Open Letter to Bill Gates, after Oct. 7, 2015 Speech

Dear Mr. Gates,
I just read the speech you gave on October 7, 2015 to the USP Education Learning Forum.  I am a teacher.  In fact, it is my 29th year as a public elementary school teacher in the classrooms of Southern California. According to what you said, no one speaks with greater authority about what I need than I do, so I hope that means you will listen.
In your speech, you seem to suggest that High-Quality Feedback will increase Teacher Effectiveness, and Teacher Effectiveness is what we need to fix our achievement gap.
I believe that the suggestion is deeply flawed, but I will go ahead and ‘insist’ that you look at what The Cotsen Foundation is doing with The Art of Teaching in California.
This is an ‘improvement system’ that has been in place for ten years now, since before the Common Core was even a twinkle in your eye.  I was a Cotsen Fellow from 2009-11. Cotsen gave me an opportunity to work with a cohort of 4 other teachers and a mentor, all teachers from my school, for a period of two years.  We each got $2000 to spend on ‘improving our learning line’ as we saw fit, as long as it was aligned to the Professional Teaching Standard we had each chosen for ourselves.  We got six release days (the Art of Teaching paid for the substitutes) so that we had time to observe and collaborate with other teachers.  Our cohort met monthly in an inquiry meeting.  We had time to reflect on the work we were doing, and to exchange feedback. The Art of Teaching did not choose for us what we needed to learn to be more effective teachers.  The Art of Teaching let us choose for ourselves.  The Art of Teaching actually responds willingly to the learning choices the teachers in the program make; there is no need for us to ‘demand’ anything.  You may wonder what has risen to the top as far as professional development (PD) for teachers participating in the Art of Teaching.  For ELA, it is overwhelmingly PD related to Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop from Colombia Teachers College and for Math, Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI).  Since you have been so involved in effective teaching and learning practices since 2008, I trust you know what I am talking about.  The Cotsen Art of Teaching is the most effective (and meaningful) professional development with which I have been involved.
It is also ‘of the teachers, by the teachers, and for the teachers’.  The teachers in the program do not have to ‘move up on their own’ and they get excellent feedback (from peers working in similar situations, not from people outside the field of education) and “tools they need to improve their practice.”  The principals are, of course, on board, and for many of them, it increases their ‘learning line’ as well.
You mentioned in your speech that “the field did not have a clear view of the characteristics of great teaching.”  I disagree. Back in 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was born.  There have been clear standards for what teachers should know and be able to do in place for almost three decades.  From their website:
“Created by teachers, for teachers, National Board Certification is the profession’s mark of accomplished teaching. It is: Built upon National Board Standards and the Five Core Propositions
•    Rigorous and performance-based
•    Based on multiple measures
•    Peer-reviewed
•    Voluntary
•    Valid and reliable
To date, more than 110,000 teachers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have achieved National Board Certification.”
I received my National Board Certification in 2010, Middle Childhood, Generalist.  I earned my Masters of Science in Science Education in 2006.  Together, those accomplishments must be worth a step or two on my ‘learning line’.  The work on the master’s degree and on my board certification was initiated by me as an individual (it was voluntary), but I hardly earned my masters or my certification “on my own”.  (Note:  I did pay for it on my own; same goes for the cost of National Board Certification.)
In your speech, you go on to mention that “every student deserves high standards.”  I’m sure you are aware that, according to the Fordham Institute’s own evaluation system, California LOWERED its standards in both ELA and Math when we adopted the Common Core State Standards (along with the District of Columbia (D.C.) and Indiana).  To quote from Mercedes Schneider’s book,  Common Core Dilemma, p 60:
“In 2010, in an effort to promote the CCSS as “clearly superior to standards in most states,” Fordham assigned letter grades to CCSS and to all state standards.
They gave CCSS an A-minus in math and a B-plus in English Language Arts (ELA).”
Using the same grading system, Fordham gave California an A in Math and an A in ELA.  Let me restate that.  The standards for ELA and Math that California had had in place (created of, for, and by teachers), were better than the Common Core State Standards.  So in an effort to implement your vision of high standards for every student, California’s students get lower standards.  Of course, how could we have known that, when the Governors’ CCSS  Memo of Understanding was signed before the standards were even finished?  I can still remember our staff’s first CCSS staff development, which was held in the spring of 2009.  2010 was to be Year One of the implementation, which would roll out over three years.  Our SBAC testing began in the 2013-14 school year.  That was the ‘norming year’ when 4 million students in 22 states took the SBAC, but the scores didn’t count, and not even our superintendent got to see any results.
The part of your speech where you are actually citing data is, for me, the most troubling.  I’m referring to this part:
“A growing body of evidence told us that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor in student achievement. If you take two classrooms from the same school, both starting out at the 50th percentile, and assign one to a teacher in the top quartile and another to a teacher in the bottom quartile, there will be a 10 percentile difference in achievement at the end of the year.”
“Ten points is a big difference for a single year—it’s nearly a third of the achievement gap between white students and African-American students. The data showed us the enormous potential for helping teachers improve their practice. We believed that if we could identify the most effective teachers, figure out what they do so well, and spread that to all teachers, it would have a decisive impact on student achievement.”
In truth, I am completely befuddled by these two paragraphs.  Here is how I read it.  So we have two classes of students, both classes from the same school; same grade level, different teachers, (I am making that assumption here).  Both classes are starting out the year at the 50th percentile, which I also assume is being based on last year’s standardized test scores.  (Wait, every single student in the class is exactly at the 50th percentile ranking? I guess I can go with that.) Okay, so two perfectly, average classes, exactly at the 50th percentile, the top-of-the-bell-curve average; (not to be confused with a score of 50 percent, which in most cases means failure,) but the 50th percentile, so exactly average when compared to…to what? To the rest of the students in the same grade level in the district? the state? the nation?  The percentile ranking has to be compared to a bigger group than just that school, (I am again making that assumption).
Okay, so we take two classes of average-scoring students from the same school. I am assuming that the ‘top quartile’ teacher is ‘top quartile’ because that is how his or her students scored on the standardized test last year. Is that a correct assumption?  And same with the ‘bottom quartile’ teacher?  Okay, so the teachers are moved from elsewhere where their scores were equidistant  from the center, average, (50th percentile ranking) on the standard deviation bell curve.  And that is because both the top and bottom quartiles are exactly the same distance from the middle (50th percentile), two and a half deciles (25 percentile points), to be exact.  Okay, I’ve got that.
And you are saying that the teacher whose students last year scored in the top quartile on the test (75th percentile ranking and above) will be more effective when assigned to a 50th percentile class this year (an average class) than the teacher whose students last year scored in the bottom quartile on the test (25th percentile ranking and below), who is also assigned to a 50th percentile class for the year at the same school. To the best of my ability, that is what I think you are saying.  And that at the end of the year, there will be a 10 percentile difference in achievement.
