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Choose Your Own Words

September 8, 2013

The SDE has prepared a sample letter that school districts can use to communicate to parents about test scores:

Dear Parents,Great news for you and your children! Our state is making some significant changes to improve the quality of education in Oklahoma. As positive as the changes are, change in general can be challenging at times for any of us to handle. This tends to be especially so during the transition phase. We are in the middle of transitioning to a new set of standards now. The purpose of this letter is to keep your family well informed so you can understand the specific challenges we are facing as we make the move toward raising the bar for students in Oklahoma. We thought you’d like to know the following:

  • What educational changes can you expect to see? In 2010, our legislators called for the implementation of college and career ready standards for PreK-12 students in Oklahoma. That commitment raised the educational bar for your children. Beginning this year your children’s teachers will be delivering more rigorous instruction aimed at helping your children achieve these college and career ready standards.
  • How will these educational changes benefit your children? Your children will be taught what they need to know for jobs of the 21st century; jobs that require them to think on their feet and solve problems.
  • How might test scores be affected? We expect that as our schools begin to align assessments to the new, more rigorous academic standards, your children’s test scores may drop. This is understandable and even expected. As teachers and students become accustomed to this new, better way of learning, your children’s test scores will rebound.

Thank you for your family’s continued support of improving education in our state! It is important that we all stay the course on implementing college and career ready standards and more rigorous assessments for your children and Oklahoma’s future. We have raised the bar in the past for children. Time and again, they successfully rise to meet the challenge. If there was ever a state that has proven it can rise to a challenge and come out on top, it’s Oklahoma! If you would like to learn more about this transition year and our road ahead, please visit http://www.theroadaheadok.comwww.theroadaheadok.com.

Nothing about this year’s testing cycle – or the increased emphasis on testing in general – is what I would describe as Great news! In fact, I can’t think of many events that would make be begin a communique to parents with an exclamation such as that. With considerable effort I came up with this short list:

  • Great news! Our school set a record for high attendance this quarter!
  • Great news! We are able to offer music, art, PE, and computer education to all students this year!
  • Great news! The district saved 15% on insurance by switching to GEICO!
  • Great news! Your children are no longer going to be subjected to an endless cycle of standardized testing!
  • Great news! Our state fully funded pay raises for teachers and support personnel, and their health insurance rate increases won’t entirely consume them!

That last one does seem a little far-fetched.

Parents deserve an honest letter discussing test scores – not propaganda from a politician facing a tough road to re-election. School district leaders should choose their own words. Mine would look something like this:

Dear Parents,In April 2013, our students took end-of-year tests as mandated by state law. This is something we have done for years, but never under circumstances like this or with results such as these.The bizarre journey began in October, when the State Department of Education (SDE) had to delay the annual writing test for 5th and 8th graders by two months because of irregularities in the bidding process. This created a more compressed timeline for the rest of the testing cycle, as the writing tests had to be administered during the late April/early May exam window. Just before the writing tests were administered, schools were notified that the type of writing to be assessed had changed.

Then, the inconceivable happened: online testing failed – not just here, but in Indiana, at the exact same time. The servers at CTB/McGraw-Hill (the testing company selected again by the SDE, after the contract had to be re-bid) couldn’t handle the load.

Students were kicked out of their tests and had to start over. In some cases, this happened multiple times. Later, when students would re-test, the schools received dual reports. Initially, the SDE blasted the testing company. During the summer, however, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi blamed inadequate technology in schools for the failure. Then, while Indiana negotiated a punitive settlement with CTB, Oklahoma gave them one that appeared costly, but really included free services that no school district in the state has asked for.

CTB will continue to serve as Oklahoma’s testing company for this school year.

Schools also reported instances of student scores changing from preliminary data to final results. The testing company could not provide an explanation for this, telling schools to use the higher score. Over the summer, the SDE convened educators to reset the standards for the writing and science tests, causing scores all over the state to take a severe drop.

By the time students were back in school this August, districts still had not received final test scores. In fact, they still had no preliminary science or writing scores. This includes the Biology End-of-Instruction exam, which is one of the tests that high school students can take to count for graduation. Because of the delay, the SDE still has not provided districts with remediation funds for students who did not pass the EOIs.

Meanwhile, the SDE has spent its summer rebranding both the academic standards and the testing process. In 2010, the state adopted the Common Core State Standards for reading and math. Then, two years ago, the remaining content areas that had been labeled PASS since the early 1990s became the C3 standards. Now they are OASS – the Oklahoma Academic State Standards. The SDE even paid for a marketing campaign to promote the rebranding.

Nothing is different, except the name. The SDE also announced this summer that Oklahoma would not be giving the PARCC assessment, in spite of the two years that it has spent sending people to national consortium meetings.

We also should let you know that next month, the SDE will issue A-F Report Cards for each school and district in the state. This year, the formula for calculating those report cards is completely different than it was last year. Between this and the irregularities in testing, skepticism over score reports, and arbitrary changes to the passing scores, we have very little confidence that these grades will be a reflection of our performance – even if we receive good grades. The inconsistencies and seemingly random changes we have experienced over the last year undermine the very concept of accountability.

We honestly have no idea how tests will be administered after this school year. We know that special education students will now take the same test as regular students, but we don’t know what accommodations will be available to them when we start testing over the Common Core. We also don’t know if scores will be reported in a timely manner when we have to make decisions next summer when we are required by law to retain 3rd graders based on these tests. Future standard setting in social studies, reading, and math will also change our passing rates. To what extent this will impact your children, we can’t be sure. In short, we have as many questions as you do.

As always, we appreciate you entrusting your children to our care, and we thank you for your support.

Yeah, that’s a little long-winded, but I had to get rid of my editor in an effort to curb the administrative overhead around here.

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  1. Claudia Swisher
    September 8, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    My only editing suggestion is to change the wording on the sentence about making decisions about third graders. What about changing it to passive voice: “When decisions will be made,” or even “when we are required by law to retain third graders based on these tests?”

    Love your letter

    Like

    • September 8, 2013 at 2:52 pm

      Changed. And it would seem that outsourcing the editing is already paying dividends 🙂

      Like

  2. Rob miller
    September 8, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Love this letter! Much better than my “it’s all a bunch of crap—ignore it!”

    Like

    • September 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm

      Yours is a good sentiment too. I’m just trying to explain to the curious ones why it’s all a bunch of crap.

      Like

  3. Brooke Spencer
    September 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Excellent!

    Like

  4. September 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Perfect! May I post this to Facebook?

    Like

  5. Kate
    September 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    One would assume that school administrators are smart and informed enough to write a letter to parents concerning children and test scores without help from the SDE. Just because the State Dentist and most of the SDE have no idea what they are doing does not mean that school districts are just as lacking . It is amazing when the State Dentist and her cronies choose to be so “helpful” to districts–of course the alternate letter is much more to the point and truthful about what has actually transpired Great news—the election is getting closer by the day!!!!!

    Like

  6. Kevin Burr
    September 10, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Well said! Parents, teachers and students will certainly see through the propaganda and begin to experience the truth in the real effect this has on students – especially those taking EOI’s. This is not rigor…

    Like

  1. September 12, 2013 at 4:57 pm
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