Vallas Explains His Bridgeport Testing Frenzy on National Blog; Just Fails To Tell the Truth

On May 31, 2012, American education expert Diane Ravitch posted a blog about the decision by Bridgeport’s Interim Superintendent, Paul Vallas, to end the school year with another round of standardized tests.

Yesterday Vallas posted a response on her blog and I, in turn, responded to Mr. Vallas’ comments.

 It is a long read – but I would urge anyone who is impacted or following the developments in Bridgeport to take a look.  Mr. Vallas’ claims are beyond astounding;

Ravitch Blog: Test, Test, Test, Test: Another Day in Bridgeport

Paul Vallas has taken over as superintendent in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while running a consulting business on the side (he just won a $1 million contract to help fix the Illinois schools).

He is concerned that students and teachers slack off after they take the state tests in March, so he has just imposed yet another round of tests for the end of year, which will precede the administration of even more tests.

You see, this is the way corporate reformers think. If students don’t have tests to face, they won’t learn anything. If teachers don’t have a test to prepare students for, they won’t teach anything. They think that no one in school will do anything unless someone at the top is holding out a stick or a carrot.

What they do not understand is the basic idea of intrinsic motivation. By relying so heavily on extrinsic motivation, the corporate reformers will snuff out any outcroppings of intrinsic motivation.

What the Bridgeport approach will do with certainty is to eliminate any time for creative activities and projects; to remove any time for exploration and un-regimented learning. It will substitute testing for teaching. It relies on coercion as the prime motivator for learning.

It is a plan that will prepare students for factory work in the early twentieth century.

Diane

 

Paul Vallas’ Comment To Ravitch’s Post on June 8, 2012

Diane,

As someone who has known you for a long time as a colleague and a friend, I am taken aback by your post about Bridgeport testing. We are up to our ears with a district in crisis and trying to right the ship for the mostly minority, low income children who are our responsibility. Perhaps the hectic pace here in the district accounts for why I missed your phone call expressing concern for the methodology I, in partnership with my Chief Administrator, Dr. Sandra Kase, are employing? Of course, no phone call ever came. Therefore I will respond in this forum.

As I explained to my teachers in school visits and by memo, which I would have been happy to share with you, the Connecticut assessment test is weak. I have always been critical of annual state tests that are high stake, that are too narrow, that are administered too early and that produce data that is dated by the end of any given school year. Connecticut’s assessment system has all of those shortcomings. It is unfair to both teachers and students. Thus, in an effort to support teachers and to give them the baseline data that they need in real time at the end of the year, we are am administering a series of short end-of-the-year tests to give teachers an accurate and up to date picture of their students’ full learning profiles, and in particular the skills and concepts that need to be re-taught or strengthened to ensure student success in the new school year term. Our teachers care deeply about their students’ success, and most of them are delighted to have the opportunity to gain a clear picture of which children need to be in summer school. They welcome the baseline data that will give them the information they need over the summer to plan for the strengths and weaknesses of their incoming classes, to ensure they are equipped with the appropriate interventions and supports. They agree with us that this will help them be confident and ready to instruct in the new and more rigorous curriculum and instructional program we are implementing in 2012-2013.

There is no downside to these baseline assessments. The results do not factor into student promotion or teacher retention. Allow me to reiterate, they will simply provide current, data-guided decisions about summer school interventions to the benefit of students who are struggling, they will inform as to where additional supports should be allocated to individual students next year, and they will provide a baseline that will guide the implementation for next year’s new curriculum and instructional program. It is a responsible, proactive, vigorous measure to ensure teachers have the information they need to be effective in as close to “real time” possible, and that students get the support they need beginning on day one of next school year.

With regard to the comment about running a consulting business on the side, after my previous districts, Bridgeport is a small district by my experience. I was recruited Bridgeport to become interim Superintendent with the full understanding that I would continue to be available to help other school districts as needed. You will recall that I have been doing work in Chile and Haiti. The Illinois contract you speak of, which has yet to be tendered, is actually a request to do turnaround in two historically failing districts. I have assembled a team of top educators, many of whom you know or know of, and all of whom come from the traditional schools community. While the price tag on that contract may sound exotic at $1 million, that actually covers the cost of the team for three years work in two school districts. Let me point out that in New York, that much money is frequently spent annually on interventions targeting a single school only. I hope these are the not the only projects where we can make the type of impact we are making here in Bridgeport. I expect it to be quite a challenge and one I look forward to. Give Dr. Kase and me a call if you wish to discuss further or the next time you want an explanation of any of our programs. Your call is always welcome.

