Friday, December 13, 2013

Wretched Numbers (I'm Looking at You, CPS)

Yesterday morning, I woke up early to make a really healthy, warm breakfast for EJ, as it is cold outside, and she had the reading portion of her NWEA test, and wanted to do her best.

Unlike in past years, when this has been "just another thing they do" at school, with little fanfare, this year we have gotten notices about when the tests are happening—math, then reading—with suggestions to make sure the kids get adequate sleep, relax the night before, etc.

We have also had to sign papers that the kids developed with their goals for improving their test scores, and what they were going to do to make this happen. I may be mistaken on this, but I think I saw these papers—or some version of this—posted on a bulletin board in her classroom when I went in for conferences. I didn't have time to take a close look; they looked familiar to me, though.

Sigh. I feel bad that she is being asked to focus on improving her test score, write goals to do so, etc.; her goal for reading is the same as it was for math: 2-point rise from last spring, which seems nuts, as it is likely within the margin of error, and her scores are already so high, well beyond grade level, the whole push seems pointless.

When I picked EJ up, I realized she wasn't talking about her test; earlier this month, she had been so thrilled to come running out to tell me she had exceeded her math goal by two points, so I knew her quiet wasn't a good sign. I asked her about it, and she got sullen. "It was fine. I don't want to talk about it. Math is more fun."

Okay.

By the time we reached the car, I had discovered that she didn't meet her goal; her score actually went down. By how much? Three points. "Now I'm five points away from my winter goal, and my spring goal is even higher," she said, with actual anguish in her voice.

At that point, I felt like punching out every single school reform specialist or administrator who thinks that my third-grade kid should be on the verge of an anxiety attack because her mean average reading score has dropped from "middle of ninth grade" to "beginning of eighth grade," especially since both scores are, once again, likely within the margin of error. 

She's doing the equivalent of middle-school reading. MIDDLE SCHOOL. SHE IS IS EIGHT. Why is she leaving her classroom feeling like a failure?

This test isn't something being administered by a team of CPAs, hoping to use it to inspire a jump from "excellent" profits into "outstanding" profits on a corporate spreadsheet. My kid is a tiny human being taking a test, with all of the human variability that comes with that, and all of the psychological import that comes from a) being evaluated and b) being asked to score better and better as her main educational focus, even when she is well beyond scores that are necessary.

I asked her what her teacher thought about her score, knowing she had been so happy to be praised by her teacher for her math score, and she said, "She looked at my score and said, 'Huh.'" I told her I'm sure her teacher is proud of what a good student she is, then took a big deep breathe. Her teacher is a lovely person who I can tell really cares about these kids, but who I can only guess is also under tremendous pressure to ensure that every kid's score always rises. The flurry of messages in email blasts and classroom newsletters certainly underscores how testing is the thing we all are meant to focus upon. "Huh," might be the best thing she could come up with in the moment, but it may have left my kid feeling like a disappointment.

At this point, I explained—AGAIN—that a test measures how you do on a particular day, and that is all. The fact that EJ had a cold could make a difference, or the fact that it is so cold outside and she was already more tired/worn out by the time she got to school could have mattered, too. I also explained that, even with the best conditions, a person could score three points up or down on a test, easily, if they took it three times in a row. Margin of error, margin of error, MARGIN OF ERROR, why must my kid have to know about margin of error?

She tried to understand, but she was still upset enough to say, "I wrote down that I have to get better at drawing conclusions once I saw my score. I am really terrible at drawing conclusions. TERRIBLE, Mom."

I then pulled the car over, even though we were racing to get home to get her hair washed and in a bun for Nutcracker dress rehearsal, stopping on the way at her piano lesson—I make it a point to keep her schedule light, but dress rehearsals for this once a year monkey with that plan. I pulled over, because I knew I couldn't drive well and pay attention to this conversation. I also took more big, cleansing breathes.

I explained that she was not, in any way, TERRIBLE at drawing conclusions. When I asked her why she said this, she told me "I just know I am."

