You’ve probably already heard about NY State Education Commissioner John King cancelling his town hall-style forums, in which he’d planned to talk about Common Core and testing and listen to concerns from the community. It turns out that the community is very concerned. King decided to suspend that plan because the first forum was “co-opted by special interests.” Hmm. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that as someone especially interested in my own kids, kids in general, and teachers I respect, I was planning to be there on Wednesday at Shen. But since he decided not to show up, I got a bee in my bonnet about posting information.
First, a bit more about these town halls with Commissioner King. (Update: The latest news is that they’re trying to reschedule meetings.) The only video that I saw of the town hall to end all town halls was the footage of the comment period, colorfully named Commissioner King Gets Spanked. I didn’t watch all of it, but what I watched seemed about as rowdy as I’d expect, given the situation, but King called foul on many issues, all the way from the obvious–that folks were bringing up that his own kids attend a private Montessori school–to more disputed claims of slurs. In my search for information I also found a video of another recent town hall-style meeting with the Commissioner. That one runs over two hours, and in the 40 minutes that I’ve managed to watch, the folks making comments were excruciatingly polite while telling King that everything he’s been doing is awful. Seriously: the first guy presented him with a small gift; another guy asked, please, how can I deal with all of these special ed children who are nowhere near capable of doing this work and finally, when he realized that he was getting no answers, sat down with a weak little “thank you;” and the next guy said something about how “your vision was wonderful. . . .” And somewhere at this point I just decided to turn it off. Since the town hall, there’s been plenty of criticism, including the Washington Post blog entitled How New York’s education commissioner blew it big time and a change.org petition requesting King’s termination. So, clearly, plenty of people are pissed off at King.
I am also pretty pissed off, but I wasn’t sure where to channel the anger. I was chatting with a friend the other day and she agreed, saying something like, “I’m really angry about how school is going, but I don’t know whose fault it is that things are going so terribly.” Exactly. That’s been my problem. In between fretting about school funding over the past couple of years, I’ve also noticed that school has changed for the worse. So I decided to try to figure out exactly what’s going on, and who’s making school life so much worse, and put it all together for you. Just in case you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s going so wrong, and who needs to hear about it, too. This is based mostly on online research and asking for information from educators. I think it’s all correct, but it’s pretty confusing, so if you see anything that’s flat-out wrong, please let me know! Also, most of my sources are pretty biased on their various issues, and I really tried my best to take in as much information as possible to come to my own conclusions. My opinions might evolve, and I’m sure that there’s plenty of information that I’ve missed. Feel free offer additional sources of information or firsthand accounts via the comments.
I know I hate all the testing, so I decided to start there.
What tests are kids taking these days?
- New York State Assessments for English Language Arts and Mathematics are taken by student in grades 3 to 8 as required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. These are exactly the same tests taken across New York State public schools, and last year was the first year that they followed the Common Core, so they are also sometimes called the CCSS tests, for Common Core, state-standardized. If I’m understanding this correctly, the plan is that in the future, tests will be created by PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of a bunch of states and the District of Columbia. Last year’s tests were created by Pearson, and were criticized for being far too long and for including a passage that was available to students using the Pearson preparation materials ahead of time. These were the tests that kids took in April, that we were warned would have pretty terrible scores, and the results were then sent home in late summer/early fall (remember? they addressed them to your child instead of to the parent or guardian?). For more information on these tests from NY State, you can check out EngageNY.org. For a summary of how your school and all other schools performed on these exams, you can click this link. But be warned that the document is huge–1,979 pages. If your child’s in my child’s school system, I’ll give you a hint: skip to the 1540s.
- APPR testing includes the NYS Assessments described above as well as regents exams, but it also includes other testing. If you’ve heard about teachers’ evaluations being directly tied to their students’ performance on tests, these are the tests. So, first, APPR stands for Annual Professional Performance Review, and it’s a new process of evaluating teachers. Teacher assessments are based on 60% local supervision/teacher observation on the district level and 40% on testing of one form or another. 20% (of the 40%) is based on “growth” as shown via the state tests for grades 4 to 8 in English Language Arts and Math (the tests above) or Student Learning Objective Exams (SLOs) in other areas or for other grades. For SLOs, schools can use locally-developed plans approved by the state, or there is a list of NYS-approved private vendors. For example, in Niskayuna, the kids take the NWEA’s MAP test, which is computer-adaptive. In fact, they take it at the beginning of the year, midway through, and then at the end of the year, with the plan that if students are not progressing at midyear, teachers can adjust what they’re doing for these students. If you’re not sure what test your school’s doing, here’s a list of approved APPR plans for various school districts. If you hadn’t heard that public school children took tests in gym, art, or music at the very beginning of the year even if they were in kindergarten, they do: those are the SLOs, and they tend to be created for district-wide or region-wide use, with examples and instruction from the state education department. The final 20% is assessments that the school districts determine locally. In our school district, for example, they’ll use cumulative math final exams for this portion. Theoretically, school districts can attempt to decrease the impact of these tests on their children in various ways. For example, “specials” teachers who see many students for specials may test only select grades to qualify for the state minimum (just over half the students that they teach) each year or they might develop assessments that are performance-based in a manner that’s not a paper-and-pencil exam. Teachers receive “grades” of Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, or Ineffective, and when it comes to these test-based components, these are based on student growth, not proficiency. So teachers will do better if the kids bomb out at the beginning of the year and do well at the end. The first results of these assessments have come out, and theoretically, they’re supposed to be available to parents. But many teachers and administrators don’t like the new APPR system, and this Open Letter of Concern Regarding New York State’s APPR Legislation for the Evaluation of Teachers and Principals offers a clear summary of why. You can open this pdf and do a search for your school district to see if anyone you know has signed this letter. In many districts, you’ll have to go out of your way to contact an administrator to find out what these teacher grades are, in case you’re wondering whether these evaluations correlate with what you know about the teachers involved.
