Sunday, October 28, 2012

Testing and Assessment

To use Facebook parlance, CPS testing is what's trending on my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately. As "Common Core" becomes part of parents' lexicon and the effects of testing-based teacher evaluations trickles down, the pitchforks have come out and more parents vocalize their displeasure at testing practices.

As usual, I don't understand what the problem is with testing or assessments.

But back to CPS testing.

To me, it seems that some of this ire could be reduced by using correct nomenclature. As far as I can tell, the only standardized test given is the ISAT. The remaining standardized assessments are just that -- assessments. They are--or should be--used to tailor teaching methods and learning opportunities to students. Not to make a Kindergartener feel like she's failed school at the ripe old age of 6.

Our principal said recently, "If we don't know how students are learning, how can we accurately teach them?" Our school uses STEP assessments to assess students' reading abilities on a quarterly basis. A teacher recently told me that she gets a thrill from the process, although teachers do not assess their own classrooms. My kids get a thrill from the process, which I think must provide them a kind of mental calisthenics in a way that is enjoyable, similar to the way that doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles is enjoyable to me. (Further evidence of the contrarian; the best crossword puzzles are compiled by the AARP.) STEP assessments and levels provide everyone involved--me, my kids, their teacher, the school--an indication of my kids' reading abilities, where they started and where they need to go, what they've mastered and what they need to work on. In some ways, they're a tool to diagnose problems that need help. In other ways, they are a validation of what my kids have accomplished. Why wouldn't I want this checkup on their progress?

REACH and MPG or MAP are state- and district-wide examples of benchmarking assessments. CPS lists them as the only required assessments for K-2nd grade. The Tot Who's Not took the MPG two weeks ago, a fact which I only learned when I turned up to volunteer in his class at what turned out to be the end of the testing period. I don't think he would have commented on it otherwise. A few kids were still in upstairs in the computer lab when I walked in at 9:30; the balance of the class was chronicling the experience in their journals. They wrote "I felt hape (happy)/srprzd (surprised)/ankshus (anxious)/wrd (weird)" about their experience, and drew a picture before joining their classmates on the rug for a review of trick words, vocabulary, days of the week, and the weather. Yes, Ben, a five-year-old can know what the word anxious means. A four-year-old named Fallon taught my 15-year-old self  the word "facetious."

I wrote recently that the number or frequency of testing and assessments should not be taken as a sign that a school "teaches to the test." Yet, this seems to be the assumption made by many parents when they realize how many assessments their children must endure in a given year.

The only test I remember taking was the SRA Achievement test, which I took in 3rd-6th grade. The only anxiety I had about my performance on this test was related to my participation in my district's pullout gifted program, which was also the only class in elementary school to assign homework.

However, in cleaning out a filing cabinet recently, I discovered my K-12 academic records, which include teachers' copies of every progress report ever filed, incident reports from the nurse's office, college admissions acceptance cards, testing results, and completed assessments. I only remember taking the SRA Achievement test, but my file reveals a deeper story: Iowa Skills, Stanford Skills, and Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills tests, and Kaleidoscope, HBK Bookmarks, Boehm Test of Concepts, Metropolitan Readiness Tests, Botel Reading Inventory, and Kuhlmann-Finch Tests assessments.

The number of tests and assessments of my 1980s elementary school youth in Chicagoland district 161 stack up pretty evenly against those that The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot Who's Not will take in CPS this year: STEP, REACH, and MAP/MPG. The Boy and The Girl will also take Scantron, and The Boy will also take the ISAT.  And I'm fine with that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Community Forum

Last night, I attended CPS's N/NWside Collaborative's community feedback forum. I have several things to say about the experience, but before I do, I'll share the recurring thought that I thunk during the meeting. And that is: I'm not cynical enough for these things.

It's why I am glad for people like Wendy Katten and Jill Wohl of Raise Your Hand, because they are cynical about these meetings. I believe they know more about the processes and politics at play within CPS than I do. And I've said before, my math aptitude doesn't cover statistical analysis. 

That said, I (mostly) enjoyed the forum, and I took its format, content, and tone as an attempt for CPS to show us that it actually is listening to us--parents, community members, school-level governance--as we ask for real engagement and feedback opportunities in the process. 