Regards,
Paul Vallas

Jonathan Pelto’s Response to Paul Vallas on June 8, 2012

Paul,

I’d like to take a moment to respond to the comment you recently posted in response to Diane Ravitch’s blog about the testing mania that you have brought to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

My name is Jonathan Pelto and I’m the one who writes the CT Blog called Wait, What?.

I spent nearly a decade as a member of the Connecticut General Assembly, serving as a member of both the Appropriations and Education Committees. During my tenure in the Legislature, I had the honor of helping to develop the Education Enhancement Act and the Education Cost Sharing Formula, the two most important pieces of education legislation in modern Connecticut history. I represented the 54th House District, while my friend and colleague, Nancy Wyman, who presently serves as the state’s Lt. Governor, served in the 53rd District.

In addition to spending nearly four decades working on and monitoring education policy in Connecticut, I’ve managed or worked on numerous political campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Although I’m from far northeastern Connecticut, my first campaign working with Bridgeport politics was thirty years ago. Since then I’ve been a regular observer, and sometime participant, in Bridgeport politics.

Your response to Diane raises a few key issues.

Let me first address your introduction in which you say;

“We are up to our ears with a district in crisis and trying to right the ship for the mostly minority, low income children who are our responsibility. Perhaps the hectic pace here in the district accounts for why I missed your phone call expressing concern for the methodology I, in partnership with my Chief Administrator, Dr. Sandra Kase, are employing? Of course, no phone call ever came.” Therefore I will respond in this forum.”

That paragraph is probably the most insulting, self-centered and sophomoric thing I’ve ever read. Only someone who is obsessively self-centered would start with such an absurd and arrogant introduction. No one, least of all someone of Diane Ravitch’s caliber, would be expected to “check in” with you before articulating an opinion about your public activities. You are a public employee, engaged in the public’s business. If you wanted a life of quiet insignificance you should have chosen to be a hedge fund manager.

Then, to add insult to injury, you go on to say that you;

“Explained” to your “teachers in school visits and by memo that the Connecticut assessment test is weak…”and “thus, in an effort to support teachers and to give them the baseline data that they need in real time at the end of the year, we are am [sic] administering a series of short end-of-the-year tests to give teachers an accurate and up to date picture of their students’ full learning profiles, and in particular the skills and concepts that need to be re-taught or strengthened to ensure student success in the new school year term.”

But of course, Mr. Vallas that is an absolute and total lie.

The memo that you or Sandra Kase wrote to all teachers, of which I’d be happy to give you a copy, speaks of the “lull in learning” that takes place after standardized tests and announces that you have scheduled another round of tests – to be done exactly like the first round – in order to ensure that teachers are focused on their jobs till the end of the semester.

Your memo reminded me of Governor Malloy’s comment that a teacher need only show up for four years to get tenure or his statement that he is okay with teaching to the test as long as the test scores go up. They are statements that are, at best, disingenuous.

As we now know, your testing scheme actually disrupted the finals and end of year projects that would have given teachers and administrators the ability to finalize the lists of who needed summer school. Your tests not only failed to do that but were actually counterproductive to that very task.

You go on to inform Diane Ravitch that “our teachers care deeply about their students’ success, and most of them are delighted to have the opportunity to gain a clear picture of which children need to be in summer school. They welcome the baseline data that will give them the information they need over the summer to plan for the strengths and weaknesses of their incoming classes, to ensure they are equipped with the appropriate interventions and supports. They agree with us that this will help them be confident and ready to instruct in the new and more rigorous curriculum and instructional program we are implementing in 2012-2013.”

Come now, please. Try to maintain some element of the truth. The additional standardized test was an opportunity to know one’s students. And who needs extra help from a test that appeared late in the year and failed to remotely follow the approved curriculum?

 

What about the 11th grade math test that included topics that aren’t taught until 12th grade or the 5th grade questions that were simply wrong?

