Category: Assessment

Run, Run as Fast as You Can

Recently, The Oregonian has published a few articles about the new “Race to the Top” grant that Portland Public Schools has signed on for, along with many other Oregon school districts.  The grant stipulates that a student’s test scores will follow teachers, and be part of a teacher’s professional file.  Indeed, a teacher will be evaluated based on a student’s standardized test scores. The state’s willingness to sign on smacks of desperation and ignorance.

Besides the obvious, that “one test does not a good teacher make”, there are numerous other reasons why this clause in the grant is ludicrous.  One is that not all grade levels are tested.  Indeed 3rd-8th and 10th grades are tested consistently in math and reading.  If you teach K-2nd grade, or 9th, 11th, or 12th grades, you just may have dodged a bullet.  In addition, if a teacher teaches subjects such as art, P.E., or social studies, which are not currently tested, then the testing does not apply to them. I would hesitate to bring this up to the state, however, as their answer might very well be to test in every single subject, every, single, year.

I know fabulous teachers who teach at schools that have not traditionally done well on standardized tests.  I happen to teach in a cluster in PPS that typically has low test scores.  I could teach in another cluster, but I choose not to.  Does a teacher magically become a better teacher if he or she moves to a school with higher test scores?  Apparently the state of Oregon thinks so.  I  cut one of the Oregonian articles out to pass around to the staff at my school.  Many teachers said that they would like to consider withholding their dues to the OEA, as our state teacher’s union has signed on with this as well.

There are many, many influences in a child’s life.  A teacher is just one of them.  This heinous grant asserts that a teacher’s sole purpose is to get a child to pass some contrived, intrusive test that has little to do with what he or she does on a daily basis, while also asserting that a teacher is the only one responsible if said child passes or fails.   I’m sorry, but “No Child Left Behind” is starting to look like a picnic.  We need to run far away from “Race to the Top.”

Sheila Wilcox is a PPS parent and K8 teacher.

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Charting the correlation between poverty, ELL, and state report cards

Earlier this week, the Oregon Department of Education released report cards for the state’s schools. The scoring system is a new formula that, in my opinion, actually makes testing even more high-stakes. I’m not sure that’s beneficial to our children, teachers, or schools. Here’s a run-down of how this new scoring mechanism works, courtesy of The Oregonian :

A school’s achievement index shows how well it succeeds at teaching reading and math, on a scale from 0 to 133.

A school gets 133 points for every student who exceeds the grade-level standard in reading or math, 100 points for students who meet the standard and 100 points for students who begin far below grade level and reach an ambitious growth target.

For students who neither meet benchmarks nor the growth target, the school gets no points. For minority, special education, limited English and low-income students, the score is doubled — 0 out of 266 possible if the student falls short,200 if he meets, 266 points if the student exceeds. The score for each student is averaged into a schoolwide index. Elementary and middle schools must score 90 points to be outstanding; high schools must score 80 points. A score below 60 lands an elementary or middle school in need of improvement; a score below 50 does that to high schools

Here is a summary of the correlation (not causation) between the new index scores, percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, and percentage of ELL students (via PASW, formerly known as SPSS). These data tables and graphs looked only at the 56 traditional elementary schools and K-8 schools. No, I’m not a statistician – but there’s an awfully strong correlation between the variables.

And a graph of percent of students on F/R lunch (x) vs. index score (y):

And percent of ELL students (x) vs. index scores (y):

And poverty (x) vs. ELL students (y):

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Our Global Education

Kenneth Libby is an independent education researcher and a recent graduate of Lewis and Clark's Graduate School of Education and Counseling. He writes about national education issues, testing and philanthropy on Schools Matter and Global Ideologies in Education.

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A compromise on No Child Left Behind

How about this compromise. Once a child is in the 5th or 6th grade and has passed benchmarks then let’s quit testing him or her. No more NCLB testing, none, zip, nada. This does a lot of positive things yet retains the NCLB idea (albeit corrupted one) of leaving no child behind.

The positive effects are easily seen.

It saves a fortune. It guarantees that once kids can read decently well the schools can focus on broadening their education and not waste horrendous amounts of time and energy testing them over and over. It allows more time and energy and resources to be directed at students who really are behind. Now, much of that effort is diluted on kids who are doing just fine. It creates a different standard for public accountability, one more applicable to good education. “My kid passed benchmarks, now what is she getting?” “My kid hasn’t passed benchmarks. What are you doing to bring her up to grade level?”

I imagine you could even put together a test for some younger children which tested to see if they were at 6th grade level. Heck, a lot of 4th graders could do fine and then be exempt also.

This idea would certainly make a lot more sense than the resource-robbing and education-subverting mess we have now.

Steve Buel has taught in public schools for 41 years. He served on the PPS school board (1979-1983) and co-authored the 1980 School Desegregation Plan. He has followed PPS politics since 1975.

