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Transcript: Live Chat on Testing and Education Reform | The Nation

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Transcript: Live Chat on Testing and Education Reform

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Comment from Laurie Murphy: In speaking with people during the Save our Schools march, @ United Opt Out, and at school board meetings, the main question I am asked is how can local teachers fight against the spoken and unspoken requirement to focus total attention on test scores and not be in danger of losing their jobs. This is changing what they teach and how they teach, and causing them to question their profession. How can local teachers fight against what is often seen as higher, corporate funded forces that represent policies that are contrary to what they (teachers) know to be right for students and for learning?

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Dana Goldstein: So how do we advocate for environments in which testing does NOT create that pressure that Laurie is referring to?

Mark Anderson: Laurie, that's a tough one. One is to get involved in policy. I work with a great organization, the VIVA Project, that works to get teacher voice involved directly in the process of policy making. But at a school level, it's a tough thing to stand up when your job is on the line. We need real leadership.

Dana, we need to advocate against this quixotic focus on assessing individual teachers, and instead put the focus where it should be: creating positive, supportive, inclusive learning environments and strong, enriching, sequential curriculum.

Tara Brancato: I think a huge part of the advocacy Dana just mentioned is getting involved in the teaching practices at your school. I work with what Mark would call an enlightened administrator, and in my school environment I find that teachers are encouraged to collaborate and improve practice. Sometimes it comes in the form of data driven inquiry teams, but we also try to keep communication and collaboration open on all levels. It takes the entire community to combat the feeling of pressure.

Dana Goldstein: Mark, can you say a few words about how your special education students are affected by tests? I know there are real concerns there.

Mark Anderson: Dana, regarding special education: I have students that read at 1st and 2nd grade reading levels due to a disability taking 5th grade reading exams. It's inhumane. They break down, they cry, they whisper, "I can't do this." It's terrible, and it's unfair to simply give them tests based on proficiency.

Dana Goldstein: Tara: do you have any students who are as unable to perform on exams as Mark's are? And if so, how do you think those students test scores should be weighed in teacher evaluation?

Tara Brancato: My school does have an English Language Learner and Special Education population, and we try to support them in class as much as possible as well as on the test days. My classes, actually, contain a large number of ELL and SPED students, because of the non-traditional nature of Music and Human Rights, and the tendency of kids of all levels to be interested and talented in those areas. We do encounter test anxiety and testing difficulties, but we find that in a small school environment we can really try to work with kids as individually as possible, and make them feel very comfortable and confident for testing.

Comment from David Ginsburg: Mark, administrator support is so critical. I now consult with schools, and just today was in a 6th grade math class where students were operating at a 4th grade level at the start of the year. Today the teacher gave them problems most 8th graders would find challenging, and they nailed them! More important, everyone is happy—teacher and students!! My philosophy: teach beyond the test, especially when the test is watered down.

Dana Goldstein: Thanks Tara, that is a good point about small schools, which I am a big fan of. And David, your idea of "teaching beyond the test" really echoes what Tara was saying earlier. If she teaches the IB curriculum, her students will do well on the Regents, which is an easier exam. Of course, there are different concerns with special education kids.

Mark Anderson: David, for some children, they also require the opportunity to express their knowledge in different ways. Some of my students can verbalize very deep and poignant thinking, but have difficulty writing. But their ability does not show up via current testing approaches. Their needs should be factored in from the beginning via Universal Design for Learning principles.

Tara Brancato: David, I completely agree! The key is so often in high expectations. My principal supports our desire to teach beyond the test on every level, and her enthusiasm when she comes into the classroom or helps us to organize “Math Olympics” and other extracurricular events really helps our kids feel that the tone of our school is geared toward their success. It's not about the test itself - it's about the knowledge and the skills needed to grow.

Tara Brancato: Mark, I see the situation you just mentioned daily—some students are naturally critical thinkers, but have difficulty in standardized assessments. By trying to engage them on their level, and really encouraging those higher level abilities that they're trying to express in non-traditional ways, I think we're really preparing them for life beyond high school, not just testing. Testing can't be the only preparation they get for those thinking skills that they need.

Mark Anderson: Tara, I fully agree. Therefore, what is even the point of yearly testing that attempts to isolate skills from the actual curriculum taught?

