The MCAS School Rankings Stink!

This post originally appeared on October 10, 2012.  However with the annual rankings going up again today, I thought I would share these thoughts again. 

Since the first time I saw the school rankings in the Boston Globe over a decade ago, I have been frustrated by the simplistic and misleading approach that this news outlet has taken in publicizing the scores from our state’s high stakes test.  The approach is simply to rate the top schools from “Number One” to whatever the final number is depending on the grade level that was tested. For instance, if you were a school that had third graders in your building last spring then you had 954 other schools to compare yourself with.

As I discuss my thoughts here on these rankings, I need to make it clear that my intention is not to criticize or praise a school that I reference, but simply to clarify how this works for those who take these rankings too seriously.

Going back to third grade for a moment, the “number one” ranked school in the state in English Language Arts was the Richmond Consolidated School which had 100-percent of its students score in either Advanced or Proficient.  By the way, the Richmond Consolidated School tested only 19 students. Compare this to the school that had the largest third grade population in the state, the Woodland School in Milford, MA which tested 303 students and ranked 571.  Clearly we are comparing apples and oranges and it is unfair to the students and teachers to portray such a misleading picture. There are countless examples of these same types of comparisons that can be done at every grade level.  This is without even getting into the demographics of individual schools and communities.

Here’s a another thing that irks me about the ratings

Using the Grade 10 English Language Arts rankings as an example this time, I would like to ask this question.  Do you think that a school ranked “number one” clearly outperformed a school ranked 99th?  While the answer is an emphatic NO,  if I were a typical parent from Andover, Brookline or any of the 23 schools that were ranked 99 I would probably be wondering why my child’s school is apparently so far away from “number one.”

The explanation is pretty straight forward, there were 28 schools that had 100% of their students score either Advanced or Proficient and were therefore ranked “number one.” The next ranking was “number 29,” a ranking that was shared by 22 schools that had 99% of its students scoring in the top two levels of the ELA MCAS.  So, the good news for folks who ranked “number 99” is that 96% of their students scored either Advanced or Proficient.

Growth Scores Are A Better Measure

Thankfully our state’s Department of Education has moved to a growth model in regards to testing.  What is a growth model?

Here is a quick definition from the DESE’s website

For K-12 education, the phrase “growth model” describes a method of measuring individual student progress on statewide assessments (tests) by tracking the scores of the same students from one year to the next. Traditional student assessment reports tell you about a student’s achievement, whereas growth reports tell you how much change or “growth” there has been in achievement from year to year.

Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to these measures? Isn’t it more important to show where students were and how we track their growth and chart their progress compared to all of the students who had a similar score during the previous school year?   For example, if we had a student who was in the lowest category (warning), shouldn’t we get some credit for moving them along to the next level (needs improvement)?  The obvious answer is – yes!

In addition, I am sure that there are students that walk in the door in September and could score in the advanced level on that year’s MCAS test on day one of the school year.  Therefore, I think it is insignificant when these students score advanced in May of the same school year.  Again, we need to show that we are supporting student growth no matter where they are on day one of the school year.

One More Thing About Ranking Ourselves Based On Standardized Test Scores  

For those who aren’t aware of the correlations between socioeconomics and standardized test, there are clear connections between standardized test results and the median household income in a community or a state.  Check out the graphic below depicting average NAEP scores across our country and the median household income in each state.


Concluding Thoughts About Standardized Tests
In closing, I think that measuring student progress is critical. However, I think we have to keep standardized test results in the proper perspective. In Burlington, we are always of the opinion that we can do a better job for our students. There are certainly areas where we think our state tests scores could be better and we will have plans in place to accomplish this. However, we also have to be careful not to be focused solely on these tests when we talk about our progress.  Our feeling is that these tests are the floor and not the ceiling for what we hope to see our students accomplish.  As a community, we need to make sure that we are utilizing multiple measures to chart the progress of our schools and our students.  
As a parent of three children in another district (grade 1, grade 7 , and grade 9), I am less concerned about the standardized test scores of my students and more interested in whether or not they are developing the skills that they will need to be successful after their formal education is complete. I am fairly confident that their MCAS results or their scores on whatever new federal or state standardized test comes down the pike is not something that will have a major impact in their success.  If the major focus of their schools is on these results then I pretty sure I can find a computer program that can prepare them equally well.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we need schools more than ever. The dilemma is that we need schools that realize the world that we are preparing our students for is one that has changed dramatically and that we cannot prepare students with business as usual.
Here are few blog posts that reference this idea:

An Interesting Question To Ponder – Are Schools KillingYour Child’s Creativity?

