Standardized Testing in School

I love how my kids are becoming more insightful, both of them have shown a lot of that lately and today Jake dropped a great bomb.

Katie: “Oh, we’ve got a rally today at school.”

Jake: “What makes them think that a rally is going to make us ‘excited’ about CST tests this week?”

Atta boy.  He get’s it.  Rally’s DON’T get kids excited to spend the next 4 days this week bubbling tests in a quiet, boring, static environment.  NOTHING get’s kids motivated for these tests, unless they have some intrinsic motivation or competitiveness.  But the reality is that by 6-7-8th grade, all kids have been beaten over the head by these tests and the “test prep” that happens year long but ramps up the week prior (or longer).

And when the kids are told that these are “the most important tests you’ll ever take” because it will determine what college you get into, that’s BS also.  But that’s what the principal’s and teachers are asked to say, because they need the scores to be as high as can be.  Doesn’t matter if they stress out some of the kids or turn off many, many others with a transparent lie.  These are NOT the most important tests and they know it.

Here’s the thing.  These tests (in California) only measure Language Arts (English), Social Science, Science (but not in every grade) and Math.  California’s test are what are called “criterion referenced”, which measure, in the words of the California Department of Education, “the California content standards in ELA, mathematics, science, and history-social science.”  That means they only measure what California thinks is important (but this may change soon). Read more here.

Almost all of the questions are multiple choice (maybe all, it’s been 4 years since I saw one) and most competent humans understand that multiple choice tests do not come close to effectively measuring knowledge or ability.  “Life is not a Multiple Choice Test”.

Beyond the arguments about how good/bad the actual test is, let’s talk more about how school districts use the test and how scores on the tests are used by districts, state departments of education and the Feds.

It fails from the top.  Tests are used by the Federal Department of Education (www.doe.gov) to evaluate the effectiveness of a state.  The state Dept. of Ed (DOE) then uses those test scores to evaluate and grade school districts and individual schools.  The school districts put immense pressure on principals to “get your scores up”, even as the state cuts funding, class sizes increase and teachers are laid off.  I feel sorry for the principals in this situation, they get heat from above and also from the teachers that they almost are required to badger to improve scores.

Here’s a situation:  Teacher A has been teaching for 15 years, has a good curriculum, knows the material and engages the students.  Because this teacher is able to handle a tough class, sometimes (a lot) the principal may drop a few extra “difficult” students in the room.  These students can be a challenge but let’s say that this teacher is able to reach most of them because the class is active and they are motivated by the teacher.  Then comes this 4 day testing thing, which the kids can’t stand because it’s “boring”.  Which it is.  They are told by the principal that “these are very important tests” but the kids know that they won’t be graded on them and that the tests are only important to the adults.  So, without real motivation to do well, many of the kids, difficult and not so difficult, just flow through the test and don’t put a lot of effort into it.  Can you guess what happens?  Yep, scores are not as high as perhaps they should be, principals catch heat from above, teachers are asked to do more “test prep”, which is only teaching to the test (and usually not fun or motivating, because the kids know what you’re doing), etc.

In the near future, that teacher may be given a “grade” based on the scores of the students on these tests. And even though this teacher succeeds in improving the reading/writing/science/math/social science knowledge and ability of his/her students, it won’t be reflected on the test.  Regardless of the reality, the teacher may be labeled “ineffective”.

Oh, wait, that already happened in NYC and Los Angeles.  And one teacher in LA actually committed suicide after his name and test scores of his students were posted online by the LA Times.  And Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education for Pres. Obama, applauded the publication of scores for teachers.  Until he thought it was a bad idea and pulled back.  Figure it out Arne.

It’s a bad situation and it’s only being made worse. Everybody wants “accountability” and a simple, “standardized” way to grade students, teachers, principals, schools and districts.  But that is not possible with a multiple choice test.

I agree that we need some form of testing, so that we can evaluate what is happening in the classroom.  But teachers do that every day, every minute when they are walking around the room, asking questions, “checking for understanding” and, yes, giving tests.

Solution:  trust the teachers and principals to run the school, have district level assessments that include reading, writing and analysis rather than multiple choice tests and provide the funding for the administration and grading of those assessments.