What about the question that proved the pitfall of standardized testing when it asked urban, minority students to respond to a question about a “deck” when it turns out that not a single student knew what a “deck” was, although all knew that the porch was the thing that is attached to nearly every house in Bridgeport.

And if you are so concerned about preparing for the fall’s high school seniors, how do you rationalize your decision to purchase new textbooks before the group that is assigned to develop the revised curriculum even meets.

That doesn’t even begin to address your unilateral decision to shift next fall’s high school seniors away from reading African American and world literature and, instead, having them read an anthology of British Literature.

I had the opportunity recently to tour a Title 1 school in New York City. Their school wide curriculum development process, which included full utilization of the Rubicon Atlas software program, was a weekly event throughout the year and they are still not completely ready for next year. Under your approach, the curriculum will be developed in a few short sessions and presented to teachers in the days immediately before the start of the school year.

Finally, as a Connecticut resident let me just say that your belief that you are entitled to run “a consulting business on the side” since Bridgeport is such a small district compared to your previous experience” says more about your commitment and dedication than anything you could have possibly said. The $229,000 plus benefits may seem a pittance to you, but Connecticut residents are not out of line to believe that for that amount of money the children, parents and teachers of the City deserve someone’s full-time attention.

Since it was you who introduced the notion that an “expert’s” comments should go unquestioned, let me just say, as an expert on Connecticut politics, that while you will come and go as you please, that last comment of yours implying that setting Bridgeport’s schools is virtually child’s play compared to your previous efforts will live to haunt Mayor Finch and the Bridgeport leaders who recruited you. If one of my employees said something so incredible insulting, I’d tell him he needn’t return in the morning.

I have watched your activities from afar since you arrived in Connecticut and your post on Diane Ravitch’s blog says more about you and your intentions than anything else I’ve read to date.

Paul “The Standardized Testing Master” Vallas Does The Victory Dance!

This week, the children who attend Bridgeport’s public schools have the opportunity of taking a whole new round of standardized tests.

This is thanks to Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s “interim” superintendent, who is collecting $229,000 plus benefits for a part-time commitment to the city’s schools; Vallas decided to divert scarce resources away from instruction and to more testing, despite the fact that students took the same basic standardized tests just 90 days ago.

Vallas, and his ever-growing cadre of out-of-state consultants, announced that there is a “lull” in teaching after standardized tests are completed so in order to ensure that Bridgeport’s teachers are doing their jobs, there would be a new round of tests for all Bridgeport students.

Yesterday, the tests arrived from Riverside Publishing, a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company.  Riverside is conveniently located in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, just down the street from where Vallas first worked as a budget guy and then as CEO of Chicago’s schools system.   According to their website, “Riverside Publishing is dedicated to providing society with the finest professional testing products and services available.”

Vallas could be considered a regular customer.

The cost of this extravaganza has not been divulged, but the good news is that these tests come with the name and seal of the City of Bridgeport printed right on the front page of each test so the students taking the test will know exactly where they are.  (You just don’t get to see that every day in the standardized testing world).

Who determines exactly what questions are asked for any given grade is always a bit of a mystery.  States and school districts hire consultants, the testing companies have a broad array of previous test questions.  A top administrator might even be able to throw in a personal favorite or two.

One Bridgeport student reported that the test included a series of questions related to the difference between affect/effect.  Sadly, it was asked of students who hadn’t had that specific grammatical mistake as part of their curriculum.

Other students said they thought a whole section of a question was missing because “it made no sense” and afterwards the other students said they skipped that whole section too.

There are also widespread reports that Vallas’ operation has not met some of the most basic requirements when it comes to the standardized testing protocols for special education students.

Failure to provide the specific supports and services outlined in an IEP is illegal and from what people are saying it sounds like the whole test might have to be invalidated for students with special needs.  Perhaps special education students aren’t a particularly high priority for this round of standardized testing?

Meanwhile, in the “it’s a small world department,” one of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Executive Vice Presidents, Mary Cullinane,  worked closely with Paul Vallas when he was CEO of the Philadelphia Schools and she was at Microsoft, responsible for developing Philadelphia’s famous “School of the Future.”

