in order to find success. I cannot, however, ignore the reality that this has been made impossible by the ODE and state school board because they have arbitrarily set proficiency rates that automatically label 40-50% of students as failures. These rates have nothing to do with the mastery of content, which is better measured on a daily basis by educators, but rather on a desire to have a certain number of kids fail. State School Board Member Sarah Fowler said as much in a letter to her constituents...

"The cut scores were set AFTER the kids took the tests and based upon how they performed. This is not an objective standard, rather it is extremely subjective (ie, "how many kids do we want to see pass and how many do we want to see fail?")."

Many of us have been critical of this situation for years. Throughout this time the ODE has proven their mastery of avoiding criticism and reality, steering conversations in the direction of the bullshit rhetoric of rigor and expectations while completely ignoring the facts. All in all, if the team at the Ohio Department of Education has proven anything, it is that they are unable to respond to criticism, constructive as it may be, and are in no way prepared to admit that they may be wrong in order to do what is right for Ohio's students. The very organization tasked with leading our state's education policy is utterly incapable of learning.

Take Jim Wright, Director of Testing for the ODE, for example. In an article published in the Plain Dealer, Mr. Wright explained Ohio's reasoning for it's cut-scores, which determine which students are proficient and which are not. Apparently, the logic was to have our scores look more like the NAEP scores, but not exactly like the NAEP scores. In case you're unfamiliar, the National Assessment for Educational Progress tests students at intervals, both for the purpose of testing mastery and to see progress over time, depending on the test. Using NAEP scores as a marker for proficiency on state assessments is problematic for a variety of reasons. According to the ODE's logic, it's OK if you only sort of use the NAEP scores and otherwise make some shit up from there.

Wright himself indicates that we didn't use the NAEP. He suggests that in a decision displaying their immeasurable benevolence, the state picked an arbitrary point midway between the NAEP and our previous scores. This way students, teachers, schools and districts can look awful, but not completely awful. From the article...

"Other states have gone directly to a NAEP-like cut, which was pretty drastic," Jim Wright, the director of testing for the Ohio Department of Education, told the state board in June.
Wright said the department instead recommended scores that would show 50-60 percent of students as "proficient," instead of the 80 percent in previous years. He noted that Ohio would still have more "proficient" kids than NAEP says, but it would be "more realistic."
What we keep hearing is that these assessments are designed to measure mastery in a subject in order to assure that Ohio's kids are career and college ready. I'm confused. How does choosing a random percentage midway between the NAEP and our previous (OGT/OAA) scores indicate being on a path to college readiness? I'm only a teacher, not the director of testing for the ODE, but I'm thinking it doesn't. My instinct says that no series of standardized tests can measure college readiness.
In the meantime we're supposed to be grateful for the ODE's realism. I'm not. What Wright fails to recognize in this explanation is that their arbitrary NAEP, but not quite as drastic as NAEP lowering of proficiency numbers actually impacts kids. On an introspective or motivational level, those 40-50% of students earning "Basic" or "Limited" scores have just been labeled as failures. Worse yet, in the world of high stakes outcomes, those 40-50% of students who happen to be in 3rd grade are now in danger of not being promoted. The high school kids in this situation are not on pace to graduate. 
Talk to some high school kids about what is "realistic," Mr. Wright. Being prevented from graduating by bureaucrats despite years worth of effort does not qualify.
What's worse is that Wright himself expressed his concern about the impact of these new assessments on graduation, and now he seems to have forgotten all about it. According to the meeting minutes of the Ohio Technical Advisory Committee, January 26, 2016... 
Jim Wright noted that there are three pathways to high school graduation, but recognized that the new proficiency cuts for End of Course assessments will be challenging if used in defining high school graduation.
So, which is it, realistic or challenging? Realistically challenging, perhaps? For certain kids, anyway. Let's look at this from a different perspective.
A report released this week by the Ohio Education Policy Institute on the state report cards indicates (as it does every year) that Economically Disadvantaged Students perform far poorer on standardized tests than their wealthier counterparts. From the report...
This analysis is far from the first to demonstrate a strong negative correlation between student achievement and socioeconomic status. However, this data shows that in Ohio, the negative correlation between socioeconomic and student achievement has proven all too persistent over time.
The report uses the Performance Index, among many other measures, to make their point. For those unfamiliar, the study defines the PI in this way, "the Performance Index is an aggregate statewide assessment measure which takes into account the performance of each district’s students at the different performance levels (Advanced Plus, Advanced, Accelerated, Proficient, Basic, and Limited) across all of the tests. The maximum PI score is 120 (all students at “Advanced Plus” level)." As you can see in Table 1 below, the higher the percentage of Economically Disadvantaged Students, the lower the Performance Index.
While I'd like to give Jim Wright and the decision making team at the ODE the benefit of the doubt, if they're worth their salt as educational professionals, then they are very aware that impoverished students score poorly on standardized tests as a rule. So, assuming their knowledge of this data, they have either chosen to completely ignore it, or have purposefully chosen to label a far greater percentage of poor children as failures, hold back a disproportionate number of poor children in 3rd grade, and place a disproportionate number of impoverished students in danger of not graduating.
This decision making process is not "more realistic" as Jim Wright says, but is completely at odds with the reality of what these tests measure best, which is socioeconomic status. The state has chosen to fail kids on this measure.
The ODE is at best "Limited" in their ability to make decisions regarding the betterment of Ohio's education policy. In this case I would categorize them as "Basic." They have failed. Perhaps the standards that I'm holding them to are too rigorous, the expectations too high. Based on their own logic, I hope they will work harder, seek remediation, and achieve success.
A good start would be to stop pretending that there is a connection between these assessments and college and career readiness. Your next move would be to convince the legislature to eliminate all high stakes decisions from their link to standardized tests.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Which Side Are You On?

