Sunday, July 20, 2014

New developments in statewide standardized assessments

More of an observation than any actual analysis.

In a document published in April 2014 (Assessment Transitions Communication), the state announced that it had planned to start publishing interim assessments*.  In the same document, the state published the conclusion that the Smarter Balanced assessment was really the only way forward.  Since then, the legislature (not the MDE and not the Bureau of Assessments) has decided not to fund the Smarter Balanced assessment, at least not until they go through a bidding process.  I wonder if the interim assessments are going to go forward, because that really would have been useful.

*Interim assessments are defined as tests that students can take throughout the school year to measure their progress.  Not, as the name suggested to me, something they're doing until something better comes up.  Although they're doing that, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer news on Michigan schools

A little bit of posting links so I can find them again, and a little bit of analysis. 

First, new rules on teacher certification.  The last new rules made it easier to get re-certified: just don't skip the district-provided professional development you already have to go to, and you can re-up your professional certification every 5 years.  I don't remember what the rules for renewing a provisional certificate, or moving from a provisional to a professional certificate, were, 'cos last year I was too freaked out about getting my professional cert renewed.  (Turns out I needn't have worried.)

It looks like the new new rules, effective as of a week ago, make the process of using in-school PD more consistent with using college credits or SCECHs (state-approved, non-district provided PD). 

MEA's flow chart on new certification rules

Next, the state-wide summative assessment.  Until last year this was called the MEAP, and it was the sort of fill-in-the-bubble test which it turns out really only tested reading, no matter what subject name was at the top, but that was okay, because that's pretty much what the ACT does.  (We all know that the ACT is the last word in school efficacy.)  For the last 3 years or so, we have been moving towards the Smarter Balanced assessment, which is computer-based, still kind of multiple choice, and a whole lot harder.  (I for one think this is a good thing, but it has its skeptics, and they include some of the smartest people writing about schools in America.)  Also, unlike the MEAP, the Smarter Balanced assessment was going to take place in the spring, after we'd taught the students what was going to be on it, rather than in October, before they'd learned anything but where to put their backpacks at the beginning of the day.

Over the last year, a number of states have started to backpedal on using the Smarter Balanced assessment and the Common Core standards to which the assessment is tied.  This is a problem for two big reasons.  1.)  The reasons for slowing down have nothing do to with effective education, assessment, or accountability, and heaven knows this plan has plenty of those problems that need addressing.  They seem to be nearly entirely political, which is interesting because the reasons for changing from MEAP to Smarter Balanced also had nothing to do with education and were almost entirely political.  2.) Schools have spent the last 3 years getting ready to implement the Smarter Balanced assessment, and 5 years implementing the Common Core standards.  To change now, the year before everything is supposed to come to fruition, would make for an enormous waste of time and money, neither of which schools have in abundance to begin with.  

Michigan is one of the states backpedaling on the Smarter Balanced assessment.  The state government passed a school aid budget that did not include funding for the Smarter Balanced assessment, but did include money for the MEAP assessment.  This, predictably, caused a freak-out.  If you worked in an auto manufacturing plant and were told that the whole plant was going to be re-fitted, so that instead of making Ford Focuses you would now be making Hummers, and then come to find out you're still making Focuses after all, that's the kind of whiplash change we're talking about, only the re-fitting has taken 5 years and you still had to build Focuses the whole time. 

Today the State Superintendent's office issued a clarification memo, of sorts: It won't be the MEAP after all, we're just calling it the MEAP because that's what we used to call it.  It won't be Smarter Balanced, either, because there's no money for that.  We're going to make a new test, just for school year 2014-15, which we promise will be much better than the MEAP, and we'll get back to you on what we're going to do for SY 2015-16 later.  No word on who's going to design the test--my guess is they're going to take questions from old MEAP tests.  No word on who's going to publish the test--my guess is Pearson.  No word on if the test will undergo anything like the months of prep work and field testing across 45 states that Smarter Balanced has already gone through--my guess is no.

MDE's clarification on student assessment memo

Friday, June 27, 2014

Changes to the Michigan Merit Curriculum, WL edition

NB A link to the full law, as well as the excerpt of the relevant paragraph, are below. +

HISTORY: In 2007, Michigan passed a law called the Michigan Merit Curriculum.  Among other things, it required a minimum of 1 high school credit in static or performing arts, 1 credit per year (up to 4) in mathematics, including algebra 2, and 2 years of world languages other than English or equivalent experience.  The world language requirement would come into effect for the graduating class of 2016 (the students who start 11th grade in the fall), giving schools 3-6 years (depending on how close they wanted to cut it) to gear up that program.

REVISED LAW: On Tuesday, Gov. Snyder signed an update to the above law.  Its objective was to increase flexibility in high school scheduling, especially in regards to career and technical education.  It allows students to replace their algebra II class with a similarly rigorous CTE course.  It also allows students to fulfill up to one of their WLOE credits by taking extra art or CTE, up through the graduating class of 2020 (that's the class that just finished 6th grade and will begin 7th grade in the fall).

ANALYSIS: Replacing math with CTE  is cool, because there are lots of opportunities for using data and building mathematical models and interpolating and extrapolating and real-world trigonometric functions in careers and technical training.  We had a CTE course on robotics for a few years in St. Joe County; I'll bet they got their math on in THAT course. 

The replacement for WL is more nebulous. It allows students to swap out one of their years of WL for another "elective."  Art (including music) and CTE are valuable courses, and all too often we compete with each other for high-level students.  It's hard enough for juniors and seniors to take one of these things, because they're required to take English and math all four years (which I approve of), plus get all their other requisites in.  It's nearly impossible for them to take more than one.  This change does give them some flexibility to pursue individual interests, and that's a good thing.

The difficulty I'm having is in this: in the not-all-that-long-a-day, not-really-very-much-of-the-year, often-interrupted structure of the world language classroom, genuine acquisition takes a long time.  Only the original legislators know why they wanted 2 years of WL in the original bill, but the Michigan World Language Association, the state organization for language teachers, recommended two years as the minimum amout of time necessary for students to reach the Novice High level of competency*.  This is defined** as being able to fuction in common, everyday communication situations that presented no difficulties.   Cutting this requirement down to 1 year means students with no other language experience will have enough competency to recognize when the language is being spoken and feel bad that, after ONE WHOLE YEAR (probably like 140 hours, or two weeks of what you were exposed to when you were a baby learning English), they don't understand anything.

I'm not sure I have room to complain, really.  Students are still required to take a minimum of one year of a world language, which is more than was required before.  Many students will continue to choose to take the second year, since this is still a requisite for entry into most colleges.  The ones who don't, though, the ones who choose to take only one year...It's better than nothing, it will be good for them, I'll make it worth their time, and they'll leave being able to speak a little Spanish and understand a lot more.  Besides, 1 required year is where the entire arts department currently rests.  I guess I'm a little offended because this is so clearly schedule manipulation, based not at all on research in education or language acquisition, but on what state lawmakers view as the priority for our schools--making sure students have time in schools to learn skills that employers ought to be responsible for teaching them anyway,

(2) In addition to the requirements under subsection (1), the board of a school district or board of directors of a public school academy shall not award a high school diploma to a pupil unless the pupil has successfully completed during grades K to 12 at least 2 credits that are grade-appropriate in a language other than English or course work or other learning experiences that are substantially equivalent to 2 credits in a language other than English, based on guidelines developed by the department. For pupils who graduate from high school in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020 only, a pupil may partially or fully fulfill 1 credit of this requirement by completing a department-approved formal career and technical education program or curriculum or by completing visual or performing arts instruction that is in addition to the requirements under subsection (1)(a)(iv). 

*Michigan Department of Education (2007).  World Languages Standards and Benchmarks. p 5.

** American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (2012).  ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners.  Note that the link goes to the most recent version of the Performance Descriptors.  The main change has been to the level of detail of the descriptors, not in the scope of what a student should be able to do.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reflections SY 2013-14

This has been a year of tremendous activity, and lots of the areas where I've been spending most of my time have nothing to do with teaching or learning.

First, to get it out of my head and onto someplace I'll be able to find it again, my colleague Beth asked me a few days ago what I know about layered curriculum.  She asked me because she wanted to look into it, and I have strong opinions about almost every new buzzword that comes up.  I don't know anything about layered curriculum.  The way Beth described it makes it sound very much like what I think standards-based curriculum is: you have a learning goal.  You identify some core of knowledge (vocabulary, usually) that you have to have in order for any higher learning to occur.  You identify the learning target, which is some higer thinking about the standard.  Then you identify the next step, the bigger objective, something that uses the knowledge in a new way.  Again, I'm filtering her description of layered curriculum through my prior knowledge, so it may be that I don't understand any of it.  I might look into it for next year, though.

This was my first year of all TPRS, all the time, with no other considerations.  I can attest to its power.  All of my students--ALL of my students--are doing much better on much harder assignments than they had before.  All except a few are comfortable answering 10 questions about any reading assignment I care to give them, within reason and with proper scaffolding.  The main keys I'm taking away from it are not so different than other sorts of curriculum design: know what's essential, know where your students are in the process, know what their next step is.  The main difference is in the primary method of instruction and the degree of expertise.  Once you've stripped down absolutely everything non-essential, you only have a few things that you have to know, and you need to know those to the point of automaticity.  Because what you're learning is not a set of facts or a process for
organizing information, but a whole new language, you need 75-80 comprehensible exposures to a new word in order to internalize it.  (I suspect that this has ramifications for content instruction, too.)  The hard part for an instructor is to make this not just interesting, so students don't disengage, but compelling, so they actually want to know what happens next, badly enough that they'll work through the ambiguities of the language.

