Saturday, November 15, 2014

Test Scores = Zipcode

The Colorado social studies and science CMAS has been a true wake up call for the citizens of Colorado. I want to share this Colorado story as an example of what will be replicated all over the country this spring as PARCC and SBAC take hold. We have already seen it happen in other states - it pretty much goes like this. The test results come back and the majority (70 to 80%) of the students fail the test. The community and the media come forward with all sorts of possible explanations of why the scores are bad.

Jeannie  Kaplan, former Denver school board member, and a person I respect greatly,  wrote a blog sharing her thoughts on the dismal CMAS scores for 4th, 5th,7th, and 8th grade. 

As she reviews the scores she asks, "Why would you say Social Studies has been a long-ignored subject in Colorado public schools? If you answered, “because Social Studies has NOT been tested,” you would be correct. Which is pretty empirical evidence that our public schools are turning into test prep institutions, rather than incubators of curiosity and developers of life long learning. If the subject isn’t tested, educators are not allowed to teach it, even if it is truly important in preparing one not just for college and career readiness but for life readiness as well. How can we expect our students to be productive citizens if they don’t know and appreciate the history, socio-economics, geography, language, and cultures of the world’s population?"

She states,  ".......if you are not allowed to teach the subject, children in any kind of school will not learn the subject. And if you can’t speak, read and write English with fluency, you most likely won’t do well on a test in English."

I agree with her on many things, but I want to share several thoughts.

First - we knew what the results of the social studies and science CMAS test would be BEFORE the results came back, so spending time examining them only tells us what we already knew. So, it's really very cut and dry. They set the cut scores at around 70% for science and around 80% for social studies, therefore, we knew that only 20 to 30% of students would be successful on the test, and therefore, that's what happened.  And, if they were successful we could assume that they were typically from neighborhoods with high real estate value and/or at charter schools where students are kicked out and they only keep those with high test scores.

Standardized test scores will always tell us zipcode, and therefore, I ask - why do we keep examining them - which gives them value and power?

Chris Tienken has done extensive research on standardized tests. He states, " It goes without saying that there is over 100 years of evidence that demonstrates that commercially prepared standardized tests are influenced too much by out-of-school factors to provide important results. The results we receive tell us more about the child’s home life and neighborhood than what he or she is capable of as a human being. Colleagues and I have spent the last several years using US Census Data to PREDICT the test results on every NJ mathematics and language arts test in most grade levels administered since 2010. We just completed the same research in Connecticut. We have been able to predict the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in a majority of the school districts in NJ and CT using only community and family census data (Tienken, 2014)."

Once again, what do we find out from these scores? Zipcode.

He also states,  "The teacher is still the best assessment tool because classroom assessments are formative (immediate) in nature, and over time they provide a cumulative, running record of achievement that is more reliable than any standardized test. Maybe that is why high school GPA is a better predictor of first-year college success and overall college persistence than the SAT when controlling for wealth characteristics of the students (Atkinson & Geiser, 2009).

Jeannie Kaplan states that teachers are unable to teach social studies and science because only subjects which will be tested are taught, and as a result, social studies and science CMAS scores are low.  

I agree with Jeannie that the subjects tested are the main focus for instruction - I do not agree that CMAS scores are low because they were not taught. 

If that were the case - then why were my school's scores low, not only in social studies and science, but also in math and language arts?  Does that mean our teachers taught nothing?

No. Once again, it tells us zipcode.

And let me share a bit more here.   The teachers at my school last year DID teach social studies and science.   When we simply look at test scores and analyze them, rather than talking to teachers, we get very little information about what is going on in a school.  Why don't people ask teachers instead of wasting their time typing up and analyzing these pointless test scores?

Back to my school and what we taught last year.....

I am the literacy coach at my school so I spend time in all of the teachers' classrooms. I co-teach, model, work with groups of children, and I get to watch teachers create and implement lessons with such skill and nuance, that only an experienced educator could truly see and understand all that is happening - much like watching a surgeon with only the experience of having surgery, versus observing as another experienced surgeon.  I say this, because it's important that citizens understand and respect the skill of our teachers - and especially, respect the skill of teachers who are working in high poverty, under resourced schools. 

Last year, I saw teachers at our school support children in creating amazing Colorado history projects. I watched the younger grades learn about community.  I saw the fifth grade learn all about economics and prepare and attend a field trip at Ameritowne where they - for a day - become a community, with a mayor and with jobs in which they buy and sell products and learn about business and economy.  I saw teachers and students delve into amazing inquiries around insects, endangered species, plants, crustaceans, and more.  I saw the upper grades fold historical fiction into history lessons to support the students in seeing the relevance of these historical facts.

Yet, my district, Aurora, had the worst scores, in the top ten largest districts, on CMAS social studies and science for 4, 5, 7 and 8th grade.