So that would mean that the students in the ‘top quartile’ teacher’s class would move to a 55th percentile ranking? And the students in the bottom quartile teacher’s class would move to a 45th percentile ranking?  Or maybe the ‘top quartile teacher’s class scores at the 60th percentile at the end of the year, and the ‘bottom quartile’ teacher’s class maintains their 50th percentile ranking?  Or some other possible 10 point shift? The ‘bottom quartile’ teacher’s class could fall to the 40th percentile ranking, and the ‘top quartile’ teacher’s scores could remain the same?  Did I read that correctly?  It just sounds so logical and statistically significant, doesn’t it?
Well, I beg to differ.  I spent the first 16 years of my teaching career in an 85th percentile and above school in the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District.  But on my salary, I couldn’t afford to buy a house where I worked, so mid-career I moved my home and my job to Long Beach Unified School District (lbusd); I’m sure you have heard of it.  600 teachers were hired that year (2000), and since I had a little bit of experience, I got to have some say in my site placement.  I chose a 100% free lunch, mostly English as a Second Language Learner, 40th percentile and below school…on purpose.  I purposefully, and with full intention, took my 85th percentile and above teaching to a 40th percentile and below school.  I was my own Action Research project.
But at the end of the year, there was no 10 percentile point difference in achievement (based on the CST, the norm-referenced, standardized test in use in CA at the time). My new lbusd students still scored in the 40th percentile and below.  However, based on teacher-created and district level formative and summative ELA and Math assessments in use at the time, my students were showing more progress (growth) over one year than my SMMUSD students had.  But it sure didn’t show up on the standardized test.  Now, Michelle Rhee would say that on that 35 mile drive south on the 405 from Santa Monica to Long Beach, I became an ineffective teacher.  It’s impossible for me to be impartial here, but I think not.  I am the highly qualified, (based on NCLB) highly effective (based on administrator evaluations, colleague’s input, and parent approval ratings) experienced (29 years), Masters of Science Education holding, so STEM worthy, (Nationally Board Certified) teacher that some education reformers say refuses to teach at low performing schools.
I stayed at that school for ten years, earning that master’s degree I mentioned earlier, as well as my National Board Certification, and participating as a fellow in the Cotsen Art of Teaching.  If anything, I am a more effective teacher now than I was when I left Santa Monica nearly 15 years ago.  Qualitatively speaking, of course. I stayed at that particular Long Beach school until I was (involuntarily) displaced, because after the recession, to meet their budget demands, lbusd raised class size back up to 30:1 (from 20:1) in grades kindergarten through third, (as a fifth grade teacher, class size in lbusd has always been and remains 35:1) and our school lost ten teachers.  I moved, purposefully and with full intention, to another lbusd school 6 blocks up the street, with demographics as close as I could find to the school from which I had been displaced.
Here are my conclusions.  I am an experienced, effective teacher.  I am a life-long learner, and strive to hone my craft each day with the goal of being that much better tomorrow than I was yesterday.
Your CCSS, for better or worse, are not the issue.  I can live with them. Standards, as they always have, drive my curriculum.  The students drive my instruction.
However, I cannot live with the SBAC; the high stakes test intentionally and inextricably tied to the CCSS (in the SBAC states).  The SBAC has narrowed the curriculum I teach.  The SBAC (not the CCSS!) is driving the professional development provided by my school district. We are teaching to the test, not to the standards, because the stakes of the test are so high. The students most certainly are not learning “in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests”, but rather to the needs, skills, and interests determined by the district to best match those of the test.  Our district adopted the Math Curriculum that was deemed most aligned with the SBAC, based on the ‘Claims’. We are a big district; that’s a lucky publisher.
The carrot and stick approach put in place by No Child Left Behind is a failure, as is the Race to the Top that followed.  Charter schools, at least those that use federal dollars without public oversight (like the kind ruled unconstitutional in your state) are not the answer.  Neither is big data from standardized tests.
I was told the SBAC would give me immediate feedback that I could use to inform my instruction.  I got the scores for last year’s students (now in middle school) on September 9 of this school year. I was told the SBAC would give me specific information about each student and what that student knows and is able to do.  What I got was a 1 to 4 score, the result of a ‘cut score’ based on a standard deviation (sounds norm-referenced to me!) and a ranking of my school’s scores in ELA and Math as compared to the rest of my district.  I do not know which students got which questions right and which ones wrong; I am not even allowed to discuss the content of the questions, (which I don’t remember from the 6 days my class spent in the computer lab taking the test last year) anyway.  No immediate feedback, and no specific information about what my students (from last year!) know or are able to do.  Oh, and the test was supposed to be ‘adaptive’ last year; I have no idea if that worked or not, and if it did, I have know idea for whom the test adapted itself, and whether it adapted up or down.  The data you rely on so heavily is of little use to the actual classroom teacher, and of even less use to the students’ parents.  You said yourself in your speech,
“Test scores are a useful way to measure what students know, but they are not a diagnostic for teachers. They tell you very little about what skills you need to improve—and they don’t tell you anything at all about how to improve. I’ve never heard a teacher say, “I got those test scores and now I know what I need to change.”
I disagree with the statement that [Standardized] “Test scores are a useful way to measure what students know” for reasons stated above, and more.  But I concur with the rest of the paragraph.
When you talk about “creating strong feedback and improvement systems” as “a defining feature of better achievement”, and of being “focused heavily on spreading it”, I’m afraid I really don’t know the systems to which you are referring.
“For example, some states now use peer reviewers and coaches in the classroom. Some teachers welcome this step. Others are reluctant to have outsiders assess their work. But we’ve found that when they see the point is to help them improve their practice, most teachers crave the feedback.”
As a negotiator for the Teacher’s Association in SMMUSD, I helped write the language for PAR, the Peer Assistance and Review program that we wrote into our agreement in the late 1990’s. And by we, I mean the district together with the Teacher’s association.
When I was hired in Long Beach in 2000, I was a BTSA coach for my first two year.  BTSA coaches were assigned as mentors to first and second year teachers.
The Art of Teaching was developed around an inquiry model with mentors and fellows working together collaboratively to coach, model, and give and receive constructive feedback.
For my entire career, we have used “observations, student feedback, and other factors” to determine the effectiveness of teachers.  And I use some form of formative or summative assessments to measure what my students know and are able to do, as well as show growth over time, every single day.
You say that “the standards are starting to work for students and teachers.”  What evidence do you have to support that?  Our SBAC scores were exactly as the SBAC consortuim predicted they would be:  70% of the students would not be proficient.  Then the cut scores were set.  Then only 30% of our students scored at the proficient or above level.
So what do I need?  I need to be able to teach without the threat of a standardized test score hanging over my head and the heads of my students.  Your entire premise is that teachers need to be’ more effective’ but these data on which you base teacher effectiveness are deeply flawed, because you believe teacher effectiveness can be determined by student test scores from a big, standardized test.  The big, standardized test is the problem, not the answer.  What I  need is for the standardized test to go away.
Linda Warner Mank, NBCT

