On May 17, 2012, The Nation hosted a live chat on testing and education reform, our first using the platform CoveritLive. The discussion attracted over two-hundred readers, many of them educators themselves. Below is an edited transcript of the chat, which featured Nation writer Dana Goldstein, teacher and Schools as Ecosystems contributor Mark Anderson and teacher and Educators4Excellence member Tara Brancato. You can read a replay of the chat here.
Sarah Arnold: Hello everyone! This is Sarah, your moderator. Readers, you should begin submitting your questions and comments. In the meantime, I’m going to ask Dana, Mark and Tara to each introduce themselves and to say a word or two about what brings them to this conversation.
Mark Anderson: Hello all. Glad to be here. My name is Mark Anderson, and I am a 5th grade special education teacher in an elementary school in the Bronx. I am also a VIVA Teacher Leader and have worked with the VIVA Project to make policy recommendations for implementing teacher evaluations in New York State.
Dana Goldstein: Hey there! I am an education reporter based here in New York. I write for The Nation and Slate, and I’m working on a book about the history of public school teaching.
Tara Brancato: Good afternoon! My name is Tara Brancato, and I am a teacher at an Educators4Excellence School Captain and a teacher fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s a pleasure to be here!
Sarah Arnold: Thanks, everyone. I’m going to start with a question: Dana, from your experience reporting on education and Mark and Tara, from your teaching and other work, what changes regarding the use of standardized testing have you noticed during the last few years?
Dana Goldstein: The biggest change underway right now is the adoption of the Common Core curriculum standards by 45 states. The states have formed two consortia to create more sophisticated exams in English and math. But simultaneously, states want to use student achievement data to evaluate teachers. So districts are creating a lot more tests in every subject, including science, social studies, even art and music. And these are subjects that haven’t usually been traditionally "tested" in the past.
Mark Anderson: What I’ve noticed is that it appears that the tests are attempting to move to "higher order" thinking questions, most likely to attempt to move closer to the Common Core. Problem is, higher order questions don’t square with multiple-choice assessments. By nature, multiple-choice questions are shallower. Also, it has become quite clear that the primary purpose of testing is to evaluate teachers, not simply to diagnose children’s abilities.
Tara Brancato: One recent trend in my own school is a change in the way we’re using our testing data. Our testing practices themselves have changed very little since our inception as a school, but we’ve begun to use the data in a more meaningful way, restructuring our grade teams to become inquiry teams focused on the growth of students across all subject areas. We’ve also begun making a ‘horizontal map’ of our Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) goals and performance tasks across departments.
Tara Brancato: I teach Music and a humanities elective called Human Rights Studies, and we’ve tried to make all subject areas, even those not traditionally assessed by standardized tests, a part of the data and inquiry process.
Dana Goldstein: Tara, before we move on, can you tell us how your school is assessing music and human rights? That is really interesting to me.
Tara Brancato: As an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, we actually have a much larger, cross-curricular form of standardized assessment. This includes subject areas in the Arts, and in fact treats them as equals to traditionally assessed subject areas. My Human Rights class, on the other hand, supports critical thinking skills and both Regents and IB standards in History.
Comment from Shamekka: I agree with your statements about teachers and schools and their vulnerability to these standardize test. Especially in my experience of seeing the pressure to "teach to the test" and the many high school graduates who graduate from school but can’t read or do basic math. My question: how do we assess the students’ academic abilities and progress without penalizing schools and teachers and without the pressure of standardized tests?
Mark Anderson: Great question. I would say that we are measuring the wrong things. We should be measuring the learning environments of schools via direct observation, and assessing the content that schools are delivering to students. Right now, we are acting like students are products of individual teachers.
In regards to the pressure to "teach to the test," the conundrum of tests is that they determine what is taught yet we pretend that they are isolated from curriculum.
Tara Brancato: I love this question! Actually, adopting the Internationally Baccalaureate program and incorporating the IB learner profile across all of our grades has really helped us to get out of the mindset of “teaching to the test.” We find that if we set the bar as high as we can, across the board, our scholars are able to reach Regents standards. Of course, it’s not a perfect system, and it requires more than just test prep, but even in an unscreened school we find that it’s possible to incorporate the tests in a way that works for our kids.
Dana Goldstein: I agree with Mark that most of the political discussion on teacher evaluation tends to focus on testing, but we should also be talking about much better classroom observation of teachers. I work with the New America Foundation, a think tank in DC, and they have a good report on best practices in classroom observation.
Mark Anderson: Dana, yes, that also goes along with my point about direct observation of learning environments. It’s the practices, routines, and content that teachers deliver that determines student outcomes. We can only assess that by going into classrooms.
Tara Brancato: I agree that observation is a really huge component of effective teaching and student growth. It’s impossible to effectively use testing data in isolation, without taking into account the need for feedback and development of teachers.
Comment from Kris: I agree with Mark. A Milwaukee teacher very committed to social justice teaching recently told me that even she is having a hard time finding the time and space to incorporate meaningful and critical lessons into her teaching because so much of the time is spent on test prep.
