Category Archives: standardized testing

Power and Privilege and the Boiling Frog

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America, the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”–A Nation at Risk, 1983

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All schools have a choice. My schools have a choice. Bayfront Charter High School and Mueller are at a familiar crossroads, and the world is not waiting. On January 20, Trump will begin to govern as he promised and we can prepare our students to compete in that game or we can soldier on—business as usual.

And as usual, we ain’t taking that chance.

Inside my building are Latinos, immigrants, girls, African Americans, LGBT kids, Moslems, Jews and children of democrats. At least that describes 99% of them. And of those, 85% qualify for the free federal lunch program on the basis of their parents’ income. They are–if we falter– the next generation’s working poor. And they are all in our new government’s crosshairs to either deport or demoralize.

America’s educational system has experienced multiple defining moments during which sweeping social or political events have led to ideological and transformational change in the direction of our schools.

Think US History 101:

In the earliest days of our country’s founding, there was a clear religious motive behind teaching kids to read. As waves of Christians colonized the new world, they brought their Bibles and handed down their favorite verses to children who were expected to spread the good news. After the Revolutionary War and the subsequent ratification of the US Constitution, our Founders banked on an “informed citizenry” to nurture and grow the new experiment in democratic governance .

Fast forward 100 years and the industrial revolution churned kids out of farms and prairie schools and into factories that prepared kids for the factories.

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Then in 1958, the Russians launched a rocket into space, and the subsequent race to the heavens was on. Sputnik scared the crap out of America’s post-WWII “Greatest Generation” who realized in the span of one evening newscast—that their kids had somehow been passed up in math and science. So the education pendulum swung to math and science with a vengeance—and schoolkids paid.

Then there was the Civil Rights era. The malaise of the 70’s. Forced desegregation and bussing and waves of white flight to suburbs and private schools. And education was the medium for maintaining the sociocultural and economic advantage that was a perceived birthright of white families.
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The ominous warning of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 unleashed the pendulum again. Reagan’s ‘rising tide of mediocrity’.

Then the Apple IIe drove a whole generation of post-Viet Nam War era teachers to ask “what am I supposed to do with an Apple IIe?” And they used them as door stops on the theory that this too shall pass.

By the early 2000’s Bush had appropriated no child left behind from the Children Defense Fund and we were awash in still another pet project of Republicanism: “back to basics” and the core belief that what we really need to do in schools is just test the hell out of kids and fire the teachers and the schools that can’t produce evidence of extraordinary achievement.

Public education. America’s whipping boy. Always something.

So now what?

George Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” has given way to trump’s straight up, bold-face racism. And our students have heard every word.

ap_77642174753What is the purpose of schooling in a trumpian culture where bluster and lies and bullying and misogyny are rewarded with keys to the White House; when shadowy election schemes and gerrymandering and voter suppression and an archaic electoral “college” are intentionally designed to undermine democracy; when in 2016 it is harder for citizens to cast their ballot then it was in the era of poll taxes and literacy requirements; when it is impossible for citizens to believe that their vote is even really counted; when half our nation considers it anarchy to remind ourselves that black lives matter?

unknownRemember the parable of the boiling frog:

If you place a frog in a pan of hot water– he’ll jump right out. But if you place that same  frog in a pan of cold water, then bring it gradually to a boil—he will be oblivious to the changing temperature. Pretty soon it’s too freaken hot to jump!

Our schools move too often like the boiling frog. They wait until it is too late to jump, and for our children, even generations at a time, the results are fatal.

One thing this past election has taught us is that our students need the skills to navigate a massive sea of propaganda and misinformation that seems to routinely persuade the adults to vote against their own best interests. They need a discerning eye that separates entertainment from “the truth”; that rejects Facebook’s brand of political discourse and revives the tradition of deep critical thinking and informed debate.

They need to compete in a workforce that demands higher levels of thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

They will need to find their generation’s “true North”. And then their voice. And then a spirit of activism which is in their DNA: empathy, vigilance, authentic patriotism, and advocacy for others.

Our kids will need the armor of resiliency– in the face of an apparent national sentiment that their success, their future…their very lives may not matter at all.

