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What’s wrong with standardized testing…this month?

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

LouisCKtestingI’m talking with Dick Kay on WCPT this afternoon about standardized testing.

Tune in to 820 AM, or 92.5 FM (west side of Chicago) 92.7 FM (north) or 99.9 FM (south). Apparently you can also live stream the show here:

Here are some of the topics I hope we’ll be able to cover:

Testing fake facts? There’s a new, racist version of the fake test facts scandal that PURE broke last year, when we exposed a Scantron reading question that was obvious, and falsified, propaganda for charter schools.

The reading passage for that question included this statement: “Multimillionaire Charles Mendel sends his children to a charter school because he believes that that charter schools deliver the highest quality education.” Problem is, there is no such person. Other “facts” in the passage about charter schools were also false.

This month, CPS students have been taking REACH performance exams, which are standardized tests used to measure teacher effectiveness. Students were given REACH pre-tests in the fall, and their “progress” – and part of their teachers’ evaluations – will be determined by the results from these spring tests.

REACH tests are supposedly written by teams of CPS teachers. I say supposedly, because it is hard to imagine that any of our teachers had a hand in the poisonous, idiotic test that showed up on the REACH web site for spring administration.

The test asks students to respond to two commentaries on immigration, both rabidly anti-immigrant and both written by “authorities” who don’t exist. Students are asked, among other things, to decide who is the more “authoritative” of the two fake pundits.

CPS has pulled the test off the site, but still allows the test to be used. They have attempted to excuse the bias by explaining that last fall’s “pre-test” consisted of two pro-immigration essays, so this was a “balance.” OK. Sure.

Keeping in mind that “progress” is determined by the change in student performance from the fall to the spring test and that a large percentage of CPS students are immigrants or children of immigrants, what results do you think CPS expects here?

Trick or test?: As I pointed out on Dick Kay’s show last time, standardized tests are designed for one primary purpose – to rank and sort the test-takers. 50% will always “fail” the test. And the “failures” will more likely be low-income children of color. The test makers guarantee these results by using trick questions, or, more exactly, including what they call a “distractor” answer among the four choices for some questions, that is, an answer that seems sort of right but is not the “wanted” answer.

Read more in my blog post, “Stupid PARCC Tricks” about how Common Core tests are just more of the same. I shared an example from Chris Ball’s presentation at our last More Than a Score forum, of a third grade vocabulary question where the “wanted” definition of the word “cross” is not even listed as a synonym for that word.

There are more examples of tricky test questions in an e-mail I received from a former teacher who was responding to my appearance on Dick Kay’s show earlier this month. You can read her letter in my blog post, “Educators speak out against testing.”

That post also quotes from a recent Tribune letter to the editor by former CPS assessment head Carole L. Perlman, criticizing the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

Louis C.K. and the Common Core: Of course, the trendiest testing issue this month has been Louis C.K.’s Twitter attack on the Common Core.

10,000 people liked this tweet: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!”

Read more of Louis’s tweets in this article from Diane Ravitch, who wrote:

Don’t underestimate what Louis C.K. accomplished. He was able to break through the carefully crafted narrative that had been spun by Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and other advocates for the new standards. He spoke as a father, not a comedian. What he wrote was not funny. His celebrity gave him a platform. His standing as a parent of public school children gave him credibility.

Educators speak out against testing

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Pencil - RedPerhaps Blaine principal Troy LaRiviere’s May 3 letter to the Chicago Sun-Times  emboldened other educators to speak out.

For example, the former head of assessment at CPS, Carole Perlman, wrote this letter to the Chicago Tribune criticizing the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers. “Though superficially appealing, using test scores to evaluate teachers will create more problems than it will solve. Excellent teachers will be erroneously labeled as incompetent, while poor teachers may get a pass. Students will not benefit.”

And just a few days ago, I received this wonderful e-mail from former teacher Judy Tomera, who agreed that I could share her comments:

Dear Julie Woestehoff,                                May 26, 2014

I’m writing to tell you how much I enjoyed you presence on Dick Kay’s show a Saturday or two ago and am looking forward to your next appearance.  I think what you had to say about schools and testing, in particular, is spot on.  It is my opinion after spending about 40 years teaching elementary school (K – 5th grade in rural, urban, and suburban schools) that standardized testing is a waste of time and resources for many reasons, one of which is that they do not test what you want to know about a child.  Many of the questions are ridiculous, designed to lead children astray so the standard bell curve can be preserved.  And, as you well know, the tests are not directly linked to curriculum so they are not a valid indicator of what children have learned in school.

