A colleague from another state talks about testing

Admin: “How much testing did you do this year”

Teacher: “We had one week of tests in April. To prepare for the April test, we had approximately 10 days of testing before that. After our standardized test, we still had another six days of testing.”

Admin: “What was that for?”

Teacher: “Uhhh, to be honest, I don’t really know. The writing test was perhaps useful because the kids are not tested in writing in 8th grade, but why we had to have three additional reading and math tests is beyond me.”

Admin: “How do kids feel about this?”

Teacher: “Especially at the end of the year, many are angry. Kids realize that all the testing cannot be justified by teachers and administrators as preparation for the state test because testing continues until almost the last day of school. The state test is over in April.”

Admin: “About how many days did your district spend on testing this year?”

Teacher: “Around twenty-one days.”

Admin: “That’s more than one-tenth of the average school year.”

Eduhonesty: My own students spend more than 10% of the school year testing too. The opportunity cost in lost instructional time is staggering. The testing juggernaut needs to be stopped.

Some kids cry

Watching kids on the last day of school can be fascinating. Reactions run the gamut from ecstatic to despairing with a fair amount of anxiety, relief, excitement and confusion in the middle. If you want to know about a kid’s home life, I recommend watching that kid when summer begins. The picture’s not all about home life, of course. The quiet that introverts welcome naturally dismays the kid who likes to be the center of attention. In my school district, siblings and order of birth can be important. If you have to babysit the four who came after you, the end of the school year does not signal the beginning of fun and relaxation.

In the midst of the happy crowd running to the bus, I saw dejected faces and a few criers.

Eduhonesty: While we are amassing these mountains of mostly unused data, we might add one more survey, the one about how students feel about summer vacation and what they expect to do during that vacation. That information could help us identify students who need more support during the school year. We often don’t know enough about their home lives until a crisis hits, especially in the case of our more reticent students.

For parents: If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t need advice from me on how to manage the summer months. But I’d like to throw in one suggestion: Why not create a daily family reading hour? During this time, the whole family reads when possible. We learn from what we see. My mom was always seated in a corner armchair with a book, a picture of peaceful contentment under a hanging, stained-glass lamp. I sat on the couch across from her.

Some work stinks

Eduhonesty: Telling underperforming students that their work stinks lacks political correctness in these times. We are always supposed to be encouraging. Unfortunately, the alternative is letting kids think they fooled you. Most kids won’t work harder than they have to work in order to get a decent grade. Many kids are perfectly satisfied with a passing grade, even if that grade is a D- and only 60%. In this situation, I think it’s perfectly reasonable when you know a student blew off an assignment to say, “This is absolutely awful. Here’s another copy. Start over.”

Size matters

Especially in urban and impoverished school districts, class size can be a very important variable. A class with many lower-performing students will suffer from behavioral disturbances for a variety of reasons, frustration, boredom and poor peer choices among them. As numbers go up, and the number of frustrated, bored and overly social students rises, teaching challenges increase.

Eduhonesty: A good disciplinary system combined with positive incentives for appropriate behavior can help with this phenomenon, but no true solution exists as long as we guarantee a public education to just about everyone who does not bring a gun to school.

She taught 37 years

I shared a hotel breakfast with a special education teacher from Houston. She seemed to respect her district, her principal and her school. She has taught for 37 years and will be retiring this year, a perfectly happy soon-to-be-former teacher.

Eduhonesty: I tend to use this blog to write down what’s wrong or problematic. I can find no shortage of material due to increasingly bloated levels of bureaucracy at all levels, the source of increasingly convoluted rules and regulations. But I neglect the perks of the job too often. This special education teacher and I have been on our children’s school schedules, able to plan vacations and be home with the kids. That’s a huge perk. My colleague is a single mom. This may be the best job in the world for a single mom, especially if you work in a huge district like Houston so that you and the kids are on exactly the same schedule. She’ll have a decent pension while she’s still young enough to enjoy that pension.

