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Blindly Leading Change in Ignorance

October 14, 2013

Effectively leading people through change is predicated on understanding what is currently in place. That seems obvious, right?

I present Superintendent Barresi’s weekly newspaper column:

The Power of Assessments
By Janet Barresi, State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Monday, Oct. 14, 2013

I had the opportunity last week to participate in an interim study on Oklahoma school assessments hosted by state Sen. John Ford and state Rep. Ann Coody. I thank them and the other lawmakers in the room for the time they spent over the course of two days to hear from experts in every area of assessments. Presenters included classroom teachers, school administrators, higher education representatives, major testing companies such as ACT and SAT, and technology experts.

Many people in the room spoke with a common voice that teachers are tired of feeling like they must teach to the test. I agree. Teachers deserve the right to be creative and innovative in their classrooms, to think outside of the box, to get their students to think and grow in ways that might not match a bubble on a multiple choice exam.

That’s why I’m excited about the new Oklahoma College and Career Ready Assessments being planned for students for the 2014-15 school year. They move students away from the fill-in-the-bubble, rote memorization tests that now exist. Instead, these performance-based exams include strategies to promote critical thinking and problem solving as well as practical application of securely held foundational knowledge.

Teachers should not feel they have to work merely to get students through the test. The assessments that are given should instead work for the teacher. Assessments are needed to evaluate what students know and to show how they apply their knowledge. A math teacher needs to know more than whether a child got a right answer on a test, but how the answer was achieved. An English teacher needs to know more than whether a child has memorized a list of characters from a story, but instead that the child is understanding the text and using thinking skills to craft an essay based on the passage read.

Teachers need the data that good assessments yield. They need to know which students are struggling, in what areas and why. We can’t wait until the end of a child’s senior year and give them one assessment to make sure they are ready for the future. We must use judiciously placed assessments along the way to help guide instruction. These consist of state and federal assessments as well as benchmark assessments used at the discretion of school districts.

Craig McVAy, Superintendent of El Reno Public Schools, spoke to the group about a strategy employed in his district in which the progress of each of the district’s students is discussed each Friday. By doing this, teachers can tell which students are on the right track and which students need a different instructional approach.

This is fantastic work. I know many other districts take a similar approach, and I applaud them.

The bottom line is we must help prepare our students for their future, whether that includes college, workforce training or a path that leads straight to a career. The data we glean from the right assessments can help us achieve this.

Rob Miller beat me to the punch weighing in on this today, as did one reader who sent me a list of complaints about the inaccuracies in Barresi’s column:

#1. The current tests do NOT require rote memorization of facts. She says this over and over, but she’s thinking of tests from long ago. With the requirements for Level 2 and 3 DOK, tests cannot simply require recall. Which leads to #2 — she really doesn’t understand what teachers mean when they talk about “teaching to the test.” She is talking from her own experience, as a student, at least 40 years ago. #3. The new tests will not be some magic panacea that will make teachers all googly over them — they will do the same things and create the same curricular problems. The big difference is that, instead of all the questions being “bubble-in”, some will be high-tech matching or something similar to that. #4. Nothing is being said about the awful things that are about to happen to writing instruction, as we teach students to write so that a computer will score it well. This means we will teach form and format — we won’t be teaching anything about being novel or interesting.

I love the word googly, by the way.

Number one is my biggest problem with the column. There is not an answer students can get right on these tests by memorizing anything. And if that’s her problem with the current tests, it has no basis in facts.

On a related note, if you like tests that require critical thinking rather than rote memorization, try some of the existing (and being developed) packages from ACT and the College Board. They’ve been assessing college and career readiness for decades – imperfectly, but still better than any company that states hire.

This lack of understanding for what we do in schools, with curriculum, and under current testing conditions is evident in every decisions she has made since taking office. Her funding priorities reflect a belief that teachers don’t know how to teach children. When she patronizes teachers by suggesting their districts pay raises they can’t afford or sustain, they don’t buy it.

Tomorrow morning, in theory, schools will have the opportunity to look at their preliminary A-F Report Card grades for 2013 for the first time. I say in theory because nothing about this year has gone according to plan. School was out before the powers that be decided what the A-F rules were. And just last week – six months after testing – districts received notice that writing tests would have to be rescored. Add to that the fact that the testing company’s servers couldn’t handle the load and that cut scores were changed drastically, and I just can’t say with any faith that anybody still has faith in what we’re getting.

It comes back to the question I always ask: Can we effectively explain this to parents? Yes, they understand letter grades, but they don’t understand why the rules for determining them changed so drastically (and contrary to what the Oklahoman wrote, not in a manner consistent with feedback from districts). They don’t understand why the rules are written after the fact. And they don’t understand why it takes six months to hold people “accountable.”

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  1. Claudia Swisher
    October 15, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Thank you for reading these things for me…I can’t stand to read, or watch, or listen to her! You are very brave.

    Like

  1. June 14, 2014 at 8:14 pm
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