What else has changed lately, besides these tests?
New York State is also implementing the Common Core. The New York State Regents adopted the Common Core in 2010, but it only really “hit us” last year. Common Core is described as a state-led initiative by a consortium of 18 states and the District of Columbia, but others argue that it was basically forced through by Obama’s “Race to the Top” and/or sponsored and paid for by Bill Gates. It’s acknowledged all-around, I think, that during the “Race to the Top” competition for federal funding of schools, common standards and assessments formed a significant portion of criteria for judging which states would win grants. Leaving its origins aside for the moment, the idea was to try to, you know, do better: really master the basics and think critically. An example is math. Kids are required to learn fewer different kinds of operations, but they’re supposed to learn them in a deeper way. So, for example, J is not memorizing her times tables in third grade. Instead, she began last year, and has continued into this year, doing many math problems that are picture- and concept-oriented. Instead of saying “2 times 2 is 4, 2 times 3 is 6,” there’s a lot of talk about how each child has two cookies, so if there are four kids, how many cookies is that in all? And what about if half of them are burnt, how many are still tasty? And then how many cookies should each child have? There’s also a lot of drawing bar graphs that have to be labeled in a precise way. Generally, it feels like my daughter spends about one-third of her time doing math and about two-thirds of her time drawing pictures. I actually like the approach, as a first approach, but then it just becomes monotonous and we’re ready to move on already. I’m sure that there’s some proportion of kids for whom this sort of visualization is very helpful. It’s just that my daughter is not one of those children. And this tends to be the major critique of common core: in practice, our kids don’t have that much in common. They learn differently, and it feels like all the kids–math whizzes, kids with significant challenges and/or IEPs, and everyone else–are supposed to be brought into line with raised standards for everyone. If you learn about the Common Core via Teaching is the Core from the NYS education department, it sounds just wonderful. And maybe parts of it could be? Another item I’ve noticed is that vocabulary and spelling are very, very challenging. Like, you think that someone actually gave your kid the wrong worksheet at the beginning of the year. And this is the deal with Common Core: the plan is that it’s supposed to be challenging, but is it challenging in a good way, because kids rise to the occasion, or challenging in a way that’s just not going to reach some kids at all? It’s not clear to me, and I’m not a curriculum expert. But it feels like the Common Core is getting conflated with over testing and APPR for many people. It’s quite possible that there’s a great deal to value in Common Core, but the implementation and immediate testing at a time when schools everywhere are already stressed by budget constraints has blackened its reputation considerably.
Beyond the Common Core itself, there are the Common Core Modules. Many children who took the CCSS New York State Assessments and the teachers who taught them were completely demoralized for a variety of reasons, such as because the tests were too long for them to do their best, because they were unprepared by teachers who didn’t have enough information ahead of time, or because parts of the test were developmentally inappropriate. And some lucky children did just fine. Predictably, those who pretty much always do well, did pretty well (and if a mother gloated about this on Facebook, just “hide” them). Meanwhile, the kids who’ve historically tested poorly tested even more poorly than usual, and many of their teachers were labeled “Developing” or “Ineffective,” often in defiance of reality. Also, many parents and teachers are concerned that their children were inadequately prepared, and they’d like more information about the tests for next time. Except that they’re not supposed to “teach to the test,” so no one’s allowed to see the test. Instead, New York is offering up Common Core Modules as concrete information to help teachers prepare their students. These modules are being greeted with mixed reactions. For example, a teachers who is new to a particular grade and who needs to prepare curriculum for a straightforward subject like math might appreciate this instructional support, while a veteran English teacher might be annoyed by modules that suggest specific scripts or techniques that won’t be as effective as what she’s developed through trial and error with kids. Or an early elementary reading specialist might think she knows better than a bunch of people who are neither K-3 teachers not early childhood professionals. Most teachers–especially the good ones–are used to teaching their students in a more creative and individualized way, so they’re not necessarily psyched about the modules, either. So while the State Education Department presents the modules as a way to support teachers in adapting to Common Core, many teachers (and parents) see it as an insidious step toward fully scripting the classroom experience, devaluing teachers’ professionalism and treating children like products of educational factory. Meanwhile, with the intense focus on “before and after” results, many kids seem inundated with pre-tests along with the usual quizzes or tests they’d see as part of everyday curricula.