By the way, you can also “Opt Out” of testing for your kids.  Here’s some information on that:  Opt Out

Information on California’s tests here.

*** New info:  Schools may get scores back in a few weeks rather than months.  Which is good.  *****  Read about it here.

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Where did the pragmatists go? Common Ground…

As you may have seen in a previous post, I spent some quality time in Las Vegas recently with a group of college friends.  Mixed into that group were some additional friends of friends, mostly law partners and other attorney’s from one of my friends law firm.  While my friend would be labeled in his Orange County neighborhood as a “bleeding heart liberal” (as I might too), the reality is something different and the same could be said for the others with us.

Some broad generalizations about this group of intelligent, successful attorney’s and businessmen, which included my friends from college: wealthy, hardworking, many are the first in their family to be this successful, conservative on the surface but that depended on the subject. But the nicest part of hanging out with them was that I think we all got a good look at what could be in California and the US if we could get more folks together like us and make some changes.

We found common ground in our discussions that ranged from public employee unions, pensions, taxes, public education, college, etc. The kind of common ground that I don’t see our elected officials finding because of the vitriolic language and attitudes common in political circles.

We listened to each other and learned a little.  Those not involved in education thought that perhaps paying teachers more money would bring a higher quality educator, a great idea I thought but just one part of a bigger puzzle that we ended up talking about.  Smaller class sizes plus training and support for principals and other in the administration side should be included in that conversation. The leadership on each school site can vary dramatically and affect the entire school culture. This group of men understood the value of creating good leaders, in any industry or endeavor and by having a civil conversation instead of calling each other names, we found common ground.

Don’t get me wrong, this was done over many adult beverages and in between placing bets on basketball teams that sapped our my meager funds. We didn’t solve the worlds problems and were in a comfortable, friendly environment where we could kick ideas around without any real pressure from constituent groups.  But….it showed me that at least there are some realistic people around and gave some hope that we’ll pull out of this mess in California, some day.  When the Republicans decide that Grover Norquist doesn’t have the juice he thinks he does and the Democrats convince their friends in Labor that changes must occur for the good of the whole, maybe it’ll happen. Meaning, that when the elected officials have the guts to make the right decision, regardless of the consequences to their term limited so called “career”, we might see some improvement.

I think it was former Senator John Burton who said: “If you can’t take their money and still tell them no, you don’t deserve the money” or something to that effect.  Lobby groups can pay for “access” and take you to lunch but you have to be up front and clear with them that, while you appreciate the free meal (or contribution, or whatever) your position is your own and it may not always match with the lobbyist.

Others have said it before but maybe that’s what’s missing in Sacramento: wine, beer, betting and conversations.  I think I’ve heard the boys at Calbuzz lament this too…

Las Vegas, Good Friends, College and Parents

Just returned from what used to be a sort of annual trip to Vegas with old college buddies, put on hiatus for the past two years for all kinds of good reasons. But the reason’s for going I think out weigh staying home and saving some cash. It’s important to keep connections to your friends and this is one good way of doing so. The details of the trip are so mundane compared to the bad old days that if you’re looking for that, don’t bother. And I wouldn’t tell anyway. I could have titled the post “I just got back from Vegas and my butt hurts”… from bowling, you dirty minded people.

A little background on this group. When I got out of high school, I had zero desire to head off to a 4 year college, nor did I have the best grades. Delta College (a community college) in Stockton was the destination, with a hazy goal of finishing in 2 years and taking off to wherever I could get in. Fortunately, I enjoyed History and Political Science, got involved a little bit and somehow was accepted to UCLA. But not UCSB, which is a good thing and a story for another day.

In any event, not knowing anybody in Westwood and having never actually been on the campus, I took a trip down, found an apartment with 3 random dudes and settled in. They had a party before school started, it was a boring train wreck and out of desperation, I wandered the apartment complex looking for the other party that I could hear. Met three guys there, told them we had a keg back at the lame party, they came along and turned out they knew some of my friends from Lodi. One thing led to another, I went to fraternity rush at their house, found out that this particular fraternity did not believe in hazing and all of that crap, I got invited in, moved out of my apartment asap and lived in a frat house for 3 years. It’s important to note that as a transfer, I didn’t want to deal with some punk 19 year old kid yelling at me, making me drink whatever he handed me, etc. So the non-hazing, no BS, you can move in right away thing really appealed to me. Intramural sports teams, help with what classes to pick, a tolerant attitude compared to other fraternities, assistance in getting jobs on campus, all of that came with this fun group of 70+ young men. More to the story another time but suffice to say, this is a group of dudes that I grew up with in many ways.

