Teaching to the Test: When is Enough Actually Enough?

On March 15, 2016, my Monroe County School Board got into a discussion regarding  whether the district was encouraging “teaching to the test” by going to extraordinary measures preparing students for Advanced Placement exams (you can listen to the discussion at 1:15:00).  Our board chair, Andy Griffiths suggested “teaching to the test shouldn’t be something that is dirty or, say, that’s wrong…” The board goes on to discuss situations where they might find this appropriate (in this case, a driver’s test or and AP test where “the point of the class is to pass the test”) and where it might be inappropriate (preparing to take a multiple choice, standardized exam).

Monroe County is not alone.  The discussion regarding whether teaching to the test is ever an acceptable practice is becoming more common place, with more and more “pro-teach to the test” opinions being voiced.  I find it difficult to imagine that any of these conversations would have occurred amongst educators 20 years ago, before NCLB and other reforms placed performance on the state assessment front and center, tying teacher and school evaluations to the scores, and public school curriculum began to be corrupted by its influence.

Even David Coleman, the architect of Common Core, has said that “it’s a statement of reality, though not a pretty one….  which is that teachers will teach to the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that.” (His comments can be seen here.)   He went on the encourage test makers to create standardized assessments “worthy of being taught to.”

We  believe that, in this current high stakes testing environment, the ugly truth is that Mr. Coleman is right, but for all the wrong reasons.  “Teaching to the Test” has become an acceptable practice because of VAM and school grades; each are tremendously dependent on the scores from high stakes test.  While we all innately understand that a score for a single test should not and cannot be a true reflection of any child’s abilities, our accountability system insists that these same scores be used to calculate teacher pay (VAM) and on school grades.  Everything trickles down from there. Teaching to the test is a direct result of Accountabaloney.

When does “teaching to the test” go too far or, in our test focused world, is ALL “teaching to the test” now considered acceptable?

This week, a parent from Manatee County shared a letter (dated February 25, 2016) she had received from Bayshore Elementary. Imagine a world where the test obsession has become so common place that a school would find this acceptable. This is Florida’s reality:

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This school has chosen to drastically change the way they grade weekly math and reading tests, knowing children’s grades will drop. They have also eliminated science and social studies classes, choosing to teach that content via reading passages and use the “extra” time for remediation (essentially more test prep). The school states they “have no choice” and they thank parents for their understanding and for “being a partner in your child’s education.”

Comments in response to the sharing of this letter suggest this is a widespread practice, not limited to this one school. They also suggests that parents might not be willing “partners” in this latest assault on their child’s education:

-“When exactly will they be doing ACTUAL science and social studies? Not just using nonfiction and science texts in reading lessons? Has it come to this? Where we just aren’t teaching science or history anymore? I’m flabbergasted.”

-“My son has science and social studies this year. They stopped science and only have done interactive lessons since January. My son doesn’t get to do social studies because of interventions. Someone suggested I should just teach him social studies myself. There should be no reason why a child’s day is so busy that they have to skip out on learning certain subjects.”

-“They have been “teaching to the test” with worksheet after worksheet of math & reading since the beginning of the year!!”

-“My son did those stupid worksheets last year. They were called Countdown to the FSA. He did fine on the regular work sheets, but once he did those he did horribly. I don’t know what path I’m taking as far as school next year. I can’t take much more of this including common core.”

My own son attends a school where, when I questioned a perceived decrease in time scheduled for science instruction this year, I was told by the principal that “science is being taught through reading passages.” Heavy sigh.

It seems that parents are waking up to the fact that “teaching to the test” may have, in fact, gone too far, WAY too far. Far enough to violate the law? This letter from Bayshore Elementary appears to document that they are, in fact, in blatant violation of Florida Statute.

In the early days of education reform, Florida legislators were concerned enough about excessive test prep and narrowed curriculum and “teaching to the test” to pass F.S. 1008.22(3)(f):

(f) Prohibited activities.A district school board shall prohibit each public school from suspending a regular program of curricula for purposes of administering practice assessments or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities for a statewide, standardized assessment.

Bayshore Elementary appears to have suspended a regular program of curriculum (science and social studies) for the directly stated purpose of preparing for the FSA, in direct violation of Florida Statute.

