New Math Standards in Texas, Grades 3-8

Texas just changed the math standards for grades 3-8 beginning next school year. Major changes mean a series of unfortunate events for teachers and students.

Students in 4th grade will be expected to know a large quantity of what 6th graders are currently expected to know. There’s a lot of new stuff added for everyone as well. Teachers and students have serious obstacles to face here. 

First, how is a student freshly out of 3rd grade going to perform at 6th grade level by testing time? (High school algebra students where I teach are often struggling with the concept of y=mx+b at test time.) I wonder if our legislators have considered that a child might not be cognitively able to perform math at this level. Or if a teacher can actually cram three years of math into one year — never mind if a child’s mind can hold it. 

Second, regarding incoming 3rd graders, how is an 8 or 9 year old going to not only cover this new gap with any retention, but how is this child going to cover all of the additional standards the legislator has added as well? The standards teachers must get them to by 4th grade will be insurmountable, it seems to me. 

Third, the STAAR test will have to be re-made. The test will be new. A teacher has no idea what will be on the test or what it will look like, but must prepare their students to do well on it. How can a teacher effectively manage this feat in addition to the new standards?

Fourth, a teacher is evaluated on his or her students’ performance on this one test through VAM methods (EVAAS in our district). What kind of accuracy can be expected when the test has never been given, the students being tested have never before taken a standardized test, and any projections that COULD be made are on a completely different test with completely different standards? Not that VAM evaluations are logical, reliable, or accurate in the first place. 

Fifth, this evaluation will affect the state’s accountability as well as federal NCLB accountability. 

The logistics of this are confounding. 

Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff are currently working on a plan for assessing grades 3–8 mathematics in spring 2015. The plan will involve a special operational administration that incorporates the revised mathematics TEKS as indicated in the recently posted STAAR assessed curriculum documents and blueprints available on the STAAR Mathematics Resources webpage at: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/staar/math/. 
For the spring 2015 STAAR grades 3–8 mathematics test administrations, students will receive a raw score (XX questions correct out of XX total questions) prior to the end of the school year based on their performance on the assessments. Then data from the spring administrations will be used to establish new performance standards for STAAR mathematics in summer 2015. 

                                                                                                                                             — TEA Release



Furthermore, it involves some mathematical acrobatics. 

The new performance standards will be retroactively applied to the spring 2015 administrations with new reports and data files sent to school districts in August 2015. 
Because performance standards for STAAR grades 3–8 mathematics will not be set until after the spring 2015 administration, Student Success Initiative (SSI) retest opportunities for STAAR grades 5 and 8 mathematics will not be offered in May and June of 2015. For the 2014–2015 school year, districts will use other relevant academic information to make promotion/retention decisions for mathematics. 

                                                                                                                                             — TEA Release, emphasis added


To all math teachers, I say good luck. To all math teachers, grades 3-8 — I wish you more than luck. I wish you a miracle.


Students Are Not Like Beans

Great teaching and learning goes beyond standardized testing. Way beyond.

We are modeling our test-culture after a business theory popular mandated in the States that is based on quarterly earnings. This trains the eye toward the next quarter and the next quarter only. Myopia becomes the norm as participants scrape by on quotas. Similarly, students are put into various demographic groups and given frequent assessments. Their performance on these assessments (every three weeks in my current district) is analyzed to find out if each demographic is meeting the district’s quota. Easily enough, a person can see that this method is deeply flawed, primarily because people aren’t beans. This isn’t the way it has to be.

“Bean counting is the consequence of a view of the world as consisting of “things” to be manipulated, rather than people to be interacted with and conversed with and responded to.” — Steve Denning, Forbes Business, Online.

In fact, a student is very unlike a bean in so many ways. Consider the following ten facts about beans:

1. Beans are not cognitive creatures. 

2. Beans do not experience grief. 

3. Beans do not experience poverty. 

4. Beans do not experience discrimination. 

5. Beans are not affected by their inability to read, problem solve, or learn as well as other beans. 

6. Beans never need foster care, child support, or doctors’ visits. 

7. Beans do not feel the need to pretend everything is ok. 

8. Beans are not afraid to ask for help. 

9. Beans do not pressure other beans into poor decisions. 

10. Beans do not experience puberty.

I could continue to outline the many fascinating ways that students are not like beans, but but imagine if beans were just like students. Would frequent testing make the beans better beans? Or would a farmer be first obligated to address the ten issues (and hundreds more) first before considering the validity of any test or the judgment a test pronounces upon the quality of the beans (and their little bean trainers)?