So in our school at least, at Bayfront Charter high School, EVERY student will be…

  • Ready for college whether they go there or not; and they will be
  • Equipped with the real 21st Century skills: including the ability to think, create, communicate and play nice with others; and they will be
  • Masters of technologies that are befitting of digital natives; and
  • Keen and curious observers of their community– with a depth of civic literacy and   global awareness; and finally, they will be
  • Beneficiaries of learning that is confined by neither time nor space.

In defiance of who this president promises to be, we will be proactive. The water’s on the boil… but our children rise.

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CORKING THE BATS: WHY THE ATLANTA SCANDAL IS ONLY THE TIP OF THE NCLB ICEBERG

images-7Cheating is such an integral part of baseball culture that it is almost endearing.

Stealing bases when nobody is watching can get you into the Hall of Fame, for sure.  But I’m talking about real cheating.  Knowingly violating the rules of the game  to gain some perceived advantage– which, in baseball’s long history, takes on many forms and variations. And some are more compelling than others. Like George Brett and his pine tar bat, for example, producing one of the modern game’s most dramatic and memorable highlights.   Or the notorious spit ball.  Or Phil Niekro slipping a fingernail file into his hat so he could scratch out a better knuckleball. Or corking the bats.

images-2But then there are the extremes. Pete Rose bet on his own team.  In 1919 the Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to intentionally blow the World Series.  And more recently, there are regular accusations and suspicions about players  juicing.

Baseball is America’s game.  And so is the cheating that goes on that makes baseball baseball.

And so it was fascinating to watch the shockwaves ripple across the nation when one of our preeminent superintendents and a fistful of teachers were all indicted for their elaborate scheme to doctor their students’ test results.

The horror.  The scandal.  The betrayal. This is public education, for God’s sake.  Not baseball!

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But for those of us who work in schools everyday, it should not be surprising at all that educators went to such unethical extremes to gain an advantage.  When you threaten people with their jobs, their livelihood, their professional careers… they become resourceful.  Welcome to the legacy of No Child Left Behind. High stakes testing is when you have everything to lose and nothing to gain.  When a system that we KNOW is bad for kids is treated as if it is worthy of our outrage when it is violated.

But the real question we ought to answer is this: What exactly is “cheating” when it comes to testing our kids?  When do we cross the line from stealing the catcher’s signs or corking the bats– to intentionally losing the World Series on a bribe?

This week, for example, I discovered the extreme degree to which many of the schools in my district are engaging in test prep with only three weeks remaining until the California Standards Test.  Test prep includes practicing sample test items and drilling in the strategies for how to select a correct answer in a multiple choice item.  The entire school throws out the rest of the curriculum and locks in on a single imperative.  All day.  Every day.  It’s legal.  Even encouraged with a wink– because it can definitely inflate results.

But it’s not good teaching.  It’s not good for our kids.  It doesn’t advance learning.  It doesn’t promote thinking or collaboration or communication or entrepreneurialism or any of the other 21st century skills that will soon be treated as the coin of the realm when the Common Core is ushered in.  In fact, devoting any more time at all to the various state assessment  packages that are now all but obsolete… seems to be the worst form of cheating.  It’s cheating our students of their time for authentic learning. Wasted days and weeks and months in pursuit of a mission that has nothing to do with our children’s future.

So ok… “test prep strategies “are not quite the same as calling for pizzas as you hunker down and change all of your students’ test booklets to reflect correct answers… but it’s still a hoax to pretend high test scores mean our kids are actually  learning.

imagesProfessional baseball is intensely competitive and the rewards are great for those few who excel in it.  So great in fact, that it creates a climate where cheating is inevitable.  But the game is pure and it will survive the scandal.

Educators, on the other hand, are typically driven by an instinct for service and advocacy.  Teaching a child is its own honest reward.  But NCLB was never  designed to promote performance as much as to punish the status quo.  It wasn’t really intended for teachers to improve instruction or close the achievement gap among our children- as much as it was for politicians to quantify their competing ideologies about what they believe matters in our schools.

Atlanta reminds us that we’ve lost our soul as a profession–and as a nation– not because of cheating scandals, but because we legislated the game away.

