Wednesday, October 2, 2013

State 1, Local 0: The MEAP and Three Star Holidays

A few days ago I was contacted by someone from the Arab American Parent Support Group, who was concerned that the MEAP was scheduled to be given on one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, Eid. Eid is a three-star holiday in the Ann Arbor Public Schools religious calendar, and I was contacted because I recently wrote this blog post about three-star holidays.

You may recall that the guidelines state that:
RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS GUIDELINES  I. Holiday observances of major significance to a religious group are indicated on the calendar by three stars (***). The following apply:School district employees may not schedule any of the following during these (three star) holidays.   1. Major exams   2. Reviews for major exams   3. Standardized tests...
And clearly the MEAP is a standardized test. So why was it being given on Eid?

A member of the AAPSG did some poking around, asking the state if the test had to be given on Eid or if a change could be made. She got an email back from the state saying that a deviation could be possible for Eid. But when the Ann Arbor schools administrative staff asked, they got a different answer from the state: No. So they told AAPSG that the answer was no. AAPSG did not like that answer, especially since they thought the answer from the state had already been yes.

At the behest of the person who contacted me, I contacted the school board and administration, and they did a little bit more poking around, and went back to the state Department of Education, and confirmed that the answer was, in fact: No.

However, the district did not formally request a "deviation" and I was a bit confused about that. The MEAP administrator at the state level offered to talk to me about it, and I took her up on it, learning a bit about the MEAP in the process.

1. MEAP testing is given in a time window, with certain dates for certain tests. Then there are make-up days.

2. A "deviation" would only be given by the state if a school is actually closed. (For instance, for Eid I think the Dearborn schools are closed.) But then again, if a school is closed, there are no staff to give a test or kids to take it, so that's rather circular logic there. (In fact, it's not even clear to me why, if a school is closed, you need to request a deviation.)

So basically, Ann Arbor was told that since they weren't closing any schools, they couldn't get a deviation, even though it contradicts their local policy about giving standardized tests on three-star holidays. Thus I say, State 1, Local 0.

(Side note: the schools I grew up in were, and are, closed for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even though only about 5% of the kids were, and are, Jewish.)

3. I asked the state administrator why the tests have to be given on certain days, especially given that there are makeup days. Why couldn't the district just substitute a makeup day for a specific test day? The answer: Security.  I said, "but you have makeup days," and was basically told that they have to make accommodations for kids who miss school (because they are high stakes tests), but it would be a "nightmare" in terms of security if, for example, different schools gave the math test on different days. (Think: cheating.)

This is where we see what is meant by "high stakes" testing. If the MEAP wasn't "high stakes," nobody would worry about the implications of swapping days. And unfortunately, the district doesn't have any control over this. And the stakes are high for the district because if fewer than 95% of the kids in any school take the test, then the school won't make adequate yearly progress. And penalties ensue. To the district.

As far as the district goes, this is what I learned:

1. The district did respond to the initial request of the AAPSG, which is good. I think the communication channels still need a little bit of working out, because it appears that the district staff didn't adequately explain the situation (which is how I got pulled into this). Over the past few years I have found several times that even when the district staff are doing the right thing, the communication back to families from central administration is very weak and leaves people confused and upset.  But, I'm hopeful that this is about to change, because...

2. I was very pleasantly surprised by the communication from the top AAPS staff. It was a HUGE improvement over the past administration's practices. I actually got an email from the superintendent (and a couple of board members too--thank you board)! Fingers crossed for more great communication back to parents.

And to the district staff I say: Thank you very much for trying to follow the religious calendar guidelines. Even though you weren't able to do so this time, I truly appreciate the effort.

Read more about the state MEAP policies, if you want...and remember, next year there will probably be a different assessment...and probably even more assessments (go to the same place as the MEAP link in this paragraph, and look at the Smarter Balanced information). Ugh. High stakes testing. There is lots to organize around in the coming year.

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