Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why not ACT?

I don't know about most of you, but I am confused.  The powers that be decided that Oklahoma needed to adopt the Common Core State Standards.  The rationale behind that decision was if Oklahoma joined the other 47 states and the District of Columbia in adopting CCSS then there would be commonality between the states with regards to academic achievement of students.  The adoption of CCSS didn't bother me at all.  And why should it?  PASS was a set of standards. Common Core is a set of standards.  And as I outlined in my previous post, standards are just simple educational targets of the skills we want our students to know and when we want students to know them!  However, as I also discussed in my previous post, it is the assessment that matters!  Although I do not want to rehash the reasons why the assessment matters, I do want to talk about assessing the college and career readiness that seems to be the central theme in both the CCSS, the C3, and OAsS standards.

The whole stated purpose for the College and Career Readiness assessments was to be able to easily ascertain how Oklahoma students compared to their peers in other states.  This was the basic reasoning as to why Oklahoma decided to transition from the PASS standards to the Common Core State Standards.  The most reliable and valid mechanism to compare Oklahoma students to their peers was if everyone took a common assessment.  PARCC was supposed to be the mechanism that allowed for these state to state/peer to peer comparisons.  But we dropped PARCC because of the testing issues (Was it our fault or the testing companies? This is the conspiracy that will not stop).  So the powers that be decided for our CCR test we would go it alone (can you go it alone in developing your own tests when there are only about 3 testing companies and states like Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, etc who are all doing the same thing).  Yes, our go-it-alone CCR assessment program is now infamously called OCCRA (you can't make this stuff up folks).  The major problem with all of this - Oklahoma educators have no idea what the assessment will look like, so we have no idea how best to prepare our students.

This lack of knowledge about the CCR assessment has been a major hot topic.  And this lack of knowledge is absolutely not necessary! It seems to me that if you really wanted to assess the college and career readiness of our students, then we should just use the test that ALL Oklahoma colleges use for admission:  The ACT test.  It makes perfect sense to me.  Oklahoma can assess students' college and career readiness and compare how their students perform against other states.  This takes care of both the stated purposes of changing to CCSS.  Remember, we changed from PASS to CCSS to be able to compare the academic achievement of our students to other states.  However, Barresi has indicated that the ACT is not a good enough assessment to measure college and career readiness for Oklahoma (you can find the link to her interview saying ACT isn't worthy for Oklahoma here).  Ok, so simple deductive reasoning says that if the ACT is not good enough for Oklahoma, then Barresi must be supporting the SAT.  WHAT?  I don't know if the ACT is a better exam than the SAT.  You can read the Princeton Review about the differences between the ACT and SAT here.  However, I don't have to decide which is the better college and career readiness assessment, Oklahoma colleges have already answered this question.  It is the ACT!

Barresi's statement against the ACT is perplexing.  As a matter of fact, it is down right confusing.  Remember the state of Oklahoma, directly funded by the SDE, pays for every 8th grade student to take the EXPLORE test and every sophomore to take the PLAN test.  Both of which are part of the EPAS (Explore, Plan, ACT) system of college and career readiness Oklahoma schools use to help make guidance suggests for students.  Now Barresi wants to bash the ACT, the final step of the EPAS system, because it does not meet the "standard for excellence in Oklahoma".  WHAT?  I wish she would make up her mind!  She says public schools are failing and we need more accountability against the liberal establishment, yet the ACT doesn't meet the superior standards of excellence for Oklahoma Public Schools.   If she doesn't think the ACT is a quality enough test, then is she for the SAT?  This is problematic for me for several reasons.  First, the people who actually have the final say if a student is college ready are the Oklahoma colleges.  And guess what, every one of them prefer the ACT.  So why does Barresi think she knows more about college readiness than colleges?  Second, Oklahoma just adopted a standards based college and career readiness curriculum (you know OAsS) and the ACT is a standards based college and career content assessment.  The SAT is not a standards based content assessment (If you don't believe me, go back and read the Princeton Review!)  If we are not going to have an assessment based on a set of standards and that assessment does not measure a set of content skills then why have content standards such as OAsS?  

Is it me or does it seem like we are going out of our way to make things as confusing and as difficult as possible.  If you want a satirical example of how crazy all this testing nonsense is becoming, read Rob Miller's portrayal of the "Oklahoma testing standard".  If you are like me, you believe it shouldn't be this controversial or difficult.  What do you do if you want to take a trip to the moon?  Do you call NASA who has been doing space travel for decades, or do you call a start up company who has never built a space ship and ask them to "develop" you a shuttle? If you want to know how Oklahoma students compare to students in other states on a college and career readiness assessment, do you call a company who has never developed a college and career readiness assessment and ask them to develop one, or do you call ACT who has been doing it for more than 50 years?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

To carryover or not to carryover, that is the question.

To carryover or not to carryover, that is the question.

Much has been made of school districts' carryovers in the past couple of weeks.  Carryover, for those not familiar with educational jargon, is the term given to the money a school district has saved at the end of the year.  In my household we call our carryover a savings account.  Actually, as an educator we refer to it as the "coins found in the couch".  Instead of paycheck to paycheck like a family, school superintendents and school boards of education carryover their savings from one fiscal year to the next.  Carryover funds are important to school districts, but moreover it is extremely important to the students.

