Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Oregon BATs Storm Capitol Hill
By:  Kathleen Jeskey

Tom Kane, fellow Oregon BAT, and I started by meeting with Senator Merkley at his morning constituent coffee. I got about 10 minutes there to speak with him personally about what is going on in our schools as far as Common Core and the accompanying tests. I was able to tell him a story of two students I’ve had who share some similar characteristics, J. and E. . Both are ELL/SpEd dual identified students who held reasonable, modest goals for future employment as 6th graders (driving tractor at a nursery and tow truck driver, respectively). I shared with the senator that J. was able to graduate high school and attain his goal, and as a student was able to maintain a good level of self esteem and enjoy school. I also shared that I feared that E., who has to work under Common Core and the punishing testing, may not graduate from high school. I fear he will not feel good about himself during his school career, I fear that constantly being labeled a failure will beat him down and crush his spirit. I also shared with him that I feel it is wrong to denigrate students whose dreams are modest and reasonable, as well as adults who work at jobs like tractor or tow truck driver, by insinuating through our rhetoric around “college and career” and labeling as failure with test scores many of our students that those jobs are less than. The senator is a strong labor guy, and he really seemed to listen to that message.

Tom and I met later for about 40 minutes with his Legislative Assistant. Since Tom teaches at an alternative high school, where students are often working on credit recovery and struggling to graduate, while I work at an elementary school, that I see my students who struggle for a variety of reasons being beaten down by testing and labeling them early and Tom gets them at a point where they have to be built back up to feel like they CAN learn and CAN succeed and graduate. I quoted Frederick Douglass who said, “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men”. We asked that Senator Merkley support the Better Oregon funding campaign. We talked about the new assessment system that many teachers worked on at the state level, the New Path for Oregon Assessment, and how we support that as a more authentic assessment system but do not support high stakes decisions about students, teachers and schools being based on a year end, summative evaluation. We were able to share the many problems with the SBAC assessment: time wasted to “practice”, time wasted on the assessment itself, the quality of the assessment and the secrecy around the assessment and the difficulty in either students or teachers reporting errors on the assessment due to that secrecy. Senator Merkley’s assistant was a very good listener and seemed to understand what we were saying.

We did not meet with Senator Wyden himself, but did meet with his Legislative Assistant. We shared all of our same information and concerns with her as we did with Senator Merkley’s assistant. I felt that while she also listened, we were concerned about some of the statements she made and questions she asked us.

We were concerned that she stated that Senator Wyden “felt that concerns around testing should be handled at the state level" but then mentioned that he did not support the opt out campaign. Oregon passed a significant Parent Bill of Rights (HB2655) around opting out of testing. We then had to explain that opting out did not eliminate the requirement for being assessed and explained the requirement for work samples (authentic classroom based assessment). We also discussed that if there is a need for evaluative assessment for the government that this would be better done by using random samples rather than shoving everyone through "Smarter Balanced”.  At one point, when I was telling her about the lack of structure in place for a child (or a teacher) to report a problem on the test, she explained to us that her belief is that testing companies review test results and that if they see that there are many students missing a question, the question will be examined and evaluated. I wish I had the faith that she does in the testing companies. She also asked us what we would say to people who say that if teachers make their own assessments for evaluating students, they will just make assessments that all kids can pass in order to make themselves look good. I told her that I found that rhetoric insulting and that teachers are professionals who want to evaluate students in a way that helps both the student to learn and the teacher to design instruction. The Smarter Balanced Assessment does neither.

We also talked with both LAs about the narrowing of curriculum, elimination of vocational education and art, music, PE, foreign language and other enrichment classes. We talked as well about the our concern that the goal of corporate ed. reform is accessing public monies for private gains and that many so-called reform efforts are camouflaged with clever and "rational" arguments. We urged them to use teachers more as a resource when needing information. We also urged them to stop talking about an “achievement gap” and start looking at the “resource gap”. This was the original intention of ESEA: to provide equity in resources for all students. The current system punishes students in poverty by labeling them as failures, firing their teachers, and closing their schools. It does nothing to help them gain equitable access to the resources they need.

I hope that other Oregon BATs will follow up Tom’s and my visit by making appointments to meet with the Senators as well as their representatives in the House while they are here in Oregon during the remainder of the summer, or at the very least, write or call them and let them know that they support the lobbying agenda that BATs presented in DC during or lobbying at BATs Congress week.

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