Common Core State Standards: Where I Stand, In Case Anyone is Interested

I have some problems with the Common Core State Standards, (CCSS), but I want to establish from the get go that I, personally, don’t have a problem with the Common Core State Standards in and of themselves; neither the CCSS for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical subjects nor the CCSS for Mathematics, as published in 2010. I first received my personal copies in the fall of the 2012/13 school year. I have read them a number of times, with my skillful ability to discern more from the standards each time; to make fuller use of the text, including making an increasing number of connections among the ideas presented within the standards, all the while considering a wide range of textual evidence. In doing so, I have become more sensitive to the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and poor reasoning* contained within, but for the most part, like I said, I don’t have a problem with the CCSS. In fact, I have embraced them.

*Introduction, page 8, CCSS for Literacy  (For those of you who don’t recognize the CCSS when you see it.  Hee Hee.)

Note to the BATs, of which I am a member, proud and loud, and to any other interested parties: I have a HUGE problem with the implementation of the CCSS, from the origins of their creation,

to the authors,

to the stake-holder buy-in (or lack thereof),

to the appropriateness of Appendices A, B, and C, (specifically

to text exemplars and sample performance tasks tied to specific grade levels),

to the across-the-nation implementation without peer review or piloting,

to the SBAC and the PARCC and how they are inextricably and intentionally tied to the CCSS

to the SBAC and the PARCC and subsequent issues stemming from any testing tied to high stakes,

to the questionable use of federal public education funds to “implement” and “assess” the CCSS

to the very name, The Common Core State Standards…

Well, you get the idea. But that’s all future blog-fodder.


This post is about what I don’t have a problem with, with respect to the CCSS.

I don’t have a problem with a new set of standards. Education has always had standards, and it always will. The standards set forth what the students should know and be able to do. They are a guide for states, districts, administrators, and individual educators in real, live classrooms. Standards should evolve and change as new information, educational pedagogy, and practices come to light. We don’t want our standards to stagnate; we want them to be malleable and adaptable.  Just like our students.

