Relief or renewal? Virginia’s NCLB waiver

Maker girls soldering by Rain Rabbit

This is learning: Maker girls soldering by Rain Rabbit

Given Virginia’s failure to win a Race to the Top grant – because of its determination to stick with the Standards of Learning (SOL) instead of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – the Obama administration’s decision to release Virginia from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) shocked me, or maybe not.

The skeptic in me wonders how education in Virginia will ever change so long as we measure success by test score. With tests, we murder to dissect. We murder curiosity, inquiry, and idiosyncrasy. We murder the possibility of kids making discoveries in schools hellbent on making sure kids know what the last administration’s political appointees wanted them to know.

Virginia should, instead, adopt portfolio-, project-, and performance-based assessments that allow students to show mastery of interdisciplinary, essential learning. There should a small set of guiding, broadly applicable standards established to support such learning, but not hundreds. “Does it work?” should be the question we ask ourselves about student work, not, “Does it help them pass the test?”, however next-generation those tests may be. (In Virginia, “next-generation” sometimes means “purposefully ambiguous, but with a correct answer or two to give the appearance of rigor” – see number 6.) Can our students design and carry out products, projects, and performances that fulfill human needs? Can they identify those needs – or even their own? Can our kids set their own goals to meet their needs and the needs of their communities? Can they find community mentors to help them bring new learning into school? Are we providing them with the opportunities to do any of these things in between test prep and quarterly SOL-predictor assessments?

It should be the commonwealth’s responsibility – in coöperation with divisions, schools, classroom teachers, and our students – to safeguard opportunities for authentic learning. Assessing students and evaluating teachers and schools by standardized test scores does not safeguard such learning.

This is the biggest transformation that public education in Virginia needs to make: our schools must become places that meet students’ needs; they must stop being places where we send our kids to meet the needs of adults who benefit from our kids’ struggles.

We tend to overlook Virginia’s existing special education and limited English proficient (LEP) portfolio-assessment model, the Virginia Grade Level Alternative (VGLA) because its use has been drastically limited by the state department of education over the past few years so that a VGLA binder – a portfolio of student work demonstrating mastery of content – can only stand in place of a standardized test in a few content areas at a few grade levels (3-8). Through the mid-oughts, the VGLA was used more broadly across content areas. Many schools developed prompts and projects that allowed students using the VGLA to demonstrate their mastery of content outside standardized tests, which confront many test-takers with processing and linguistic barriers, as well as with background knowledge prerequisites linked to privilege.

Of course, too many students receiving special education services and too many students identified as LEP passed their VGLA binders, which made student work that demonstrated student learning “soft” (and therefore suspect in the minds of Virginia department of education) and impaired the ability of administrators, policy-makers, politicians, and vendors to manufacture crises out of standardized test scores from these NCLB “sub groups.” This is the way adult logic works in for-profit public education; this is why supposedly standards-based, criterion-referenced tests need to be validated year after year, question by question, so that the test companies can norm-reference students’ performances against one another (item-by-item) to develop a scaled score. If a particular test form doesn’t trip up enough kids, it needs to be scaled downwards because it isn’t useful in maintaining the status quo of standardized testing: those kids are failing! Buy an intervention and test them again on the new test! Repeat. Likewise, if a form trips up too many kids, it needs to be scaled upwards. Someone has to get a perfect score to perpetuate the achievement gap, which is as equally unjust and in need of remedy as it is profitable right now to the major-domos of a stratified society.

The ethics of standardized testing are fraught for all sorts of reasons. I wish that Virginia’s NCLB-waiver application had tried to help us side-step standardized testing’s ills by positioning us to use portfolio-based assessment to meet federal requirements for “ESEA flexibility.”