Unlike the Blue Ribbon Commission hearings and other CPS forums of the past, this wasn't a panel of mute people in suits sitting on a stage at an audience while another suit ran through a slide deck and then tried to mask all emotion or response while dozens of Chicagoans made statements or asked questions in front of a microphone. Last night's forum was a continuation of the intent behind October 15th's School Actions Tele-Town Hall, wherein Adam Anderson and Mike Cardena* presented the guidelines, asked for directed or closed feedback, and responded to selected questions and suggestions from the audience.

I do think that CPS is really trying to engage leaders, community members, and parents in the process of change and feedback. I also think that they are cautious or guarded about the process because they are tired of being the public's whipping post. If Brizard was the fall guy for the teachers' strike, the various network directors, chiefs, and anyone from CPS management who attends a public meeting must be the fall guys for the public's wrath. Teachers are saints for putting up with 38 high-needs children in a classroom and/or their low-response parents, but I also have real empathy for the the front-lines CPS officers who deal with (an often-enraged) public every day. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, on a call center, or with sales people, you probably would too.

Not that there weren't problems with last night's forum. First--and perhaps the biggest problem--of all, they issued invitations to the forum via email to LSC Chairs, giving ours a scant 27 hours notice of the event, if the timestamps on the emails are correct. That left our Chair little time to rearrange her schedule or ask one of her fellow council members to attend in her stead. Fortunately for us, our LSC is stacked with policy nerds who have good childcare options and fond relationships with our iPhones, like myself, and two of us were able to make the meeting. That said, the lack of lead time may have been deliberate. After all, not giving people notice also means not giving people time to ruminate on how they can turn your civil little forum into a hotbed of ire.

I later heard that some LSCs never received notice of the meeting, and complaints that only some schools (Taft, Amundsen, Disney II, Schurz) really got notice. I take that as a sign that our network officers (MaRukh Mian in O'Hare, and Jane Norton in NW High School) are really on-task with their communications, although I'm sure some readers have drawn the conclusion that CPS wants to stack its deck with these darlings. The email communication I received belies this theory; it was also sent to 86 other email addresses by the FACE Deputy, Wendy Thompson. Some digging shows that those email addresses belonged not just to the Chairs of Schurz and Disney II LSCs, but also to LSC Chairs at Alcott, Skinner West, Whitney Young, Peterson, Inter-American, Haugan, Lincoln Park, Stockton, Field, Newberry, Farnsworth, Onahan, Northside Learning Center, Oscar Mayer, Thorp, Lincoln, Agassiz, Walt Disney Magnet, Von Steuben, Murphy, Smyser, Wildwood, Hamilton, Amundsen, Drummond, Bell, Stone, and Canty.

I understand that it's difficult to re-work your life mid-week on short notice (The Dad was not happy with solo bedtime parenting), and I'm not surprised that there were only about 30 parents/community members at the meeting. Which was seen as another problem. At my table, there was only one other non-FACE person sitting there when I arrived. Eventually, the table filled up. But most of the stakeholders at my table of 14 were non-parents. There were two FACE facilitators (Jane Norton and the guy from the Skyway Network), two CPS support/resource/vendors, one education fund angel investor, and two people affiliated with AUSL. The only other parent there was from New Field. She and I dominated the first two discussions, although I was the idealist and she was the pessimist. 

Finally, the forum ran late. What was supposed to be four presentations with three breakout discussion sessions for two hours took almost three hours. They frontloaded the most interesting--in my opinion--discussions, which meant that the hot mess that is CPS School Actions was left to a rapidly disappearing crowd. I confess I stopped paying attention once Adam Anderson explained the mathematical formula the district uses to determine whether a school is underutilized or overcrowded. I spent 40 minutes listening and tweeting to the School Actions TeleTown Hall last week, and the only experience I have with consolidation is when CPS moved the students from Irving Park Middle School to Thurgood Marshall Middle School in 2008.

I enjoyed the opportunity to offer feedback, and am reassured that CPS as an entity is actually really thinking, talking, and worrying about the problems it faces, and seems to want a dialogue. The format of the forum was that a speaker would give background information and data, and then present the dilemmas that 150 schools in the N/NWside Collaborative face, both individually and as a group. We'd break into our groups, discuss each dilemma or issue, and propose a number of solutions or concerns for each. CPS would take the top issue from each of the five groups, put it into a survey, and give us all an opportunity to "vote" for our own top issue from the aggregated list. For the first discussion, a spokesperson from each table also got to read aloud his or her top point for each of the four issues, further explaining the table's viewpoint. Then they showed us the results immediately after each vote.