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For the greater common good

I publish this Web site to advocate for the greater common good. I even came up with a mission statement some time back to capture this notion more specifically:

The mission of PPS Equity is to inform, advocate and organize, with a goal of equal educational opportunity for all students in Portland Public Schools, regardless of their address, their parent’s wealth, or their race.

I’ve been troubled by the direction some recent discussions here have taken, as have some readers who have contacted me privately.

Discussions about poverty and race have pushed some into extreme frustration. One reader sent me this link as an illustration of the attitudes she has encountered on this site.

Another reader chafes at what she perceives as an anti-test bias on this site. She cites data showing “65% of PPS 10th grade black students getting a C or better in math but ODE assessments show[ing] only 21% of that population at benchmark.” There’s huge distrust of the district within minority communities, and this kind of data shows why.

Yes, we’ve seen district policy ostensibly aimed at narrowing the “achievement gap” contribute to a two-tiered school system. But that doesn’t mean the achievement gap isn’t real, that the district can’t take real strides in addressing it, or that we shouldn’t have some objective standards by which to measure the district’s progress in doing so.

This is just one example of where teacher-reformers clash — perhaps unwittingly — with civil rights activists, a fight I don’t want to get in the middle of.

The charter school discussion is another fight I’m weary of. It has veered repeatedly into personal territory, with charter parents getting passionately defensive about their personal choices, and charter opponents criticizing those choices with equal passion. From within that melee, I asked a simple question: How can charters contribute to the greater common good?

Besides modeling pedagogy that we already know works, nobody seems to have an answer to that succinct question (though some have pointed out how charters work against the common good).

At the end of the day, I’m not interested in hosting a pissing match about personal choices. I also don’t want to get too deeply into education reform issues, which increasingly seem to pit progressive-minded teachers against civil rights groups (not to mention their strange bedfellows in the market-oriented, anti-union, foundation- and corporate-funded “reform” movement).

I don’t doubt that education reformers want to help all students, and that charter parents would love a system where everybody wanted and got what they’re getting. But these discussions don’t seem to lead to much unity of vision or purpose.

One thing I know for sure: the enrollment and funding policies of Portland Public Schools have resulted in a pattern of public investment and placement of comprehensive schools that demonstrably favors white, middle class neighborhoods and students, to the detriment of the other half of the city. I’m not naive enough to think righting that wrong would be enough for our poor and minority students; I think the district should learn to walk and chew gum at the same time — i.e. address inputs and outcomes simultaneously.

But this is the focus I want to get back to here: what can we do to make our public school system fair, just and equitable for the greater common good? If we’re not working toward answering that question, I fear we’re getting sidetracked… just as we finally see signs of movement in that direction at the district level.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Audio: Jonah Edelman (and me) on “autonomy and accountability”

Johna Edelman, head of Stand for Children, addressed the City Club of Portland last Friday on the topic of improving education in Oregon, even as we face budget cuts.

He identifies three ways to improve things: teacher and principal quality, autonomy within a framework of accountability, and time.

Edelman had some good points about teacher pay and training, and the need for good and supportive principals. He also made valid points about our antiquated agrarian school calendar.

The autonomy bit raised some red flags with me, of course, since I’m very well versed in how that’s worked out in Portland. But first, here’s what he has to say about it (1 min. 32 sec.):

If you don’t have audio, here’s what I think are his salient points: accountability equals test scores. “When I say free [principals and teachers] up, I mean free them up to help students reach high academic standards set by the state and then hold them accountable when they don’t.”

Edelman doesn’t let the fact that Portland Public Schools principals in poor neighborhoods have not always made the best choices deter his optimism: “…when schools are freed up from bureaucratic rules, and given the autonomy to decide how to make maximum use of time, people and money, educators can do a far better job of providing the personalized, rigorous, engaging education that meets the diverse needs and taps the diverse strengths of students.”

At this point, I threw away the question I was going to ask him about the role of Stand in Portland school board elections, and decided to ask him how we can assure that with autonomy, poor schools don’t just become test prep factories (2 min. 13 sec.):

Edelman points out that we’re not as bad as Washington D.C., where they do 52 days of test prep (so maybe we should be happy with that?). And while he makes a valid point about special ed and ELL money from the state not fully following students, he completely missed my point about PPS principals in poor neighborhoods cutting non-core programs (music, library, etc.) to focus on “academic achievement”.

I’d like to invite Jonah out to a tour of our second-tier system in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters to see just how well autonomy has worked for the invisible half of Portland, the half that doesn’t always get the things other parts of town take for granted, like college prep, world languages, boutique condo schools, music, art, chemistry, civics, calculus literature and libraries.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Stop Pathologizing Children and Start Helping Them

We need to stop pathologizing the development of children and start concentrating on where they are as opposed to where we think they should be with regard to norm-based benchmarks. The fact that a disproportionate percentage of low-income minorities are not “at grade level” means they are not achieving on norm-based standardized tests at the level of their affluent white peers. Is that really so surprising? We need to give them more of the advantages that their white peers take for granted, not fewer.

