Archive for March, 2014

Like a Myth to a Flame

Did you check your email today? As luck would have it, we have an email from Janet Barresi. That’s fortunate; we wouldn’t want to start a break from school without one of her missives to analyze.

Time on TestsBy Janet Barresi, State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Wednesday, March 13, 2013I hear from educators and parents throughout the state about “teaching to the test” and time spent on testing. I agree teachers should spend more time teaching and students should spend less time worrying about tests.But I want to clear up some myths.Out of all the hours required for instruction in a school year – 1,080 hours by state law – less than 1 percent is spent by a student taking state- or federally mandated tests. Other assessments may be given by teachers or required by school districts. Yet, even if we look at the grades that have the most assessments — fifth and eighth —there are only four state or federal tests required: math, reading, writing, science or social studies/U.S. history.

Next year, fifth- and eighth-graders will not take a separate writing exam, shaving even more time from testing.

Third, fourth and sixth grades have only two federally required assessments. Seventh grade has only three required tests – two by the U.S. Department of Education and one by the state.

Keep in mind that end-of-instruction tests can be taken any time from seventh grade through high school. Not all of such exams will be taken in a single year.

It is true, of course, that testing means a lengthier disruption for school staffers than for students. But if we look at the time impact on students, it is not nearly as long.

Assessing what a child knows and can do at the end of a course of study gives guidance on which instructional methods are successful and helps identify those students who need additional help. Without assessments, we have no measure of whether our students are moving closer to the goal of being college-, career- and citizen-ready by the time they graduate high school.

Too often our students are ranked behind their national peers. When I took office, only 26 percent of Oklahoma fourth-graders were proficient in reading. That same year, more than 42 percent of college freshmen in the state needed remedial courses, which cost money and earn no credit. Only assessments tell us if we are on the right track before we get students across the graduation stage.

Our students deserve to know that what they have been taught in their classrooms is truly preparing them for life, whether that life consists of college or a decent-paying job. They deserve to know they can compete for any job they wish. Information from assessments tell us whether we’re delivering for our students. They deserve this knowledge.

Basically, she’s saying that over testing is a myth – like evolution and climate change. Or if it’s not, it’s probably the schools’ fault. Of course it is. Everything is our fault. On the other hand, she also can’t count to five. After reading the email in the morning and pondering on it throughout the day, another educator posted Barresi’s letter to Thinglink dissecting some of the flaws with the state superintendent’s reasoning.

Nerd moment: Thinglink is new to me. It’s really cool. The instructional possibilities are tremendous. Then again, several of my Twitter followers apparently already knew that.

Among the observations:

  • No time will be saved with the elimination of the writing test. In fact, if you look at the RFP for our newfangled OCCRA tests, writing will be included in all the reading assessments. If anything, this will increase testing time.
  • The statement that EOIs can be taken anytime from seventh grade through the senior year is true, but really goes without saying. I guess Barresi’s point is that high school students really don’t take that many state tests. I’ll address that below.
  • Online testing causes many schools a disruption to instruction that lasts for several weeks. Schools don’t exactly have unused labs or computers lying around. Computer classes simply don’t meet for periods of time.
  • Although schools may choose to do extra tests, such as benchmarks, they are part of the instructional strategy necessary to prepare students for high-stakes tests. With graduation, third-grade retention, A-F Report Cards, and soon teacher evaluation tied to test scores, how can we not focus on the tests…every…single…day?
  • College remediation requirements vary by each institution of higher education and are a steady revenue stream for them – and often a waste of students’ time. Often, students meet the State Regents’ benchmark of 19 in each subject area on the ACT but not the higher benchmarks that some of the colleges set.

I had one other thought after reading Barresi’s latest attempt to spin the narrative:

We have many more required tests than the third through eighth grade battery and the EOIs. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • DIBELS (or another diagnostic) under the Reading Sufficiency Act – given frequently to EC-third grade students
  • ACCESS for English Language Learners
  • PLAN and EXPLORE (from ACT) – paid for by the State Regents, and technically optional, but tests that actually provide useful information
  • The PSAT – which is administered by many districts to help predict future success in Advanced Placement courses and used as an alternate test for the EOIs
  • An ever-increasing number of AP tests at the end of the year (as schools chase bonus points for their A-F Report Cards and parents chase higher weighted grade point averages for their children)
  • Nationally normed intelligence tests for identification in GT programs (usually in elementary grades
  • Any number of re-tests for third grade reading, eighth grade reading, and the EOIs

Barresi is trying desperately to wrest the dialogue away from us. She can’t like that Bixby has a board-adopted opt out policy. She also can’t like that Rob Miller’s blog has had tens of thousands of page views in 24 hours after he let us in on the little secret about Jenks and Owasso not having to do field tests.