Mark Anderson: Kris, you are right. Test prep consumes a huge portion of time. And it is a huge disservice to the kids that are most in need of access to enriching literature.
Comment from Tom Humphreys: I think part of the problem is in "grading" the tests. To save time and subjective interpretation, multiple choice or True/False questions are almost always the mechanism. Is there a way around this?
Mark Anderson: Tom brings up a good point. To assess higher order thinking, like Tara’s IB tests, tests will become less "efficient." Either we have a unified curriculum (efficient but politically unviable), or we utilize local assessments based on local curriculum (highly inefficient).
Dana Goldstein: Tom is also correct that not enough states are asking students to do writing on standardized tests, in part because writing is harder to grade. That’s why the Common Core reformers are interested in computer assessment of writing, which I recently reported on. But the tech will need to improve, in my opinion, before we roll it out.
Comment from Alex: Mark, but direct observation of learning environments requires resources, which we know are in short supply as states are cutting back on education. Is this a place where the federal government can step in?
Mark Anderson: Alex, I would suggest that we put testing onto a randomized basis and put some of that money towards direct observation by district leaders.
Tara Brancato: One of the things that I like best about the Common Core Learning Standards movement is that it provides a unified framework that supports higher order thinking and, to Alex’s point, is federally backed. It also provides teachers with a common language to use.
Comment from David Ginsburg: Shamekka hit on a key word: PRESSURE to teach to the test. I’ve worked in urban schools for 20 years as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator—and have consistently seen test scores take care of themselves when schools provide rich curriculum AND provide teachers the support they need to implement it. In other words, focus on teaching rather than testing. The problem is that many school leaders think this is a leap of faith and continue to respond to test score pressure by having teachers teach the test.
Mark Anderson: David, thanks for bringing up that point. I’ve read statements that real teachers are doing good teaching, not test prep, which is disingenuous. These are teachers who either 1) have enlightened administrators or 2) have tenure and are willing to shut their doors and do the right thing despite what they are instructed to do.
Tara Brancato: David, I agree that investing in your teachers is really key! And that’s part of what a lot of teachers are currently thinking, especially those involved with Educators4Excellence. The focus should be on improving our teaching, for the benefit of our students, not just prepping in a pressured environment.
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?
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.
Comment from Kris Alman: How do low-income kids afford the IB tests?
Tara Brancato: Actually, New York City provides funds for low-income IB students—it’s part of IB’s new focus. They’re working on embracing urban and low-income students, who aren’t traditionally what were thought of as IB.
Mark Anderson: Dana and Tara, the Common Core tests coming along are supposed to be more akin to the IB and AP tests (higher order, open ended questions). Do you think these will remove some of the current issues with testing?
Tara Brancato: The move toward performance tasks in Common Core is key to improving the current assessment system. Genuine performance tasks are never multiple choice, and focus on assessing skills that require a lot of higher level thinking and development.
Dana Goldstein: Tara, this is so interesting about how IB looks at student performance skills. I agree we should be asking students to show what they know in many different ways, not just through writing words or through multiple choice. I think the Common Core will be a major improvement, but it won’t get us all the way there because it still needs to mass-graded, and because it is only in English and math.
Mark Anderson: Tara, I would agree with that. One thing I am skeptical of with the new tests, however, is that these performance tasks will still be testing skills isolated from the actual curriculum taught.
Dana, yes, I agree that it won’t take us all the way there, for the reasons you gave, but also for the reason I just stated above.
Tara Brancato: That’s true, but schools and Networks like New Visions for Public Schools are really pushing for Performance Tasks and CCLS across the board. My department uses performance tasks to assess every unit, regardless of testing. We all support our students—and as they grow in every subject area, they’re naturally growing in English and Math as well.
Tara Brancato: Mark, do you think that if there were time allowed for planning and curriculum development, that skills could be embedded into the content of courses?
Mark Anderson: Tara, I don’t think we should attempt to isolate the skills from content—they are necessarily coupled with what is learned. I believe that ELA exams should be based upon real literature, the literature that students have engaged with during the year. A great article that forwards this perspective at the New York Timesis "Teach the Books, Touch the Heart" by Claire Hollander.
Dana Goldstein: Agree strongly with Mark that tests should be related to REAL assignments kids have had!
Tara Brancato: Absolutely, Mark. From what I’ve seen of Common Core as my school is embracing it wholeheartedly, content and skill go hand in hand in their philosophy. It is about real assessment.
Comment from Morna McDermott: How can we escape the trap that high stakes testing both serves corporate interest like Pearson at the expense of children’s real learning while acknowledging that tests are being used to shut down public community schools for corporate model charter schools that have proven to be no better than the schools they replaced?
