The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

Apr 09, 2014

Valerie Strauss, education writer and author of The Answer Sheet blog, led this weekly discussion on what's important and new in the world of education.

Hi again. Welcome to my second online chat about education and, if you want, anything remotely related. I think we can relate almost anything to education! Send in questions, comments, joke, whatever...

What are the questions I should be asking my school district to find out how much money they are spending on standardized testing materials and related curriculum (in addition to internal costs and staff time to administer these)?

I just quickly e-mailed Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, an organization dedicated to ending the misuse and abuse of standardized testing, about your question and this is what he said:

*How much does the district spend on contracts to purchase test forms and scoring service?

*How much does the district spend on contracted services to evaluate test results?

*How much does the district spend on consultants to train teachers to boost test scores?

*How much does the district spend on books, etc. that are "aligned" with the tests it is using?

*How much does the district spend on contracts for other test-prep materials and services?

HOWEVER, in most cases, the biggest cost for a district is teacher and administrator time for the entire testing venture, costs that are difficult to disaggregate accurately

Hope that helps.


Maryland has decided to delay using the new PARCC test scores in teacher evaluations until the state can get a few years of data as a baseline. What do you think of that? Can teachers still be held accountable?

I think delaying the use of using PARCC test scores in teacher evaluations is a better idea than using them right now for a lot of reasons, but in the end, student test scores shouldn't be used in teacher evaluation at all. There are plenty of ways to hold teachers "accountable" without using test scores as a weighted factor in an evaluation. Some districts in Maryland do this right now: Frederick and Montgomery, for example. So does Fairfax in Virginia. The PARCC test hasn't even been fully designed, though it is being field testing now by millions of kids around the country. For those who don't know about PARCC: It is one of two multi-state consortia funded by the Obama administration to create new Common Core-aligned standardized tests. More on this later.

I've read the standards and, on the whole, they seem pretty reasonable. So I don't understand why my 1st grader is bringing home ridiculous math worksheets (see last night's episode of the Colbert Report). What gives?

That Colbert piece was funny, wasn't it? (If you haven't seen it, you can here, with a partial transcript.) He seemed to make fun of Common Core opponents as well as Common Core supporters  and make it hilarious.... Anyway, more to your point, the standards seem reasonable to some people and not to others. Early childhood development experts say the K-2 are not developmentally appropriate and a call has been made by American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten for them to be reviewed. Other people say the standards by and large will promote deeper thinking among students. I'm not a standards expert. I think standards are only as good as they are implemented and the implementation of the Common Core has been miserable. Teachers weren't given enough time to learn the standards and devise lesson plans before they were supposed to teach them to kids, and we have states testing kids -- using problem-filled tests -- on the content. The rush to create materials for Common Core learning has -- to get back to your question -- led to some awful assignments. Regarding the one Colbert used, you get the idea.... Part of Common Core learning asks students to explain how they got answers. Is that such a bad idea? Just asking.

There are a lot of questions about the Common Core standards and tests coming in... Here's another one.

Hey Valerie, My state is giving the Smarter Balanced field tests next week and I'm conflicted. I'm so fed up with all this testing mania that I've been thinking of keeping my son home from school. But I've read that the Smarter Balanced tests are supposed to be an improvement over the bubble tests, and I want to support more meaningful tests. Plus, I feel like opting out isn't going to stop the testing machine. What would you do?

I understand your conflicted feelings. Regarding opting out not stopping the testing machine, I suppose if everyone did opt out it would stop the testing machine. Movements have to start somewhere. For those who don't know about Smarter Balanced: It is one of the two multi-state consortia funded by the Obama administration to design different Common Core-aligned standardized tests. ED Secretary Arne Duncan said these newly designed tests would be "ground-breaking" and test more of what students are supposed to know. But assessment experts say there wasn't enough time or money to create the kinds of tests that are really needed. They still, according to Stanford Prof Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on these issues, not be anywhere close to what we need to really adequately assess kids. So there's that. I don't think what I would do is relevant to what anybody else does. Thanks for writing.

Is there any independent evidence demonstrating that the new Common Core tests will improve the academic achievement of U.S. students and narrow historic gaps between demographic groups or is this, like "No Child Left Behind," a scheme that is driven by politics, ideology, and potential profits, not evidence? Is the faith-based nature of the new tests a major reason why so many students, parents and teachers are boycotting them?

No, there isn't any evidence. There hasn't been any evidence that any set of standards will improve academic achievement when they are first introduced. From what I hear from people who are opting out their children from tests and from teachers refusing to administer the tests, they are doing so largely because they believe the tests are a poor way to evaluate students and teachers and that they have become an inappropriate focus of the school year.

