Thursday, June 22, 2017

If the Dumpster's on Fire, Put it Out. (On Solutions to the Graduation Crisis)


As someone who's devoted the better part of two years to promoting a solution to the graduation problem, this week was both disheartening and exciting. As in, I'm happy something is happening, even if it's not what I'd hoped. For those of us who have sat down or spoken with legislators to promote a functional safe harbor for the class of 2018, and a meaningful long term solution to a meaningless assessment system tied to graduation, the outcome of the Ohio Senate's budget proposal is unsatisfactory. 

Their budget proposal was unsatisfactory for most Ohioans I imagine, if you value adequate medical care, believe in the need for treatment for opioid abuse, rely on municipal services like police and fire, or value pre-school, educational services, and after-school programs, among many other things.

As a matter of fact, as I made calls to Senators earlier this week, I found it nearly absurd that my focus was on an educational amendment to the budget bill that would have allowed students in the class of 2018 to directly replace a score on a state test with grades from the corresponding subject. In short, a kid with a 1 on the Algebra assessment, but a B in the course would earn a 4 toward graduation.

A course grade measures a balance of things like mastery of content, time management, organizational management, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, etcetera, which is why a student's GPA is a far greater indication of their ability to succeed in college or a career. 

But still, why put something like this in the budget bill for goodness sake?

This is the nature of the system. The state legislature and the ODE have made such a mess of Ohio's education system that Superintendent DeMaria has convened separate committees to study the graduation requirement, assessments overall, and teacher evaluations. He's been forced to put off submission of the state's ESSA plan because of the public outcry regarding a lack of adherence to public input. The state's largest charter school has defrauded it of $60 million.

I have heard often, from legislators and citizens alike, that the budget bill is no place for laws on education (or anything not budget related). Here's the thing, I agree entirely. And if Ohio's assessment and accountability system weren't such an unholy mess, then none of this would be necessary. As it stands, the dumpster is on fire and we need to put it out.

Unfortunately, even though she is in some ways in agreement, Senator Lehner did not attempt to provide the course grade for test score protection we were promoting, but instead included the Graduation Workgroup's suggested alternative. From Wednesday's Dayton Daily News...

Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said earning required course credits should outweigh test results, especially for this class, which has been through so much change.

“It takes several years for kids to become accustomed to a new test, and for teachers to know how to prepare students for it,” said Lehner, R-Kettering. “You’ll always see kids do worse at the beginning of new tests. … Because graduation is dependent on this, that’s pretty high stakes, so it seems only fair to give these kids in the beginning an opportunity.”

Course credits should outweigh test results, new assessments or old. So, why not swap course grades for test scores? My hypothesis is that it is simply not a politically viable option. Not enough legislators would support it. Despite it being widely accepted in education communities that GPA is a greater predictor of college success than standardized tests, policy makers still believe the tests determine college and career readiness. Despite the fact that only 13 states require the satisfaction of assessments in order to graduate, Ohio persists. Despite the fact that NAEP, ACT, and SAT scores have not improved through increasing state assessments, Ohio will test more and claim to be improving educational outcomes. 

There are some legislators who seem to get it, Senator Lehner among them. I would count Senators Schiavoni and Skindell as well because they introduced a grades for scores amendment to the budget bill, the one that was not accepted. Senator Manning has also expressed her concern, and promised to be responsive to issues going forward if the Workgroup's recommendation is not enough. Even among these I'm listing, I know I disagree by degrees with each of them on the value (or lack thereof) of standardized tests. Where I see none, they may see some, but we can find common ground. The problem is that there are not enough legislators willing to listen to common sense, often cost-saving solutions from teachers, and so the dumpster burns.

Even the Grad Workgroup's recommendation is not guaranteed to survive the process. According to the Dayton article, House Rep Antani said, "There’s no reason to change the (graduation) requirements until we see how their testing went this year." This is the same thinking of former State Board President Tom Gunlock who, after being complicit in creating this abysmal system, quit his position so he didn't have to fix it, and now for some reason keeps talking as if he's still in some sort of leadership position. In their minds there is an acceptable number of students to be refused a diploma because of standardized tests, so they want to see how the tests shake out. I wonder where their threshold lies? 35,000? 30,000? 25? 

Mr. Gunlock and those of his ilk also believe that a system of more confusing and convoluted tests equals high standards, and if students can't meet them, then they simply need reteaching or remediation. Because he sees it as an issue with unsatisfactory teachers, we should simply teach them again, except that the system doesn't even allow for this.

