Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

I was troubled the other day to hear a colleague describe how hard it was to motivate a group of teachers to take on some aspect of the Common Core because they were “so focused on the high-stakes assessments.” I’m not blaming the teachers, but this reaction is a signal that leaders need to step up and admit that this particular emperor has no clothes. The only thing that makes the current California Standards Tests (CSTs) high-stakes assessments today is that we persist in caring about them.

Most educators know that California has requested a waiver from the accountability requirements that came with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). California’s request has been denied, which means we have to keep giving the old tests, calculating the AYP, labeling schools and informing parents. But as more and more schools earn the Program Improvement (PI) label, it means less and less. Instead of placing all of our hopes on a waiver request, we should grant ourselves a waiver—if not from giving the old tests, then from caring so much about them. Of course, teachers can’t grant themselves this kind of a waiver. They need leaders, including school board members, superintendents, business leaders, policymakers, community leaders and anyone with a voice and the will to use it to be brave enough to say it: We are shifting our focus from the CSTs and the API to a different, more challenging but also more worthwhile set of goals: those embedded in the Common Core State Standards.

Now, I am not arguing that accountability doesn’t matter (it does) or that we shouldn’t test kids (we should.) What I am saying is that it is essential to make space for teachers to jump into the world of the Common Core, start to experiment, raise the rigor with which they are asking students to interact with their content, and introduce more technology into the classroom. If we can do this, we have an unprecedented opportunity to transform education and engage more kids in learning more. But we can’t make space for teachers to experiment unless we do three things: First, stop talking about “high-stakes assessments.” Second, give the new Smarter Balanced assessments as soon as possible, not delay them as some well-meaning Sacramento policymakers are considering. Third, delay making the new assessments “high stakes.”

 The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is creating the tests that will measure achievement on the new Common Core standards. We need to give these new tests as soon as they are available, not because districts are “ready” and not so that we can use them to hold people accountable. We are not ready yet and holding people accountable can’t come until later. We should give the tests because they are the best way to communicate the rich vision of teaching and learning embedded in the Common Core. Starting right now, we need as many districts as possible to step up to pilot the new assessments, and we need to expose teachers, students and parents to the sample items being released. One report from a district that did pilot the new assessments is that, while their students didn’t score particularly well, the kids actually loved these new assessments: they were fun, interesting, challenging, engaging…all the things our classrooms need to be and, too often, aren’t.

This is a sign we are on the right track. Let’s get on with it.

•••

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.


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  1. Paul Muench 3 years ago3 years ago

    I tried 5 of the sample math questions. Other than the animation it's not at all clear to me why the questions are any different from what I find in my Children's current textbooks. I guess I'd have to be an expert to determine why the new test questions are any better. Or maybe they are not any better. Even though I've agreed with Diane Ravitch's recently published opinion on common core for … Read More

    I tried 5 of the sample math questions. Other than the animation it’s not at all clear to me why the questions are any different from what I find in my Children’s current textbooks. I guess I’d have to be an expert to determine why the new test questions are any better. Or maybe they are not any better.

    Even though I’ve agreed with Diane Ravitch’s recently published opinion on common core for years, I do think it would be an interesting experiment to give the common core tests before we teach the curriculum. Just to see if the curriculum matters. Probably Mr. McRae is correct and this would lead to no good. But if it really matters that much it makes me doubt the usefulness of testing at all. It’s really hard for me to believe that we’ve been misleading our students to such a terrible degree. I think our main problems have more to do with care than curriculum. And I’m NOT blaming any one group.

    BTW, Diane Ravitch came out in the Answer Sheet as not supporting common core. Not against, just very skeptical about why we need to rush into such a large scale experiment.

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 3 years ago3 years ago

      Just out of curiosity I gave my son a 5 question math test from the common core questions. I'm confident he would have gotten 80% correct. The final question was expressed in fractions, but he gave a decimal answer. I'm not sure how that answer would have been graded. Of course a sample of 1 doesn't prove anything for the population. But it does feed my doubts that common core … Read More

      Just out of curiosity I gave my son a 5 question math test from the common core questions. I’m confident he would have gotten 80% correct. The final question was expressed in fractions, but he gave a decimal answer. I’m not sure how that answer would have been graded. Of course a sample of 1 doesn’t prove anything for the population. But it does feed my doubts that common core curriculum is any better. Especially if the tests are so tied to the curriculum.