Do you think the revamped SAT will actually be fairer and mor straight forward than the old model? Or is this a publicity stunt to gain market share?

I suppose if the College Board, which owns the SAT, finds that its test is becoming less popular with high school students seeking college admissions and that they now prefer to take the ACT, which is designed differently, it might make sense to try to revamp your often-criticized test. But the SAT has been revamped a number of times over the years and the criticism has continued.  Some of that is because the idea that a single college admissions test should have so much weight in admissions decisions isn't fair. Colleges and universities say they look at multiple factors, but the truth is that plenty of them care way too much about the test scores.

How can we get involved? I am a teacher of a student's similar to Ethan Rediske. I have written letters to Pam Stewart, my principal has writtten letters, you even featured his letter in one of your articles. Can we contact Ethan's mom? Is there a group working together to fight this monstrosity?

Thanks for writing about this. This story is a heart breaker, one I've written about a lot on The Answer Sheet. There is a Facebook page you can go to that may help you find the people you want: and you can email me and I can send your email on to his mother. (

For those who don't know what this is about: Ethan Rediske was a boy who was severely brain damaged at birth, blind, with cerebral palsy. Yet the state of Florida wanted him to take an alternative standardized test for students with severe disabilities. His mom got a waiver from the test last year but while Ethan was dying in the hospital early this year, the state demanded that his family prove he couldn't take the 2014 version of the test. His mom Andrea fought it by going public. Pam Stewart is the Florida education commissioner who, instead of helping Andrea, accused activists like Andrea of waging a political war against her department. You can read more about this here:

Hi, My daughter is thinking very seriously about applying to the Teach For America program. I have read that they give their teachers five weeks of training. Could this be sufficient? Do they have some special training methods that facilitate such accelerated learning?

Yes, TFA gives corps members five weeks of intense summer training and then sends them into classrooms in high-needs schools. I have been pretty vocal on my blog about why I don't think this is enough training for teachers of any students, much less children with the most needs. While it is true that there are problems with a number of years-long traditional teacher prep programs, five weeks of training doesn't seem to be the answer.

Valerie I just read your article on effective schools versus good schools from 2012. I could not agree more with what it says. Prior to my retiring, I was fortunate to be the long serving DP in a good school. The Regional Director thought so and made the point of inviting the Director General to the school after I had gone. I think it could have been more effective but post school results indicated that the kids were achieving beyond their historical context. Yet nobody ever approached us and asked us what we had done differently. The school goals that the school community established as a focus for the school's direction and funding have gone. In their place we have the Management Plan.of which one point states that the school will improve attendance by one half of one percent over the twelve months of 2014. The problem is with this focus on effective schools they want things they can measure not goals which provide a solid foundation for the future of all students. In so saying the role of the principal was reversed. No longer did the principal become, or was expected to be, the font of all knowledge bringing reformation to the school but rather the principal became a true leader and juggled the pyramid bringing about change as dictated by stakeholder inspired goals and priorities. Now we have a federal government in Australia which wants to introduce the charter concept whole sale because, to quote the Federal Minister of Education, Christopher Pyne, "it is better and more effective". God help us all. Loved the article Cheers David Browne - Schools Renewal Foundation

Thanks a lot for writing from Australia. Wanting to focus only on what can be measured is one of the features of school reform in this country, as you obviously know. The charter school movement is perceived by some reformers as a silver bullet to the problems facing public education, but they aren't. Better and more effective? Not really. Some charters are terrific schools but most don't do any better than traditional public schools -- or they do worse. There isn't a silver bullet in education.

but if those TFA teachers weren't there - who would be?

That presumes that schools can't find other teachers to hire. Teachers in many places are actually being displaced by TFA corps members. The desire of many corps members to help public education and children in need is laudatory, but five weeks of training just isn't enough. Thanks for weighing in.

TFA is a popular topic today...

What advice do you have for a soon-to-graduate college student who will soon be teaching via Teach for America?

I would say to make sure you know the situation you are about to enter. I have spoken with some TFA corps members who said they were sent to schools in high-poverty neighborhoods and had little or no idea about all the problems that children would bring into the classroom and how to deal with them.

Is there an accreditation for teacher preparation programs?

Colleges and universities that have teacher prep programs do go through overall accreditation processes as well as individual program accreditation. There are a few organizations that do this.

So how do you think school systems should make up for all of those school days??