Fast forward to a year ago, when one of these friends lost his father after a long battle, after overcoming his own health scare a few years prior. Then two months ago, another friend lost his very healthy and fit dad to a series of strokes, at age 62. Remember, all of these friends are age 40-44 at the most, so we’re not that damn old. And just in the past 3 years, I’ve seen guys my age pass away for any number of reasons.

So the idea of bringing a few of us all back to Vegas, some who haven’t been in years, to pick up our friends spirits (he lives in Vegas now too) was a good idea and my lovely wife told me to go, before I even asked. I don’t deserve her sometimes. And I dig Las Vegas.

Now, the upside to this particular trip was that I got to see these friends, hang with some of their buddies who I’ve been around before and get along with well (funny how that seems to happen most of the time if you choose good friends) and bet on March Madness from the comfort of a good sports book. And the Presidential Suite we got to hang out in for a while on Friday was fantastic, thanks to our friend in Vegas who used to work for the casino we were at.

Makes me realize how fortunate I am to have had great experiences with people who continue to be good friends after 20+ years and who are solid citizens (never convicted at least). I got lucky to get into UCLA and bump into three guys at a party and I’m not happy that it’s beginning to take people passing away for us to get together but sometimes that’s how it works out.

Steve Martin, talking on the 92nd Street YMCA pod cast that I listened to this morning, (Funny People, download his and George Carlin), spoke about a friend who had lost both parents in tragic ways and told SM that “if you have anything to clear up with your parents, do it now”. Good advice.

A last word on this rambling post: These great experiences I had in college make me want the same for my kids. But the reality is that the costs are becoming so out of control that I worry if we can afford to send one or both to a UC or CSU, even with our decent incomes. How can it be that a middle class family will struggle mightily to send their kids to college, perhaps even sacrificing their own retirement/future in the process. My parents spent about $10k a year for 3 years on me. Not easy as they were both teachers but much more doable than $30k per year at a UC right now. Makes me angry and sad, I hope that I can at least provide the opportunity for my kids to attend the school that they want to go to/can get into.

So that they can meet good people, develop great friendships and have a support network of friends that they can count on in rough times. That’s perhaps even more important than the degree they get at the end of college.

Santorum and Education

Not quite sure where to begin on this one.  I popped open my Twitter feed and ran through the Diane Ravitch early morning blasts (especially on Sunday, when the East Coast has had the NYT in their hands for a few hours).  Found this lovely article on Rick Santorum’s thoughts on education.  Check this out, from the LA Times.

Here’s Rick, in all his wisdom:  “Yes, the government can help,” he continued, “but the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic.”

Anachronistic? Because so many parents have the education and training that would enable them to properly homeschool their children to a level that is needed by society to have a functioning and educated population? I can barely work my way through 8th grade Algebra to help my daughter and can’t imagine trying to re-learn Algebra II, Chemistry and Physics, 2 subjects that I actually enjoyed (not you, Algebra II).

And while this parents are homeschooling their kids, who will be working, spending and paying taxes to support our capitalist society?  Wouldn’t one less person per family, if there are 2 actually employed, slow down the economy even more?

Comments like this, made at a conservative christian setting to only garner votes from homeschooling parents are pandering at best and insulting to the people in the audience, should they choose to pay close enough attention to his intentions.  We’re not even going to talk about his thoughts on creating a Christian Sharia Law for the USA.

And he’s the front runner for the Republicans right now. Thanks Rick, hope you enjoy having President Obama in office for 4 more years. C’mon GOP, you have got to find someone better than this to at least make it interesting in November.

But you won’t.

And President Obama, we’ll talk more about your educational policies but for now, I need to get some coffee.