A decade of No Child Left Behind: Lessons from a policy failure

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The New Massachusetts Framework for Educator Evaluation – What are the goals?

In my last post, I asked the following questions about our states new evaluation system:  

Will all of this work being done by schools across the state to change the way we do teacher evaluation result in more engaging learning environments that prepare our students for the ever-evolving job market in the “real” world? Is that even the goal of this whole undertaking?

So here is what the state Board of Education stated as its objectives when it voted to adopt a new model for teacher evaluation:

  • Promote growth and development amongst leaders and teachers,
  • Place student learning at the center, using multiple measures of student learning, growth, and achievement,
  • Recognize excellence in teaching and leading,
  • Set a high bar for professional teaching status, and
  • Shorten timelines for improvement.
A member of the Massachusetts Task Force on the Evaluation of Teachers and Administrators also stated the following:

“More than anything, evaluation systems should be recognizing, developing, and promoting the most talented and successful educators. We need an approach to evaluation that is all about celebrating excellence, and ensuring that those who excel also thrive in their workplaces, and stay in education.”

While I agree with most of the bullets and the majority of the statement above, I think it is important that we take a step back and look at how we got to the point where our state and most other states have started to overhaul their teacher evaluation procedures.  We have to be sure to recognize the fact that a change of this nature is as much an adaptive (cultural) change for teachers as it is a technical change. Educational communities that embrace this fact and implement a transparent approach centered around focused conversations about teaching and learning will see success. If the focus is purely on meeting the new timelines and ensuring that every one of the 33 indicators is checked off then the results impact on teaching and learning will be limited.

Before I discuss some of the specific things that I think will help us make the transition to a new evaluation system successful, I think it is important to talk about why we are here. My next post will discuss how the poor job that schools have done evaluating teachers has gotten us to this point.

Can We Evaluate Our Way To Better Schools?

I spent three days last week at a workshop on the new Massachusetts Framework for Educator Evaluation.  The workshop facilitator did a wonderful job providing technical support and also leading us in some rich conversation about teaching and learning.

As we gear up for this undertaking in Burlington, I can’t help wondering how we will look back upon this endeavor a decade from now? Will all of this work being done by schools across the state to change the way we do teacher evaluation result in more engaging learning environments that prepare our students for the ever-evolving job market in the “real” world? Is that even the goal of this whole undertaking?

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Top Post #9 – The iPad In Schools: Is It A Solution Or A Problem?

This was cross posted on Edudemic

As I look to unplug a bit during the first week of summer vacation, I am continuing to repost my top posts from last year. Below is #9 from April of this year.

 Slide via Greg Kulowiec 
Slide via Greg Kulowiec 

 The question above comes from Greg Kulowiec’s Keynote Presentation last Thursday – What is the answer with iPads? – at the iPad Summit in Atlanta, and it is a critical question for educators involved in iPad initiatives (or any 1:1 initiative) to reflect upon. Thinking as a school administrator who pushed for the deployment of over 1,000 devices in his school, I have to admit that I initially responded somewhat defensively as I went with iPad as a solution. However, as Greg allowed the question to linger and began his rationale for looking at iPad as a problem for schools, I began to cast aside my blinders and look at this question from a broader perspective. When Greg asked the following question, “Are we just taking iPads and slapping them into our existing structure?” I knew I had blown it with my initial answer: Of course, I knew that looking at iPad (or any device) as the solution infers a pretty simplistic look at the issues inherent with our current educational system. It also takes away the ownership of the issues from the people in the system, especially if we think simply adding a thing will improve teaching and learning. But what about looking at iPad (or another technological resources) as the problem? How can this help us? Well, the slide below is just one example of what is happening within educational institutions due to the development of technological resources that can change the way we learn. The slide references a situation that occurred at Ryerson University in Toronto when students formed a Facebook study group to help them prepare for exams.