F.S. 1008.22(3)(f) goes on to say there are some allowable test preparation activities:

However, a district school board may authorize a public school to engage in the following assessment-preparation activities:

1. Distributing to students sample assessment books and answer keys published by the Department of Education.
2. Providing individualized instruction in assessment-taking strategies, without suspending the school’s regular program of curricula, for a student who scores Level 1 or Level 2 on a prior administration of an assessment.
3. Providing individualized instruction in the content knowledge and skills assessed, without suspending the school’s regular program of curricula, for a student who scores Level 1 or Level 2 on a prior administration of an assessment or a student who, through a diagnostic assessment administered by the school district, is identified as having a deficiency in the content knowledge and skills assessed.
4. Administering a practice assessment or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities that are determined necessary to familiarize students with the organization of the assessment, the format of assessment items, and the assessment directions or that are otherwise necessary for the valid and reliable administration of the assessment, as set forth in rules adopted by the State Board of Education with specific reference to this paragraph.

I’d like to draw attention to number 4, allowing the administration of a practice assessment or other activities designed to “familiarize students with the organization of the assessment, the format of assessment items, and the assessment directions or that are otherwise necessary for the valid and reliable administration of the assessment.” Parents, ask your kids how many practice tests they have taken in preparation to this year’s FSA. One student I asked has already spent precious class time taking SIX complete ELA-FSA practice tests this year. More shocking than that was the fact that this eight grader saw nothing wrong with that. She has become so accustomed to test prep she recognizes it as a regular part of instruction. The law allows practice tests ONLY to familiarize students with the assessment, clearly SIX practice tests is excessive for that purpose.

Please notice that it is the responsibility of your local school board to “prohibit each public school from suspending a regular program of curricula for purposes of administering practice assessments or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities for a statewide, standardized assessment.” I will be questioning adherence to F.S.1008.22 in my district with my school board. I encourage the parents at Bayshore Elementary, and every other school in violation of F.S. 1008.22, to contact their school boards and demand their schools comply with F.S. 1008.22 and stop the practice of substituting test prep for curriculum.  Our children deserve better.

When I first saw the “Bayshore post”, my own response was: “This is when you realize the “teach to the test” has gone too far and the priorities of your school are messed up.” To which a teacher replied:

“OR maybe it’s a cry for help from the school to the parents. Many parents don’t know just how bad it is. We teachers can’t change things on our own, we need parents to be educated and involved, also. The idealist in me hopes this is the case.”

I too, hope this is the case.

Bayshore has notified parents that their children will suffer lower grades in an attempt to demonstrate how students are expected to perform on the FSA; science and social studies will be replaced by remediation; and the school feels they have “no choice” in the matter. If this is an attempt to open parents eyes to “just how bad it is” (as my commenter suggested) than I encourage all schools to join in.

The “Bayshore letter” is a clear example of how focusing almost entirely on math and reading scores is resulting in the narrowing of curriculum.  In this case, science and social studies are virtually eliminated. How many other parts of a well rounded education have been eliminated as our schools have become more and more focused on state test score performance?

The conversation should not be about whether teaching to the test is okay but WHY we suddenly feel the need to defend such practices. The state test will NEVER be “worthy of teaching to” because it is not designed to assess students but to rank/punish/reward teachers and schools.  As long as the high stakes are attached to the tests, the tests will be taught to and educating the whole child will remain a memory. Parents need to demand attention to the whole child (not just their math and reading scores) and demand the amount of transparency Bayshore has provided its parents. Parents need to know how their children’s education is being disrupted.

Bayshore has issued their “cry for help”. It is time for everyone to intervene. Contact your school boards. Demand they follow F.S. 1008.22.

“Everyone should be outraged because it is outrageous.” – Florida Senator Dwight Bullard

 

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Florida, 3rd Grade Retention and Transparency: Clear as Mud

It’s difficult to be transparent when you don’t really want people to understand the law; especially the law that pertains to participating in Florida’s notoriously high stakes, 3rd grade English Language Arts (ELA) assessment.

I am not an attorney, but I am a good reader, having been nearly constantly reading for over 50 years now, AND I am good at “listening and learning.”  Lately, I have been “listening and learning” to Florida’s education leaders and legislators and closely reading Florida State Statute. Florida’s legislators claim to prize “transparency”. For Florida’s education leaders, sadly, it appears difficult to be fully transparent while trying to keep citizens from understanding the law as written.

Just to be “clear” (pun intended), Merriam Webster defines “transparent” as “easy to notice or understand; honest and open, not secretive; able to be seen through.”

