Monday, May 18, 2015

New Book Published

The Fifth Novel

The fifth book in The Saga of Magiskeep , White Wind, has been published.  It will be for sale at Amazon in Kindle and paperback shortly, and at Smashwords in ePub formats.

“The White Wind blows on the wings of the Dragon seeking its rider in tapestries of snow. “

Grandisite, hold of the Seers, mortal enemies to Magis, demands Jamus’ allegiance as he struggles to maintain his sanity in a world gone dark.

Haunted by the specter of a demanding White Woman, Jamus is thrown into the world of the White River, a world alien to Sorcery as he knows it. There he must learn to fly the White Dragon and face his own disbelief, conquering the secrets of a world ready to deny his Magick and blind him to the world he loves.

His destiny in Turan’s Way forces him to confront his dreams, solve the riddles of the tapestries and gain one more victory on his quest to become the true Rivermaster.

The Saga continues.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Standardized Tests in the Classroom; PARCC

After I'd Gone

Part of the reason I retired when I did after 38 years in the classroom was "the handwriting on the wall."  More and more, we teachers were going to be held accountable by forces beyond our control.
Student scores on standardized tests were a major part of it. (There were other factors involved in my retiring, but the coming changes in public education gave me one big push.)

The students in my classes generally did well on the tests. Whether or not the test prep I did with them had an impact or not, I'll never really know. We never really got to see the tests themselves to see what specific question students got wrong, or why.

That's one of the biggest flaws in the testing system. Scores don't show up for months after the test and they only reflect numerical values of right and wrong answers. They give no real feedback and serve no practical educational purpose in the classroom since neither teachers nor students ever see the tests again to figure out where the learning problems might have been.

HSPT was just a number. Nothing more. Pass or fail. Graduate or not. (Or get remediation and an alternate score.)  Simple as that.

And not enough, apparently.

Along came PARCC, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Sounds great. I've looked at sample questions posted online from the test.  Online PARCC Practice Tests They are similar in many ways to HSPT and HSPA questions, formatted for computer, and disguised to look more mentally challenging. Students choose an answer for one question and then choose evidence or reasons for their answer in the next. Looks as if the student is being asked to use higher level thinking skills here. 
Question Callout Clip Art

The fact is, by having a list of answers to select from, the same process of test taking skills can be used.  As long as answers are multiple choice, the lessons apply.  

An analytic essay on a given topic would be a far better way of figuring out whether or not a student understood a piece of reading, but who would read and grade it?  Far easier to simply pass a Scantron form through a grading machine or let a computer grading system count the number of right and wrong answers. Then again, you get the all-glorified test score that puts the student on the chart. 

It's that second "C" in PARCC that gets me most, though. "Career" Readiness? A skilled carpenter or plumber needs some math basics, for sure. As well, a certain ability to read and write. But his or her true skill is with his hands and a mind able to analyze and develop solutions to problems no printed or computerized test can ever measure. I remember I needed a mounting table--kind of stand on platform--so I could get on my rather tall horse. I went to one of the carpentry shops in my school, explained the problem, gave the teacher and students a height requirement and they went to work. Ten years later, that mounting platform is still sturdy, safe, and useful to me every time I want to ride.  Find me a standardized test to evaluate whether or not those students were ready for a career as carpenters. 

Penguin Plumber Clip ArtDrain clogged? Unless it's with test papers, I'm not sure the PARCC test will help your plumber get the water running again.

And the other "C" isn't so useful either, at least not for the student who really has no intention of going to college. True college level skills, if I remember them correctly, are higher order thinking skills demanding pretty high levels of reading and math. Fair enough. The SAT: Scholastic Aptitude Test and the ACT: American College Test have been assessing that for years already.  Do we really need other test scores?

The time out of class used for testing has increased with PARCC as well. While I am not in a regular teaching position any more. I do substitute teach I  eventually lost count of the number of days I was aware the regular school week had been disrupted by one kind of standardized test or another, and PARCC takes up two blocks of time of at least three days at the high school level. Add the days for test prep most schools feel is necessary and that's a good chunk of time out of classroom learning activities. Students at the lower grade levels also have science tests so it's even more time for them.

