Category: Standardized Testing

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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Study: Poverty reduces brain function in children

Advocates for “closing the achievement gap” pay attention: a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows dramatically reduced brain function in poor children when compared to children from high-income homes.

“It is a similar pattern to what’s seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex,” which controls higher-order thinking and problem solving, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley. “It suggests that in these kids, prefrontal function is reduced or disrupted in some way.”

As has been argued here and elsewhere, actually closing the achievement gap will require a co-ordinated anti-poverty effort beyond the scope of any single school district. This study serves to reinforce that basic fact of social science.

The “achievement gap” is a symptom of the “income gap,” the “opportunity gap” and many other gaps. Drill and test all you want, even if you improve test scores, you’re still not doing anything real to address the problems faced by poor children.

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

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Secretary of Ed. Joel Klein?

Word is that President-elect Obama is considering notorious union-busting, test-obsessed, NCLB-defending, school-privatizer Joel I. Klein (New York City’s public school boss) for Secretary of Education.

While Obama’s election may provide a new attitude and sense of comity, his actual administration may do just the opposite if it includes divisive figures like Klein.

I’ve been concerned that Obama would tap our old friend Vicki Phillips, but Chicago school reform activist Michael Klonsky (no fan of Phillips) thinks Klein would be the worst possible choice for Secretary of Education.

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

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Dept. of lost and squandered millions

The amount of a $5.2 million federal grant lost by the Vicki Phillips administration is now approaching $2 million, according to the Willamette Week (where the story originally broke in September, 2007). The funding of the grant, which was intended to create magnet schools in the Jefferson cluster to ease segregation, was lessened by at least $1.7 million due to the rushed closures of Applegate and Kenton, and by poor grant management.

In separate news, the State of Oregon has been ordered to pay $3.5 million to a computer testing company for breach of contract.

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

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The school board fiddles

Here’s Monday nights agenda for the Portland School Board:

  1. PRESENTATION TO THE BOARD 6:30 pm

    • MESD 2007-2008 Annual Report (information item)

  2. STUDENT REPRESENTATIVE REPORT 6:45 pm
  3. SUPERINTENDENT REPORT 6:50 pm
  4. BUSINESS AGENDA 6:55pm
  5. OTHER BUSINESS 7:00 pm

    • Council of Great City Schools Annual Conference (information item)

  6. ADJOURN 7:10 pm

So the school board can only find 40 minutes of work that needs to be done? Or should I say 40 minutes of reports to receive. This is in a school district which spends hundreds of millions of dollars of citizens’ taxes, which is beset by problems ranging from incredible school inequity, massive economic problems on the horizon, disastrous maintenance deficits, serious teacher hiring malpractices, rampant school discipline problems, incredible numbers of dropouts, a TAG program which desperately needs to be revamped, a k-8 curriculum which is the envy of no one, a student transfer program which is further segregating the school district, schools which are inundated with a culture of testing instead of education (no offense to those educators who are fighting this), schools without libraries or librarians, huge numbers of kids who can’t read or do basic math, and a myriad of other serious problems. 40 minutes?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that Superintendent Carol Smith has begun to address many of these problems and the school board does a lot of work in committees. They are good people who care about Portland and its children. But that is not enough. The school board is elected to lead, to solve problems, and work for the best educational programs it can. It needs real public input, serious public discussions about directions to take, resolutions put forth to address problems which are debated openly and sold to the public and the school district’s employees, real leadership which garners genuine support and confidence. Leadership that continues to move us in a new direction where all kids are important and which looks at education in Portland as something more than a referendum on programs which arise out of some hazy educational research done somewhere by someone for some reason we don’t understand, and which we then push on our teaching staff eating up their time in meetings instead of having them be further engaged in the teaching process.

So I call on each school board member to bring their resolutions to the table. This is the time. November and the first part of December are a slow time in education. A good time to make some progress. A good time to look at those problems which are beginning to fester. A good time to discuss those problems which need to be addressed by our city’s educational leaders –- you, the board.

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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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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Assessment OF Learning vs. Assessment FOR Learning

I’ve never understood why PPS does not have a closer alliance with the Portland-based Assessment Training Institute (ATI). Its founder, assessment expert/guru Rick Stiggins, is one of my heroes.

Stiggins and his colleagues at ATI frame the question of assessment by distinguishing between assessment FOR leaning vs. assessment OF learning. In the former, assessment informs and improves learning; in the latter, assessment determines learning, i.e. creates the conditions for the curriculum becoming test prep.

Assessment OF learning is about proving that you have learned something that can be measured. Assessment FOR learning is about using information produced by rich forms of assessment to enhance instruction and improve learning.

