So this week starts the New York State tests in English and mathematics for students in grades three through eight. With testing comes the usual crowd of anti-assessment folks who hate tests and believe schools need to find more personalized ways of assessing student learning. And while personalized learning is always a good thing, standardized assessment is a part of the working world and is going to be around for a while. (I just took an insurance licensing exam, and let me tell you -- it was no walk in the park.)
The anti-assessment crew, in recent years, has coalesced around a specific anti-assessment agenda aimed at tests tied to learning standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. These tests -- given the infamous nickname “Common Core” -- have caused great disruption in the halls of K-12 academia. Why you might ask? There are several reasons, but the main reason -- or the reason I’m choosing to focus on in this post -- is that the tests are not designed to do what many New Yorkers have come to expect from assessment; the tests do not elevate and promulgate a sense of accomplishment that is at closer look possibly an illusion. These tests are designed for one simple thing -- to assess whether or not a child is on track for college and career readiness. Any educator will tell you -- if you wait until secondary school to figure out a child can’t read -- it is already too late. These things need to be assessed early and often.
A visit to the New York State Education Department’s website will pull up years of data on individual schools and school districts to examine their performance on a comprehensive level. From teacher certification to student attendance, NYSED provides detailed data for the public to assess the academic integrity of the schools in which we send our children. This data can often make or break a school’s reputation. If a school has a low graduation rate or a high percentage of uncertified teachers, it is a red flag on that school. If a school has a large ratio of students to teachers or a high level of LTAs (long term absences), it can lead to serious problems -- including loss of funding. But the reports do not provide information on why said school might be having difficulty. The reports do not show whether or not parents are bringing their children to school consistently. They do not show whether or not teachers are planning together and learning from each other, and they do not show whether or not the school’s leaders have a mission and vision that prepares their charges for life after high school. Yet these pieces are integral to understanding why a school might or might not be working. But here’s the catch -- even if all of these pieces are successfully in play, a school could still wind up with poor performance on a Common Core assessment. Because even with all of this positive goal-setting and support, if students are not being challenged regularly with material that is outside of their comfort zone, they will never reach the levels of knowledge needed to master a Common Core assessment. The idea that all the boxes are checked and Johnny still can’t read just does not sit well with some people. And so rather than addressing the real problems and the real issues, they choose to blame Johnny’s illiteracy on the test. I have news for these folks. It is not the test.
On April 1, the New York TImes published a piece about the anti-opt-out movement in New York City. You can read the article here. The article highlights parents in a school in Chinatown (as well as a few charter schools) preparing their children for the upcoming assessments. Also in the article is some data about passing rates at specific schools. The article states:
At P.S. 124, where 95 percent of the students are Asian, nearly half come from families receiving some form of public assistance, and 37 percent are not proficient in English. Even so, 57 percent of the school’s students in grades three through eight passed the state reading tests last year, and 81 percent passed the state math tests. Citywide, the passing rates were 30 percent and 36 percent.
Let’s just revisit a portion of that statement again. “37 percent [of the students] are not proficient in English” and yet the school had a 57 percent passing rate on the state reading tests. Meanwhile the state’s overall passing rate was 30 percent. Here is another bit of data to which we could compare PS 124: Lindenhurst, a school district in Long Island where 75 percent of the students are white, 34% of the students are economically disadvantaged, and only 4 percent of the students are not proficient in English, had a passing rate of 34 percent in grades 3 through 5 on the English exam in 2015. (This is a slight increase in performance from 2014; note that in 2015 almost half of Lindenhurst’s 3-8 students opted out of the test.)
There are other examples like this, and it makes me wonder about the level of rigor in Lindenhurst’s schools, when a school in an immigrant neighborhood such as Manhattan’s Chinatown, with a sizable portion of ELLs, can outscore a middle class, mostly white, suburban school district on an English reading test. I’ll note that the reason I researched Lindenhurst is because of a comment my daughter recently made. She was attending confirmation class at a church in Lindenhurst (the pastor had recently left our neighborhood church and was assigned to Lindenhurst right as my daughter was beginning classes -- so we decided to continue the classes at the pastor’s new church), and the pastor had mentioned the topic of diversity during one of their sessions. My daughter told me that many of the children in the class did not know what diversity meant. They asked the pastor, “What is that?” “What does that word mean?” My daughter couldn’t believe that these children who are the same age and older than she is, did not understand the word diversity. It made me wonder -- what are they teaching these kids in school?