For example, the first discussion was about (a) supports or resources within the school day/at school (b) supports or resources after the school day/for parents (c) facilities improvement priorities (d) anything else you think should be added or considered. My table came up with the following top priorities for each of these:
(a) class size ratio of 1:25
(b) individualize supports at the school level to support specific school/community needs
(c) infrastructure/facilities to support technology integration
(d) improve partnerships with other Chicago institutions, such as the park district

However, this is not what came up in the general discussion, as the votes came in as follows:
(a) 38 percent of respondents chose improved social/emotional/academic intervention supports and resources
(b) 35 percent of respondents chose making schools work for families
(c) 30 percent of respondents chose conducive learning environment
(d) 44 percent of respondents chose improving trust between Board of Education and parents, teachers, and individual schools 

The second discussion was around questions you'd ask about (a) the district's space utilization plans/policy, and (b) the School Actions guidelines.

The third discussion was one of two assigned topics, although as I said above, I was losing interest at that point and had stopped taking notes. I'm drowning under paper these days, so I left all the materials behind, which was probably not the best move. But the good news is, if you want to attend one of these forums to get some information and data, and to voice your thoughts, you can. 

This morning, I received an email from Carl Hurdlik, who runs the PTA Advisory Council on the CPS side. He was at the event last night, and sent out additional dates and times for the next planned Town Hall discussions: 

Saturday, 10/27 – 10am-12:30pm
Malcolm X College
1900 W. Van Buren


Monday, 10/29 – 6-8:30pm
Charles Hayes Center
4859 S. Wabash

Please confirm your attendance or direct inquiries to Anjanette Hosley, ahosley at cps dot edu.Breakfast/dinner provided.

* did not get the spelling of his name, and I was unable to reach a live person at FACE when I called to verify. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Musing on Data

As any reader of this blog over the past two years will know, I've developed a deep interest in the field of public education, and its relatives, public/social policy and political discourse. Maybe I should take it as a sign that I'm (finally!) a grown-up. Maybe it's a re-awakening of my poli-sci major past.

I managed to graduate with a B.A. in said field from Illinois's premier public university...without ever having taken a math class. It took me 15 years to realize what a mistake that was (UIUC revised its policy for students who graduated high school in 1993 or later). A strong foundation in mathematics is important in life--not simply for calculating insurance risks, or making a pampered living for oneself on the stock market, but for making the connections (or recognizing their lack) between research and reality. As John Ewing reports, and as Diane Ravitch reported in her book about NCLB, there is a problem with mathematics in this country.

I stopped trying in math when the work got too hard for my "smart" brain--to my great detriment as an adult. I'm trying to change that by recognizing that numbers aren't always meaningful without context. It seems that my fellow LAS grads often create and perpetuate falsehoods in their reporting. Falsehoods that might be prevented by a better understanding of math, assessments, and standards. The more I read the words, "studies show" or "research proves" in any article, the more I wonder if that is really the case. It would seem that in the newsfeed-happy world in which we live, editors are so desperate to be the first to break the story that they fail to check the facts or the data accurately before publishing. Twitter feeds or Reddit headlines that compress the information into even fewer characters exacerbate the problem further.

The truth is, research is not a quick process and there really aren't any easy solutions to education reform. Last spring, I spent the better part of three weeks looking at data from a huge fundraising project in hopes of isolating trends and ideas that could inform future decision-making. You'll notice that I used the term data-inform, not data-driven. I have lately wondered if the interchangeability of these terms is a case of willful or accidental ignorance.
It seems to me that too much weight is placed on assessments and their relative value in elementary education. ISAT scores, which are routinely used by prospective parents to judge a school's merit, are really only one very small piece that should be used in evaluating a school. Neither, of course, should parents use the number or frequency of assessments as a sign that the school "teaches to the test. " The real use in data produced by standardized tests is not in judging teachers or schools, but in tailoring teaching methods and learning opportunities to the students themselves. As our principal recently said, "If we don't know how students are learning, how can we accurately teach them?" (emphasis mine).