Ohio releases completely invalid state report cards this week which label my fellow teachers and myself, as well as our students, as failures. I, for one, am not buying it. The Ohio Department of Education has, once again, proven itself completely incapable of making decisions for the betterment of Ohio's students. Like the Hansen charter scandal and the rollout of the PARCC assessments before this, the continued insistence on punitive measures tied to standardized tests is the longest standing measure of their ineptitude.

Which side are you on?  


Monday, September 12, 2016

Ohio School Report Cards and the Graduation Rate

So, the 2016 Ohio School Report Card will be released this morning, and the results will be predictable. Having had students grind through a second year of new assessments, this year constructed by the American Institutes for Research, cobbled together by their reps, some Ohio teachers, and the Ohio Department of Education from questions written in a variety of other states, the scores here in Ohio are awful.

Prior to their release, Superintendent DeMaria has suggested that parents not overreact to the scores because they are simply a piece of the variety of evidence that schools have to prove their worth. He really doesn't get it. These scores are not just a transitional moment, as he suggests. In many cases, they are a high stakes measure of whether or not students graduate. Based on these scores, many will not. Many good, hard working, intelligent kids who are perfectly capable of holding a job or continuing their education will not graduate because the state has simply decided to set the passing levels to make it more difficult to gain a rating of proficient or above.

Based on the Superintendent's own logic, what about the variety of evidence that students have to prove their worth? Attendance, course grades, GPA, participation in music and the arts, athletics, service clubs, projects, tutoring, teacher references, and the like could all be components for graduation.

Unfortunately, graduation essentially falls to the assessments, assessments with little validity, whose only reliable measure is a correlation with relative poverty. I haven't seen the report cards yet, but we'll check the top 10 rated and bottom 10 rated schools or districts categorically and check the median incomes, property values, or poverty rates in those places and I suspect we'll find what we've always found.

But the problem grows. The state, in shifting its scores for more difficult proficiency, has just included a hell of a lot more people among those labeled basic or limited (read failing) whose likelihood of graduation has diminished. I know some of these people. I teach them and, as I've said many times, they are decent, intelligent, hard working kids, deserving of better. They are not failures, and I resent the implication. Oh, and they are not happy. And when their parents begin to understand the ramifications of these scores that Mr. DeMaria believes we should not overreact to, they won't be happy either.

If they're anything like me, they'll be damn mad, and demanding some answers. Maybe then we'll hear about some solutions.

The ODE released an explanation of why the graduation rate is an important component of the school report cards. It reads as follows...