Heartbreaking. I explained that "terrible" is relative, and that while it is great for her to identify things she wants to improve, that doesn't mean that those skills are terrible. I tried several ways to describe this finally coming up with an alphabet metaphor on the fly, that went something like this:

"Let's say I'm a little kid learning to write my letters. I learn to write them all, but I have trouble with the letter Q. I practice a lot, and I can finally write it clearly, but it takes me extra time, and it doesn't look quite as beautiful as the other letters. Now, some of the other kids my age can't write a Q at all, and there are others who don't even know what a letter Q is when you show it to them. So, I might think that my letter Q is terrible, but it isn't—it is just the letter I have to work on, and it is actually pretty good that I can write one at all."

That wasn't all though. I had to point out the flaw that plagues the system she is in, comparing skills to grade—and children to each other—unfairly based on development.

"EJ, here's the other point, though. If I'm a really little kid, it might be totally appropriate for me to have trouble drawing a letter, or even recognizing it. So even in my story here, all of the kids—the ones who write Q perfectly, the ones who write it shakily, the ones who can't write it, and the ones who don't even recognize it—could all be doing perfectly well, not terrible at all, because all of those levels of skill are appropriate for their age. Nothing there is TERRIBLE."

She seemed to get it. I told her that the analogy could work the other way, too: if you are a beginning at something new, let's say piano lessons, and you have to practice a bunch of skills, even your best skill after one year of playing wouldn't be considered "expert." It doesn't mean it is terrible, it just means that you couldn't go to the symphony and play a solo, because you hadn't practiced enough years, learned enough, etc..

"Terrible and excellent are relative terms...blah blah blah...," and then I remembered she is eight, and just turning on the Christmas carol CD and telling her I think she did terrific and I'm sorry that she is feeling frustrated was enough. I probably babbled for a bit about how kids shouldn't be taught to worry so much about test score numbers—she shouldn't even know them, from my point of view—but she likely tuned that out to listen to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" instead. She'd heard my rant against worrying about test scores earlier that month, the morning of the NWEA math test.

Yes, on that morning, on our way to school, our carpool had a conversation about the NWEA math test that day. "Math is so fun...math is horrible...do you like math?"—all typical kid banter, at first, but then they started talking about their goals, the scores they wanted to get, etc.. I suggested that they do their best, have fun getting to use the computers and having a day where their schedule is all funny because they are doing something different, and not worry a bit about their scores. At this point, the boy who rides with us from EJ's class reminded me that, "The test we really have to worry about is the PARCC next year, because the stuff that is on the test for SIXTH graders on the ISAT this year will be on the test for FOURTH graders next year, so we all have to do SIXTH grade math by the end of this year so WE WON'T FAIL THE PARCC next spring."

This was followed up by both of them with worries that the whole school would fail, and that they didn't want to do badly and hurt the school, and that they really had to prepare because it was going to be so hard.

As we pulled to the side to wait for the kiss-and-go drop-off, I explained the following:

1) The PARCC is fifteen-months away, they shouldn't worry about it a bit. 

2) They should never worry about "failing" a standardized test; it isn't like failing a math quiz, it is just an evaluation with numbers that helps the school, on average, figure out how well the kids are doing with the way that they are being taught. At this point, I explained AGGREGATION.

3) Every school switching from the ISAT to the PARCC may have lower scores at first, and this means that, statistically speaking, that drop won't mean anything: it won't mean failure, it won't mean that their school is in trouble. It just means that the test is different, and that they can't compare the scores from two different tests that are set up in two different ways and make any use out of it. GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF HOW AND WHY TESTS ARE MADE, delivered.

4) The PARCC will only tell them interesting things once it has been used for a few years, and they can see if scores go up from year to year; I told them that clever, hardworking kids like them had nothing to worry about, because their scores would go up just by doing what they normally do. CONSTRUCTIVIST AND ENVIRONMENTALLY-BASED DEVELOPMENTAL LEARNING THEORIES, here you go.