Superintendent Barresi’s words continue to show that she doesn’t have much regard for us professionally or intellectually. Ours show that we’re not going to take her disrespect without a fight.

3 months…9 days…and counting…

What a Terrifically Bad Idea

This is an early Christmas for bloggers. Unless you’re one of the many who gave up social media for Lent, you probably know by now that Rob Miller dropped some incredible news last night. The Oklahoma State Department of Education instructed Measured Progress to exclude Jenks and Owasso from field testing item tryouts this spring. If you haven’t read it, go do that now. I’ll wait for you. If for some reason, you’re continuing to read my blog without looking at Rob’s, here’s a blurb:

Honestly, it was a pleasant surprise when we found out last week that students and schools in the Jenks district were NOT randomly selected to participate in ANY of these field tests. However, when we discovered that Owasso Public Schools had also not been “randomly selected,” several of us became a little suspicious. As you may have heard, some parents and educators in Owasso made some waves recently because of their vocal opposition to implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in their district. Therefore, this news was way too coincidental for random chance.

So, I took it upon myself to make a few inquiries by phone and email. It did not take long to discover that we and Owasso were unique and that every other district in our area had been selected for this field testing.

A conversation yesterday with an executive at the headquarters of Measured Progress revealed what I suspected. Measured Progress was given specific instructions by the Oklahoma State Department of Education to draw their testing sample from all districts in Oklahoma, with the exception of two school districts: Jenks and Owasso. This information has been confirmed separately through sources at the state department. It certainly appears that “someone” at the SDE knowingly excluded these two districts to avoid negative publicly associated with a possible parent opt-out this spring.

My head is spinning!

Measured Progress admits that the SDE told them to exclude two districts because they have outspoken patrons. How in the hell did they expect to get away with this and not have backlash?

This action undermines everything that field testing is supposed to accomplish. Aside from that, it serves as encouragement to districts whose patrons want to defy the SDE.

The blame for this decision falls entirely on Superintendent Barresi. This isn’t like last year when she explained that she had taken no part in choosing the testing company that miserably failed in two states. This was planned and approved at the highest of levels. I honestly don’t think she can’t loan her campaign enough money to get out of this hole.

Once again, we see the arrogance of Barresi and her administration fully exposed. This action is unethical. While admitting the motivation behind it is at least honest, they really thought there would be no consequences.

Since Rob posted this story to his blog last night, it has gone viral. I told him that he would break WordPress. Last night, when I refreshed the story about an hour after it posted, the site was down. It happened this morning too. Thousands of shares later on Facebook and Twitter, it’s hard to really calculate the reach of the post. I’m sure it will reach pretty much every teacher and administrator’s inbox in the state. There will be questions from the media and from lawmakers. Speaking of which, I haven’t seen a flood of supporters stand behind Barresi lately. This won’t help.

On an unrelated note, the SDE is excited to announce that Vision 2020 Round Three is coming up in August. Based on the current news, I have a few suggestions for breakout session titles:

  • Parent power: You have the power to tell the SDE to stick it!
  • STEMming the tide of Opt Outs!
  • Redefining “statistically significant” and “randomly chosen”
  • Field testing: how to take your ball and go home
  • You can’t opt out; I’ll opt you out!
  • Words hurt, Rob.
  • Blogging for change (roundtable session)
  • How to clean out your office in six months

I’d go to that last one. It sounds fun.

About the Bixby Opt Out Policy

March 12, 2014 7 comments

In case you missed it, the Bixby Public Schools Board of Education adopted an Opt Out policy Monday night. This is a response to increased questions from parents about getting their children out of state and federally mandated standardized tests. Before anybody starts an ill-advised investigation, however, we should understand what this policy is and what it is not.

It is a way to inform parents that the district respects their rights and the potential consequences to the student, school, and district if those rights are exercised. It is not an obscene gesture pointed to the southwest.