Many schools give other tests as well during the year--NWEA is just one example--and class time is lost there too. Regardless of how much time is spent in the testing, the whole procedure is very disruptive to the natural flow of learning/teaching in the classroom. Students need to suddenly
"switch gears," face the anxiety of a high stakes test for several days and then return to more normal classroom activities tired and fed up with reading, writing, and math.

Enough already. I applaud the parents who rebel by opting out of testing for their children. Keep up the good work. Your child is not a number on a graph.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Standardized Tests In the Classroom

HSPA, New Name, Same Old

I'm going to be honest here. I never really sat down to analyze the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) compared to the HSPT (High School Proficiency Test) to see the differences. Word was that the HSPA measured thinking skills on a "higher level" and demanded more proof that students had mastered reading, writing, and comprehension skills based on the NJ Core Curriculum Standards.

What does that all mean in practical terms? More paperwork, more new books, and more focus on testing skills in the classroom. Now we had a kind of "shopping list" to follow. And, as teachers, we needed to be held accountable to make sure we were getting all the groceries into the cart during the year.

Sheikh Tuhin To Do List Clip ArtLesson plans needed to be geared towards the Core Curriculum standards. I had a nice fat book listing all the requirements. I can't find the original standards as they've been replaced since by the new "Common Core" language, but I might have to justify my lesson on "Hamlet" with notations that I was teaching : Reading, I, A, 1,3,4, Writing II, C, 2,3,4-- referring to the standards outline I kept handy on my classroom desk. After a while, I managed to memorize enough of the curriculum's details to write my plans without thumbing through the fat book page by page, so I was able to avoid some eye strain and frustration.

Always, however, despite the secret codes added to my planning, I had to keep my brain geared towards making sure my students were prepared to pass the test. It wasn't just teaching them the standards, it was teaching them how to cope with the demands of the test. How to write an essay that would score the points they needed. How to read a test question to figure out what answer was the right one.

Often, I found myself adapting my lessons not to develop learners who appreciated good classical literature and enjoyed thinking about its meanings but rather students who could figure out what someone else wanted them to say about things.

Footman Clip ArtI can recall numbers of times when some of my more creative thinkers in my classroom might invent a brand new analysis of something we read in class. Sometimes the responses and reactions were a revelation worth exploring and cherishing. Inventive insights into stories that at one time might have taken a class lesson on a wild journey of imagination and discovery. Outside into the school parking lot to practice mock combat to see just how Macbeth died at the end of the play. Or a hike around the school building just observing to see if we could figure out what civilization was like by seeing what it left behind. How about hunting for hidden pirate flags in the classroom just because it was "International Speak Like a Pirate Day?" (September 19, by the way)  Usually, I could justify such adventures with some numbers and letters from the Core Curriculum, but the spontaneity was gone.

Follow a set pattern in writing an essay, not to express your ideas so much as to make sure that some test scorer in a little room somewhere could easily understand that you'd "mastered the topic." Don't get too far afield with that story you're writing about the picture I just showed you. If you see a bicycle there, make sure you mention it instead of calling it "ET's Transportation Module."

Then, of course, there were more test prep booklets. The school bought hundreds every year--more profit for those corporate folks. In the weeks before the test, we focused on them, class after class.

I just talked to one of my fellow retired English teachers the other day. Somehow the topic of testing came up. "Remember that story?" she asked, referring to the test prep books. "I hated that story, and so did my students. They never understood it."

W-eficiency Clip ArtOf course I remembered "that story:" The Open Window, by Saki. We read it year after year, and my students, even the college prep kids rarely got the surprise ending. I still remember the last line. "Romance on short notice was her specialty."  (Look it up on Google if you're curious. Apparently half the world doesn't understand it either.)  Classic literature, indeed? Modern vocabulary, or at least language familiar to the average reader, especially an 11th grade high school student? Not likely.