  2. Jeff Camp 3 years ago3 years ago

    Merrill is right. It is part of human nature to embrace change when we hafta, not when we oughta. Are the computers in place? No. They oughta be, but they won't be until they hafta. Are the training materials in place? No? Well, when will they hafta be? The urgency of a swiftly approaching deadline is a non-optional element of change. We don't, as a sector, do this kind of change very often. We are, … Read More

    Merrill is right. It is part of human nature to embrace change when we hafta, not when we oughta. Are the computers in place? No. They oughta be, but they won’t be until they hafta. Are the training materials in place? No? Well, when will they hafta be?

    The urgency of a swiftly approaching deadline is a non-optional element of change. We don’t, as a sector, do this kind of change very often. We are, as a sector, massively decentralized. There will not be military-style command and control. There will be leaders and laggards, and we will learn from both. As a sector, we should see this as a moment of real opportunity. Most of the time, this sector keeps doing what it’s been doing. Real change is wrought in jumps and skips.

    Big shifts are when progress happens. They are discontinuous moments when creativity and leadership can erupt from unexpected places.

    Replies

    • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

      They are also when failures happen. Discontinuous moments can easily also be when confusion and chaos and misguided intentions rule the day. Why must human nature suddenly become virtuous only in those situations? Perhaps it is all my fault for being dismayed that it is in human nature to let disaster create opportunity. And for that opportunity often to be personal. Though really, human nature is not the real problem here. It's ineffective leadership that caters and … Read More

      They are also when failures happen. Discontinuous moments can easily also be when confusion and chaos and misguided intentions rule the day. Why must human nature suddenly become virtuous only in those situations?

      Perhaps it is all my fault for being dismayed that it is in human nature to let disaster create opportunity. And for that opportunity often to be personal.

      Though really, human nature is not the real problem here. It’s ineffective leadership that caters and acquiesces to human nature that is the problem. There is a reason our elected representatives are also sometimes referred to as leaders. This is because they are, now and then, supposed to step up and lead. Not provide us with ever-simpler ways of increasing the number of kids we can screw over with any given policy.

      If the basis for this acquiescence weren’t likely money and power, this all might be merely tragic.

      I cant remember whether it was here or in another forum (so I risk repeating) where I talked about an interview with William Golding about Lord of the Flies where he said quite succinctly, “the central theme is to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature”. Part of the reason, imho, that book is so moving is that we, as humans, do not succumb to defects of society or even of human nature blindly, rather we have countering and balancing forces within us; even within human nature that need to address those defects. We should not use our children as pawns and carrots to try to move us to do what we know is right (especially intentionally!). There are enough forces out there that wish to do even less than that.

      Human nature indeed!

      • el 3 years ago3 years ago

        I love you, navigio, and I so enjoy your commentary here. 🙂

        • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

          Thank you el, I truly appreciate that. And I love you too. 🙂

  3. navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

    "The only thing that makes the current California Standards Tests (CSTs) high-stakes assessments today is that we persist in caring about them." Hi Merrill, I dont think that's entirely true, and your followup about the lack of waiver is a good example of an additional and important reason why I feel that way. We have political movements and even government funding hinging not only on the importance of these assessments, but even in how they are … Read More

    The only thing that makes the current California Standards Tests (CSTs) high-stakes assessments today is that we persist in caring about them.

    Hi Merrill, I dont think that’s entirely true, and your followup about the lack of waiver is a good example of an additional and important reason why I feel that way. We have political movements and even government funding hinging not only on the importance of these assessments, but even in how they are used. In addition, we’ve had decades of onslaught toward the public system based on the ‘evidence’ that everything is broken and must be fixed. This has not only permeated media, but even the parent psyche and now even anti-testing parents find it impossible to ignore something like the API when making decisions about their child’s education. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to explain the real meaning of standardized tests and had parents nodding and nodding and nodding in agreement, then getting to the end and having them say, ‘yeah, you’re right. But we cant just ignore API.’ And then have them move on to a new school with higher API the next year..