No doubt you've heard the many reasons why school's carryover money.  Sure, schools carryover money so they can pay the bills (you know those pesky teacher's salaries, electric bills, and school supplies - like paper and textbooks) until the combination of state and local tax dollars get disbursed. But, in my opinion, the biggest reason why superintendents and school boards manage the finances to maximize carryover funds is to protect the educational opportunities of the student.  Let me say it this way; maximizing the carryover maximizes factors that lead to student learning.  You want your child's 3rd grade class to be split into classes of 20 instead of 25 because of the new 3rd grade promotion law? Carryover funds make that decision possible.  Want your child's bus to be less than 10 years old?  Carryover funds make that decision possible.  Want your child to be able to take art, band, AG, choir, yearbook, or AP classes?  Carryover funds make that decision possible.  Want your child to go on field trips, have access to technology, have safe playground equipment, and a decent meal in the cafeteria?  Carryover funds make that decision possible.  And before you discount any of the previous statements, think about what would be the first thing a school would have had to cut because of the devastating decreases in funding over the last four years (It has been reported recently that Oklahoma leads the nation in educational funding cuts at around $810 per student) if not for carryover funds.

So now that we have established that carryover funds are not just important but educationally vital, let's explore the recent attacks on school carryover funds.  For the record, I'm having a really tough time believing the increase in carryover funds from 11-12 to 12-13 is $205 million.  I know several superintendents would swear it is not possible, especially as they watched their district's carryover shrink for the second or third straight year. But for arguments sake, let's say the increase in carryover is $205 million.  Let's put this amount in perspective shall we?  There is 1,057,955 weighted students in Oklahoma.  That works out to be a savings of $195.00 per weighted student for the year, $16.25 per month, or about $1.00 per day!  I'm saving more than $195.00 per year cutting coupons!  Are people supposed to be upset superintendents are actually saving taxpayer dollars?  Seriously! We put more money than this in the state's rainy day fund and people are holding press conferences to pat themselves on the back.  But educators save some money for their rainy day and it gets reported as a bad thing?

You want more proof the dim-witted argument against school leaders saving taxpayer money is bogus?  Their argument suggests all schools are equally guilty of saving money instead of providing essential educational services.  Saving money instead of providing services is the only logical reason anyone could be against school districts being fiscally responsible.  If this is happening, isn't the local board of education responsible and ultimately held accountable by their community?  If this isn't happening, if services are being provided and money is still being saved, what is the alternative? Waste taxpayer money on goods and services that are not needed and not educationally effective?  As a Republican this is irritating on 2 levels: the state superseding local control and government waste.

 Republicans are all about local control and stopping government waste.  So what is the real reason school carryover funds are under attack?  Is it because for the past 3 years there has not been one public mention of pay raises for teachers from the State Department of Education and we are now in an election year?  If giving teachers a pay raise is a true priority for our elected leaders, then why not demand a teacher raise with the same zeal being demonstrated in attacking school superintendents and school boards of education?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Standards: Are they curriculum?

Why are educators like me concerned with the constant revolving door of Standards? According to the newsletters coming from the SDE, standards are not curriculum.  Wait, are standards and curriculum different?  Educational Standards are simply statements about the knowledge and skills students should posses and when they should come to possess those skills and knowledge.  Basically, standards are what we want students to know and when they should know it.  Curriculum is the activities and resources used to meet educational standards.  So, in theory, standards are not curriculum and vice versa.  However, this isn't theory!  Muddying the waters are the ASSESSMENTS!  If standards are what students are supposed to know, then it only reasons standards are what should be taught.  What is taught is curriculum, intended or hidden.  Skills that are taught are taught by activities and teacher resources (curriculum).  To further add to the confusion are the items being assessed. Blue prints and item specifications tell teachers which skills are being assessed and what percentage of the test is each skill.  As long as there is 1 assessment being used, and teachers know exactly what standards are being assessed, then those standards will be taught.  In summary, having an assessment over a set of standards dictates the curriculum of the teachers.  No, it doesn't make a teacher pick a certain story for reading or a specific lab experiment for Biology.  It also doesn't give the Biology teacher Carte Blanche in setting the curriculum for the year.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction have released several documents in the last couple of days regarding standards, curriculum, and assessments.  If you have not been paying attention, let me bring you up to speed!  Sorry if the following alphabet soup of acronyms causes severe confusion.  I honestly think they could not have made this more confusing or difficult if they had tried!

PASS – Priority Academic State Standards
CCSS – Core Curriculum State Standards
C3 – College Career Citizen standards
OAS- Oklahoma Academic Standards (we only assume they took out “State” for obvious reasons, but I like to put it in there to sooth my Middle School personality)
PARCC – Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers
OCCRA – Oklahoma College and Career Readiness Assessment
OCCT – Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests

I will try to give you a general play by play of the changes to curriculum, standards, and assessments over the past 15 months.

            PASS will be changing (but still assessed for 2013-2014) to CCSS but not for Science and Social Studies.  PASS subjects will be assessed using the OCCT, but CCSS will be assessed by PARCC.  Social Studies and Science changed from PASS to C3 standards (but not really, because Biology standards are still in development, so we assessed them for PASS even though it was supposed to be C3).  Then it was decided that CCSS standards for some subjects and C3 standards for other subjects wasn't such a good idea, so CCSS + C3 standards would be referred to as OAS!  Then the decision was made that Oklahoma public schools were not ready for PARCC assessments.  Oklahoma dropped out of PARCC assessments but remained in the PARCC consortium as a governing state.  Next, it was decided to forgo 3 years worth of transition planning and training for PARCC to adopt OCCRA for OAS assessments. (Does anyone else not think that PARCC & OCCRA are both college & career readiness assessments and therefore virtually the same thing?)

So the next time you hear someone try to explain that the constant changing of the standards are okay because standards are not curriculum, you will know that as long as we have 1 assessment, curriculum and standards are basically the same thing.  Next you’ll probably hear it will be okay that children fail these new assessments because it will bring about a new way of learning!  Seriously, a new way of learning?! I'll talk more about that next time.