I encountered this article on Twitter, and a reader was kind enough to forward it in the comments section.
I Just Want to Teach…..Not Give Useless Tests: The Current Plight of Alabama’s Hoover City School Teachers
Part One: Changes in the Elementary Program
by Deborah G. Camp, Ph.D
K-5 teachers at Hoover City Schools began the 2013-2014 with not only a classroom of new students but with new central office administrators espousing Draconian practices and attitudes, especially with regard to the use of what they call “formative assessments.” Prior to this year, an elementary assessment schedule had been in place for several years and had been constantly tweaked to provide the most bang for the amount of time taken for classroom-based assessments to avoid wasting precious instructional time that can never be replaced. . The assessments consisted of interview-type instruments that were administered individually by teachers since research indicates these type tests to be superior with regards to getting the most valuable information from students especially the youngest ones. Some math assessments consisted of a sample of paper-and-pencil computation problems so teachers could study student errors to diagnose how children may be thinking. A quick-scoring oral language assessment had been added at the lower grades since teachers reported that this area of the language arts seemed to be a trouble spot with many students.
At kindergarten teachers’ requests two years ago, the amount of testing at the beginning of the year had been significantly reduced so that teachers could better acclimate children to this thing we call school rather than wasting those valuable first weeks of school individually administering assessments. Only those students whose teachers’ judgments caused them to suspect serious learning problems were assessed early in the school year. Otherwise, classroom-based assessments began in the middle of the year, giving children time to adjust to kindergarten and teachers time to observe the children as they went about their classroom activities.
All decisions about classroom tests from grades K to 5 were made collaboratively with the district curriculum director, principals, teacher leaders such as reading coaches and math facilitators, and teachers at large. The assessment schedule was revisited every summer based on teacher feedback. Sounds pretty fair, huh?
Well, elementary teachers and principals were told – not asked – that these teacher-administered and scored instruments would be replaced with computer-based assessments at each grade level: easyCBM for grades K-2 and Global Scholar for grades 3-5. Both tests would measure reading and math. At the first reading coach meeting, one reading coach commented that her teachers liked the results that the former interview assessments yielded. One of the new district administrators commented, “Well, those teachers can continue to give those tests in addition to easyCBM, but if I hear any complaining from them about it taking too much time away from instruction, they will incur my wrath.” Wow! Great way to build relationships and rapport.
Suddenly kindergarten children were herded into computer labs during the first few days and weeks of school and expected to not only manipulate a computer (regardless of whether they had any experience with technology or not) and push keys on an inanimate object that could not look into their eyes to see if they understood the question, whether they were timid, or whether they were too restless to perform such a task. Teachers were told the easyCBM for both reading and math would be administered mid-year and end-of-year as well with the strict warning that “Your students better benchmark on the mid-year administration or else.” Again, really? This is how district administrators are treating teachers?
On January 23, 2014, one first grade teacher expressed her frustration this way. “This is probably the most discouraged I have ever been as a teacher. Doing the ‘easy’CBM testing this week on 6/7 year olds has absolutely killed me and more importantly my precious children. They hated every minute and it DOES NOT measure anything worth looking at in my opinion. Simply getting them logged into it is not a DAP (developmentally appropriate practice) for K, 1, or 2nd graders. How did we get here? I feel like this is a bad dream and even though they say they won’t put emphasis on our test scores, I know they will. I have already started to see signs of that. I have never once been questioned about my teaching or any method of instruction. However, if things appear a certain way to others, that is when noise will start being made. I am just exhausted. I have a constant stomach ache right now and feel so much pressure it makes me want to stop teaching.”
Another kindergarten teacher commented that some of her students did not understand what to do at all at the beginning of the year, so they just sat there the entire time and stared at the monitor. She also commented that easyCBM is nothing more than DIBELS on the computer. Research conducted by many educators suggests DIBELS is just a big ol’ waste of time. A 2nd grade teacher made some general as well as specific comments, “We have a lack of leadership outside the schools, and no value is placed on teacher opinions as professionals. Central office administrators are losing sight of the children and what is or is not developmentally appropriate just for the sake of obtaining a score/number. Teachers are being asked to do more than is humanly possible in the school day. EasyCBM and Global Scholar are being used as performance indicators rather than as formative assessments intended to give us diagnostic information. We teachers have been ‘silenced’ and are unable to voice our thoughts, opinions, and ideas. The people making the decisions are distant from the classroom and don’t spend time in them or talking with us teachers. There has been a massive shift in philosophy in the system, and no one at central office has any early childhood or elementary degrees or experience.”
Here’s another kindergarten teacher’s take on easyCBM. “The overwhelming opinion is that it is horrible for young children, particularly kindergarten. The expectations are unrealistic, the questions are deliberately confusing, and asking 5-year olds to take it in a computer is ridiculous. For example, my class performed particularly low, so I re-administered the test using paper and pencil, and the results were immediately and drastically higher – even on bad questions. Taking the computer out of the mix made a big difference. One of my student’s parents reported that her child came home and said, ‘I’m not smart.’ When the mother probed further, the child said, ‘I took a test on the computer today and I didn’t know many of the answers.’ In one hour time period this test managed to damage the child’s self esteem and taint his view of school.”