    I also must take exception with your belief that these tests are only misguided now that they may act as a barrier to common core adoption, which implies the emperor used to have clothes. (apologies if that was not your intent, but that’s how it reads.)

    I had advocated for moving the NCLB proficiency metric up to 100% a few years earlier just to highlight the absurdity of that law and the mostly meaninglessness of the PI metric. The tragedy is that having a school in PI guarantees that 20% of that title 1 funding gets siphoned off to private tutors, so someone actually benefits financially from that classification (of course it’s not the students).

    The thing we are doing wrong is not taking them too seriously or not seriously enough, rather the mistake we are making is that we are pretending we know why we are doing either of those things. And we are standing by in silence while our schools become increasingly segregated by ability (with all the associated pitfalls) by the behavior of a community that listens to us pretend we know those things.

  4. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    We could solve the student readiness problem (and the equipment availability and connectivity problems) by letting students take the new tests from their smart phones. While very few California public school students receive formal touch typing/keyboarding instruction these days, virtually all are adept at texting (two-thumb keyboarding?). Many even practice during class!

    🙂

  5. Ann 3 years ago3 years ago

    Does anyone see the folly of the ed establishment interpretation of the Common Core? The California State Standards are world class and if one places them side by side with CCS there is considerable overlap. What I am hearing in my district and across blogs, articles, and in gatherings of "ed speak" is that students will simply think deeper, analyze more, be more creative and need not learn the basic intellectual foundations needed to make … Read More

    Does anyone see the folly of the ed establishment interpretation of the Common Core? The California State Standards are world class and if one places them side by side with CCS there is considerable overlap. What I am hearing in my district and across blogs, articles, and in gatherings of “ed speak” is that students will simply think deeper, analyze more, be more creative and need not learn the basic intellectual foundations needed to make any meaning of these. I was told that there is a new definition of math fluency. It no longer means automatic recall, instead it means students know where they can access a fact, presumably through technology. I remember this when calculators were first introduced widely and a generation of students did not achieve fluency nor pursue math or science as a college or career path. How many of you really believe this makes sense? Learning without thought is labor lost, thought without learning is perilous.

    Replies

    • D 3 years ago3 years ago

      Nail on the head!! I hate calculators!!! I refused for my child to bring one to school (which was a required supply). Of course, he didn't learn by rote memorization or simple recall either. Another thing I had discussions with the teachers and administrators about. I got alot of sideways looks and this is not how we do it talks. Nevertheless, he stuck to the plan the way his mind in wired. He thought it … Read More

      Nail on the head!!
      I hate calculators!!! I refused for my child to bring one to school (which was a required supply).

      Of course, he didn’t learn by rote memorization or simple recall either. Another thing I had discussions with the teachers and administrators about. I got alot of sideways looks and this is not how we do it talks.

      Nevertheless, he stuck to the plan the way his mind in wired. He thought it out and loved every minute of it. He’s now doing algebra no sweat, mostly in his head and LOVING math. Favorite subject. Algebra 1 in fact, in less then a semester. So I suppose it did bump his anaylitical, critical and creative thinking.

      My advice to teachers and administration be more open to listen to parents and children on what works for them. 🙂

      • D 3 years ago3 years ago

        It may not have been the well traveled path to learn multiplication tables but letting his mind develop those neural connections certainly is paying off now. Algebra 1, 7th grade, mostly in his head in one semester with no tears and A+ both quarters. He went in early and did the 8th grade class as well as the 7th grade during the day. And boom he is done and on to geometry in 7th! … Read More

        It may not have been the well traveled path to learn multiplication tables but letting his mind develop those neural connections certainly is paying off now. Algebra 1, 7th grade, mostly in his head in one semester with no tears and A+ both quarters. He went in early and did the 8th grade class as well as the 7th grade during the day. And boom he is done and on to geometry in 7th! He is one happy kid with math I can tell you that. He’s on a path right now for all AP. 🙂
        Anyway they may not win speed math contests when they are little but we might want to rethink the rote method.