Scores from the spring tests are due to districts on June 27, 2017.
Student/Family results forms are due to districts by July 26th.
The summer testing window for retakes is July 17-28.

With all due respect to the former board President, when should we reteach an entire course for the retake? When do we remediate? Am I expected to develop time travel as well as teach the course?

Maybe you think that this is splitting hairs, and those kids can retake tests in the fall. Perhaps, but I would argue that this is only one symptom of the larger sickness within the state level education systems in Ohio. Why is no one in the ODE paying attention to these things? Why do legislators refuse to take the word of not only teachers and administrators, but parents and students as well?

We're running out of time. The 30% of next year's senior class in danger of not graduating cannot wait to make plans for their lives. We cannot come up with a solution next June and expect students to have fulfilled an expectation about which they were uninformed. That's exactly like the testing system we've ground them through. We also cannot ask districts to take on the cumbersome task of keeping track of additional pathways to graduation after the fact. As it stands, it's already going to be nearly impossible to keep track of these items if the Workgroup recommendation passes now.

The aforementioned scheduling of results release and testing amounts to a missed opportunity for each student impacted, just like the refusal to include a course grade for test score amendment in the budget bill is a missed opportunity. I do not think the Grad Workgroup's recommendation will be enough to fix the crisis for 2018, but I will support it because it's all we've got, and not to do so would be yet another missed opportunity.

And if it makes it out of Committee, I'll champion it in in the House. If by some miracle the amendment is accepted by the governor and he signs it into law, then I'll hope I'm wrong, and the recommendation is enough to get a significant amount of students to a diploma.

And then... onto the Grad Crisis of 2019, or a long term solution.

The dumpster fire rages.


Friday, June 16, 2017

The Day Some Senators, Teachers, and a Snake Oil Salesman Met at the Statehouse.


Between local school board meetings, writing the State School Board to do what's right, participation in a visioning process for new facilities in my district, and prepping for a recent visit to the state capitol, I'm left with the question lots of schoolteachers face when summer comes... "When does the break begin?"

The Class of 2018.

Our 2 hour drive to Columbus was taken on the occasion of a lobby day, set up by our friends at Ohio BATs. Beginning at 9am, we were scheduled to meet up, break into two groups, and meet with 10 or so state Senators who are currently working on the budget bill. Our first goal was to encourage them to support safe harbor language for the class of 2018, removing any connection between Ohio's volatile and convoluted system of standardized tests and their ability to graduate. These kids have seen the worst of an assessment system that has been awful for everyone.

Every Senator with whom I had the opportunity to speak believed that something needed to be done for the class of 2018. This would include my own Senator Gayle Manning, as well as Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner, candidate for Ohio Governor Senator Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown, and Senator Jordan. Even the young man, whose name I didn't catch, who was homeschooled in North Ridgeville and met with us in place of Senator Bacon seemed convinced of the unique inequity and instability in the assessment system as it relates to this group of students.

Right now, Senators Schiavoni and Skindell have requested to add an amendment to the Senate Budget Bill that would allow members of the class of 2018 to use their course grades in place of assessment scores in order to earn points toward graduation. The Republican majority in the Senate has the power to keep or discard this amendment. CALL THEM NOW, and tell them that "because Ohio's assessment system has been so volatile over the past 3 years, it is unfair to use it as a measure for graduation. In order to remedy an atrocious situation in which 38,000 students are in danger of not earning a diploma, it is necessary to put language in the budget bill that will allow for the use of course grades in place of test scores to earn points toward the 18 necessary to graduate." You'll find the Senate Republican contact info here.

Convening the Experts, and Then Ignoring Them.

Because of the widespread demand to decrease assessments in Ohio's ESSA study, and then his own failure to do what the research told him to do, Superintendent Paolo DeMaria created an Assessment Advisory Committee to study and make recommendations regarding streamlining (read limiting) Ohio's assessment system. It was serendipity that the Super presented the proposal to the state school board two days prior to our Columbus visit because our second goal was to encourage a dramatic reduction in testing.

DeMaria's group of experts and education leaders suggested moving to the federal minimum of required assessments which would involve the elimination of the following tests... 4th and 6th grade Social Studies, high school American History, American Government, 1 high school Math, high school ELA I, the fall 3rd grade ELA (if the retention policy is eliminated), the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (if the district assesses otherwise), the ACT/SAT requirement and/or the Work Keys. They also indicated that the high school End of Course test could be replaced with a single sitting general content exam.