 Working on that principle, it is much easier to stay in the target language for big swaths of class time than it used to be, and it's much clearer when to move on and when to back up.  Once I knew what I wanted the students to learn, I could use the materials that Blaine Ray's excellent on-line

I learned a lot of the limitations of the method, too, at least as I currently practice it.  There are a number of them, and I might go into some detail about them presently.  But it basically all boils down to 1.) a lack of preparation and 2.) a tendency to fall back on old ideas, although not in the way I expected.  As far as preparation, I'm definitely going to spend some time this summer mapping out exactly which vocabulary words and structures I want to teach, and in what order.  I envision a calendar, each with one phrase on it, and that will be the phrase we focus on that day.  Somewhere in my literature I remember seeing something that suggests 3 structures per 2 days is a good, ambitious, but attainable target.  I think I'll stick to 1 per day, though, at least at first.  This preparation is important for two reasons.  First, I found myself re-hashing sturctures my students had long since mastered, and not adding anything new.  I wasn't hurting anyone, we were still spending class time speaking Spanish, so it was still better than working on handouts.  But we weren't moving forward as efficiently as other sources suggest we should have been able to.  Second, I also found myself trying to circle every new structure in Blaine Ray's "New Mini-Stories for TPRS" and "Pobre Ana."  This meant that I wasn't circling any one structure enough times.  Knowing what I'm going to focus on that day will help me get in the repetitions that I need.  It also suggests a host of supplemental activities that I can have the students do to work more with a given structure; more about that once I've figured it out better. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Diane Ravitch and the Common Core

Diane Ravitch gave a speech criticizing the Common Core State Standards.  This isn't a surprise; it's sort of been her schtick since they started talking about them.  And the more I learn about them, the more I agree with her criticisms.

First, a starting position.  Writ large, I believe that all students can learn, and that a teacher's job is to help them do it.  All students can think at profound levels, they can analyze new information and evaluate arguments and all of those things.  At least at higher levels, they can think abstractly enough about their learning in order to realize that it doesn't matter what novel (or article or whatever) you're reading, the higher-order thinking skills can be applied equally well to anything.  Teachers can almost categorically up their game and encourage these skills.  A long checklist of standards does not lend itself to this sort of depth of knowledge, and so a shorter list of better standards would at least in theory be more helpful.

And for a long long time, we've written off as lost causes those students who can best benefit from really high-quality instruction techniques.  Students with learning disabilities can almost universally learn more stuff than what schools have historically taught them.  When school special ed support systems focus on what students CAN do, rather than what they can't, they can make huge progress.  This is not to suggest that high standards cure autism, but rather to suggest that autism doesn't make you incapable of learning.  The earlier high-stakes regime has meant that schools are no longer able to forget about its neediest students--ELLs, students with learning disabilities, students with behavioral problems, the gamut, are now held to the same standard as everyone else.  This should help focus intervention resources where they're most needed.

As Ravitch notes, though, there are real consequences to giving a test to a student when everybody knows that the student is going to "fail" it, particularly when the fault lies not in the students nor in the teacher but in the test.  The people who developed the standards were mostly not educators, and didnt' have a lot of experience in writing educational standards of this kind.  None of them were early-elementary educators, which seems like an utter miscarriage of common sense.  PreK through second grade is the time when schools can have the biggest positive (or negative) impact on a student's education.  To exclude those educators is to ignore the reality of the profession utterly.

Most damning of all, though, from an education view, is that there is no way to change these standards.  Our state standards were clunky, but it was possible to change them.  (In the case of the World Language standards, they were also written by a small committee of world-class teacher leaders, and even they managed to muck it up some.)  The English standards went through three drafts that I'm aware of between the time state-level standards began and the time the state adopted the Common Core.  But these--when we find out that there is no way to instruct first-graders on the deeper meaning of Stelaluna and the symbolism of the trees, to whom do we write to change them? 

The next 10 years is going to be an interesting time in education.  Watch this space for occasional not-particularly-insightful missives from the field.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A couple of stubs, possibly for futher consideration

1.)  Last night at the State of the State address, Gov. Snyder talked about expanding access to Pre-K.  Good.  Can we just make it universal in Michigan already?  He also talked about expanding the length of the school year.  Good.  I'll have some thoughts on what that might look like later.

2.)  They did an interview on NPR's "All Things Considered" today with an education reporter from New Orleans.  After Hurricane Katrina, 7500 teachers were fired en masse from the New Orleans Public School district.  They sued the district for wrongful termination and won, and were awarded in the process 2-3 years in back pay.  The numeric total was estimated at $1.5 billion, which would clearly bankrupt the school district and everyone attached to it.  90% of New Orleans's student population now attends a charter school, so who would pay this 1.5 bn is unclear.  This story is fascinating to me.

3.) To follow more closely: the International Journal for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.  Although I'm a little concerned that it's little more than a vanity project for TPRS teachers, it still has some of the biggest names in language acquisition theory publishing articles in it.  Those two facts together lend credence to TPRS.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Article dump

These three pieces have been in my tab for a while now, because there's a lot to think about in them.  During break, I didn't want to think about them, and now that shool's back on, I don't have time.

Applied linguistics: Carol Gaab, one of the pillars of the TPRS community, explains what it's all about in Language Magazine.  (h/t moretprs Yahoo! group)

Tech: Bring Your Own Tech by somebody who was doing it before it had a name. 

The Game of School: It's never a good idea to take teaching philosophy from stuff somebody's re-pinned.  But this was clever, and I thought bore deeper consideration.