"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why I Opted My Kids Out of SAGE testing

The primary principle in education is that parents and teachers must be the ones in control of what a child learns in school.  As the child gets older, more of the responsibility transfers to him/her.  But, parents, teachers and students are the three-legged stool of education. The dependence on SAGE scores removes all three legs.

I have opted my kids out of the SAGE, end-of-the-year state tests.  Here are the reasons why.
  • Eliminates parental/local control
  • Grading teachers and schools, based on a test is wrong
  • I don't agree the test is assessing 'critical thinking'. 
  • 'Fuzzy math' methods and answers are rewarded
  • A pilot test: no validity or reliability
  • I can't verify the test is actually testing anything I want; going on faith
  • No data privacy guarantees
  • Individual stress levels for a child
If you want more information on each of these bullet points, read on.

Tying teacher and school grades to SAGE scores eliminates local and parental control of education.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the use of the SAGE scores for teacher and school grading eliminates any other measurement of success.  For example, let's assume you are someone who wants a lot of focus on traditional math methods and standard algorithms.  As such, you request a teacher who you know has a very traditional leaning.  Since the Common Core standards are requiring, not just the traditional algorithms and math facts, but "how" you got to the answer and "communication" about math, a teacher who doesn't focus on these additional methods will probably have kids who score lower on the SAGE test.  The fact that you may want exactly what this teacher is providing is irrelevant.  Others have determined what this teacher must teach in order to be 'successful'.  A teacher who uses, as one educator calls it, the "closed-door veto" (a teacher who closes their door and does what parents want in spite of what they were told), will be subject to penalties for their test scores.  What used to work with facts, will no longer work with specific "processes" required by the tests.  The importance of what is taught and tested is being dictated to us at the state-level.  Parents will, eventually, have no choice over what their kids learn in any public school setting.  Tying teacher and school grading to the tests replaces accountability to parents and teacher individuality.  How to make kids get good scores on the SAGE test is the most important thing--the job of the teacher now, wrongly, depends on it.  Everyone is in favor of accountability.  But accountability to whom?  AIR and the USOE, but not parents.

Grading teachers and schools this way is wrong
There are so many factors that go into teaching and learning and testing.  To evaluate a teacher or a school based on how my child takes a test is wrong.  To elevate the importance of a test over the 180 days the teacher spends with my child is offensive.  The grades my child earns from his teachers indicate, much more, how my child is performing and learning than a single test.  We are trying to create a science out of what really should be an art.  Additionally, what teacher will want to teach the "more difficult" students or those with special needs who don't qualify for an alternate assessment?  If your job is linked to how your students do on the test, why would you teach special ed?   Is education just about how well you can contribute to society?  Or is education about the improvement of the individual?  This model is horribly wrong.   

"Critical Thinking" questions aren't
As I have gone through the sample questions, and seen the examples presented, I am not convinced the 'critical thinking' questions actually test critical thinking.  Instead of testing a division fact: 12/4 = ?, we ask students to take stars and put 12 stars into 4 boxes, showing there are 3 in each box.  Then, we provide the division symbol (the hardest part of a word problem--which operation am I using), and the students fill in the numbers.  To me, this is a counting problem, and a convoluted one, at that.  Just because a question is complicated or written out as words doesn't necessarily mean it is testing critical thinking.  It may just be convoluted and confusing.

Math questions are not testing math, but communication, and fuzzy math processes
The two examples given, so far, show that if a child knows basic math, it may not be important.  However, they need to know "the process" or how to "communicate" about math.  (Is it critical thinking about math?  I don't think so.  You may disagree.)  If a child doesn't complete the star problem, is it because he can't read or is it because he can't do division or is it because it took so many steps to get the answer, he gave up?  We don't know.  What about a child who speaks English as a Second Language or who has a disability?  It isn't uncommon for a child who might struggle with English to be very capable in math.  Are we testing their math skills or their communication skills?  Do we know? I'm opposed to 'fuzzy math', and I don't want to provide any legitimacy to a test that rewards fuzzy math methodology.  In it's bid to test 'critical thinking', we have moved from fact-based assessment, to communication and process.  And that means, SAGE skews the questions in favor of a fuzzy math methodology. 

No validity or reliability: This is a Pilot Test
SAGE is being piloted this year by the entire state's public school students.  The parent panel flagged about 500 questions, most of which were left in the test to see how they worked out.  Our children are being used as Guinea Pigs and free Quality Control Testers for the SAGE test.  Why should I have any confidence in the result? (While this article talks about the PARCC and SBAC tests, not SAGE, the process and the conclusion are the same: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/27/march-madness-millions-of-kids-being-used-as-common-core-testing-guinea-pigs/)

I can't see the test questions
Associated with the validity or reliability, we are trusting the people at the State Office of Ed (USOE), AIR, and the parent panel to make sure the questions our children are being asked are not problematic and  they are actually testing what we want tested.  Perhaps they are not blatantly objectionable, but if they are testing division by counting stars, I'm not impressed.

Data Privacy
I have no say over how, when, or with whom my kid's information will be used.  It might be okay.  It might not.  It might be okay right now.  In five years, will it still be okay?

Our contract with AIR, references FERPA (the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act) when it comes to data privacy.  AIR also says they will comply with other state and federal laws (not sure what those are, if they exist).  FERPA is the only standard that is used to protect individual student records.  (It isn't the "Gold standard", but it was, at least something.)  In 2012, the US Dept of Ed, changed FERPA.  FERPA used to require parental consent for the use of student information.  Now, it is optional, and pretty much anyone can use or share personal student data with any other entity without parental knowledge or consent.  In short, the reference to FERPA provides no guarantees on what will or will not be done with my child's data.

Originally, our contract with AIR didn't contain any language preventing the sharing of student information with a third-party.  Fortunately, AIR signed an addendum to their agreement, stating they wouldn't share personal student data with a third-party without the USOE's permission.  (But the USOE isn't me.  So, I am still concerned and dependent on trusting the USOE.  If they are offered enough money, will they? Others have.)  Still, as a research organization, there isn't anything in their contract to prevent AIR from collecting and using any information passing through it's servers (including our students' responses to writing questions, personally-identifiable information, etc) for its own internal research.  They have provided a letter indicating the contract precludes this, as well as prohibits using behavioral indicators.  I have yet to find those references in the contract.  State Law does allow the use of "behavioral indicators" on end-of-the-year tests.
In conclusion, AIR is not prevented by state law or their contract from using behavioral indicators.  They are not prevented by state law or their contract from using our students' data for their own internal purposes, including research.  They are, currently, prohibited from sharing any personal data with a third-party, unless the USOE allows this in the future.  They have sent a letter stating they will not collect behavioral data.  I hope they will be true to what they promised.  I have no legal guarantee. 

The final issue is the amount of stress and concern this places on some children.  The first time I opted my elementary school child out of end-of-the-year testing, the response was one of overwhelming relief.  Even though the results of the tests would not have had an impact on the overall grade in the class, the amount of emphasis and preparation reminded me of studying for the MCAT.  A post-graduate test like the GRE, LSAT, or MCAT is one thing, but stress over a test in elementary school?  It's not worth it to me to find out my child's supposed "proficiency".  As I said before, the time spent with the teacher and the teacher's evaluation are infinitely more beneficial to me and to my child. 

In the end, I have to take everything about this test on faith.  My children, their teachers, and their schools will be evaluated by a brand new test over which I have no control.  I must have faith in the USOE and AIR.
  • Faith the test questions accurately assess the stated performance
  • Faith that the results are reliable for assessing the quality of my child's teacher and school
  • Faith that the USOE and AIR will protect personal information on my child
Faith, faith, faith. Instead of faith, I am looking for concrete information, black and white prohibitions, an actual validity and reliability study (which can't be done without a lot of student data).  I refuse to abdicate my parental responsibilities over my children's education.  I refuse to allow my children to be used as Guinea Pigs.  And I refuse to be complicit in grading our teachers with an unknown, untested evaluation tool.


  1. Your description of the math problem being re-worked as addition rather than division is one of my prime problems with this approach. Math really was developed as a method to simplify the use of values and quantities, numbers, patterns, etc. into formulas. Math is a tool, and a very advanced tool, if used appropriately. But tearing apart the simplicity inherent in the use of mathematics in order to demonstrate something philosophical about the problem reverts us to primitive figuring.

