IS THE BIG TEST HEADED FOR THE BIG CRASH?

“When you battle with your conscience and lose, you win.”
Henry Youngman

It’s been another one of the weeks. The kind that seems to grind you down, and leave you questioning your own grasp of reality. The kind that wears you to the bone, yet the to-do list never seems to shrink. The kind that leaves you with more questions than answers. The kind that seems to have become the “new norm”.

Let’s see if we can’t answer a few questions though, or at the very least, shed some additional light.

TESTING BLUES

Over the last several years, it has begun to dawn on more and more people, that this whole standardized testing thing is a bit of a charade. The only people that it’s really benefit are politicians and bureaucrats.

The test is given in April, yet results don’t arrive until mid-September, way past time to have any impact on students. Research has widely shown that the tests are more a reflection of socio-economic conditions than they are of schools. Students are robbed of valuable instructional time, in order to administer tests. On top of it all, wide-scale standardized testing is an expensive proposition.

This week, for the first time, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recognized all of the above and more,

On September 14, 2021, Governor DeSantis announced that the state will file Legislation to eliminate the common-core based, end-of-year Florida Statewide Assessment and create the new Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (F.A.S.T.). By creating the F.A.S.T. plan, Florida is becoming the first state in the nation to fully implement progress monitoring instead of end-of-year standardized testing, and will fully eliminate Common Core.

The proposal is that Florida will be the first state to move away from the Big Test and instead begin to use progress monitoring in order to track student progress. At face value, this is kind of a big deal, and those who have been fighting against Big Testing should take a moment to indulge in a victory that may be both brief, fleeting. and ultimately unsatisfying.

Education writer Peter Greene has written both a balanced piece for Forbes and a self admittedly unbalanced view for his own blog. Educator Nancy Baily also has an excellent piece. Both do an excellent job of raising legitimate concerns while giving a general overview. In the interest of brevity, always a weakness of mine, I’ll defer to them, but I do have some caveats I’d like to highlight.

The first being, that as of present, DeSantis’s plan is just that a plan. One that needs approval from a couple of key bodies, namely the US Department of Education and the Florida General Assembly. I suspect that approval from the former will be easier than that from the latter.

Many are the legislators that have benefited from the generosity of the testing department’s lobbyists and a politician seldom likes to move from a sure thing. Even when the new thing bears a familiar face.

Big testing is a big business. A lot of money has been made in the name of student outcomes. What was once an occurrence that happened maybe a handful of times in a student’s educational career has grown to an annual event, with ever-increasing importance? The truth is the level of importance attached to the test has grown at a much faster rate than student scores have, but that’s a subject for another day.

As a business, those that cashed the check’s from the country’s state education departments and individual school districts were certainly aware that no matter how profitable a run this was, it couldn’t last forever. So while reaping the gains, it was essential that new products were developed. The old milking a cow in one barn while raising a calf in the other.

Hence the development and increased implementation of screeners. It’s with certainty that I say, I have no doubt that the testing companies have had considerable conversations with decision-makers over the benefits of progress monitoring and are poised to just change the memo line on those checks they’ll continue cashing.

Now you’ll hear screeners referred to by a plethora of different names, but ultimately what we are talking about is assessments that measure knowledge of standards, even though the terms screener, formative assessment, and summative assessment, aren’t interchangeable. I never said this analysis was foolproof.

In Tennessee, as in most states, screeners have been in place for quite some time as part of RTI legislation. All districts have long been required to administer a screener in math and ELA to students 3x a year. In the past, the LEA’s set the assessment calendar and didn’t share the data. This year, that changed.

Per legislation passed during last year’s special session, districts must continue to assess, or screen, three times a year, but now the TNDOE sets the schedule, and LEA’s must turn the data over to the state within 2 weeks after the completion of testing. The state even has gone so far as crafting a designated universal screener that they will pay for if local districts would like to adopt it.

The new law is already in effect and as far as I am aware all of Tennessee’s districts are in compliance and have completed the initial round of progress monitoring.

Now some of you may be scratching your head and thinking, “Wait a minute, if we have brand new, up-to-date, data, why are we celebrating school designations based on a test that was administered 6 months ago? Why are we making decisions based on data generated by students that may or may not currently be enrolled in the schools in question, when the department of education has data generated by students that assuredly are enrolled in and actively receiving instruction in those schools? And what about some comparative analysis between the two sets of data?”

That’s a very good question, and if you are into unicorn hunting, you could throw in questions regarding the results of assessments given to participating students before and after summer school sessions? If our goal is to make data-driven decisions shouldn’t we also commit to using the most current data available?

