Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hey Hey Paolo. Write the Super, and some legislators too.

 Paolo, Peggy, and Andy would like to hear from you.

Having completed the state's survey on the ESSA draft proposal last weekend, a process that took me approximately an hour (that I will never get back), I've been stuck on an odd piece of the state's explanation from one of the segments labeled What we heard. It reads as follows...

"Strategically reduce tests where it makes sense to do so. While the state has reduced the amount of time that students spend taking tests--down by approximately 50% from 2014 to 2016--stakeholders expressed an interest in continuing to explore a further reduction in testing."

What they're referencing, of course, is the elimination of PARCC as a test vendor in Ohio, and elimination of the double testing window which had students take part one of a content area test in February and part two in April. While this was certainly progress, considering the stupefying level of testing that the two windows bring, it has been oversold as a reduction in testing.

This week, my wife wanted to wrap her mind around the actual change in testing from 2014 through 2016. The state's quote above, and the congratulatory discussion of the issue by legislators, references the change from PARCC to AIR, but this is misleading. Remember, state testing in 2014 also included spring OAA's and OGT's. My wife's compilation of actual changes in the time spent testing over this time period for all grades can be found here.

What she formalized is what we've known all along, that in every grade there has been an increase in the time spent testing from the OAA/OGT era (spring 2014 and prior) to the present. And while the state's numbers aren't exactly lying, they aren't necessarily the whole truth either. Legislators and the ODE only reduced testing as it relates to eliminating an awful system that they created, while not actually reducing testing.

Nowhere is this more alarming than at the high school level. Under the Ohio Graduation Tests (up to spring 2014), students were required to take part in 12.5 hours of testing, assuming there were no retakes necessary. Under the current system, again assuming no retakes, students are required to participate in 25.5 hours of testing. I'm not a mathematician, but even I can figure out that this is NOT "down by approximately 50%." We can also assume that the number of retakes has risen since the OGT because of the inappropriateness of the tests, and subsequent problems with the convoluted structure of the graduation requirement.

Perhaps I should put this in mathematical terms for those who only respond to a data driven argument.

Test Hours under the current graduation assessments: 25.5
Minus Test Hours required by the OGT: 12.5
Plus Number of Hours Spent on Retakes: 3(# of tests retaken)
Equals: an inordinate number of hours spent testing to satisfy an assessment system that measures neither career nor college readiness as claimed by Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, the Ohio Department of Eduction, and other advocates of the system.

(Alternate correct answer: Bullshit.)

The problem is, not many people outside of the ODE are advocates of a system that places such an inordinate amount of importance on assessment results. That's why I responded to the survey on the draft proposal. Stakeholders asked for changes. None were given. If you've yet to give your feedback, please do so here. (It might be helpful to refer to the "alternate ESSA plan" link below prior to completing this survey)

My wife and I went to hear Olmsted Falls Superintendent Dr. Jim Lloyd speak at a forum in Avon on Wednesday in support of an alternate ESSA plan championed by Lorain County and western Cuyahoga County Superintendents. Their plan involves a reasonable response that takes into consideration the feedback of the 15,000 participants in the ODE's research.

Beyond the good feeling of knowing that there are people out there who believe the same things you do, what I took from that meeting was the need to encourage DeMaria and state legislators to act in a manner that is responsive to their constituent's demands. Many legislators have admitted that it was the massive amount of correspondence they received that led them to abandon PARCC and the two window testing system. They need to know that the current assessment system, as it relates to high school graduation and otherwise, is inappropriate. A great start would be putting off Ohio's submission deadline for our ESSA plan until September, which would allow time for appropriate revision.

Here is a link to the contact info for Superintendent DeMaria, the state school board, as well as the House and Senate Education Committees.

I contacted my Senator and Rep, which I do often, as well as the Superintendent and the chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, Rep Andy Brenner and Senator Peggy Lehner respectively. Check out my emails below, and write someone. Then encourage your friends to do so.

My email to the State Super...

State Superintendent DeMaria,

According to the statewide opposition to the Ohio draft ESSA plan because of its lack of an adequate response to stakeholder input, I hope you will consider recommending putting off Ohio's submission until the September deadline. This will allow you and the ODE the opportunity to do what is right by Ohio's students, parents, teachers, and administrators by crafting a plan that takes advantage of ESSA's flexibility and the opportunity to reduce the state's assessments and involvement in decisions that should be made at the local level.

