Thursday, March 29, 2012

Testing vs. Instruction

One of the main complaints that I've gotten from teachers about testing is that there is now so much of it that it cuts, significantly, into instructional time.

And one (teacher) friend wrote to me, only partially tongue-in-cheek,

One idea that I also had, is why not test on weekends?  That way they wouldn't have to require that teachers take away class time for proctoring--they could even hire non-teachers as proctors!  It could be a whole new employment opportunity for our depressed economy. . . but I am most serious about instructional time being given back to us for TEACHING and LEARNING, and leave the testing for outside of the regular school calendar.

And that could be good for another reason (the subject of a blog post very soon, I promise)--it would make it much easier for parents to opt out of testing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Testing the Year Away: Ruth's Comments

My friend Julie and I went to last week's school board meeting to raise some concerns about the amount of testing going on in the district, and in particular, some concerns about the NWEA MAP test. I introduced myself and then this is what I said:

I’m the parent of children currently at Ann Arbor Open and Skyline, and a third child who graduated from Community. I didn’t have much of an opinion about the NWEA MAP test until I went to an Ann Arbor Open Coordinating Committee meeting last fall.

Until that meeting, I didn’t understand that kindergartners were being administered this test in the first weeks of school, and that their first introduction to the school computers was through this test.
I didn’t understand that this test was being given at the same time as other assessments, including SRI and the MEAP.
I didn’t understand that this test was testing some of the same things—like reading proficiency—as the other tests.
I didn’t understand that staff and teachers were being diverted from other work to proctor the test.
I didn’t understand that the students’ scores were being given to the students at the end of the test.
I didn’t understand that while this test was designed to follow student progress, the plan is to use it to evaluate teachers.
I didn’t understand that this test meant that classes couldn’t use the computer lab for weeks on end.

But now—I understand.

I appreciate that the school board wanted to get ahead of any state-mandated teacher evaluation requirements, but the thing is, if you want to be a model, you’d better make super sure that you are creating a better model than what you would otherwise get. I am not convinced of that. And I don’t want to be spending technology dollars to support testing.

The other day I got my seventh grader’s MAP report, and I will leave aside that it was difficult to understand—because I’m sure the communication can be improved. The report—and I asked my son’s permission to share—showed that he was an advanced reader. We didn’t need a test to tell us that. Not only would any teacher who spent 10 minutes assessing his reading know that, but in addition we already have the SRI and the MEAP telling me the same thing.

I asked him about the test, and he said, “Well, a lot of kids don’t like it. But I think it’s okay.” I asked him why, and he said, “Well mom, it’s really, really long. So it tests if you can stick with things.” And as an anecdote, that’s funny. But what’s not funny is that, that’s not what it’s testing.

The other truly bothersome thing about this test is that we are giving it to lower elementary students. This is a school district where we don’t give letter grades to kids before middle school in any school in the district. And I’m proud of that. I would bet that—aside from spelling quizzes—most kids don’t take classroom tests before upper elementary school. And I’m proud of that too. Yet we’re spending weeks and weeks testing kids—taking time away from instruction. Since the MEAP is state-mandated, I think we need to look at removing some of the other assessments.

I’d like to ask you to do 5 things:

1.     Stop testing the K-2 students with the MAP test immediately.
2.     Remove the scores from appearing at the ends of the tests as soon as is practical.
3.     If the district decides to keep the NWEA, then drop some of the other assessments.
4.     Invite Deborah Ball, Dean of the UM School of Education and head of the state’s teacher evaluation committee, to discuss the state’s plans for teacher evaluation.
5.     Since this is a pilot, do a rigorous evaluation of MAP’s usefulness. Evaluate whether the MAP test is working for everyone else. And do that by surveying principals, administrators, teachers, parents and students—anonymously—so that they can share their true opinions.

[I gave the school board my contact information. You, of course, already know that you can contact me at rlk234 (at)]

[Side note: I didn't bring this up, but the NWEA test costs over $92,000 in the cost of the test alone, and not including any staff time devoted to it--or technology costs. So if we need to save millions of dollars from the district budget, and revenue enhancements are not going to bring us a whole lot of money, then this would be a good place to start. Also, when Dr. Green responded to our concerns, she noted that the concerns about access to computer labs and technology could be alleviated by passing the technology bond. However, as noted above, I don't want to pay for technology so that we can do more testing. So in her response, she actually gave me a reason to vote against a school funding request--something I don't think I have ever done.]

Monday, March 26, 2012

Testing the Year Away: Julie's Comments

My friend Julie and I went to last week's school board meeting to raise some concerns about the amount of testing going on in the district, and some specific concerns with the NWEA MAP test. And this is what Julie had to say:

These concerns have been compiled from various sources including my own observations, concerns shared with me by other parents in various elementary schools in the district, as well as feedback from teachers and students.

·      The new MAP test overlaps with much of the testing and assessments already being done.  We keep adding tests, but don’t remove any, leading to TOO MUCH testing, and taking up valuable instruction time and school resources.   SRI, reading assessments, Fast Math, MEAP, NWEA MAP, classroom assessments all conducted within the first 6-8 weeks or so of each school year.