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PILOT OFF THE LOW TRACK


imagesToday I watched our 6th graders participate in the statewide pilot of the new Smarter Balanced test. Fortunately it didn’t count.  It was a pilot.  The results will not show up on a letter home from the state superintendent of instruction.  They will not be in the local newspaper.  They will not be shoved like ill-fitting shoes into a clumsy calibration of school improvement or the relative deficits of assorted critical subgroups. They are neither summative nor formative.

There will be no rallies or celebrations or incantations to orchestrate.

They walked into the computer lab wholly unprepared and unfazed.

I observed our students closely because state and national assessments of academic proficiency should not be a mystery.  If we want to measure the degree to which children have mastered common core state standards, they shouldn’t get tripped up by idiosyncrasies of the testing instrument.

And that’s why we volunteered to pilot the test.  And I’m glad we did.

We’ve been taking  the computer-based MAPS test three times a year since 2006, and kids’ familiarity with the laboratory atmosphere  was evident: the ubiquitous adult proctors roaming the room, the sparsely decorated walls, the cramped workspace.  The sterility.  The humming AC.  The numbing silence.

I watched as our students struggled against the adaptive technology.  They managed their personalized 10-digit student id’s and they logged on.  They battled through computer glitches, error messages, and inexplicable re-sets that bounced them off the test network altogether.

But that was only the beginning.  Once underway, it became immediately evident that our students are woefully un-prepared for the Common Core.

The Smarter Balanced math exam is a one of the feature products known as “next generation assessments.”  While there are a handful of multiple choice questions, the bulk of the test demands critical thinking, adaptability, persistence, authentic problem solving and a cross-curricular knowledge base. They are the 21st Century skills and we’re just not good at invoking those.

images-1Our students have gotten comfortable with selecting their answer from four possible options staring back at them from a scantron sheet. The answer was always there.  They didn’t have to calculate anything. They could guess.  And better yet, they could race through a test filling in bubbles with reasonable assurance that, in the end, their answer sheet would look like everybody else’s. Just complete the page and the stress provoking  irritant will go away.

Actually the Smarter Balanced pilot test made me realize just how destructive our current accountability system called No Child Left Behind has really been.  For the past twelve years we’ve been required by state and federal laws to focus on basic skills at the expense of creative and critical thinking.  There is a gap– (more like a chasm)– across socioeconomic levels of neighborhoods.  But it’s not just an achievement gap.  It’s also a gap in what is taught and what is learned; the scope of the curriculum offered.  For schools that are compelled to squeeze every API point as if blood from  a turnip, the 21st Century skills are a luxury item.  Test prep and remediation and interventions crowd out creative writing and project based learning.

High achieving schools, on the other hand, in predominantly affluent and white neighborhoods, have continued to provide advanced students with a comprehensive curriculum; one that challenges students to think and innovate and apply their skills to authentic tasks.

Which group of students is best equipped for the most ambitious college and career pathways?

We have the results we designed for.  We’ve all contributed to a scheme that perpetuates the pernicious effects of academic tracking.

But in looking over the shoulders yesterday of otherwise frustrated and befuddled and totally unprepared twelve year olds, I saw a glimpse of a very different future.  One in which all schools, regardless of zip code, will be driven by high expectations and the pursuit of authentic, marketable skillsets that prepare kids for life beyond these lab tests.

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FEARING SHADOWS: OUR SCHOOLS AT THAT FAMILIAR CROSSROADS

“When you come to a fork in the road… take it.” — Yogi Berra

images-1We stand at a crossroads and I realize I’ve been here before.

If we continue to do what we are doing– to walk a curricular path that is confined to reading and math and mastering only one language — we will not die.  But many of our children will.  Just as they have during this past decade when school reform meant preparing students for standardized tests that ignore the many natural and innate ways in which kids are actually intelligent.

Or we can go back to the old road– the one we all walked through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s when we were just kids ourselves;  where inequalities were enshrined in law and in our cultural DNA.  Remember that road?  The public school system convulsed from one legal mandate to the next trying to reflect the very Constitution we taught in social studies every day:  Brown v Bd of Education, PL94-142, Title IX, Lau v Nichols, and on. And on… until we got it (sort of) right.  In that era, there were no standards.  No expectations.  No accountability.  And little growth. Children of privilege did as well as they wanted. Children of color… not so much.  And the achievement chasm split the socioeconomic continuum like a great Grand Canyon.  There were haves.  And not.