With a “perfect storm” of insufficient funding; Common Core; changing the assessments to reflect the new CC standards; assessing teachers based on student tests; tests that may or may not be well-written, developmentally appropriate, or fair; and an overall increase in testing, both in non-traditional “specials” and as more evidence to show growth, school life has become more stressful for everyone lately. But is it all bad, or, if not, what needs fixing, and what might be a step in the right direction?
Now, back to me and my world.
Here’s what’s annoyed us particularly at our house.
Problem: J was crying over her NWEA exams last year, and she was pretty upset this year, too. She does well, but she encounters questions that are way beyond her (computer adaptive, remember?) and even though we’ve told her that that’s a sign she’s doing well, it makes her feel stupid and awful. Most recently she spent just under an hour and a half doing ELA and had a question on Greek roots
Response: After a bit of research, I was inclined to skip the NWEA MAP testing altogether. This is really the test that causes us stress, and if it were used only for judging teachers, I’d be done. But at our school we do a midpoint MAP test and apparently there’s been some re-orienting of lessons to address issues, particularly among high scorers because obvious improvements are difficult when proficiency is already pretty high. So I’ll ask some teachers at our school if they think it’s useful for them.
Problem: M is not allowed to read a book when she’s done with the NY State Assessments. They don’t want kids to rush through the tests
Response: I asked about this, and it’s a school district policy. I’d assumed that they didn’t want the readers to rush, but it seems like the impact is more on the kids who are still in mid-test, because seeing others pull out their books freaks them out. This is where I have to just be grateful that my child is bored instead of stressed and struggling to finish. We’ll suck it up.
Problem: J’s math is freakin’ ridiculous–repetitious and irritating.
Response: This is a Common Core critique, but the truth is that pre-CC, much of M’s math felt repetitious and irritating, too. Really, the solution would be to home school so that we could go at exactly the right pace, but I just don’t have the patience for that.
Here are some general issues that are making me mad.
- Veteran teachers and educators I respect are being judged unfairly
- Children who aren’t great test takers are suffering.
- Schools are spending more time on testing and preparing for tests at the expense of more valuable experiences, and they’re spending money on tests that could be spent better elsewhere.
- I think tests for the littlest kids and tests in things like art are ridiculous.
- In the video about the Common Core, a girl said that she’d “learned how to interpret a poem correctly” and a little piece of my soul crumpled up and died. I mean, they seriously chose that as a clip?
So, at whom, exactly, am I mad, and what’s my plan now?
After all this, I’ve got some general conclusions for myself. I feel like our school district’s doing the best that they can. I’m not opposed to Common Core or even the broad ideas behind “Race to the Top.” I think there’s something to be said for coordinating between different states, because people move around here in the US. I hate the emphasis on standardized tests, I hate the standardized tests used to gauge teacher performance, and I’ve pretty much narrowed most of my hostility down to New York State and how it’s implementing all of this while not addressing funding problems.
I know that many people are refusing to allow their kids to take tests, but I’m not inclined to do that at this point. Our administrators have made it clear that they don’t want us to do that (and if teachers don’t agree, they’re not saying), and I feel like I need to support them. If my children were not great at taking tests or if they had learning challenges I would refuse for sure, but much as J the stress bunny doesn’t love them, both of my kids are more likely to be stressed at the idea of not doing what everyone else is doing than they are about taking the tests.
Instead, I’ll be sending letters to Commissioner King and my local representatives telling them what I think.
In trying to figure all of this out, I found a bunch of other information, so I’m sharing it with you.
Information about testing in New York State:
- EngageNY.org is developed and maintained by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to support the implementation of key aspects of the New York State Board of Regents Reform Agenda. This is the official web site for current materials and resources related to the Regents Reform Agenda. Not to spoil the surprise or anything, but they think that everything is going swell!
- This link takes you to an overview by EngageNY of the timeline transitioning to Common Core assessments.
- Educate the State-New York describes itself as “Spreading the truth about Race to the Top, Common Core, and corporate education reform. Educate the State is a grassroots movement dedicated to informing, educating, and calling to action.”
- New York State Allies for Public Education describes itself as “supporters of Public Education who believe excessive testing and inappropriate sharing of private student data without parental consent threatens the futures of our students, our schools and our state.” Among other things, they have a list of school districts who’ve adopted resolutions against standardized testing.