On page one of the Introduction to the CCSS for Literacy it states, “The Standards are intended to be a living work: as new and better evidence emerges, the Standards will be revised accordingly.” I don’t have a problem with that; in fact, I embrace it.

However, this I know: Standards drive my curriculum;

Students drive my instruction.

I don’t have a problem with a common set of standards for the entire country; all fifty states plus DC and even territories. In fact, I think having a common core of knowledge and skills that each Educated-in-America student will have when he or she graduates from high school, no matter in which part of the US the education took place, is a good thing.

As long as it is just that…a common core.

I’m a teacher, and teachers like apples, so I going to go with an apple analogy here. The core of the apple is certainly important; it is, in fact, indespensible. The core is where the seeds are, where reproduction happens; if we don’t have the core, we don’t have new trees, and we don’t have more apples. But the core of the apple is not the part we eat; it’s not the part that nourishes us, it’s not the part that we enjoy. That’s the flesh of the apple, the juicy, nutritious, delicious part; the part of the apple that makes us, well, love apples.

The Common Core State Standards, the core, can be the same for every student in every state; and the delicious part of the apple, the part that brings us back for more, can be different for every state, every district, and every classroom, every year. The core can be fleshed out to meet the specific and unique needs of each individual student in each classroom, in each district, in each state, in our great nation.

Luckily, on page four of the introduction to the CCSS for Literacy, it states:

A focus on results rather than means

By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards (the Core!) leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed. Thus, the Standards do not mandate such things as a particular writing process or the full range of metacognitive strategies that students may need to monitor and direct their thinking and learning. Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the standards.

I embrace that.

Moreover, on page 6 of the Introduction to the CCSS for Literacy, it goes on to state:

“The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.” Furthermore, “The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”

That, I can provide. That, I can embrace.

And, this I know: Standards drive my curriculum;

Students drive my instruction.

In addition, the Introduction, page 6 goes on to specify:

While the Standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that can or should be taught. A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers. The aim of the Standards is to articulate the fundamentals, not to set out an exhaustive list or a set of restrictions that limits what can be taught beyond what is specified herein.

Again, the CCSS are a common core of expectations. The ways and the means to that end, the mastery of the Standards, that’s the edible, yummy part of the apple, and is left up to teachers, districts, and states. I embrace that!

Page 6 of the Introduction goes on to specifically state that the CCSS “do not define the nature of advanced work for students who meet the Standards (the core) prior to the end of high school” and are ready to extend their learning. That is left up to the teacher. The CCSS “do not define specific intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or above grade level expectations.” That is left up to the teacher. The CCSS “do not define the full range of supports appropriate for English language learners and for students with special needs.” That is left up to the teachers.

I embrace that. Standards drive my curriculum;

Students drive my instruction.

Please note that this introduction specifies that the CCSS are NOT A CURRICULUM. I embrace that.

(Which is not to say that the CCSS are not being treated as a curriculum by companies developing the high-stakes tests and/or curriculum to support CCSS and by some states/districts/schools. But this post is about what I don’t have a problem with, so I’ll move on.)

So, I can live with the Common Core State Standards.

As I read them, these Standards promote critical thinking and problem solving. These Standards promote collaboration and diversity. These Standards promote research and in- depth study. These standards promote a constructivist epistemology. These Standards promote creative and purposeful expression! These Standards even promote play! They promote Science, Social Studies, Technology, and indirectly these Standards therefore promote Music, Health, Physical Education, and Art! I embrace all of that! It is, according to a close read of the CCSS, the exact opposite of the kind of teaching and learning that was necessarily foisted upon the students and their teachers to meet the demands required by No Child Left Behind. I don’t have a problem with any of that. With a huge sigh of relief, I embrace it!




Testing 105: Stardardized Tests – The Students’ Point of View

An interesting conversation happened on the metro on the way home from the airport the other day. A gentleman sat down next to me. Through a bit of small talk we discovered that we were both educators; he at a nearby college, and I at a public elementary school. The next thing you know, he mentioned something about the education reforms of Michelle Rhee.

I took a deep breath, and thought to myself, “Do I make an excuse not to chat and stare out the window all the way to my park & ride stop, or do I dive right in to this giant can of worms that is Public Education Reform?”

I took a calming breath and said, “I’m not a big fan of Michelle Rhee.”

As expected, he followed up with, “Oh? Why not?”

Now, my answer could have gone in many different directions. But our commute was generally less than 30 minutes, so I had to narrow it down. I picked teacher evaluation.

I told him that I felt that it was not fair to evaluate teachers based upon their students’ test scores.

The test scores she was using to determined teacher effectiveness were not representative of what the students knew or were able to do. They were norm referenced standardized tests, identifiable because the scores were reported in a percentile ranking, and were designed to rank. The state tests were given in the Spring, and the results were not published until the following fall. By then, a teachers has a whole new class, and last year’s class is off to middle school.