The district contacted the SDE for legal advice and was told that the district has an obligation to provide a test to every student in tested grades and subjects. The consequences, as outlined in the form that parents would have to complete (which discourages opting out) are outlined by the Tulsa World:

• Oklahoma law requires that a third-grader score proficient or higher on the reading test or be retained in third grade. “There is nothing in the law that would allow for the promotion of those students (who don’t take the test)” unless they meet one of the six good cause exemptions that aren’t predicated on taking the test first, said education department Tricia Pemberton.

• Oklahoma law requires that any person under age 18 to demonstrate score satisfactory on the 8th grade reading test to get an Oklahoma drivers’ license.

• And Oklahoma law now requires students demonstrate mastery of state academic content standards by scoring proficient or higher on four of seven end-of-instruction standardized tests.

Wood also said parents are informed that the school district and its schools’ grades are based on testing. A district is required under the state’s A-F school grading system to test at least 95 percent of enrolled students or drop one letter grade. If 90 percent or fewer students are tested, the district receives an automatic “F.”

There could also be federal funding consequences if the appropriate numbers of students are not tested.

The policy provides parents with information and choices – nothing more, nothing less. That sounds pragmatic and shows parents that the district wants them to think for themselves.

As Many as Half?

March 10, 2014 4 comments

Oklahoma Watch published an article Friday titled, As Many as Half of Third Graders Who Fail Reading Test Could Win Exemptions. When I read it this afternoon (the Internet has been slow lately), I immediately noted two things I didn’t much care for: the prediction and the title. We’re a little early into this process to start making guesses – educated or otherwise – about how many students will be retained. Second, I find the word Win objectionable. To accept its use imposes the word lose on students not earning an exemption. Since literacy is a gift, let’s not set up the picture to have winners and losers. Here’s the key piece of the article:

“We believe a good number – maybe up to 50 percent – will get a good-cause exemption,” said Tricia Pemberton, spokeswoman for the state education department.

Pemberton said the agency expects to see similar growth in reading proficiency that Florida saw, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Some experts have attributed that improvement more to reading intervention provided by Florida than to the retention mandate.

The article also cites data from Florida showing the percentage of students failing the test and the percentage retained in the first ten years since their retention law passed.

School Year

% Failing the Test

% Retained

2002-03 23% 13.2%
2003-04 22% 10.2%
2004-05 20% 9.8%
2005-06 14% 6.0%
2006-07 19% 8.1%
2007-08 16% 6.6%
2008-09 17% 6.4%
2009-10 16% 5.9%
2010-11* 18% 7.1%
2011-12* 18% 6.9%

*Florida implemented a more rigorous test.

After reading this article, I tweeted the following:

I quickly received the following response:

And these from Facebook:

Facebook RSA Responses - Copy

The people actually working with our students (and who don’t have their own spokesperson) believe the exemptions will have much less coverage. In particular, the impact on English language learners and special education students will be devastating. Even the Oklahoma Watch article oversimplifies the extent to which these populations are protected.

Some students, such as English language learners or those in special education, may automatically qualify for an exemption. In other cases, teachers, principals and superintendents will review a student’s portfolio and make a judgment call on whether a student’s coursework shows they’re proficient enough at reading to enter fourth grade. Many teachers are drawing up portfolios for students in case they do poorly on the reading test.

This is one of the problems school districts experience trying to communicate the RSA rules to parents. Being an ELL or IEP kid does not automatically qualify you for an exemption. Nor does evaluation of the student portfolios amount to a judgment call. Here’s the actual language:

  • English Language Learners who have had less than two years of instruction in English and are identified as Limited-English Proficient (LEP)/ English Language Learner (ELL) on a screening tool approved by the Oklahoma State Department of Education Office of Bilingual/Migrant Education and have a Language Instruction Educational Plan (LIEP) in place prior to the administration of the third-grade criterion referenced test; and the student must have had less than two years of instruction in an English Language Learner (ELL) program.

  • Students with disabilities whose Individualized Education Program (IEP) indicates they are to be assessed with the Oklahoma Alternate Assessment Program (OAAP).

  • Students who demonstrate an acceptable level of performance (minimum of 45th percentile) on an alternative standardized reading test approved by the State Board of Education (SAT 10, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Terranova).

  • Students who demonstrate through a teacher- developed portfolio that they can read on grade level. The student portfolio shall include evidence demonstrating the student’s mastery of the Oklahoma state standards in reading equal to grade-level performance on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT).

  • Students with disabilities who take the OCCT and have an IEP that states they have received intense remediation in reading for more than two years but still demonstrate a deficiency in reading and were previously retained one year or were in a transitional grade during kindergarten, first-, second- or third-grade.