For example:

In first grade in the 80s children were asked to identify which animal lays eggs and fill in the circle below it. (California Achievement Test) The pictures were of an elephant, bunny, snake, and horse.  Enough 6 and 7 years olds were drawn to the bunny (think April and Easter when most testing is done) to elicit the required number of wrong answers to maintain the bell curve.

In third grade in the 2000s on a reading test 3rd graders were asked to find the word in the row that has the same vowel sounds as the first word.  The first word was BEAR and the other words in the list were BEEN, EARS,  HAIR, and HERE.  Many children marked EARS because it had the same vowels, not vowel sounds. That item was also included on purpose to draw children to a wrong answer. I doubt if the children that missed that item would have read the following sentence incorrectly:  The bear had brown ears. Semantics and syntax play an important part in reading correctly. What child who can read would read the sentence as The bear had brown airs, which is the correct response to the question if students had indeed understood the question correctly.

Other examples of deliberate insertion of misleading questions can be identified in most standardized tests. In order to maintain the bell curve, half of the test takers must score less than the 50th percentile in the control groups and half over. Therefore when developing the test items some questions must be more difficult (tricky) or in some cases easier to maintain the bell curve in score distribution of the sample groups.  Questions of recall test memory, not skill. Questions not linked to curriculum are not  useful.  Yes, you are right, testing is a mean trick to play on children.

If you ask most adults, they do not have fond memories of the week of achievement testing. Now in most states it isn’t just in the spring. More is better. It is like getting on the scale every day to see if you have lost weight. It has nothing whatever to do with that goal. Eating less and exercising are better ways of achieving the goal. Time in the classroom providing enriched learning environments and experiences are far better at achieving best student outcomes.

And if you want to know how a child reads, listen to him or her. Fluency, expression, even a few questions of inference or recall are good. And, by the way, it is okay to look back. What good reader doesn’t from time to time. Otherwise, here again, you are just testing memory.

Another practice during testing time is to read aloud test items in the math section to the children who are struggling readers. The logic is that you are not testing math skills if the student is required to comprehend the question by reading it themselves as reading skills are involved.  However, what I found in my classes is that my weaker readers scored higher on the math test than many of the children who in their daily lives demonstrated greater understanding of math concepts. Why not read the math questions to all the children. Oral inflection is a big aid to understanding the written word so students who were read the questions had a big advantage over those who didn’t. You know, level the playing field.

Before I moved to Chicagoland, where I taught in a private school as the public schools could hire two beginning teachers rather than one experienced one like me (but that s another issue), I taught in a public school in Oregon that was rated number 1 in the state.  We would hold workshops two or three times a year to share our program (multiage classrooms) and teaching strategies with teachers and districts throughout the state who would send staff to our school to spend the day with us and our children.  Soon after I moved to NW Indiana, the Oregon State Department of Education instituted standardized testing as means to evaluate effectiveness of schools. How much you improved from year to year was the basis for high evaluation. The more you improved from the previous year, the higher your rank. So my school went from being the best  school in the state to in the middle somewhere simply because our scores, still very high, were not significantly higher than the very high scores from the year before. Schools that had previously scored lower and struggling schools that gained a few points on the outcomes of the test results indeed showed more improvement, though their scores were not in the high range and they got the higher ratings and headlines in the newspaper.  And, as we all know, what is in the newspaper counts.  It is politics.  I felt for the staff, students and parents of my Oregon school for doing an excellent job and not being recognized for that.

Testing is a mirage.  An expensive one.  There are far better ways of showing individual student progress and many schools are using them to communicate with parents.  When parents understand the issues and can see the authentic growth in their children they are pleased.  When they can’t, they and teachers are at least pointed in the direction that encourages improvement.  Test scores, in themselves do not do that.  They are misleading and dishonest and suck the enthusiasm and confidence out of learners.

Thank you for being so articulate in highlighting one of the many problems schools face and leading the way to improvement.  I am in your parade.

Whatever happened to Israel?

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Many of you remember Ismael Vargas, who was PURE’s bilingual trainer and assistant director for many years.

Israel

Israel Vargas

Not as many got to know Ismael’s brother, Israel, who worked for PURE for a couple of years back when we had our offices on Dearborn. Israel was a whiz of an admin asst and translated all of our materials and newsletters into Spanish, which was a wonderful resource for us. But we knew Israel was going to go on to bigger things – we just had no idea how big!

Here’s an announcement that really made my day:

For Immediate Release

May 20, 2014

Roosevelt University assistant provost is Gage Park Commencement speaker

Israel Vargas, assistant provost for college access and targeted recruitment programs at Roosevelt University, will deliver Gage Park High School’s commencement address June 7 at the Arie Crown Theatre.