Then I told him the story I heard at Bunko. I play this silly dice game called Bunco once a month with eleven other women from my neighborhood. Most of them are white, affluent and privileged, as are their children. It was May, which means testing time at the local middle school. The son of one of the bunko moms got home from school, and being the proactive, interested, involved-in-her-son’s-education mom that the bunko lady was, she asked him how the testing went. His response was something to this effect: “Who cares? The tests don’t count for anything, anyway. If the teachers were nice and gave us treats like in elementary school, then we might try harder. But they just talk down to us and treat us all like cheaters, so why should we try at all? It’s just a big waste of time.”

Now, before we go all ballistic on the poor, apathetic, pre-teen kid; let’s see if we can figure out where he’s coming from.

Let’s start with, “Who cares? The tests don’t count for anything, anyway.” From his point of view, he is exactly right. The tests do not count toward any grade on his report card. The tests do not count toward any exit requirements for middle school, nor any entrance requirements for high school. If fact, the students, their parents, (and the students’ teachers) won’t even get the results of the test until the following fall, by which time our middle schooler will be well into the first semester of his next grade level, and will have forgotten all about last year’s testing.

And when the results do come, they don’t give anybody much relevant information. One can determine a student’s percentile ranking for each test. A 70th percentile ranking means that the student scored better than 70% of his peers on a particular test. One can find out how many questions were possible, and how many responses were correct. But one cannot find out what the questions were, so there is no way to use the results for any individual’s educational purpose.

There is also no way to tell if a student accidentally skipped one, missed one because it was left blank, missed one because of a stray pencil mark on the answer document, or maybe accidentally bubbled in the correct answer on the wrong line, or bubbled in two circles for one question by mistake. Pesky humans!

Middle school students have, by now, caught on to the fact that the state test does not matter to them personally. And as human juveniles, they have not all reached that cognitive level of social awareness and civic responsibility that would motivate them from within to do their best on the test anyway. So the results are skewed for everyone. And I can’t really blame them. After all, “the tests don’t count for anything, anyway.”

On to the next gripe. “If the teachers were nice and gave us treats like in elementary school, then we might try harder.” Clearly, this student has fond memories of his elementary testing windows. I can’t speak to his elementary school testing experience, but I can speak with authority about my 29 years of testing experience at 3 different schools in 2 different California districts.

In elementary school, we do, indeed, try to make it fun. Testing time has almost a Mardi Gras atmosphere. There is a big lead up to the two week testing window. Lots of information about dates and times is sent home to the parents. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, secretaries, the PTA parents; everyone is soundly reminded that while the testing is very important to our school, and that we want students to do their best on the test, the testing days during the two week testing window will be normal, business as usual days, just like any other school days.

Except that parents and students are urged to not be absent during the testing window. Any non-emergency appointments, like for doctors or dentists, should be scheduled for outside the testing window so no student has to come to school late or leave early. But it will be just like any other school day.

Except that parents and students are urged to come to school on time; maybe even a few minutes early. A student who comes in late disrupts the learning environment for the other students, and it can often throw the rest of the tardy child’s day off kilter if he comes in late after all the others have started teaching and learning. But it will be just like any other school day.

Except that parents and students are reminded that students need to go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep (8-10 hours!) so students can be well rested and do their best on the test. It will be just like any other school day.

Except that parents and students are reminded that students need to eat a healthy breakfast, including protein, so they won’t be hungry and will have fuel in their tummies to do their best on the test. It will be just like any other school day.

Except that at recess, students get to have a snack of cheese and crackers just to make sure that no student (at this 100% free lunch school) fails to do his best on the test because he was hungry. But it will be just like any other school day.

Oh, except that recess times and the lunch schedule might be altered to accommodate the testing schedule. And part of the playground might be off limits during specific times during the day for distraction mitigation. But it will be just like any other school day.

Oh, and Speech will be cancelled during this two week period, and so will RSP and the library and the computer lab, because we need the credentialed teachers to help proctor. But it will be just like any other school day.

Oh, and both instrumental and vocal music will be cancelled. But it will be just like any other school day.

AND, on the Friday before the testing window begins, we get celebrate with a (use your best Game Show Host announcer voice here) “Do your Best on the Test” Pep-Rally Assembly! (And the crowd roars!) The principal hands out Smarties (that he has asked the staff to voluntarily donate so he will have enough for 850 kids.) Mr. C. will teach the students how to do the wave, and video tape it! We will sing songs and stamp our feet! The student council members will do a dance that the principal taught them! And the principal will announce that each day during the two week testing window, each student who comes to school ON TIME will receive a red ticket. All of the red tickets will be put into an opportunity drawing for this Shiny New Red Bike!!! (Picture the student council president riding around in circles.) Even students who don’t get tested yet (kinder through 2nd grade) will get on-time attendance tickets, but their opportunity drawing will be for something else, not the bike, because they don’t get to take the test just yet. But we want ALL of the students from ALL of the families to be on time every day during the two week testing window!

But it will be just like any other school day.

Can you say, mixed messages? The elementary school students still fall for this sort of thing, and for the most part, they really DO try their best to do their best on the test. But by the time they get to middle school, when all of the ‘fun’ of testing disappears, the kids catch on pretty fast.

Forging ahead: “But they just talk down to us…”

Well, maybe that’s because we have to. To administer the state standardized test, each teacher receives an instruction booklet. The booklet is scripted. It specifically tells us what to say, in little boxes that say, “Say:” We are required to read the script exactly as it is written; no additions, no omissions. We sign a document that says we promise to do this. This is to ensure that each teacher in each classroom says to the students the exact same thing that every other teacher in every other classroom in the state says to the students. This is a way to protect against one set of students getting an unfair advantage (or disadvantage!) because the directions to the test were explained in a different manner.