- Truth About Testing supports legislation to make public the cost and time spent on testing, to stop unnecessary testing of kids in grades k-2, and to protect the privacy of testing students
- Critiques of Pearson from Alan Singer on Huffington Post and Kathleen Porter-Magee via The Washington Post
- The White House’s Race to the Top page cites improving accountability and assessments of teachers and students; CCST and APPR are New York’s response
Information about the APPR Process:
- NYSUT (the New York State Union of Teachers) offers has a page called Learn More About Teacher Evaluations as well as What You Need to Know About SLOs
- EngageNY.org has a page on SLOs along with sample SLOs
- The list of NY State approved local assessment exams
- List of school districts’ approved APPR plans
- Open Letter of Concern Regarding New York State’s APPR Legislation for the Evaluation of Teachers and Principals
Information about Common Core, generally:
- The National Governors Association Common Core State Standards information page
- Teaching is the Core is a video produced by the NY State education department
- Children of the Core is a website and book critiquing Common Core
- @THECHALKFACE offers up information on supporters of Common Core
- Stop Common Core in New York State
- American Principles Project post arguing against the Common Core
- Mercedes Schneider linking Bill Gates to the Common Core on her blog deutsch29
- A tough critique of Common Core on Early Childhood Education
Now that you’ve got all of this information (at your fingertips! my free service to you!), are you ready to do something?
- The most important single action seems to be to contact people and tell them what you think. Offer specific examples from your own experience, explain what’s good or bad from your perspective, and what changes you’d like to see. A list of contact information is below.
- Considering refusing to take the tests? Check out An FAQ on refusing tests via Western New Yorkers for Public Education and Does participation rate affect school funding? guide via NYS Allies for Public Education. I get the general impression that many administrators are opposed to refusing the test because they fear repercussions for their districts, while teachers are a mixed bag, with some strongly supporting skipping the tests entirely, but many of them unwilling or unable to say that within their school community.
- If you’d like to participate in organized protests or actions, check out the links above and “like” organizations on Facebook or follow them on Twitter for updated action items.
- Comment with additional information that you think will be helpful.
State representatives (I’ve used Albany contact information instead of district offices here):
- Commissioner of Education John King, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 474-3852 or mail to New York State Education Department, 89 Washington Avenue, Albany, New York 12234
- Governor Andrew Cuomo: email email@example.com or call (518) 474-8390 or fax 518-474-1513 or mail to The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York State, NYS State Capitol Building, Albany, NY 12224
- Speaker of the House, Sheldon Silver: email Speaker@assembly.state.ny.us or call 518-455-3791 or fax 518-455-5459 or mail to LOB 932, Albany, NY 12248
- Co-Senate Majority Leader Senator Dean Skelos: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 455-3171 or fax 518-426-6950 or mail to Legislative Office Building, Room 909 Albany, NY 12247
- Co-Senate Majority Leader Senator Jeffrey Klein: email email@example.com or call 518-455-3595 or fax 718-822-2321 or mail to Legislative Office Building, Room 913 Albany, NY 12247
- Senate Education Chair, John Flanagan: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 518-455-2071 or fax 518-426-6904 or mail to Room 805 Legislative Office Building, Albany, NY 12247
- Assembly Education Chair, Catherine Nolan: email NolanC@assembly.state.ny.us or call 518-455-4851 or fax or mail to LOB 836 Albany, NY 12248
- The New York State Education Department’s Board of Regents who “are responsible for the general supervision of all educational activities within the State.” There are the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and Chancellor Emeritus who serve at large as well as 14 members who each serve a specific region (check the map here to find your representative).
- President Barack Obama: “If possible, email us! This is the fastest way to get your message to President Obama.” Or check here for other contact information.
- US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: okay, this one was tough, so if someone finds a direct link to his contact information, I’d love it. I did find his Facebook page.
- US Senator for New York Charles Schumer: here’s a link to his online contact form, or Albany office is phone 518-431-4070, fax 518-431-4076, or mail to Leo O’Brien Building, Room 420, Albany, NY 12207
- US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions: is it me, or is that a lot? And the acronym is help: how appropriate!
- US Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand: here’s a link to her online contact form, or Albany office is phone (518) 431-0120, fax (518) 431-0128, or mail to Leo W. O’Brien Federal Office Building, 11A Clinton Avenue, Room 821 Albany, NY 12207
- US Congressional Representatives vary according to where you live in the Capital District, so check here to do a zip code search in the upper right, but it’s likely that you’re represented by Chris Gibson, Paul Tonko, or Bill Owens, so hopefully one of those guys sounds familiar to you.
Okay! I hope that this information is helpful to you and that it’s made what’s going on a bit clearer to you. This took me some time. Please, if you’re concerned about any of these issues yourself, take the time to do something about it.