As you might guess, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) promotes assessment OF learning. And some would say that its obsession with quantitative measures makes any kind of assessment FOR learning difficult.

But even in using more valuable kinds of assessment, e.g., classroom-based formative assessment, there’s a tension between assessment for learning and assessment of learning for documentation and accountability purposes. In other words, it’s hard to care about students when you’re so busy writing down observable performance data about them that ties into State Standards CA42.A1, SS16.B12, and M27.J4. Learning vs. proving you have learned are two different objectives. In the former, both the student and the teacher may actually care about the outcome. And they may care less whether it can be quantified and recorded. It’s hard to empirically validate an “a-ha” moment, yet good teachers in caring relationships with their students have them all the time.

Proving I have learned, i.e., showing I’m a good student, and proving I have taught, i.e., showing I’m a good teacher, are euphemistic covers for “please don’t fail me” and “please don’t fire me” respectively. Under NCLB, even really good assessment practices, when operating under the weight of “accountability,” can become about covering one’s derriere. Inevitably, and quite logically, students may focus only on those things they can demonstrate they know and that they are good at. Teachers may focus only on those things they can demonstrate they can teach with predictable, positive outcomes. Neither can afford to show process or ambiguity, and certainly neither wants to show a lack of knowledge or competence or even – heaven forbid – that they are wrong about something.

So what effect might this have on quality, substantive, in-depth teaching and learning? It’s not hard to imagine.

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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A challenge for Martín González

As the newest member of the Portland Public Schools board of education, I would like to extend a cordial welcome to Martín González in the form of a challenge on a number of critical issues, in no particular order.

  • High schools: advocate for comprehensive high schools in every neighborhood, with the schools offering the best variety of courses and the most qualified teachers sited in the poorest neighborhoods. This policy, the inverse of the current high school system, would rebuild enrollment and public investment where it is most needed. “Small schools,” as currently implemented, may be offered as a special focus, but should never be substituted for comprehensive schools.
  • Facilities: advocate for building new facilities based on where students live, not where they’ve transferred, a policy of investing in proportion to local student population and encouraging families to stay in (or return to) their neighborhood schools.
  • K8 transition: advocate for a comprehensive middle school option in every neighborhood. K8 schools may be the best option for some students, but they offer dramatically less educational opportunity and are more segregated than middle schools. (Before this transition, every middle school student in PPS had access to a staffed library. Now many do not.) PPS middle grade students assigned to K8 schools are significantly more likely to be non-white and poor than those assigned to middle schools. If any student has a middle school option in their neighborhood, all students should.
  • No Child Left Behind: bring a resolution to the board calling for the repeal of the punitive aspects of this law that unfairly target poor and minority students, and introduce policy directing district administration to de-emphasize assessment in favor of a more rounded, whole-child educational focus.
  • Student transfer and school funding policies: advocate for a school funding policy that would reinvest in schools that have been gutted by out-transfers as a way to bring enrollment back. Introduce policy that would shift our public investment back to where families live, and guarantee a minimum core curriculum (including the arts) in every neighborhood school. If you really want to be bold, propose policy that would limit neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers to those that would not adversely impact socio-economic segregation. That is, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch could basically transfer anywhere, but other students could only transfer into Title I schools, much like the transfer policy in place during the 1980 desegregation plan (but keying on income instead of race).
  • Charter schools: come out strongly for neighborhood schools. Learn from charter school applications what’s missing in our neighborhood schools, and advocate for policy to provide these things in neighborhood schools. The most recent PPS charter school proposal suggests nothing we shouldn’t already be doing in every neighborhood school.

González has a unique opportunity to “audition” for the seat that he will have to win by popular vote in May. How he performs on each of the above issues will signal where he stands with those of us who want school system based on equity of opportunity, where the wealth of a neighborhood does not correspond to the wealth of offerings in its schools.

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

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Carole Smith’s Plan: What’s Wrong (and Right)

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith’s vision, articulated in her Friday address to the City Club (57KB PDF), focuses on academic skills in early elementary, then continues to focus on academic achievement vis a vis test scores as a measure of whether kids are likely to graduate. Two examples from her speech:

Are [students] ready to read by the time they enter first grade?

As they leave third grade, are they reading fluently enough to understand the
information and ideas presented — do they have strong foundation for the rest of their schooling?

But what’s missing from these recommendations are the voices of the students who chose to drop out of school. If they had had a mentor who monitored their academic progress, would they have stayed in school? Smith thinks so, and cites the examples of two students — six-year-old Charles at Rosa Parks and 9th-grader Eric at Cleveland High. While these stories are moving and powerful, they are — of course — success stories, stories about the ones that made it.

