Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Parents Should OPT OUT of Common Core Testing - a response to Karen Quinn

Mercy, mercy, mercy - I made the mistake of clicking on this link to an informercial-trying-to-pass-for-article in the Washington Post on September 18th. The basic upshot of the article, written by one Karen Quinn, founder of TestingMom (actual motto: "Make your kid smarter today!"), "a Web site that helps pre-K to 8th graders ace important tests and build skills for school success," is that standardized testing is Good For Your Children and Informative For Parents.
In case you thought I was kidding about the motto...

She starts out by admitting that "Parents and students object to these tests for reasons that are arguably valid and true. They say that meaningless mandated tests are taking over our schools, too much time is being spent in the classroom preparing for tests just so the government can find out how well teachers and schools are performing, the tests are used to rank, sort, judge and label our kids, teachers and schools and that isn’t fair, and the Common Core standards and tests that assess them are too hard" - and then goes on to say we parents should embrace them anyway.

The 5 points Quinn lays out are as follows:

"1) Your child needs to learn how to take a standardized test. In a few years, your child may take the SAT or ACT, and his score will impact whether he gets into college.....It takes years for a child to learn how to be a good standardized test taker. Sitting for the Common Core test will help your child get better at the test-taking skills he needs to master if he is going to apply to college."

My comebacks:
1) Maybe. Not all colleges even require either the SAT or ACT any more.
2) Even if my child eventually does apply to a school that requires the SAT for admission, does she REALLY need to start learning these skills in 3rd grade? In KINDERGARTEN? Does she need to spend more time ANNUALLY testing than the SAT will take, even if she takes it TWICE? There are So. Many. OTHER. better and more constructive ways to both use the time and the money allotted to schools.

"2) You will learn important things about your child. If your child takes the test and does well, that’s great to know. If your child scores below expectations, you need to find out why."

PARCC was administered last year in my kids' schools. (My kids did not participate.) It is looking increasingly likely that scores will not come back to schools until AFTER DECEMBER of this year - at least a 7-month lag time! They'll be more than halfway through the next grade without those scores, and yet their teachers this year will somehow find a way to see where my kids are academically and go forward from there, just as they have year after year.

When the scores DO finally come back, I wouldn't be able to tell whether my mathematically-gifted child's scores truly reflect her ability to Math, her ability to Explain Your Answer in a test-acceptable format (verbal skills aren't her strong suit, and I already know that and don't need PARCC to tell me), her stamina (she's ADD and "checks out" after about 20 minutes, so a 75-minute testing segment is a lost cause), or whether the scores would be impacted one way or the other by a glitch in the computer or the test itself. Her teachers won't be able to tell whether, back in March and May of last school year, there might have been problems with computation, with reading problems, with fractions - the score won't give ANYONE enough usable "actionable" (I hate that word, but it applies here) information.

"3) Your child will feel good about herself. " (Followed by an anecdote of a girl who did tons of test prep and scored well and Had High Self Esteem as a result.)

Are you aware, Ms. Quinn, of how these tests are scored, of what happens to the results?  There's no passing grade set before the tests are given; nobody knows how many questions have to be answered "correctly," what score will constitute "Proficient." These delineations are calculated AFTER the tests are taken and scored. So far, about 70% of kids are being told they are Not Proficient, that they are in fact failures. Tell me how this makes a child "feel good about herself."

"4) There’s value in preparing for this test. Years ago, when my kids were little and time was taken in class to teach them how to take the state test, I felt it was a waste. With the new Common Core standards, I don’t feel that way. To get ready for this test, kids are learning how to cite evidence from primary or secondary sources to support their point of view and show why they believe their analysis in essays is correct. They are taught to lay out the reasoning behind their answers to math questions. These are important thinking and communication skills that will serve our kids for school and for life. They are not just skills that apply to taking a test."

My older child was in one of the last cohorts to make it through our school system ahead of Common Core rollout, while my younger was the second cohort to experience it from Kindergarten onward. My older child also learned to cite primary and secondary sources, and in fact to do many of the other things that Common Core demands of students. The difference is that in her case, she wasn't being asked to do many of these tasks before she was developmentally ready, nor was her Early Childhood (that's birth-8YO, not just preschool) time taken up with academics in lieu of social-emotional development/non-academic skills. She still got a good education without the Common Core tests; this reason is specious at best.

"5) What message do you want to send? Life is tough and it certainly isn’t fair. There are challenges ahead for your child and mine. What kind of message are we sending our kids if we let them opt out of things because they are too hard or (in our opinion) meaningless, unfair or a waste of time?"