·      People are concerned that the upcoming Tech Millage will be used to upgrade equipment for the primary purpose of supporting this increased testing.  Many parents willing to support a tech bond for the purpose of improved education of our kids, are much less likely to support a bond used for more testing of our kids.

·      We understand that Lansing is beginning to require comprehensive teacher evaluation overhauls.  However, the MAP was never designed to be used for this purpose, and has no statistical validity in this context, by NWEA’s own report (see attached).  If this test was added to the district to fulfill this requirement, it will be flawed data.  If this test was added strictly for the purpose of evaluating children, it is redundant and provides questionable benefit for very high cost, in dollars, resources and time.

·      The MAP test is currently administered three times a year, leading to narrowing of curriculum and more “teaching to the test.”  The frequency of this testing forces teachers into a linear pattern of teaching, completely opposite the project-based, in depth style of teaching often referred to as “Best Practices.”  Ann Arbor Open is an extremely successful and very popular program precisely because it emphasizes project-based, in-depth learning.  The Board and the AAPS administration have repeatedly indicated that they would like to take the things that are “working well” at Ann Arbor Open and Community, and help bring them into other classrooms throughout the district.  This test does precisely the opposite, further decreasing time for pursuing children’s interests, or delving deeply into subjects of interest or relevance.

·      The fact that the students’ scores are immediately visible to the students following the test leads to comparisons, competition, and anxiety, all of which are unnecessary and counter-productive, and work to undermine attempts to create cooperative, collaborative, safe learning environments in our classrooms.  The AAPS has clearly chosen NOT to use grades in the elementary schools, and this was done for a reason.  It is well-known that focus on letter grades leads to extrinsic motivation instead of intrinsic love of learning, and these MAP scores have already produced anxiety in kids, and have altered cohesion in classrooms.

·      Feedback from some of the children taking the test reveals that some kids have already learned that the test can be “shortened” and made easier by just answering randomly.  Other students have found themselves sitting for a single test-taking session for a full two hours or even longer, which is an excessive amount of time in elementary school.

·       The cost for purchasing and continuing to run this test, in dollars, is simply not worth the dubious “value” it provides.  Our dollars are slim and must be utilized to the absolute best interests of the children, and this test is not that. 

Action Points
There are several  points upon which action can be taken immediately, and could help the Board elicit more feedback and information about this Pilot program, and soften some of the consequences in the meantime.
Ideally, I believe the Board should consider putting this test on “HOLD,” and not utilize it next year, until it can more fully evaluate the test’s unintended consequences, and it’s validity in the context of that for which it was purchased (state mandates for teacher evaluations).
Immediately, I believe the following could and should be done:
1.     Drop the test from three times a year to two.   Drop testing for K-2 age students.  (if the test continues to be given)
2.     Insist that the NWEA remove the line of code that enables students to see their scores.  As the consumer, we can refuse the product if it is not so altered.
3.     Consider inviting regional and local experts on Teacher education and effectiveness to discuss current understanding of what comprehensive teacher evaluations should look like.
4.     Seriously consider discontinuing one or more of the overlapping fall student assessments, if the MAP is to be used again next year
And, of utmost importance:
5.      Circulate a FEEDBACK SURVEY to all teachers, principals, parents and students.  This test was purchased as a Pilot, and the only way to evaluate a pilot is to get feedback.  The survey should be anonymous, so that teachers and administrators feel they can speak freely without consequence.

I want to thank the Board for their time tonight, and their time in considering this document. 
[Julie did give the board her contact information as well. If you want to contact her, send me a note and I will forward it along.]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

School Board Meetings, Revenue Enhancements, and Customer Service

This week I went with my friend Julie to speak at the school board meeting during public commentary. It was a good experience and I will be posting our commentary (about the NWEA MAP test) over the next few days.

But I thought in the meantime I would share some reflections about the meeting, because although I occasionally watch the meetings on t.v., I haven't actually been to a school board meeting in a number of years.

The meeting started about fifteen minutes late, and the room was crowded at the start with parents and students. The school board often starts with a performance of some sort, and this week the performance was the Wines 5th grade choir. They were good! I enjoyed the performance.

By that time it was about 7:30. That's when we had public commentary. As Ed Vielmetti has pointed out to me, not a lot of people submit comments to the school board. You can submit comments in written form if you don't want to talk. If you do want to talk, though, you get four minutes. [Write directly to the school board at any time by writing to:]

At that point the board went through reports from groups--the administrators, the black parents' group, the special education parents' group, and maybe a couple more. Then there was the President's report and the Superintendent's report. The president reported out on some other meetings, and the Superintendent seemed to be reporting out a lot of things that could be read in the This Week report.

Honestly I was left feeling a little confused about who the audience for all of this is. I had always thought of the audience for school board discussions as the board itself, but sometimes it didn't sound like the audience was the board.

All of which leads to this point: they spent the first hour and a half with reports that seemed more congratulatory than substantive. If we were playing a drinking game and we had to drink every time they said "thank you" or "congratulations" we would have been quite drunk by 8:30. I'm not, by the way, recommending that.