As a parent and teacher, I thank you for your consideration.

Matthew T. Jablonski

My email to the Committee Chairs...

Please consider being responsive to the input of stakeholders for Ohio's ESSA plan, and encouraging Superintendent DeMaria and the ODE to put off our submission of a plan until September. ESSA offers the opportunity for an increase in local control, and the current draft plan moves in the opposite direction. The public has demanded a decrease in standardized testing and the punitive measures associated with that system. You were a part of the legislative leadership that put an end to the wildly unpopular PARCC testing, and I hope that you will champion further reductions. 

While the elimination of PARCC is largely seen as a victory, the testing system is still excessive. Its impact is felt nearly every day of the year where I teach at Elyria High School. We frequently spend weeks without access to counselors, gymnasiums, computer labs, and the media center due to test administration. Under the OGT, without retakes, students sat for 12.5 hours of testing in their high school career. Under the current system, again before retakes, students are required to sit for 25.5 hours of testing. As you likely know, far more retakes have become the norm because of the problems associated with the high school assessments as they relate to the graduation requirements. A legislative solution is going to be necessary to remedy the pending graduation crisis. I encourage you to seek a solution that embraces ESSA's intent to minimize our reliance on standardized tests. In my experience, they offer terribly little in the way of meaningful data, and do nothing to measure the soft skills that are more important to career and college readiness like collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.

On a basic level, we could say that ESSA requires 17 assessments and Ohio administers 24, so let's start minimization from there. I would hope that as the legislature has embraced public sentiment regarding testing before, you would again, and further examine ways to diminish the intrusive nature of a punitive system with minimal benefit. 

Please let me know how you see the remedy of these issues going forward.

Thank you for your consideration, and service to Ohio. If there is anything that I can do to offer assistance, please let me know.

Matthew T. Jablonski

Friday, February 10, 2017

"Certificate of Attendance?!" or "Another Rambling Argument In Which the Author Makes His Case Regarding the Graduation Requirement" or "Paolo Did What!?" or "I'm not sure how much longer I can go on like this..."

  "We don't want to lower our graduation requirements."

Let me begin by admitting that I'm finding it difficult to wrap my mind around the confirmation of an unqualified advocate of plagiarism to a position of educational leadership at the federal level. I also cannot make sense of another Kasich budget proposal that swaps tax cuts for the wealthy for the well being of Ohio's children through cuts to public school funding, or increases that don't even keep pace with inflation. To be honest, I'm still taking deep breaths to quell the rage inside over the ODE's ESSA plan that completely ignored stakeholder input, though it was great to get an invite to a webcast Q & A on ESSA until I realized it was scheduled for today at one while I, and every other damn teacher in Ohio was TEACHING! Thanks for the "unvitation" Superintendent DeMaria. Which is to say, thanks for nothing.

If the rumors coming out of the Graduation Workgroup are true, thanks for nothing there as well, Paolo. Word has it that DeMaria prohibited a discussion of the assessments at the first meeting, and then brought in a rep from the American Institutes for Research (the company that sells us the tests) to explain the value of the assessments at the second meeting. I can't figure out why DeMaria is the facilitator. It was my understanding that the State Board tasked him with forming the group, not running it. Perhaps he wants to assure that the Workgroup's recommendations align with the ESSA plan so that he and the ODE can celebrate their openness to suggestions and then not do shit about the problem.

Contrary to that thesis is some recent information from Columbus suggesting that a "Certificate of Attendance" is being discussed as a solution for the graduation problem. When used, this replacement for a diploma is typically provided to those who are unable to participate in a typical high school experience, very often due to disability. That is not the situation in which our high school students find themselves, which makes this proposal completely unacceptable. 

The "problem" is less one of student participation or performance, than a gross mismanagement of, which led to instability within, the assessment system. Whether it was the use of two testing windows, widespread public opposition to PARCC, the subsequent switch to AIR, discrepancies in scores between paper/pencil vs computer test takers, the state board's ineffective manipulation of cut scores, not to mention the long researched issues regarding the limitations of data from standardized test performance, this system has in no way served students. Offering a "Certificate of Attendance" for the inability to find success in this abysmal system is insulting. It will provide no benefit at all, and seems to blame students for a situation largely out of their control.

