In a scene reminiscent of the game show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”, the Lusher Charter School governing board sat down Saturday morning and took the new standardized tests that students will face this spring. The stakes were much higher, however, as the exercise helped the board members understand the concerns educators have with the new tests.
In a separate issue, school officials discussed the upcoming renovations of the Lusher High School building, and the need for modular classrooms on campus to accommodate students during the project.
As schools across the country align their instruction to a new set of national standards known as Common Core, new tests are being written to match the new curriculum, including the Partnership of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment that will be used in Louisiana.
This year is considered a “transitional year” for the testing, said Lusher CEO Kathy Reidlinger, with students taking a “field test” of the PARCC that will be deployed alongside the last year of LEAP testing, and used for refining the PARCC test before it becomes official next year.
After taking the sample questions, Lusher board members agreed that a lot of refining will be necessary.
The sample test — which is available online, so that parents can take it also — is entirely digital and includes two passages and a video about the aviatrix Amelia Earhart and two passages of short fiction, followed by a series of questions in a variety of formats. Some are multiple choice, with single or multiple answers; some are drag-and-drop lists and students are also asked to write essays.
The first hurdle, educators said, is making sure the school has sufficient technology to present the tests.
“We have to be sure the kids have great devices, and we have to be sure we have good wifi,” said Frank Israel, Lusher’s director of operations. “If we tried to do this on some of the older laptops we have, it would be maddening.”
The format of the exam is also counter-intuitive, board members said: Navigation arrows are at the top of the page, instead of at the end of each set of questions. Others noted that the digital format prevents students from underlining or marking up key parts of the paragraphs, a standard reading aide for students. Even as the adults acknowledged that their generation may not be as “native” to digital media, they said the problems will still be an issue for some students.
“The navigation logistics alone throw in a variable that detracts from what the students are able to do,” said board president Blaine LeCesne.
“Just the quality of their keyboarding skills, we have to be mindful of,” said Lusher CEO Kathy Reidlinger.
Two Loyola University law professors on the Lusher board, Chunlin Leonhard and Andrea Armstrong, said they are working through some of the same issues with the bar exams. The multiple-choice questions, in particular, represent an ignorance of best practices in testing.
“I thought it was really interesting material,” Armstrong said of the test. “What I disagree with is how badly the questions are drafted.”
And the array of standardized tests also creates a new problem in the high school — “test fatigue” at the end of the school year, principal Wiley Ates said. After their own end-of-course finals, Advanced Placement testing for college credit, college-entrance exams and all of these state standardized tests, students begin to lose focus and motivation, Ates said.
“There’s almost six weeks of just testing,” Ates said. “Kids are just going, ‘I’m done with this.’”
The problems with the tests also have the potential to fuel an undeserved policy backlash against the Common Corps, Riedlinger said. Lusher has been an ardent, early advocate for the new national standards, even sending their own educators to help develop them. But the tests are being developed separately, Riedlinger said, and their shortcomings could reflect poorly on the larger, commendable effort to improve what’s being taught in classrooms.
“My worry is that based on this test, people are going to make a judgment about the national standards,” Riedlinger said. “There’s no national standard for technology, but that’s a lot of what we’re testing on this PARCC test. I hope we can make a distinction between national standards and the testing of those standards.”
“The mix up between Common Core and the PARCC is a real danger,” Ates said. “You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
On the brighter side, Armstrong said the field tests represent a real chance to improve the assessments this year before they begin to have consequences for students in the future. Riedlinger agreed.
“I’m confident they will take the feedback,” Riedlinger said. “Our superintendent, John White, has been outstanding in listening to feedback.”
Modulars at Fortier campus
On an unrelated issue, Riedlinger said that the Lusher administration is now comfortable with the scope of the renovations planned at both its lower-school campus on Willow Street and high school on Freret Street.
“We are on track for bids at both sites to go out,” Riedlinger said.
Where to house Lusher High School students was the subject of some discussion at this past week’s Orleans Parish School Board property-committee meeting. The current plan, Riedlinger said, is for 11 two-classroom modular buildings to be placed in the courtyard, freeing up one portion of the building at a time for workers.
While there was brief contemplation at the OPSB meeting of temporarily housing Lusher students at another campus, Riedlinger said she did not think that was a practical option. The OPSB will pay for the portable buildings on the Fortier campus, she said, and the price for that is being worked out.