You might think that I'm curmudgeonly about the congratulations and thank yous, and really, I'm not. I'm all for thanking people for hard work. It's just that it starts to sound forced. And also--and more to the point--they didn't talk tachlis (that's a Yiddish word for substance, brass tacks) until 8:30 p.m.

The first substantive item on the agenda was possible revenue enhancements for the schools. Some of the ideas for revenue enhancements: web site advertising, a purchasing portal for popular stores through the schools' web site, additional Medicaid reimbursement, school apparel licensing, billboards, charging foreign students who want to come to the district for school, "selling" of AAPS staff work in human resources, legal, and billing areas. There might have been a few more. With the exception of the Medicaid reimbursement ($700,000) the amounts were fairly small--adding up in total to about $300,000. Different board members had different reactions to these ideas. Some people didn't like billboards; others did. Some people had a problem with recruiting foreign students; others didn't like selling things through the school web site because we rely on local businesses for support. Etcetera. They had a lot of good points.

I was mostly surprised by what a small amount of money the administrators thought we could bring in for income. Remember that we need to cut a large amount of money from the budget. (Originally I had heard the number $14 million, but at this meeting I heard the number $16 million.) I was very appreciative of Christine Stead saying that people are anxious about the cuts and we need to share information about proposed cuts sooner rather than later.

While I was sitting there, I thought about how each student that we recruit from Ann Arbor is worth over $9,000 to the district. So I was also very appreciative when Glenn Nelson verbalized that we should focus on recruiting students who are in the district but are choosing to go to private, parochial, or charter schools (or are being home schooled). There are over 2,000 of those students! If we recruit 100 of them, that is an increase in revenue of over $900,000.

And that reminded me of a friend of mine. She's a mom of three kids, ages 7, 4, and 2, and she has plenty of money so she could afford any school. Nonetheless, her oldest started in the public schools--but after a few years she switched to private school. "How is it?" I asked her recently, about the new school. "Well," she said, "the service is about 1000 times better." And what, exactly, did she mean by that? She gave as the example of the straw that broke the camel's back that in the assigned elementary school, when her child had surgery, and was better enough to go to school, but not to have outside recess, the school had trouble accommodating that. Surely we can do better than that! Because unfortunately, we had the possibility of three students from that family in the Ann Arbor schools, and that would have meant over a third of a million dollars from that family alone! (Calculated as 3 kids x $9,000 x 13 years=$351,000.) And now, we won't. [I have written about my experience as a major donor to the schools before.]

As this example demonstrates, while the idea of recruiting students from the 2,000 students who are already living in our district and not going to our schools seems like the easiest choice, it is also fraught with difficulty.

So--anyway--that took us to 10 p.m. and a break. And my friend and I went home. The school board continued to meet. I highly recommend that you put a visit to the school board meeting on your calendar as well!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Online Schools On Our Dime Should Really Concern You

The state House of Representatives is considering online charter schools. And yes, under the proposal, those "schools" would get full per-pupil funding despite the fact that there are a lot of questions about how kids' attendance would be accounted for, and evidence that kids don't learn as well in these cyber-schools. I'm taking this information from Michigan Parents for Schools and some of their supporters, and I would like to ask you to call your state representative and ask them to vote against the cyber school bill (SB 619). You can find talking points here.

Here's some information about the poor performance of cyber schools in Colorado, and it is mighty disturbing.

From Education News Colorado:
Achievement of online students drops over time, lags state averages on every indicator

Here is some of what that article says:

But an independent analysis of previously unreleased online school data by the I-News Network and Education News Colorado reveals key new findings and an achievement gap that alarmed education officials:
  • Online students are losing ground. Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms.
  • Academic performance declined after students enrolled in online programs. Students who stayed in online programs long enough to take two years’ worth of state reading exams actually saw their test results decline over time.
  • Wide gaps persist. Double-digit gaps in achievement on state exams between online students and their peers in traditional schools persist in nearly every grade and subject – and they’re widest among more affluent students.

Here are some of the lobbying expenditures by cyberschools and their allies, as compiled by Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools:
Lobbying expenditures in MI:
K12, Inc: $112,826 (2008-11); nearly $30,000 each of last two years
Connections Education: $47,314 (2009-11); over $26K last year
Michigan Virtual Univ.: $307K last 11 yrs; $36K+ last year alone
Pearson Education (now owns Connections): $18K each of last 3 yrs
And here is some testimony that was given to the House Education Committee by the Superintendent of the Ottawa Intermediate School District. It's so compelling that I am producing it in full below.  (It is, after all, part of the public record.)

But before I let this testimony have the last word, let me say something.
Understand that this cyber school bill is just a way to divert funding from public schools that are actually trying to teach students. Understand this cyber school bill as part of the larger attack on public education. Understand this cyber school bill as an effort to dismantle public education. And understand that if your legislators don't hear from you, and this passes, you will have nobody to blame but yourself. At least if you contact them, you can say that you tried.

This testimony is eye-opening. (If it is too small for you to read, you can find the original pdf here: