Dear LEDC, part 2: Scenes from the Polk testing experience

Important late development. Polk District Chief Academic Office Jacque Bowen sent the following email late this afternoon. It doesn’t really change the substance of what’s below. But it’s a welcome development. And it’s a step toward making change — and reflects an encouraging change in mindset, I hope.

Good Afternoon,

Over the past several months, district staff has been engrossed in conversations with multiple stakeholders regarding current End-of-Year (EOY) testing practices. Through these multifaceted conversations, several valid concerns were revealed. Under the guidance of our new Superintendent of Schools, Jacqueline Byrd, accompanied by on-going collaboration with our teachers’ union, we have been exploring options that would support a more reasonable and logical approach to assessing student’s level of mastery. Although we plan to continue our conversations to ensure that our district practices and policies regarding what our student grades and progress monitoring (and its weighted contribution to a student’s final letter grade) should demonstrate to our parents, there is a need for change in practice now.

Therefore in response to feedback we have received, I am writing to each of you personally this morning to share that we are listening and understand your concerns. Although we are currently unable to eliminate all End of Year (EOY) assessments so late in the school year because replacement data necessary for state accountability and teacher evaluation requirements is not available, we can make some immediate reductions to the overall weighting of the EOY assessments in the students’ final grades.
Effective immediately, all high school EOY assessment course weightings will be reduced from 30% to 15% weighting; all middle school EOY courses will be reduced from 20% to 10% weighting. All high school, credit bearing courses taken by middle school students will have a 15% EOY weighting.

Currently, Student Information Systems staff are in the process of creating the electronic programming processes needed to retroactively apply the reduced weighting to 1st semester courses that had an EOY weighted at 30% (high school courses) or 20% (middle school courses). We are also creating the processes and procedures for applying the 15% and 10% EOY weighting to all year long courses. The new EOY weightings will be applied to semester 2 only.

Elementary schools will have no change as the EOY has always been only recognized as a test grade with the teacher having the discretion of any weighting to be applied to the student’s final grade. Please note, because of this late adjustment, it has been determined that any student whose grade would be negatively impacted or reduced by this retroactive change will be held harmless.

Finally, in an attempt to ensure our students are assessed on mastery of the standards, beginning in the 2016-17 school year EOY assessments will be replaced with a mid-term and a final exam at the aforementioned new weighting addressed above. Additionally, continued collaborative discussions with teachers, administrators, staff, and community partners will continue to explore reasonable options for progress monitoring and accountability reporting in order to foster a more reciprocal relationship focused on increasing student achievement.

I appreciate everything you do, every day for the students we serve!

Jacque

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In part 1 of this open letter to the secessionists at the Lakeland Economic Development Council, I wrote that meaningfully improving the Polk educational experience for students, teachers, and parents will require two broad strategies.

1) Control the Polk experience to the best extent we can.

2) Realize that most of what everyone hates about scoreboard education comes from state mandates (and to a much lesser extent, federal). The miserable experience Tallahassee imposes on all Florida school districts is a political choice. We chose it in 1998. We can unchoose it at any time, with the right combination of effort and power.

I intended to spend this piece discussing the second part. Unfortunately, a barrage of firsthand Polk testing horror stories have come my way in the last couple weeks — from teachers and parents alike. So I need to spend some additional time talking about number one. Congratulations, LEDC secessionists, you’re getting a trilogy. This is part 2.

Each of the detailed accounts that follows come from this year’s testing period, which I think is about complete. In some cases, the existence of the testing relates to the state’s mandates. But the execution on the ground, the maddening experience, is unique to Polk County. In that way, each story reflects choices Polk leaders have made or simple administrative incompetence. They span geography and type of school. In fact, I received enough stories to to create distinct genres in which to locate them.

In total, they reflect a Polk County Office of Assessment, Accountability and Evaluation Office that has shown itself utterly indifferent to how Polk County students, teachers, and parents experience the combined state and county testing regime. You can almost measure the indifference by how and where Accountability leader Heather Wright apportions her time on the job. I’ll illustrate this as we go. Let’s get started with the first genre and example.

Test doesn’t work; and we have no idea what to do

Pay close attention Steve Scruggs, Brian Philpot, and assorted Publix heirs (I say that very affectionately, fellas). This firsthand account comes from a “high wage, high skill” parent. His son attends a highly regarded fancy school — not a traditional zoned school.

While he is in 9th grade, he is taking Biology (a 10th grade class). Today was the [state-mandated End of Course exam]for Biology, so he arrived at the designated room at 7:25, and they began the process. He sat at his assigned computer and they instructed them on how to log in, etc. only, My son’s computer locked up and would not proceed. He tried a variety of things, but had to call over the proctor for help. She gave him a few things to do, including trying another computer, but since the process had already started on the first computer, that would not work (that part, is what I assume – nonetheless, the other computer did not work).

So the proctor emailed one person, who came in and said he didn’t know what to do, so the proctor emailed someone else, who did not respond right away. Meanwhile, keep in mind that all of the other students in the room are waiting to take their test. They cannot proceed until he is ready. They waited and waited.

At around 8:30 or so, my son approached the proctor and asked, “Is there a make-up day or something that I can do so at least everyone else can take their test?” The proctor said no, and right about that time, another administrator walked in and told him to just go to class so the other students can take their test. He asked about taking the test later and she said, “Yeah, you’ll take it later, but not this school year. You’ll have to take it next year.”

This parent shared this story with me on April 29. After several days of trying to clarify and getting no response from school or district officials, he finally got an answer on May 5.

Heard back from the school. The state “reset” his password, so he will probably take it in the next week or so.

This is probably a state technical problem. But Heather Wright could have made sure the officials handling this test knew what to do in this situation — and how to properly inform the students and parents afterwards. That’s her job. Instead, Heather Wright spent April 7-12 in Washington D.C. at the national conference of the American Educational Research Association. There she cheerfully played with other “accountability officials” and the data they all create out of their love of education and kids. She traveled there on the dime of the parent whose son experienced this. She traveled there on my dime — and yours.

Oops, double testing that punishes strivers and violates our own policies

This comes from science teacher Sarah Fortney, who is happy to put her name on it. Bless her. There’s a lesson here. On the record stories are more powerful. If you want to overthrow the mindset that produces all of this, you have to overcome your fear. I get it. People need jobs. But it’s easy to dismiss anonymous stories flowing through me. Teachers and parents, if you want real change, you have to take real risks and put real names and faces to real events. And you probably need to demand that your union leadership and PTAs take up this notion of “experience” as well. Publicly, relentlessly. Uncomfortably.

Anyway, here’s the bottom line on Sarah’s story.

She teaches Earth-Space Science Honors for 8th graders. This is a high-school level course that striving 8th graders take. It does not have a state End of Course exam (EoC) because Science in the 8th grade is assessed by the Science portion of Florida State Assessment (FSA), which is actually known as the Statewide Science Assessment (SSA). Confused yet? It gets better.

Polk County’s gargantuan testing calendar document suggests — without exactly confirming — that Earth-Space Science does not require a district-imposed End-of-Year (EoY) test either.

Here are the relevant screen shots.

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(By the way, I’m going to screen shot the entire testing calendar document at the end of this piece. It will take many screen shots. Goldman Sachs has much simpler spreadsheets.)

The document says that students take district EoYs for “courses w/o a state exam or industry cert.”

Note the ambiguity. It matters in this story. An EoC is a state exam. So is the SSA. Not specifying one or the other creates confusion. This murky imprecision is the hallmark of administrators who cannot administrate.

All science students take the SSA in eighth grade. The non-honors students take a course known as “comp science,” a general science course. The non-honors, “comp science” students DO NOT take a district EoY. That would be double testing. And yet, the honors kids in Earth Space Science were will be forced to take an EoY test shortly. This comes just days after they took the SSA.[Editor correction: the kids have not yet taken the EoY test. Billy’s error]

Sarah had some questions for her district-level superiors about the double-testing effort. She asked Karrie Wikman, the district’s curriculum specialist for 6-12 grade Science. Heres how Wikman responded:

Good evening. The Honors Earth-Space Science is a high school course, not assessed by the SSA (6-8 Benchmarks). Statute says that all eighth grade students take the SSA which places the Honors course in a unique situation. I have forwarded your concern.

In other words, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

So I have a question of my own, if the SSA did not assess Earth-Space Science, why did Earth-Space science kids take it? Why are we putting striving honors teachers and students on the hook through the SSA for a less-advanced class they didn’t take?

Let me say that again: if your kid took the initiative to take an advanced science course, he or she and their teacher were punished by taking an SSA that assessed a class they did not take. At least that’s what the district science curriculum specialist said. Clearly. It’s the least ambiguous thing anybody said.

