The Future of Holyoke Schools

2014/02/22 in Activism, Economics, Education, Holyoke, HPS, School Committee, Youth

The Holyoke Public School District has been in the news quite a bit lately: data walls, high-stakes testing, Level 5 status, dropout rates.  A lot of questions are left unanswered however.  And the controversy over data walls seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.  Where does all of the data for the data walls come from?  Currently, students in Holyoke lose about 20 school days per year due to varying forms of data collection.

The district has contracted with the Achievement Network to administer the ANet tests in Math and English.  There are up to four tests per year for English Language Arts (ELA) and up to four tests per year for Math.  The testing takes place in grades 2 thru 8 and requires about 3 ½ hours to administer schoolwide.  While the idea of creating tests aligned to the standards that are being taught in schools is a good one, it is unclear why such tests must cut in to the instructional time that is so valuable to the staff.  Currently, the tests are given on paper, each student getting their own printed packet.  Teachers helping to organize these testing days are out of the classroom for days before, during, and after the administration of the test.  What is the cost to the district to complete all of this testing in its eight K-8 schools?  How many instructional hours are lost throughout the year?  How much does the district pay Achievement Network?  How much paper do these tests require throughout the year?  What is the cost of placing substitute teachers in classrooms to cover for teachers that are organizing these testing days?

Another source of data is the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test created by the Northwest Evaluation Association or NWEA.  These tests are administered twice a year for ELA and twice a year for Math.  These tests are administered on the computer to students in grades 3 thru 8.  The time required varies for each student, with testing lasting up to two hours for some students.  During this testing window, there may be no computer labs available for the general population to use in any of their classes and additional instructional time is lost.  What does the district pay to contract with NWEA to give these tests?  How many instructional hours are lost for this test?

But wait, we’re not done yet.  Students are also given the Benchmark Assessment System in grades K thru 8.  This is a test of reading fluency and reading ability that requires the English teacher or another educator to spend approximately half an hour with each student individually assessing their reading ability.  Some teachers may have as many as 120 students that need to “benchmark” twice a year.  How many instructional hours does that add up to if there are over 3,600 students in grades K thru 8 in the Holyoke Schools? Currently, most students are given the BAS only two or three times per year, but the Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative (HELI) is now suggesting as part of its literacy plan that students in grades K-3 be given the BAS at least once per month (see page 53)!  How much money did the district spend on the kits that are used to assess student reading ability?

Most people in the state are aware by now of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).  This is another set of tests given to students in grades 3 thru 8, as well as grade 10 for Math and ELA.  In addition, 5th, 8th, and 10th graders take a Science MCAS test, and students in grades 4, 7, and 10 take a Long Composition test.  Again, the big question is how many instructional hours are lost due to the testing windows, set forth by the state, for these tests?  How much money does the state spend every year on the testing materials, including the plastic rulers and Reference Sheets for the tests?  How much money is spent on grading the Open Response questions statewide?  What are the costs incurred to ship all of these “sensitive” materials to and from the schools?

Recently, Massachusetts also adopted the ACCESS test for English Language Learners (ELLs).  This test is administered only once a year, but in districts with large populations of ELL students, the testing can be very disruptive to the regular school day.  Parts of the test must be administered individually, and students are often taken out of their regular classes to take these tests.  In addition, the ELLs may not receive the instructional support from their ELL instructors that they would normally receive during the “testing window.”  If students are pulled from their regular classes, who is responsible for filling in the gaps of material they may have missed?

Lastly, every district in the state must now create District Determined Measures, or DDMs, in each subject area and grade level.  For districts receiving Race to the Top money, such as Holyoke, all DDMs that are planned to be used the following school year must be submitted to the state by this June.  DDMs can be as simple as pre and post tests for units or as complex as student portfolios.  While the DDMs should not significantly impact instructional time, they are yet one more assessment tool that students must endure.  It is not yet clear if these DDMs will eventually replace all of the other assessments (besides MCAS).

