State Testing

It is Spring!

In New York, that means we are gearing up for state testing. Our third through eighth graders have tests in ELA and Math.  The ELA tests will take place April 1, 2, and 3. The math tests will take place on April 13, 14, and 15.

This year, we will have significant changes in the state tests. New York State has switched to a new test creation company.  These shifts include:

  • No time limit. Students may work at their own pace as long as they are working “productively.”
  • Fewer passages  to read
  • Fewer multiple choice questions to answer
  • Fewer short answer written responses
  • A new company wrote the test with help from educators.

Our students should be well prepared.  Our curriculum is closely aligned to the Common Core State Standards that are the basis for the tests.  In the weeks, leading up to the tests, the teachers are also teaching units designed to help students build test taking savviness — how to respond to short and extended responses, how to navigate multiple choice questions, how to understand what the questions are actually asking.

These tests are most helpful to us as a tool to track student progress over time and as a general assessment of our curriculum.  Still, many students become very anxious about the results of these tests.  We want our students to be relaxed during the testing sessions so that they can do their best work. Please help us reinforce this message. Some points to reiterate to students include:

  • Tests are not the sole determining factor in decisions about promoting children to the next grade. We look at student work, academic grades, and tests and have conversations with families about the benefits/disadvantages for children to have a second go at a particular grade.
  • For many fourth graders, state test results can be gate keepers for middle school admission. Our fourth graders are guaranteed admission to our middle school regardless of test score.
  • For seventh graders, tests carry a bit more weight. High schools also look closely at academic grades as admission criteria. So those should be a focus for our seventh graders.
  • Tests give us a snapshot of how a student is doing in a short amount of time in an unnatural setting.  Yes, they tell us something about a student’s learning. But none of our students should ever be reduced to a number. Our students are vibrant, creative, passionate learners.  They are learning to collaborate, to problem solve, to communicate effectively. The true measure of a student’s learning is best done through looking at a variety of learning outcomes — math problems, stories  written, reading responses, art work, musical performances, and, yes, tests.  But they are only part of the portrait of who our students are.

For more information on the tests, you can visit the State Ed website. 

Edutopia, has several on line resources to help parents help their children with standardized testing.

Making a Difference

This year, the superintendent from District 2, Bonnie Laboy, has initiated a Middle School Leadership Council.  Representatives from the student councils from middle schools across District 2 meet monthly to plan for leadership initiatives in their schools.

Last week, I was privileged to attend this monthly meeting of middle school students. I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness of this group of adolescents.  Students from each school were concerned about issues of diversity and respect in their school communities and expressed a strong desire for their communities to be more accepting of difference.  They were brainstorming ways that they could advise policy for District 2 middle schools on achieving greater respect and inclusiveness in schools.  They realized that the primary way to achieve this is through educating others — students and teachers — about different cultures and groups within a school community.  Ideas they generated include building in a requirement for schools to teach students about others through advisory and the curriculum and to have clubs that work towards creating safe spaces such as GSAs.  In their brainstorming, they were required to think about stakeholders, resources needed, and impediments to the success of the initiative. (Grown ups,sadly, were identified as one of these impediments.)

It is not surprising that adolescents are focused on issues of diversity and acceptance.  Adolescence is a time when children are figuring out who they are and how they fit into different communities.  They are starting to have serious crushes and begin to try out “dating.”  Cliques and friendships are constantly forming and re-forming as our young people learn to navigate complex social situations.

Since elementary school, students have tried out language of difference to situate themselves in a community.  Calling something “gay” or commenting on race, skin color, home language, or religion are all ways that children have been aligning themselves in communities for generations.  My third graders in the late 80s (yes, some of you could have had me as your third grade teacher) tried out this language and third graders today continue to try out this language.

There are differences in the experience of students around difference between past generations and children today. Today, they have powerful computers in their pockets that allow them to instantly comment on others (for better or worse.) We also live in a society which is, fortunately, much more open to acknowledging and accepting difference. Whether it is in the books they read, sitcoms they watch (stream), music they listen to, our children today are steeped in ideas of acceptance for difference. #marriageequality #blacklivesmatter #welcomerefugees  Even the political discourse to which they are exposed this election cycle highlights the importance of respect for difference (even if it is a result of learning from poor examples).

Our children are aware. They know what is going on around them. They value justice and are empowered to work towards equality and fairness.  I am really proud to work and learn alongside of them and to support them in their efforts to make a difference in the world.

  • Our initial support of students has been to give them space to create a GSA in our school.  Not many children consistently show up for this student-led group. Among those that do, however, are students who are very vocal as well as students who sit quietly and observe.
  • We have also supported students by arranging for a student-led panel from the Harvey Milk School. These students are learning to share about their experiences in expressing their identities. Through this work, our students gain empathy for the experience of others.
  • We are also looking more closely at our curriculum. Students have pointed out that we need to more clearly address the experiences of those who have been oppressed in society.  While I have been resistant to relegating Black History to one month of the school year, talking with the students has helped me rethink my position. I am working with staff members to develop initiatives that foster conversation and learning about others. Stay tuned for upcoming details.