When it comes the Florida State Assessments, the Department of Education, along with many district superintendents and administrators, fail any apparent attempt at transparency.

First, the DOE and local school administrators will repeatedly state that “Opt Out” is not allowed in Florida because, by statute, “Each student must participate in the statewide, standardized assessment program required by s. 1008.22” (FS1008.25(4)(a)). Last year, in New York state, almost 200,000 students “opted out” of New York’s State Assessment by failing to show up for the test.  By Florida Statute, that is not legal.  Students are expected to be present for testing. The DOE is correctly stating statute there.

However, because of the mandate to participate, Florida’s “Opt Out Procedure” requires a child be presented with the test (as required by law), after which the child begins the test but refuses to answer any questions.  When an insufficient number of questions are answered (in this case zero), the test will be deemed to have insufficient data for scoring and, thus, will go un-scored. (you can learn more about Florida’s “Opt Out Procedure” here and here). Often, after politely refusing to answer questions, a child’s parents will pick the child up from school for the duration of the testing period.  If the child leaves the testing room early, schools may be required to “invalidate” the student’s test. An invalid test (per page 69 of the FSA Manual) is required to be returned to the State “in order to be counted for participation purposes.”

CLEARLY, students following the “Opt Out Procedure” fulfill the state’s participation requirement to the extent required by law. Is it possible that the DOE and local school administrators are not aware of the “opt outer’s” process allowing participation, as required by law, but generating no usable score? I suspect not. The DOE has been reluctant to formally define “participation” for fear that definition will be used by the opt out movement. In this article in the Tampa Bay Times, DOE spokeswoman Meghan Collins said, “I feel like answering the type of question provides more information that could be construed as encouraging students or parents not to take the test, that’s just something we don’t want to do.” Refusing to define words is hardly transparent, I think.

When it comes to mandatory third grade retention for students who “fail the FSA,” the DOE has been as clear as mud.

Parents who have informed schools of their intent to minimally participate in 3rd grade testing have been bombarded with letters apparently designed to coerce full participation.  Threats include mandatory retention, summer school, extra testing and burdensome portfolio assessments. A sample letter is posted here (edited for privacy, emphasis theirs). Thousands of similar letters have been distributed across the state this year. They are so common that education advocates now refer to them as “bully letters”:

Dear Parent of Third Grader,

I have received an answer from XXXXX, our XXSD assessment liaison.  If your 3rd grader opted out of the FSA, she would be retained and would be treated as all other students that fail to achieve level 2 or higher and the required assessment. A portfolio might provide sufficient evidence for exemption from mandatory retention – but the student would also have to take the Stanford reading assessment as part of the process – AND the portfolio process is very proscriptive in order to provide this evidence. So she would have to take a different assessment and we would need to provide a portfolio order for her to be promoted.  Unfortunately, since third grade is a high stakes test we are bound by the law. I have included the actual law below for your reference.   

The law (F.S. 1008.25) is very clear. A third grade student must be retained if they do not achieve a level 2 score on FSA which is required for all public school students under F.S. 1008.22. 

(b) To be promoted to grade 4, a student must score a Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3. If a student’s reading deficiency is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3, the student must be retained.

Signed,

School Principal

 According to this “bully letter” : “The law (F.S. 1008.25) is very clear. A third grade student must be retained if they do not achieve a level 2 score on FSA which is required for all public school students under F.S. 1008.22,” and FS1008.25(5)(b) is copied as “proof.” Let’s look at the rest of F.S. 1008.25(5):

(5) READING DEFICIENCY AND PARENTAL NOTIFICATION.

(a) Any student who exhibits a substantial deficiency in reading, based upon locally determined or statewide assessments conducted in kindergarten or grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3, or through teacher observations, must be given intensive reading instruction immediately following the identification of the reading deficiency. The student’s reading proficiency must be monitored and the intensive instruction must continue until the student demonstrates grade level proficiency in a manner determined by the district, which may include achieving a Level 3 on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment.
(b) To be promoted to grade 4, a student must score a Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3. If a student’s reading deficiency is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3, the student must be retained.