  Slide via Greg Kulowiec 
Slide via Greg Kulowiec[/caption] 
 This is just one example of the countless issues that not only crop up when we bring new technology into static institutions, but also when those who think about how they can do things differently are stifled by those who cannot immediately escape their traditional thinking. I believe that educators need to understand that their initial discomfort is not just about the technology, it is also about the fact that the way learners access information has changed forever. Due to these changes, educational institutions will need to look long and hard at their practice in order to assure the success of the students whom they serve. Justin Reich described this scenario last week in a post on his EdTech Researcher Blog titled The iPad as a Trojan Mouse :

“…what new technologies like tablets or laptops can do is open new avenues for conversation. In schools where every child has a portable, multimedia creation device, what can we do differently? What is possible now that wasn’t possible before?”

In Burlington, we built a formal mechanism for the conversations with the formation of a 1:1 Implementation Team comprised of staff, students, parents, and community members. The ideas that emanated from this group have set the stage for our professional development plans for teachers and parents, leading to summer-long edcamp opportunities, our digital publishing collaborative, technology workshops for parents, and the BHS Help Desk student support team just to name a few. There is no doubt that the conversations surrounding the arrival of iPads into our classroomss have been about much more than just how to use a piece of technology. These discussions have opened the door to deeper insights surrounding student (and adult) learning that have begun to change the way we operate.

Here’s to hoping that more school communities open their doors to these problems as well as the meaningful conversations that follow.

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Top Posts #7 – Pew Survey Shows We Are Not Adequately Preparing Students

As I look to unplug a bit during the first week of summer vacation, I am continuing to repost my top posts from last year. Below is #7 from last November.

Analog Digital
Analog Digital (Photo credit: DigitalAlan)
A very interesting study, titled How Teens Do Research In The Digital World, was released by the Pew Research Center this week.  Unfortunately, the part that seemed to get the most publicity centered around the fact that the majority of the teachers surveyed, 64% to be exact, said that “digital tools do more to distract students than to help them academically.”
A Mashable post by Neha Prakash caught my eye with a headline title Technology Creating A Generation of Distracted Students.  
A More Accurate Headline in my mind would have been – 
Majority of Teachers Take No Responsibility For Lack Of Student Classroom Engagement

The feelings of teachers surveyed are contradictory. On one hand, those surveys say the following:

“Overall, teachers who participated in this study characterize the impact of today’s digital environment on their students’ research habits and skills as mostly positive…”

On the other hand those surveyed said this:

“some teachers worry about students’ overdependence on search engines; the difficulty many students have judging the quality of online information; the general level of literacy of today’s students; increasing distractions pulling at students and  poor time management skills; students’ potentially diminished critical thinking capacity; and the ease with which today’s students can borrow from the work of others.”  

The findings in the excerpt above leave me with the following questions:

  • Who is responsible for teaching students how to judge the quality of online information?
  • Whose definition of literacy are we using here? 
  • How many educators can meet NCTE’s definition of literacy?
  • Are students distracted because of technology or because of boring lessons/assignments?
  • Can’t increased access help us improve the critical thinking capacity of our students?
While many things have changed for learners and things have certainly become more complicated on many levels, one thing that has remained a constant is the fact that who we know is a critical facet in our learning journey.  We need our students to have access to people who see the possibilities and are willing to embrace some of the struggles that are inherent in a world where learners have so many options.  
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Top Post #4 – Is The iPad King? It Is For Us And That’s All That Matters (For Now)

(This post originally ran in January.)

BHS students on their iPads

I have seen a few posts lately on the topic of which device is the best device for a school looking to go 1:1 and put a web-enabled device in the hands of each student.  One that caught my attention yesterday was  5 Reasons The iPad Will Stay King Of The Classroom which was posted on Edudemic.

The Edudemic post, written by Adam Webster, notes that the iPad has the following advantage over a laptop:

“The iPad, its workflow and its apps, allow for real change and makes it easy. Your students will create work that not only wasn’t possible before their innovative use of the technology, but that you as their teacher had never even thought of.”