The message I want to send to my kids is to not simply take a test that is sapping millions of dollars from their school system and countless hours of prep time from their schooling Just Because Someone Said So. I want them to think for themselves, to question, to take action to make the world a better place, to make their schools places of learning for the sake of learning again. I want to send them the message that their standing up, that OUR, as a family, standing up for something we believe in can make a difference, even if it's not a big one in our own community. Do you think they go through no adversity being the only ones in their classes sitting with books while their classmates are busy at their Chromebooks but sneaking looks at them? Do you think it takes zero courage to be the Different One? Nuh-uh.

We will be refusing the PARCC test in our Maryland school district again this year, NOT embracing it. I won't fault parents who do have their children test, but I urge all parents to do their homework before "opting in." The return on investment simply falls far too short: too much money and time taken from schools, unrealistic/too-high demands placed on too-young children, all for scores that don't come back in a timely fashion and give us too little information when they finally DO come back - ALL those "arguably valid and true" points she made above! - that's nothing worth embracing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Opt-Out 2015 - Part the Second

Well, we knew it was bound to happen: the school is refusing our refusal. LOL

Hi Mr. and Mrs. Crunchy,

As with state-mandated tests, all students enrolled in Maryland Public Schools are required to be administered the PARCC assessment this year. Monkey will be taking the PARCC Mathematics and ELA assessments as is required of all students across the state in tested grades and subjects. Given that we are legally bound to administer the assessment to all of our students, we cannot accommodate your request for her to not take the assessment. Regarding Monkey's assessment last year, she is referring to a make-up session. Monkey was absent from the first session of her MSA test administration, and we assessed her during a make-up session as was required of us by the state of Maryland. This make-up process is the same used for any and all students who are absent during testing sessions, and this same process is in place for this year.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.


Next step: Our refusal of their refusal of our refusal:

Dear Mr. Principal:

We are aware that M**** School intends to administer the PARCC test, that Monkey will be given the test. However, that does not mean that Monkey will actually take the test. That is the distinction.

This is not a request for M**** to not administer that test, or to opt out; it is simply to inform M**** that Monkey won't be taking the test. Short of someone putting her hands on the actual keyboard or trackpad, she cannot be forced to take the test - and non-testing students should not, according to the PARCC manual, be in the room with testing students. We are informing M**** of our family's intention and decision in advance so that appropriate arrangements can be made. We are happy to send work with her, or to suggest alternate activities, if that is helpful; we know the school will be busy during the testing windows.

As to the makeup session last year, she was in fact absent for the third morning session of the MSA, with makeups scheduled (according to a testing calendar I'd seen) not until the next week; if the makeup schedule had been changed due to the snow days last March, the courtesy of at least a phone call would have been appreciated, but - water under the bridge and all that.

Thank you for your understanding.

The Crunchies

From the PARCC manual:

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Opt Out 2015 - Part the First (And Hopefully the Last!)

And so it begins....The start of our 2015 Standardized Testing Refusal. If you've been following along long enough, you know that last year we refused the MSA (Maryland's predecessor to the PARCC, and that while our older child's middle school was able to work with us and ultimately honored our wishes, our younger child's elementary school did no such thing; the younger was given the test with her class and took 2 segments of it out of sheer boredom, and when we kept her home for the third morning out of four, they took her out of class that afternoon and tested her, alone except for a single staff member.

So without further ado, here's this year's letter to the same school. There's a different testing coordinator at the school this year, and a different administration in the school system, and this time we have access to some of the PARCC manual and procedures in advance, so it will be interesting to see how things play out this year. I've already had some folks ask on Facebook if they may use our wording as is or adapted; by all means, be our guest. :-)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Which Of These Standards Is Bad?"

I've gone on record as not being a fan of Common Core, particularly the K-3 standards. Bookworm, the elder, was 2 cohorts ahead of our school district's Common Core rollout, while Monkey was the second cohort to get the shiny new Common Core-aligned Curriculum 2.0. While my kids have very different personalities, I actually expected things to go more smoothly for my younger child, whose capacity for perseverance was pretty high going into school, and whose natural inclination toward math and science seemed a perfect fit for the STEM emphasis that accompanies current US Public education approaches.