  • Students who have received intensive remediation in reading for two or more years but still demonstrate a deficiency in reading and who already have been retained in kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade or third-grade for a total of two years.  Transitional grades count.

Getting parents (and even non-third grade teaching educators) to understand that the law does not automatically give exceptions for ELL, IEP, or portfolios of student work is no small challenge.

We should also look at Florida’s numbers. In 10 years, the failing rate has dropped from 23% to 18%. The retention rate has dropped from 13% to 7%. Most of those improvements came in the first two years, however. That’s what Oklahoma would be likely to see as well, if we had done the other thing Florida paired with their law…


That’s right – money matters. Without funding interventions, this is a purely punitive law. Florida has pushed $130 million ANNUALLY into intervention programs since passing their retention law. Yes, they’re a bigger state than Oklahoma, but we pumped a paltry $6.5 million into RSA last year. Even Barresi’s request to increase that to $16 million doesn’t take us where we need to be. How much is enough? I’m not sure. The legislature should probably start with a generous amount and keep going. We’re not even close. It’s going to take a while to fill the silo at this rate.

Meanwhile, teachers and parents scramble, hoping we can get half of the students projected to score unsatisfactory on the test out of harm’s way. The law as written lacks common sense and financial support. Without those, nobody wins.

This is also why it is important we support HB 2625, which would restore the retention decision to schools and parents. Watch for it in a legislative body near you!

Calling a Crock a Crock

March 9, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, in a paragraph at the end of a column of short editorials, the Oklahoman once again took a cheap shot at the Education Rally scheduled for March 31 at the Oklahoma Capitol:

Snow and ice meant two more days out of school this week for thousands of Oklahoma students, who now await word as to when those days will be made up. There is one date that won’t be used by many districts – Monday, March 31. That’s when administrators and teachers plan to head to Oklahoma City to rally state lawmakers for more spending on education. “We are absolutely not backing out” of the rally, said a spokesman for Tulsa Public Schools, because “it’s clear that we have to do something to get more attention for this issue.” What a crock. Common education funding is always a front-burner issue for lawmakers, even if administrators don’t agree with the size of the check that gets written each year. The rally will be a huge waste of time, particularly for students who should be in class learning something that day.

First of all, state law requires that schools provide 180 days or 1080 hours of instruction. All districts in the state will provide that, whether they hold class March 31 or not. Second, the contention that “education funding is always a front-burner issue or lawmakers,” is the real crock. Last year, if you’ll recall, the Legislature spent more money overall than ever before. In spite of this, common education funding is still well below the 2008 level. Most importantly, the rally will not be a waste of time.

As Scott Haselwood pointed out yesterday, activism resulted in the passage of reforms and a major funding increase in 1990. And as many have mentioned on Twitter, schools waste an enormous amount of time on tasks that are completely useless – things ranging from Roster Verification to A-F Report Cards to field testing item tryouts to Common Core transition plans to the Good Cause Exemptions. The Corporate Education Reform movement and its minions at the SDE and in the Legislature continue to find ways to waste the time of schools and families.

Enough is enough. We know our voices have power. Our presence has even more. I’ve fielded questions about the timing of the rally. Why not have the rally over Spring Break? Last time we tried to find an audience over Spring Break, we ended up speaking to tape recorders. Why not wait until school is out? The legislature only meets from February through May. By the time school is out, the budget will already be set.

Sure, there are legislators who delete their emails without reading them (and don’t realize that the sender gets a message to that effect). There are more who listen, even when the viewpoint is diametrically opposed to their own.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen what happens when parents and educators call the legislature. The voucher bill went away for now, and both chambers are debating the future of the Common Core. We’ve also seen momentum towards some good-sense adjustments to the Reading Sufficiency Act. If the rally has at least as many parents as educators, if the dialogue is constructive rather than bombastic, and if the weather cooperates, March 31 should be a tremendous use of our time.

In the meantime, we’ll keep defending what we’re doing – even if we have to have a Rally for the Rally™!

RallyFlyer - Copy

Gettin’ SIGgy With It

March 9, 2014 Comments off


On Friday, the Oklahoma State Department of Education had a webinar for schools wishing to participate in this year’s School Improvement Grant competition. In case you don’t know much about the SIG program, here’s an overview from the SDE website:

The Oklahoma State Department of Education has been granted the opportunity to award $4.9 million dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds from the United States Department of Education. This is a competitive grant which requires that schools that are selected to receive the grant and implement one of four intervention models. Districts that contain Priority schools qualify to apply.

