First Person

When you’re in charge of testing in a Colorado school district and your daughter wants to opt out

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests last fall, a precursor to PARCC backlash (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

Our First Person feature spotlights the voices of people on the front lines of the critical education issues facing Colorado. This latest installment is from Eric Mason, director of assessment for Colorado Springs School District 11. If you ‘d like to contribute to First Person, here are the details

For the last two years I have been the director of assessment for a large district in central Colorado. My first year on the job was a transition year for everyone. Colorado moved from the old testing regime to the online PARCC test.

After I accepted the position, I proudly told friends and acquaintances about my new responsibilities. When I did, I would often get a reaction that went something like this, “Wow. You are a brave man. Why in the world would you take that job?”

Truth is, I love what I do. I love the people I work with. I love the challenge. I annoy people with how much I like to talk about assessment, education, and most especially, civil rights. For me, it isn’t all about the test. It is about equity.

As an assessment director, my primary responsibility is to assure that state testing goes off without a hitch in 60 schools for over 28,000 students.

However, I work in a broken system. The state assessment system in the United States is broken because leaders from every quadrant have failed to ask the most important questions, or if they have, they have failed to listen to the answers.

They see tests as requirements. I don’t. I see them as products. I see those I serve as customers. Frustrated customers who are forced to buy products they are unhappy with. This is why we have opt-outs.

For me, it is summed up by one phone call, from my own daughter.

“Dad,” she asked, “will you opt me out of the PARCC?”

“Are you kidding?” I replied, “I am the assessment director of a district.”

“Yes, but, everyone is opting out. We don’t need this test. The teachers say they won’t even see the scores forever. Plus, it’s stressful. And, for what?”

“It’s the law, honey,” I interrupted. “We need these tests to make sure everyone gets a good education, no matter their background or race.”

“But none of the parents like it,” she said. “It’s not even on what I’ve been taught. It won’t help anyone get to college.”

She did take the test. As a freshman, and then again as a sophomore. But the truth is, she was right about all of it. Parents and students who opt out cite numerous reasons. Stress. Common Core. Uselessness. Data Privacy.

We have arrived here because leaders should have asked what their stakeholders wanted and needed. Instead, tests have just gotten longer and more complex.

Parents want assessments that are relevant to them. Students want assessments that don’t make them feel like the world is on their shoulders. Teachers want assessments that give accurate results quickly. Everyone wants assessments that are shorter.

When I was a kid, I remember my father looking at buying TVs with no remote. Imagine buying a TV today that doesn’t have a remote. As times change, companies improve their products to meet the needs of their customers. However, our leaders have failed to think this way about tests and testing.

Schools still take nearly a week to test. The scores are often doubted by users. This year, Colorado didn’t receive scores back until August. This, despite the fact that online, computer testing was lauded for quicker, more accurate results.

All these criticisms aside, my heart breaks at the current state of affairs. Educational assessment is a civil rights issue. Where I grew up in south Texas, there were still separate schools for immigrants. Today we are still struggling to assure that all students of all backgrounds receive the best education the state can provide.

How do we know if one school is failing students of color? Assessment. How can we better understand the gaps our students have in college or career readiness? Assessment.

But, now, we have families turning their back on standardized testing. Now, even if we build the perfect test, we would still have to regain their trust. But with so many opt-outs, our data has holes in it. How can we trust the results when the picture is incomplete?

This year, nearly 100 schools in Colorado lost a performance rating or more because of opt-outs. Administrators are being forced to determine the impact of instruction in other ways. What does that mean? Another assessment. We hope it will be accurate, meaningful, and short, but it will still be another test.

There is a better way. There are better tests. I believe that with all my heart. Our leaders must commit to getting input from all stakeholders — teachers, students, and parents — to improve the tests and the results.

If we commit to this, and demand better of test-makers like Pearson, ETS, or AIR, we will see opt-outs decrease, and maybe, just maybe, more equity in schools because teachers themselves will embrace the picture these tests paint.

Why in the world did I take this job? I took it because I think this is important. Essential, even. However, the customers have spoken. I hope that those who can make a difference will listen.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.