No doubt, this metaphor is extremely exhausted by this point, but it certainly reveals the “data-driven” status quo’s absurdity. Great teaching is more than science — it is inarguably an art. A great teacher will be sensitive to a student’s individual needs in a way that no standardized test can be. A great teacher will be encouraging when a student feels defeated in ways that no standardized test could measure. A great teacher will strive to move mountains blocking a student’s achievements in ways VAM can not account. Great teachers are sensitive to a student’s stagnation and growth, pain and delight, poverty and privilege, anxiety and assuredness, turmoil and peace — and the list goes on.

I’ve compared our educational model to that of Germany’s in an earlier article. We can make a similar comparison here in the financial world. Germans rely upon great detail regarding complex businesses (like engineering fields) and take exacting measurements — however they consider the long term. If a product or service is currently unprofitable, they will likely continue to keep it if it shows future promise. They have more data and it is vastly more accurate. They have a much stronger information system than companies in the US as well. If you’re interested in reading more about this system, Management Accounting Quarterly has a wonderful abstract from 2007.

While it may sound at first like I’m arguing in favor of more data, I’m not. But I am. I don’t think the kind of data that comes from standardized tests could be construed by ANYONE as high quality or accurate. I do however think that the kind of “data” a master teacher utilizes day to day IS of this high quality and accuracy. Teachers use this data all day long — they confer and collaborate with colleagues about assignment ideas and lesson planning, they reflect with each other on the outcome of a lesson or event, they adapt their own lessons class after class throughout the day based on data that is collected in real-time through dozens of formative assessments while teaching. A really great teacher knows that their students succeed when they work well with teachers who teach the same students — regardless of department, when they listen to kids who look like they need an ear, and when they voice their concerns to the appropriate parties responsible for making in-the-now changes.

We horizontially align and vertically align — mostly through email and conversations in the hallway or during conferences. We pore over data we collect on our individual students when we ask a collegue, “Did Danny seem upset today? I wonder what was wrong?” and our reply is, “I called his grandmother. They were evicted since she lost her job and in two weeks they’re worried they will be living in a car.” We find solutions to challenges that no CCSS could ever address to help a student become successful.

The problem isn’t that students are not beans. The problem is the status quo is treating them like beans.



High-Stakes Testing Leads to High-Stress Lapses in Judgment

This is a handout given to third graders in El Paso, TX. (Check out the story here.)

The “lesson” was designed by a concerned counselor who wanted to diffuse students’ test anxiety and fears. She gathered their fears through some sort of survey and then put them on paper to talk with them about them. The district reports that it was a help to some kids. 

My greatest concern is this: Why are we making educational decisions that generate these kinds of fears among 8 and 9 year olds in the first place? 

Take a brief refresher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. 

I always point out to my kids that when the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are endangered, people quickly forget about values, morals, and ethics (self-actualization) to secure basic needs. 

This high-stakes testing culture threatens students and teachers and schools by putting their needs in serious jeopardy. 

A student’s esteem is threatened — confidence, achievement, respect by others, and self-esteem.

A teacher’s safety is threatened — security of employment, health, and resources.

When we are allowed to self-actualize, we can be our most moral, ethical selves. We just need to believe we have all the lower levels first. When those lower, most basic levels are threatened, people are pushed into desperation, which produces lapses in good judgment. 

The state’s answer is to threaten teachers and administrators with jail time for testing infractions. Not only will teachers lose their certificates to teach forever (their livelihood) but face PRISON for test security infractions. 

Does this sound like the kind of environment you would want your children to be educated in? Is this the kind of environment you would want to work in? What long-term effects do you suppose this will have on our children? On the profession?




It’s Testing Season in Texas

The EOCs for English this year are over in some districts, ongoing in others. The test this year is an amalgamation of last year’s two separate tests for reading and writing. The powers at Pearson combined the two four-hour tests into one five-hour monstrosity at the behest of our legislators here in Texas. It was anyone’s guess as to how this would impact students, but the intent was to reduce the time spent (wasted) on testing our kids. 

So far, I don’t think our kids feel confident about their anticipated results, regardless of their knowledge of English and their preparations to take the test. Students report feeling rushed and worse, not finishing their tests. This is so disheartening — we spend the majority of the year teaching them both English and instructing them on how to take a test like this and they don’t feel they have the time to properly perform. 

In general, I’ve seen faces marked by anxiety and fear that their efforts were not good enough. Some students reported that they could not answer their test questions due to medication issues (sleepiness is a side-effect of many medications students take). They report just trying to complete the test even without reading the questions. 

I’m still not sure how this system, this test, achieves what the Texas legislature or the POTUS hope to achieve. What it does achieve is erroneous data and a sense of wide-spread hopelessness among students. Our students are left feeling like they have no options and our teachers are made to feel ineffective at best. Meanwhile, campaigning politicians ironically point to our failing schools — a failure engineered by the politicians themselves. 


