Open Letter To Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Others on The Idea of Assessment

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose5 Comments

Chancellor Dennis Walcott Visits School of the Future

To Chancellor Dennis Walcott, David Coleman, Merryl Tisch, and McGraw-Hill Publishers:

First, I’ll mention that, since the discussions of the Common Core Learning Standards came to the fore, I’ve had a plethora of chances to immerse myself in the new vision for a quasi-nationalized education paradigm. In NYC, as usual, education policy makers feel the need to set the standard for the nation, from Bloomberg’s mayoral control dictates to the plethora of interim, field-testing, and high-stakes standardized assessments from third grade onwards. On the surface, one might think I’m at the forefront of the work done around the Common Core.

Yet, my earlier concern about the chaotic approach to transforming education via the Common Core concerns me still.

We can obviously start with Dr. Diane Ravitch’s contention that we haven’t actually field-tested whether the standards would actually get our students “college and career ready.” From a teacher’s perspective, I’d like to get more focused, coherent, and yes, rigorous about my argument.

We can talk all day about these standards and the three tenets of focus, coherence, and rigor, but without the means to make pedagogy more viable and focused on the whole child, we miss out on yet another opportunity to do something important: growing better people.

For instance, yesterday and today, New York City elementary and middle school children had to take an English-Language Arts and Math test (respectively) as part of the NYC Benchmark Assessments, with the assumption that these tests will give stakeholders a chance to see how much students learned in the past few months.

After a careful glance of the material along with conversations with students and teachers, these assessments seem to do more to assess what students don’t know than anything else.

If the intent is to help teachers, principals, and others get a feel for the tests in April / May, then why not let these parties into the assessment process rather than excluding them? If the intent is to show growth from today to the tests, then why give a test where you know the majority of students haven’t even covered all of this material? If the intent is to signal to everyone that they must raise their expectations, then why must we let them down so frequently with our lack of clarity?

From people I’ve spoken to throughout the city, we’ve had almost three re-arrangement in priorities in the last five months. At first, people thought we would have to address both New York State and Common Core Standards, specifically because the Common Core in New York State’s eyes was a draft. Then, people thought we would teach according to the first testing schedule given sometime in late August / early September.

For eight grade teachers, that meant we would teach exponents first. Sometime last week, however, the state sends out a document shifting priorities on topics again, giving some topics greater emphasis over others after almost three months of teaching.

We’re almost begging for schools to fail.

Even when schools had a clear roadmap like in the state of Kentucky, schools still dipped by as much as 35% in scores, and for good reason. Anyone familiar with the standards already sees the forestand the trees.

But we continue to perpetuate the myth that higher accountability will improve schools, no matter what the cost. After today’s interim assessment, I am convinced that, if we cannot make our school system more focused on children and their communities’ needs, we will continue to fail them, with or without a state test.

We can do better.

I’m not angry; I’m simply seeking answers. While I don’t speak for all teachers, I do speak because of them, and a plethora of other concerned citizens. Hope to hear from you soon.


Jose Vilson

Comments 5

  1. As a HS math teacher, thank you for speaking on my behalf. I, too, am concerned about the over-emphasis on the CCLS where no curriculum aligned to it has not been provided. I am still using the PH pacing chart and its accompanying textbook. However, my colleague is using the new CC PH textbook, but no pacing chart was provided. Is the CCLS and the material to be used coming in dribs and drabs? Another concern I have with the CC is the assumption that all incoming 9th graders will be ready for HS math, but no semblance of what CC should be taught at the middle school, leaving us high school teachers wondering what skills and prior knowledge will the freshmen bring to their school.

    Once again, thank you for voice in bringing attention to our colleagues’ concerns.

    1. Post

      Zulma, thank you for commenting. The CCLS is still a little odd to me. I know they’re trying to push their agenda, and doing it quickly enough that we can move on without much discussion. However, I also have concerns about how they’re going to assess kids who, through no fault of theirs, didn’t get the prior CCSS content to do well with the present CCSS content. Too much to think about, but I guess that too is the goal.

  2. I recently enjoyed This is Not a Test after a friend and soon-to-be teacher sent it my way. I am confident yours is the most comprehensive perspective on the urban classroom narrated in this form—thank you for you honest reflections.

    For me, your perspective serves as a benchmark for the overworked and under-supported public servants among us trying to do right by children. As a teacher, my thoughts on policy reform were diluted by an awareness of the gap between what my students needed and what I felt able to give them. I wanted to establish a standard of teaching the whole child that I was proud of before participating in the reform conversation. It seems my hesitation was in part a product of what you allude to as “the locked teacher’s lounge.”

    As I read This is Not a Test I anticipated a constructive opinion about mathematics pedagogy. I was pleased to arrive at “Getting Less Than You Give (On Common Core State Standards)” but then disappointed at what I sensed was an absence of warranted endorsement—not necessarily with the process but with the product. A whole-child approach doubtlessly includes attention to quantitative literacy and the CCSS have the potential to focus and structure this attention.