My school year is drawing to a close. I’ll miss my kids. I’d be happy to find myself teaching them again next year.

Teaching has many great moments.

Mid-May: From the mouth of babes

I was projecting the day’s lesson onto the white screen in front of the class.

“Math? Why do we have to do math?” one of my students asked. “The tests are over.”

For this class, the big, standardized tests for the year had just finished, although the kids one grade ahead had another week of testing coming at them. Let’s be clear that the report card grades for the year were not in yet. School had another week and some left which all the students knew. But in this kid’s mind, the year had officially ended.

I responded that we were there to learn. The end of the big tests did not end the need to study math. My student and a number of his friends appeared unconvinced. With the tests over, and having received assurances from me that everyone in class was passing, a group within that particular math class appeared ready to shut down, regardless of days left in the school year.

Eduhonesty: Kids are often smarter than we give them credit for. At this point, a number of my students seem convinced that instruction is all about hitting test targets. We’ve been telling them that, often indirectly and sometimes even directly. I’m not surprised that this group has decided that any school days remaining after the final standardized test are essentially irrelevant. Hell, I’m not even sure they’re not right.

Nonethesless, I will continue to teach math.

School rules run amok

I’ll give a short example. The rule says, “All students must be in the classroom when the bell rings.”

That’s a fine rule. We need to keep that one. My problem is that teachers can get in trouble if they don’t 100% enforce that rule. If an administrator does not like you, trouble becomes particularly likely. Then it’s your fault if the kid’s in the hallway. (I don’t feel like I have much to worry about because administration knows me. I am good for extra work on a regular basis, among other considerations.) Teachers in some schools are written up when students ignore the rules.

But teachers are not sticking cogs inside wheels for a living. Students exercise their free will regularly and I don’t know any teacher who has learned a magic spell to counteract free will.

Two days ago, two of my students were late to class. I could see them standing at the end of the hall. In a loud teacher voice I told them to “Get into class right now!” One called back, “She’s crying!” I repeated my demand because I know my students. The girl in question would cry if her boyfriend forgot their two-week anniversary. She cries all the time. She cries if anyone else cries. She is one of the best sympathetic criers I have ever met. So I forced the girls to come to class.

But I would like to reserve the right to leave another student alone at the end of that hall. I know my kids. I want the ability to make a judgement call. When that kid who never cries has a crisis, I need to be able to adapt to the situation without worrying about administration landing on my back.

Eduhonesty: As I noted, I don’t believe my administration would cause me trouble because they know me. In many lower-performing schools, though, teachers and administrations come and go in a revolving door of hiring, firing, and moving up and on. Too often, we don’t know each other. Teachers should not have to worry about being “written up” for allowing a student to break a rule. Let’s assume I am an intelligent professional trying to do my job. I’d like not to have to worry about looking bad because I am not 100% with a program that is not 100% enforceable in any case.

Before we were all judged by rubrics and rules that are becoming less and less flexible, I could let a kid sleep in class without worrying about receiving a professional black mark. Now, in some schools, I’d be immediately reproached and maybe even end up with a reprimand in my file if an administrator walked in and saw that sleeping kid. Let’s be clear that I wake almost everybody up if they try to snooze during my presentation. But when a kid from a group home says, “Sorry, ma’am. I was up all night because we had to go pick up a new guy and I only got two hours sleep,” I want to be able to say, “You can sleep. I’ll catch you up later.”

Sneaking in a logo or two

Texas high school sends 170 students home for violating the dress code
By Charlene Sakoda
May 15, 2014 4:45 PM

Odd News

Duncanville High School in Texas was the scene of a mass uprising Wednesday after 170 students were sent home for violating the dress code and anadditional unknown number were given in-school suspensions. As reported by KDFW Fox 4, administrators even called upon local police to help control the situation.

