Portland schools pushes staff and families harder for expensive testing and against opt-out rights

Portland administration is still trying to discourage the right of students to opt-out of high stakes standardized testing. Decades of real-world experience and research show these tests are an expensive, time-wasting fiasco that do not give classroom teachers valuable feedback.

Yet, bureaucrats have quotas to meet whether or not it’s good for student education and an effective use of public resources. From a communication to school principals:

I am placing the responsibility for ensuring effective administration of all assessments on principals. It is my expectation that you will provide leadership as we take another significant step forward in becoming a data-driven district. If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Cuellar or me directly. I look forward to measuring our improvement in the area of participation in these critical assessments. Thank you for your dedication to our students.

Dr. Yvonne Curtis, Deputy Superintendent, Instruction and School Communities

Trying to discourage opt-out helps administrators cover their asses in meeting quota, but does not improve the quality of a student’s education experience.

Not meeting quota is a toothless threat, by the way. Worrying about quota is about appeasing The System (that corporations have paid for – the private SBAC company has hired many former Oregon policymakers and administrators who pushed for SBAC since the testing program started).

Below is from a communication to all district staff. Teachers are in a tough spot and cannot openly discourage opt-out if it disobeys their employer’s directive, but to read this is still disappointing:

Educators are expected to administer state assessments and to provide the best assessment conditions possible for gathering clean and reliable data. While I understand in the past it was considered acceptable for educators to promote opt-out to families or students, this is no longer the case. The state assessments are part of the required curriculum and more importantly, we need to have data that can be used to evaluate the success of instruction from year to year. I want to be very clear that It is not appropriate for staff to discourage participation, or to actively promote opt-out.

It is important for our families and students to be well-informed about student assessments. The role of PPS staff is to provide information and ensure an environment that is conducive to the successful administration of assessments.

Dr. Yvonne Curtis, Deputy Superintendent, Instruction and School Communities

Despite Portland Public Schools’ relatively short number of instructional days, its central administration thinks time and effort for higher participation and teaching-to-the-test is more valuable than letting teachers teach.

Oddly, a message to district families sent today admits beneath the surface that these tests don’t help classroom instruction. From today’s message:

Classroom teachers will continue to test their student’s mastery of subjects throughout the school year in order to adjust their lessons and provide additional support to students where needed. These types of assessments are most useful for short-term instructional adjustments in the classroom.

Dr. Yvonne Curtis, Deputy Superintendent, Instruction and School Communities

Essentially, tests the teachers make for their students have the most practical value. That’s reasonable. But that value doesn’t require millions of dollars on a statewide basis. That’s teachers teaching. From the same message to district families:

If SBAC results demonstrate that students are not meeting these standards, we will explore why and make the necessary adjustments for improvements at a district-wide level. In addition to providing the district with data, increasing the participation rates impacts school ratings assigned by ODE each year. ODE uses the SBAC scores to rate each school and ratings are used to determine where additional support is most needed.

Dr. Yvonne Curtis, Deputy Superintendent, Instruction and School Communities

Let’s once again save Oregon schools millions of dollars and countless wasted hours: students in poverty don’t test as well as other students. We should address the social problem of student poverty instead of feeding the Standardized Testing Machine hoping it will take students out of poverty. It won’t. There. Money saved.

Encourage Oregon officials to enforce opt-out rights!

District to schools: Hide opt-out forms! Nuance the messaging! Hit quota!

High-stakes standardized testing is on the wrong side of history. It is not an effective educational practice. It is expensive, stressful, and takes away regular instruction time. At best, it only proves the income level of the student’s upbringing (i.e. students in poverty struggle in school). Decades of research already shows that. We don’t need to keep spending public funds to keep showing that. Fix student poverty.

wojnarowicz-buffaloes
“Untitled (Buffaloes)” by David Wojnarowicz

Bureaucrats get nervous when people opt-out from standardized testing. Education experts know tests like SBAC (which Oregon uses for the English Language Assessment – ELA, and for math) are boondoggles and fiascos. But bureaucrats only know they have to hit quota. To paraphrase a line from Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade”:

   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to [test] and die.

Here’s a gem from Oregon’s largest school district which advises school administrators to simply hide printed opt-out forms from people and “nuance the messaging”. Count the number of hidden forms you have presumably to tell if you’re handing out too many (note: opt-out is a legal right). Push the SBAC. The goal is to “meet or exceed the state’s expectations” in making students take the test, not whether it’s good education practice.

Oregon’s recent opt-out bill was intended to provide transparency. Yet districts, fearful parents will advocate for their student’s (and taxpayer’s) best interests, stoop to counteract the bill by outmaneuvering those rights.

The district memo asks administrators to reduce parent access to opt out info, sending it out only via email and making printed forms hidden in school offices. In the past, forms had also been sent home with students and placed on school office countertops. Relying solely on email discriminates against low income families who may not have easy internet access.