From my own experience in year two of an iPad 1:1 program here in Burlington, I agree wholeheartedly that the newness of this device and the necessity of creating new work flows leads to more innovative uses than we would see from a laptop.  However, this can only happen in schools and classrooms where students are allowed flexibility that is not common in many traditional classrooms.

My point is that neither the iPad nor any other new gadget or gizmo will allow students the type of discoveries that Adam describes in his post unless it is coupled with a mindset that is still atypical in most schools. This change I am talking about is one that does not lead students in step-by-step processes to complete the most rudimentary task, instead it is a learning environment where students have clear outcomes to achieve, but are left with many ways to achieve these outcomes.

So I guess I continue to worry about schools that gobble up iPads (or any other digital device) thinking that it alone will have a transformational effect on learning.  Greg Kuloweic made the point very well in answer to the question “Why iPad?” on the EdTechTecher Site.

“Fundamentally, I believe that an iPad can neither be good or bad. All it can ever be is an iPad. I argue instead, that when used effectively and with specific goals in mind, iPads can have a positive impact on education.” 

So after a long lead in to reiterating the fact that people change schools, not devices, I am at my second and larger concern.  This one revolves around our ability and the ability of our students to think outside of the platform that we have chosen.  Personally, I love Apple devices and have a an iPhone, iPad and MacBook to prove it. However, when it comes to the iPad, I do worry about creating a school full of iOS “app-dependent” students and staff. I worry that our choice of platform will limit the thinking of our students down the road and box them in.

Adrianna (Photo credit: patricklarkin1967)

While I believe that we have made the best decision for our school today, things change quickly and we need to create organizational and individual flexibility to adapt to these changes when they occur.  So for the immediate future I  believe we are on the right path, but there is no discounting the fact that there are forks in the road that we will need to anticipate.  No King rules forever…

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Top Posts #2 – An Uplifting Video (Created By A 16-Year Old)

The post below originally ran on January 1, 2013 with the uplifting video which was created by 16-year old Sophia Pink, the daughter of author Daniel Pink. As I watched again last night, I thought it was a perfect blog post (and video) to share one again as we come to the last day of school in Burlington.

As my last post of 2012 mentioned, I love sharing work created by students with others.  I am amazed on a daily basis by the thoughtfulness and insights that students have to offer and I feel so fortunate to be an educator in a day and age where it is so easy to share these examples with others in our school community and beyond.

With our students off on vacation for the past week, there really hasn’t been anything new to share from our students, but I did come across an uplifting video that was created by a 16-year old in Washington D.C.  Thanks to Daniel Pink for sharing the impressive work of his daughter Sophia on his blog today!   It is a perfect video to watch as we begin a new calendar year and we consider the types of people and environments that can inspire us.

As I leave you with a favorite quote of mine below, I hope that you all feel the urge to honk often in 2013!

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More Chatter about Cheating

Cheat sheet in a juice box. Español: Chuleta o...
Cheat sheet in a juice box. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The conversations around cheating have taken off since yesterday’s post Cheating is Cheating, but why does it happen?

My good friend George Couros nailed one of the key points from my perspective with the comment below. Those of us who have spent any significant time working in schools need to make sure that we have not lost touch with what is happening outside of schools. If we are preparing students exactly the same way as we always have then there is a problem

This morning I was excited to see a blog post from a Paul Huebl,  a teacher in Adelaide, Australia who wrote a great post titled Cheating v. Inspiration.  While I encourage you to read the entire post, the portion that stuck out for me was where Paul talked about assessments.

“What are we assessing when we give a test? Is it whether a student has good memory? Whether they can apply knowlwedge  to a new situation? Whether they can perform well on tests…? I propose that any situation where a child is able to cheat, is not a very good assessment (*most of the time).”

Finally my friend Tony Baldasaro shared a story from his first year as a teacher this morning in a post titled One of the Worst Decisions in my Career… . Tony recounts his experience having “no mercy” on a student he caught with a cheat sheet and giving an otherwise top student an insurmountable hole to dig himself out of as one of his veteran colleagues urged him to hold the line.

Again, I am thankful for a PLN with so many lifelong learners (like Tony, Paul and George) who reflect on their practice and are flexible in the interest of students. Tony’s question is one that all of us who have ever given a zero to a “cheater” should consider.

