Spring Is In The Air – The Sweet Smell of Testing….

Don’t you just love spring? The flowers blooming, trees bursting with new leaves, bees buzzing around, IMG_2650and the weather turning warmer.  Walking around town this morning looking at all the beautiful trees and flowers certainly reminded me how much I love the spring.  Then, as I walked past the local high school, I was reminded of what spring means to most students, (students who were probably staring out at the beautiful weather right that moment.).  Testing.  Spring doesn’t smell so sweet to them, I imagine.

I remember when I was teaching back in Virginia, where we test-prep-posterhad the Standards of Learning End-of-Course tests every April/May (the S.O.L.’s….appropriate acronym!)  (They still have these of course).  What I remember is how the whole month of April leading up to the tests was focused on test prep — review, review, practice test, practice test, pep rally to pump kids up, more review, etc.  By the time the actual tests rolled around, students were so tired of “practicing” that they probably didn’t even care about the tests. Then, those that had to take the AP tests as well still had those to look forward to.  As a teacher, I HATED this time of the year as much as the kids because it felt like learning was forced to stop so kids could “get ready for the test’.  I would much rather have kept on with teaching new and exciting things – applying the math by making bridges out of toothpicks or tetrahedron kites, using technology, etc.  I knew my students were ready because they’d been learning and applying all along – they didn’t need all this down-time for test prep. But ‘preparing for the test’ was a district/school/department mandate. I had no choice. The computer labs were taken over for testing, so no more Sketchpad. The days on the calendar had required test prep mandates and there were weekly department meetings to look at the practice test data and pick the review  materials for continued preparation.  The whole school was focused on getting kids excited about taking a test.  Students hated it.  Teachers hated it.  And we all forgot that it was spring. We were all too stressed about passing the test so that the school met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress from No Child Left Behind) and we stressed about getting at least 70% of our students to pass the test and students to get at least 70% ON the tests, so we would get good evaluations (teachers) or graduate (students).  Spring was a time of anxiety, not beauty.

Hopefully, if not this year, by next year, all this will change. With the passage of the Every Student imagesSucceeds Act (ESSA) there may be a spring again. Yes, there will still be testing.  Assessment is important obviously, to determine where changes need to be made in instruction, to ensure students are learning and meeting standards, to ensure that teachers and schools are educating students.  But testing is going to change and it won’t be this punitive system (I hope) that NCLB created.  And hopefully, it won’t be a constant thing where months of a school year are taken up with test prep and test taking. That’s a good thing. School should be about learning, not just testing, which is what it often feels like, especially this time of year.

ESSA obviously is new and it will take time for changes to be implemented.  Though even as early as this year, there are states who have changed their testing or eliminated testing this year.  The ESSA (from 5 ways ESSA Impacts Standardized Testing, by Anne O’Brien):

  • Allows districts to use a locally determined, nationally recognized test like the ACT or SAT instead of the state test in high schools, which could have huge implications for classroom practice
  • Allows states to institute a cap limiting the amount of time that students spend taking tests, which could reduce that time (and the time educators spend administering them)
  • Funds states in auditing and streamlining assessment systems, eliminating unnecessary and duplicative assessments
  • Establishes a pilot program in up to seven states (or consortia of states) that allows for the complete revamping of their assessment system, meaning that it’s possible that summative state tests as we know them will be eliminated, replaced by competency-based assessments, performance-based assessments, interim assessments, or something else entirely
  • Allows for the use of computer-adaptive testing in state and local assessments (NCLB did not), a process that could allow for much more accurate data on student performance

IMG_2649I think one of my most favorite things about ESSA is that it requires states to use more than academic factors (i.e. standardized test scores) as indicators of accountability and school/student success. A test score is no longer the be-all and end-all, allowing education to focus on learning, not test prep and testing.

Maybe now both teachers and students can start enjoying spring again.

Goodbye NCLB, Hello ESSA.

As of December 10, 2015, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is no more and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 is now in effect. There is, of course, a lot of work and details and implementation issues that will have to be worked out in the coming years, but I for one, am breathing a a little sigh of relief. The dreaded AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and HQT (Highly Qualified Teacher) mandates are no longer going to restrain what schools and teachers should be doing to support student learning.

I can only speak from my own experience, but as a teacher who taught before and after the NCLB Act was made into law, I know how much damage I saw in the schools I taught at, as a result of NCLB. In fact, the research paper I wrote on for my doctorate program application was all about how NCLB had ruined teaching.  (I tried to find it so I could quote some things, but I believe it may have been “recycled” in my most recent move.) What I do know, again, from my own experience, was that teaching changed. I taught in Virginia, and teachers and schools became so focused on state tests and reaching the magic NCLB % passing rate for their students, and making AYP, that teaching became all about the tests. All our classroom tests became multiple choice so that students were use to that when it came to the state test. Teaching had to focus on only the topics covered on the test, so “extra” stuff was frowned about. Memorization of facts and skills was focused on – no more focus on understanding or problem solving – just on the skills needed to pass the test. No more hands-on learning – we needed to teach test taking strategies.

As a teacher who strives to make mathematics engaging, hands-on, and technology rich, you can imagine my struggle. NCLB is in fact a major reason I left teaching in the classroom to go to Key Curriculum, an inquiry-based mathematics/technology publishing company. I wasn’t able to teach mathematics the way I believed it should be taught due to the standardized testing constraints and constant pressure to meet the magical AYP numbers and student passing percentages. I believed I could have more of an impact on mathematics education through supporting inquiry-based learning and technology integration via teacher professional development.

When the Common Core State Standards came along, I jumped for joy, because I saw this as a step back to true teaching. Relevant, real-world, engaging learning focused on understanding and applying mathematics. But – NCLB and the standardized culture we are immersed in has made the CCSS a difficult implementation, and unfortunately, a political tool.  The passing of the ESSA is  exciting because hopefully it will allow education to focus on learning, understanding, and applying rather than testing.

I’ve been researching different articles about what the ESSA will in fact change, fund, and mandate, as that will be a crucial factor in how states implement the new law and how schools/teachers/students are assessed. Assessment is still an important component of education – without it, how can we ensure students are learning and improve the ways in which we help them learn. The difference between ESSA and NCLB is, I hope, that assessment will be more formative versus punitive. The states have a lot more power and control – which could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. It’s obviously too early to tell.

I would suggest you read more about the ESSA on your own. A good summary can be found here. This article does a good comparison of the two acts. NCTM wrote a nice article explaining their support and what some of the ESSA initiatives are, so read that here.  There is also a government site that details the ESSA, which you can find here. I would especially look at the fact sheets posted here. (I will admit, some of the provisions are a little concerning to me.)  Here are a couple that stick out for me as either interesting or concerning:

  1. The one-size-fits all measure for accountability (AYP) is repealed, and states, not the Federal Government, will have power over measuring student and school performance.
  2. There are 69 programs that will be eliminated, and instead, a Local Academic Flexible Grant will allow states & school districts to allocate resources in a way that addresses their needs.
  3. States will determine and create their own strategies to improve failing schools.
  4. All states are free to opt out of the requirements under any program in the bill.

Obviously, this is a very short list – the provisions are numerous and complicated. Much better for you to read and compare on your own. As I said, I am a little concerned at some of the things I am reading (i.e. states opting out of everything, lack of funding, elimination of some great programs, etc.). But, only time will tell and hopefully, after the struggle we have had under NCLB, there can be a more positive approach to teaching and assessing students.