Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why Test Scores Don't Mean Jack...... Cristina's Story

State test scores became available to us this week.  I always get mixed feelings - my kids work SO HARD on the CSTs (California Standards Test) every year, and I always think, "They are going to do well.  They worked so hard and really tried.  They knew the information.  This is the year."  Every year I get my hopes up.  Then my hopes come crashing down when I see the results.  It is a mixed bag - the scores range from amazing to holy-crap-how-did-that-happen?  But this year what stands out for me is one story - the story of Cristina.

Cristina is an English learner who was in my class for two years.  She came to my class at the beginning of her third grade year.  The following year I had a third and fourth grade combination class, and she was one of the many students I looped.  What a gift!

I conduct IRIs (Individualized Reading Inventory) with every one of my students three times throughout the year.  I have done this for as long as I can remember, but it became especially important when NCLB and high stakes testing really kicked into gear.  (More on that later.)  Two years ago, Cristina, along with a few other students, could not pass the pre-primer IRI.  Further assessment revealed she had major gaps in her reading skills in all areas, but especially decoding/phonics.  After parent-teacher conferences, it was clear why.  Cristina had missed a great deal of school her first few years.  I had my work cut out for me.

By the end of her third grade year, Cristina passed the pre-primer, primer, and first grade IRIs.  She also improved in all of the other assessments that I use to assess reading skills.  I was so proud of her!  When she returned for fourth grade, she was the only one of my "loopers" who showed increased reading scores over the summer.  She told me, "My mom worked really hard with me."  It showed.  (Even more impressive?  Her mother is a beginning English learner herself.)  Cristina was still at the first grade level, but had increases in her accuracy, comprehension, and fluency.  Yet the second grade IRI was just out of her grasp.  Still lots of work to do.

By the end of her fourth grade year, Cristina passed the third grade IRI with flying colors.  Her scores on all other assessments had increased as well.  She had made phenomenal growth over the past two years - she moved up five levels!  Again, I was so proud of her.  In addition, over the course of the two years Cristina went from a Beginning level EL to an Intermediate, bypassing the Early Intermediate level completely.

That brings us to the CSTs.  Cristina's third grade ELA score earned her a "Below Basic" rating.  Not surprising.  In fourth grade, she scored one point higher than the previous year, but due to increased cut-offs, she is now labeled "Far Below Basic."  Heart-breaking.

If Cristina is to be judged solely by these numbers, one might think a host of things.  Maybe she has a learning disability?  Maybe she doesn't try?  Maybe she doesn't have support at home?  Of course, all of these assumptions are false.  This kid works her tail off and gives her best every single day, and so does her mother.  How else could she have made such amazing growth?

Is it fair that I be judged by these numbers?  Of course not.  This is the problem with high stakes testing - it tells you NOTHING about what students know, or what teachers have done.  It tells you nothing about how far students have come.  These numbers tell you nothing about my instruction as a teacher.  These numbers tell nothing about all of the small group instruction and interventions this child received.  The numbers do not tell how hard this kid has worked, or how hard I have worked.  This child made AMAZING growth.  But you would never know that from the test scores.  Test scores do not tell you each child's story.

If standardized testing is going to be a part of what we look at when assessing student and teacher performance, fine.  (Well, not really.)  But it sure as hell shouldn't be the only thing.  And it definitely does not deserve much weight.  Authentic measures, such as IRIs, are what is needed.  Measures that show growth.  Measures that paint a more accurate picture.  Measures that actually work to inform instruction.  Measures that mean something.  It is time for this madness to stop.  The Cristinas in our classrooms deserve better.  And so do we.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Vigor vs. Rigor

Over the weekend I joined the "Badass Teachers Association" on Facebook.  This page was started Friday night.  It is now Thursday, and the group has over 7,700 members.  It is clear from what I have seen thus far that teachers are fed up and, at least this group is, ready to take back their profession.

Someone in the group posted about the frustration with buzzwords such as "rigor."  Later on in the thread, another member wrote about how she tells folks she prefers "vigor."  As I thought about that, a few posts down, someone posted a link to the definition of rigor.  So I clicked on it.  Here is how rigor is defined according to Merriam-Webster:

rig•or  noun  
1 a (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgement: severity  (2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: strictness  (3): severity of life: austerity
   b: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
2: a tremor caused by a chill
3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially : extremity of cold
4: strict precision : exactness
5 a obsolete: rigidity, stiffness
   b: rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli
   c: rigor mortis

Wow.  Really?  Goodness!  I don't know about you, but this sure as heck is NOT how I would like anyone to describe my classroom!  So of course, this led me to look up vigor:

vig•or  noun
1: active bodily or mental strength or force
2: active healthy well-balanced growth especially of plants
3: intensity of action or effect: force
4: effective legal status

Now that's more like it!  My next move was to Google rigor vs. vigor.  Apparently many others in education have thought of this one before. Blogger Joe Bower asks us to consider the synonyms for both words.  For rigor, we have inflexibility, stringency, cruelty, and pain.  For vigor, we have drive, strength, force, flourish, and vitality.  Clearly we want our classrooms to reflect a vigorous curriculum rather than a rigorous one.  Don't we?

Joanne Yatvin wrote on this subject, and it was published in Valerie Strauss' The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post.  Joanne Yatvin is one of my heroes.  She was a member of the National Reading Panel in 1998 - the only teacher.  Dissatisfied with the rushed process and narrow definitions of literacy, she wrote a minority report expressing her concerns.  (Her story is told in the book Silent No More: Voices of Courage in American Schools.)  I cannot help but wonder if her story mirrors the acceptance of the word "rigor" to describe a goal we would like to achieve for our students.  Did this start somewhere in a small room with a group of policy makers trying to decide on the next silver bullet in education?  Or maybe a typo was made somewhere along the line?  Maybe the original word was vigor, and the policy makers were too embarrassed to admit the error?

In reading further, I found an article from 2008 by Tony Wagner in ASCD's Educational Leadership.  "Rigor Redefined" summarizes Wagner's seven survival skills - what people require in the new world of work.  These skills are:

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2. Collaboration and Leadership
3. Agility and Adaptability
4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
7. Curiosity and Imagination

Of course these are not the skills emphasized in schools today.  Test prep is where it's at.  And this is where the change needs to occur.  A rigorous education, according to Wager, encompasses the skills listed above.  But it seems somewhere along the way, "rigor" has come to simply mean harder and more difficult, in larger quantities.

Now, could this be because too many people associate academic rigor with the actual meaning of the word rigor?  I mean, that makes sense, doesn't it?  Why do education theorists and policy makers choose terminology that does not accurately describe what we want to achieve in education?  WHY?  I still think it was supposed to be vigor.  Someone somewhere should be fired for this one.  Because, unfortunately, something that started out as a good thing for students and teachers has been disfigured and warped and convoluted to the point where the term "rigor" only brings about eye-rolling and heavy sighs from educators.  And that is a shame.  The intent was good.

Which brings me back to the Badass Teachers Association.  As this group continues to grow by the second, so does its power.  Maybe we will be able to come together as a cohesive unit and exercise some of that power.  Maybe even change "rigor" to "vigor."  You know, so we say-what-we-mean and mean-what-we-say.  So we are at least in agreement with the dictionary for crying out loud!