The high correlation between income and test performance means that PPS has in essence decided to double down on inequity.
WARNING: the memo below contains the phrase “paradigm shift” which was tacky even back in the 1990s corporate world.

From: Joe LaFountaine <jlafountaine@pps.net>

Date: December 7, 2018 at 4:40:01 PM PSTSubject: SBAC testing and Opt Out recovery

Dear High School Administrative Team Members,

Below is a message that was going to be sent to you today.  This message was a notification that PPS was going to be sending a parent email this weekend that explains how parents can opt out of SBAC testing.  We are delaying this email, so we can prepare our schools for managing the opt out process.

You need to know that PPS is taking a far more aggressive posture on ensuring all students are taking the SBAC.  All the executive leadership and school board have the expectation that all eligible students, minus a few exceptions, will be taking this assessment.  We know this will be a challenge since past messaging contradicts this stance.  That is why we are providing some time and direction on how to manage this at your school.  Certainly the email below covers some of this, but there are some other measures you should consider taking.

Last year we had some schools that permitted teachers to distribute these waivers to students in the classroom.  That is no longer permissible.  This waiver process should be initiated and completed by the parent of the student/s.

Meet as an administrative team to discuss this and establish your agreed upon talking points.  You need to message this to your staff , so establishing your talking points will help you manage pushback.  Our expectation is to meet or exceed state expectations.

While forms should be available at the office, I would suggest that you not print out a stack and leave them on the counter.  They should be at one of the secretaries desks so you have a person in the office who can speak to the outflow of forms.  I would suggest you print a specific number of forms so you can track that flow.

We know we are trying to “put the genie back in the bottle.”  If we are not united on this practice, it will make the task harder on those who are trying to manage this change in  practice.  We will dedicate some time at the end of the Leadership agenda to discuss this further and answer any questions you might have.  Next week the parent email will go and this will all go live.  Anything you can do to prepare your school will benefit your school through this paradigm shift.

Here is the email you will get from Systems Planning.  Don’t wait for it to arrive to initiate your conversations.

“Dear Principal,

The Oregon Department of Education requires that we provide a 30-Day Notice for Statewide Tests along with the ELA and math opt-out form to parents each year. In the past we have provided hard copies to be back-packed home with students. Beginning this year, our Communications team will be sending the link to the 30-day notice to parents by email. The message below will be sent to parents this week. Schools do *not* need to send this communication directly to parents.

30-Day Notice for Statewide Tests and Opt-out Form

The purpose of this communication is to notify parents and guardians of the upcoming statewide tests for the 2018-19 school year. The notice can be viewed on this web page:https://www.pps.net/Page/1651

Please know that although most students will not participate in testing until spring, some students will begin testing in January. Please contact your school for school-specific testing windows.

In addition to the email message to parents, we ask that you have hard copies of the notice and opt-out form available in the school office. Please do not display those copies, but do have them available upon request by parents. If students ask about opt-out forms they should be directed to talk with their parents first, as the opt-out decision lies with the parent and not with the student. The process for handling opt-out requests remains the same this year:

1.       Parents complete and sign the opt-out form and turn it in to the school.

2.       All opt-out forms should be direct to the School Test Coordinator (STC).

3.       The STC scans and emails opt-out forms to testinghelp@pps.net.

4.       The school should retain a copy of the opt-out form for the remainder of the school year. Testing Help will keep a copy for a minimum of three years.

The opt-out form applies only to the Oregon ELA and math tests. It does *not* apply to other assessments. Requests to exempt students from other learning activities, including science or ELPA assessments will be handled in a different manner. Soon, we be providing you with additional clarification around school expectations regarding student participation in our required assessments, including steps to take for exemption requests from other assessments and expectations regarding communicating with students and staff on this issue. “

I know this is a challenge on many levels.  My confidence in you to nuance the messaging is very high.  Let’s work together to share ideas we feel might help each other .

Have a good weekend.  That last week before the break always feels a little longer than five days.  So get some rest.  We will see you next week.

Joe

Area Assistant Superintendent of High Schools

Portland Public Schools

503-916-6542

The preceding line in “Charge of the Light Brigade” is:

   Someone had blundered.

Bureaucrats and policymakers should stop blundering. They should instead listen to education experts: time and resources are wasted on high-stakes standardized testing. Instead spend those funds on regular instruction time and relieving student poverty.

Great Discussion with Education Heavy-Hitters

Diane Ravitch, teacher-activist Jesse Hagopian from Seattle, teacher-activist Brian Jones, and parent-activist Dao X. Tran had a lively discussion about high-stakes testing and opting-out featured on Book TV. Three people of color debunking the “failed schools” narrative and why it’s important to opt-out. High-stakes testing rooted in the racist eugenics movement. Great, spirited insights. Humor. A little bemoaning about the Seattle Seahawks losing the Super Bowl. You won’t regret watching this.

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