To middle school students, who have heard similar directions about, for example, how to fill in the bubble completely, since at least second grade, this scripted language could certainly be construed as ‘being talked down to’.   I get that. Can’t fix it.

And: “…treat us all like cheaters…”

Again, this has to do with standardization practices, but how would a middle schooler know that? Before the testing window begins, we must remove from the classroom anything that could give a student an advantage over another student somewhere else in the state taking the same test. If math facts, formulas, vocabulary words, a poster illustrating the writing process, diagrams, student work, and other charts and posters are decorating one classroom and not another, then the conditions under which the test is given are not the same; they are not standardized. So, it all comes down off of the walls before the test. And nothing goes up in its place until after the testing for the whole school is completed. So what looks like ‘ensuring the test is given under similar conditions’ to the staff, looks like, “You take bulletin boards down because you think we will cheat,” to the students.

And we rearrange their desks from the cooperative groups of four or six that they have been in all year to stand alone, individual desks.

And we make them use desk dividers.

And we collect their cellphones first thing in the morning, and return them as they are leaving on testing days.

And they are not allowed to go to the bathroom while the test is in progress.

And then there are the proctors. The proctors (of which the principal is one!) periodically wander in and out through classrooms.

The teachers know they are there to monitor teacher behavior. Are we sticking to the script? And we replacing dull pencils with sharp ones in a timely fashion? Are we keeping test materials in a locked cabinet when not in use? Are my walls bare and free of any hint-giving materials? Are we keeping all the promises we made when we signed the testing agreement?

But the students think the proctors are there to make sure that they are not cheating. To the tweens, what else would proctors be doing?

Obviously, we are assuming they will cheat if given half a chance, and we are doing everything in our power to remove that option, right?

So yeah, during the testing window, we appear to talk down to the students and we appear to treat them like cheaters. Yeah. On the up side, they notice this as a drastic change from status quo, so that means we are not treating them that way the rest of the school year, right? Whew! A silver lining!

And you want to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher on that student’s test score?  The guys sitting next to me on the Metro said he had no idea, and thanked me.  You’re welcome.

I am not a fan of Michelle Rhee.













Testing 104: Standardized tests-Criterion Referenced, or Norm Referenced?

Wait, we’ve just learned what it means for a test to be standardized, but now we hear that there are different types of standardized tests?

Yes! Not all standardized tests are created equally! (Which is a little bit ironic when you stop and think about it.)

Standardized tests can fall into one of two broad categories: criterion referenced standardized tests and norm referenced standardized tests. It is important to know the difference between the two, because each type of standardized test has a different purpose.

The purpose of a criterion referenced test is to find out to what extent any given student has mastered a specific set of criteria. A spelling test is a good example of a criterion referenced test. One student’s test answers are compared to a key of correct answers, and the results show how well the student did on the test. A well written criterion referenced test will show what the student knows, understands, and is able to do with respect to a specific set of criteria.

On the other hand, the purpose of a norm referenced test is to sort; it is designed to take any given set of students, have them take the same test, and, using the results, rank them top to bottom, from highest scoring student to the lowest scoring student compared to each other. The SAT test commonly used for college admissions is a good example of a norm referenced test. The results of a well written norm referenced test will form a perfect bell curve, with a few scores spread out at opposite ends of the curve, and a whole bunch of scores clustered in the middle. The results of this type of test are used to rank; to compare how each student did compared to the others within the same group who took the same test. These kinds of tests have their uses, but norm referenced test results are not designed to indicate how much students know, understand, and are able to do.

Luckily, it’s super easy to tell which kind of standardized test is which by simply looking at how the test results are reported.   If the score of the test is reported as a percent score, for example, ” Your child scored 70% (read 70 percent) on the spelling test”, then it is a criterion referenced standardized test. If the score of the test is reported as a percentile ranking, for example, “Your child scored in the 70th %ile (read 70th percentile) for Reading”, then it is a norm referenced standardized test.

So in the realm of standardized tests there are criterion referenced standardized tests and norm referenced standardized tests…two different types of tests, each being necessarily standardized, created for two distinctly different purposes: criterion referenced tests are designed to measure mastery of specific criteria, and norm referenced tests are designed to rank.

So, if I wanted to find out what you now know, understand, and are able to do with each type of standardized test, would the best assessment for the job be a criterion referenced test or a norm referenced test?

Testing 103: Testing Environment Standardization

So a standardized test, because it is ‘standardized’, ensures fairness, equity and justice, right? Since every student taking that test is tested on the exact same content under the exact same circumstances, it stands to reason that that gives everyone taking the test an equal opportunity to do well, right? And that the results will be an unbiased way to compare one student to another, apples to apples, right?

But that is not always as easy as it sounds

Yes, the testing environment and testing conditions are standardized, so each student taking the test will take it under the same circumstances as every other student taking that same test.  The trouble is, students are human, and like snowflakes, each one is different. (And states are different, and school districts are different, and individual schools within a district are different, because they are all filled with those pesky humans!)