But what about the ones that didn’t make it?

We don’t know. But it would probably be a good idea if we found out. After all, in the day and age of high-quality customer service, it might make sense to ask the customer why they no longer patronize your business.

Here’s what I see:

  • the new OR exit exam will increase drop-outs, as is the case in most states that have adopted high-stakes exit exams
  • an intense emphasis on “how am I doing?” undermines “what am I learning?’ and, more importantly, “what do I care about?”

Smith calls for partnerships with local businesses and organizations to give students real-world learning opportunities similar to what The Met School does for its students. That’s great. But let’s not kid ourselves: focusing on academic achievement alone is not going to save kids from dropping out. But making schools exciting, relevant, fun places to be will.

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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A response to Carole Smith: Close the opportunity gap and the achievement gap will follow

In an e-mail sent to staff and some community members, Carole Smith expresses great enthusiasm and joy in her work on the first day of school. As a parent, I find this encouraging.

What I find discouraging is how she frames the issue of equity.

“…[W]ith every decision,” writes Smith, “we must ask ourselves about equity. All too often, a student’s family income and ethnicity predict his or her eventual success in school.”

This is true, sad, and terribly unjust.

But this defines equity exclusively in terms of outcomes. It omits two critical facts. The first is that as a school district, we control only a small portion of the inputs that lead to unequal outcomes.

Secondly, by focusing on outcomes, we conveniently avoid the inconvenient fact that a student’s race and income are also extremely accurate predictors of the wealth of curriculum and the level of teacher experience on offer at that student’s school.

The problem with striving for equity in outcomes is not that it’s a bad goal. It’s imperative that we improve things for our poorest students. The problem is that it is impossible for any school district to do this alone. We need a concerted federal, state and local anti-poverty program to make a serious dent in this problem.

“Closing the achievement gap” is a logical fallacy, in fact, and it’s perpetuated by the a breed of “reformers” we’re all familiar with: the Gates and Broad foundations, and our old friend Vicki Phillips. As they have pursued this false, unattainable goal, they have driven public investment out of Portland’s poor and minority neighborhoods and have set up schools for failure. This has led to increased out-transfers and decreased opportunity, and is a logical path to school closures. There can be no question that as a national movement, this is opening the door for more charter schools, and from there it’s just a small step to vouchers.

I don’t believe Carole Smith wants to convert our schools to charters or give out vouchers for private Christian schools. But I do believe her concept of equity is unduly influenced by those who are doing active harm to the institution of the common school.

It is a fundamental truth that we as a school district can never attain equity in terms of “success in school.”

Success, or “achievement,” are terms that boil down to extremely crude metrics (standardized tests and graduation rates), and they invariably have led to a narrower, shallower curriculum with a focus on “core” academics (numeracy and literacy) in Portland schools that serve disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students.

I’ve documented repeatedly how secondary students in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters have been systematically robbed of comprehensive high schools (0 remain) and middle schools (3 remain). The predominately white, middle class students in the Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson clusters have preserved their comprehensive high schools (all 4 remain) and middle schools (6 remain, including two each in the Wilson and Cleveland clusters).

It’s not hard to see how this reduction in the breadth and depth of curriculum would actually be detrimental to “achievement.”

Instead of tilting at windmills trying to shape outcomes while controlling only a small portion of the inputs that contribute to a student’s success or failure, Portland Public Schools needs to focus on the inputs it does control: equity of opportunity. This we can achieve, with existing funding, city-wide, today. We can end the equity “debate,” and I’ll gladly shut down this blog tomorrow, and start hammering on the state for better funding.

Let’s talk about equity in terms of not being able to tell the wealth of a neighborhood by the wealth of course offerings at the local high school.

Until we first see it in this light, and as a greater societal issue of poverty, it’s hard to take seriously the conflation of “equity” with the the logically false goal of “closing the achievment gap.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like Carole Smith, especially her energy, enthusiasm, and her desire to work with stakeholders to find solutions. She ends her e-mail with a quote from Ron Heifetz: “Solutions are achieved when ‘the people with the problem’ go through a process together to become ‘the people with the solution.’”

It is my goal to help our superintendent recognize the problem of approximately half of Portland as one of dramatically unequal opportunity. If you stand on the eastern boundary of PPS and look west, it’s hard to miss that students on the fringes of PPS (and of society) have been getting a progressively worse and worse deal as we strive to “close the achievement gap,” a process which has systematically widened the “opportunity gap.”

Instead of focusing on crudely measured outcomes, largely determined by inputs we have no control over, we need to focus on the inputs over which we have total control.

I firmly believe that if we first address the opportunity gap, gains in closing the achievement gap will follow.

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

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