(c) The parent of any student who exhibits a substantial deficiency in reading, as described in paragraph (a), must be notified in writing of the following:

1. That his or her child has been identified as having a substantial deficiency in reading.
2. A description of the current services that are provided to the child.
3. A description of the proposed supplemental instructional services and supports that will be provided to the child that are designed to remediate the identified area of reading deficiency.
4. That if the child’s reading deficiency is not remediated by the end of grade 3, the child must be retained unless he or she is exempt from mandatory retention for good cause.
5. Strategies for parents to use in helping their child succeed in reading proficiency.
6. That the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment is not the sole determiner of promotion and that additional evaluations, portfolio reviews, and assessments are available to the child to assist parents and the school district in knowing when a child is reading at or above grade level and ready for grade promotion.
7. The district’s specific criteria and policies for a portfolio as provided in subparagraph (6)(b)4. and the evidence required for a student to demonstrate mastery of Florida’s academic standards for English Language Arts. A parent of a student in grade 3 who is identified anytime during the year as being at risk of retention may request that the school immediately begin collecting evidence for a portfolio.
8. The district’s specific criteria and policies for midyear promotion. Midyear promotion means promotion of a retained student at any time during the year of retention once the student has demonstrated ability to read at grade level.
First, it is important to notice that F.S.1008.25(5) specifically deals with “READING DEFICIENCY AND PARENTAL NOTIFICATION.” This is a portion of the law that deals with students who have READING DEFICIENCIES. The first paragraph, F.S.1008.25(5)(a), describes how children who are found to have “a substantial deficiency in reading” must be given intensive reading instruction. That student’s reading proficiency then must be monitored and intervention continues until the student demonstrates grade level proficiency “in a manner determined by the district, which may include achieving a Level 3 on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment.” Early identification of reading deficiencies is, clearly, a priority. The state mandates intervention and monitoring of these children.
So, when you move on to F.S. 1008.25(5)(b), the portion quoted (and highlighted and bolded) in our bully letter, it still pertains to students with reading deficiencies.  The statute requires that any student with a documented reading deficiency, must demonstrate that deficiency has been “remedied” by scoring a 2 or higher on the FSA-ELA. It does NOT say that a third grade student, with NO previously documented reading deficiency, “must be retained if they do not achieve a level 2 score on FSA.” This portion of the law pertains only to those with documented reading deficiencies.
The rest of section 5 goes on to define the requirements of notifying parents of their child’s reading deficiencies as well as the statement that “the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment is not the sole determiner of promotion and that additional evaluations, portfolio reviews, and assessments are available to the child to assist parents and the school district in knowing when a child is reading at or above grade level and ready for grade promotion.” Again, this all applies to children with documented reading deficiencies.
So, why would districts be sending letters to families of children without documented reading deficiencies, threatening mandatory grade retention if they fail to achieve a level 2 on the FSA-ELA ,when the quoted statute clearly deals only with reading deficiencies? Why, in our sample letter, did this district threaten that a child without a documented reading deficiency, whose parents elected to opt her out of the FSA, “would be retained and would be treated as all other students that fail to achieve level 2 or higher and the required assessment”? What is the Florida DOE doing to clarify the situation?
On May 18, 2015, at the Florida Organization of Instructional Leaders (FOIL) conference, the DOE gave a presentation entitled “School Accountability and Assessments.”  This presentation, among other things, went section by section through the recently passed HB 7069, explaining its implication to the gathered district assessment leaders. Regarding 3rd grade retention, this was presented:
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The DOE claimed that HB7069 (section 9) had changed the requirement for a student to be promoted to grade 4. They emphasized this in red:
Beginning in 2015-2016, grade 3 students must score a Level 2 or higher on the ELA statewide, standardized assessment for promotion to grade 4.
Please note that the new language from HB7069, remains under the category of Reading Deficiency and Parental Notification.
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So, what had changed? Previously (2010) the law (1008.25(5)(b) had read: “Beginning with the 2002-2003 school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the statewide assessment test in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.” So what changed? The law went from being clearly understandable to significantly more vague when taken out of context. However, when context is considered, nothing regarding 3rd grade retention had changed.  F.S. 1008.25(5) continues to apply to children with reading deficiencies.  The intent appears to continue to be that students with reading deficiencies must demonstrate proficiency before being promoted to 4th grade. As to students without documented reading deficiencies, the law is silent. Mandatory retention is certainly not required. What state would mandate retention of children who perform at or above grade level?
Yet, last Spring, Florida’s DOE presented language to the contrary, in bright red letters, at the conference meant to “explain” HB7069.  It is not surprising that the same language is showing up in bully letters across the state. Children are being threatened with retention, with misquoted statute that appears to come directly from the DOE.
This is not transparency.  The DOE’s misinformation is being used to threaten and coerce students and families across the state.  The misinformation must stop.
Our advice? School district attorneys, district assessment liaisons, superintendents, educators: stop relying on the DOE to interpret Florida Statute. I read the statutes; you should, too. Most educators know the practice of mandatory retention for struggling third graders is questionable at best. State mandated retention of children performing at or above proficiency is ridiculous. Adults threatening small children is unconscionable.
To be crystal clear, the bullying needs to stop.
If you have received a bully letter regarding your child, please provide the sender with a copy of this post. In the absence of a reading deficiency, an FSA score is NOT needed for promotion to 4th grade.
If you want to learn more about 3rd grade Opt out in Florida, check here.