SIG Information

  • SIG is a competitive grant meaning an application must be submitted and approved prior to funding being awarded.
  • The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) applied to the United States Department of Education (USDE) for SIG funding for a fourth cohort in November 2013.
  • Only LEAs that are eligible based on the Priority Schools list may apply for funds.
  • Currently there are 6 active SIG sites for school year 2013-2014.

If awarded, each SIG site would choose a Turnaround Model to implement:

  • Restart Model – LEA closes a school and reopens it with a different operating structure (e.g., charter).
  • Closure Model – LEA closes the school and enrolls the student in other higher achieving schools within the LEA.
  • Transformation Model – LEA and school use funds to implement a required list of initiatives.
  • Turnaround Model – LEA and school use the SIG funds to implement a required list of initiatives.

The list of Priority Schools shows about 160 schools eligible for this competition. In the past three competitions, the SDE has awarded a total of 16 grants. All but one chose the Transformation Model (because we always tell people to pick C); the other chose the Turnaround Model. (By the way, it’s strange that one of the choices of turnaround models is actually called the Turnaround Model.)

US Grant High School in Oklahoma City was the one choosing the Turnaround Model. I’ve lost track of how many stories have been written about their success. The narrative usually focuses on how hard the teachers and parents worked to make student success important at Grant. Sometimes the stories also mention the $5 million the school received from the USDE and how the school spent that money. Among these were:

  • Protected collaboration time for teachers
  • Extra professional development days
  • Longer instructional days

It takes a lot of commitment, hard work, and money to turn a school around. It also takes planning. That’s why the following timeline concerns me a little.

Eligible schools received the application packet Tuesday, February 25. Schools wanting to apply had to submit a letter of intent by Tuesday, March 4. Meanwhile, many districts had snow days March 3-4. In essence, schools had less than a week to make a decision.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise any longer when the SDE makes things harder for schools than they have to be. And to be fair, this is a letter of intent, not the actual application. Since we know that very few eligible schools will get a SIG grant, and we have seen the impact such an infusion of funding can have, it’s more than a little frustrating to those interested in applying that the SDE once again can’t get out of its own way or that of the schools.

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The Vote after the Condescending Letter

At lunch today, I shared a letter Janet Barresi sent to school districts. Addressed to educators, it had words of wisdom to help us engage parents:

Talk to parents or guardians. If you can reach out to families — especially those where education is not a priority — with accurate information about the RSA and the importance of literacy, you could help spark an entirely new future for those children.

Less than an hour later, the Oklahoma House of Representatives made headway towards that goal, passing HB 2625 by a vote of 84-6 (with 11 non-voting members). That the bill passed only surprised me a little. The margin floored me. Even Jason Nelson changed his vote from committee to join the gang of 84.

This measure would revise the retention language in the Reading Sufficiency Act to read as follows:

Except as otherwise provided, beginning with students entering the first grade in the 2011-2012 school year, if the reading deficiency of a student, as identified based on assessments administered as provided for in subsection B of this section, is not remedied by the end of third grade, as demonstrated by scoring at the unsatisfactory level on the reading portion of the statewide third-grade criterion-referenced test, the student shall be retained in the third grade if a team composed of a parent or guardian of the student, a teacher assigned to the school, the school principal and a certified reading specialist, if one is employed by the school, agree that the student should be retained. The student shall be promoted to the fourth grade if the team members agree that promotion is the best option for the student or if the team members agree that the student should be promoted for good cause as set forth in subsection K of this section. If the team members agree to retain the student in the third grade, the student shall be provided intensive interventions in reading and intensive instructional services and supports as set forth in subsection N of this section. If the team members agree to promote the student to the fourth grade, the student shall be provided intensive reading instruction as set forth in subsection L of this section.

The underlined text is new language. This change keeps the testing. The six good cause exemptions remain in place. Ultimately, the school may still retain a student, but only after a conversation with parents that will include more than a single data point.

This is what so many of us have been asking for. While Barresi and the SDE double down on the original and highly flawed plan, pretending to have been responsive to questions and comments from educators and parents, the legislature has actually provided a solution.

To them, I say “thank you for listening!”

Now, on to the Senate. Then the Governor. Hopefully, this will pass quickly and not leave schools going into May wondering if they have local control or not.

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