Steven Singer is a veteran Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Pennsylvania with a masters degree in education. He is also the dad of a kindergarten student, and education advocate and a member of the Education Bloggers Network. In the following piece, Singer explains what happened when he met with the principal of his daughter’s school and requested that she be opted out of taking standardized tests given to kindergartners.
One of the exams to which he refers is DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, a controversial set of procedures and measures developed at the University of Oregon that purport to assess literacy development in students from kindergarten through sixth grade. (You can read about it here and here.) The other is GRADE, or Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation, which purports to determine developmental skills students from preK-12 have and have not mastered.
The Education Bloggers Network is composed of nearly 200 bloggers around the country who write about public education and who were assembled by Jonathan Pelto, a former Connecticut legislator (elected when he was a senior at the University of Connecticut) and now a communications strategist who works with non-profit organizations, corporations, associations, unions and Native American tribes. Pelto blogs at “Wait, What?” and is a fierce critic of Democratic Gov. Daniel Malloy’s school reform policies. He started the network in 2013 in conjunction with the publication of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s book, “Reign of Error.”
Singer’s piece, which I am publishing with permission, appeared on his GADFLYONTHEWALLBLOG.
By Steve Singer
I’ll admit it – I was scared.
I’m a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with a masters degree in education. I’ve taught public school for over a dozen years. But I’ve only been a dad for half that time. Would making this call get my little girl in trouble?
I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer because her old man is making a fuss. I didn’t want her teachers and principal giving her a hard time because of something I did. But I couldn’t deny what I know.
I think standardized testing is destroying public education. It’s stressing kids out by demanding they perform at levels they aren’t developmentally ready to reach. And its using these false measures of proficiency to “prove” how bad public schools are so they can be replaced by for-profit charters that will reduce the quality of kids’ educations to generate profits.
No. There was no doubt about it. I had to make this phone call. I used my most professional voice on the line with the principal. I introduced myself and said about my daughter, “I know she’s just in kindergarten but it’s come to my attention she’s taking standardized tests, and I’d like to opt her out.”
Before my little girl started school, I hadn’t even realized there were standardized tests in kindergarten. She takes both the DIBELS and the GRADE test.
He seemed surprised, perhaps even a bit fearful, but he quickly suggested a meeting with me, my daughter’s teacher, the counselor and a few others to get it done.
It was my turn to be surprised. I had expected to be asked to review the tests before writing a formal letter citing my “religious” reason for refusal. But I guess things are different before students reach third grade. Without legislation mandating a formal process, we needed to meet and discuss like adults.
A few weeks later, here I was waiting for that meeting to begin. It wasn’t long before my daughter’s teacher arrived. We chatted briefly about a fire drill and how my sweetheart hadn’t been afraid. Then the counselor, principal and others came in and ushered us into the conference room.
Most of the space was taken up by a long rectangular table surrounded by black leather chairs on wheels. It looked like the kind of place where important decisions are made – a bit imposing really. We sat down and the principal introduced me to the team and told them I had some concerns about standardized testing.
He paused letting me know it was my turn to speak. I took out my little notebook, swallowed and began.
“Let me start by saying I think the education my daughter is receiving here is top notch,” I said. “Her teacher is fabulous, the support staff do a wonderful job, and I could not be happier with the services she’s receiving here. My ONLY concern is standardized tests. In general, I’m against them. I have no problem with teacher-created tests, just not the standardized ones. “It’s come to my attention that my daughter takes the DIBELS and GRADE test. Is that correct?”
“As you know, I teach at the secondary level and proctor the GRADE test to my own students. I’m sure the version given to elementary children is somewhat different, but I know first hand how flawed this assessment is. Put simply, it’s not a good test. It doesn’t assess academic learning. It has no research behind it to prove its effectiveness and it’s a huge waste of time where kids could be learning.”
I paused to see them all nodding in agreement.