"According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, students who graduated from high school in 2015 made $678 in median weekly earnings. Those without high school diplomas earned $493. We need to know how well our schools and districts are doing at getting their students to the finish line."
Why indeed.
So, the ODE arbitrarily changed the scores to prevent kids from graduating in order to assure poverty level earnings for all of these kids? I don't understand.
I'm afraid to see the scores. What percentage of students will they have earning $493 a week in a few years? 30%? 40%? 50%? Worse?
It'll depend on where you live.
Check the scores for yourself, then email the Superintendent, your legislators, and the state school board.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Unsettling Scores and Three Responses.

This week my sophomores received their state scores in the mail, so we had a conversation to clarify the graduation requirements and their progress. The wide eyed, at times sick, looks on their faces were sobering. With so many variables in test results, there is not a simple formula for when or who should retake what test. I found the whole experience disheartening. The system requires a thoughtful analysis of the situation on a student by student basis. Or, to put it another way, the system needs to go.

In my last post I recounted my opposition to excessive standardized testing and the high stakes associated with it, especially as it relates to the graduation requirement. More importantly, I was hoping to encourage people to contact legislators in the interest of influencing change. 

I'm not sure everyone realizes how important this simple act can be. Perhaps you've written before and gotten no response. Maybe you got a response and they didn't take your advice. It can be frustrating. However, I believe that public engagement of elected officials is terribly important. This correspondence can become an important piece of the public record in support (or opposition) to an idea. 

I received some promising responses to my last emails to the House and Senate Education Committees. I'd like to share these with you, and once again encourage you to contact your legislators. I'll include the contact information for the aforementioned committees at the end of this post. Read the responses, and consider a quick note to a legislator. Shake things up.

The most compelling encouragement to write comes from this reply from Rep Teresa Fedor. She is a former teacher and advocate for students and teachers.


Thank you for contacting me. I will forward your insightful perspective with my collection of teacher emails and letters as a portion of my input for the Department of Education on the new guidelines of ESSA. Please encourage your colleagues to write me about their thoughts and recommendations. Legislators are not the experts and it's time for the teaching profession to step up and be heard.

Again, thank you Matt!

Rep Teresa Fedor

In the next reply, Bowling Green Republican Senator Randy Gardner shares his history in education and support. The fact that he "largely" agrees is cool with me. I've grown accustomed to the fact that legislators, and anyone else for that matter, will not agree entirely with my ideas. Perhaps we'll simply take some steps in one another's direction.


Thank you for your very thoughtful email.  I was a teacher, my father a superintendent, my brother a teacher, my other brother a middle school principal and my sister a middle school counselor.  I appreciate your concerns and ideas and largely agree.

--Senator Randy Gardner
 2nd Ohio District

In the last reply I'll share here, Euclid Democrat Rep Kent Smith agrees with, and expands upon my ideas with some important points of his own. Emails like this give me hope that we may be able to move away from No Child Left Behind's era of test and punish.

Thank you, Mr. Jablonski, for writing to share your comments. 

Yes, Ohio has gone from 5th to 23rd in the Education Week's Quality Counts 2016 Report.  No other state in the top 5 in 2010 has fallen further than 12th.  No other state in the nation remains as dedicated to funding for-profit charter schools as Ohio.

ESSA gives us an opportunity to reset education policy regarding school districts that are struggling with high need students.  It is clear that punitive methods do not work.  I hope other members of the House Education Committee are willing to examine new ways to grow Ohio's future workforce based on evidence and research and not a desire to punish teachers.

Thank you for your work.

Best wishes,

Kent Smith
8th House District

On behalf of my students and those who will follow, I hope you'll consider providing your perspective on these matters. Here's the contact info.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Bootstraps and Remediation.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog knows, I find the tying of high stakes decisions to standardized assessments to be at best unnecessary, and at worst an abomination. I am especially concerned about these tests as they relate to my students' graduation. For close to 2 years now I've been voicing my concern about these things quite publicly to whoever might listen (a big thank you to the district in which I work for their understanding). 

My attempts at influencing positive change in this regard has stopped short of shouting at people on the street, but often involves direct communication with legislators. Those who disagree with me often believe that despite the terribly low percentages of students earning proficient or above on the new assessments, lower than 40% on Geometry statewide, all these kids need to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps, enroll in school provided remediation, work harder, and retake the test. While this might work in some cases, it doesn't in all, and really is completely beside the point.