“What would have happened if I taught differently, assessed more creatively, and engaged the (student) in the learning in such a way as to emphasize learning and not the grade?”

While I know there are many different directions that this conversation can take based on the unique circumstances of individual cases, I think we need to ensure that we are emphasizing learning and not punishments.

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Let’s Talk About Suicide – TED Weekend Starts An Uncomfortable Conversation

TED and The Huffington Post have made suicide and depression the focus of this weekend’s TED Weekend.  There are articles by friends and family members who lost loved ones to suicide and a great talk (above) by JD Schramm, a suicide survivor.

As someone who lost his father at the age of 12 to suicide, I am comforted by those who seek to encourage discussions of depression and suicide. While we have made progress in this area since my dad’s suicide 33 years ago , we still have quite a bit of work to do to support those individuals struggling with the stigma of depression and those families struggling with the pain, guilt, and perceived disgrace that is associated with suicide.

I have always been bothered by the fact that there is far less discussion about mental illness than so many physical illnesses. I am struck by the irony in the fact that the families of those fighting mental illness have had to historically hide their experience living on an emotional roller coaster, immersing them in a similar silent struggles to the victim themselves.  My biggest frustration is with those who see people who commit suicide as selfish, weak, or someone who”took the easy way out.”

Gosh, how ignorant and insensitive can you really be!?  I think we can all agree that mentally healthy do not end their own lives.  Be thankful that you can’t comprehend feeling a sense of despair that would ever have you consider this for one moment! Anyway, I agree with JD Schramm’s concluding remark in the talk above which alludes to the TED Talk theme of discussing “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

Raising awareness and comfort levels for those who are impacted by mental illness and suicide is certainly at the top of my list! I encourage others to help in this cause by sharing this video and the accompanying Huffington Post articles below.

What I’ve Learned From My Best Friend’s Suicide –  by Lea Lane  

Faith-Filled Responses To Suicide  – by Reverend Mary Robin Craig

Goodbye Darkness My Old Friend – by Robin Bobbe

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Thinking About More Relevant Schools and Classrooms…(Part Two)

(Disclaimer – The concerns I have are not just about the school system where I work or the one where my students attend, they are systemic issues that everyone of us who is impacted by the education of our youth should consider.  Oh yeah, we are all impacted by the education of our youth!)

The headline of an article by from Business News Daily caught my attention recently. The article, Creativity and Connectivity In The Workplace by Kevin Kuske, got me thinking about the field of education and what we can do to foster more creativity and connectivity in our students. While I am confident that there are pockets of very creative things happening, I wonder sometimes if we are lacking in our collective ability to connect these creative undertakings in ways that would allow them to have a more significant impact on our students. 

This deficiency is certainly not caused by disinterest on the part of educators, it is due to outdated structures and the lack of experience that educators have had with meaningful connectivity that we have their own learning. Let’s face it, the daily experience for many/most teachers is still to plan the lesson independently, teach the lesson independently, and then to plan and administer assessments independently. 

So the fact that “Co-creation is ascending as the new dominant model of innovation, creativity and differentiation” puts a major wrinkle into the previous perception of our role whether we are an administrator, a classroom teacher, or support staff.  This next part is equally problematic for most of us in public schools:

“Creativity, innovation and a strong sense of culture all build off of connections and trust.’

Identity Theft
  Reducing students and staff to a test score is problematic. Flickr photo via Lyn Hilt

Unfortunately, the model that our nation is following for education reform is one that seems is overly focused on linking teacher performance to a a few days of standardized testing. This model, which was not co-created by educators,  will not do much to build a culture of trust. So while I agree strongly that the “coming together in a shared space is still one of the best ways to build these ties” that will allow us to help out students create and innovate, I wonder how we can ensure the following “effective and desirable” qualities are fostered in staff and students as we also try to meet the prescriptive mandates being thrown at us by education policy makers:

  • Their personality comes through.
  • They have the freedom to be themselves.
  • There is passion for their craft.
  • A sense of community makes them part of something bigger.
  • They have meaningful fun.
  • They have a choice on how and where they want to work.
  • They take time to connect.

I’ll take a stab at it in Part Three…

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