Here in PPS, starting in pre-K, kids engage in a curriculum and a school experience that has doing well on the 3rd grade tests as its primary objective. Teachers are focused on regularly measuring kids’ progress through a set of norm-based benchmarks; those kids that are not “at benchmark” are flagged and given additional assistance.

The rationale is that focusing on their measurable skills and providing remediation when necessary will help these kids and will serve as the primary means through which the achievement gap will be closed. But what is not considered is that additional assistance takes more time for both the teacher and the student.

This is time away from other things (e.g., art, music, etc.). The underlying rationale is that low-income minority kids are too far behind and don’t have time to do anything else. So, to “save” them, they are denied art, music, recess, PE, etc., and given a heavy dose of skills-based exercises, most of which are to practice for the test and to close the measurable gap.

In PPS, you hear folks like Jonah Edelman from Stand for Children say that things are not as bad as they are in D.C., “where they do 51 days of test prep.”

But I make the distinction between explicit test prep (a la D.C.) and implicit test prep (a la PPS).

Implicit test prep = a curriculum and a school experience designed to raise the measurable achievement of all students.

Under this test-centric regime, it’s logical that non-tested subjects are given short shrift. But it overlooks the fact that kids, esp. very young kids, need a broad base of experience including art, music, and free, unstructured play (i.e., recess) to develop to their full potential.

Ironically, it’s low-income minority kids that need this broad-based experience even more than their affluent white peers because they are less likely to have these experience outside of school, whereas affluent white kids are more likely to be exposed to art, music, etc.

We also need to take into account that standardized tests are an extremely poor measure of what kids know and can do, and they — at best — only measure a very narrow band of who are they are and what they are becoming. What about attitudes towards learning? What about curiosity? What about tenacity? What about inter and intra-personal communication skills? Creativity? Critical thinking? None of these things are measured, and therefore none of these things count.

Sure, there’s a lot of lip service paid to these things, as well as “teaching to the whole child” and “differentiating instruction” to accommodate their various levels of development. But the fact is that all kids are expected to be at the same place at the same time. If they’re not, then something is said to be wrong with them. We don’t take into consideration the fact that all kids — all people — develop differently and at their own pace.

But we also don’t take into account that not all kids are good at the same things. To hold academic skills up as the holy grail automatically guarantees that a large number of kids are doomed to fail. They are good at other things, but they are never allowed to show they are good at these things or develop their capacity in these other things because these other things simply don’t exist as possible options. Not good at math and not a quick, accurate, fluent reader? Then you’re f*&#$’ed. It’s as simple as that.

If we stopped pathologizing kids’ development and instead focused on where they were, not where we demanded they be via some arbitrary set of standards, we’d go a long way in acknowledging the broad continuum of development that characterizes all people as they learn anything. We’d also be more likely to acknowledge the need to focus on developing the full potential of kids, not just enlarging their craniums and improving their test scores.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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What Obama means to Portland Public Schools

With George Bush as President the only avenue to change seemed to be moral outrage. This played out not only in national affairs but in communities throughout the country. Reason, as well as intellectual arguments, seemed to be neither effective or welcomed.

Well, the times they are a changin’.

Obama’s demeanor and intellectualism create a model of calm civility and serious problem solving…. Let’s sit down and talk this out. Let’s work together to solve the obvious. We can make good things happen for all our citizens. Yes we can.

So, how should this play out in Portland Public Schools? The first step it seems is to recognize the obvious and work to bring about major improvements where they are needed. Forget selfishness, greed, and getting yours at the expense of everyone else’s kids.

Here are some of the obvious things we need to address:

  • In a public school system all kids should have equal offerings and opportunities based on their needs.
  • Middle school age students need electives, athletics, music and the arts, and activities to help build their interest in school.
  • Kids who can’t read should get the help they need so they can.
  • The main focus of all schools should be on what takes place in the classroom where most of the learning happens. This includes great support for teachers and working hard to have orderly schools and classrooms.
  • High stakes testing is not as important as good, solid education which prepares students for life, ncluding future schooling, the job world, citizenship, and happiness.
  • Kids who can read decently well should have their education broadened in the arts, the sciences, the social sciences, and technology.
  • Kids who don’t get good family support should get extra help from the schools in overcoming those drawbacks.
  • Kids who work and excel should be able to go as far as they can, both through extra course work and special programs.

In the new spirit of America (really the old spirit of many of our childhoods) let’s work together to make these deferred dreams a reality.