The 3rd – 5th grade teachers have expressed frustration with the Global Scholar computer-based assessment and question the results it yields. The central office administrators have provided little information about “how the test works” or item specifications of the assessment, but yet again kids are herded into computer labs to take a test neither they nor their teachers know anything about. The teachers know the standards that are tested but have no idea how the test questions are structured.
One 3rd grade teacher stated, “I hate Global Scholar with every fiber of my being. The questions are completely ridiculous and not grade level appropriate. For example, my 3rd graders had questions about algebraic equations with variables. This is not even in our curriculum. These questions basically stress these kids out because they have no clue what they are asking. How is that really assessing what they know? They don’t even learn it at this grade level! They ‘say’ the reading passages adjust to their reading level based on their answers. Well, I have a student who can barely read her name and she gets the same degree of difficulty and length passages as my kiddo reading on a 6th grade level. She doesn’t even read it! She looks long enough to keep it from kicking her out and then guesses. These are not appropriate for her to even be reading! And it frustrates her! The Fountas and Pinell Assessment is MUCH more accurate for me to ‘find their reading level.’ I just hate the whole testing thing! Every bit of it. These poor babies are just trying to do the best they can every day and we have to make them sit down and take hours long tests and tell them ‘just do the best you can.’ When in fact, some of their bests aren’t good enough. I think it’s another one of these one-size-fits-all tests that does not reflect true student performance. And to be completely honest, my kids do not take the computer assessments as seriously as paper and pencil ones. They just start clicking!!”
Another 3rd grade teacher said, “When I gave the test in the fall I was appalled at the level of the questions as reported by the students after the test. I knew the chances of my children performing well was slim. Several of my students who struggle (based on what I know and how I assess) scored in the high average range so I knew they guessed really well. Also, one of my students who is in the enrichment program and scored the highest score in 2nd grade when being screened for enrichment scored in the below average range. This is clearly an example of her freezing up and the test not looking at her as a whole. The ONE thing that I can say about Global Scholar that is somewhat positive is it does allow for some critical thinking and reasoning in the multiple choice answers. Many of the questions included two completely unrealistic answers so if the kids were able think logically about the question they had a better chance of succeeding. On the winter assessment my students performed a little more true to what I was seeing. I would like to think that this was because they have been taught to think and spent more time thinking about the questions! Or it could be because I told them before we went in that many of the questions would have unrealistic answers and for the students to eliminate them first! Having said all that, I obviously put very little stock in what those scores say. The number attached to the child tells me nothing about what that child knows/doesn’t know, and/or what that child is capable of.”
To add insult to injury, the central office administrators have been meeting with teachers and administrators to share the growth students have made on the easyCBM and Global Scholar since the beginning of the year. Any college measurement and evaluation course will teach you to NEVER judge student performance on merely one test or indicator but consider multiple measures, including, yes, teacher judgement. But obviously Hoover does not believe teachers have enough sense to determine on their own how well students are performing.
On March 4th, the central office administrators met with the elementary teachers to publicly share each school’s grade level scores on either the easyCBM or Global Scholar. The scores were shared in a PowerPoint, so teachers knew which teams’ students across the district scored well or not. You won’t believe this…..the teachers whose students had shown the most progress from fall to spring were given candy. Cadbury Easter egg because those schools did “EGGsactly what they were supposed to do,” said the curriculum administrators. One teacher reported, “In 20 years of teaching I have never been made to feel so small!! I am just sick to my stomach. I sent my husband a text and told him he had to find a way for me to leave because I cannot be a part of this!!” Only the candy teachers were identified by school and grade level. The rest of the scores were shown by grade level and if there was growth made and if it was enough growth. 4th grade was just barely on the edge of staying in the “high average” category.
Another teacher commented, “There were LOTS of people there, and I know many who felt the same as I did. And I was already prepared to turn down the candy should I or my school had been one of the ‘most improved’ schools. Lots of people are upset and contacting each other besides me. As I was looking around the room I kept thinking that I wasn’t the minority in the room. So many teachers in there that I have taught with and respect and feel and share the same thoughts. It was just so belittling!”
One teacher commented that the presentation was “creepy. She (the curriculum administrator) was like a preacher. She’d get really loud and then whisper. This was done to make people laugh and people were encouraged to clap. She said she was very concerned about 4th grade. I do love those darn Cadbury mini eggs though. I guess I should stop and grab some candy for my class for when they do well on an assessment since we’ve time traveled back to 1982.”
Stay tuned for Part 2: Changes in the Secondary Program
Deborah Camp served in public education for 30 years in Alabama before recently retiring. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in special education from the University of Alabama, and a master’s degree in elementary education, an Educational Leadership certificate, and a doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her work experience includes 17 years of teaching assignments in special education, elementary, middle school, and reading specialist in Jefferson County Board of Education and Hoover City Schools. She served as the district director of curriculum and instruction in Hoover for 13 years. She was selected as the Alabama Elementary State Teacher of the Year in 1998 and inducted into the Jacksonville State University Teacher Hall of Fame, Middle School Division, in 1999. In 1997 she obtained National Board Certification in English Language Arts/Early Adolescence and was one of the first 25 teachers in the state to earn National Board certification and was one of the first 900 teachers in the nation. She has conducted workshops on numerous topics in education at the local, state, national, and international level. She has authored several professional articles and books. Although retired, she continues to advocate for fair work conditions for teachers and equitable education for all children.
Dr. Camp is also a proud Alabama BAT. Find out more about the BadAss Teachers at http://www.badassteacher.org