As E-School News reported, “when it opened its doors in 2006, Philadelphia’s School of the Future (SOF) was touted as a high school that would revolutionize education: It would teach at-risk students critical 21st-century skills needed for college and the work force by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement. But three years, three superintendents, four principals, and countless problems later…the Microsoft-inspired project has been a failure.”

A Philadelphia blogger added, “on its first day, Sept. 7, 2006, former school district superintendent Paul Vallas and former Mayor John Street rang bells outside the school in Parkside to start the new year.

It was an expansive, space-age-looking facility – dubbed the “Microsoft School” because the company helped design it – where every student was issued laptops and textbooks weren’t required.”

But then came the news that last year, “only 48 of the 120 members of the senior class would be eligible to graduate.” As the school year ended, one frustrated parent was even quoted as saying “now, we can’t seem to get any answers on how many will actually graduate.”

It is ironic, to say the least, that since ringing the bell to open the “School of the Future,” Vallas has blown through New Orleans, Haiti and Chile and has now joined us in Bridgeport, while former Microsoft VP Mary Cullinane, who developed a school with Vallas that didn’t use textbooks, is now a corporate officer with the company that Vallas is buying his standardized tests and textbooks from.

And people say there is a problem with American Education…

Whoa, Seven in Ten Florida School Students Are Illiterate!

Talk about an Achievement Gap…

Oh, no wait, it’s going to be okay after all.  Florida’s Board of Education held an emergency meeting last week to “lower the passing grade” on the state’s standardized mastery tests because far too many students where failing.

The good news is that seven in ten Florida school students aren’t illiterate after all.

State officials explained that by increasing a passing grade from 3.5 to 4 on scale of zero to 6 and adopting higher expectations for punctuation, capitalization, spelling and sentence structure, the test was now “too hard.”

Known as FCAT 2.0, Florida’s standardized test was developed by NCS Pearson, Inc., the “leading and most innovative provider of assessment and education data management services in the world.  The England-based Pearson corporate conglomerate includes Pearson PLC, NCS Pearson Inc., Edexel, Pearson Language Testing, Pearson VUE, the Penguin Publishing Company and the Financial Times Group. The $1.5 billion company has seen profits soar upwards of 20 percent a year, thanks in no small part to the American standardized testing frenzy.

In Florida, the standardized tests are used as the major element in developing letter grades for every school.  Top schools are rewarded, while schools at the bottom are punished.

It looks like the Florida school board knew bad news was coming because at their regular board meeting two weeks ago they implemented a policy that, regardless of the results, no school would be dropped more than one letter grade this year.

But when the standardized test scores arrived, the results were far worse than expected.

27 percent of fourth-graders received a passing score (compared to 81 percent last year)

33 percent of eighth graders passed (compared to 82 percent last year)

38 percent of tenth graders passed (compared to 80 percent last year)

At their emergency meeting last week, the Florida Board of Education voted to reduce the score needed for a passing grade.  Florida’s commissioner of education, Gerard Robinson, said the action was needed to “correct the process, not the results.”  (What a great line).

Meanwhile, a growing number of county school boards, including those in Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, adopted resolutions blasting the state’s standardized testing program.  Apparently board members were particularly concerned that “the exams reduce time devoted to teaching and put unhealthy stress on students.”

The superintendent of schools in Leon County went even further writing in a commentary piece, “let’s discard the FCAT once and for all.”

And an Orange County school board member has been leading a charge to reduce the use of standardized testing saying that Florida’s testing “takes up to 77 days of the school year” and costs Orange County “more than $1.5 million” to conduct.

In Texas, at least 438 local school boards of already adopted resolutions demanding a reduction in the use of standardized testing.

Here in Connecticut, however, we are headed in the opposite direction.

Governor Malloy’s now famous quote that he doesn’t mind teaching to the test as long as test scores go up was followed by the passage of the new Connecticut “education reform” bill that adds even more standardized tests for Connecticut’s students and a new, ten-city pilot program that requires that standardized test scores be used as a primary factor in determining which teachers to keep and which to fire.

Quite a commentary when Florida and Texas are contemplating moving away from over-reliance on standardized test scores while Connecticut’s public officials demand even greater use of the “teach to the test mentality.”