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When, Indeed?

July 8, 2013 Comments off

Heading into this week’s SDE conference (Vision 2020 2.0), most Oklahoma educators seem to be on the same page. While the SDE is excited that over 6,400 people are registered for the conference, I am excited that over 5,500 have visited this blog since I posted Broken Arrow Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall’s two-page letter to Janet Barresi on Friday.

(Maybe I should be concerned that the most popular post since I began this blog 15 months ago was written by somebody else. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.)

Many readers have been responsive to Dr. Mendenhall’s fifth question: When do we go back to doing what’s best for kids? As fortune would have it, many of the people drawn to this blog will be present at the conference the next three days. Staff from the SDE will be in several of the exhibitor booths and presenting sessions throughout the conference. Superintendent Barresi herself will host a couple of educator roundtables. There will be no shortage of opportunities to ask this key question.

A well-written letter

This weekend, a letter from Jarod Mendenhall, superintendent from Broken Arrow Public Schools, has been circulating around by email. It is a well-written response to Superintendent Barresi’s decision this week to remain as a member of the PARCC governing board while pulling out of the test itself. You should read the two-page letter in its entirety, but here are several questions he asks at the end:

  1. Given the multiple issues with the chosen testing vendor, why has their contract been renewed? Has their performance evaluation given any evidence of acceptable performance? Have the malfunctions experienced this year been corrected, and have we any proven assurances that we will not experience the same issues next year? If, as you state, public schools do not have the technological capacity to successfully deploy these tests, it would seem a renewal with this company only sets the stage for a repeat of the same disastrous scenario.
  2. Prior to sharing statements that the testing failures were at the hands of the school districts, did you pause to check with school districts to verify this information? Did you gather information from schools of various sizes throughout the state in an attempt to pinpoint the source of the malfunctions or look for patterns that would assist you in troubleshooting the issues?
  3. What will be done with the flawed test data that has been collected? Will students and teachers be evaluated based on these results in spite of the malfunctions and frustrations that were experienced during the testing window?
  4. You have indicated that teachers will be involved in your search for solutions to these issues, but what is your plan for gathering stakeholder input? Specifically, who will be involved, how will those participants be selected, and will they truly be a representative sampling of all school districts in Oklahoma?
  5. When do we go back to doing what’s best for kids? Like many other educators in Oklahoma, I grow increasingly more weary and frustrated by state leaders who refuse to listen and continue to initiate poorly planned reforms. The frustration only doubles when districts are then blamed for the failures they rightly predicted at the onset. Is it possible to put aside the politics, engage in authentic collaboration, and simply do what is best for the children of Oklahoma? So far, the answer to this question appears to be a resounding “no,” and as a result, I am joined by educators and parents across the state in experiencing a loss of confidence in the leadership of the State Department of Education.

I like a number of things about this letter. You can hear the frustration. It speaks to the concerns of Oklahoma educators across the state who are learning day-by-day that they are not alone in their disillusionment. Maybe most importantly, none of the paragraphs are repeated in an awkward cut-and-paste incident.

This is the kind of honest, civil response to politically-charged decisions that the taxpayers and students of our schools deserve.

Curious Coverage

The decision – and let me word this carefully – to opt out of PARCC assessments while remaining in the consortium as a governing state, is a very big deal. Oklahoma leaders and educators have invested considerable time and money in the effort to develop the next generation assessments. We’ll never recoup that. We lost precious time in preparing our students for a now-irrelevant framework.

The Tulsa World has covered this story in depth. They have even asked questions to school leaders in their area. Below are some of the comments from their article:

“I find this whole getting out of PARCC perplexing. While I have said there’s too much time spent on assessments and I am not in favor, necessarily, that we stay in PARCC, I support Common Core, and I don’t see this abrupt move resolving anything,” Ballard said.

“I see little real leadership being shown because there is no thought given to where does that leave us.”

Bonnie Rogers, a spokeswoman for Jenks Public Schools, noted that patrons and educators in that district have expressed great concern about the time devoted to state-mandated testing.

But she said Jenks school officials “would disagree with Superintendent Barresi’s assertion that school districts did not have the expertise to prepare for the amount of technology needed to administer online tests.”

Sand Springs Superintendent Lloyd Snow said he agrees with Barresi’s decision about PARCC but was aggravated “about her once again giving most of the blame to local school districts.”

“I can’t help but wonder if this is all political posturing,” he said. “I am worried about the next steps. Many things from the state Department of Education are unpredictable and unexplainable.”

The Oklahoma Education Association recently issued a report detailing schools’ many difficulties with CTB-McGraw Hill and calling for 2013 standardized tests to be invalidated.

The teachers association called the testing vendor “grossly deficient” and detailed failures that had nothing to do with online testing, including mistakes on paper tests, significant delays and mix-ups in their delivery to schools and even practice tests that weren’t aligned with the actual tests.

“At what point is the state superintendent of public instruction going to quit blaming public schools and hold this corporate testing company responsible?” OEA President Linda Hampton asked.

She called on greater transparency from Barresi, saying parents and educators deserve an explanation about why her decision was not discussed at last week’s State Board of Education meeting, who will develop the new tests and how they will be any different from the state’s current tests.

“It also bothered us that the state board never talked about renewing the CTB McGraw-Hill contract but the contract has been renewed,” she said. “It seems to becq they have rewarded this company with a contract renewal.