Dana Goldstein: Morna: It is true that the testing industry is highly involved in education policy-making, including in creating the Common Core and the tests that will go along with it. We need to make sure that politically, we are advocating for the idea that test scores alone do not define whether a school or teacher is a success or failure. School closings are a VERY tough issue. Polls of low income parents show they would rather their local schools were "turned around" rather than re-opened as charters. But charters are also a very popular, over-subscribed option among parents.
Mark Anderson: Dana, thanks for your point that test scores alone should not determine success or failure—of either students nor teachers.
Comment from Guest: Do you see that new leaders, private and/or publicly funded, are bringing positive change for more collaborative learning among teachers and more collaborative learning among students?
Mark Anderson: It seems like other nations are way ahead of us in talking about collaboration rather than a tunnel vision upon accountability based on value added measures.
Dana Goldstein: Lots of organizations are working on bringing teachers together to share best practices. The Gates Foundation, for example, is putting resources toward video-taping excellent teachers and someday perhaps creating an online database so other teachers can watch their lessons. Politically, we haven’t put enough funding toward this in the way Canada and South Korea have, for example. Instead we spend more money on more data-driven approaches.
Also, teachers need to come together inside schools, in real life, not just virtually.
Tara Brancato: I agree, Dana—and teacher led, student focused leadership is vital to that process. As we collaborate virtually at this moment, I’m listening to a group of teachers meeting outside the office door, discussing the elevation of the teaching profession. E4E and its philosophy of teacher conversation and collaboration is a vehicle many teachers around the country are beginning to take the reigns of leadership.
Mark Anderson: Teacher voice is beginning to be recognized as fundamental. We’re in the birthing stages of this. Teacher voice organizations are developing platforms for advocacy and injecting teacher voice directly into the process of policy making, such as The VIVA Project. As Dana notes, teachers need to collaborate inside schools, not simply online. We need a systemic approach to developing structures of physical collaboration within and across.
Dana Goldstein: This systemic approach does require local and federal government funding.
Comment from Margaret Yaukey: Can someone address the effect of big money donations, such as the Gates Foundation, in terms of the increasingly corporate environment and free market ethic that drives the red-lining of low performing populations.
Dana Goldstein: Gates, Broad, and other philanthropists have a huge influence on both federal and local policies. I think these donors are well intentioned, but sometimes the growth of the charter school sector, which they have funded, has led to traditional neighborhood schools actually becoming worse as students with more engaged parents flee them. It is a VERY tough problem. We want educational options, but we don’t want the kids who are "left behind" from "school choice" to be forgotten. Not all kids have families who are well equipped to help them navigate the school choice maze. In NYC, the high school choice book is nearly 600 pages long.
Mark Anderson: I believe we must keep the focus on transparency. Funding information should be publicly accessible.
Dana brings up a critical point about school choice. It’s not an elixir for high performing schools. We must be cautious about making quick fixes to giant and complex systems.
Sarah Arnold: We’re going to wrap things up. Here’s one last comment from a reader. Dana, Mark and Tara, anything else you want to add?
Comment from Smith: Maybe we need to ask some of the big questions…like who benefits from the way things are now (standardized tests and other pressures of accountability that make good teachers and schools vulnerable to poor practices). That helps explain why things don’t change very fast. Those that benefit the most may have something to lose. Education is political, and whoever brought up the idea of getting involved with policy is right. Pockets of wonderful things help, but usually remain pockets of good things—unless and until we make it clear that public schooling is a priority value, and that thoughtful and talented teachers are the key. Policy makers need to get the message. Nothing about us without us. Too often, folks who sit outside education are making decisions about education. We need our voices to count.
Dana Goldstein: I love this comment. In my book, I’m going to be looking at why, throughout American history, teachers voices have been left out of the education policy debate. The good news is, that is really beginning to change over last few years and I think will improve even more going forward.
Mark Anderson: Great comment, Smith! Yes! Teachers, students, and parents should be at the center of policy making, not at the bottom.
Tara Brancato: I agree. Teaching is a vocation—we need to reach out to each other, and improve our practices, and celebrate our collaborations. Because ultimately, we’re fighting for our students’ success, not just our own profession. By elevating what we do, and holding ourselves to the highest standards, we are working to make generations of students who will be prepared, confident and analytical. This is the essence of what we do and why it is so important.
Mark Anderson: In closing, I would like to thank The Nation for giving me this opportunity to share my perspective and listen to others perspectives. Thanks to everyone who is here, listening, and involved. I would just like to say that we must remember what education is all about: nurturing, developing, and serving our children and our nation’s future. We can best do this in our public schools by focusing on creating positive learning environments that nurture the whole child and provide access to enriching and coherent curriculum—not on shallow tests designed to evaluate individual teachers and students.
Sarah Arnold: Thank you Dana, Mark and Tara and thanks to everyone who participated. I’m going to open up the comment section at the bottom of this post, so feel free to continue the conversation there.
Dana Goldstein: Thanks Sarah and everyone who participated!
Tara Brancato: Yes, thank you so much for this opportunity! This was a great virtual collaboration.