And, not only that, my school's scores in math and language arts placed my school back in turnaround status for the second time.  

Again, does that mean we didn't teach math and language arts too?

No.  But it does indeed tell us, once again, zipcode.   Approximately 70% of the students in Aurora Public Schools receive free or reduced lunch.  Our students come from more than 132 countries and speak over 133 languages.

Let me share my school's story a bit more...and forgive me if my anger comes out a bit in this next thread.

We are a turnaround school as a result of our low test scores. We are considered a failing school. And that means that when I go to professional development opportunities, I am viewed as a literacy coach in a failing school - the implication being, I have failed my school.  It also means  that parents get a letter that tells them our school is in turnaround status and the implication being, that we are failing their children.

It also  means that you get scrutinized and emotionally stripped naked by folks from all over the state who want to figure out WHY you are failing. If you're really unlucky, your school gets audited by absolute strangers who interrogate you one on one and in small groups, asking questions in an effort to reveal any deep dark secrets which might EXPLAIN WHY we have failing test scores. They ask you questions which might pit staff against staff. They want to know who gets along and who doesn't. They want to know if you LIKE your colleagues and/or your principal. And they say with a smile, that they are here to help.  These auditors spend a few days in your building, going where they want, when they want, and they write down pages and pages of information about you and they tell you that this will HELP you. You might discover that the person observing you teaching has only one year teaching experience, as she smiles and jots down notes that will be added to the audit. They leave, after a few days, with their secrets on reams of paper and write a report on potential recommendations to "turnaround" your school.  When they finish interrogating you, you might find that you are shaking and suddenly in tears - as though you have been violated and you aren't really sure what. just. happened.  You might find that the rest of the day you can't talk without feeling a lump in your throat rise to the surface or perhaps the hair on the back of your neck stands up as you think about what you'd really like to say to these auditors who pose as "helpers." 

And when you get the report, you may find it filled with words like grit, perseverance, and college and career ready - and you will find it void of any recommendations to protect your children from poverty - all at the tune of around $30,000 for the audit. And you might be angry. You might want to scream and lash out at every person who continues to give these test scores VALUE. Because you know why the auditors are there - one reason - low test scores. This is the reality for those of us in turnaround. 

So, back to these low test scores and poverty, and a  few deep breaths on my part.

As we, a turnaround staff in a turnaround school,  attempt to refute the low test scores that everyone and their mother want to analyze, we also scramble to piece together wrap around services for our school . We juggle our current funding, grants, volunteers and more to  attempt to provide food for our 180 families who need weekend food bags. We try to make sure that our homeless children, 36 of them, are safe and not sleeping in cars in below freezing temperatures.  We reach out to the community to find additional services to support our children who suffer from anxiety, PTSD, and other emotional and mental health issues to make sure they are safe and able to function in society - inside and outside of school.  We spend a lot of time running to stop potential crisis in the school - such as children running out of the building, children flipping tables and clearing a whole classroom, children crying, screaming, biting, hitting, all as a result of dealing with outside factors the children are coping with - situations that cause me to shudder when I hear of them - situations of abuse, murder, neglect, desperation, hunger, sickness and more.  We work hard to figure out ways to provide classes for parents.  Our parents care. They love their children. They love our school.
Poverty is expensive. And the system is set up to take advantage of them, of us.

We also organize partnerships with community businesses to stock our parent center with food and clothing.  We open our library to the public and we find grants to create a preschool center and parent library within our school library. We seek out resources to add a playground and flowers so that our school is beautiful - on the inside and outside. We want our children and our families to be proud of our school and the learners and teachers who learn, problem solve and create solutions and new ideas on a daily basis, as we develop learners who will be productive problem solving citizens. When the weather turns cold we make sure that every child has a hat, coat and mittens.

As we try to do all this, we must also prove that we will get better test scores - this part is very important. You must have a good explanation and plan to get out of turnaround or they will make a plan for you.  If they make a plan for you, it's guaranteed you won't be in it and the children will find themselves faced with a school disrupted -a  school filled with strangers and a school stripped of its culture and its way of life. A school where only test scores matter; a school where they will feed them only tests.

And all this time folks in the media - mainstream AND social media -  keep analyzing test scores. All this time folks keep spending time, words, and energy to keep the focus on the test scores. Meanwhile we, inside the school, look at the poverty, the large class size, the need for more books, the need for more teachers, and we know what we need to do and we know how to do it, but we are under resourced and so we do the best we can to piece meal together a plan, hopefully get us out of turnaround status, while also creating our own personal plan to protect our children from poverty (and there is no funding for protecting children from poverty).

We watch the district usher in new social studies and new science curriculum. We are not surprised when we see that the curriculum is written by Pearson, who also wrote the CMAS social studies and science test. And we are not surprised when items from the test appear directly in the curriculum. 