    So, why not distinguish this conversation explicitly between the standards and the tests assessing them? You offer prescient principles around which educators can unite and high expectations for mathematical competence can and should be one of them. I expect you agree but that you, perhaps, imagine this conversation to be less foundational to the change for which you advocate. I restate: teaching children to be good people should include work towards quantitative literacy.

    In your chapter on the Common Core you imagine the ease of preparing your students for an assessment “without the added effort of making [students] self-sufficient learners” and imply that the current standards leave teachers and students “free from the responsibility of having to think about the work in front of them”. Your concern seems to be with tests and a testing culture, not necessarily with the skills and practices universities and the workplace want to see in incoming employees and students. I won’t quarrel with concerns over testing, a topic requiring debate and much-improvement. But the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics—what students should be able to do—are sound.

    “Students will make sense of problems and persevere in solving them…they make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt…they justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to arguments of others.”

    I often wonder how many people denouncing the Standards would be surprised to learn that the language above is in the Common Core State Standards for Math. I fear that many non-educators who read your book would be among the surprised.

    A whole-child orientation is undoubtedly the foundation of any meaningful change. I agree. But what will grow from that foundation? Why not use your Teacher’s Voice to endorse some of the academic achievement that can result from prioritizing the social and emotional development of our youth?

    1. Post

      Thanks for this comment. I appreciate the thorough discussion on this, as I keep thinking on these matters. On the one end, you’re right: the math standards aren’t bad per se. In my experience, I’ve found that we still have too much material to study in eighth grade, though a little less than what we had with the New York State Standards. The other part of this is how influential the NCTM has been in these standards, so I wouldn’t outright dismiss higher standards in general.

      Yet, the CCSS is a conversation apart. I would ask us to think carefully about this idea of assessment as a separate mechanism than the standards, much the way I would never separate the Pledge of Allegiance from the actions of the United States to uphold it. If we’re truly dedicated to the idea of “fewer and deeper,” a term used by both Coleman and Jason Zimba on multiple occasions to talk about the Math CCSS, then it follows that the pedagogy and assessment would also work in tandem with these elements. As such, your triangle is only as strong as its weakest vertex. It’s probably not even an isosceles triangle, but an obtuse one at this point, with assessment getting the most attention.

      Duly noted that I may have spent more time talking about assessment because that’s what’s getting the attention in the book, but it doesn’t take away from what I believe to be an exorbitant amount of time spent right now on making folks believe that what matters *most* is what business leaders and professors think K-12ers should be learning and not what students, teachers, and parents think. I’m much more interested in having a better balance between what communities think than what appears to be a one-directional accountability system.

      As such, the standards feel less like a set of instructional objectives and more like a Trojan Horse to further push corporate ideas onto schools. We may disagree on that, but, as of now, I’m still teaching with them with fidelity, including the math practices.

      1. I’m at once delighted and hesitant to consider your triangle analogy: delighted because it’s geometric and hesitant because I’m not sure it’s the best representation of how standards, assessment, and pedagogy should and do interact.

        Your specific example of an obtuse triangle resonates as an illustration of the counterproductive testing cultures in some schools. Rather than approach standards, assessments and pedagogy as related parts of a balanced academic approach, teachers are pressured to allocate precious (and yes, in some cases, exorbitant amounts of) resources to assessments at the expense of better-understanding the standards and developing a brand of pedagogy that works for their strengths, styles, and students.

        If I understand your analogy, it posits each angle’s measurement as a product of the attention it receives and posits an equilateral triangle—the case in which standards, assessment and pedagogy receive equal attention—as the ideal.

        Might we use a more productive figure for the metaphor, one that represents an elevation of Teacher Voice—a pyramid for example? I anticipate no objection to my placing pedagogy, the intersection of teaching and learning, at the apex. Every other element is supportive in nature and will vary in degree of impact based on circumstance and execution.

        This model places teachers above the spectators and, by extension, positions standards and assessments as a helpful but never sufficient tool to be leveraged for meaningful change. Most importantly, it allows for warranted endorsement as the baton is passed from the supporters (writers, assessments designers, administrators) to the executors (teachers).

        Teacher Voice: “These standards are good. They help us get part of the way there.” (The prospect that they are both maximally supportive and insufficient to move pedagogy affirms the pyramid structure.)

        Pyramid structure established, we begin to see assessments and standards as truly supportive. With the acknowledgment of quality standards, the proverbial baton is passed into the hands of teachers—our best runners—for the long and uphill finish. Though she can better her team’s position, the second to last relay runner will never win the race and, as such, is never expected to. Our gaze turns, rightly, to the anchor—the teacher. Not separate, now, but supportive, the spectators and teammates are moved towards compassion, empathy prepared for action. They are leveraged for the goal of the executor, a teacher or, in this analogy, a runner, who often performs best in arenas with the most supporters.

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