  6. Doug McRae 3 years ago3 years ago

    As an experienced test developer, I shudder at a strategy of giving tests before kids are ready to perform on those tests but delay implementing any "stakes" associated with those test results. The logical reason to delay giving new common core tests in 2015 is that most kids will not have had instruction on common core standards by 2015 -- and most districts will not have had the resources to install instruction by then. Ergo, … Read More

    As an experienced test developer, I shudder at a strategy of giving tests before kids are ready to perform on those tests but delay implementing any “stakes” associated with those test results. The logical reason to delay giving new common core tests in 2015 is that most kids will not have had instruction on common core standards by 2015 — and most districts will not have had the resources to install instruction by then. Ergo, it will be impossible for 2015 test results to measure the results of instruction, and that frankly is the purpose for giving a summative assessment at the end of the school year. Drawing conclusions on the results of instruction is exactly how those test results will be used, in a multitude of ways. It’s a pipe dream to think that folks won’t use those results in that manner. The right sequence is to install the instructional elements (curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and teacher professional development) for the common core first, and then activate the assessment and accountability systems (in that order) to complete implementation of the common core. In addition to this common sense way to sequence things, the proposed common core Smarter Balanced tests involve computerized tests on a statewide basis for 3-4 million kids. The data we have been collecting say that perhaps only 10 percent of the districts and less than 25 percent of the kids are ready to take computerized tests and generate valid and reliable scores from those test administrations. My guestimate is that it will be 2018 before California is ready to implement statewide computerized tests, and even then it will be prudent to install first fixed-form computer-based tests for several years rather than the more demanding computer-adaptive protocol. An argument was made last week to the legislature and to the state board that we ought to retain the 2015 target date for implementation of Smarter Balanced tests to generate “baseline” data for acquisition of new common core learning; my reaction to that argument was that it is very unwise to spend buckets of tax dollars chasing invalid and unreliable baseline data. Instead of motivating districts to install common core instruction in a resourced responsible way, premature administration of common core tests before the majority of schools and kids are ready for them will only be a designated blunt instrument that panics schools into rushed inefficient (due to insufficient resources) instructional practices.

    Replies

    • el 3 years ago3 years ago

      Doug, do the people at the state know that not all schools have enough bandwidth or electrical resources to run these computer administrated tests, and do they realize that schools will need dedicated IT technicians in place to be able to have the kind of reliability needed to ensure the kids can take and complete the exams smoothly? It took 3 years for our school to get its bandwidth *after* the e-rate grant was completed. … Read More

      Doug, do the people at the state know that not all schools have enough bandwidth or electrical resources to run these computer administrated tests, and do they realize that schools will need dedicated IT technicians in place to be able to have the kind of reliability needed to ensure the kids can take and complete the exams smoothly? It took 3 years for our school to get its bandwidth *after* the e-rate grant was completed. We need to get the proposals for every school funded this year and we need for the legislature to honestly account for the ongoing additional costs for staff as well as consumable electronics.

      • Doug McRae 3 years ago3 years ago

        El: I think the data is there for the people at the state to know that CA schools are not yet technologically ready for statewide computerized tests, but I also think many folks at the state level are blinded by the vision of learning and assessments offered by the common core and Smarter Balanced. I'm not against that vision in any way, but rather I comment on realistic timelines and mechanisms for getting … Read More

        El: I think the data is there for the people at the state to know that CA schools are not yet technologically ready for statewide computerized tests, but I also think many folks at the state level are blinded by the vision of learning and assessments offered by the common core and Smarter Balanced. I’m not against that vision in any way, but rather I comment on realistic timelines and mechanisms for getting to that vision. Basically, I think CA is trying to accelerate 15 years of progress into a 3 year window . . . . . and it ain’t gonna work in the trenches.

        • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

          Doug, I would disagree that the state has accurate data related to technology but I would be happy to be proven wrong.  If I am not mistaken, the primary source of technology 'data' that the state has access to is the responses to 3 questions on the CBEDS SIF (school information form).  The first question asks for a computer count. It is not to include any computers older than 4 years (often appropriate, sometimes not) and it … Read More

          Doug, I would disagree that the state has accurate data related to technology but I would be happy to be proven wrong. 
          If I am not mistaken, the primary source of technology ‘data’ that the state has access to is the responses to 3 questions on the CBEDS SIF (school information form). 

