Tag Archives: standardized tests


“When you come to a fork in the road… take it.” — Yogi Berra

images-1We stand at a crossroads and I realize I’ve been here before.

If we continue to do what we are doing– to walk a curricular path that is confined to reading and math and mastering only one language — we will not die.  But many of our children will.  Just as they have during this past decade when school reform meant preparing students for standardized tests that ignore the many natural and innate ways in which kids are actually intelligent.

Or we can go back to the old road– the one we all walked through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s when we were just kids ourselves;  where inequalities were enshrined in law and in our cultural DNA.  Remember that road?  The public school system convulsed from one legal mandate to the next trying to reflect the very Constitution we taught in social studies every day:  Brown v Bd of Education, PL94-142, Title IX, Lau v Nichols, and on. And on… until we got it (sort of) right.  In that era, there were no standards.  No expectations.  No accountability.  And little growth. Children of privilege did as well as they wanted. Children of color… not so much.  And the achievement chasm split the socioeconomic continuum like a great Grand Canyon.  There were haves.  And not.

And now there is a pathway toward the Common Core.  This is where the handwringing begins.Unknown

This is when educators fear a loss of control– as if they forgot their place in the political machinery of public education.  (Don’t you know? Public tax dollars pay for schools and salaries.  Those dollars are allocated by elected officials.  Those elected officials represent voters who demand certain actions in exchange for their votes.  Things like… schools where all children are learning what the community wants their children to learn.)

This is when the loudest voices are often from those who haven’t even read the standards, but envision a set of mind-numbing factoids that every kid will be required to swallow.  They hype their own fear.  The nationalization of learning.  The standardization of our kids.  (Wasn’t there a song about that from Pink Floyd or somebody?)

This is when educators begin to doubt their capacity to behave as they would have their students behave.

After a decade of complaints about the road we were currently on– the so-called reform road– we are beginning anew.  We are on the cusp of another full-scale transformation from basic skills and test prep academies to 21st century skills.

Never in the long (constantly changing) history of public education has there ever been a more promising opportunity to insure that every student has the skills and knowledge and values to compete and contribute in their world:  the ability to think creatively and critically, to seek relevance in daily school tasks, to readily apply new learnings to authentic problems, to communicate effectively in multiple ways and contexts and audiences.

Entrepreneurialism. Innovation. Civic Literacy. Activism. Voice.



At the crossroads, there is angst in the air.  There always is.

But when you come to that fork in the road…

*     *     *

• More from Kevin W. Riley at the official website of The Milagro Publications

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California charter schools, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, innovation and change, public education, school reform, standardized testing, teaching, technology in schools, Uncategorized



The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 2 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test.  It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level.  If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered “proficient” and everyone will be happy. 

Of course, anything less than that means they are “not at grade level” and it will be a reason for great concern.  And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a “Program Improvement” school.

So here is what I don’t get.

If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students’ mastery of those standards is determined by a standards-based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren’t kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards ? In other words… a true, standards-based school. 

Where do we see standards-based schools?  In that Taekwondo studio down the street– the one in your neighborhood strip mall.

200px-WTF_Taekwondo_1In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum.  They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt– until they reach the level of black belt.  There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.

Not so in your school or mine.

The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence.  In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June.  Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school.  And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again.  When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test– not because they are ready for it… but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called “Sixth Grade”!

So what if we organized our students for instruction like they do in so many of the schools for the martial arts– in a mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic system that we all perpetuate today where students are promoted merely because it is June outside.  

I have a pretty good idea what would happen and I’ll bet you do too.  Some of it would be good… especially for students and teachers.  But some of it would create such profound dissonance within the “testing and accountability system” that my school will face absolutely blistering criticism.  And maybe worse.

So we are going to have to think this through. And we are going to need your help.

Cross-posted, in part, on Leadertalk

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, Un-graded schools


stillIt is Day 3 of the 2009 California Standards Test and it is quiet across the campus.  Still.  Ghost-like.  Except for the traffic up on I-5  whistling like a turbine and leaning ceaselessly into the North wind.  The South.

Our kids have prepared— not PREPPED– but prepared, all year.  They studied the right stuff and learned the right skills and held the same data up to the magic moonlight like the rest of us did.  So they are ready.