Vargas, who grew up in the Gage Park area, said that he would talk to the graduating seniors about how earning a high school diploma is a rite of passage that will lead them into adulthood and the next stages of their lives.

“I will congratulate the students and encourage them to take this earned opportunity and make the most of it by further refining their knowledge,” he said.  “They now are equipped to make a difference in our communities and the world.”

Vargas holds two degrees from Roosevelt, a bachelor’s degree in 2006 and a master’s degree in Training and Development in 2008.  Before joining Roosevelt, he was executive director of San Jose Obrero Mission.  His passion for helping others has led him to speak against violence and to advocate for higher education at schools, churches and community events throughout Chicago. Vargas has participated in cease fire marches in Cicero and has received an Award of Excellence by the Office of the Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and recognition by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees.

Located at 5630 S. Rockwell St., Gage Park High School serves the Chicago Lawn, New City and Englewood neighborhoods.  It has 555 students.

***

By the way, Ismael is doing great, too. He is the first Latino working in the Business Licensing Department of the Town of Cicero, and is an assistant pastor at the Vida Abundante/Abundant Life Church as well as official chaplain for the Town of Cicero!

Ismael

Ismael is sworn in as Cicero chaplain

 

 

PSAT for 5-6-14: Tell your congressman to vote no on HR10 to expand charter schools

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

psat_logoThe U.S. House is likely to vote this week on HR10, the charter proliferation bill.

Of course, they call it the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.”

Please take a moment today or tomorrow to call or e-mail your Congressman asking him or her to vote NO on HR10. Here’s the fax that PURE sent to Chicago’s delegation:

Chicago parents oppose charter proliferation in HR10

Look at charter school evidence, not expensive PR

 ___________________________________________________________________________________

This week you will be asked to consider HR10, a bill that funds more charter schools without putting into place adequate accountability requirements. Charter school advocates will try to spin the facts while they ask you to open up the nation’s wallet for more of these privatized programs

Recently, Chicago’s two major newspapers made it very clear that charter schools can be very problematic and do not provide better academic results to justify additional millions of dollars that could be directed towards struggling neighborhood public schools (“Chicago’s Noble charter school network has tough discipline policy; critics say too many students are being expelled,” Chicago Tribune, 4/7/14; “Charter schools show little difference in school performance,” Chicago Sun-Times, 4/7/14).

A research report released yesterday by the National Education Policy Center, “Wait, Wait. Don’t Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to Be Skeptical About Charter Waitlist Numbers,” concludes that charter advocates vastly overestimate the number of students on their waiting lists. No doubt because charter schools have not proven to be better than traditional schools, privatization promoters are using the “waiting list” argument to explain the urgent need for Congress to pay for more charter schools seats. Yet the truth is that even this argument is shaky.

PURE ASKS YOU TO :

  • Pay attention to the research, not the rhetoric about charter schools.
  • Demand more accountability for charter schools, including a requirement that they hold open, public meetings and provide transparency on student discipline and attrition.
  • Understand that what parents really want is a high-quality, well-funded neighborhood school.
  • Vote no on HR10 in its current form.

Thank you!

Testimony to the CPS Truancy Task Force

Thursday, May 1st, 2014
testanger

Student drawing from Wheelock Bebell Haney study

I prepared testimony for one of two public hearings held by the Chicago Public Schools Truancy Task Force, a body mandated by state legislation. The meeting, held in a bank community room on the South Side, attracted more than 150 people, most of whom (including myself) were not given a chance to speak due to the very leisurely manner in which the chair conducted the meeting resulting on only 45 minutes of a 2-hour meeting actually consisting of public comment.

I was able to submit my testimony as written. Here are some excerpts:

Since 1996, the Chicago Public Schools has used various standardized tests as high-stakes measures first just for students, for their promotion after grades 3, 6 and 8, and, more recently as high-stakes measures for teacher, principal and school evaluation. My purpose in testifying here today is to share some concerns about the connection between the high-stakes testing and over-testing of our students and student motivation, truancy and drop out

My comments today will highlight some points raised in three scholarly reports, and offer some recommendations.

The first report is the 2003 paper, “The Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning,” by Audrey L. Amrein and David C. Berliner.

The authors pose the question “Do high-stakes testing policies lead to increased student motivation to learn? And do these policies lead to increased student learning? No, according to four independent achievement measures.”

They add, “The evidence shows that such tests actually decrease student motivation and increase the proportion of students who leave school early. Further, student achievement in the 18 high-stakes testing states has not improved on a range of measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, despite higher scores on the states’ own assessment.”

The second report is the 2000 study, “High Stakes Testing and High School Completion,” by Clarke, Haney and Madaus. The conclusion of this report is that “high stakes testing programs are linked to decreased rates of high school completion.”

