Thursday, April 26, 2012

Simply Wrong

Contained within the SED’s blueprint for middle level education, the Essential Elements of Standards-Focused Middle-Level Schools and Programs, you will find much written about the necessity for schools to be developmentally responsive to the students’ needs. Currently, what is the most pressing need for students? My faculty believes that it’s ADVOCACY. Below is the perspective from one brave classroom teacher. He eloquently states what we are feeling in reaction to forcing children to endure the exams which will not provide accurate information regarding our students, teachers, or administrators. Bravo to those who believe that our children need a voice, that teaching is a noble profession, and that enough is enough.

Simply Wrong - by Doug Saber

Disappointment, frustration, and exhaustion have turned to disgust, anger, and a resolve to be a voice for the students.

At first, we teachers lamented the directive to set the testing time at 90 minutes. We understood that our students would be confused and scared by this length of quiet focus and predicted accurately that they would complete the test booklets in a fraction of the time allowed. We were only a little surprised that some kids actually snored and drooled during the nap time which the balance of the test time became.

Now, we teachers are appalled – and not because the results of our students on these tests are supposedly soon to become the basis for decisions about our ability and permission to serve children in the classroom. We are appalled because our testing program has violated what is fair and appropriate for our students. The most significant call to serve our students has emerged – a responsibility to make public the wrongs which have occurred.

Specifically, it is simply wrong to ask teachers to cover a given body of information and skills with their students, allow the students to strive for mastery of the same set of concepts, and then surprise the students and teachers with high-stakes-test questions which were beyond the curriculum! 6 of 30 questions in the Grade 5, Book 1 Form D Mathematics Test attempted to assess material either not directed to be taught at all during Grade 5 mathematics (division of fractions, adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators, and volume) or directed to be taught after the assessment as part of the May-June performance indicators (probability and plotting points in the first quadrant).

Try this analogy:
A coach and his players spend weeks, even months, practicing for the upcoming lacrosse season. The coach identifies the important skills for his players to learn. He gets his players to understand a variety of concepts related to offensive and defensive schemes common to the game of lacrosse. The coach and his players do not know completely the magnitude of the competition they will see at the first tournament of the year, but feel good that they have prepared themselves as a quality lacrosse team.

The day of the first tournament game comes. The coach and his players are told that from time to time during the lacrosse game that they will be directed to jump in a swimming pool and play water polo. When the coach and his players are first told, they are shocked and dismayed. When they are plunged into the pool the first time and many of the players sink (most figuratively and a few literally – even some of the most skilled lacrosse players), the coach and the players want to protest and scream that such an arrangement is simply unfair. The tournament chairman assures the coach and his players that they should not worry about the water-polo episodes dispersed throughout the lacrosse game since they won’t really count. The tournament chairman offers a weak and ridiculous explanation that a group of data wonks somewhere are doing research to see how well using various aspects of water polo to measure the performance of lacrosse players works. It takes no time for the coach and his players to point out that getting in the pool does change their performance in the lacrosse parts of the lacrosse game. When they are dripping from head to toe and their equipment is wet, they find that they cannot focus on what they had striven to accomplish during those months of lacrosse practice. The game does not go as anticipated. The players worry that they will be labeled as a bad team or scrub players. The coach worries that he might be criticized by parents about his ability to lead the squad. As the team heads home from the competition, all are left to wonder. Should we have known somehow that this might happen so we could have prepared differently? Should we change the way we get ready for the opening of the season next year? Do we even care about this sport anymore if the organizers allow such craziness to occur? Did the tournament organizers actually profit from our misery? Why? We thought lacrosse was supposed to be fun.

The coach and his players returned to the tournament the following season (i.e., Book 2) only to discover the same ridiculous arrangement. The tournament director and his staff were still throwing lacrosse players into pools. The results got even worse as the lacrosse players resigned themselves to the expected failure they recalled from the prior season. The players swore that if their coach was forced to bring them to the same tournament in the future that they would go through the motions and care little, if at all, about the outcome of the games.

The sequel part of the analogy is based on the experience with the Grade 5, Book 2 Form D Mathematics Test which like Book 1 covered material either not directed to be taught at all during Grade 5 mathematics (multiplication of fractions, subtracting fractions with unlike denominators, and volume) or directed to be taught after the assessment as part of the May-June performance indicators (probability and plotting points in the first quadrant). Another 6 of 30 questions were beyond the curriculum!

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I love symmetry. I love symmetrical objects and designs. If you doubt me, take a look at my house. There’s a reason we selected to build a colonial style home. We even have matching doors on each side of our porch. There’s a sense of balance to symmetrical objects which seem to appeal to me. I appreciate balance in many aspects of life. When I think about eating the snack I know I shouldn’t consume, I think to have “just a little” in moderation. I remember training as an athlete; I would always balance my workouts and routines. In my classroom, I would look for a balance of activities and approaches. There are few areas in which balance isn’t justified.

This past week we have endured the NYS ELA Assessments. There’s been opposition to standardized testing since the concept has been used. Personally, I’m not against a standardized accountability system. As a teacher, parent, and principal, I acknowledge the merit of this process. Yet, something seems unbalanced. We teach compassion and empathy, yet I witnessed children break-down and cry while completing these exams. We understand the value of positive relationships; unfortunately, many of you probably didn’t have the chance to work on this with the children this week. We have endeavored to differentiate our instructional strategies and assessments, the state has not.

Why do we, the educators, work on these daunting tasks when the state education department is presenting a different paradigm? The answer is clear to any of us who have ever seen the light bulb beam when understanding is reached. We know how best to teach and how children learn. Our moral obligation as educators now reaches farther than striving to expand our skills with children. In this current era of education, our responsibility extends so that others understand the importance of moderation and balance. An educational philosophy is more than an idea, strategy, or approach. It’s the impetus behind the idea, strategy, and approach.

If your philosophy is incomplete, in flux, or still on the back shelf since you completed that undergraduate requirement of writing an Educational Philosophy, then I encourage you to place your thoughts about this past ELA exam into words. You, I assume, are like me. It’s not all bad, but something just doesn’t seem right about what we did to our children. It’s unbalanced, more than simply a house with only one door. More like a house with only one door…on the third floor.

I would encourage all to provide the SED the feedback that they’ve requested, in any avenue available.

Have a great weekend. Let’s get ready for another round of assessments. Yeah Math!