And now there is a pathway toward the Common Core.  This is where the handwringing begins.Unknown

This is when educators fear a loss of control– as if they forgot their place in the political machinery of public education.  (Don’t you know? Public tax dollars pay for schools and salaries.  Those dollars are allocated by elected officials.  Those elected officials represent voters who demand certain actions in exchange for their votes.  Things like… schools where all children are learning what the community wants their children to learn.)

This is when the loudest voices are often from those who haven’t even read the standards, but envision a set of mind-numbing factoids that every kid will be required to swallow.  They hype their own fear.  The nationalization of learning.  The standardization of our kids.  (Wasn’t there a song about that from Pink Floyd or somebody?)

This is when educators begin to doubt their capacity to behave as they would have their students behave.

After a decade of complaints about the road we were currently on– the so-called reform road– we are beginning anew.  We are on the cusp of another full-scale transformation from basic skills and test prep academies to 21st century skills.

Never in the long (constantly changing) history of public education has there ever been a more promising opportunity to insure that every student has the skills and knowledge and values to compete and contribute in their world:  the ability to think creatively and critically, to seek relevance in daily school tasks, to readily apply new learnings to authentic problems, to communicate effectively in multiple ways and contexts and audiences.

Entrepreneurialism. Innovation. Civic Literacy. Activism. Voice.

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Progress.

At the crossroads, there is angst in the air.  There always is.

But when you come to that fork in the road…

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• More from Kevin W. Riley at the official website of The Milagro Publications

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DR. ZHAO ASKED THE WRONG 5 QUESTIONS ABOUT COMMON CORE

images-3Dr. Yong Zhao has been a provocative voice in school reform as he challenges educators and public policy experts to refrain from panicking over our children’s consistently low international ranking on standardized tests:

“Although American schools have not been as effective and successful in transmitting knowledge as the test scores indicate, they have somehow produced more creative entrepreneurs, who have kept the country’s economy going. Moreover, it is possible that on the way to produce those high test scores, other education systems may have discouraged the cultivation of the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and capacity.”

As a product of the school system in mainland China, he is perfectly positioned to remind Americans that our advantage in the global economy is our innovation, our creativity, and our knack for entrepreneurialism.

So I was a little surprised by his recent post about the Common Core State Standards and all the misinformed commentors who piled on in the anonymity provided by a typical blog debate.

“I wanted to ask all of us to ask again,” he writes rhetorically,  “if the new world of education ushered in by the Common Core will be better than the old one scheduled to end in a year.”

Fair question.

Then Zhao offers five more questions which he answers in support of his own position:

• What makes one globally competitive?

• Can you be ready for careers that do not exist yet?

• Are the Common Core Standards relevant?

• Does Common Core support global competence?

• What opportunities we may be missing?

His collective answers to these would suggest that he doesn’t think so.  But I have actually read the Common Core State Standards and monitored the developments of the new assessments, and respectfully disagree.

In fact, Dr. Zhao asked the wrong 5 questions.  Here are mine:

 • Are the 21st Century skills—including the ability to be “creative and entrepreneurial”— essential for our students?

 • Would you favor a return to the era of no standards… where educational quality and academic outcomes were solely left to the interests and whims of individual teachers and learning was optional?

• Is the ability to think deeply, read closely, invent, create, collaborate and apply their learning essential for educated citizens of our global society?

• Are these skills what you want  for your own children?

•  If this is not what is called for in the Common Core State Standards—what is?

images-5In 1990, the SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) report captured the consensus of corporate America when it described the skill sets that were critical for young people as they entered the work force of the 1990’s.  The report is called “What Work Requires of Schools”  and consists of two main sections:

Three- Part Foundation: Basic Skills (Reading, writing, mathematics, speaking and listening,  Thinking Skills (including creative and critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, and reasoning) Personal Qualities (responsibility, sociability, self management and honesty);

Five Workplace Competencies: Interpersonal (including teamwork and leadership),  Managing Resources, Information, Systems, and Technology.