Steve Buel has taught in public schools for 41 years. He served on the PPS school board (1979-1983) and co-authored the 1980 School Desegregation Plan. He has followed PPS politics since 1975.

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TAG screening for Title 1 schools

Just a quick update.  I attended a TAG information meeting tonight where the TAG coordinators announced that all 2nd graders in Title 1 schools will be screened this year for TAG  through  “culturally fair, non-verbal” assessments.  Kids who appear to be potential TAG candidates will then go through a more formal assessment process.  Next year, all 2nd graders District-wide will be screened.  I hadn’t heard this before and I know nothing about the nature of the screening tool they will be using, but it seems to me that this is a positive development that deserves some good press. 

This new initiative is in addition to the existing process by which parents and teachers can nominate students for testing. 

 It’s a small step, no doubt a response to the state finding that PPS was not in compliance with state TAG standards, and certainly won’t redress the longstanding disparity in TAG identification, but I’m very pleased to see PPS taking to heart some of the critiques of the program. 

Rita Moore has a Ph.D. in Political Science and taught at universities in the US and Europe for 18 years. She now works as an advocate for children in the child welfare system and volunteers as a mediator and facilitator. She has one child in PPS and recently ran for the zone four position on the Portland Public Schools Board of Education.

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On the right track with Carole Smith

Lest the casual reader believe PPS Equity is solely focused on the things Portland Public Schools is doing wrong (we’ve been described as “scathing” by Sarah Mirk at the Merc), we should pause and take note of the things that are on the right track.

In Carole Smith’s September 5 speech (58KB PDF) to the City Club of Portland (reviewed by Peter Campbell here and by Terry Olson on his blog), she highlighted what I see as a significant policy shift from her predescessor. In her prepared remarks, she says

…our high school campuses with the lowest enrollment — the ones usually suggested for closure — each have at least 1,400 high school age students living in their neighborhoods. As a city, we have a choice: We can declare defeat, shut down those campuses and tell 1,400 students they have to take a long bus ride every day to a high school in a more affluent part of town — sacrificing their ability to participate in athletics, after-school programs at those schools that meet families’ needs and are attractive to students.

I’m not ready to give up on those schools and on those neighborhoods.

Hey, I could have written this! In fact, I have, many times.

(The next step is to figure out how to pay for it. I’ve long suggested balancing enrollment through a combination of equalizing opportunities across the district and a neighborhood-based enrollment policy. Carole Smith and her staff haven’t made that next step yet, but unless they have a 50% increase in funding or want to cut programming in wealthier neighborhoods, balancing enrollment is the only way we’re going to get there.)

Finally, we’re hearing talk of “equity of access,” which sounds pretty darned close to the “equity of opportunity” I’ve been calling for.

The significant question about “access” is whether we will continue to have a two-tiered secondary school system — comprehensive middle and high schools for the wealthier half of the city and K8s and “small schools” high schools for the rest — or whether we’re going to work toward eliminating the ability to know the wealth of a neighborhood by the type of school you find there.

Smith is taking the first steps on the path to what I call equity; to that end, her staff, “by the end of this school year, … will define the core educational program to be offered at each of our high school campuses, as well as a plan to fund it within existing resources.”

You have to assume this will be a pretty low bar, as it has been with K8s. (The minimum 6-8 curriculum being defined for the K8 transition is significantly less than what was already available at every middle school in Portland before the K8 conversion.) But we’ve got to guarantee that students are at least able to graduate with the classes available, something that isn’t necessarily possible at some of Portland’s poorest high schools, a problem aggravated by the district’s rigid implementation of the “small schools” model at Madison High School, for example.

Nevertheless, these implementation details, along with a continued focus on assessment, do not detract from the fact that Carole Smith is on the right track in significant, broad stroke ways.

Talking about high schools before talking about facilities. Talking about “equity of access”. Talking about where students live (as opposed to where they’ve transferred to) as a critical element in the design of the high school system.

It’s easy to point to missed opportunities to take immediate action and show a real commitment to equity of opportunity: Madison High, K8s, Libraries, etc. But it seems to me the winds have shifted, and if we actually put some of Carole Smith’s words into bold action, we’re going to see a turn-around from the laissez-faire, two-tiered, self-segregated “system” of education we currently have.

Then it just becomes a question of urgency. Every year we wait, we lose another class of students.

It wouldn’t hurt if the school board put a little more wind at Carole Smith’s back in this regard.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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No Child Left Behind: Truths and Consequences

This video explains, in very nice detail, most of the things that are wrong with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It’s 9 minutes and 25 seconds long.

And here’s another video from North Carolina teacher Doug Ward, explaining why he refused to administer the state test to students with disabilities. In response to his courageous stand, Doug was fired.

Maybe there’s a reason why so many educators are afraid to speak out against NCLB? Time for the elected leaders to speak on their behalf. And take action.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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