          The first question asks for a computer count. It is not to include any computers older than 4 years (often appropriate, sometimes not) and it excludes tablets or thin clients (that seems like a bad idea). It also does not matter whether these computers have connectivity (at least not for this question). In our district, the number of computers dramatically decreased one year not because anything changed rather that a bunch of computers exceeded the 4 year mark for the first time. That was a few years ago. Those computers are still being used today. 

          The second question just asks about the number of instructional settings at the site (nothing specifically about technology). 

          The third is then the number of those settings from question 2 that have a 10 megabit data connection. Note that it does not matter how many computers in that setting are actually connected to it. It also does not matter whether all instructional settings are sharing the same access point (eg 1 wireless access point for the whole school).  In addition, a 10 mbit connection can quickly become the bottleneck for any significant data transfer, especially if there are multiple application types using that network (even though office computers are excepted from question 1, their data use is obviously not excepted in this question). To be fair, it should be pointed out that 10 mbit is decades old technology (became ‘obsolete’ in he mid 90s) so in reality there are probably virtually zero computers or LANs being used today that support 10 mbit but not also something faster. However, I’d pretty much bet that the metric for whether this data rate is supported involves looking at the hardware and not with actually measuring throughput. It is possible to have a gigabit access point on a network that doesn’t even support 10 mbps throughput. The SIF question is worded in such a way as to not fall into that trap but I’d bet many do anyway. 

          It’s been a while since I’ve talked to our IT guy about technology data collection so it’s possible there are now other methods besides CBEDS (though the SIF I’m looking at is for the 2012 school year). I expect CC would include technology requirement assumptions, and maybe even some form of questionnaire that’s started to be passed around, but if we’re relying on the CBEDS ‘data’ then I’d say we really have no idea where our schools are at wrt technology. 

          • Doug McRae 3 years ago3 years ago

            Navigio: I think there are more current data on technology readiness for Smarter Balanced tests -- data from the Technology Readiness Tool developed by both SBAC and PARCC to track readiness for these two tests, data from an ETS science computer-based testing tryout conducted last fall, early reactions to the large SBAC computer-based pilot being conducted this spring. But, I also think focusing only on hardware and bandwidth misses a major piece of … Read More

            Navigio: I think there are more current data on technology readiness for Smarter Balanced tests — data from the Technology Readiness Tool developed by both SBAC and PARCC to track readiness for these two tests, data from an ETS science computer-based testing tryout conducted last fall, early reactions to the large SBAC computer-based pilot being conducted this spring. But, I also think focusing only on hardware and bandwidth misses a major piece of the technology readiness discussion. The more important piece is whether kids are ready to take computerized tests (as distinguished to whether adults will have the right technology in place to administer the tests). A large percentage of our kids in CA do not have the keyboarding and other computer skills to provide valid and reliable scores — if a kid cannot use a device to show what he/she knows and is able to do in E/LA or Math, then you get just noise from attempting to administer a computer-based test. Many years ago, I was asked when schools would have computerized large scale tests — my answer was that when schools had computers built into student desks used for most instructional applications for most kids, then test developers have to be ready for implementation of computerized tests. We are at least several years away from having smartdesks (Idesks?) for instruction in most of our schools, and we won’t generate valid and reliable data from computerized tests until we reach that stage of computerization of instruction.

          • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

            Hi Doug, yes I agree with that. I was responding to the physical technology aspect only, as I think it is an important pre-requisite. I will check on the specifics of the other readiness metrics you mention. However, your points only highlight for me the absurdity that computer access and instruction are not a required aspect of our curriculum. A neighboring school lost their computer lab earlier in the year because its parents were not … Read More

            Hi Doug, yes I agree with that. I was responding to the physical technology aspect only, as I think it is an important pre-requisite. I will check on the specifics of the other readiness metrics you mention. However, your points only highlight for me the absurdity that computer access and instruction are not a required aspect of our curriculum. A neighboring school lost their computer lab earlier in the year because its parents were not able to raise enough money to pay someone to staff it. They are lucky to at least have hardware though.

        • el 3 years ago3 years ago

          I think more people from the legislature should probably be transported to a rural school with a wireless device and left to fend for themselves for a few days. 😉

        • el 3 years ago3 years ago

          Doug: great point about keyboarding skills and the like.

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