It also has some very real ramifications  Students in this situation will find themselves unable to enlist in the military. The certificate also prevents them from applying for federal financial aid. Because research has shown that standardized test performance has a strong negative correlation with relative poverty, we will be creating a situation where the students who struggle most on the assessments, the kids most in need of financial aid, are unable to even apply for the assistance. Students who before might have needed remediation courses at the start of their college career will now find themselves unable to afford any training for future employment. 

Those who would argue that a student unable to pass a state test is not college ready are not looking at the full ramifications of the decision to prohibit diplomas to all but assessment savvy students. They are also assuming a correlation between scores on standardized assessments and college readiness. Because this testing system in Ohio is so new, longitudinal studies on this are non-existent. However, even if a correlation exists, I would propose that if these standardized tests are in fact a predictor of college readiness, and those standardized tests show a strong negative correlation with economic status as years of data has already proven, then couldn't we simply use poverty rates or median income as our predictor of college readiness? Or do we need to spend millions of dollars more on standardized assessments to tell us what we already know, which is that poor kids perform poorly when compared to their affluent peers? 

I would propose limiting standardized assessments to the federal minimums, and diverting the millions of dollars saved into programs that help to remediate the effects of poverty, like after school and mentoring programs, access to medical and dental, as well as counseling services. This, of course, would require an approach to ESSA that saw the state actually doing something to promote student achievement.

What we have done in Ohio, as well as nationally, is to place far too much stock in a student's performance on a standardized test. Those most resistant to reducing the weight of assessments on graduation seem unwilling to recognize the accomplishments of students outside of those tests. On a basic level, 6 of the 7 high school assessments are completed by the end of 10th grade (barring excessive and unnecessary retakes). Students participate in 2 more years of coursework after that point. To hear critics of the demand to adjust the graduation requirements, students do nothing of value outside of the tested subjects.

From another perspective, the tests themselves include only a snapshot of the whole of the curriculum covered. In the course I teach, American History, a student might gravitate toward material related to Civil Rights based upon their interest, but build less connection with Historic Documents. If test makers weight the Documents greater than Civil Rights, this student is at a disadvantage regardless of the time, effort, or remediation undertaken. Furthermore, even within Civil Rights, a given student's area of expertise, they may be drawn to the direct action of Dr. King and the SCLC, but test makers may decide to focus instead on federal legislation or the role of Lyndon Johnson. Obviously, this creates significant problems in determining student "proficiency" which Ohio law says is necessary for graduation. While the above scenario is anecdotal, educators who advocate a Constructivist approach would argue that "standardization" is quite contrary to student learning.

The reality is that the graduation requirement, as it exists, heavy with assessment, does not promote or even recognize activities that build the soft skills more vital to success in college and the workplace. I'm referring to things like communication and cooperation, teamwork, empathy, the ability to discover credible information and use it to solve problems. These skills are promoted through cooperative, project-based learning (nearly impossible in a standardized system). Involvement in student government, clubs and activities, theater and other arts programs, and athletics, also develop these things. Other students hone these skills through internships, employment, or in service to their communities. ALL of these things, and more, make up the whole of the high school experience. Despite this, policy makers have placed an inordinate weight on an innately flawed assessment system. 

The level of participation by the typical high school student makes the idea of issuing "Certificates of Attendance" insulting. They are deserving of a better system. They are deserving of a diploma.

State leaders need to come to terms with the fact that our current graduation requirements, the 3 Paths, are failed policy. It's alright to admit this failure. We have an opportunity to learn from these mistakes, just as we ask Ohio's students to learn from theirs as a vital part of their education. The graduation requirement can be fixed in such a way as to value the legitimate work that students apply to their education. Whether we minimize the points necessary from test scores in order to graduate, provide opportunities to earn points through other achievements unmeasurable by assessments, or otherwise decrease the weight of assessment performance as it relates to graduation, we owe this to our students. We owe them more than a meaningless attendance certificate.