Some of the report’s finding:

  • In schools with proportionately more students of low socio-economic status that used high stakes minimum competency test, early drop out rates – between eighth and tenth grades – were 4 to 6 percentage points higher that in schools that were similar but for the high-stakes test requirement.”
  • Students who performed poorly on the Florida high school graduation tests were more likely to leave school, but that this relationship was affected by students’ grades…for students with moderately good grades, failure on the test was associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of dropping out of school.
  • Research findings in Texas suggest that because of the requirement that student pass graduation tests as well as other grade-level exit tests, some 40,000 of the state’s 1993 sophomores dropped out of school.
  • Research on the effects of grade retention has generally concluded that, at least beyond the early elementary grades, its harms outweigh its purported benefits, in particular, being overage for grade as a results of being held back eats away at students’ sense of academic worth. The impact is especially severe for black students.

A third report is the 2000 “What can Student Drawings Tell Us About High-Stakes Testing in Massachusetts?” by Wheelock, Bebell and Haney. Their conclusion is that the majority of drawings portrayed students as “anxious, angry, bored, pessimistic, or withdrawn from testing.”

Stupid PARCC Tricks

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Entertainer 5Tuesday night’s More Than a Score Forum was great. CPS parents Julie Fain, Chris Ball, and Sherise McDaniel, and teachers Michelle Strater Gunderson (CPS) and Paul Horton (U of Chicago Lab School), powerfully covered topics including testing and school closings, alternative assessment, opting out, and Common Core. Thanks also to Carolyn Brown who emceed.

Chris’s presentation on sample questions from the PARCC Common Core tests was a highlight – both in Chris’s humorous presentation and in the amazing absurdity of the questions themselves which, as Chris pointed out, are the ones they WANT us to see. (PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is the consortium that is writing the Common Core tests Illinois will use beginning next year.)

Everyone at the forum felt that more people need to see the sample questions and judge for themselves whether these are the “better tests” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised us.

The example I will share today is a simple one. A third-grade test includes a story about creatures who were having a bad day. It includes this sentence: “And they were cross — oh so cross!” One question asks what the word “cross” means in the story. The choices are:

a) excited

b) lost

c) upset

d) scared.

Here’s how dictionary.com defines the adjective “cross”: “angry and annoyed; ill-humored; snappish: Don’t be cross with me. Synonyms: petulant, fractious, irascible, waspish, crabbed, churlish, sulky, cantankerous, cranky, ill-tempered, impatient, irritable, fretful, touchy, testy.”

Apparently the wanted answer is “upset,” which does not appear as any of the choices above. It’s just not a very good synonym for “cross.”

But third graders are supposed to choose a “right” answer that the dictionary doesn’t even suggest.

Don’t even get me started on the Pinkerton Pig fiasco. Check out Chris’s PARCC PowerPoint here.

Better tests? Makes me feel kind of “testy.”

Gated communities for already advantaged students

Monday, April 28th, 2014

SEHSchart

Today’s story by Chicago Sun-Times Watchdog reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco exposes the imbalance of white students in Chicago’s four north side selective enrollment high schools, and the fact that the disproportionate number of white students has become even more lopsided since the courts ended the Desegregation Consent Decree in 2009.

Sun-Times figures show that white students made up an average of 41 percent of freshmen admitted to Jones, Whitney Young, Northside Prep, and Walter Payton over the past four years, compared to 29 percent in 2009. The overall enrollment of white students in CPS is about 9%.

I met with Novak and Fusco as they were preparing the story. I made the point (which did not specifically end up in their story…) that test scores unfairly act to keep low-income students out of selective enrollment high schools, since test scores are most closely aligned to economic status.

But their analysis showed that the system is even more insanely unfair. For 80% of the applicants, test scores are factored in with census tract data in a 4-tier system that actually forces students from households with an average income of $42,000 near 95th and Halsted to compete with the test scores of Gold Coast students whose families make over $300,000 per year.

How do you suppose that match-up usually turns out?

Back in 2009, we recommended that the selective enrollment high school process factor in actual family income, not community income, and that it use income level to offset test score advantages of white and higher-income students. Even cynical PURE didn’t suspect the extent to which CPS seems to have actually rigged the system.

Pander Prep

Mayor Emanuel’s proposal to locate a new Obama College Prep on the north side rather than the south side where the President worked and lived — and where the most under-resourced and least popular selective enrollment high schools are – is just one more example of the utter cluelessness of Chicago’s white power elite. One point of mine that did make it into print in the Sun-Times story is that the explosion of the most attractive selective enrollment “seats” on the north side didn’t happen until after race was removed as an criteria for acceptance.

Whose schools???

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.
@pureparents