We continue to give test after test after test while folks continue to debate what these test scores mean. We don't bother to waste any time looking at the test scores  ourselves - other than what we are required to do - and we try to focus our energy on supporting our students to thrive and learn.

Yet, as I look back on this year so far, I can say that there have only been two weeks out of this year in which I have been able to focus 100% on the needs of the learners. Every other week has been filled with some sort of required testing.

I am tired, so tired of leaders discussing the test scores. The scores that do not inform my instruction. The scores that continue to tell us that many of our children live in poverty.

And to be quite honest, having the time and energy to analyze test scores is a privilege - while they continue to feed the students at my school tests, and while we continue to struggle to protect them from poverty.

I ask this - as a teacher in a high poverty school where we DID teach math, literacy, science, social studies, art, music, PE, social skills, library skills and more - and we still have low test scores - I ask - please, quit discussing these scores. Come and talk to us and we will tell you what we need.  We don't need outsiders analyzing our scores and deciding what those scores mean for our school.

Ask us what we need.   And I can promise you, these standardized tests will not be on our list.  

Here in Colorado the last two weeks seniors from affluent communities have opted out/refused to take the senior CMAS test. They have varying reasons for doing so, and I applaud all of them for refusing to take the tests. But, I watch with sadness as we hear nothing about our students in the high poverty schools refusing to take the tests. Perhaps we'll hear  more on this later, but as for now, it appears the seniors in my district took the test. It appears that the seniors in Denver did as well.

And I ask this of Jeannie Kaplan, and all leaders in districts of high poverty - why are we analyzing the scores when we realize they simply tell us zipcode? Why aren't leaders in these communities supporting parents, teachers, and students in understanding that these scores mean nothing? Why aren't  leaders supporting opt out/refusal of tests? Why did students in Aurora and Denver have to comply and take this waste of a test while the high school students in Boulder refused to do so?

I received a video from a high school in Denver in which they told the seniors they would have prizes for them if they took the test - prizes ranging from coffee mugs, clothing, gift cards, restaurant cards, up to 40 prizes so far she said! The woman speaking says to the seniors, "It's going to be worth your while." Are you kidding me??? The insults are so great I can't even go into it.

Why are we denying certain communities the information they need to determine how they might reclaim their public schools? How they might reclaim their education? How teachers might reclaim their ability to actually teach? 

If we aren't telling them this, then we are a part of the machine that continues to propagate the false narrative that these scores mean something and that these schools are failing.

The seniors who refused CMAS know that by denying them the data, this test may very well go away. Big picture, it may change policy.

As an excellent teacher, teaching in an amazing school with expert teachers and brilliant children, while scrambling on a day to day basis to protect the children from poverty, and at the same time keep the corporate reforms OUT of the school, I must tell you, I am angry that anyone is giving any air time to these test scores. 

Zipcode.  One word.  Now let's do something about it.

Refuse the tests, demand that the money be funneled to our neediest schools and let's watch what happens.  Just as we can predict zipcode via test scores, I can predict what will happen when these children are protected from poverty.  Just watch us.  

With great respect, I ask that we begin to educate the public. No data = no profit. Let's return our schools to our communities. Take away their data which predicts only zipcode and which continues the narrative of failing schools. These schools are not failing. They are abandoned.  

Our  students in Aurora are every bit as brilliant as students in Boulder. I demand that society recognize them for their brilliance and I demand that society protect them from poverty.

With great respect, I ask leaders in all communities to educate and act.  

Demand an end to high stakes corporate testing and common core, which together, are privatizing our public schools. Demand sampling, versus testing everyone. Demand that teachers be allowed to assess. Let's deny them the data - support opt out/refusal and force the policy makers to create policies which truly protect children from poverty and create equitable and democratic schools. And let's do this now - before PARCC arrives in the spring, and once again, proves that our schools are failing.  Think about the children in my school. Think about the children in Denver. We have no more time to analyze test scores while they suffer. As a teacher, I have refused to administer the PARCC this year. I continue to support parents in opting out. I know we are at the tipping point, and I know there are leaders out there who can help us tip this in the favor of all children. Let's do it


  1. Thank you, Peggy, for giving this inside picture, making our cause more tangible.

  2. Are the 'cut scores' percentages or percentiles? ("They set the cut scores at around 70% for science and around 80% for social studies, therefore, we knew that only 20 to 30% of students would be successful on the test, and therefore, that's what happened.")
    Percentage *of* the answers is a raw score based on the questions themselves; percentiles rank the students compared to each other.
    If actual understanding of information matters (I don't know; maybe just "writing a persuasive blog -- please don't bother about details!" is your philosophy, as it is for many), please clarify.

    1. I put the link to all that information in the blog post. I would assume understanding information matters to everyone reading my blog. If you look at the word highlighted in the 6th paragraph it will take you to an article that also links to additional info. you might need.