Student Achievement and FSA Validity: More Accountabaloney

A test is only valid if the results are used in a valid way. If a test’s results are used in anyway other than their intended use, the validity of that use must, also, be confirmed. This, essentially, sums up the lack of validity of the entire Florida Education Accountability system: tests that may have once been be valid for one use are now being used for a myriad of uses they were never intended for. Our children are sitting for tests whose results are used to determine promotion and graduation eligibility, rank and punish teachers, evaluate schools and districts and, because of school grades, determine local property values. Are these valid uses of the FSA? Has anyone bothered to check?

Following significant concerns regarding the validity of the new Florida State Assessment (FSA), legislators, during the 2015 session, ordered an independent verification of the new state assessment. Last summer, Alpine Testing Solutions, in partnership with EdCount, completed a partial, so called “independent”, verification of the psychometric validity FSA.  (You can read the report here, and our comments on it’s incomplete nature here). In the report, Alpine describes the relationship of validity to the intended use of assessment results.

“The process of evaluating an assessment and its associated validity evidence is directly related to the intended uses of the scores. Validity refers to these specific uses rather than a global determination of validity for an assessment program. As such, it is possible that the validity evidence supports one specific use of scores from an assessment while is insufficient for another.”

For example, a spelling test might be a valid way of measuring a student’s spelling abilities.  That same spelling test would tell you nothing about the child’s math skills, knowledge of U.S. History or ability to drive a car. Likewise, a student’s driver’s test is an insufficient measurement of that student’s spelling skills.

Table 2 (page 27 of the final Alpine report) provides a summary of these intended uses of the FSA (as provided to Alpine by the FLDOE) and notes the uses for which modifications have been made for 2014-15 as the first year of the program.

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The stated intended uses of the FSA include: teacher evaluation, school and district grades, school improvement rating and state accountability.  The ONLY listed uses for students are 3rd grade promotion, graduation eligibility (for both grade ELA and Algebra EOC) and student grades (for the math EOCs which are worth 30% of the students course grade). Please note: nowhere in Table 2 is “provide student academic achievement and learning gains data to students, parents, teachers, or schools” mentioned, yet this is reported to be the primary purpose of the student assessment program. In fact, according to the chart, there are NO intended uses for individual students, at all, for grade level FSA testing from grade 4 to grade 9.

I want to repeat that: according to the Alpine Validity Study, there are NO intended uses for individual students, at all, for grade level FSA testing from grade 4 to grade 9!

So, not only did the Alpine Study fail to evaluate 11 of the 17 new FSA assessments and fail to assess whether any of the tests were fair, valid or reliable for vulnerable sub-populations (read more here), but, according to Table 2, it EVEN failed to evaluate  whether the results could be used for the (reported) primary purpose of the state assessment system: evaluating student achievement.

It bears repeating that the 2014 Florida Statewide Assessments (FCAT 2.0) Technical Report (released in 12/2014), on page 137, suggested that further studies were needed to verify the inference “that the state’s accountability program is making a positive impact on student proficiency and school accountability without causing unintended negative consequences.” (Emphasis mine.) It will be difficult, I think, to evaluate that if the validity of the use of individual student scores is never determined.

When school administrators tell you the FSA is about providing information about student achievement and learning gains, show them this.  Providing information about student achievement and learning gains does not appear to be a priority of the current system; ranking and punishing teachers and schools does. Ask the “powers that be” when is Florida’s Accountability system going to take a serious look at the appropriate use and the current misuse of test scores?  When will they verify whether the current system is making a positive impact on student proficiency (dropping ACT and NAEP scores suggest otherwise)?  When will the myriad of unintended consequences be addressed? Until then, this is not a valid accountability system; it is all a bunch of accountabaloney.