This amazing amount of data collection seems only to result in frustration on the part of students and teachers.  How much money could Holyoke use to improve its facilities, increase access to technology for students and teachers, and fill vacancies with qualified individuals if all of the money spent on data collection was saved?  How many more enriching activities could students experience, like field trips, if the money were being funneled into these so-called not-for-profit corporations?  As it stands now, more than 10% of the school year in our city is devoted to testing, testing, testing.  Don’t our students deserve better?

One product of all of the low test scores of our students is an overemphasis on English Language Arts and Math.  The logic stands that if students are not performing up to their expected grade level, they must need more time devoted to ELA and Math, right?  Unfortunately, we are sending a clear, albeit subconscious, message to our youth that Science, Social Studies, Art, Music, Physical Education, and play are not as important as ELA and Math.  If these other subjects were as important as ELA and Math, we would spend more time teaching those subjects and we’d certainly spend more time testing you in these subjects!  Currently, students in the K-8 schools in Holyoke receive at least 90 minutes per day of instruction in both ELA and Math.  In contrast, they receive just 45 minutes per day in both Science and Social Studies.  In some schools, students receive 90 minute blocks of Science and Social Studies every other day.  In other schools, students have Science for 90 minutes per day for half of the year and Social Studies 90 minutes per day for the other half of the year.  Not only is this not fair to the students at the K-8 grade levels, it is inconsistent with the scheduling at the high school levels.  Students in grades 9 thru 12 have classes that last about 50 minutes each.  Are we truly preparing our students for high school with such a large emphasis on ELA and Math?  Have the scores students achieve increased since the district implemented the longer ELA and Math blocks?

Where does all of this testing and overemphasis on Math and English lead us?  It seems to have earned the district Level 5 status for Dean Technical and Morgan Schools.  It also seems to have earned us a dropout rate much higher than the state average.  (2.2% statewide, 26.8% in Holyoke, according to Rep. Aaron Vega at the 2/3/14 School Committee Meeting, and statistics found HERE).  This should not be so surprising to the public; what do the students have to look forward to?  All of the creative classes have been taken away and been replaced with additional testing and test preparation.

What does the district do now?  Can we become a voice of leadership in battling the increasing pile of tests?  Can we urge our School Committee to take some of the money in the budget to provide the things that educators, parents, and students want and need to be successful?  Can we work to prevent more schools from entering state receivership?  Should we as parents join together and boycott these tests?

Why do we tolerate this when in other countries they have greater success with fewer resources and less standardized testing?  Take Finland as a perfect example.  Speaking to tolerance, why do we sit idle as the system continually gets worse when in Spain there are strikes and parents marching in the streets when cuts threaten to raise class size from an average of 21 students!

There there is Common Core – embraced by liberals, called a socialist agenda (see paragraph titled “The Real Agenda”) by conservatives and a corporate takeover of education by leftists.  It most certainly is the latter.  To quote Chris Hedges ~  ”…the federal government spends some $600 billion a year on education – and the corporations want it. That’s what’s happening.”  I find it absurd that the conservatives are blasting Obama on this claiming that it is “socialist” when clearly the push in this country by both major parties is to privatize everything – healthcare has been via ACA; social security has had several attempts made; national security is now big enough to be its own branch of government with thousands of private contractors running the show: for-profit prisons in a “free” country that locks away a greater numbers of people both in number and by per capita than any nation in history; military/defense by ending conflicts like Iraq only to replace troops with tax financed private security forces; and now a mission to destroy public school with more charter schools and these numerous testing initiatives.  The public trust continues to be chipped away for the benefit of capital.   Of course we should be upset and act on all of these attacks, but when our children are on the front lines we must fight tooth an nail – so where is the outrage?  Why is it mostly only the teachers that we hear speaking out?

Additional factoids:

In 2006, the dropout rate in Holyoke was 35%; in 2007, it was 27.7%; in 2008, it was 32.9%; in 2009, it was 34.3%; 2010: 28.4%; 2011: 26.9%; 2012: 25%; 2013: 26.8%

Since the beginning of Feb., 53 “anticipated openings” for teachers for the next school year have been posted on the district’s website.  Many of those positions need to be filled now, as teachers have retired mid-year.


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