Do you plan your family’s Fall dinner meals based on what your kid’s tastes were in April? If you do, I suspect you are throwing away a lot of uneaten food.

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that in Tennessee we could get rid of the Big Test, with very few issues. I don’t believe that it’s been properly administered for at least five years, so it’s not like it’s something we are skilled at. The test itself has been regularly changed over the last decade, so it’s not like we have a data set that has any fidelity. And, progress monitoring is already in place with local districts.

Here’s another element to consider, the Big Test supposedly sticks exclusively to the state education standards. The screeners, including the one endorsed by the state, have a component that reportedly measures SEL. So when Nancy Baily tells you that “every keystroke is a data point. Every piece of data is stored and provides a lasting online footprint of a child, their accomplishments, and failures.” And I’d pay close attention to the answer when she asks, “Who’ll be sorting that data and making determinations about how children should progress?”

If you are a teacher, you might want to also ask yourself, who ALL will be having their progress monitored. I’d argue that if the Big Test only comes along once a year, it’s easier to just shut your door and teach than if the assessments are coming in monthly increments. Progress monitoring will make it pretty clear who’s onboard and who’s not. Just saying.

Going back to DeSantis’s announcement and his claim to “fully eliminate Common Core.” If you believe that, I have a bridge in Arizona I’d like to discuss with you. It’s right next to the one that Tennessee’s Governor Lee has been trying to unload for the last year. Need evidence?

Look at who’s currently cashing paychecks in Tennessee – SCORE, Emily Freitag, Candice McQueen, Jared Mrycle, Jared Bingham, and even Commissioner Schwinn herself were all leading proponents for Common Core back in the day and are still exerting influence on Tennessee education policy. Do you think they suddenly had some kind of group epiphany? That they all collectively went down to Bill Lee’s church and got re-baptized in the waters of anti-Common Core? Not likely. It’s more likely that are continuing to pay fidelity to the one church they’ve always worshipped at, the church of the 6-figure paycheck.

I know, that last paragraph probably felt a little personal, but damn I’m tired of a select class continually living high on the hog while the state’s educators are continually left under-compensated and forced to navigate the wreckage of their policy advocacy. Navigation that gets harder and harder every year,

Think about this for a minute, 5 years ago is was considered professionally unacceptable for a teacher to resign mid-semester. Talking to a retired administer this week, we discussed how she used to pursue those teachers who tried to leave before mid-year or summer break. These days, nobody’s pursuing those teachers and their mid-semester departures seem almost commonplace. We all bear responsibility for this further erosion of the profession.

There are a thousand reasons to do away with the Big Test. There are also a thousand reasons why not to shift its oversized influence to progress monitoring.

Let’s try and get it right this time.

EVERYBODY GETS A PRIZE

As of late, Commissioner Schwinn has been embracing her inner Oprah Winfrey – a car for you, and a car for you, and a car for you – it seemed like nearly everybody involved in education in Tennessee was getting an award. But was there any substance to any of those awards?

Mid-week saw the release of the annual list of School designations. Remember these designations were based on a test given 6 months ago in the midst of a pandemic that forced schools to deliver instruction in unprecedented ways. Legislators also placed a hold harmless designation on data generated in the pandemic year. In other words, the data could benefit a district but not hurt it. Which is a ludicrous proposition to begin with.

If you can’t create circumstances where measurements can be assured for accuracy and a true reflection of negative outcomes, how can you assure that they are accurate and reflective of positive outcomes?

Yet here we are. According to the TNDOE,

For the 2020-21 school year, Tennessee had the largest number of schools exiting Priority, Focus, and ATSI status in the state’s history, including:

  • 7 of the 79 Priority schools from 5 of the 8 districts with Priority schools met the exit criteria
  • 18 of the 37 ATSI schools from 12 of the 17 districts with ATSI schools met ATSI exit criteria
  • 108 of the 145 TSI schools from 57 of the 61 districts with TSI schools met TSI exit criteria

Am I the only one checking my back pocket right now to see if it’s been picked?

Let’s see if I got this straight, in a year where the Commissioner and the Governor have refused to shut up about “learning loss”…the state’s most challenged schools have experienced unprecedented success?

Ok…if I believe that…then my next question would be, what was done to deliver that success and what is being done to maintain it? If some of these schools exited due to everybody doing worse, what is there to ensure that they don’t just get re-designated once everybody starts to recover?

Are we really supporting these schools by pulling their additional supports while still navigating a pandemic?

Were all of these schools primarily in-person, hybrid, or virtual? Because if they were either virtual or hybrid, the state has deprived them of some key tools this year that likely contributed to last year’s success.