5) I then said, "And guess what?  After a few years, not only will the schools be evaluated, but the TEST will be tested. That's one of the things you learn when you use a test: how good the test is! So, if after a few years, no school's scores are ever matching up to the grade level the test is meant to assess, they might change the test, and adjust the mean." I then EXPLAINED A MEAN ADJUSTMENT to TWO THIRD GRADERS and a FIRST GRADER, you know, like everyone does on the carpool ride to school.

6) The PARCC is fifteen-months away, they shouldn't worry about it a bit. 

I know that superior test scores have become as prized as the holy grail, and that earning them in the system we have means job security for principals and teachers, potentially better funding and reputations for schools, and protections against mass closures or program cuts.

You know what, though? My kid—NO ONE'S KID—should develop an ulcer (or any generalized anxiety disorder) worrying about standardized test scores that are IN NO WAY MEANINGFUL TO THEM. Scores do not demonstratively expose a child's hard work, skills, or intelligence TO THEM in a way that tangibly encourages an intrinsic love of learning. No, this score obsession makes them care about numbers, which are completely extrinsic and unsatisfactory rewards. Numbers do not, ultimately, encourage life-long learning, but rather, inspire "success at all costs, my value can be measured, if my measured value is not worthwhile, I AM NOT WORTHWHILE," soul-crushing.

All this anguish over three points, and a test to be rolled out in 2015. Really? I have one thing to say:

Chicago Public Schools, please stop making me have to explain the principles of statistics, developmental psychology and learning theory to my kid.

11 comments:

  1. Heartbreaking. I do my best to keep my kids’ test scores away from them in the (probably vain) hope that their ignorance will, indeed, be blissful, but really - why should I feel that need? What happened to going to school to LEARN? *sigh*


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  2. This is bullshit. Are you ready to talk to people at the Tribune about this? There are a few people I could share this post with and they might want to call you after they read it. Just a guess.

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  4. This breaks my heart as an educator and scares the crap out of me as a parent. I just want my kids (students and my own children) to love learning.

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  5. I had a conference with Xander's teacher last month. She talked to me about his skills and how he might do in the Spring or next year when he has to take Common Core tests. I asked her what her opinions were about Common Core and all this testing. She sighed and told me she isn't a fan. The tests sometimes use words the kids haven't even learned yet, not to mention material the kids haven't learned. Which of course is tacked onto her performance eval.
    I mentioned I might have him opt-out, because WTF! Her opinion was to tell me, "Let his take the test. Let his score be whatever it will be. Once they test the tests they will realize what a huge failure it was and without the kids scores, they can't make that determination."
    I am SO SORRY EJ and you have to go through this. You are doing such a good job and are working so hard to manage her anxiety. Seeing the forest for the trees right? Hang in there

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  6. Have you considered opting out of the test?

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  7. Great post. CPS isn't going to do anything until the parents opt out, though.

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  8. I'd be working *hard* to imbue her with the idea that even a "terrible" score on a test isn't what she *is,* but measures stuff she hasn't learned yet and that hey, this time they happened to pick things she didn't know. If she thinks she is TERRIBLE at drawing conclusions... then ... I don't know, maybe make a game out of practicing doing it? (I'd almost be tempted to say: hey, kiddo -- what have you just done? DRAWN A CONCLUSION. So if you're terrible at drawing conclusions, it's probably wrong, right?)
    I'd also be teaching her now that institutions that deal with gruops of people sometimes try to do what's best for most. ... at the expense of smaller numbers of people it isn't good for... and that's when they're doing things as best they can. SOmetimes people are just trying to do what is best for *themselves* ... at least what they think is... and so it's up to the folks at the receiving ends of their posters and goalsetting and what have you to see past that and just keep doing the best they can.

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    1. (Oh... but I am amazed at your excellent thorough explanation on the fly, and honestly think you're raising a proper independent thinker.)

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