Good question. Districts are doing a number of things... adding days at the end of the year, cancelling some holidays, and adding time to the school day. I think the best thing to do is probably for school districts to find already scheduled events that they can do away with. The number of instructional hours required in each state is nothing set in stone. It may be that too much is being made about a few days lost to snow.

Test scores should not be used for teacher 'accountability.' If one is unhappy with a teacher, one should be able to communicate that. unfortunately, about nothing can be done with a teacher that isn't doing well - and I think that is where the idea of using test scores started. I am completely a numbers person, and I think it is absurd. So you're 8 or 10 or 12 years old and now you KNOW you have the power to screw around your teacher? wow - that's craziness. Kids do some stupid things, so having a bad day - that can affect a teacher's career? I think there should be some changes in the way things are done (a principal is a teacher's 'boss' right? why are there not evaluations done? and/or a principal having the ability to hire and fire teachers? as it is none of that happens).

I don't agree that nothing can be done with a teacher that isn't doing well, although undoubtedly in some places it has been too hard. The two major teachers unions have both made proposals for speeded-up evaluation processes.... Yes, kids do some stupid things. I suppose there are some that might tank a test on purpose, but the bigger problem is that many kids come to school with issues that make test taking hard. It is also true that these tests aren't designed specifically to be used for teacher evaluation. Assessment experts say that no test should be used for any purpose for which it wasn't designed.

How do we know that the new curriculum meets the CCSS? A parent told me that their 3rd grader last year never covered multiplication. That is part of CCSS for 3rd grade. I also heard comments from a 4th grade teacher regarding ELA materials that didn't jive with the CCSS, the Standards call for higher level material. There are other similar stories that I've do we know C2.0 meets the standards? And when will the CCSS be implemented in the MCPS high schools?

Let's start with your last question first. The Common Core standards are already being implemented in Montgomery County, Md., schools, and in schools in most of the states in the country. (Five states did not adopt them in full and some are pulling back from the Core now but most are still adopting them.) I suppose only a Common Core expert could look at a piece of curriculum and tell you whether it is aligned. If you have specific concerns about curriculum, go to your principal and ask. If you don't get an answer, go to the district office.

What are you hearing about how well the field testing of the PARCC tests has gone around the country?

There have been many of problems with the  field testing, which started last month and goes on through June, with some 4 million students involved. Crashed computers. In one state the computers were hacked. On one hand, this is what field testing is for: to iron out the knots. On the other hand, the number and severity of the problems seems like cause for concern about next year's real implementation.

Why would anyone base hiring and firing decisions or graduation requirements on tests that are shown to be up to 35% inaccurate and that are graded by individuals that are not even certified as teachers in the subject being tested?

I'm not sure where you got the 35 percent inaccurate from or the part about the graders but I don't think it makes sense to base hiring and firing or pay or anything else important on a single standardized test score.

I'm a laid-off school librarian in New York (16,000 fewer teaching positions since Cuomo took office). I was wondering if it the same situation for librarians in other parts of the country. and if you foresee the end of the school library?

My sympathies. Yes, the situation is the same everywhere. Librarians are being laid off and in some places libraries are being closed altogether. Can I foresee the end of the school library? Let's not go there just yet.

but what is? i am not incredibly confident that all this 'teacher training' that we do is incredibly effective. some people are great and some are awful and should never be near children. but they have the credentials so they are hired. The thing is - how much teacher training do the teachers in private schools have? i know the situations are vastly different...but still ...

Good questions... It is true that some traditional teaching training programs are ineffective. Some are awful. How much is enough? I can't give you a definitive number, but five weeks isn't enough. Another part of the issue with TFA is that corps members only are required to commit to two years in the classroom. Many don't even make that. While teacher attrition is high in general, at TFA it is worse. High-needs students need consistency as well as excellent teachers.

Valerie, I'm a little hooked on your column. I think it is going to be required reading for my Intro to Teaching undergraduate students next semester. I was wondering about your background. I understand you've been doing this work for a long time, which is one reason why you are so very skilled. Do you have a teaching background? You have a depth of knowledge and uncanny ability to write the truth about what is happening in schools today. Thank you for bringing attention to the issues that our public schools face and the struggles of hard-working teachers.

I'm trying to figure out which family member or friend sent this in.... There is one actual question in there: No I don't have a teaching background. I did for several years do volunteer teaching at an adult literacy program in the District. That's when I realized how hard teaching was.



That's all we have time for today. Sorry if I didn't get to your question. Please come back next week with more comments and questions. Thanks.

In This Chat
Valerie Strauss
I've been covering education for at least as long as I went to school - from kindergarten through graduate school - and The Answer Sheet gives me the opportunity to keep learning (and get paid for it).
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