What's the Difference?

18 August 2009

State test results were released this week. They weren't quite as cringeworthy as I'd anticipated, but I can't say that they were cause for celebration, either. I do take a broader perspective on them now, especially having been so heavily involved with some of the scoring. However, I can't help but take a closer look at schools and districts I know more intimately.

Here is the overall performance of the school I taught at in 07 - 08:


The "bump" in the year I was there represents a 12-point gain in the scores (anything >5 points is significant). This year, the scores dropped 6 points (the state overall drop was only 1%).

Sadly, the more interesting tale is here:


I think about those classes I had in 07-08---the ones full of "untouchables" that other teachers deemed unworthy because the kids didn't want to take AP courses. The classes full of students of colour. Performance by black students went from 14% in '06-'07 to 44% last year...to 20% this year. Hispanic gains doubled last year and are now back to previous levels. White performance has more or less held steady over the years. That 12-point overall gain in '08 was on the backs of my kiddos.

Thinking about this very real possibility makes me both happy and sick. On one hand, it means that the mastery-based learning environment made a very real difference for all students. But looking at this year's scores means that there were an awful lot of students from diverse backgrounds who were served poorly. And knowing the environment and leadership in that school, no one is going to ask what the difference is.

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What Shall We Test?

03 November 2008

In Washington, we've had a statewide assessment for Writing (grades 4, 7, 10) for as long as we have had state tests. I have been ambivalent about this test for several years now. As much as I believe in graduating students who have good writing skills, I don't know that this belongs as a performance area to compare schools and growth. There is also the question of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent developing and scoring the tests each year. Finally, the feds only require that we test reading, math, and science (with the first two currently figured into AYP). Why lump more expectations upon schools than is necessitated by the legislation? I'm guessing that I'm not the only one thinking about this. I see that Maine is looking to cut its statewide tests for writing.

I was thinking again this week after reading a WaPo article about the decline in time spent on science in elementary classrooms due to focus on other tested subject areas:

Science advocates recommend 45 minutes to an hour of science instruction daily starting in upper elementary grades. But many elementary and middle schools now offer half as much science as they did before the law was enacted. Middle schools that used to teach a full year of science and social studies now may offer a half-year of each. Elementary schools have squeezed the two subjects into one block of time to make room for more reading and math.

While this observation might not really qualify as "news," what is new is the realization that NCLB requirements in science may well lead to a positive impact. "Science advocates predict that school systems...under pressure from the new tests, will begin to restore lost hours of instruction."

I'm not sure where the time will come from. Personally, I am a great advocate for integrating more non-fiction reading (science topics) and using experiences in science as a springboard for writing in elementary classrooms. Many elementary teachers agree with that philosophy...but lots of administrators do not. "Reading" and "Math" mean using the district programs (e.g. Open Court, Investigations...). To "implement with fidelity" (a la Response to Intervention) means no mingling can occur. There is going to have to be some sort of detente between the teacher and admin camps before we can seriously look at restructuring the precious bits of time we have available for student learning.

It is a shame, to say the least, that subject areas are left scrapping for time based on their importance to testing. I've heard many a social studies and world languages teacher musing on what it would be like to have a tested area---how they might have more serious consideration if that happened. It's sad to think that the answer to the question "What shall we test?" is leading to such narrow curriculum options for children.

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Maybe They Made It

26 August 2008

WASL results were released today. It is the earliest I ever remember the data being available on-line. Scores were always made available to schools by this point, but not necessarily the public. So, of course, I had to spend some time looking at a few schools and districts of interest.

My students from last year are somewhere in the mix. I don't have direct access to their scores, although I have a couple of leads on getting a copy. For now, I'm looking at things within the context of the whole school. The Not-So-Pretty school is posting an increase of 12% in its science scores. It sounds snazzy, but when you look again, you see that it's not quite the whole story. It does represent the increase in percent of kids in the class of 2010 who met the standards; however, many students (especially the brainy ones) chose to take the test when they were 9th graders. Kids who waited until their sophomore year only beat the previous year's mark by 3%: not a significant difference. In other words, it's the junior high teachers making the greatest difference in achievement. When you look at the overall cohort, that's when the 12% shows up.

Here is what I think is interesting:


Every ethnic group is trending up (not surprising considering the overall change), but look at the Black students. For the record, the increase is from 13.6% to 41.7%. No other group had the same rate of increase: more than triple the previous year. Hispanics and Asians doubled their pass rate. I really hope that the teacher who thought my brown male students were little more than trash sees these scores. Ditto for The Tree Killer, whose instructional approach and attitude routinely runs off most anyone who isn't pale. I used to wonder why the feeder junior high had such a diverse student presence in its advanced science program...but the high school did not. I don't wonder anymore. Will anyone else, now that I'm gone? Will anyone see my students in here and encourage them further? If my population, which was drawn from the same "low" mix as The Bad Neighbor's, performed significantly better, will anyone care?

I am dying to know, of course, about how the kids did...how well their performance was predicted by the grading practices I used last year. I might never actually find out, but I'd like to think I will. I'd like to think that my kiddos made it.

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WASL-less

22 April 2008

Because I work with nearly the k-12 spectrum, there's plenty of state testing to go around in my life. I like that the high school portion is spread out over two weeks in two separate months, because when it was done in two solid weeks (like we do with elementary), it was killer. I don't care that it's cliche to say that kids need routine---it's still true. My own students are in no mood to do anything during testing weeks (even those who aren't testing expect to have a free ride) and the little ones are having some major behavior issues because their days are topsy-turvy.

I don't really think the test is bad. I also like the idea of this once a year dipstick. What I don't like is how the results are used. Nevertheless, I do what I can to make sure that my own students are prepared and positive. Thursday, I handed out pencils, erasers, and pencil sharpeners to all of my test takers---and wished them well. I ended up staying long enough to read the testing instructions to all 400 of our sophs. (Aside: I would SO have kicked ass if that had been a DIBELS oral fluency test. LOL) Friday, I went down to check in with my kiddos. Finding the 50 in the 400 wasn't too difficult since students were sitting alphabetically. As the tables were covered with paper, I made sure to write a "Good luck!" note to each kid before they arrived and just ask how things were going when I saw them. (Kids aren't allowed to talk about the test and I'm not allowed to see it.) Some of the other science teachers thought these were wonderful ideas to do both days...but they didn't seem to make it downstairs to support their own kiddos. While I understand their disinterest in standards and the test, I also think that we need to do what we can for our kiddos who are having to bear the burden. This is the first year that my students have come away from the test smiling and feeling confident. Some liked my note to them so much they tore off the paper from the table and took it home. Yep. I'm creating a bunch of science nerds. Go me!

I've been officially trained to proctor elementary testing, so we'll see if I get called into action this week. If anything, it would just be for babysitting kids who need more time to finish. We had some kids last week who needed the entire school day. Poor things.

In my teacher life, there are still more standards to move kids towards this year, so even though the WASL is over, we'll still be hitting the GLEs and working hard. I wish that the science scores would be back in June---as they are for all of the other tests. It's a long wait until September to see how my little ones did with an April test.

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Good News, Bad News

17 April 2008

I saw a couple of my students as I was leaving school for my afternoon building. I asked them how they felt about their Science WASL experience from the morning.

One said, "It wasn't bad. I was able to answer the questions...and didn't write 'I don't know.' like I did for all the questions on the Math WASL."

Good news for me, but sucks to be Math. :)

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The Mother of All Pep Talks

10 April 2008

Tenth grade Science WASL testing happens next week. Meeting the standards is not required for graduation...and there are no penalties associated with not "passing." In other words, it really doesn't matter if the kids do well, but I still want them to be successful.

I've talked to my students a lot about not closing any doors. They might not need their scores to earn a diploma, but they do need them to access thousands of dollars in scholarships for technical school or college. Even if they aren't thinking they want to go to college now, I am suggesting that they keep the option available. Who knows what they will want in 2 years? Due to military careers or other life choices, they may not even go to college until 10 years from now. Why not ensure that their transcripts are able to support them in the future? I've reminded kids that they have worked hard at learning all year---just go out and kick some tail on the test. I don't really know if any of this is sinking in, but I hope this extra bit of carrot coupled with my expectations for them will be enough to keep them engaged next week.

So far, I've been fortunate in the sense that while other teachers are hearing their students say that they're not going to show up to school on the science test days, my kids have not made those admissions. At least not to my face. :) Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but that already feels like a leg up on things. About 30% of my students met the standards when they took the science test in 8th grade. While I don't think that 100% will make it over the bar as 10th graders, I'd like to think that more than 30% can. I'm not hammering them on the test this week. We are spending some time looking at some of the problems and talking strategies. I feel good about their general understanding of the inquiry process. I just need them to give it the old college try next week.

I asked the principal to come in and give us little pep talk to my students. He declined, of course, and sent the ass't. admin instead. My main goal with that was to reinforce some high expectations and support for their efforts. He did a passable job. We both know that overcoming the undercurrent of "The test doesn't count." would require the Mother of All Pep Talks.

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Math First...Science Sometime

22 July 2007

As a result of some recommendations made by a state level commission, Washington is in the process of re-examining its math and science standards. These documents had been reviewed in the past, but the goal now is to make them comparable to international standards. The math review is complete and the verdict is that the math goals are too low. Other conclusions by the review team included that Washington standards are too much on the concept side and not enough on the basic facts side of the math world. In addition, the standards are a mile wide and an inch deep---they have not been truly boiled down to what's essential. Currently, nearly 40% of tenth grade students are unable to meet the standards in math.

Fewer students are able to meet the standards in science. I am cringing as I await the review of those standards and what that may mean. My hunch is that there will be some similar conclusions as with math---not enough "beef." Science is a bit of a red-headed step-child in all of this. Kids have to meet the standards in 2013, just as they will for math, and yet all of the attention and focus is on boosting math scores...which have a lot shorter road to travel than science. I'm not sure when people are going to start panicking about science, but it's already getting to be too late.

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Deal or No Deal

19 April 2007

Our state legislature is wrapping up its longer-than-usual session. I believe that Sunday is supposed to be the last official day of business, but those involved would really like to be finished sometime tomorrow. There is a giant-sized unresolved issue still out there: whether or not to delay using 1 or more of the WASL tests as a graduation requirement. The governor has threatened to veto any bill which includes the reading and writing exams. Many school districts don't like this idea---although passage rates are very high across the state. These districts are concerned that it unfairly penalizes ELL students and students of poverty. These kids do not constitute the majority of those who haven't passed. Personally, I think reading and writing should stand.

But I'm going to be a bit more radical here: the requirements for math (class of 2008) and science (class of 2010) should stand as is. I admit that these passage rates are in the toilet---moreso for science than math---but as long as we keep delaying the requirements, no one (teachers, parents, students) is going to take them seriously. Kids are going to be leaving our schools without a solid set of skills that they can demonstrate.

There are already some alternative pathways to meeting the standards other than passing the test. Kids have more than one way to show what they know. It just doesn't make sense to me to excuse any of us from that process any longer.

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S***!

26 January 2007

This letter went out to superintendents in our state:

Dear Washington State Superintendents,

I want to inform you about an important issue that is developing in the Washington State Legislature. A bill is being introduced this legislative session which calls for revising both the essential academic learning requirements (EALRs) and the statewide academic assessment system.

House Bill 1288 states that an Academic Standards Panel, made up of content area experts, will take a fresh look at the state academic standards. By next September, the Panel will make any recommended revisions to the reading, writing, math and science EALRs.

Secondly, a new WASL test will be developed based on the new EALRs. The bill states that the revised WASL must:

  • Measure an individual student’s annual growth in a manner that is reliable and valid;
  • Provide diagnostic results;
  • Be easily administered, quickly and easily scored, and easily shared with parents;
  • Be designed so that sample and actual tests are promptly available including individual student results;
  • Permit comparison to school districts and states outside of Washington;
  • Meet federal NCLB accountability guidelines.

The bill directs the State Superintendent’s Office to submit a student academic growth model (a system of measuring individual students' academic improvement as they advance from grade to grade) proposal to the U.S. Department of Education for NCLB purposes by 2009-10. This model would be based on results from the revised WASL.

Finally, House Bill 1288 removes all current statutory requirements and references to the Certificate of Academic Achievement and Certificate of Individual Achievement as a high school graduation requirement. This includes removing the requirements for students to pass the WASL, retake opportunities and alternative assessments.

Some of us were asked for feedback to our supe about this. My reaction? "S***!" Well, that was my initial reaction, but I don't think that he would find that particularly helpful nor enlightening. Here's what I did send:

We are not the only district to have spent significant amounts of time and money working on the alignment between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Personally, I am in favor of reducing the number of standards at each grade level. I think what we have is a great "wish list" for each area, but it has not been truly boiled down to what is essential. I am not in favor of scrapping what we have. I understand our need to prepare kids for a competitive world, including an international stage and yet we do not know exactly what jobs will exist in the future. Education is its own worst enemy: we never leave anything in place long enough to really get a feel for how it works. Starting over with standards is not an option---we just need to tweak what we have.

I'm a little ambivalent about the second item. I like the WASL, oddly enough, but I have never felt comfortable with it being used as a graduation requirement. To me, the one benefit of that is the student accountability piece. NCLB conveniently leaves parents' and students' responsibilities out of learning and that's really not okay. I do like the idea of an annual "dipstick" test and something less cumbersome than the way WASL is now (especially for elementary students). I guess the bottom line is whether or not it's okay for a kid to make some progress every year and never reach an "end point" in the standards. How will this be any different than just moving up a grade each year? We've had that model for decades and the dissatisfaction with that has really pushed the standards based movement forward.

Finally, I don't know how I can face teachers with this information. I can imagine the "See! I told you it would all go away!" reaction from secondary teachers. Those who never truly bought in to moving kids toward the standards will feel completely reaffirmed in their beliefs and I can't imagine how that will ever be overcome throughout their careers after this instance. How do we tell all the other teachers who have committed themselves to standards based teaching and learning, "Thanks for playing!" What incentive will they have to buy in to the next wave?


2007 is shaping up to be the quite the year in both our district and state. Good thing I grow out my fingernails as I'm going to need them to hang on to the wild ride ahead.

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Evolve or Die

28 December 2006

Washington, like many states, has a high school exit exam that is part of the graduation requirements. Students who aren't proficient with a 10th grade level of readin', 'ritin', and 'rithematic (and soon to be science) can't get their diplomas. In some ways, it doesn't seem like that great of a demand. Shouldn't 12th grade students be able to do 10th grade work? The bottom line right now is that many of our 11th graders can't, at least in the area of math. The threat that they might not graduate is enough for many schools (including ones in our district) to offer extended math courses for support.

The rub with all of that is twofold. One is for the kid. A colleague of mine likens all of this to going to PE everyday and only getting to do situps because your abs are in bad shape. You don't get to play team sports or run or do circuit training and so on. Gotta fix those abs.

The other major piece of fallout has to do with programs and teachers. Every student who takes an extra period of math is one less student who can sign up for an elective---and areas like Career and Technical Education (CTE) are starting to suffer.

According to an article in the Seattle PI, "...Educators [say] that fewer students are studying wood shop, accounting, drafting and other traditional vocational courses as districts strive to bolster basic skills. In Tacoma, the state's third-largest district, enrollment in career and technical education courses is down 5 percent this year from last year. That's about 500 fewer students taking a CTE course."

We offer some great CTE options in this district. A kid can graduate with a Windows NT or Cicsco certification, among other areas. Some of the teachers in these classes are very purposeful about reading and writing support. But others which could have a far stronger math and science connection aren't making the shift. Imagine how they could sell their programs to students by integrating the math support into shop class...or science remediation with materials science. The standards movement isn't going to go away---and these areas are going to have to adapt or they will become extinct from the schools. They have a great role in the educational ecosystem and I don't want them to disappear. Some school districts, such as Bethel, are figuring this out. "...Enrollment in CTE courses is rising, fueled by its increasing student population and offering of more 'applied math' and other classes that can meet both academic and career and technical credit requirements."

As for the kids who are enrolled in more math, working on their abs, as it were? I wonder how many of them are like this one: "Green, who said he plans to join the Army after high school, is not pleased to be in 'Math Ramp Up.' 'All I do is work on stuff that I already know and then fall asleep,' he said." If you know it, kid, how come you can't show it? Or perhaps you snoozed through your previous math courses, too?

The legislature convenes in a few weeks. One of the items to be considered is whether or not the requirement for students in the class of 2008 and beyond meet the standard in math should be continued...or put off until 2010 or 2011. Most math teachers think that delaying the requirement is a mistake and that we will be no better off in a few years. My guess is that most CTE teachers are keeping their fingers crossed for a reprieve. If that happens, I hope they find some way in the interim to evolve.

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What Next?

02 December 2006

Many of us in Washington are a bit surprised to discover that the state supe has reversed her stance on requiring students in the class of 2008 (and beyond) to meet the standards in math in order to get a diploma. Even last month, she was telling parents in our town that delaying this requirement would only mean that progress in the classroom would also be slowed. Now, both the governor and she have said that they will recommend the math requirement be changed to first impact the class of 2011. There is some concern that the timing is politically motivated, with an election year just around the corner.

Letting all of that go, for the moment, I have to wonder about what the plan will be for science. Meeting the standards is currently scheduled to be a graduation requirement for the class of 2010. If math is going to be put off until 2011, might the science requirement also be changed to an even more distant point in time?

I'm not quite sure what to think about that, should that turn out to be the case. As a district, we've been scrambling the last two years to structure our scope and sequence, revamp buildings to support more science classes, and identify and purchase aligned materials. Might it be another six or seven years until things "matter"? It is not as if all the efforts we have made so far are for nothing---if anything, kids will have a more solid experience over a longer period of time. This can only help them when meeting the standards in science becomes a reality.

Mind you, Mighty White Boy filled my ear yesterday about how science just isn't suited for a test because of the content...and how math is only skills and no content, which is why (like reading and writing) it makes more sense to test math. Besides, science isn't really all that important for kids to learn. Why, "they" should just do away with the science WASL and have teachers submit classroom based assessments instead. I bit my tongue. It would have done no good to quarrel with his "expertise," although I had to wonder how many out there shared his view.

I feel a bit in limbo now. The state seems to have forgotten science at present, but they can't do so forever. The feds are already slated to include it as part of a school's AYP by 2010. Yet until the state gets its poop and a pile and gives us a plan, we districts are islands unto ourselves. I just wish I knew what was next.

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Is Our Legislators Learning?

19 November 2006

Some of my fellow edubloggers here in Washington have already posted a thing or two about the new Washington Learns report. For those of you living elsewhere, Washington Learns was an initiative by our governor to take a deep look at the educational system in this state. The report is meant to prod the legislature into making a commitment to providing a quality/world-class system here in Washington.

In general, there are some good suggestions here. Every dollar spent for early childhood education saves eight dollars that would be spent for remediation later. It's a no brainer that the Washington Learns group suggests phasing in full-day kindergarten and reducing class sizes k-3. A first grade teacher in my district referred to her role as one of "baking the cake." She meant that if teachers at the primary levels didn't create a basic foundation, no "icing" could be added in later grades.

Other things in the report are a bit scary. As much as I like the idea of supporting high quality math and science education, this part bothers me (emphasis added):
  • By December 2007, the State Board of Education will adopt international performance standards for math and science benchmarked to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and will adopt high school graduation requirements aligned with those standards.
  • By July 2008 for math and by July 2009 for science, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education will identify no more than three curricula for elementary, middle and high school, along with diagnostic and other materials that are aligned with the new standards.
  • By December 2007, the State Board of Education will incorporate into their accountability plan the requirement that schools must use one of the state curricula, with exceptions granted by waiver from the State Board of Education for districts that demonstrate outstanding student performance in math and science.
Um...are we really going throw out the state standards that we've developed over the last ten years? The same ones that the WASL is aligned to...not to mention all of the districts who have developed alignments to those standards? I don't mind a state approved list of curricula, but only three? This seems quite limited. Meanwhile, what happens to districts like ours which just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new math and science materials...let alone little districts which can afford change even less than we can? Some publishers out there are vicious lobbyists. How will we ensure that the selection process for these materials doesn't line the pockets of those with flash instead of substance?

Mind you, none of the items listed above has the caveat that most of the things in the report do: "Subject to appropriations..." This means that the legislature isn't going to consider subsidizing or supplying these materials, once they are chosen.

Some people in my district aren't too concerned about the report simply because of all of the items that the legislature would have to find a way to fund (and in a hurry). I suppose that a "wait and see" attitude is called for. The legislature won't convene until early next year and their extended session could well last into the summer. Whatever things happen as a result of this report will likely not occur according to the suggested timeline. Legislators may not choose to accept all of the report. Their ideas about what learning should look like in Washington could be more broad.

In the meantime, I'm off to have a closer look at the TIMSS and PISA benchmarks. I haven't the heart to tell teachers that it's possible we could be starting all over again.

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Blood, Sweat, and WASL

31 October 2006

If you're an old-timer on this blog, then you know that I helped the district organize a summer program for kiddos who didn't pass the 10th grade WASL last April. Specifically, the program targeted students who were classified as a "near miss" by the state. Test retakes were in August, and we have been anxiously anticipating the results. The numbers finally arrived today.

News is good. Perhaps not as good as some would like to see---especially in the area of math---but you really have to get in and walk around inside the numbers a bit in order to really think about what's going on. Seventy percent of the Reading kids passed, 85% of the Writing testers passed, and about 40% of the math kids passed. Preliminary scuttlebutt among districts (since the state hasn't formally released information) is showing us that our students did better than several others.

And what of our summer seminar kiddos? I'll leave Reading and Writing out of the discussion, as the numbers were so small. In math, however, kids made a 16 point gain over their April scores. For students outside the targeted audience, this wasn't enough to put most of them over the bar, but they certainly got a lot closer. When we compared the groups with those kids who retook the math WASL but didn't receive any assistance, we were able to see that the gain was more than triple for those in the targeted group who got tutoring, and more than double for the others. In both cases, kids who participated in summer seminar had a lower average than kids who didn't---and then ended up vastly outscoring non-participants in August.

The bottom line here is still being ferreted out. We can say that the materials the state provided were helpful. We know that intensive tutoring and teaching around the standards can make a significant difference. Targets are clear for students to be able to hit. I don't know how many classroom teachers will take such a message to heart during the regular school year, but I hope that at least some will pay attention.

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Happy Dance

21 September 2006

I got to go and do a bit of celebrating on Monday night. I helped a fifth grade teacher last year with science instruction. Her students had fared poorly on the state assessment the previous year and she decided to see what could be done to help her current crop of charges. I went out and worked with her students twice. She used released items from previous assessments to gauge their progress---we looked at things together and talked about what else kids could do. Then, we held our breath for the results.

Her kids did very well. She tripled the number who met the standard...and had another three within five points. That accounts for nearly half of her students and was a far cry from the three who passed the previous year.

She deserved to do her happy dance. She actively sought out help, cared enough to keep trying, and is further enthused about learning and sharing with her peers. You know things are good when someone's husband stops by your desk twice to thank you, too.

She's worried that I'll be too "popular" this year to come out and work with her students again. It's true, I do have more on my plate and more teachers to think about. But her kids are my kids and I'll make some time to go out. She's also worried about getting her peers on board...how to be enthusiastic without gloating. We'll work on that, too, through the cadre. I'll take these little victories any way I can get them.

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Small Victories

01 September 2006

Last September, a fifth grade teacher in the district contacted me to say, "Help!" The previous school year had been her first back in a regular classroom after being an elementary PE teacher for several years. Standards and testing had passed her by...and only three of her students (all of them identified as gifted) had passed the science WASL. She wanted better for her kids.

I knew nothing about working with fifth graders (a year later I don't know much more), but decided to jump in and see what we could do. We did a bit of "Bubbleology," some work with expository writing, and a few other strategies...and then we waited for the WASL results.

At first glance, things looked good. As a school, the grade 5 science scores increased by 8 points. This is a statistically significant gain and represents a nearly 50% increase in the number of kids who met the standard. But the teacher I worked with was not the only fifth grade teacher in the school.

The teacher called me today to give me the skinny on how her kids did. This year, she had nine students meet the standard, and three more within five points of doing so. Out of the nine, only one was identified as gifted. In other words, her work toward focusing her instruction made a real difference with real kids. This was incredibly exciting for her and I couldn't be more pleased with her success.

We're scheduled a celebration in a couple of weeks. I am anxious to toast this small victory.

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Unhip Data

24 August 2006

I've been staring at the district science data for awhile this afternoon. This is the fourth year. By now I'd hoped to see some sort of trend, even if it was just holding steady. But it's just not there. The Inquiry strand at Grade 10, for example, is 40.1, 42.1, 40.3, 42.1 since 2003. When you look at the individual school data, it's even fuzzier: so not trendy.

I can't help but do some in-depth pondering of the data from the school I taught at over the last 10 years. Longtime fans of this blog know I've had a major tug-of-war this year about what the targets should be for kids. My view is that they should be what the state tells us are our foci; many at the school believe that they should get to decide what to teach. The data this year show that only 25.1% of the students met the standard in the content area of science---by far the lowest score in the district. Will teachers be ready to help kids learn what they need to know this year...finally? Maybe the data will make a difference. Meanwhile, this same school had the greatest growth of anyone in the area of Inquiry: up 11 points to 47%. Scores in the other process strand are also up a bit. So, teachers have kids who are able to skillfully think about how to do science...it's just not meaningully tied to content.

Really, the ups and downs of the data and general lack of trends just means that not a lot is changing (especially at the high school level) in terms of making high quality instruction a priority for all students. It's very frustrating. It's looking like the junior highs might be on the right path, but high school teachers are going to have take more responsibility for their part in things. Should be quite the challenge for me this year to get that point across.

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Playing the Odds and Evens

08 August 2006

We expected 104 students for the math WASL retake this morning, and like yesterday, we tested far less: 89 came for the morning session...and 88 returned after lunch to finish the assessment.

The two teachers who have been working with students since the end of June in order to prepare kids for the retake tested their own students. The other 50-51 occupied space in the library. Interestingly enough, the library students were done far ahead of the others. The students who have been preparing all summer have been well-trained in thorough thinking and taking their time with problems. They have been working through five hours of math per day for 20 days. They were ready to sit and make the test their bitch after spending their summer in school. My guess is that there will be a significant difference in their scores---not just vs. their original results, but against the kids who just came and retested. I think the odds are stacked greatly in favour of those who made the effort to prepare.

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WASL Problem

07 August 2006

Imagine a district where approximately 120 students are eligible to retake the Reading portion of the state test. All students must take and pass the exam in order to graduate (or at least take the test twice before seeking an alternative pathway). Slightly less than 30% of the eligible students register for the retake. Of those, only two-thirds actually show up to take the test. How many students came to the retake this morning?

Twenty-four.

I figured that we'd have a couple of no-shows, but 13? It did make for a much simpler day, but it did make us scratch our heads a bit as to why so many students didn't make it to the test. We had been a bit worried about finding enough space for the 100+ scheduled for the math portion tomorrow, but after today, I don't think we'll have any problem. Even more mystifying were the students who attended the Reading Summer Seminar all last month and didn't come to retake the test. Why would you spend so many hours in a prep class and then not bother to come for the big event?

I will say that the kids who did show up today were focused and diligent in their efforts. I really hope all of them were able to pass this time around. Math, in all its glory, starts bright and early at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Maybe a few more students will be able to get out of bed for it.

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WASL Redux

03 August 2006

Summer Seminars are done. :) On Monday, we soldier forth into WASL testing. I've arranged the space, "table tented" the id tags, bought hundreds of bottles of water and snacks, sharpened umpty dozen pencils, and brought all of the tests up to the area and secured them. Proctors are trained and kids have their postcards with dates, times, and allowed items. We're as ready as we'll ever be.

And the kids? The ones who've attended the Seminars feel like they're prepared. They're ready to rock.

Teachers are cautiously optimistic---thinking that the kids who the program was designed for are shoo-ins for passing and the others are still probably not going to make it...but will get a lot closer. I've already had several phone calls from kids and parents who did not do the Seminars and have changed their minds about testing next week.

I'm looking forward to the quiet calm of the testing environment. It will be good to have a few days where my main worries are cell phones and the use of mechanical pencils. I only have to be in one space all day and there will be very little to do. I'm hoping that the kids who do come will be successful---and certainly knowing that everyone who is there wants to be there and intends to put forth their best effort should engender a certain esprit de corps. We'll all hold a bit of breath in until scores are released in October.

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Save Us, White Boy!

13 July 2006

I met with the new me today: the person who will take my summer work and make it a full-time year-round position. I was on the interview committee for this job and this guy was not the first choice. We were railroaded by the new Boss Lady who had apparently made up her mind before we interviewed anyone (and she was ably assisted by one of the junior high principals).

I truly hope that I have to eat my words about this guy. I'd like to think that he will be someone who can not only figure out how to work with the high schools to help kids who don't pass the state tests---but also can do something about the frightening achievement gaps we have in our elementaries. But after spending time with this guy today, I think Boss Lady 2.0 made the wrong call in hiring him.

He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that's probably the nicest way I can describe him. Gosh, the elementaries must not know how to grade. He'd better look at the report cards and see what's wrong with them. He'll fix communications right up with parents by sending out more letters. Can't the clerical staff make all the hundreds of phone calls? (He has a reputation of crapping on secretaries and not being able to finish tasks on his own.) He doesn't need anything we developed this spring, because hey, it's probably useless anyway. If he heads out like a bull in a china shop to the schools in a few months, he's going to send a message he can never overcome.

Half of his job is to be the district resource person for "cultural competency," a role he thinks he's highly qualified for. You see, he worked with the privileged offspring of diplomats at a private school in Africa. I do imagine that gave him some experience in working with a variety of viewpoints, but that's not the same as working with Kurdish immigrants, welfare families, and the other stakeholders we have here. And he's white. And male. I know he can't help that, but I think the district would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community.

Mighty White Boy looks like he's going to crash and burn. Oh, I hope I'm wrong. There's too much at stake for our kiddos.

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Summer Seminar vs. Summer School

11 July 2006

Summer school---the kind that parents and kids pay for and students can receive credit if classes are completed---had its kick-off yesterday. There were lots of last minute registrations. Most of these were due to the schools sending out notices late, rather than families being lazy about getting kids enrolled.

My teachers and program are an oasis. And after working for the Summer Seminar, I don't think these teachers will consider doing regular summer school again. Why? First of all, we pay more. Our math stipend is $7200---and yes, the teachers do work more hours than they would in summer school, but they also have far fewer students. The Reading teacher has 6 kids and will make as much as if she'd taught the 30+ high school kids downstairs. Meanwhile, there's no grading. Kids do receive formative assessments all the way along, but with 6 - 14 kids in a class, the take home work is minimal. And finally? The curriculum is already pre-designed. So much for planning time.

As for me, I have a pretty sweet deal, too. Most of the work I was hired for is complete. I'll have to deal with the WASL retakes in a few weeks, but otherwise, this has been about the easiest $10K I've ever made. It will likely be the last attainable (and generous) stipend, too, as a "Student Success Specialist" has been hired to do this job full-time and year-round.

Eighteen more days. :)

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New News and Old News

06 July 2006

A reporter came to hang out with our math kiddos this morning. We're grateful for the good publicity for the program and I think the students liked the attention. The teachers and I are anxious to see the finished article, which should be available in Saturday's paper. New news is good news in this case.

I was struck this morning by just how diverse the two classes of students are. I "created" the sections by grouping kids according to their WASL scores. This program is really meant to support students within a narrow range of scores and while we certainly didn't want to turn away any student in need, we had some concerns about holding back/slowing down the learning of the kids who were targeted to be there.

Student scores aren't stamped on foreheads, so none of them know the basis for their class assignments (unless they figured it out on their own---we aren't advertising this feature). They're all working through the same curriculum, albeit at different paces. Can you imagine what is readily noticeable when you enter the classrooms? One class is very pale...the other has several students of color. I'll bet you can guess which one is comprised of the higher performing students.

The teachers and I talked about this some after classes today. It's news to no one that ethnicity is an issue in achievement. Yes, we know it shouldn't be---kids are kids and tests are stringently evaluated for bias here. But the reality is simply that there is an achievement gap and we have to deal with that. Old news, I know.

I will say that this newly developed curriculum we're using and change to the instructional style for the math seminar appears to be very engaging for our lower performing group. As compared to the mighty whities in the next room, this class has a lot of energy: they talk about the problems, want help, ask questions, and really get into things---even though some of the tasks are frustrating (given their ability level). I think this bodes well for future applications.

I don't know if the reporter noticed these same things today. Her focus seemed to be on the individual perspective rather than the group dynamics. She was there to cover an event rather than provide analysis of it. I guess we'll find out on Saturday what's news to her.

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Hard Questions

02 July 2006

I've talked with lots of parents over the last couple of weeks---parents of kids who didn't pass the state test (WASL) this spring. Most of the kids missed it by that much, as Maxwell Smart used to say. Others were way below the mark. Regardless, there were several hard questions I was asked by parents.

The hardest of all? "How come my kid got a 'B' in Honors English, but didn't pass the Reading and Writing tests?" I also had a math version of this question asked this week: "How come the teacher didn't prepare my son for the test?"

The Honors English parent was angry---she admitted as much, because she didn't want me to think she was mad at me. But my answer didn't make her feel any better about things. What I had to say was that the teacher didn't choose to focus on the standards, and instead evaluated the student on different expectations from what the state said a 10th grader should know. Because the teacher didn't use the standards for instruction, her assessment of student skills wasn't close to the state assessment. You can imagine the follow-up question: "Why didn't she do that?" The only one who can answer that is the teacher, although the parent might also like to pose the question to the principal, who is responsible for monitoring the instruction.

To be fair, the 10th grade test should be a culmination of all of the efforts k - 10. It's easy to point to the 10th grade teacher, but there were lots of people along the way who should have been building student skills. I pointed this out to the Math Parent, who was mad not only about his kid not being prepared to pass, but also being stuck with a poor teacher (in his opinion) all year. Mr., you're going to have to call The Union on that one---they're the ones who protect bad teachers.

In two years, kids are going to have to pass the science test in order to get their diplomas. The best reason for me to do this summer work for the district is to get a "heads up" about what the interventions are going to look like before we have to be added to the mix. I've already been delivering a very unpopular message with teachers all year: if you can't document that you've done what you were required by state law to do (teach the standards assigned to you), parents can come back and sue you. Teachers don't like that idea. If you have your own personal idea of what "biology" should look like, then why would you bother seeing what the state thinks is important?

Parents are going to ask us a lot of hard questions in two short years. I hope I can help teachers see that they're going to have to be prepared to answer.

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TMI

18 June 2006

My additional duties over the summer include managing a summer program for our sophs who didn't meet the standards on the state tests in April...and making sure the retakes in August run smoothly. School isn't out yet (3 more days!), but I've already been getting the program components in place.

This was the week that student enrollment began. I had lots of parent phone calls, many of which provided me with "too much information." For example...
  • My husband and I are having a fight. Ht thinks that our daughter take the class this summer and retake the test in August, but I think she should just continue her math sequence in the fall and retake in the Spring. Which one of us is right?
  • It's ridiculous that kids have to explain their reasoning on the test. No one has to do that in the real world. You just call someone and get an answer. That's all that matters. Why should my kid have to write out answers on the test?

Not to mention the number of families who didn't read their letters properly, seem to have been living in a bubble over the last 5+ years and claim to never heard of graduation requirements, or are under a delusion that their kid is going to make up several grade levels in reading during a 16-session prep course. How about moms who are more worried about how their sons are going to be able to go to weight training for football with this pesky math class interfering? (Keep in mind that the tutorial options are free and not mandatory.)

I have quite the call log going. Part of the reason for it is that we actually get money from the state for all of this "academic counseling" I'm doing. But the other part is simply a way to document all of this in case these same parents want to sue the school district for not helping their children to graduate.

There is a job posting right now for someone to do this job full-time. I've been asked to sit in on the interviews. It will be really good to pass along all of this (especially the TMI tidbits) to someone else...especially the phone calls.

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Listen...

02 June 2006

Do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?

Closer...
let me whisper in your ear...
say the words you long to hear...

WASL scores are good!

:)

More specifics to follow when things are officially ready for release...

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WASL: Act II

17 April 2006

Tenth graders in our state start their second week of testing tomorrow. The first was in March. It is now time for them to take their math and reading WASLs. Students in grades 5 and 8 will also take a science test, but it won't be until next week.

I'm not expecting grand results in science this year. I suppose I should be hopeful, but most of this year has been spent getting teachers ready to make the transition to a standards-based curriculum. Few have actually attempted to get their students to the there on their own. Scores will arrive in August and I hope that I'll be proven wrong.

I don't have any 10th graders in my class this year to cheer on. I do, however, wish them all very well.

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To Credit or Not to Credit

13 April 2006

I talked with principals this afternoon about our summer "intervention." The question came up as to whether or not "retro-credit" students who pass the WASL in August...assuming that they didn't pass their school year classes.

The idea is that this might be a kind of carrot to motivate at-risk kids. They need both passing scores on the state test and a particular number of credits in order to graduate.

Personally, I think this is a bad idea. First of all, the state test only has a slice of the full amount of information covered in a year-long course. Also, what happens with kids who passed their math class (for example) during the school year, but not the state test. After they pass the test, do they get additional credit? What kind? Content area or elective? If you give elective credit, then you're taking away potential teaching positions from other areas, because the kid won't need to take another class. Meanwhile, the whole thing feels like "double dipping": the kid gets twice the credit others get for the same amount of work.

I do understand that the students who attend this summer are putting in an additional 16 days of seat time (roughly 10% of a school year). But shouldn't the ability to obtain a diploma be reward enough?

This topic is sure to come up again at other sessions with principals. I can hardly wait to hear what teachers do with this idea.

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A Rose By Any Other Name

07 April 2006

I know that many of us in the edusphere have expressed some frustration with all of the "educationese" that's out there. But there is one term that makes me giggle: intervention.

I first saw this term last year when the Scope and Sequence group I was working with was looking for some information on remediation. Apparently, the new way to talk about remediation is to say that you're doing an intervention. My group had a great time with this term. It conjured up a picture where a kid wakes up...and all of his/her science teachers are sitting in the room. Personally, I think that would make for a great intervention.

The program I'm organizing this summer for 10th (soon to be 11th) grade students who barely missed meeting the standard in math, reading, or writing is being referred to as a "WASL Intervention." I can't believe I'm going to be an intervention specialist for a few weeks. So much for remediation, eh?

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Now We Know Part of the Answer

25 March 2006

This is the first year that meeting the standards will be required for graduation. Mind you, this applies to this year's sophomores (class of 2008) so that they have additional time, if necessary, to retake the state test or pursue an alternative route.

The state is pouring money into support classes and remediation. This is helpful, but of course I wondered who would teach it? I'm fortunate to work in a larger district and we can probably find some way to entice a few more teachers to give up their summer in order to help tutor kids. I'm not sure what all of the small districts are supposed to do.

I've been asked to coordinate the summer program for my district, so I guess I know part of the answer to my question of last month. I won't have to teach the modules, just get things organized and help run the WASL retakes in August. Might be an interesting way to spend some time this summer.

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Comrades in Arms

13 March 2006

Mr. McNamar and the Hedgetoad have kiddos who are WASLing this week. The Reading and Writing portions for Grade 10 began today. Math and Science (gulp!) will be in April. This is the first year that the test will count toward graduation requirements.

There was an interesting article about WASL in today's Seattle Times. Regardless of what you think of The Test, there's no denying that it is having a positive impact on instruction. When I am out and about in my district, I do see good things happening in schools. Do I see evidence of "drill and kill"? Rarely to never. Do I see "teaching to the test"? Perhaps. But I think of it more as "teaching to the standards." The "test" part comes in when we used released items with students in order to familiarize them with the format...not the material itself. I see lots of teachers who want to do the best they can. I think that can only help every child, not just those from middle-class anglo families.

To Mr. M and Hedge---best wishes to your kiddos. Keep your fingers crossed for mine.

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Fussy, Fussy

07 March 2006

I was whining to some teachers I worked with today. You see, we have our first week of WASL testing next week. (Perhaps you've noticed the Hedgetoad and Mr. McNamar noting the same.) Only sophomores are required to take the test. In the past, we haven't had much flexibility in what we do with juniors and seniors during this time period, but now we do. Now we have too much flexibility.

There are only two more school days this week (Friday is an staff inservice day.) and we teachers have yet to see a final schedule of events. Does this not seem a bit late to you? What am I supposed to tell my students who come from another school to take my class? And my Boss Lady at Curriculum?

Really, I just have to go with the flow on this. It's just a bit irritating that no one bothered to work on these issues until this week...and they're still working on them.

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Okay...But Who's Gonna Teach It?

20 February 2006

Sophomores in Washington state this year are the first lucky bunch to have to meet the standard on the state tests in reading, writing, and 'rithematic in order to get their diplomas. No one is exactly sure how many will manage to do this the first time around. In previous years, less than 40% of sophs were able to "pass" all three tests...but then, there was no stakes associated with the tests. Will students take things more seriously now that there are?

Other states have seen significant gains in these sorts of cases. However, even if we do, the numbers are not going to be 100%. There are going to be some students who will still need to retake the tests they don't do well on. This means a free trip to summer school.

The state is rolling out "modules" for teaching summer school. (Not all of the modules are yet available on-line, but you can sneak a peek at the reading ones here.) These modules are specifically for helping those kids who are "high twos" (meaning just short of passing). No plans are currently being made for the "low twos" and all of the "ones."

Great. The state has curriculum. They have set aside money for summer school support. But I'm left wondering...Who's going to teach all these thousands of students? Most districts---including ours---had a hard enough time in previous years convincing teachers to work through the summer. Considering that many teachers have to take coursework to maintain their certificates, how many will be available to teach during the summer? And how many will want to?

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Superfreshman!

30 October 2005

It's a bird! It's a plane! No...it's Superfreshman!

The title for this post might also be called "When is a sophomore not a sophomore?" More districts in Washington state are catching on to the idea that in order to receive class standing in high school, a student should have a particular number of credits. Seattle is the largest to jump on board. The impact of "reclassifying" students based on credits should have a very interesting impact on WASL scores because it means that those students least likely to pass won't take the test this year. (You can read more about this idea in a recent Seattle Times article.)

Like you, I've read lots of articles on whether or not kids should be promoted to the next grade level based on their performance (or lack thereof). Most of these seem to look at this practice at the elementary grade levels. (Mr. McNamar over at The Daily Grind was thinking about these ideas a little while ago. I recommend a look at his post.) Does having a structure around promotion at high school also increase the dropout rate?

We have this system at my school---and have for some time now. Originally, the idea was not to make WASL scores better. This was before NCLB and other expectations. We wanted to provide a motivation for students to focus on learning. If you think you're a junior, but your picture is in the "sophomore" section of the yearbook, perhaps you'll make more of an effort to get your credits up. If you want all the privileges of being a senior---picking up your schedule first, getting a locker, going to events, voting for Homecoming court, etc.---then you must have the requisite number of credits. It doesn't matter how many years you've been in school.

Has the program worked as intended? I don't know that we ever really collected any hard data on this. There have been plenty of anecdotal pieces over the years. I can think of several kids I've had who've gone to summer school so that they could do senior things or talked about how they are trying to make up credits before the yearbook goes to print so that they're in the "right" section. It might be a negative variety of motivation, but it did have an impact. One of which was to our vocabulary as any second year student automatically gets "Super" attached to the beginning of their title. :)

Mind you, all of this was in the days before the new graduation requirments---when credits were enough to get a diploma. Kids now have to pass the WASL, complete a senior project, and file a "Year Plus" plan for what they will do following high school. Reclassifying students will now also serve schools and likely boost their WASL scores. If you're Seattle and the lowest 25% of kids won't be taking the tests this spring, you stand a chance of looking pretty darned good.

Which kids are in that lowest 25%? Boys? Minorities? SPED? ELL? Probably---but I don't know that anyone has thought of looking at that. Will being superfreshmen make them more ready for the WASL next year? Unlikely, unless schools plan some targeted instruction for those kiddos. I know mine hasn't.

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Implementation Dip

20 August 2005

Is it a condiment---something that goes well with crackers? Perhaps it's an elegant dance move. Or maybe it's a derogatory term for someone who works to put something into practice: a stooge. The "implementation dip," as it turns out, is an explanation for a negative change in test scores after new instructional practices are begun.

The concept belongs to Michael Fullan, an expert on instructional leadership and change. (I wonder if anyone has called him an "implementation dip"?) "According to Michael Fullan, the early stages of an innovation are likely to involve participants in considerable difficulty and frustration. The real benefits of the new approach may not be realized or noticed for months. In fact, early attempts may result in failures of various kinds. Fullan suggests that participants need to know something about the change process and this implementation dip before they proceed so as to minimize problems with the next peril . . . disillusionment." (source)

I mention this because a colleague of mine told me yesterday that it might help explain the backslide in our Science WASL scores. The idea is that teachers are doing some different things and learning to modify their instruction. Since this is new, even if it is "good stuff" that they're doing, they can't be expected to have mastered it yet. In the meantime, there can also be a bit of rebellion on the parts of the students. They are used to having classes run in a particular way or assignments in a predictable structure. Changes in expectations for their performance can cause them to "push back" against these changes. All of this adds up to a "dip" in the data during the early stages of implementing the newer program.

I need to do some more reading about this idea. It does seem appealing, of course. How nice it would be to think that the drop in scores this year is actually a good sign. It's too depressing to consider how hard we worked in the past year and that we didn't get something positive out of it. Maybe we just need to remind ourselves that change takes time and that if we're looking for immediate gratification, we're looking for the wrong thing. Maybe we need to cut ourselves some slack and keep pressing forward. I'd like to think that we're doing the best we can.

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Some Good News

16 August 2005

Long-time Readers may remember some of my travails with colleagues within my school over our proposed plan for "bubble kids." These were students who we science teachers felt were in danger of not passing the science portion of the WASL---but probably could if they had a little help. (You can read up on the backstory here and here.)

We developed some different kinds of lessons and invited these kids to come to two tutoring sessions. Many of the identified group came for at least one session and seemed to find the experience worthwhile. But did it really matter when it came time for the WASL?

Apparently, it did. And I couldn't be more pleased.

I got the data this afternoon...matched it up with the names of kids and the amount of tutoring they chose to have. Of the "bubble students" who elected not to participate in any tutoring, only 10% met the standard (passed) the test. But for those kids who came to one or both sessions, 44% passed. This is a better rate of passage than the overall marks for the school.

There are some "unscientific" things about this work. We teachers did have data from which to base our decisions in identifying students, but there was also a degree of subjectivity. It might also be assumed that kids who chose to come for tutoring were more intrinsically motivated and cared about doing well---so naturally, their scores would be better. It's not like this was some sort of matched-group, double-blind, hoity-toity affair.

But we're not making widgets here. We're trying to help kids learn to think and be ready for the world that awaits them. And you'll have a hard time convincing me that our attempt to support these bubble-babes this year wasn't significant in some way.

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Look for the Silver Lining...

09 August 2005

Now that I'm somewhat over the sticker shock associated with the 2005 Science WASL scores, I'm trying to dig out some good news. I visited with the district Data Queen today, who told me not to be depressed...that I should just look at the scores as "My Challenge." Lucky me! (as my Sweetie well knows)

Anyway, there are a few good things that I've picked out of the data so far. One area of focus over the last year or two has been on Inquiry and helping kids write their ideas. Eighth graders have shown remarkable gains, with only a slight decrease in two of the eight areas they are scored. One attribute has shown a gain from 7.6% to 45.4% of the student population. We have also focused on teaching kids to write to the prompt. This, too, appears to have paid off for eighth graders: we have doubled the percentage of students who max out on the points.

I wish I had more information for the tenth grade version of things. But the state only provided information on one short answer item and no extended response items for that exam. Bummer. The good news that I do have for that grade level is that in looking at the cohort information (how kids did when they were in 8th grade vs. how they did this past spring as 10th graders), there was a significant increase in the number of kids who met the standard (even though our overall percentage decreased from 2004 sophs). So, we are moving more kids up and over the bar.

The Data Queen also shared that it appears that while eighth grade scores in science will decrease by about 3 points statewide, our district showed an increase by that much.

So, why are we still not doing as well as we'd like? And what's the deal with the sophomores? I have more data to peruse, but at this time, it looks like a content problem. Maybe getting the scope and sequence in place will fix some of that. The other part is, of course, instruction and student learning. We are going to have to change some of what we do in order to "tie" things together better for kids. At eighth grade, a kid is responsible for knowing all of the science content they had in grades 6, 7, and 8. Can we help students encode this information and keep it fresh for three years (and beyond)?

Lots of work for me to do. Good thing the district is now going to give me more than one hour a day to do it.

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Ugh.

08 August 2005

I will have more detailed information provided to me tomorrow, but I got a glance at our district science WASL scores today.

I'm depressed after seeing them.

Two schools had drops of 10 points (and scores weren't all that impressive in previous years). My school did not have quite that significant of a slip backwards, but considering all of the adjustments we made last year and the hard work that went into helping kids...it's just frustrating.

The "real" story will be a bit better known in the coming weeks. Which kids didn't meet the standard---was there a particular segment of the population we missed? Is there a drop in scores state-wide?

The Goddess is going to crack open a bottle of wine and contemplate her navel for awhile. Things always look rosier through the bottom of a glass, right?

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Another Day in Paradise

28 April 2005

The WASL is history for another year. :) I must admit that I heard fewer complaints this year...and I even heard a few kids say today that they would miss the test. They kinda liked being in the gym with all their cohorts as if it were some oversized homeroom.

The day went by in a flash today. Not only were we on a shortened schedule (as we are every Thursday), but the classes were in an odd order due to the final day of testing. I covered a colleague's biotech class (again) this morning and then dealt with mine. My APers were very pleased with their lab results. My sophs were also more at ease. I didn't push them today---just let them work at their own pace.

A nice thing that happened today was that I gained another "convert" to my Cult of the Science Goddess. In this particular case, the guy (a teacher at one of our junior highs) had been a real thorn in my side for a long time. For whatever reason, he finally realized that I'm not another bureaucrat out to gum up the works...but rather to help him get what he wants in order to be a better teacher. He seems to at long last believe that I can make a difference. I have two more "hard sells" in another school in the district that I have to work on...but now at least I have one less on my list.

Tomorrow's Friday...and pay day. Not a bad way to be wrapping up April.

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Still WASL'ing...but now it's our turn

27 April 2005

The first part of the Science WASL was given today. Two other teachers and I went up to the gym (where the testing is being done) at the beginning of the day to greet kids and hand out some pencil sharpeners. We probably didn't get to every kid, but we tried to let them know we wished them well and had confidence in their abilities. Considering that this was the 7th day in a row of testing, they needed the affirmations. My poor little sophs were so downtrodden looking by yesterday afternoon. I took them out in the sun and had them do their lab in the fresh air.

Tomorrow is the last day of testing (finally)---apart from any make-up tests that need to be completed. I wish the school had something nice planned for the kids as a reward. Even just an ice cream bar to hand them on their way out of the test.

Next will come the waiting until August, when scores are finally released. I should mention that my department has had an ambitious goal all year. We want to raise science scores by 11% points---for a total passing rate of 50%. (Don't faint---we actually do much better than a lot of schools across the state.) Other departments in the building looked at 4 or 5%. Maybe that's more realistic, but we believe the standards are reasonable. We idenitified kids to target. We've done our best to support student learning throughout the year.

As for me? My next hurdle with students is the AP Exam, now only 8 school days away. Yikes. I'll be glad when it's someone else's turn in the barrel as far as "test season" goes.

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Random Thoughts from Friday

22 April 2005

I taught a colleague's biotechnology class this morning. Due to the wild and wacky WASL schedule, his course (which is ordinarily held after lunch) was at bat first thing this morning. He couldn't be here---as he does the stay-at-home dad thing in the morning and only teaches in the afternoon. Anyway, he left me an interesting lesson plan on the genetics associated with "race" and its relation to the movement of modern humans from Africa to everywhere. The kids and I had a nice discussion. When you really look at DNA, it shows you that race is just a skin color. What an arbitrary thing to put on job applications, standardized tests, and so on. Why don't we just pick hair color or eye color or something?

Later in the day, another colleague mentioned to me that cheating may be rampant on the WASL. He is one of the unfortunate few who was forced into proctoring the tests. (I hate the word "proctor." Ugh.) There are 9 groups of kids...54 kids per group...all clustered at 9 tables. They can't help but see what their neighbour is doing. However, kids do work at different rates through the test booklet. And just because you can see your neighbour's answer doesn't mean the answer is right. I wonder how much cheating is going on, though, and how much more will occur in coming years.

The weather here in western Washington is gorgeous today: sunny, blue skies, temps in the low 70's. It was so pretty, that I was in a hurry to leave school this afternoon...and forgot about a meeting I was supposed to attend. Oops.

I don't have "short-timer's syndrome" just yet. There are 38 more days of school. But with each passing day with my sophs, I can't help but think "that's the last time I'll have to do ---." And then I smile to myself. Not because I don't enjoy what I do, but rather I'm very much looking forward to doing something different.

For now, it's time to put my feet up and enjoy the feeling of freedom I always get on Friday evenings. Cheers!

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Don't ask the question if you don't want the answer.

19 April 2005

A short note today, as my AP kids took the "free response" portion of a practice exam. So, I have about 150 essays staring at me from the depths of my book bag. Plenty of answers to work with for an evening.

My sophs seemed to feel okay about the testing this morning. No specifics, mind you---but they didn't think anything on there was unfair. Their primary negative comment was just that it takes a long time to do. I agree.

In the meantime, as a pseudo-follow-up to yesterday's post, here's an article from today's Seattle Times regarding just how "high stakes" WASL has gotten this year.

And now, time for me to get out the red pen and bleed on some essays.

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Here We Come a'WASL-ing...

18 April 2005

Yes, it's time once again for the spring ritual known as "WASL." WASL is an acronym for the "Washington Assessment of Student Learning." Students in grades 3 - 8 and 10 sit for exams in reading, writing, and math. Grades 5, 8, and 10 also complete a science assessment.

Tomorrow is the big day: the start of standardized testing. For 10th grade, it is our first year giving it as a "high stakes test," although this group represents the last class for whom passage of the WASL is not required for graduation. So, what are the stakes? Scores are printed on transcripts---potentially impacting college admissions, scholarships, and hiring for jobs. Other than that, there's just "shame."

For schools, it's a different story. Test security has been ramped up. All high schools across the state will give the same test at the same time over the next school days. Students are forbidden to talk about the exam questions (after the test) amongst themselves or with teachers.

The second part will be more difficult. I already know that kids will come back from their science WASL and want to talk to me about it. "There was this question...and it asked -----. I said the answer was -----. Was I right?" I've already warned students that although I would love to hear about the test (after all, exam questions do get used twice), I just can't participate in that conversation. (It's the same way with AP, although the "free response" prompts are released 48 hours after the exam.) The kids wanted to know if there would be consequences for talking about the test. I said that this year, there aren't. But I also shared that I have known AP kids whose tests have been invalidated because they were talking about the test during a break. It might be good to practice some restraint.

My kids will have the science test on the 7th and 8th days of testing. I have been telling them that the "best test was saved for last." In truth, I'm actually a little nervous about them taking that one last. How much concentration and positive attitude will they have left after 6 previous days of testing? I do have some plans in place to pump them up a bit the mornings of their science test. Nothing extravagant---just some pencils and sharpeners...and notes reminding them that they're smart and will do well. Small carrots/rewards for doing the best they can.

Keep your fingers crossed for us.

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The Joys of Tutoring

16 March 2005

Today, two colleagues and I team taught. We had 70 sophomores who showed up for our tutoring sessions in planning a scientific investigation. Their feedback was fairly positive and I felt like the day was well spent.

The best part for me was getting to work the crowd with another teacher. Teaching is usually such a private endeavour. You shut the door to your room and work with 30 kids at a time. But it is so beneficial to be able to see what other people do and how kids react to it. And the ability to collaborate on and then deliver a lesson is a real rarity.

We have good people in my department. There are 5 men (two teach science part-time) and 2 women. We all have Master's Degrees. One has a PhD. Everyone enjoys working with teens and is also passionate about their subject. And in spite of our individual---and rather nerdy---idiosynchrasies, we get along very well. All these things make it a joy to work in such a place.

Will our work today make a difference for the kids we tutored? If we didn't think it would, we wouldn't have pursued it. Considering that not all of the identified kids chose to participate, we have an "experimental control group" more or less built into this process. Maybe the results of next month's test will give us some data to consider. I don't know that we'll do these particular tutoring sessions next year. This time around allowed us to "pilot" some curriculum that we would like to just roll in with our regular classroom stuff next year.

But next year will bring all new kids with all new needs. I'm hoping it gives me another chance to team teach.

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No Teen Left Behind

16 February 2005

The science department at my school is, for the most part, committed to doing what we can to improve our students' ability to meet the standards. Every year in April, our 10th graders sit for the "WASL" (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) in four areas: reading, writing, math, and science. Standards based testing in science is a relatively new phenomenon and we are still trying to wrap our heads around it.

Our current crop of sophomores represents the last graduating class for whom passing the WASL will not be required for a diploma. However, even though this year's scores won't "matter" to kids in terms of graduation, we do want to know that we have improved our ability in preparing students to meet the world after they leave our charge. According to a recent report both employers and college professors estimate that about 4 in 10 high school graduates are not prepared for their roles as a worker and/or student. We want to do what we can to decrease that statistic.

This year, we have attempted several alterations to our curriculum and instruction. We are also going to try an in-house tutoring program next month. Using a variety of data on kids, we have identified a core group who look like they'll be able to pass the test, but would probably benefit from some targeted help. We're going to pull them out of their regular science class twice in March and provide some additional instruction in their area of need. Maybe it will work...maybe not. But I'm hopeful. If anything, I believe it will boost kids' confidence going into the exam.

I have one colleague in the department who is completely opposed to all of this. After all, what does the test matter to these kids? And isn't it unethical to not be doing more for the low kids (instead of the ones in the middle)? He is a smart man with some good ideas---but he is unwilling to share them with us. And in the meantime, he has caused a great deal of uneasiness in what is usually a very fun group of people.

It is true that we are "writing off" the low kids this year. There are just some who aren't going to make it, no matter what we do or have already done. Our "tutoring lifeboat" is being built to support those who have a fighting chance. Is it kosher? In the grand scheme of things: no. But we are doing what we can do for this year...and continuing to make plans for the road ahead.

Today, I talked to my 8 that I'm putting in the lifeboat. I was honest with them about where they are and what things are looking like. I told them that there is going to be additional help, if they want it. And every one of them smiled and asked to participate. They want to do well---it doesn't matter to them whether or not they need good scores for graduation. They have something to prove to themselves and I know we're doing the right thing.

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