Tara Brancato: I can't agree that testing is meaningless—we're trying to develop knowledge, skills, and a desire to learn in our students. Testing helps us stay accountable for knowledge, and even to some degree for skills being addressed in our classroom. It gives us data to work from, as well as helps us guide our students toward making goals for themselves. It can be used improperly, of course, but used with meaning it can drive students to feel empowered in their learning.

Mark Anderson: Tara, I'm not suggesting testing is meaningless. Testing that is based upon what is actually taught is what we use every day in our classrooms. But do we require standardized tests to be yearly? How about pushing testing to a semi-annual or randomized basis, and focusing on accountability based upon direct observation and the content we deliver?

Comment from Kris Alman: How do you view No Child Left Behind waivers? Do you think they can adequately measure growth, the value a teacher adds, and "career and college readiness?"

Dana Goldstein: The NCLB waivers are little more than a work around. The law's requirements for 100 percent proficiency by 2014 are totally unrealistic, and yet Congress will not address NCLB, due to how politicized education has become in a climate of severe anti-government thinking from the GOP. So no, the waivers are not going to lead to big changes in how we measure student learning. Those changes will come from the Common Core and at the state and district levels.

Comment from Guest: What do you think of Teacher Learning Communities? If the school gives the teachers time to meet...?

Mark Anderson: Learning communities are fundamental! Like Tara notes about her school environment, collaboration is key. Without structures of professional communication and sharing and trust, teachers will become isolated, and this is damaging to students and to the learning environment.

Tara Brancato: Teachers should always be learners and collaborators! We've struggled with this in my small school environment, because we're all stretched so thin teaching, but this year we've actually modified our schedule to include several hours of teacher collaboration time per week. We meet as departments, and as grade teams, to really get to know not just the students in our classes, but the whole school and all of its stakeholders.

Mark Anderson: Tara, that's important work. Your school is focusing on the right thing. It's about the whole school working in tandem, not competition between teachers trying to be superstars.

Dana Goldstein: It is interesting to note that in other nations, teachers spend more of their workday in collaboration with other adults. This can be hard to do, however, given the many demands on schools in this budget-cutting environment that is also focused on measurable accountability.

Comment from Guest: How did Tara's school build time in the schedule for Teacher Learning Communities. Was anything else sacrificed?

Tara Brancato: Actually, we have a long school day, and we were able to modify our student program without taking time from our students or adding to our pressure. And the rewards have been immense, in terms of our feeling of community and also our ability to plan horizontally across curricula.

Dana Goldstein: Lots of more experimental schools DO have a longer day. I wrote about Aviation High in Queens for The Nation. This is a very different kind of school that gives kids a Regents curriculum plus job skills. So the longer day can work well for lots of different reasons.

Mark Anderson: I would agree with both of you that a longer day can be beneficial, but only if a school is utilizing that time effectively.

Dana Goldstein: Agreed, Mark.

Comment from David Ginsburg: Dana, a belated response to your earlier question: Like it or not, schools have to raise scores. So school leaders are only going to move away from teaching the test if they're convinced there's a better approach. Schools hire me because I have clear evidence that my approach improves scores in a quick and lasting way. More important to me, it improves teacher morale and reduces teacher turnover. And it addresses the whole child—something I know you're all about, Mark!

Mark Anderson: David, yes, the whole child is what we need to value and recognize. I believe that if we focus solely upon the bottom-line of test scores, we completely miss the more fundamental importance of positive learning environments and strong curriculum. We can raise test scores, as you say, only if we focus on those things—and not on test prep. It's a catch-22 though. Tests are high stakes and put pressure to focus on shallow test prep.

Tara Brancato: I agree that the implementation of testing is in no way perfect in our current system. Sometimes, as a system, we're not exactly student focused. Randomized testing and systems like the Nationalized Assessment of Educational Progress are part of a paradigm shift that may be necessary to really put our students' needs at the forefront.

Dana Goldstein: I have a question for Tara about the IB system, which I'm not familiar with. Can you tell us how it tests students in art and music? What kinds of questions or activities are part of the assessment?

Tara Brancato: The Arts (Music, Theater and Art, as well as other 'Group Six' IB Disciplines) are tested with a series of internally graded skills-based assessments, as well as externally graded papers and assessments that we send all over the world. For instance, in Music, 50% of my scholars' grade is determined by their ability to compose sophisticated, full-length pieces of music. The rest is based on their critical listening, analysis, and independent research into world musical cultures.

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