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

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.