First, the Horatio Alger bootstraps myth is based on the premise that a hearty American individualist, with little to no assistance from others, just a bit of hard work, can single handedly pull themselves up from rags to riches. It is a myth. No one achieves anything without assistance from someone, parent, sibling, neighbor, coach, teacher, friend. Even Donald Trump started with a "small loan."

Second, to make this bootstraps bullshit even more problematic, the scenario is always coupled with remediation. By definition, remediation involves receiving assistance, tutoring basically, in order to prepare for the test. This is not rugged individualism. It is test prep, plain and simple. If the purpose of the assessments is to promote career and college readiness, and remediation is teaching kids how to pass a test, then how are we increasing career and college readiness?

Which brings me to Number Three, we are not increasing career and college readiness with standardized assessments. You do that through programs, academic and otherwise, that encourage students to pursue their interests, enrich their experiences, develop their skills, and provide support where necessary.

So this is my message to legislators. Below you'll find the letter that I sent to the Ohio House and Senate Education Committees this weekend in the interest of facilitating positive change. Give it a look, and then go write them yourself. Tell them your story, and what you think about the assessment system as it relates to graduation, the 3rd grade guarantee, or otherwise.

Representative So and So and Members of the Education Committee,

I trust that your work on the campaign trail for yourselves or your colleagues has been fruitful. As you've been traveling through your districts, we in the business of educating Ohio's children have returned early to school in the interest of buying ourselves more time to find success in a system driven inordinately by standardized assessments. In my work as a History teacher at Elyria High School, this system comes with the highest of stakes, a student's graduation, and while official overall reports from the ODE on test performance are still a few weeks away, I would like to once again raise my concern regarding the likelihood of a sharp decline in graduation rates as a result of our new assessment system.

When I raise this concern, the typical oppositional response that I get usually has to do with the value of a high school diploma. In other words, if we don't arbitrarily increase the difficulty in graduating, then we are doing our children a disservice. What we must realize, however, is that 12 years of the Ohio Graduation Test has not increased the value of a diploma, nor has it increased the quality of education. The reality is that the achievement gap has not narrowed, and over the last half dozen years Ohio's national ranking in education has gone from 5 to 23.

When the scores arrive, and we see that 30 or 40 percent of Ohio's high school students are not on pace to graduate, it will not have anything to do with a sharp decline in the efforts or ability of students, nor the quality of their teachers and schools. This situation will have been created entirely by a system of assessment created by Ohio's legislators and mishandled by the ODE, a system that has undergone perpetual change since its rollout, and is failing Ohio's students. These kids, on the whole, will have done what we've asked, excelled based upon their gifts, and perhaps overcome through struggle according to their shortcomings. Despite this they will face the dim economic prospect of going forward without a high school diploma. Their likelihood of obtaining vocational training, an associates or other degree, or a living-wage job will diminish significantly. They will be far more likely to remain dependent upon their families, or to need public assistance.

The reality is that the state of Ohio goes far beyond the federal minimums for assessment. According to the ESSA, our high stakes companion to testing at the high school level is entirely unnecessary. I believe it is high time that we moved away from assessment as a graduation requirement, and time to channel our resources into programs that will facilitate student success, and career and college readiness. Perhaps the programs involve wraparound social services to support our most vulnerable, or an increase in vocational opportunities at the secondary level. We might recognize the link between the arts and academic performance, and decide on an increase in art and music education at the primary level. Whatever we move toward, it is important that we move away from this systemic focus on punitive assessment.

As it stands, I will prepare my students for academic and workplace life after high school, as well as prepare them for success on the American History assessment. These are two very different things. For your part, I hope you will consider a legitimate safe harbor to assure graduation for our current students regardless of test performance, until we can change the assessment system through ESSA. On behalf of the hard working students that I encounter on a daily basis at Elyria High School, myself, my colleagues, and my community, thank you for your time and consideration.

Matthew T. Jablonski

My first Automated Response was from Rep Brenner. Thanks Andy.

Thank you for your email. I appreciate your engagement in the process and value your opinion.


I want to make sure that your email is handled appropriately. Because we receive hundreds of emails daily, if your matter is time sensitive, please call my office at 614.644.6711 and speak with my Legislative Aide, Daniel Talik. Otherwise, we will respond to your email as soon as possible.


Again, thank you for taking the time to correspond with my office.


Best Regards,

Andrew O. Brenner

State Representative (R-67)

Ohio House of Representatives