Sarah has been haggling with district administrators who cannot provide any answers for several days now. There’s much more to it, including the utterly stupid fact that on your unnecessary EoY, the worst grade you can make is 59. But I’m trying to keep this as brief as I can.

If I were Heather Wright, I would be spending 24/hours day straightening situations like this out. I would be horrified that my lack of precision and administrative skill led to this situation. Instead, Heather is likely packing and planning for the big “Machine Learning Analysis of Text” conference she’s scheduled to attend in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on May 23-27. (The potential mischief contained in that ominous title fills me with dread.) Chapel Hill is a fun town, by the way. She’ll spend the per diem you and I provide on nice bistros, I bet.

Inappropriate tests for small children NOT required by the state

These are screen shots from a state Department of Education presentation concerning changes in assessment law that came out of the 2015 Legislative session.

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They say clearly that we do not have to do this.

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But we are still choosing to do it. This picture was taken this week.

Here is some narration from a teacher and parent.

[My daughter] is in the first grade and is prepping for final exams. This is disgraceful. I am told that the teachers have to enter the results of this IBTP as a grade. Tonight my daughter is practicing her reading. This is because her teacher tells her that tomorrow she has to read all of her math assessment by herself, and cannot get any help to read the math questions from the teacher. Developmentally appropriate? I think not! What are these tests, and what exactly do they measure? I am not sure, but my performance evaluation has been negatively impacted due to it. I work only with ESE students. I have sat [administrators] in appeal of my data, only to be told that my concern over misuse of this bad data, is not a valid concern…

Today I walked by the kindergarten classrooms at my Title 1 school. They were taking the paper and pencil IBTP EOY, proctors circling the room as tiny hands struggled to bubble in answers. There were only 20 questions, which leaves little room for error. I saw the teacher’s frustrated face as she watched her students unable to read the above grade level picture free comprehension passage that was placed in front of her students.

“The data is going to make me look like I taught them nothing all year. This is going on my evaluation”, she told me.

What the data does not show, is that these kids have learned. The constant testing has interrupted their learning time. The test is what is flawed, not their ability to learn, or their teacher’s ability to teach. The state of Florida and PCPS are failing our public school students and teachers. Today was a sad day in kindergarten. I pray that tomorrow will bring about drastic changes by people who really care. Thank you again for your efforts, and for taking time to listen to my concerns. As an employee of the district, I feel like I do not have a voice. As a parent, I wish that I could shout from the rooftops. The systematic teacher and child abuse has got to stop!

Again, this is all unnecessary. You can’t blame it on the state. It’s a Polk County decision. Why have we decided to do it? Late yesterday, I received some pretty extensive and carefully written answers to a number of questions I’ve asked of Heather Wright. I’ll post them all in separate piece. I don’t want to overclutter this one.

But this answer bears directly on the question I just asked. To repeat: why are we giving unnecessary math bubble tests to first graders based on questions above their reading level — and then using that to evaluate teachers?

Here’s the answer I received:

Although HB 7069 deleted wording requiring that each elementary school regularly assess the reading ability of each K-3 student, there was new legislation during the same legislative cycle incorporated into 1008.25, F.S. requiring districts to establish a comprehensive monitoring plan for K-3 student progression with specific criteria that emphasizes student reading proficiency in K-3.

In addition, Florida Statute 1012.34(3)(a)1 requires that “… at least one-third of a performance evaluation must be based upon data and indicators of student performance in accordance with subsection (7). This portion of the evaluation must include growth or achievement data of the teacher’s students …”

Mere mortals cannot penetrate the gobbledygook in the first paragraph. Fortunately, I am not a mere mortal. Let me translate it.

We could have come up with some other measure — any other — in the last year. But this way was easier/preferable for somebody not in a classroom.

The real question is why didn’t we spend the last year coming up with some other measure.

The sinister option is that Heather Wright needs this data for some reason related to her dissertation or some presentation she’s giving or something in her personal evaluation criteria or something related to the state grant she administers for test development.

The more human answer is that Heather Wright’s time, focus, travel, and priorities in the last year simply did not allow her to come up with a new measure. Also, Kathryn LeRoy probably wanted it that way.

Whether this reflects intent or neglect is a distinction without a difference for the people on the receiving end. Both are equal problems for the Polk County educational experience.

We need the data. So redo it. It doesn’t need to make sense, silly teacher

Here’s a final example of a more routine, deflating goofiness.

I am an elementary teacher and give the STAR test every 9 weeks for updating goals. We give it at the beginning of the 9 weeks we got an email from the district that told us to redo it because they want it done between May 2 and May 20 to collect data. My students just finished FSA, are now doing EOY for special areas and now FAIR and doing this to top it all off so they can collect data!

There are so many other horror stories I could use, from just this year.

It all presents a ghastly pattern of administrative incompetence. I object to Polk County and the state’s testing regime on fairness, academic, and decency grounds. But I can’t even really start to address those moral and intellectual questions because of the blazing hot incompetence of how they are given here.

District leadership needs to publicly own it, apologize for it, and vow to fix it the best it can every day. I do not expect perfection. I expect effort and focus directed to human experience. I expect recognition of the experience problem and public commitment to fixing it. I will cheer you on as you do it.

What does this look like?

If I were Jackie Byrd and Jacque Bowen, if I supervised Heather Wright, and all this was on my watch, I would have long ago fired Heather Wright. But if I were dead set on keeping her, for God knows what reason, I would order her to cancel every trip she has planned. I would order her to document at least 40 hours per week spent fixing the broken testing and communication system we have here. I would order her to shut down her dissertation and devote all of her time to her job.

If I were Lynn Wilson, I would demand of Jackie Byrd and Jacque Bowen weekly itemized bullet points documenting specific steps taken to make the testing process serve teachers and run less painfully. We did this. We did this. We did this. Basic workplace management and administration, like every other organization expects. Educrats are not immune.

Finally, let’s refer back to Citizens for Better Educational Leadership’s (CBEL) good faith testing/assessment concerns document. Here’s the key exchange with district personnel that led me to crawl down Heather Wright’s throat with the full force I can muster.

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Basically, we told them there is mass testing confusion sucking massive amounts of instructional time. They said, No there’s not. Go look at the website.

Here’s what Heather Wright wants you to look at if you’re confused by her testing apparatus. It takes eight giant screen shots to mostly capture.

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A person I respect deeply, who is in public education, sent me a mildly chastising note a couple days ago. It echoes some questions I’ve heard from other people I respect.

You may need to consider that your anger is directed to the wrong place. Can you use your energy to make changes at the state level?

The answer is to that is Yes. 1000 times Yes. That’s where my sights are set. Believe me. But I can’t get to the state yet; because the Florida Department of Education (DoE) is here right now, plundering the Polk County landscape. Heather Wright is an occupying army for the DoE. In the answers I publish later today or tomorrow, note how she uses the state as both excuse and shield. As if she became administrator of a statewide testing grant against her will. She’s no one’s hostage.

All evidence suggests that the testing chaos in Polk stems from the fact we have a DoE mole in charge of our testing and assessment experience. Prove me wrong. And let me be explicit about how Heather Wright can shut me up. Send me one paragraph that reads like this:

I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the experience I was contributing to. I want to improve it. Moreover, I promise you, for the next four years, I will shut down my dissertation. I will shed all professional responsibilities that do not focus explicitly on making Polk’s testing experience the most seamless and least painful in the state. I will not travel in the weeks leading up to the testing window. I realize now how damaging the state Department of Education’s mindless requirements are. I will help Polk County fight them to extent that I can while obeying the law and protecting our funding. And I will never work for DoE. You have my word on that. I promise you, even though I don’t live here, that Polk County’s children will be my top professional priority.

I don’t think any of that is unreasonable. I’m not asking her to move here. She can even get a doctorate in four years if things improve.

Send me that paragraph, and I’ll no longer write about firing you, Heather. I’ll be waiting anxiously.

7 thoughts on “Dear LEDC, part 2: Scenes from the Polk testing experience

  1. My daughter is in first grade at a Polk school with an amazing teacher. Last week she emailed us about the first grade EoY. It seems completely superfluous if the actual objective is to measure student achievement. There are many opportunities in the everyday classroom experience that provide data showing what students are learning. They take Accelerated Reader tests on books they have read. They are tested on reading fluency with a words per minute passage. They do Math Masters, on which they have “levels” they can move up after demonstrating proficiency. All of these are measurable performance tasks that show students’ growth OVER TIME, instead of just a snapshot of a given day. Again, if they were truly interested in student learning, that’s what they’d look at, not a single score that has been manipulated to make the district happy. They are measuring the teacher, not the learning of the students. We are not trusted enough to assess our own students accurately, reliably, or truthfully, thus the drive for standardized, proctored tests. The pieces are there for us to collect meaningful data, but a one-time test is easier to administer and score, so that’s what we do.

  2. My 9th grade son who attends Haines City IB is usually calm regarding testing. Last week he suddenly became stressed. His Algebra 2 teacher had been out several days and told them they would need to learn Chapter 11 on their own for the EOC and did not give them a test date. He then found out while the teacher was out again that the test would be in two days. He had an A in the class and now was going to be taking a test that he was not prepared for and counted as 30% of his grade. I emailed the principals asking them to alleviate our concerns and the only response I received was that they would forward my email to the teacher. In addition, we had more stress regarding testing due to him being faced with his first two AP tests being on the same day. The teachers first advised him to go home sick after the first one. Then they found out he couldn’t make it up unless we paid for it. He got up at 5:00am as usual, traveled to school and didn’t finish testing until 4:00pm with no break for lunch. He wrote 4 essays during this time and one teacher said he couldn’t prepare them for everything on the test and hoped their essays would pull their multiple choice grades up. He is intelligent and probably did fine on all the tests and I am sure that college will provide more testing nightmares, but this was a very stressful week for us and I feel the school let us down.

  3. Please envision a little old lady standing with a huge grin on her face clapping and cheering wildly. Go, Billy, Go!

    I volunteer almost full time in a kindergarten classroom and see firsthand the experiences and situations about which you have written.

    The voices of caring and capable teachers and school administrators seldom reach the ears of those in control of decisions. Hopefully, your researched, factual, and direct words will be read, understood and heeded.

  4. Great Job Billy!

    I might also add the following: does anyone realize just how much downtime these tests take? A two hour-forty minute Civics test lasts until almost 2 p.m. (It starts around 9:50. Students/Teachers held until all lunches completed. The same with all of the other tests including the EOY’s. Classes are frozen. Students are frozen. Teachers are frozen. Teaching time lost. Just like the parent above whose student didn’t get a lunch, some students don’t get to lunch until almost 1:30 in Middle School. These EOY’s are not the answer. They aren’t required. If Hillsborough or other counties aren’t required to have them, Polk County cannot say they must. Collection of student data can be done in several ways including various testing and other variables.

    Heather’s trips during the months of April/May should not happen. How much time has she been working on her dissertation during work? Why did the county hire an Assistant for her when she is always away on trips? Also, what does her Secretary do when she is out all of those days?

  5. Citizens for Better Educational Leadership won a small victory today and the 163 children I’ve taught this year will be relieved. We still have a long, long way to go. Change is slow but we as a community need to keep working to fix a system the PCSB seems most unwilling to do.

  6. I would love to get you a copy of our spring testing calendar for the traditional high school I teach at. My frustration is that I teach an ‘elective’ which still has an EOY. But in each class I teach at least THREE different grade levels. So for since February, at least three days of each week have had students out for testing. Sometimes half the class, sometimes just two or three, but each day someone is out. My class is very hands-on, so assigning makeup for the missed times is almost impossible. I can choose either to do nothing meaningful, or leave some behind. I’ve been through the FCAT years, where life basically stopped for a week, and I can miss a week. But I can’t miss three months.

    The worst part about this is our poorest students are the ones most affected. They have failed the required test the first time, so they must be offered retakes, either 2 or 3 times a year. So they missed days in the fall too. Many times they have given up on the testing process and simply refuse to go. They get their ‘ticket’ for testing the next day and just stay home. Or they head out of your room and just disappear. Eventually, before the window closes they have to be tested so an administrator shows up and escorts them to testing. Now it’s not one missed day, it’s two or three.

    Finally, the thing that most concerns me is that beginning next year my salary will be determined by the performance of my school. I have four certifications, including the one most difficult to get in the state, and two not far behind. I have 15 years of teaching experience including IB, but I chose to stay home with my daughter 10 years ago until she started school. So despite my total years of service (and running a summer school program each year during those five years I was ‘not employed’, my hire date says I’m on a performance contract. And I have absolutely no idea what that means for my future, because I feel like I have no control over the data used to evaluate me.

    I would love information on how to join you organization, and appreciate everything you are doing. Thank you for being our voice. And you are right, Sarah Fortney totally rocks

  7. Why are some “end of year” or “end of course” exams given in April? What does it say to a student when she takes her EOY with five weeks left in the Y? Does the rest of the year not count?

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