A standardized test often has a time limit. That is part of standardizing the testing environment. If one student had three hours, and another student had just 30 minutes, then the testing conditions are not the same, and the student who had more time, may have an advantage over the student who had only 30 minutes. Using the results of such an assessment for comparison reasons would be like comparing apples to oranges, as the saying goes.

As another example, at each testing site, the testing window always occurs after the same number of days in school. This ensures equity across different school calendars. In California, the Education Code (Ed Code) dictates that one school year will contain exactly 180 student days. But the start dates, holidays, and vacations are up to each individual district to decide. If the whole state had the exact same testing window start date, then kids at schools that began the school year before Labor Day, for example, would have attended more school days before the test begins than kids at schools that started after Labor Day. Another example is that a school on a Traditional Calendar would have had more student days in school before the testing start date than a Year-Round Calendar school that had already had a number of off-track days before the start of the testing window. In order for the test environment to be standardized, i.e. the same for every participant, the start date is set to begin after a specified number of school days, rather than a date on the calendar.

So standardization makes it fair and equal for everybody.

Oh, except for that one student who was out for a week and a half back in February because he had to have an emergency appendectomy. (You can’t plan that sort of thing for vacation time!)

Oh, and that other student who moved here from out of the district. They were on a different school calendar, but now she is on our calendar. She hasn’t been in school as many days as the students who have been at our site since the first day of school, but she takes the test on our schedule now anyway.

Oh, and the student who is chronically tardy through no fault of his own. His parents just can’t seem to get him to school on time, so he misses anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of instruction per day. If that happens for the first 120 days of school, averaging 20 minutes late, that’s 120 days X 20 minutes, which is 2400 minutes, or 40 hours, or almost 7 days, based on a 6 hour school day. That’s a lot of time.

Sometimes, special accommodations are made in the testing environment; in some circumstances they are even required. For example, accommodations may be made for a certain student population, perhaps according to Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Certain students, who have been identified with specific learning disabilities, may take the test in a small group setting, or be given more time than the general population. Or, second language learners may have the test read to them in their primary language, or have access to a bilingual dictionary during the test. Those accommodations would be with the intention of leveling the playing field, in hopes that apples could still be compared to apples, despite the learning disability or language barrier.

There is a lot to take into consideration when one tries to standardize the testing conditions across an entire state, for example.

In our district, there is a list of things to do before and during the testing window to ensure standardization. It looks something like this each year:

Before the testing, each site will:

  • Notify families of the testing window and encourage 100% attendance. Discourage absences, late starts, and early outs for students for things such as doctor or dentist appointments that could be reschedule outside of the testing window.
  • Cancel all special pull-out programs scheduled during the testing window. This includes library, vocal music, instrumental music, speech, RSP, ESL, counseling, field trips, etc. Sometimes physical education and even recess can be cancelled or rescheduled so it does not interfere with the testing schedule.
  • Sometimes a school-wide snack is scheduled during each day of the testing window to level the ‘hunger’ playing field. (Some students have breakfast, some students don’t.)

Before testing, each teacher will:

  • Remove any bulletin boards that may contain information that students could use to help them on the test; i.e. math facts, formulas, sound-letter cards, word walls, vocabulary, posters or charts containing subject-matter content, student work containing subject-matter content, etc. etc. etc.

During testing, each teacher will:

  • Hang the red TESTING: DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door.
  • Collect all cell phones and unauthorized electronic devices.
  • Ensure that no student leaves the classroom during the testing session.
  • Use desk dividers, or separate students from one another to ensure independent work

Also to ensure standardization during the testing, each teacher is required to read the directions for the test aloud to the students directly from the test administration booklet, exactly as printed. It’s even written as a script. This ensures that each teacher giving a particular test says the exact same thing to the students in exactly the same way as all of the other teachers giving that test. If one teacher worded a direction slightly differently, or accidentally skipped something, or added something that was not written in the directions, it could somehow give that group of test takers an unfair advantage (or disadvantage!).

Again, the intention is for all of the students taking the standardized test to be able to be on equal footing with all of the other students taking the same, enabling the results to be compared on an apples to apples basis.

Oh, but what about that time that our testing days fell in the middle of a heat wave? Students in classrooms with out air conditioning where the temperatures can reach 103 degrees are not taking the test under the same conditions as students in classrooms where the A/C keeps the temperature comfortable, or as students in schools not experiencing a heat wave during their testing days. Does classroom temperature affect student outcomes?

Oh, and what about the student who was running a fever last night but not this morning, and was sent to school today anyway, because it was a testing day, and the school had stressed how important it was for the students not to be absent. Will she score as well as she would have on a day that she didn’t run a fever the night before?  How does physical health affect student outcomes?

Oh, and what about the student who found out just this morning that his cat had been run over by a car in the middle of the night. Would he score as well as he would have if the test had been the day before the death of his pet?  How does emotional health affect student outcomes?

These are just a few of the ways that the very best intentions toward test standardization in pursuit of fairness, equity, and justice can be thwarted simply because humans are involved. Too bad we’re not educating widgits!



Testing, 102: Test Question Standardization

So a standardized test, because it is ‘standardized’, ensures fairness, equity and justice, right? Since every student taking that test is tested on the exact same content under the exact same circumstances, it stands to reason that that gives everyone taking the test an equal opportunity to do well, right? And that the results will be an unbiased way to compare one student to another, apples to apples, right?