In a March 1992 article for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Arnold Packer, the SCANS executive director wrote;

“Students won’t learn SCANS skills by osmosis nor will schools meet new standards without fundamental changes in teaching methods and materials.  The most effective way to teach skills is in the context of real-world situations and real problems.  Students should not be filled with abstract data to be recalled for a test and forgotten, but rather, they should begin by applying their knowledge.”

For more than a decade, many progressive school systems relied heavily on the recommendations from the SCANS report as they defined their own standards for students.  Then NCLB began testing for only one component from SCANS (basic skills in reading and math) and the rest gradually disappeared.

Many of us who are actually leading in K-12 public schools remember the SCANS report and have been arguing that NCLB does not prepare children to compete in college or eventually become contributing citizens to our world—global or otherwise. We have warned that missing from the current basic skills pablum is an equal passion and reverence for creativity, invention, authentic thinking, teamwork, complexity, initiative, perseverance, LANGUAGE… and relevance.  Not just “content” standards in basic skills… but “performance” standards that are authentic and empowering.

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In the 21st Century we call these 21st Century skills and colleges and employers are still looking for them.

To counter the race to the bottom over the past decade, I have advocated that our teachers infuse 21st Century Skills into everything they do.  With Common Core and the assessments currently being developed, this is exactly the curriculum we will shift to.

So all the drama around “common” state standards across the country is puzzling.  Sort of.

It is apparent that many of the individuals who argue (at least in blog threads and twitter) against the Common Core state standards– haven’t read them!  “Standards” do not equate to standardization.   They don’t compromise local control of schools. But they do set a high bar which every student will have to eclipse no matter what else local schools want to do.  To me, it’s an issue of equity.

Dr. Zhao is fully aware that Americans eschew standardization.  But he fails to address that thorny little problem we have with differences and diversity.

We ought to excel at 21st Century skills!  But America’s potential global advantage in education is also our greatest weakness.  We have the most diverse student population on the planet, but have failed to develop a school system that simultaneously celebrates each child’s uniqueness while insuring that every student has fully developed the skills they need to compete at any level and any walk of life they choose.

The public school system has been designed to never change… and so it rarely does.   Thus, the achievement gaps that reveal disparities in terms of race, ethnicity, native language, and in some areas, gender have not gone away.

This is where a profound difference between Common Core and the “accountability system” engendered by NCLB is apparent.

NCLB is a punitive system that is not focused on what children actually need to be successful in their lives.  In many ways it was created to expose public schools as ineffective, and drive institutional change through unfunded mandates and threats.  The result – for all the wrong reasons– was a hyper-focus on multiple choice testing and test prep in a narrow band of the curriculum (basic skills in reading and math).

No wonder the teachers in Chicago went on strike to protest the use of test data in their evaluations.

No wonder the teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle staged their own little  Arab Spring and refused to administer the MAPS assessment.

No wonder parents are standing behind their classroom teachers.

No Child Left Behind targets educators.

The Common Core, on the other hand, re-focuses our schools on the needs of children. With the stated emphasis on college and career readiness—(What Workplace Requires of Schools)– it has “north star” potential  in the quest for the uniquely American concept of equity. If implemented with integrity, it will assure that every child, in every community, has access to a highly trained teacher and a curriculum designed to promote 21st century skills.

Dr Zhao asks rhetorically: Do we want individuals who are good at taking tests, or individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial? As if we have to choose between the two.

If the vision of common core is realized, we will have both.  Our students should excel at taking authentic tests that are as innovative as we expect American kids to be.  And in the spirit of local control, that is exactly the vision of El Milagro.

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SAVING SIR KEN

Lately I have been thinking about Spielberg’s movie “Saving Private Ryan”.  Not because we just celebrated Veteran’s Day or because I am particularly inspired by war movies, but because I have been researching models for effective teacher leadership.  And not-so effective models, too.  And because, for a moment there, we lost sight of our mission, just like Captain Miller’s troops.

