Sunday, November 24, 2013

What's Wrong With the NYS Mandated Tests? Principals Weigh In.

The following letter is worth reading. In it a group of respected principals have shared their concerns with parents about the 3-8 testing that is generating so much data and controversy.

Among the many points made by the principals:
  • Too much testing
  • Tests too long
  • Ambiguous Questions
  • Negative Reaction by Students
  • Benchmarks Irresponsibly Inflated
  • Many parents confusing the testing with the Common Core Standards. Negative reactions to the former are leading many people to criticize the latter - which the principals support.
What are your children's principals writing to you about the mandated 3-8 tests? 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

NYS Assembly Paying Attention to Student Privacy

According to the Albany Times Union, members of the NYS Assembly are investigating student privacy risks brought about by the student data collection and sharing that is occurring.

Local control of private student data seems to be a thing of the past. Parental rights to have input and influence over the use of their children's private student information also seems to be disappearing. 

It was reported by the Union Times that Assembly members of the Education Committee held a hearing yesterday to discuss the risks associated with "the creation of a vast trove of student data..."

The following information, and more, is being collected by NYS:
  • student names
  • test scores
  • special education designations
  • attendance records
  • disciplinary records
  • health records
  • ethnicity
  • parental income (on parents of Free and Reduced Lunch recipients)
It appears that members of the Education Committee are looking into the notion of having parent OPT-IN. It would be nice to see parental oversight authority given back to them. 

The much written about data collection and storage company called inBloom, Inc. did not send a representative to attend the Assembly Education Committee hearing. Kudos to Education Committee Chairperson Cathy Nolan who recommended that inBloom, Inc. representatives be subpoenaed. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Time for the Education Commissioner to Visit the North Country

Most states in the US have embraced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and it seems only logical that a similar educational standard be set for schools in the country. Most people seem to agree that raising standards in US schools is necessary.

The controversy seems to rest on the tests that, in NYS, are mandated to be given to students in grades 3-8 (in addition, of course, to the Regents examinations NYS students have taken for years).

Some questions keep surfacing about the 3-8 tests.
  1. Are they valid? Too hard? Age and grade appropriate? 
  2. Must these tests be given every year 3-8? High stakes testing now starts in 3rd grade and ends with high school Regents examinations.
  3. Why aren't past 3-8 tests made public, just like Regents examinations? This secrecy keeps the test maker from facing accountability for the quality of the tests.
  4. Unless these tests face public scrutiny, why is teacher job performance being judged by student results on the tests? 
  5. Are students being treated like guinea pigs in an experiment? The duration of the tests is highly inappropriate for many of the age groups being tested.   
The NYS Commissioner of Education will be in Schroon Lake today to address the public's questions. That's a 2.5  hour drive for those who live in the North Country. Would people in NYC be expected to drive to Montauk Point to see the Commissioner (another 2.5 hour drive) or would there be an outcry if that occurred? Maybe it's time for an outcry from this region. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

PCS Not Concerned About Student Data Collection?

While many national and state leaders (as well as NYS Boards of Education, superintendents of schools, parent organizations) are alarmed about risks to student privacy posed by the student data collection and sharing that is going on in NYS, PCSD officials appear to support such data collection and apparently see no need to alert the public about possible risks.

When the district was recently FOIL'ed for a list of the categories of student information being sent to the State Education Dept.(like student names, addresses, test scores, special ed. designations, disciplinary records, etc.), they said no such document exists at PCS. (The BOE should have requested such a document already.) Instead, they sent a 246-page NYSED document entitled 2013-14 SIRS (Student Information Repository System) Manual. In addition, they sent two documents from DQC (Data Quality Campaign) - a national group touting the value of student data collection to inform instruction.

The district was also FOIL'ed for any correspondence between school officials and the public in which school officials warned the public of possible student privacy risks related to the massive collection of student data that will ultimately end up stored in a cloud and shared with certain for-profit private companies. School officials responded that no PCS documents (alerting the public) exist.

When public officials support transparency, they make information easily accessible to the public and they put it in a user-friendly form. When they want to be opaque, they bury the public in mounds of information that most do not have the time to sift through. In addition, the DQC documents can surely be construed as reflecting the district's pro data-gathering position since no other documents were forwarded that presented an opposing point of view to DQC.

