Conversations with teachers: Testing

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Teachers Jamie Cordes (Noble Street College Prep) and Kris Himebaugh (Orr High School) talk about testing during a roundtable discussion hosted by Catalyst Chicago on August 19, 2014.

Marc Monaghan

Teachers Jamie Cordes (Noble Street College Prep) and Kris Himebaugh (Orr High School) talk about testing during a roundtable discussion hosted by Catalyst Chicago on August 19, 2014.

What’s on teachers’ minds as a new school year gets under way?

That question led Catalyst Chicago to invite a group of teachers to our office recently for a roundtable discussion on the issues they believe are important to improving education, but don’t always get the public attention they deserve.

We reached out to more than a half-dozen educators from traditional public schools, charters and alternative schools. Five showed up for the discussion and had a lot to say: For nearly two hours they shared their thoughts about a range of topics, from testing and evaluations to student discipline and money matters.

(Catalyst convened a similar roundtable discussion in May with principals that resulted in a four-part series.)

Participants in our latest roundtable were Monty Adams, a science teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative charter school; Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street Charter College Prep; Kris Himebaugh, an English teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Orr High, a turnaround school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership; Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Catalyst transcribed and divided the discussion into a four-part series, which has been edited for clarity. Today, on the first day most CPS students return to school, we begin the series with a conversation about what seemed to be the biggest source of frustration — and confusion — among the group: testing.

It’s worth highlighting that some teachers were still unclear on whether all schools will be required to give the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (known as the PARCC) this year — and whether it will count toward evaluations. CPS officials confirmed last week that the PARCC is definitely on the district’s calendar for next spring, but it won’t be used for evaluations of teachers, schools or principals.

Illinois is requiring all districts to give the PARCC next spring to comply with federal mandates related to using curricula that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett — as well as CTU President Karen Lewis — have both expressed concerns about what the PARCC’s roll-out will look like, given the lack of discussion about the results of a pilot program last spring.

“We haven’t seen any of the information from the pilot,” Lewis said. “And the PARCC is supposed to be computer-based, but some of our schools don’t have the bandwidth to handle that.”

CPS officials said last week they have shared their concerns with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and indicated they may ask for some sort of waiver or delay on the assessment.

Here’s what teachers had to say about assessments:

Kris Himebaugh: I counted how many tests I would have to give this year that don’t even count for a grade and it would be at least eight. That doesn’t mean finals I would give, or quarter finals, or even a vocabulary l test.

Hen Kennedy: For us, some of those tests last for multiple days.

Amy Rosenwasser: I was just looking at the testing calendar Raise Your Hand Illinois posted on Twitter, and we’ll be giving the PARCC basically from the beginning of March until the end of the school year. My class may not be testing every day, but the school is testing and I can’t really plan anything because what if that’s my time to go in and test? What if something happens so that the computer system goes down?

Monty Adams: We have a small school, so it’d be nice if they just tested everybody on a single day. But because of the attendance problems, sometimes kids are taken out of their class — so you have half the class instead of the whole class. It’s incredibly disruptive to our teaching.

Kennedy: I feel like regardless of whether you advocate for more vocational opportunities or more college preparedness, the emphasis on standardized testing is doing a disservice to kids either way. You just don’t have to take standardized tests in life. It’s not preparing kids for life.

Adams: You can’t get inside of a kid’s head when everything is a multiple-guess answer. On any tests I make, I always make sure there are short answers or essays or you have to figure something out mathematically or show your work.

Rosenwasser: I don’t know how many of you have taken the sample PARCC test, but the biggest problem I’ve seen is just the navigation. Normally, when you’re taking something on a computer, and you finish, it automatically goes to the next page or there’s something that says “next” on the bottom right. But it’s not that way with the PARCC. There’s an arrow on the top left, and you’re just supposed to figure it out. I thought, “If I’m having trouble with this, how are 10-year-olds going to be able to figure this out, much less type and finish in 50 minutes or whatever?”

Kennedy: None of my kids can type. I really worry about kids who are already on the margins when they take tests like that. I’ve seen so many kids cry before tests, throw up before tests. The stress is very, very real to them. It’s kind of ironic, because for a lot of them it’s not actually a very meaningful test. But they absorb the stress around them. I don’t want my kids to feel like failures. I think the adaptive tests are better. The NWEA is better because you can focus on growth as opposed to just a static achievement level. But those [tests] still have their own issues in terms of high stress and high stakes.

Adams: The at-risk kids come in with so much baggage and such a feeling of failure. I spend probably about half the year trying to build their self-esteem when I first get them. These things don’t build self-esteem.

Jamie Cordes: I think the PARCC is really pushing thinking in the right way, and rigor in the right way. I agree that it’s going to be an awkward year while they iron out the kinks. And I’m not sure what it means to colleges yet, for example.

Himebaugh: What’s the right kind of thinking?

Cordes: I would say, a question that asks students to choose an answer that’s evidence-based, and also to provide a rationale, is going to be higher-order [thinking compared to] filling in a bubble. I can see on an English test someone saying, “You need a comma there.” But I don’t know if you’re just guessing. I don’t know what your rationale is.

Adams: But that’s what the Common Core is supposed to be based on. You’re supposed to be doing that in the classroom.

Cordes: I understand. I think that’s good. I totally understand, especially in the middle years, how testing for everyone might not be appropriate. Maybe the politics and measuring of it get complicated, but I also think that having some sort of yardstick is important, just so I know where I am headed.

Himebaugh: Should the rigor for your students be the same as for mine?

Cordes: I don’t know. Not knowing your students and not having been in your school, it’s hard for me to say. But I think that if you’re going to say, “This is the track for a kid to get into college, and these are the tests that are going to get them there,” then those tests are worthwhile and it’s an important message to students that this is what someone who is ready to be a college freshmen in a year or two is expected to do.

Kennedy: I just wanted to clarify something–I think the NWEA has been a useful yardstick. What concerns me is when it’s used as more than a yardstick. I like to have a lot of data points, and for the NWEA to be one on that broad spectrum of data points.

Catalyst: What is your experience with individualized, computer-based programs that help get students up to speed for these tests?

Kennedy: My experience with the Compass program was at the school where I taught previously. It’s very appealing because the program automatically matches kids up with what the test shows they need to work on. So there’s no work for the teacher involved in that, which is very appealing…

Himebaugh: Which eliminates your job eventually.

(laughter in room)

Kennedy: Which eliminates your job eventually, absolutely. But I think those programs can be useful to practice some very simple skills, like multiplication facts. I find their use beyond that to be problematic because it’s still ultimately pre-constructed, multiple-choice questions that students are responding to. But I’ve heard of these programs being used very widely in schools. At my school, there was a lot of pressure just to hit certain targets in terms of number of minutes per child per week, to make sure we were getting enough Compass and it would help their NWEA scores.

Catalyst: How many minutes?

Kennedy: I don’t recall, because I didn’t hit them. It was a school target, a grade-level target, so I never was called out individually for not hitting a target. It was never that type of environment. It was more like, “We haven’t spent enough time on Compass, make sure you’re getting to the lab.” It made me really uncomfortable.

Adams: That’s one thing that bothers me about the field of education. Everyone is still trying to come up with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ in education. And it doesn’t exist. Everyone is different, and they have unique things they want to pursue. I think we need to offer a wide spectrum of choices to students and sometimes force them to go into directions they’re uncomfortable with, because there’s no one-size-fits all.