According to The Dallas Morning News, Duncanville students were found in violation of the dress code in the morning and administrators instructed those violators to gather in the cafeteria before being sent home. Some of the items listed in the Duncanville Independent School District’s dress code policy include a requirement that students wear belts, shirts free of logos and designs, and it prohibits denim.

Student Jose Marquez was suspended on Wednesday and said, “The teacher just calls me and tells me to lift my shirt up and I didn’t have a belt on. So [no] belt and ID and got kicked out.” Edward Ramirez, a junior with a 3.5 GPA said he had never been written up before the dress code sweep. He told KDFW, “The staff told me that my shirt was out of dress code despite the fact that it is a school spirit shirt.” The dress code does include an exception to the policy allowing principals to OK school spirit shirts like the one Ramirez wore, on stipulated days. Some students said that faculty allowed the spirit shirts on most days.

As news of the student suspensions spread, protests began and a food fight reportedly started in the cafeteria around 11:30 a.m. and migrated to the school hallways. Brittany Hall, a Duncanville High School senior told KDFW, “The class just got fed up and things were being thrown like trash cans, tables, and food. We actually had to hide underneath a table just to not get hit by everything that was flying.” The KDFW helicopter camera captured a “heavy police presence” outside the school around 1 p.m. Things had apparently gotten out of control and administrators decided to call in the authorities to regain order, but no arrests were reported.

The article goes on to describe the administration’s intent to continue enforcing the dress code.

Eduhonesty: Many people don’t understand why schools have dress codes. Mostly those codes were created to manage possible gang problems. You can’t represent your gang colors if the school dress code does not allow those colors. For that matter, you can’t represent your gang colors if the code uses your colors. If everyone is wearing black and red, gang-affiliated or not, the gang message becomes lost. Dress codes also save money. A quick trip to Walmart or Target for black pants and red or white collared shirts accomplishes the year’s clothing purchases for school.

Kids fight dress codes pretty hard, though. Adolescents want to express their individuality. They try a small logo, an unusual shade of blue, a necklace that has not specifically been forbidden. They buy forbidden leggings that look like jeans to wear on Spirit Friday with their school shirt. They wear scarves or bright pink shoes. Teachers wrestle with the dilemmas posed by those pink shoes and tiny logos. Do I want to send the kid out for a dress-code violation? She’ll miss the math. If I don’t send her out, though, the logo will be bigger next time and someone else will turn up in forbidden pink shoes.

I hate dress codes. Dress codes result in disciplinary actions that take students out of the classroom. Dress codes suck up teacher time as teachers fill out the necessary disciplinary referrals and make related calls home. Dress codes result in students being too cold sometimes since hoodies are hardly ever allowed in the classroom (too easy to hide your face) and hoodies may be the only outerwear brought to school.

Dress codes also make kids feel poor. Students in urban and financially disadvantaged districts go to other schools for sporting events or they see those schools on museum field trips. They know that more prosperous areas don’t have a rigid dress code. If those wealthier schools have any code at all, it’s often something like “Girls cannot wear spaghetti straps or skirts/shorts that rise above the fingertips when their arms are by their sides. Boys must wear belts.”

I’d like to scrap my school’s dress code for a year or two to see what happens. If gang problems recur, we can go back to the dress code, but I suspect the threat of a strict dress code might be enough to stave off the threat of gang colors. These codes came into existence mostly as a result of gang activity some years ago. Colors for representing may be old-fashioned by now. I recognize the advantages of the dress code, especially for financially- strapped parents, but that food riot speaks volumes about how adolescents view these codes. When we consider the chaos in that cafeteria in Texas, I think we can reasonably ask if Duncanville High School would be worse off next year without a dress code. A great deal of administrative time is lost in my school and presumably in Duncanville High by administrators managing clothing code violations.