Given the importance of student privacy, adults (elected officials, administrators, and community members) need to be aware of facts so they can take action to protect children. Board members must insist on transparency and ensure it is occurring. When only one side of an issue is made transparent by officials, ostensibly in order to sway public opinion or keep the public quiet, then trust is lost and advocacy efforts are thwarted.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Will NYS Pass a Student Data Privacy Law?

It has been reported (in that NY State Senator John Flanagan, "plans to propose legislation that addresses school leaders' and parents' concerns about student data privacy."  

In addition, a group of NYC parents filed a suit against the State Education Department to prevent it from releasing private student data to for-profit companies like inBloom, Inc.(contractor for the statewide data base) and Pearson (creators of those much-criticized 3-8 grade mandated state tests).However, the judge in charge of the case refused to grant the injunction but did give the plaintiffs a hearing date (Dec. 6th).

Who is voicing concerns about risks to student privacy?
  • NYS Senator Flanagan (Education Committee Chair)
  • US Senator Markey (Massachusetts) 
  • Randi Weingarten (President of the AFT - American Fed. of Teachers)
  • Many NYS Superintendents of Schools
  • Advocacy Groups like Class Size Matters
What has your school district done to make you aware of risks to student privacy? And...just what information is being sent to State Ed. for distribution to inBloom, Inc. and Pearson? This is something all parents should know.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Homework Saga Continues at PCS

The Watertown Times article "Potsdam School Limiting Homework - Parents Complained - 30 Minutes of Math Deemed Enough" re-ignites the homework/grading controversy that just never seems to go away. Why? The inherent problems with how homework is handled have not been eliminated. There is no overarching district-wide philosophy on homework that fosters student learning.

Unwise and ineffective homework/grading practices have been noted and discussed between BOE members and administrators in recent years and yet little seems to change. Among the problems...

  • Many teachers were grading practice homework - not a wise educational strategy. (While practice homework needs to be gone over and corrected in class, it should not receive a grade. Why? Students are still learning the material and students learn at different rates. Grading comes once teachers believe students have had the time and practice to master the material.)
  • The Grading of "practice" homework clouds reality for teachers: Grading practice HW encourages students to get answers from parents or more able students and then not feel free to tell the teacher that they did not understand the assignment. Teachers will feel their lesson must have been highly effective because so many students did well on the HW when, in point of fact, this may not be true at all.
  • Teachers Had No Idea How Much Time Was Being Spent on Homework: While a very able student might fly through an assignment, other students would surely struggle with it (and spend much more time on it) - leading to high levels of frustration and defeat for the latter group. The time limitations on homework could not possibly work for this reason. 
  • In lieu of effective classroom management strategies, some teachers had implemented irrational and punitive grading practices. (Ten points off for students who failed to put their names on the assignment, more points off or a zero for leaving the HW in a locker, detention for failing to pick up the HW assignment that is left by the teacher in one place in one class and another place in another, etc.) Students had to live up to a standard that the teachers could not. It would be interesting to see what would occur if principals implemented equally harsh penalties for teachers who forgot their pens, who came a little late to a meeting, who chatted quietly with a neighbor during a meeting, who forgot to pick up needed paperwork for a meeting, etc.) 
  • Social Inequity: Some students were going home to highly-educated parents who could give great help with homework assignments. On the other hand, many students went home to households where parents had a more limited educational background and, thus, the parents were in no position to assist their children with difficult HW.
  • Completed HW Assignments Not Returned to Students in a Timely Fashion or At All. 
Years ago, school officials knew of the homework and grading problems, now exacerbated by the Common Core and student testing requirements, and did nothing until the Grading and Homework Committee I formed forced the conversation. (The then BOE deserves credit for unanimously voting for policy change that was beneficial to students.) Basically, I told the supt. that we were either going to study homework and grading (with all constituent groups) or we were going to discuss publicly the many problems surrounding it that had been shared with various BOE members.

It is rather astonishing that last month a BOE member asked if students who failed to complete their assignments were being punished. Board members should know this especially if they've had children go through the system. Another BOE member didn't know students' HW was, by policy, limited in the amount of time students should devote to it.

The problem with Boards of Education is that they can be like that old toy, Etch a Sketch. All former work done can be erased in no time - just like it never occurred - putting Boards, time and time again, back at the starting line - which, unfortunately, is just where some people want them...uninformed and ineffective. An experienced BOE member once said to me, "Every time we try discuss how to improve education for students, they embark on a building project so all the Board is discussing is roofing materials and leaky faucets." While capital improvements are necessary, educational improvement is vital.