It happened yesterday when my staff watched Sir Ken Robinson’s video clip on the relative zaniness of the American public education system. We all seem to share a common loathing for standardized tests and what they do to our teaching.  The absence of science and physical education and critical thinking and poetry and joy is conspicuous in our efforts to meet this year’s version of the AYP.  There is deep stress in that.

Moreover, we are healing from a self inflicted (though well-intentioned) wound since we expanded from seven multi-age classrooms to 21 in one year.  Our teachers are struggling.  Searching for support.  Venting. Identifying their frustrations and cursing our commitment to innovation.  And cursing me for promoting the idea in the first place.  Fair enough.

But in the emotions of the moment during our weekly staff meeting when all of our teachers’ patience was at the boiling point, we all forgot that our school is driven by a mission.  Eleven years ago we vowed to get 90% of our students to grade level. At the time, only 19% were there.  That was considered par for our demographics- a low income school 7 miles from the border to Tijuana. But we knew that our students and families and teachers were better than that.  We knew our students had it in them.  We knew our kids would be saddled by low expectations for the rest of their lives unless we changed the culture of achievement at our school and throughout our community.  And so we did.  And now 70% are proficient…and climbing.

Our mission is decent and worthy.  We are not inspired by NCLB or the superintendent or the fear of being labeled an underperforming school.  We are driven, purely, by the boundless potential of our students.

So we promote authentic teacher leadership and democratic models of decision making because we believe that that is the pathway to achieving our goals.  It is the way in which we will get that final 20% proficient.  There is no other roadmap.  No one person has the “right answer’ so we count on all of our teachers to share their expertise for the good of the whole.  It just seems like lately we have gotten distracted by the challenges of implementing  large scale change and we have lost our acuity for identifying the alternative tactics and strategies necessary to move forward.  It is killing morale.  It is testing our resolve.

In the end I am sure Sir Ken Robinson is right and we are all complicit in the destruction of America’s system of public education because we defer to the standardized test.  But that is the game we are in.  That’s the deal. Even when the troops are restless. Sometimes leadership is pointing the compass back to “true north” and holding on to the rudder for all you are worth.

There is a scene in “Saving Private Ryan where Captain Miller’s battalion disintegrates into a dangerous rabble of griping hot heads armed to the teeth and threatening to shoot each other. They had had enough of ‘the mission’.  But he stood his ground in the midst of the chaos. He was calm and decisive.  And for the sake of dramatic effect and unity of purpose, he reminded them all of their lives back home.  Earlier, they had placed bets on what their captain did for a living.  Remember his answer?

He was a high school history teacher.  Mission-driven. A model of teacher leadership.

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A BLINDING FLASH

I’m back.  I have been sleeping.  Drifting through the universe.  Holding on for dear life.

I’m trying to get my second book published and figure out where I go from El Milagro.  So I am going to resurrect my blog and lose myself in thought again.  Maybe Mondays.  I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know…

We got our test results back and they were very strong… very satisfying- at least  from the standpoint of trying to engender higher test results.  We had to give up a lot to get our 35-point growth on the Academic Performance Index (API).  We had to give up science and social studies, for instance.  We also had to give up the arts and music– not that we were ever real strong in those areas before.  We had to give up creative writing and critical thinking and dancing on the blacktop and “the Mission Project” and quality physical fitness time (though we implemented a new standard for nutrition) and problem solving and the science fair.  Our kids did not weigh in on either the ecological crisis in the gulf or Arizona’s immigration policy. In fact, they didn’t apply their learning to very many authentic tasks at all.

But we got to 835 on the API and there is satisfaction in improving our teaching and learning– if in fact we improved our teaching and learning beyond what is required to prepare children to take the California Standards Test.

This year we are striving to improve the API from 835 to 860.  But this time…we are bringing the rest of the state’s curriculum back and organizing around multi-age classrooms.  We are also emphasizing the importance of the 21st Century Skills… since we think it is pretty important that our children can actually compete in a future when grade school accountability movements may very well have run their course.

We will take the 35-point increase on the API because it is better to leverage growth than to have to explain why our students aren’t keeping up with the test prep academies.  We will be all about growing their basic literacy skills.  But we can’t be blinded for a moment by the bright flash of the API or the illusion that it is enough just to get higher test scores.

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