Matching Books to Readers

One of the tasks of the SLT is to document and communicate our curriculum and how we teach to parents. Last year we worked on a math document that highlights our approach to mathematics education and previews what students learn in each grade. This year, we are tackling our ELA curriculum.  There are many components to these documents. We include big goals for the content area, standards, and other supporting documents. In ELA, a key piece to understand is how we help students choose appropriate books.

When we go to the bookstore or library, we don’t find books sorted by “levels.” Instead, we choose books based on interest and then usually read a bit of it to see if it “fits” our reading preferences and profiles.  Sometimes we read books that we can read fluently with deep comprehension and enjoyment.  Reading these books is relatively fast and is not very demanding. They help us build stamina and fluency. Sometimes we read books that are a bit more challenging. These books require more concentration and pauses as we stop to synthesize meaning. We may have to work a little harder to understand new sentence structures or words used in new ways.  Then there are the books we read that challenge us in structure, content, craft and vocabulary.  They take longer to read but have their own rewards, whether it is a feeling of accomplishment as we learn new content or ways of viewing the world or a sense of satisfaction in having persevered through something that stretches our skills.

At each step in our reading development, we encounter texts that build our reading skills in different ways.  From wordless picture books to Dostoyevsky novels and books about complex phenomena in the sciences, readers integrate visual and semantic skills as well as knowledge of the world.

Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, experts in literacy learning, mapped this continuum of learning to different types of texts.  These text types have been labeled with letters of the alphabet and provide teachers with a metric to plan for reading instruction. This instruction includes what skills readers are ready to learn next and what books most appropriately support that learning. We don’t share this with children because we prefer to help them learn to independently select books that they enjoy and provide an appropriate challenge.  We want students to select from a range of genres — realistic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, informational texts, poetry, etc.

As teachers, we recognize that growth in reading can be broken into 5 developmental bands from children who are just beginning to engage in their reading lives to young adults who read a range of texts with deep understanding and enjoyment.

Emergent readers are just beginning to understand that words are made of sounds, that letters represent these sounds and combine to create words that have meaning, that each word is defined by space on the page, and that we typically read from left to right and top to bottom in English. Readers at this stage typically use their fingers to point to individual words as they train their eyes to sweep across the page.  Books at this level have few words, repeating patterns, and usually only one line. Images in these books closely match the text so that readers can use the pictures to help them figure out the words.  Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle is an example of an emergent book.

Early readers are those who have figured out for the most part how texts work.  They can read high frequency words with automaticity and use their letter-sound knowledge to figure out new words while reading.  Early readers are also using knowledge of how words and books work, together with their knowledge of the world, to monitor their comprehension.  They read less complex texts fluently and use punctuation to help with phrasing.  They integrate meaning, syntax and visual aspects of print as they read longer texts.  Books at these levels have multiple lines on a page, introduce dialogue and more varied vocabulary, and may have sentences that carry across pages.  Students typically learn through these books in late kindergarten through the beginning of second grade. Llama, Llama Misses Mama by Anne Dewdney is an example of a book at the beginning of this band. Curious George by Margaret Rey is the type of text that children can begin to read at the end of this band.  

Transitional readers have solidified their skills to the point that they are able to read silently.  They know have a large bank of high frequency words and continuously apply multiple reading strategies to solve problems while reading.  Books in this band have fewer illustrations and readers use those illustrations enhance understanding rather than rely on them to construct meaning. They are learning to sustain reading over longer texts, including early chapter books.  Students in this band, usually in second and third grades, enjoy reading books in a favored series. You can stretch these readers by encouraging them to read a variety of genres and informational texts. A Kiss for Little Bear by Elsa Holmelund Minarik is an example of a book at the beginning of this band. By the end of this band, readers have grown to read books like the Magic Tree House series.

Self-extending readers are reading orally with increasing fluency but often prefer to read silently.  The books they read tend to be longer and require stamina to read over several days.  They read fiction and nonfiction for enjoyment and to build background knowledge and apply this knowledge as they dig more deeply into books.  As they read, students at this level apply multiple sources of information smoothly, analyze words in flexible ways, and continuously build higher level skills.  This is an exciting stage of reading as children become absorbed in their reading, identifying with characters and make connections across texts that they have read. Typically, students enter this level of fluency in third grade.  Often, more sophisticated picture books are categorized at this level; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is one example. Ramona books by Beverly Cleary are examples of chapter books at the beginning of this band. As students finish fourth grade, they are getting ready to move on to the next level. They enjoy titles such as Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

By fifth grade, students should be entering the advanced reader stage.  They read silently, effectively understand how words work and go beyond the text to interpret and deeply understand the texts they are reading.  They can read for extended periods of time. Most exciting, they begin to read to better understand the world from philosophical, ethical and social perspectives.  By middle school, readers begin to read much like adults do as they tackle increasingly complex texts.  Books in this band include Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Seymour Simon’s Galaxies up to title such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver and J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.