    1. Actually, depending upon the grade level this is used in, this method could be a great introductory into understanding what division actually is. Thereby teaching students to understand the concept as well as execute the problem. I think Common Core has a lot of issues (overtesting just being one of them), but as long as this example is at an introductory stage, I think it could be very beneificial.

    2. Testing is not used for teaching.
      Testing should be used for measuring knowledge learned.

  2. I highly recommend the "closed door veto." Teachers that do this effectively won't have to worry about their test scores. Still there is a problem with getting good scores...someone else will claim the students' and teacher's credit.

    1. What is the "closed door veto"??

  3. Although it is important on the other hand to use tests within teaching also. If your students teacher only tests at the end of a subject to measure what has been learned they never truly will find out that answer. This is because a truly good , educated and well rounded teacher will have pre assessments informal, formal and the list goes on... Without pre-assessments then your child may have already known the material and this is when problems occur! Now either your child is wasting time being taught the same thing they already know or they are being left behind due to never knowing the prior schema information that is needed to learn the topic. Also if informal testing during the teaching process is not done or "quizzes" then the teacher will not know if the children are learning from the teaching models being used. It is so important to pre asses and to assess during the process as well this helps the child to learn so much more and to be challenged/not waste their precious educational moments!

  4. You are greatly misinformed about several things.

    First, SAGE Testing and Common Core are NOT the same thing. I know you never say that they are, but you heavily imply it. If Utah had stuck with the previous core, we'd still be doing SAGE Testing because it tells teachers more about their students than the old multiple choice tests did.

    As for the math methods, inquiry based math instruction is helping students to think like mathematicians. My students are better at math across the board than most of our generation were as kids. You don't want your students to know why an algorithm works? Because that's what the types of questions you show above are for. They are designed to show that a student knows what division is, and not just how to do the algorithm. Students who understand what is going on mathematically will retain the algorithm a lot better than one who simply learns the algorithm. And, by the way, communicating what you can do in math is a huge part in understanding math. (I'm saying all this as someone who was a mathematician long before I became a teacher.)

    Also, by the way, inquiry based math has been around for a lot longer than the Common Core. This district has been doing it for years, and our students have been better mathematicians over those years than they were before. For a time several years ago, my school started leaning back to the more traditional methods, and suddenly the students that entered my class were struggling a lot more with basic math.

    For instance: my students that have had inquiry based math instruction can solve a problem like 1004-997 in their heads with no problem. Those who have had algorithmic math instruction can only solve it by using borrowing, which is highly inefficient for this strategy, and tends to lead to errors. But, I guess you prefer your student spend more time and be more likely to miss a problem because they have only used the algorithm.

    I know, I know. Heaven forbid we ask our students to THINK, to use their brains, rather than go through an algorithm like robots. You would argue that you want students to think for themselves, but your post shows that you prefer plugging through a process without really understanding it.

    Those who have seen inquiry based math in action know how effective it really is. It might be a good idea for you to do some lesson study and observation.

    Oh, and guess what. Alpine teachers are not being evaluated on SAGE tests this year, as it is a pilot. This has been made abundantly clear, but you have chosen to ignore this. And as a matter of fact, I've seen no indication that Alpine has any plans in the future to judge teachers based on test scores. I've seen the new evaluation tool, and test scores are not anywhere on it.

    Now get this: I actually didn't like the SAGE testing this year. I thought it tested computer skills more than what the students know about the content. But your arguments against it are the wrong arguments. You've got it all muddled in with Common Core (and inquiry based math instruction), which is an entirely different issue.

    (By the way, did you know that most teachers have found that the Common Core and Utah's old core are not that different?)

    The bottom line is this: you are spreading misinformation. You refuse to listen to anyone who is not regurgitating what you are telling them. Basically, you want everyone to listen to you, but you refuse to listen to them.

    You say in another post that you support us teachers as the professionals we are, but you don't think that we have the ability to do a good job because of the Common Core. Well, I'm the same teacher I was before the Common Core. My students are just as successful now as they were before.

    I don't believe you support teachers at all. You support your own personal beliefs and those of your minions. You should be as far away from schools as possible. You don't want what is best for kids. You just want control.

    Teacher, ASD