While I would argue that the state should also look at decreasing the time spent on assessments that remain, this proposed plan sounds pretty good.

Unfortunately, while DeMaria decided to convene this committee of experts himself, as he has no actual experience working in a school, he is also choosing to essentially ignore their suggestions. At the state board meeting he proposed eliminating 4th grade Social Studies, ELA I, American Government, and the Work Keys. The phrase I heard from one Senator in Columbus to justify this rationale was "we can't just get rid of tests because of the federal minimum."

Well, perhaps not, but I'm guessing that the thinking of the educational leaders on the committee was not quite as simplistic. We can get rid of these assessments because they have done nothing, and will do nothing to improve educational quality in Ohio. There is very little actionable data that comes from our assessment system from the perspective of a student, teacher, school, or district. The assessments are often developmentally inappropriate and currently employ technology that has an impact on student performance. The unnecessary high stakes tied to assessments (3rd grade and high school) is not federally mandated and causes undue anxiety and some dire consequences in the lives of students. This is just off the top of my head.

On the up side, all of the Senators with whom I spoke, believe that our assessment system is too intrusive and needs to be scaled back. There is currently legislation in the works to eliminate the 4th and 6th grade Social Studies tests. This was referred to as "a beginning" in multiple meetings that I attended. Will we eventually move to the Assessment Advisory Committee's suggestions? I doubt that we will, but I do believe that we can do far better than the Superintendent's proposal. I think the Senators that we spoke to believe this as well.

Ignoring the Experts While Insisting You Are One (or The Face of Entitlement)

If there were a down side to our lobby day, it was our accidental opportunity to meet lobbyist and Educational Consultant, Lisa Gray, who arrived for a meeting with Senator Lehner as our meeting was concluding. The Senator introduced us and told Mrs. Gray the nature of our discussion, namely a solution for the class of 2018 and the minimization of assessments. In so many words, Gray, stern-faced and full of self belief and entitlement, told us that as a former teacher she believed that the assessment system and grad requirement were necessary because we need to set rigorous standards so that all of our students are career and college ready. 

When I tried to interject to remind her that cut scores on standardized assessments are set essentially arbitrarily and not based on mastery, and that a student's GPA is a better indicator of future success, she scolded me, then went on about educational quality being driven by assessments, and that she would only want these things for her kids. Gray was unwilling to concede to anything that myself or any other professional educator in the room had to say on the subject.

Only later did I find out that her entire soliloquy, and persona for that matter, were utter bullshit. Lisa Gray, Educational Consultant, has not seen the inside of a classroom for more than 25 years and never taught in Ohio (only Indiana). Her claim to be a former teacher is sketchy at best. The fact that she has made hundreds of thousands of dollars working for Philanthropy Ohio, the Fordham Foundation, Teach for America, and other organizations funded by millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation makes her "kindhearted former teacher, suburban mom looking out for the kids" bullshit even more disgusting. The fact that she would frame her children's educational needs with those of all of Ohio's kids is misinformed to the point of negligence. Her children's life in a community whose median income is $121,020 is only marginally comparable to the life of a kid in my city whose median income is $40,952, or those in Cleveland ($26,150). To ignore economic reality and its impact on education is misguided, and is worse than her insistence that standardized tests can improve education.

Lisa Gray is a paid lobbyist. Her opinions are informed by numbers, but not those that clearly prove that standardized testing is not improving educational outcomes... the NAEP scores that have stagnated since 2001's NCLB, SAT scores that declined between 2006 and 2014, ACT scores that have been flat. The numbers that inform Mrs. Gray's position are those printed on her paychecks.

I guess those who disagree with me would probably argue that I'm only advocating for the public schools that sign my check. The difference, obvious in my mind, is that I'm not getting paid for visits to the Senators. It's on my dime. I'm also actually interacting with real live students who impress upon me their concerns, chief among them are the excessive assessments and the high stakes attached to them. They're not stupid. They know that the state tests have little to do with a good education, and their parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders agree

Unfortunately, paid shills like Lisa Gray make their money by ignoring and talking louder than the real experts in the field, and they have an impact on policy makers. This makes it far more difficult, but not impossible, to have an impact on decision makers about what is truly right for kids. We gave it a go in Columbus, and we're moving in the right direction. I never get into a conversation with a politician, or anyone for that matter, thinking they'll see everything my way. I'm just hoping we might move a bit in one another's direction.

Thank goodness I've got all summer.