Saturday, February 28, 2015

How &*%$ed Up is PARCC!?!

The Chicago Public Schools testing window for the first round of PARCC testing is set to begin in just over one week, from March 9th-April 2nd.  No one yet knows whether we will be forced to administer this exam.  Everyone at my school is on edge, wondering what will happen.  For now, all we know is that we need to prepare for this test as if it is happening, despite no official word from CPS.

Yesterday, we were all forced to sign a "Test Security Agreement and Schedule" and were informed that our whole staff will be required to take a mandatory, paid, after-school PD on PARCC.  Our administrators have also told us that all classes grades 3-8 will need to take the practice tests next week.  Some classes started administering these practice tests this past week, but gave up after an hour or so when students had only progressed through less than seven questions.

The scheduling alone is proving to be a logistical nightmare. The first "round" of PARCC consists of:
  • PBA Language Arts (3 Units): 105 minutes, 120 minutes, and 90 minutes
  • PBA Mathematics (2 units): 120 minutes and 105 minutes
(I thank the people who spoke at the ISBE PARCC hearings, because despite the fact that I'm expected to administer this ridiculous test in a few days, I had no idea how the test was divided up.)   And then there is another round of testing done at the end of the year:
  • EOY Language Arts (2 units): 90 minutes and 90 minutes
  • EOY Mathematics (2 units): 110 minutes and 105 minutes
Now, we just completed our Middle of the Year NWEA testing (the window was 1/5/15-1/29/15) and that in itself was highly disruptive and fraught with technical and logistical problems despite being a less time-consuming and less technologically demanding test compared to PARCC.  For NWEA, classes one by one took the test in the Library making that space unavailable for students or staff for nearly a month.  Our students with special needs were supposed to be tested in a separate locations, but as only our school counselor had access to the administration of the test, we ended up having to walk back and forth multiple times just to get the kids successfully into the program.  A bunch of our computers malfunctioned as well, sometimes kicking students off the test mid-way through causing mad scrambles to search out help during testing sessions.

And scheduling was a mess for students and staff for much of that testing window.  For example, at our school the 7th and 8th grade teachers are departmentalized (one teacher teaches Reading, one Math, one Social Studies to all the 7th and 8th grade students.)  So when one of the four classes was testing the other students could not switch classes as that teacher was with her homeroom class.  That meant, for an entire week, the seventh and eighth grade classes stayed in their homeroom class and did not receive instruction in any other subject but the subject taught by that teacher.  That homeroom teacher also was given the extra burden of figuring out activities for the students which they normally only saw one hour a day.

For special education, the scheduling problems were doubled.  All of our special education teachers teach more than one grade level.  So, when I was forced to administer tests to my students with special needs in one grade, the students in the other grades did not receive their IEP minutes.  For the teachers who teach self-contained classes, it was even worse, as their students who weren't testing had to spend the whole day in their general education classes, classes already burdened with being stuck in their homerooms all day, doing little work of value as a result.

Now that was just the NWEA which requires each class to take two testing sessions (one Reading, one Math).  The PARCC requires FIVE testing sessions this round alone.  And for each of those sessions at every grade level, students with special needs will need accommodations including testing in a separate location-space our school which was recently combined with a closed school after the school closings simply does not have,   These tests will throw off regular scheduling for nearly the entire window-that's almost four weeks of instruction.  Nevermind the large number of students who will need the make-up testing (our school, like many high-poverty schools, has low attendance and high mobility) and will miss instruction even after the regular testing ends.

And the end of the year testing schedule is even worse where PARCC and NWEA will overlap. The EOY schedule for PARCC is 4/27/15-5/22/15 and the NWEA is 5/11/15-6/12/15. Can someone explain to me how it is OK to put our school in utter disarray from April 27th until June 12th??  For the entire year so far, this means we would have the disrupted schedules for 4 weeks in January, 4 weeks in March, and 7 weeks in April, May, and June. That's fifteen weeks of testing!!!!  How many missed IEP minutes? How much lost instruction?  Our kids won't have access to our beautiful Library for months! 

And I haven't even touched upon the many ways these tests completely warp the learning in our school when we aren't actively testing.  PARCC and testing obsessions are destroying the joy of learning.  Nor have I talked about the massive amounts of money on these tests, the online test prep programs, and the technology upgrades being implemented solely to take these monstrous tests.  And the inappropriate and arbitrary raising of the difficulty of these tests guaranteed to fail most students, will cause all kinds of mental health and political repercussions.

There is no excuse for implementing this test  None. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How the Sorting Game Hurts

Chicago has a long, racist history of sorting kids by race and class, thanks largely to highly-segregated housing patterns.  But the neoliberal push for "school choice" has created a chaotic marketplace of schools in my city which has exacerbated this massive sorting process further by adding new layers of sorting by attributes like test score taking ability and behavior/special needs.

WBEZ's Linda Lutton beautifully documented this new phenomenon in the report The Big Sort:

From WBEZ: 
And I've been thinking a lot of about what this massive sorting mechanism that is the public schools looks like down at the grassroots level, such as the small elementary school where I teach on Chicago's southside.  Seems to me that it ultimately hurts the kids who are "sorted" to the bottom the most.

