First Person

No one will miss ninth grade standardized testing

Based on headlines and the noise on social media, you would think the argument over ending ninth grade standardized tests that has played out during the last few weeks was the biggest and best thing to ever happen for high school students. But it isn’t.

We can and should do more than just jettison ninth grade standardized exams.

Although some have argued that annual assessments give us consistent data and that ninth grade is part of that, what they have not proven is that annual assessments give us improved outcomes for students, and especially for ninth-graders.

We all agree that reductions in testing are important. As a parent, I believe reductions in Colorado’s testing system — like ditching ninth grade tests — can coexist with the values of comparability, transparency, and growth.

As evidence, the majority of states maintain testing at the federal minimums, while using accountability systems that allow for comparability, transparency, and growth.

This alone debunks the myth that every student must be tested in every subject every year.

Still, some argue for testing every student, every year because they desire to ensure greater accountability for English and math, desire to evaluate student achievement for more grades, and for the purpose of educator evaluations.

But none of these reasons for constant testing address whether testing produces effective and equitable outcomes for our children.  In fact, according to the National Education Policy Center nearly 20 years of testing have proven to be both ineffective and inequitable.

Colorado has used state assessments since 1997 to compare student achievement levels across districts in the state for accountability purposes.  Likewise, for decades, Colorado has used National Association for Educational Progress, or NAEP, for comparisons across the country, and to monitor the progress of sub-groups of students broken down by race, gender, socioeconomic status, and English Language learners.  NAEP has provided comparable measures of achievement levels and achievement gaps during the past four decades. According to NAEP results, achievement gaps closed during a period of time in the 1980s, when there was less testing, not more.  Since that time, there has been an increase in state testing while the achievement gap has stabilized.

For comparability across Colorado, there are other ways to compare schools in general, and high schools in particular. Yes, eliminating ninth grade tests does disrupt growth data as we currently know it for high school students. But that does not disrupt students from growing, or being able to communicate that growth to teachers and parents every year.  Parents can still find out how their children are doing by sitting down and talking to educators who work with their children each day.  Furthermore, the Colorado Growth Model or other established models can measure growth in high school without ninth grade tests.

We need a system for our high school students that shines a light on the paths forward, not on the past and what we already know.  In fact, since the adoption of a “single statewide test” in grades 3-10 college remediation rates at Colorado community colleges have almost tripled from 21 percent to 37 percent.

The purpose of a state assessment system is to provide objective feedback to school and district leaders, as well as policymakers to evaluate the system, not individual students.  Parents and teachers need to use a body of evidence to inform conversations about individual student growth and progress, including local and classroom assessments.

Local assessments provide accountability by ensuring timely growth toward achievement of district curriculum for every student as schools ensure reduction of achievement gaps.

With bipartisan agreement on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, we have an incredible opportunity for Colorado to take the lead at reducing testing and creating an equitable framework for accountability that not only provides transparency, but acknowledges that students need to be prepared to succeed in college, career, and civic life.

Although some fear that eliminating ninth grade tests creates a hole, and empty space so to speak, it won’t.  Rather than fear that space as undermining the accountability framework, let’s think what an incredible opportunity Colorado has to create a new, more equitable model, one that would regain broad public support.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

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

“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.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede