from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Challenging Bad Educational Policy 

Today’s educational diary can be found in its original at The Forum for Education and Democracy, which describes itself as
devoted to supporting educational policies and practices that prepare the young for a life of active and engaged citizenship
. The home page offers links for Parents and educators, press, and Policymakers. You can also sign up for an email newsletter.

Among the programs listed on the policy page are “High Quality Schools and Teaching, Equity and Equality, Balanced Decision-Making, Accountability, Forum Projects, and High-Stakes Resting. I want to thank professor Angela Valenzuela of educational equity, politics & policy in Texas for making me aware of this site.

The contents of the blockquote are an article released in September about the victory scored by a small groups of schools in the New York School Performance Standards Consortium that uses performance based assessment combined with a rigorous approach to education. Originally granted a waiver from NY’s Regents testing regime by a previous education commissioner, they were face with the mandate of the new commissioner that they had to be in full compliance with the testing regime, which was contradictory to their educational mission. The article describes in detail how they succeeded in continuing to maintain their exemption from the testing regime. It is an important article for those who are concerned about what testing is doing to our schools, both because it describes an alternative approach to assessment, building support for that approach, and winning a victory, one requiring persuading the public and decision makers to support their approach. I think it worthwhile reading for anyone who is concerned about education and our current misguided insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment through testing.

The original source of the article can be found here. Because the article has now been widely distributed, the entire article is in the blockquote below. Pleas take the time to read, offer your comments, and if you can make others aware both of the article and of the website / organization from which it is derived.

Challenging Bad Education Policy
by Ann Cook and Phyllis Tashlik
Tuesday Sep 20, 2005

As everyone in education is aware, testing is the nation's dominant education theme and regularly occupies newspaper headlines. And New York State, once considered a leader in innovation and professionalism in education, has become a poster child for high stakes testing. In its high schools, five exit exams are required for graduation. As a result, coursework has become dominated by test preparation and lost any semblance of intellectual rigor, while the drop-out rate has climbed.

This past June, however, a small group of schools won a significant victory. The New York State Board of Regents extended their waiver from the state's high-stakes Regents tests permitting them to continue using their performance-based assessment system and innovative curriculum in lieu of four of the five Regents exams.

 Their battle, however, actually began a decade ago when they were recognized as exemplars of secondary education by former New York State Commissioner of Education Tom Sobol. Believing that their practices promoted "top-down support for bottom up" reform, Sobol designated them Compact for Learning Schools, granted them a waiver from state exams, and directed the Education Department to conduct annual reviews of the schools' performance. With his departure, however, the Board of Regents renounced his initiatives, embraced his successor's agenda, and adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment.

 In response, in 1998 the schools formed the New York Performance Standards Consortium. They were not just saying No to testing. They were offering a better alternative-a system that includes student performance, professional development, curriculum innovation, rubrics for assessment, a documented success rate for college acceptance and perseverance, and oversight provided by an external board (the Performance Assessment Review Board), a group of twenty-two experts on curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

They set about disseminating information about the system, publishing articles in major and minor publications and repeatedly emailing and faxing public officials, journalists, educators, and parents. It became clear they were building something and would not just disappear.

When the Commissioner determined that all "alternative methods" of assessment required approval from a State-appointed panel, the Consortium convened a group of experts to formally present their performance assessment system. The result was devastating. The panel determined that since the system was not a test, it could not be approved. Similarly, the State Education Department (SED) violated the terms of the waiver and never conducted a five-year study to evaluate the system's effectiveness.

Weil Gotshal and Manges, a New York City law firm, working pro bono, sued the Commissioner and the SED arguing that they had acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. Although the State Court of Appeals ruled in the State's favor (customary, when the State is the object of a suit), the case yielded volumes of critical documents. For example, from official minutes of the State's own Technical Advisory Group showed that the State's tests lacked the pro forma technical manual and that some of the official studies intended to demonstrate the reliability and validity of the statewide tests were sparse and inconclusive.

Parents of Consortium students organized Time Out From Testing, a state-wide coalition of grassroot organizations and participated in rallies, petition drives, letter-writing campaigns, press conferences, and background briefings with legislators, policymakers, and members of editorial boards. Teachers, parents, students and members of the business community testified at numerous legislative hearings as did members of the academic community who presented research on the consequences of high stakes testing. In Rochester, Consortium schools helped organize the Coalition for Common Sense in Education, a group that linked the academic community with concerned parents and teachers.

As learning standards eroded, the Consortium instituted a series of panels including historians, writers, scientists, literature professors, and mathematicians to review the Regents exams for overall quality, alignment with state standards, accuracy as an indicator of college readiness, and skill level demonstrated by exam anchor papers as compared with Consortium students' papers. Part of each session involved panel members actually taking a portion of the exam. This reality check led them to strongly condemn the use of such instruments to determine either subject competence or high school graduation.

In the report on the science exam, scientists concurred that, "nothing in the test gave students insights into scientific thinking, such as "developing deductive reasoning; stating and testing hypotheses; . . . understanding estimation and the difference between correlation and causation; and recognizing and understanding patterns . . ." Similarly, other panelists said about the American history exam: "It's bad enough that valuable time is spent teaching for the test. . . . But worse is the very real possibility that what will be taught in those sessions is a very simple-minded notion of what history is."

It was this realization that led Eric Foner, former head of the American Historical Association and DeWitt Clinton professor of American History at Columbia, to send a letter of protest signed by more than twenty-five leading historians to the Board of Regents.

Fortunately, the SED often became an unwitting accomplice in the struggle. One parent caused a major embarrassment when her research on bowdlerized literature passages in English Regents exams was exposed on the front page of The New York Times and in The New Yorker magazine. Then some 70 percent of the students taking the math exam failed; unable to renorm the test quickly, school officials replaced scores with students' coursework grade. In physics, too, there were norming problems and errors on chemistry, biology and American history exams.

Demands for accountability escalated. In 2003, the New York State legislature held hearings to examine the Regents exam policy. More than ninety percent of the 2000 parents, teachers, testing experts, union officials, students, and members of the business community who testified were highly critical. Evidence presented by researchers documented that New York State now ranked 45th in the nation in graduation rates; furthermore, Black and Hispanic youngsters had the lowest graduation rate of any state!

As criticism gathered strength, organizations like Fairtest, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the United Federation of Teachers played critical roles, providing data and the latest research findings, organizing email campaigns across the country, and speaking with key policymakers at critical moments.

The climate for change had been created. In the Republican-led State Senate, a bill extending the Consortium's waiver passed unanimously. Responding to pressure, the Chair of the Assembly Education committee secured a one-year extension of the waiver. Consortium members and supporters continued to meet with individual policy makers, though those meetings often revealed the dilemma commonly faced by advocacy: In private, public officials were sympathetic, even supportive; but in public their posture reversed.

In 2005 the Senate again sponsored legislation. After a heated debate, it passed the Consortium bill 51 to 9. The Speaker of the Assembly again yielded to pressure and brokered a deal, extending the waiver for five more years and proposing a comparative research study that may yet influence system-wide changes.

Of paramount importance in this debate was the recently completed College Performance Study (M. Foote, 2005) documenting the college performance of Consortium graduates. Tracking students into their third semester of college, the three-year study drew on official transcripts for over 750 graduates. The results were impressive: not only were Consortium graduates attending competitive colleges, they also showed higher than average persistence rates and earned above average GPAs; all this, despite the fact that Consortium students represent a more disadvantaged population than students throughout New York City high schools.

The Consortium's performance assessment system offers a powerful alternative to New York's failed policy of high-stakes and excessive testing. Its victory against a rigid and stultifying system will demonstrate, over time, that students can succeed when teaching and curriculum, rather than testing regimens and punishments, define assessment.

The lessons of this hard-won, improbable victory are clear and urgent: Attention must refocus on the classroom. Teachers, other educators, and parents must reassert the centrality of the classroom as the starting point for education policy, not the dead-end for top-down orders. As Doug Christiansen, Nebraska Commissioner of Education has said, educators must assume leadership roles, for unless they do, "change isn't going to happen."

Policymakers need to visit more schools; listen to those who work closest with children; study the abundant research that has been published on good teaching practices; ensure that policies permit flexibility to meet the diverse needs of children and school communities; and promote alternatives that work.

The victory in New York shows us that changing bad policy is something worth fighting for. Despite formidable opposition, change can occur and people just like us--teachers, parents, students, and allies from every corner--can make it happen.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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