Are Children Learning

In state test scores, only a limited glimpse of the Common Core’s impact

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Colonial Middle students practiced an online writing assessment last year which is more Common Core-aligned.

Many state officials say they do not think today’s scores are the best measure of students’ learning, since the test was not actually designed according to the state’s standards in math and reading, known as the Common Core.

Some test questions previously appeared on state tests from before the adoption of the Common Core, and the format of the test — with multiple-choice questions instead of open-ended ones — did not reflect the Common Core’s emphasis on critical thinking.

“I continue to hear from teachers from a number of systems […] and they don’t feel  that the TCAP isn’t aligned as it should be to the Common Core, and that was the reason they didn’t get the kind of results [on the TCAP] that they thought they should be getting,” said B. Fielding Roylston, the chair of the state board of education.

For the past three years, test developers have narrowed TCAP’s focus, so they cover most of the learning targets that are part of Common Core standards rather than the old State Performance Indicators (SPI’s) standards. Standards determine what students are required to know by the end of each grade level.

The first year the state did this, in 2010, scores dropped, but they’ve been rising or static since then.

TCAP also still requires students to answer multiple choice questions rather than open-ended questions. Several Common Core standards require students to explain how they arrived at their answers in addition to giving the correct answer.

“We are teaching standards that are challenging students’ higher order thinking skills, and we have a test that’s still a bubble test,” said Erin O’Hara, the assistant commissioner for data and research. “Until we transition to assessments that are based more fully on the Common Core, we’ll continue to see people struggle on how to adjust.”

Students were on track to get a new test this spring, known as PARCC, that is designed with the Common Core standards in mind. But then House Bill 1549 was passed in April, mandating students take the TCAP in 2014-2015. Several legislators took issue with the state’s use of Common Core standards, arguing they took away local control and didn’t give teachers enough time to learn to teach the new standards.

Unlike traditional standardized tests, PARCC has open-ended questions rather than multiple-choice questions, and is taken with a computer, rather than pencil and bubble sheet. Proponents of the test think that means the test is better at showing what students have learned.

The state will choose the assessment beyond 2014-2015 through a competitive bidding process, which means PARCC isn’t totally off the table in the future.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.