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

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.

guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.