Kids as "Liabilities"

The idea of shopping around for a school has become second nature for many Chicago parents. Schools spend more and more energy on "recruiting" parents through marketing campaigns and school fairs, but importantly, schools are looking for the "right kind of student".  Charters, Magnets, and Selective Enrollments are screening on the front end (recruiting process) and the back end (pushout, expulsion) for students who will get good test scores, have fewer behavior problems, and raise the prestige of their schools.

However, this mad scramble for the kids schools consider to be assets, begs the question of what to do about the other kids, the kids everyone now considers "liabilities" to their rankings and image.  Even at the micro-neighborhood level, there is a push to stack the deck in your school's favor.  As the number of students enrolling in schools outside their attendance boundary increases, schools may take or refuse kids depending on the principal's discretion. This leads to an even further sorting of students based on ability, test scores, and special education status.  And this sorting has dire implications when your school rating determines the fate of your school to operate autonomously or whether it stays open at all.

According to members of my staff, my elementary school has become the local "catch-all" in the neighborhood.  Teachers with colleagues in nearby schools have overheard parents being told, "Go to Langston Hughes, they'll take you."  Apparently, everyone knows which schools are the--and I hate to use this phrase, but it was what was reported to me--"dumping schools".  Now, I have no idea how accurate these rumors are, but I think the way people discuss schools locally is important.  There is a perception that some schools are "better" than others, and this perception is largely based on how well the school manages to "sort" out the tougher to educate students.

And I have noticed how a disproportionate number of students transferring in to our school have high numbers of IEP minutes leaving us with significantly more students with special needs than surrounding schools.  Our school currently has a special education population of about 24% while the nearby neighborhood schools have between 8%-14%, with the charters and magnet schools serving the least numbers of students with disabilities.  Part of that difference is explained by our pre-school blended program, but that program is not nearly big enough to account for all the difference.  If schools were truly taking students randomly, there should be pretty similar levels of special education students in every school, especially within a specific geographical region.

Choosing Between Good And Bad ClientsA large part of the differences between schools and their school ratings seems to be explained by how well administrators "screen" kids.  In fact, there are teachers at my school who complain that our principal "just lets anybody in."  And given the fact that our school is one of just 26 other elementary schools in the district to be given a "Level 3" status, the lowest school rating possible, this difference matters.  For better or worse, teachers know that the fate of the school is on the line.

And it seems clear to me how the school was already at a disadvantage after being a receiving school and having another local elementary school folded in with our existing one last year after fifty schools were closed causing massive chaos and disruption. According to the residents in the neighborhood,  the kids from the closing school came from the "tougher" part of the community, even though they were just a few blocks away.  The families were just a little worse off, housing was just a little more unstable, and violence was just a little more prevalent.  Again, these micro-level differences matter in a cutthroat competitive environment.

A School Dream Deferred

And then there's the "consequences" of being one the lowest tiered schools which demonstrably worsens the experience of schooling for students and staff alike.  Everything is dictated to us from above, with no autonomy to tailor lessons to our unique students' needs.  There is a testing obsession-absolute obsession-as we desperately try to raise test scores.  Every meeting, award ceremony, assembly, or discussion centers on test scores and test scores alone.  Since we are a "Level 3" school, our Network is constantly in our building mandating bad practice over which we have no control.  We are forced to use multiple computer programs guaranteed to "get those scores up!"  We must teach in the most formulaic way possible.  We must do the exact opposite of what we know our students actually need and deserve.

So our students are subjected to dry, disjointed, test-centric curriculum.  They are told over and over how they are nothing more than a test score and even our student conferences center around these scores.  Our kids with special needs are repeatedly being given inappropriate material and pacing guides all in the name of raising test scores.  "The diverse learners are bringing us down" our special education department is told over and over again.  Projects, field trips, and foreign language programs are being abandoned as they take away from the test prep.  As the curriculum becomes more and more tedious and inappropriately "rigorous," behavior problems worsen causing the school to react with stricter discipline and punishments.  We are forced to do everything wrong in the name of raising test scores.

Being at the bottom of the heap means every bad ed reform out there is fed to us on steroids.  From Common Core, to edtech, to Teach For America, to data-driven obsessions, to oppressive discipline...we have it all.  It's a vicious cycle where our low rating causes the school to be forced to do bad practices which leads to more bad ratings.

So when people complain about my school being the "bad" school, there is truth in that statement.  But that "bad" designation is one manufactured by competitive "choice" policies and solidified by top-down reform.

I try to imagine a world where kids are allowed to be kids.  Where schools that serve needier kids, kids who have experienced more trauma and upheaval than most adults, would be wrapped in love instead of bounced around schools like an unwanted pet.  I imagine a place where a child's negative behavior is seen with understanding instead of the fear of bringing down the entire school.  I imagine a world where kids are welcome no matter where they go and aren't viewed as a "liability" ever.  I imagine a world where we acknowledge the differences among kids and celebrate those different strengths and weaknesses, instead of using them to juke the stats.  I imagine a world where the students who need the most are given the best education we have, instead of the very worst of test-prep, lock-down torture.

But I don't live in that world.  I live in Rahm's Chicago.