In many ways, the GRADE is your typical standardized test. Vocabulary, sentence completion, passage comprehension – fill-in-the-bubble nonsense.
The principal blushed in agreement. He admitted that he probably shouldn’t be so candid but the district probably wouldn’t give the GRADE test if it didn’t receive a Keystone to Opportunity Grant for doing so. When and if the grant runs out, the district probably would stop giving the test, he said.
It’s an old story – the same as at my own district. Two school systems serving high-poverty populations bribed with extra money if they spend a large chunk of it on Pearson testing and remediation.
“As to the DIBELS,” I went on, “I had to really do some research. As something that’s only given at the elementary level, it’s not something I knew much about. However, after reading numerous scholarly articles on the subject, I decided it wasn’t good for my daughter either.”
When taking the DIBELS, the teacher meets with a student one-on-one while the child reads aloud and is timed with a stopwatch. Some of the words the child is asked to read make sense. Some are just nonsense words. The test is graded by how many words the child pronounces correctly in a given time period.
“My concern is that the test doesn’t assess comprehension,” I said. “It rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading. Moreover, there is a political side to the test since it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch.Cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job. Finally, focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help my daughter become a better reader.”
I closed my notebook and looked around the table.
I thought that maybe I hadn’t done enough research. I had been too quick and simple.
But the team quickly agreed with me. And when the principal saw that, I noticed his cheeks darkening.
He stuttered a few words before giving up. “I’ve never had a parent ask to opt out of the DIBELS before,” he said.
He said the DIBELS is a piece of the data teachers use to make academic decisions about their students. Without it, how would they know if their children could read, were hitting certain benchmarks?
“I know I teach secondary and that’s different than elementary,” I said, “but there is not a single standardized test that I give my kids that returns any useful information. “I don’t need a test to tell me if my students can read. I don’t need a test to know if they can write or spell. I know just by interacting with them in the classroom.”
The fear was still in his eyes. He turned to my daughter’s teacher. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot here, but what do you think? Does the DIBELS provide you with useful information?” he asked.
The look on her face was priceless. It was like someone had finally asked her a question she had been waiting years to answer.
“No,” she said. “I don’t need the DIBELS to know if my kids can read.”
It was all down hill from there.
I agreed to revisit the situation if a problem arose but teacher recommendation will take the place of the DIBELS in the meantime.
Conversation quickly turned to hilarious anecdotes of my daughter’s school antics. What she said to get in trouble last week. How she tries to get adults to put on her coat when she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself.
I left the building feeling really good. This is the way it’s supposed to be.
Before we signed up my little girl for school, I had been nervous about her attending my home district. I wasn’t sure it was good enough for her. The papers said it was a failing school. I wanted so much to ensure my baby would have the best of everything – the best I could provide.
My district may not have the most up-to-date facilities. It may not have the smallest classes. But it has a team of dedicated educators and administrators who are committed to meeting the needs of their students.
Even the principal’s hesitancy is understandable. I don’t blame him one bit. He probably thinks DIBELS scores make an elementary principal like him look good. Kids starting from scratch only can go up. The scores can only improve.
Moreover, he sat down with me and heard me out. He may not have entirely agreed with me – in fact at times he looked at me like I had a third arm growing out of my forehead – but he respected my parental rights.
It wasn’t until then that I realized the power parents truly have. The principal Smith might have refused a TEACHER who brought up all of the concerns I had. He’s their boss. He trusts his own judgment. But I don’t work for him. In fact, he works for me. And – to his credit – he knows that.
I know everyone isn’t as lucky as me. Some people live in districts that aren’t as receptive. But if parents rose up en masse and spoke out against toxic testing, it would end tomorrow.
If regular everyday Dads and Moms stood up for their children and asked questions, there would be no more Race to the Top, Common Core or annual standardized testing. Because while teachers have years of experience, knowledge and love – parents have the power. Imagine if we all worked together! What a world we could build for our children!
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