It is a precise science now– the advancement of a school toward the testing regime.  There are balloons signaling “840”– our school-wide goal. As if anyone could forget that that is our school-wide goal.  It is, after all,  painted in fresh colors on our psyches.  We set the goal ourselves and based it on some somewhat arbitrary variables like (1.) we have grown 40 points in one year before and (2.) the school down the street is at 840 and (3.) we are just 40 points better at teaching than we were at this time last year so (4.) what the hell!  840.  

danceeeeNow we are in it.  And that heads-down, pencil-gnawing silence of testing is mixed in with a healthy dose of celebration.  Every day.  Today the staff will play the 7th and 8th graders in flag football.  Yesterday there was a school-wide movie, a huge game of  “Capture the Flag” and a chess tournament.  The day before we cranked the music up and danced on the black top.  Testing time is also a celebration of learning.  We equate it with the team that practices all week long for a big game on Saturday.  The practice is fun… but it doesn’t compare to the rush of competing in bright uniforms against another team.

Test days are game days!

Still, the nature of the whole testing thing worries me.  There are at least these 10 things I hate about the test in California:

• It is a test of basic skills in language arts and math but we don’t test in the primary language of our students. So now it is not only a test of basic skills, it is a test of language acquisition.  Our English Language Learners (ELL’s), on top of the other mountains they have to climb, are not really given a chance to show what they know.

• While the mobility rates of students is controlled for (students who transfer in after October don’t count toward the “840”)… they still count.  Including the 4 that transferred in from other schools last week.  

• We will have to wait for 3 months for the results.  If we are leveraging the future of the nation on these results… why can’t we find the technology to score these things and get them back next week?  We need the data.  

• I have read California’ “Released Test Items”.  I know what is on the CST’s.  It covers some standards.  But it misses plenty.  Our kids are gifted in many ways and not all of those intelligences are tested.  Most aren’t.  They will get no credit for their musical or athletic talents.  Their ability to speak two languages, a gift so many adults covet, will neither be assessed nor mentioned.

• Our 8th graders will be gnawing on their #2 pencils for 90 minutes a day, for  8 straight days.  They will test in language arts, social studies, science and algebra.  It is too much testing.

• I hate the bubbles.  But I guess it is fun for kids.

• I hate that grade level Proficiency is harder to demonstrate in California than the rest of the country.  The test is just harder.  Other states are sand-bagging their kids so they have less “Program Improvement” schools.  And they know it.

• I hate that there is no room for creativity.  Daniel told me that the test is too easy and that the “questions suck”.  He will get the maximum scaled score of 600, again, and for him the questions will suck.

• I hate that the California Standards Test is standardized, even if teaching and learning and children are not.

• I hate that we get only one shot at this. 



But enough whining.  There are at least as many things I like about the California Standards Test:

• The data will allow us to continue to improve and leverage significant, revoultionary change as a charter school.

• We will know that our students are learning and that they are learning what they are supposed to be learning.

• The content standards, the “rules of the game”, are now crystal clear.  They are out there.  

• Parents an students know what those rules are.  They know what they have to master in order to be considered “Proficient”.

• Being “Proficient” matters to our students.  To every one of them.  It creates a clear, unambiguous goals for them to achieve and a pathway to work from.

• Our students are always going to fill in bubbles on standardized, multiple choice tests. They will fill in bubbles in AP geography mid-terms, on the PSAT and SAT and GRE, on the driver’s license exam and on the state Bar exam.  Our students are learning great strategies (and developing healthy attitudes) about all of these.  They are getting good at filling in bubbles.

• The CST is a school-wide culmination of learning.  It is an EVENT.  It is a celebration! We build towards it all year.

• The CST data is summative.  It doesn’t help us make in-flight adjustments.  So it inspired us to find our own assessment system; our own formative tests that help us monitor our students’ academic growth all year long. In real time.

• The CST gives every teacher, employee, student and parent a common mission; a target. 

• The CST is data.  You grow or you die.  No excuses.


As I was writing these last few bullets… I noticed a few students going down to the rest rooms.  They have been at it for nearly two hours and they are starting to emerge from the caves.  Exhausted. But there is still a sparkle in their eyes.

“Morning guys.  How did your testing go?”

“It was easy!” they answer in unison.  Like they practiced it.  Or expected it.

When they say it was “easy” it could be a good thing or a bad thing.  We don’t know.  We won’t know for three freakin’ months.  In the meantime, we will celebrate teaching and learning and get ready for Day 4 of testing tomorrow.  And we will try to preserve our undefeated record in flag football against a very test-weary but game group of 7th and 8th graders. And we’ll pump one more day’s worth of helium in the balloons. 

Meanwhile, the sea breeze blows across the playground and the balloons bow.  840.


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, teaching