Grading in the time of data-driven drivel

As the data monster savagely eats its way through the educational jungle, one victim has been grading. Grading used to be an individual affair. Some teachers were easy graders, others much more demanding. Some weighted homework heavily. Others discounted homework. Decades went by with this loosely-coordinated grading system and I honestly don’t know that America’s students were any the worse for the lack of systematization. Teachers were better off. They got to pick the system that worked best for their personal beliefs and style. Students seemed to manage fine.

I suspect students benefited from learning to adapt to different teachers, in itself useful preparation for the work world. Learning to manage a micro-manager and then being able to adapt to his or her big-picture-just-get-it-done alternative down the hallway helps people get ahead in life. Teachers gave older students a syllabus that laid out rules and expectations, while younger students received a set of repeated explanations. We assumed students were bright enough to work effectively under different systems. More importantly, our students made the same assumption.

When I listen to administrators explain that all teachers need to use identical grading systems because otherwise students will become confused, I mostly just mutter expletives under my breath. Do these administrators believe what they are saying? Do they understand what they are saying? If we really need that level of consistency so that students will be able to figure out class expectations, we might as well forget about deepening the rigor of our curricula, given that our students apparently can’t even manage to figure out what to do with a well-written syllabus.

Should homework be 5%, 10%, or 25%? Should participation be 5%, 10%, or 25%? Should participation count at all? Where do projects, quizzes and tests fit in? Among other considerations, I believe subject material has to be part of any percentages selected. Projects ought to be more heavily weighted in science than in math, for example.

Many ideas have been floated around to solve grading problems. I’d like to share one of the latest bright ideas. Some schools are currently considering systems where classwork and homework count for nothing, while “standards” count for a full 100%, a system called standards-based grading (SBE). Many school systems are currently moving towards SBE. In SBE, grades measure a student’s progress against established standards — mostly based now in the Common Core — without regard to the performance of other classmates or sometimes even performance on participation, classwork and homework. Tests, quizzes and assignments are graded according to how well a student demonstrates understanding or mastery of the standards. Grades may be derived entirely from tests.

SBE sounds fine on paper. What do you do, though, when the standards are pitched years above a student’s actual academic operating level? SBE may be a functional system for students who are in sync with the standards. It has the potential to be hellishly difficult for that student who cannot master the standards, however. Students are usually allowed to take and retake tests until they meet the standard and some students will eventually get over the bar. Others will likely be given a secret pass, like the one I was given in college when I took football for my PE credit. To get my grade, I was required to kick the football through the goalposts. I kept running at that damn thing until a frustrated teaching assistant quietly sent me on and gave me the check mark I needed.

Will SBE work? In addition to inappropriate tests, I see other problems, one being the management of all the tests and test retakes required while also teaching.

Eduhonesty: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” in the words of an old saw. Was grading broken? If so, where is the proof? We need to ask why we should standardize grading in a time when our student bodies are becoming more differentiated. We continue to replace techniques that worked with new ideas that sound good in theory. These ideas have no track record. Is this desirable? Is this smart?

I don’t think so.

Addendum: Some discerning readers may have enough background to realize that one frequently given rationale for SBE has been that all teachers are put on the same grading track, making it easier to compare teachers’ performance. Again, in our data-driven time, this newfound comparability sounds good in theory. However, we are giving multiple standardized tests throughout the year. My own class will take four this year, the MAP, EXPLORE, ISAT and ACCESS. Can’t we use those four tests to create comparisons? If we can’t create the data we require with all that testing, I wish we would free up more time for actual instruction. Those tests suck a great deal of time out of the school year.

Love my kids

Time to post an explanation of why I have not run for the hills.

Eduhonesty: I work with a group of marvelous kids. They don’t work hard enough. They socialize too much in class. They emote all over the place, a particular challenge with the middle school population. But at the end of the day, I appreciate the people they are becoming. Their smiles can make my day. Their antics can make me laugh and they like to make me laugh. A few are wise beyond their years, others young for their age. They are who they are.

Sometimes I just want to hug them all.