I have seen the NYSED state tests simply because of my work in the field of education. And while they are not perfect (no test is), they are not insurmountable either. Every year there are students who get perfect or close to perfect scores on these tests. No they are not all geniuses. They are not all gifted. And they are not all prodigies. They are regular kids who just know how to challenge themselves and accept struggle without falling to pieces when things get a little hard. The other important thing to note is that many of these students are readers -- and I’m not talking about Diary of a Wimpy Kid either. I’m talking Lord of The Rings, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, The House on Mango Street, or Island of the Blue Dolphins. Might I mention Discover and National Geographic magazines? These children read sophisticated stories and articles that contain inferential and metaphorical language rich with imagery and layered meanings. If a parent wants a child to do well on these tests, the best thing a parent could do is take their kid to the library every weekend. Let the child pick a new book. Encourage the child to complete an author series or genre series. Help the child challenge himself or herself to something new and maybe more difficult than what he/she is used to reading. Discuss the book with the child and ask in-depth questions. Tie the book to real world events. Engage in high-level conversation with the child. Use “grown-up” vocabulary with the child.
Here is something to ponder. Students in the eleventh and twelfth grades here in the U.S often choose to challenge themselves by taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams sponsored by the College Board. The AP exams are standardized and rigorous, but if a student can squeak out a top score -- it is a sure sign he/she is ready for a college curriculum. In the subject of English, there are two major AP exams -- Language and Composition (often taken in eleventh grade) and Literature and Composition (often taken in twelfth grade here in NY). My focus is on the former, Language and Composition, because the NYSED state tests in English -- those in 3-8 and the 11th grade English Regents -- are precursors to this specific exam. All three tests ask students questions about stylistic choices authors make in their writing. All three focus heavily on nonfiction. All three also ask students to write on demand about nonfiction topics using evidence from texts presented to them in the moment. Whether the child is in fifth grade, eighth grade, or eleventh grade, he/she is being asked to engage with text to show in-depth understanding. This can not be learned with a couple of weeks of test-prep. This is why schools that focus primarily on test prep often fall short. In order to achieve success, reading and analysis needs to become a lifestyle. The parents at PS 124 in Chinatown understand this. So do the parents at some of the state’s charter schools. Would it be that those in Lindenhurst (and similar schools) could understand and practice this as well.
I just want to share with you an upcoming workshop (hosted by Hofstra University) on successfully implementing the new ENL regulations. The keynote speaker is Aida Walqui, Director of Teacher Professional Development at WestEd.
I had the pleasure of working with Ms. Walqui when I was a regional instructional specialist for New York City's Region One Learning Support Center. Her approach to instruction for English Language Learners is culturally sensitive, rigorous, and equitable. I am sure this workshop will continue to maintain that level of quality.
I am planning on attending, so I will hopefully see you there.
Welcome back to school! I hope you had an amazing, restful, and productive summer! For those of you who joined us for the end-of-year mixer, please check out this awesome photo of us here and posted on the LIBERTY Events page. We look young and fabulous. In fact, we are young and fabulous. :-)
So how are things going in this new school year? There are several front and center topics of interest to our group that I want to focus on for this school year. One topic of urgency is the influx of immigrant students to our schools. I am wondering about services for these students and if school districts are getting the funds and resources they need to address the particular needs of this population of students. I am also focused on changes in Albany to state testing and how it will impact students of color. My third focus is new ENL (English as a New Language) regulations and how schools are meeting the requirements for these students to ensure their success. As always I am interested in continuing the conversation around access to advanced courses for children of color, and preparation for college in terms of a child's academic selections year to year.
I also want to inform the group that Meryl and I are switching roles a little bit in the organization. I am taking a small step back to focus on a new venture with New York Life. I will still be participating and organizing events though, so you will still see me! And if anyone is interested in organizing an event for LIBERTY -- whether it is a community meeting, a school district presentation, or just a get-together for parents and members, please just let us know. We will work with you to make it happen.
Lastly, if there is anyone you would like to invite to our group, please feel free. I can add them to our mailing list (but get their permission first). Likewise if there is anyone who is moving on to pursue other interests and would like their name removed from the mailing list, just let me know.
We will be sending out information about upcoming meetings within the next few weeks, so keep an eye on the blog.