Hah. Not so much. Beginning in second grade (mostly toward the end) and for almost ALL of last year, there were increasing tears, hostility, argumentative behavior even out of school, tears, increased fidgeting, even the appearance of a vocal tic, and have I mentioned the tears? This from a kid whose second-grade teacher told me that she remembered her for her smile. And as a frequent substitute in that school and another school (where I saw Kindergarteners weekly), I have seen more than my fair share of Kindergarteners acting out in ways and to degrees that I didn't see when I left (I thought temporarily) teaching 12 years previously. I've heard from parents that I'm hardly alone in my concerns for my kid's emotional well-being; I've heard teachers talking to each other before and after school and in the lunchroom and being frank with each other about their concerns that this is too much too soon; I've seen the unguarded shell-shocked halfway-to-burned-out faces of K-3 teachers who didn't know I noticed, who thought they were hiding it from their classes and school volunteers (I'm ADD; I notice EVERYTHING except what I'm supposed to. LOL).

The first question that most pro-Common Core cheerleaders tend to ask is, "Have you read the standards?" My answer is "Yes, I have, actually." They're tedious reading; I have only gotten up through middle school as that's where my elder is at the moment, and I'm not thrilled about the K-3 standards. (For anyone who wants to see how innocuous they look, separated out, in writing - which as anyone who has spent ANY time in a classroom knows is not the same things as "in practice" - here is a link to the Kindergarten standards.) The next usual big red flag question/demand is, "Show me which of these standards is not developmentally appropriate for Kindergarten," often phrased as "Which of these things can't a normal 5YO do?"


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Fluoride In My Drinking Water: Why I Don't Want It There

Originally published April 4, 2012

Dear Mayor and Council:

I'm writing to you today to ask you to reconsider fluoridating our city's water. I hadn't given it a great deal of thought as problematic until recently, when I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an auto-immune condition in which my body is slowly breaking down my thyroid gland. Researching the condition, I've been able to make a number of lifestyle changes that have alleviated a number of symptoms, but the deeper I dig into possible triggers and into foods and substances I'm now better off avoiding, the more concerned I am that there are still a few things I cannot really avoid without going to a great deal of personal expense, spending money that my family and I simply do not have. Fluoride is one of those substances, and it's in our water supply - and nearly impossible to filter out, definitely not with an average home filter. :-( When I researched and discovered that Rockville is one community that still adds fluoride to our water supply, even though there is an increasing number of other communities across the country and around the world who are in fact removing it from their municipal water supplies, I became concerned enough to write about it.

So what's wrong with fluoride in the first place? Why should it NOT be in our water?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Music Lessons - Is My Child Ready?

As a music teacher, that's a question I get a lot from parents of kids of all ages. Since a good chunk of my teaching is in the Early Childhood area, parents of younger and younger kids are asking these kinds of questions, so I thought perhaps since Information Is Power, I'd try to give parents a little more information.

So, some background: I grew up in a home where there was ALWAYS music. My mom is a music teacher: when she found out she was pregnant with me, she was teaching junior high band; she taught lessons one afternoon a week out of a spare room in our house when I was small, and when we moved to a new home when I was in middle school, she eventually expanded to 4 days a week. Over the years she would play in the local high school's pit orchestra when they did their Spring musicals and play the soundtracks for those musicals perpetually during the rehearsal window, so I grew up learning songs from a variety of musical theater classics. (Note to other parents: If you're going to play a soundtrack as background in your house and you have a small child who likes to sing along, find out the lyrics BEFORE your small child asks you about some of them in order to avoid uncomfortable questions you'd rather not answer. LOL) I learned a little piano in Kindergarten and then in first grade I tried a few of the instruments we had around the house, settled on the clarinet, and never looked back. By high school, I had a couple students of my own, and when I went to college, my plan was to become a high school band director. After 6 years in an elementary general music classroom and more time in elementary band, I finally got my chance to do high school band - it only lasted two years, and I learned that politics is definitely not my thing, but at least I can cross it off my Bucket List. :-) The place I always had felt least comfortable was in the elementary general music classroom; the younger the kids were, the more ill-at-ease I felt. Small kids were definitely NOT why I went into Music Education.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Spaghetti Squash: Is There Anything It Can't Do?

Spaghetti squash is just about a staple here. Since it's gluten-free AND a vegetable, I'm happy to chow down on it to my heart's content, and the kids think it's kinda cool that a squash can make pasta in the first place, so the novelty got them hooked - that and lots of butter and garlic and salt, and on a good day, PESTO!

Spaghetti squash is so named because when cooked, the flesh becomes stringy when scooped out of the shell (I use a fork), like thin pasta noodles. ("Vermicelli squash" just doesn't have the same ring to it. LOL)

Since I have friends who live in places that don't have this miracle of nature (which seems to be limited to the US and some availability in the UK as far as I can make out) and because a lot of people just don't know what to do with a squash that doesn't lend itself to the usual uses of squash/zucchini......