Someone had decided that story was perfect test prep. I guess it was intended to prepare us all for the unexpected.

Well, we English/Language Arts teachers were pretty well used to the unexpected by now, so even the new HSPA didn't throw us a curve. We were mastering "how to teach to the test" and having plenty of practice at it.

I just wonder how much else we were teaching in our classes.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Testing's Impact in the Classroom

New Jersey "Shot Itself in the Foot"

While the rest of the nation was impacted one way by the dictates of "No Child Left Behind," New Jersey was affected another way.

Critical Data Clip ArtNCLB essentially demanded testing. Again, apparently to the outside world, the only way to judge whether teachers were teaching or students were learning was with data--numbers. The only way to get those numbers was through test scores. In fact, the very existence of schools themselves needed to be evaluated through numbers. Every child had to succeed, no children could fail despite handicaps of ability, social background or a hundred other factors that made each student unique. It was time to set down a strict bar everyone had to meet, regardless of talents, individual interests, strengths or weaknesses, And these were all academic standards.

Once again, I go off on a rant. Not everyone in the world is a master test taker. But everyone in the world excels at something. Vo-tech kids excel in their chosen, usually "hands-on" skills. They may not always be master scholars. But now it was our job to make them scholars--no matter what. Rant done.

Other states began to scramble. While some already had mandatory tests in place, many did not. Some had very basic tests, others, like New Jersey, more rigorous, demanding tests already in place. And here's where New Jersey was stuck. NCLB demanded the State to "up the ante" with its testing program. Raise the standards and raise the stakes.

Once again, at I'm sure great cost, the HSPT evolved into the HSPA--The High School Proficiency Assessment. New name, new test, and once again, new course materials. Ah, how happy all those so-called "learning "corporations" must have been. And NJ kids needed to succeed at a brand new level of expertise in test taking.

Meanwhile, to help all this along,  our school bought into something called the NWEA. (Northwest Evaluation Association) computer based testing. Twice a year, students took a computerized test that was supposed to evaluate their learning as it progressed.  Then the data provided by those tests was supposed to be supplied to the classroom teachers for use in developing individualized learning programs for each student based upon data analysis. Days of class time were used for this testing. I, at the time, had a computer lab as my classroom and had to roam about the building to find places to conduct my regular classes while my room was being used to test other students.

The test had no impact on student grades, so many times our kids would just go through the motions of testing, not necessarily doing their best just because the test didn't mean much to them. I remember a workshop or two on how to use the test results in my own classroom, but to be honest, I'm really not convinced the scores had a lot of influence on most of us teachers. We were already hard at work developing lessons on our own to help our students succeed and when you have a class load of perhaps 125 students or so every day, it does get rather overwhelming trying to tailor lessons to each student's individual needs.

Thin Client Lcd Keyboard Clip ArtBut, we had the data. Nice numbers and nice graphs, and nice charts and a happy NWEA company getting paid all kinds of money.  Oh, and I must admit, testing did help assure that the computer network and hardware was working just fine. (Can't knock the technical department in our system. Those guys were great about keeping things working for me. Our computers were not just for show, they were used in all phases of instruction.)

So now, in addition to the ever present days of HSPA testing, we had days of NWEA testing. At this point, at least our students were getting lots of experience taking tests. Hard to say what else they may have learned in between, but they were testing stars.

Meanwhile HSPA kept promising to expand. At first it was just impacting the English and math classes directly. But on the horizon loomed tests in science, history, and who knows what. The whole school was being required to focus on test skills and "reading and writing across the curriculum" became part of the mantra. (OK, I think math was across the curriculum too but I never quite heard it expressed that way. I do know our career--shop teachers--were expected to incorporate both math and reading/writing skills into their courses.)  Now, everyone was involved in "teaching to the test."  It was kind of a great big remediation effort.

HSPA loomed on the horizon, ready to pounce.