Teaching Argumentative (Persuasive) Writing

This year, I’ve really struggled with bringing my students’ writing up to the level required to pass the EOC exam for our state. The gaps in their ability to write academically partially stem from the fact that the previous state exam required a personal narrative. Thus teachers focused diligently on developing their ability to write a personal narrative, littered with the word “I.” The trouble is tri-fold. 1) Personal Narratives are not used often in college classes. 2) The word “I” is rarely used in academic papers (though it is currently becoming more common). 3) Academic writing has taken a back-seat in their education thus far and their ability to coherently write about an academic topic — either in an expository or argumentative capacity — has suffered.        

Therefore, I’ve had to laboriously facilitate them in developing their organization, paragraph structures, word choice, logic, syntax and topicality. “Revise and Resubmit” has been this year’s mantra. Only through writing and re-writing a paper have they been able to weed out their individual issues and understand what an academic tone requires. I paired this with one-on-one counseling with my students every time they turned in an essay.This approach has helped me to address both my advanced writers and my remedial writers and see substantial progress.

This week, I introduced them to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This concept was easily understood by most of my students. It paired well with discussing our dystopian novel study underway and we were able to use it to analyze our character’s actions. I then explained how it can be used in every argumentative paper they write, helping them create ethos. For my more advanced students, learning other philosophies like Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative will give them an edge in writing argumentative papers. As a former competitive LD debater and Parli debater in college, using a criterion against which to weigh our values and decisions forms a stronger argument rooted in centuries of philosophy.

I strongly believe in the value debate offers our students. Debate and theatre are the original PBL classrooms. It’s a cryin’ shame debate no longer suffices in Texas for students’ required speech credit. (Seriously Texas, WTF?) Next year, I plan on incorporating more debate in my curriculum and teaching these strategies earlier in the year. I will require them to use these strategies in their argumentative papers.

As long as the state puts such a strong emphasis on argumentative writing — and I agree that it’s important — students must be exposed to philosophy, not just rhetoric, to be truly educated in persuasion. 


Professional Courtesy — A Tall Order

You tell 'em Grumpy Cat.

You tell ’em Grumpy Cat.

I’ve worked many different jobs and been in many professional environments. I’ve worked in sales, a restaurant, a greenhouse, and as a receptionist in addition to my ten year career as a teacher. Regardless of where I have worked, I never had anyone make comments about my height nor have I heard comments about anyone else’s. Except as an educator.

I’m completely baffled as to why education is the only field where this occurs. Repeatedly.

Maybe this is because remarking on other physical attributes would constitute racism, sexism, or even harassment. The only “safe” feature left for for the inadvertently rude is height. Despite the fact these commentators might never make the mistake of informing a woman she has big boobs or a man how very dark his skin is, they don’t seem to be aware that height remarks are still a jerk-thing to say. Here is a sample of the sort of comments I’ve gotten from students and fellow educators over the last ten years. (No, there isn’t really a discernible way to tell the difference, other than perhaps formal language usage.)

“Dang you short.”

“Are you ever gonna grow up? You’re not very tall, you know.”

“She’s so short, we could just stuff her in the overhead compartment.”

“Miss, you short.”

“Are you a student? You’re not?! You’re just so short I assumed you were.”

“You know you short, right?”

“There you are, short stuff. Wanna walk with me to the meeting?”

“Ms. D, how come you so short? Did you drink a lot of coffee when you was a kid?”

“Hey shorty! Almost didn’t see you there, I thought you were a kid.”

“Naw, really, Miss, I ain’t tryna be rude, but how tall are you? For real?”


The comments are rude, for certain, but also imply I’m somehow grotesque. That my height is a distortion, a malformation of what is acceptable.  Full disclosure: I am 5 feet tall exactly and am FULLY aware that it isn’t considered tall by anyone’s standards. It is no where near average, I know. But why should this particular height inspire shock or shockingly rude comments? Especially among fellow professionals?

Good teachers have a way of turning ignorant comments into teachable moments while accepting children’s unintentional rudeness with a shrug. Good teachers know that sometimes an important lesson about how to treat others matters even more than one’s personal dignity and desire for respect. With children, I can understand where the comments come from without taking extraordinary offense. Maybe I’m annoyed, sure, but they don’t have any idea how their observation sounds. In fact, they make all sorts of seemingly random and sometimes offensive comments about others’ physical appearances with fellow teens. They’re children.

And to children, I can comfortably say, “Why would you feel you need to say something like that? Do you think I’m unaware? How do you think a comment like that would be received?” And presto, a quick lesson on communication skills. I don’t feel as though I should need to have this conversation with my colleagues.

But maybe I do.