Though testing companies and their cooperating administrators and politicians would have us believe otherwise, it is not impossible to determine if a kid has learned something by looking at something the kid made in response to his or her learning. Given the astronomical sums spent on standardizing education (the true cost of gearing our entire public education system towards a higher pass rate, not the amount spent purchasing tests), and our new NCLB waiver, we should, at least, be able to find the wiggle room to develop a pilot program in portfolio assessment that does away with worksheets and demands that our schools dedicate to all of our kids the time, mentorship, and materials necessary to make work of lasting value to them, their families, communities, and schools. We should offer local school divisions flexibility in meeting state requirements for portfolio-assessment so that assessment money can be best invested in relevant operations, not just spent on testing. If we are to keep the SOL, we should not serve them or ask our kids to serve them. We should, instead, make them serve our kids. The SOL should be starting points for inquiry-based learning that lets kids pose holistic, interdisciplinary questions that they can answer with the help of expert guides – teachers. It is not so hard to imagine paying teachers well if we become facilitators of amazing student learning and genuinely rigorous project-based work. It is difficult to imagine paying teachers well to deliver the rote answers and algorithms most likely to help kids pass tests.

There is nothing “softer” in a piece of quality work than there is in a “validated” test score. In fact, student work always has, and always will, provide a more transparent, meaningful, useful, and information-rich account of student learning than any test report.

It is time to invest in student work in Virginia and in the educational infrastructure and expertise that would make the immediate, ongoing, and honest assessment of actual student work the driving engine of public education in the commonwealth. Right now our school divisions are like no-limit ATMs for education vendors. We should spend our money on our kids and our communities instead of shoveling our money out the door into the hands of testing, intervention, and text-book companies which are, often, one and the same.

Back to reality: Virginia will now use tests to measure “annual measurable objectives” instead of adequate yearly progress and penalize the bottom 15% of schools that don’t cut failure rates and increase graduation rates over the next six years (see the linked article, as well as Virginia’s request). Some NCLB demographic “sub-groups” will be measured together as one group under the waiver. The bottom 15% of schools will face sanctions (called “special help”) under the waiver, whereas all “failing” schools faced sanctions under NCLB.

If we go backwards from backwards, do we go forwards in the end?

From Ben Wolfgang in The Washington Times:

“Their plans are the product of bold, forward-thinking state and local leaders who have moved beyond the tired old battles and partisan bickering to roll up their sleeves and start working together,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement Friday.

Hardly. There is no way to pretend that Virginia’s plan is innovative; there is no way to pretend that Virginia’s plan holds its department of education as accountable for student test results as NCLB did. To be fair, there is nothing innovative in portfolio-based assessment (into which projects and performances could fit), but we live in a time in which it seems bold to be transparent and to do meaningful work in public schools.

The skeptic in me wonders what difference another set of tests makes in the lives and education of our children. The cynic in me thinks that this is election year pandering to educators in Virginia’s purple population centers.

The pragmatist in me recognizes that it remains essential for Virginia’s teachers to work within the ambiguities of Virginia’s educational landscape to co-develop with students curricula and learning that matters to our children. Our state department of education, for whatever reason, has worked hard to achieve a kind of faux-maverick status. While the commonwealth isn’t prepared to act on the freedoms it has inadvertently won for itself, our kids remain ready to learn and achieve more than any for-profit text will dare measure.

We teachers have been given 6 years to cut failure rates by half; that is a modest goal that betrays a lack of determination in Washington, DC, and Richmond to see the standards era through. That is, at best, in the damning-faint-praise-of-kind-of-way, our opening to jail break our classrooms and to give our kids a chance to learn what they want to learn under the cover of strong rhetoric and weakened oversight.

We can make our classrooms and schools into places where kids choose what to learn and how to learn in cooperation with us in safe-guarding and connecting their learning to the skills and understandings they will need to achieve their goals and ambitions.

The SOL just got weakened by the plan to save them. Let’s strengthen our practice in response by making portfolio-based assessment and inquiry-based learning the foundations of renewed, authentic teaching and learning in classrooms and schools throughout the commonwealth. It is not enough for us to be relieved.

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