And, oh, yes, we dare not leave any child behind.

#PAARC #HSPA #standardized tests #education

Monday, May 4, 2015

Testing's Impact on the Classroom Teacher

Things Changed

I'm not 100% sure of the timeframe, nor of all the reasons behind it, but funding did have a part.

First, some of the "regular" teachers were assigned reading workshops. I was one, and to be honest, I was totally unprepared. I had never had a course in my life to teach me how to teach reading. In the end, I had to protest. It did cause quite a stir, and by the time the issue was legally settled, I had run the workshop all year anyhow, trying my best to help the students assigned to me. I never had to do it again, and I really don't feel too happy about it all, but I tried.

It was one of those things that happen when test scores become so important that a school is driven to all kinds of inventive ways to assure that enough students pass.  The last thing we wanted was to be labeled as a "school in need of improvement" and end up on the State's "hit list" for school takeovers.

As a Vocational/Technical school we were at a decided academic disadvantage. Our students were not particularly scholars, at least not in relation to schools with high populations of college bound kids. We worked hard to help them pass the tests and had remarkable success in the long run.

Reference Desk Clip ArtSomewhere along the way, the concept of team teaching emerged. We "regular" English teachers were assigned one of the remedial teachers as a classroom partner. Mine was a wonderful teacher and she and I clicked immediately. We managed to find all kinds of ways to work together in the classroom both sharing teaching duties and taking turns.

On the other hand, I have to admit, no one really spent any time teaching us how to team teach. We were just kind of thrown together in the classroom and left to figure it out on our own. Some teams did just fine and others did not fare so well. Since then that process evolved into classes where special needs students were added to regular classes with a certified special needs teacher team teaching with a teacher certified in the particular subject area, but not special needs. I never experienced that, but again, the program had mixed results.

Such teaching methods really do require a great deal of extra planning and time to work well. Usually, our teaching schedules afforded none. Meeting Clip Art

No Child Left Behind inspired the next phase of the high stakes testing experience. I didn't improve things one bit.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Remedial and The SRA: Testing in the Classroom

How Things Changed

The advent of the high stakes tests created a new phenomenon in our school and many others.


We had a new and wonderful group of teachers who specialized in remedial reading and writing. Students who had failed the HSPT were assigned to their classes to learn and practice the skills they needed to pass the test the next time. Or, if that didn't work, to pass an SRA Special Review Assessment.

School Teacher Clip ArtThe SRA was an alternative to the test. I don't know all the details, but part of it was a series of essays each student wrote to demonstrate their mastery of skills and knowledge they had failed on the standardized test. Since I never taught as SRA class myself, I don't know the process involved, but I do know each student did lots of writing and rewriting during those remedial sessions.

As a vocational school, remedial classes often pulled students out of their shop/career classes several times a week. Back then, we had a full three class periods devoted to shop classes, so there was time, although awkward for shop teachers's lesson plans, for students to go to remedial classes.

Carpenter Clip ArtA word about vocational education here. It is a wonderful experience for students whose learning skills are more "hands on" than academic. So many of our graduates have gone on to amazingly successful careers in job areas they studied in school. They did not need to be "college ready," when they graduated, but with basic reading and math skills and a good solid career education in such areas as auto mechanics, welding, carpentry, air conditioning and heating, electrical trades, and cosmetology to name a few, they went on to become happy, successful and productive members of our society. The HSPT could never, ever measure or predict any of that.

Rant over.

At the end of the school year, teachers from the regular, non-remedial English and math classes, scored the essays and other projects the remedial students created during their extra classes. If several of us agreed on passing scores--holistic grading based on the HSPT scoring standards--the student earned a passing grade to replace his/her failing scores on the HSPT itself and earned the right to graduate.

I know our students worked hard on their SRA's, Our remedial teachers were a dedicated, well-trained group, truly dedicated to the principles of education.

But times were changing. Testing itself seemed to be becoming more and more popular as a way fo judging teaching and learning success.

Confusion was on the way.