How many of these districts designated for an exit, are members of the TNDOE’s Best for All designation? Have they all signed on as participants in the state’s tutoring program All Corp tutoring program?

I’m not taking away anything from districts recognized by the list. Hell, I think anybody that showed up last year, and continues to show up this year, deserves recognition as a “Reward School”.

The bottom line is, assessments should not have been given last year. They provide no new pertinent information and no matter how “hold harmless” the intent was, the reality is, results were used to create a list of “winners” and “losers”. Something that was never the intent of lawmakers.

This morning another new announcement of recognition arrives from the TNDOE. In this case, it’s five districts – Bristol, Jackson, Lebanon, Milan, and Williamson – that have been named “Reading 360 Model Districts.” Wonderful news for these districts, but what exactly can they model for MNPS and Shelby County Schools? The department might as well have picked 5 districts from Maine for all it’s worth.

MNPS and SCS make up a little over 20% of all the students in Tennessee. Add in Chattanooga and Knoxville, and you are covering roughly a third. Yet the state can’t be bothered to designate a model that reflects their school experiences.

It’s also probably not coincidental that Jackson and Lebanon have adopted CKLA for curriculum, while the remaining three use Wit and Wisdom.

You get a car, you get a car, a car for you…no car for you.

PARENTS, PARENTS, WHO HAVE THE PARENTS

Turning an eye towards MNPS, at last week’s principal meeting Chief Mason Bellamy threw yet another challenge onto the shoulders of the district’s principals. MNPS recently announced the launch of a brand new spanking parent dashboard. Unfortunately for them, most recognize it for what it is – a slightly modified version of the long-running often problematic parent portal. As a result, few new parents are signing up.

In response, Bellamy proposed that all principals who manage to get over 60% of their parents signed up for the dashboard by October 6, will be permitted to make the October 8th in-service day, a work from home day for school-based staff. In case you were wondering, that’s the Friday before Fall break.

Well Bellamy’s push for parent involvement may be commendable, I would maintain that the best way to get parents enrolled in the dashboard is to, a) make it sure it works properly, and to b) make sure it contains relevant information.

Many parents report problems with enrollment in the portal, and a month after the conclusion of MAP testing I’m still waiting for updated MAP scores. Grades from individual classes are seldom updated, though that’s not the fault of teachers. The district’s multiple platforms just don’t align, hence the continued inability to get progress reports out in a timely fashion.

I also question whether using remote days as a carrot is the proper message to send. Especially when the district is continually trying to convince parents that remote options are for safety. This also seems to send a perhaps unintended message that remote days are the equivalent of “easy days”. Not an honest assessment

QUICK HITS

Here’s an assignment for you teachers. Collect a few of your fellow teachers, and then email your Superintendent that the group of you would like to spend next Wednesday taking a walk in the woods together. Well if you get past the inability to find a sub – though I guess you could try former State Assistant Superintendent Emily Freitag because she’s called for all former educators to apply as subs, so maybe she’ll sub for you – I doubt your request would be met very warmly by your superintendent. But that’s what members of TOSS did this week as part of their 3-day convention. Not only did they spend the afternoon in the woods, but they proceeded to brag about it on social media.

Apparently, Superintendent Dyer ain’t a fan of me for sharing this photo as he blocked me on Twitter after I shared. The point here isn’t to shame anyone, but rather to more carefully consider the messages being sent to teachers. A lesson Mr. Dyer doesn’t appear open to.

I’d also politely suggest that closer inspection of the photo indicates another shortcoming of TOSS. Sometimes it’s not just who’s in the photo, but who’s not in the photo. Just saying.

Taking a moment here to wish a farewell to yet another member of Commissioner Schwinn’s leadership team. HR head David Donaldson is blowing this popsicle stand. Once a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, Donaldson became much less so over that past year. Word is that his farewell speech on a call with superintendents produced nary a dry eye in the house.

September 15th marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month nationally. The mid-month start date was chosen by Congress in order to honor independence days in several Latin countries. In a district where students of Hispanic descent make up about one-third of the student population, it’s especially important for MNPS to recognize the month’s importance.

September is also Literacy Month in Tennessee, and in celebration Commissioner Schwinn has released another entry in her popular video series.  In this one, she makes the assertation that the state of Tennessee is doing everything possible to make sure that all kids love reading and that we are doing everything to accelerate the learning process as fast as possible. Some noble goals but remember that fast doesn’t always equate to good and not every kid is going to love reading. It’s like a treasure chest we hope that when they open it they’ll partake, but even if they don’t want the treasure inside, they’ll still have the skills to access it.

f you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated. Not begging, just saying.

 

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Categories: Education

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