For their coverage, the Oklahoman has been linking to the World articles. I find no original content on the NewsOK website related to Oklahoma’s decision to pull out of take a break from PARCC.

As school leaders begin processing this information, one big issue will be communicating the fallout from it to their teachers, parents, school boards, and communities. The way leaders choose to have that conversation will be worth covering as well. The misinformation from Barresi’s claim that the majority of technical issues were the schools’ fault needs correcting. The possibility that Oklahoma will simply remain with the same testing company that caused so much student and teacher distress needs challenging.

In other words, we have a long way to go to make sure the public has all the facts to understand whether the implications of this decision have been fully considered, and whether it’s the right decision at all.

We were on a break!

Today, we have some clarification of yesterday’s announcement about PARCC. Oklahoma is not pulling all the way out of the testing consortium. We’re in, but we just won’t be using the test. Perfectly clear, right?

I had noticed that the PARCC website still listed Oklahoma as a governing state in the organization, so I posed a question on Twitter. Admittedly, I was trying to be funny, but it led to a brief exchange with the SDE:conversation about parcc

And a hilarious comment from a reader:

jwilliams from twitter

Clarifications and commentaries aside, yesterday’s announcement that Oklahoma is leaving PARCC leaves a number of unanswered questions. Aside from the strictly political ramifications, I see at least five areas needing further discussion.

1. Does the state superintendent unilaterally have the authority to make this decision? I’m not sure how far I’d have to go back into the archives to find it, but I believe the State Board of Education approved the state’s participation with PARCC. Do we have any indication as to the level of their input in this new decision? Other than yesterday’s poorly-worded comments blaming schools for the computer glitches this spring, do we have a better grasp on the reasons?

2. Will the SDE lose momentum in working with educators on test development? This is an important consideration because of the level of reform fatigue in education right now. The SDE, governor, and legislature all bought in to the Common Core in 2010. Oklahoma rode the fence between the two testing consortia as long as possible before going with PARCC, which stands to make money from the assessments they develop. Now we’re not going to use the tests we’ve helped create? And that our teachers and leaders have used as a framework for professional development? Time, patience, and money are all running low right now. The phrase never mind goes a long way to kill momentum and enthusiasm.

3. Will next-generation assessments be in place by 2014-15 as promised? I’ve never been convinced this would happen. If it does, it will happen in a vacuum now. And as far as Oklahoma is concerned, it will happen with a vendor in response to a request for proposals. By the time the new tests are in place, schools will have seen no blueprints.

4. Isn’t part of the push for Common Core to give states something – oh what’s the word…COMMON to use in assessing progress? The most compelling reason for states to adopt common standards was to ensure that our children are just as prepared – if not better prepared – to other states’ children. How will we measure that now?

5. Now that PARCC is a fully-constituted money-making non-profit, will Oklahoma still have a stake in their product? Even though we are going in a different direction (not pulling out, mind you), we helped create whatever test they come up with. Will SDE staff and their chosen groups continue serving on PARCC committees? Can Oklahoma keep its place as a governing state in the consortium? Can we change our minds and come back?

This decision surprised and confused me. As with many of the readers who have commented on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter – along with those who have emailed me – I’m not entirely disappointed. I just don’t understand. It’ll be a while before the ramifications of this decision are clear to anybody.

Pulling out of PARCC

If you never bothered to learn what PARCC stands for, don’t worry about it. Today, Superintendent Barresi announced that Oklahoma was pulling out of the testing consortium to work directly with a vendor to develop our own tests over the Common Core. According to the Tulsa World, after citing concerns from Oklahoma educators, she eventually pointed the finger at Oklahoma school districts:

If we move ahead with this, we are going to be asking the state to drink a milkshake using a cocktail straw,” Barresi said. “If you look at what happened with testing this year — kids getting screen frozen, knocked off the test — those were technical issues that were from the districts’ end of things. (The testing vendor) crashed for two days because of server problems, but almost every bit of the rest of it was due to district issues. I’m not pointing fingers, but it is the reality.

(I stand corrected; she specifically said she was NOT pointing fingers.)

She fails to mention that CTB/McGraw-Hill’s servers failed in other states too. Or that Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz is seeking real damages from CTB, rather than a cozy deal and a slap on the wrist like we are. Or that the state and the testing company still haven’t fixed all the data from the tests that Oklahoma students took in April and May. (See here and here.)

Whether pulling out of PARCC is a good idea or not…I can’t answer that. The details of the assessment length always seemed nebulous. Reports from school district people attending meetings of the consortium differed from those of SDE people, who always seemed satisfied with the direction and progress of the development of the assessments. In any case, Oklahoma has spent a lot of money contributing to the development of a process that now won’t benefit us at all.

My suspicion is that this announcement has more to do with her embattled campaign for reelection than it does with the stated issues. A strong push is coming from within the national and state Republican parties for withdrawal from Common Core. As more and more contenders emerge for the state superintendency, Barresi has to try to please the base. Right now, surviving the primary is the singular focus of the state superintendent and much of her staff (but not during work hours…of course).

This announcement gives Barresi control of the narrative for now. She’s helping schools (while blaming them a little bit). But she’s doing much more than that. She’s letting donors and the establishment of the party know that she’s heard their concerns – and that all the noise is a little bit jolting.

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