But that is not always as easy as it sounds

Yes, the content is standardized, so each student taking that test will answer the same questions as every other student taking that test.

The trouble is, students are human, and like snowflakes, each one is different.

Sometimes, there is inadvertent bias built right into the test questions themselves, even though the test developers are aware of this and try to control for it. Here are a couple of oversimplified possibilities, just to give you the idea. Test developers look for common ground, so no one test taker has an advantage over another because of, say who they are. So let’s say we create a question to assess a student’s ability to identify sequence, a common reading skill.

So the test developers decide to use an excerpt from the story of The Three Little Pigs, because everybody knows that, right? Well, not necessarily. If the child comes from a culture other than the dominant one, the set of bedtime stories that the child heard could be totally different and ‘foreign’ to the dominant culture’s. The bedtime stories may even have been told/read in a completely different language. Or maybe the child’s parent works two jobs and doesn’t have time to read to the children every night, even though the parent knows he/she should and would, in fact, relish the time spent with the children. Would a test taker not familiar with the story of the three pigs be at a disadvantage?

Or maybe the test could contain a reference to sibling rivalry. Could that put an only child who never played with brothers and sisters at a disadvantage when answering that question compared to a child who has had first hand experience interacting with siblings on a regular basis ?

It has been shown that the more affluent the student’s family, the more closely the prior knowledge of the test taker matches the general content from which the test developers draw.

So even if the questions on a given test are standardized, individual students could interpret those questions differently because of influences over which the student has no control: gender, race, religious affiliation, family socio-economic status, and education levels of the parents.

The quest for a fair, equitable, and just test, the results of which can be used to compare apples to apples is a noble one. It is also very difficult to achieve.

Testing 101: What is a Standardized Test?

A test is a test is a test, right?  Wrong!

There is a lot of talk across the nation about standardized tests.  What does it actually mean if the test is “standardized”?  Standardization is all about comparing apples to apples. Basically, it means that the exact same test is administered to every student who takes it under the exact same conditions…the conditions and the test itself are ‘standardized’.  The purpose of this kind of test is so that later, when the results are available, the results can be used to ‘compare apples to apples’.

Here’s a common misconception about standardized tests:  it is often assumed that the questions on the test–in other words, the content being tested–is based on an agreed upon set of ‘standards’.  Sounds logical, right?  Now, that may or may not be the case, (that the content being tested is based on some set of standards), but in the world of educational assessment, content is not what makes a standardized test, well, standardized.

A standardized test means that every student taking a certain test will have the exact same questions to answer.  The questions may be in a different order, but each student will, by the end of the test, answer the same set of questions as every other student taking that same test.

A standardized test means that every student taking the test will take it under the exact same testing conditions.  A standardized test is administered in a controlled environment.  Simply put, the test is given under similar conditions everywhere, and the conditions are specifically dictated by the creators of the test and enforced by the district (or body) administering the test.  That is often why there is a proctor present.  The purpose of the proctor is to make sure that the testing conditions that were specified are being followed in each and every place the test is being administered.

The good old SAT test is a good example of a standardized test.

So, if a student is taking a standardized test, it does not mean that the content being assessed is based on some set of standards, as the term ‘standardized test’ seems to imply, but rather that the test itself, and the conditions under which the test is given, to the extent that it is humanly possible, are consistent and the same across all test takers.  Hence the term, ‘standardized’.  Just like, thank goodness, all electrical outlets (within the United States, at least) and USB ports are ‘standardized’.

I Become My Own Action Research Project


For my first 16 years, (starting in 1984) I taught mostly 4th and 5th grade at a public elementary school in a middle to upper-middle neighborhood.  It was a high-performing school, based on state test scores in the 85th percentile and above.  I was considered a Highly Qualified and Effective teacher.  I couldn’t afford to buy a house in the city where I worked, so I bought a house in Long Beach, about 35 miles south.  I changed districts mid-career! I arrived in Long Beach (lbusd) in the year 2000, and I chose to teach at a 100% free lunch, mostly English Language Learner school in central Long Beach.  I wanted to teach there. On purpose.  I took my 85th percentile and above teaching to the 40th percentile and below school, and guess what?  Although I taught the 5th grade GATE/Excel class pretty much the same way I had taught in Santa Monica (because I’d been doing it for 16 years, so I couldn’t really not, so I thought I might as well!), and although my teacher-collected data using authentic assessments and pre/posts tests showed that my students were learning as much (or more!) than the Santa Monica students had, the percentile ranking on the norm-referenced, standardized tests required by the state and federal government (thank you, NCLB) did not reflect the growth and progress my Long Beach students were making.  My Long Beach students continued to score well below the Santa Monica students, even though I had collected data that could show evidence of similar academic progress! Not to mention that while teaching here in Long Beach I have I earned a Masters of Science in Science Education (2006) and I have become a National Board Certified Teacher (MC-Gen, 2010).  I AM one of those highly qualified and experienced teachers that the reformers claim refuse to teach in low-performing, high-needs schools.  And speaking of…Michelle Rhee would say that I suddenly became an ‘Ineffective’ teacher as I drove that 35 miles south on the 405 freeway that fateful day in August of 2000 when I moved to Long Beach. I beg to differ.  I’ll be starting my 29th year in the next few days, and I can’t wait!

Long Version.