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What I Learned In Kindergarten

Teaching, Or Logging Data?

On the second and third weeks of school, I met with several Early Childhood Education and kindergarten educators, both teachers and paraprofessionals, from Denver Public Schools. The majority of them did not want to be named fearing district repercussions. To protect their identities, they are referred in this column as Teacher A, B, C, etc.

Not even a month into the school year, there was definite frustration regarding assessments. One teacher challenged district administrators to spend a week in a classroom, so that they could begin to understand the level of stress imposed on students and teachers by constant standards driven testing. “All this is doing is damaging children,” she said.

Two teachers, each with more than 10 years of experience, said this will be their last year teaching.

Going for gold

Senate Bill 212, also known as the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K), requires that early childhood and kindergarten students have an Individual Readiness Plan. DPS defines this as “an individual learning plan required by the state of Colorado that reflects a child’s development over the course of the year. The district is informed by ongoing assessment of a child’s progress in the development (social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive) and academic literary, math) domains and is meant to be a living document used to inform instruction. Information gathered from TS Gold will be used to inform Individual Readiness Plans.”

TS Gold refers to Teaching Strategies Gold, an assessment tool developed by the private company Teaching Strategies.

TS Gold requires early childhood teachers document how students are performing in 66 individual categories, while kindergarten teachers evaluate their students in 31 categories. DPS also “strongly recommends” that kindergarten teachers document each of these categories. This must be done three times a year for ECE and at least once—but more likely three times a year – for kindergartners.

To document how students are performing on these points, teachers must either upload a photo, a video, and/or enter anecdotal notes. For a kindergarten teacher with a small class (25 students), that is 2,325 pieces of evidence. Once documentation is done, each student also must be scored.

In sum, “It’s a ton of work,” said Teacher A. “There is no time to learn routines and rituals,” added Teacher B. “Not even a hello, how are you? We are expected to assess them from day one.”

How much time does it take?

MacKenzie Lane, from DPS’ Accountability, Research & Evaluation Department, recommends teachers spend 10 minutes per day on TS Gold. That comes to approximately 30 hours per year.

Teacher A, a veteran teacher who feels she has TS Gold down to a science, says she probably spends more like 40 to 60 hours, three times a year on TS Gold.

Having done this for several years, Teacher C, noted, “I know my objectives really well so I can check several objectives at once.” She estimates it takes her 45 minutes per child, three times a year, just to “click” (score), in addition to the documentation.

“It’s impossible to do it during my contract hours,” said Teacher D.

Observing the kids

Heather Tramutolo, a teacher at Omar D. Blair Charter School in Denver’s Far Northeast says the pros of TS Gold are that it shows a continuum and is based on the whole child, not just academics. She also appreciates that, “There is no need to test with TS Gold, I can just observe the kids.”

Teacher A also likes that it captures the whole child. She says, “In ECE, I like TS Gold. It informs my teaching and parents appreciate the reports I can show from it.”

Teacher C agrees that TS Gold is focused on the whole child, but feels it is not rigorous enough. “I need hard data to show my principal how my kids are doing. I do my own testing to inform my teaching.”

Charter schools have the option to do a waiver for TS Gold. Indeed, Kim Lindley at Omar D. Blair said the school would be submitting a waiver to DPS for next year and do its own assessments to fulfill the IRP requirements.

TS Gold, IStation and more

In order to meet the statutory requirements of the Colorado Reading To Ensure Academic Development Act (READ Act), passed in 2012, schools must perform additional assessments to test the students’ literacy levels in grades kindergarten through third.

Many DPS schools use an online assessment for this, IStation, developed by the private company, Imagination Station.

In addition to typical computer glitches that accompany any online task, teachers noted that IStation was also time-consuming. Because it did not give them an accurate measure of a student’s reading skills, they found themselves doing additional, one-on-one testing to better know their students abilities. They found their own assessments more authentic.

By removing the subjective human tester (teacher), the idea behind computer-based tests is that they are objective and give a more equitable assessment. Teacher E pointed out, however, that this is an illusion. “Computers also discriminate against kids who haven’t been exposed to them. Because of that, it’s not reliable information.”

None of the above evaluations directly translates into report cards, which then become another form of assessment to be completed by the teacher.

Where is the equity?

Equity is one of DPS’ stated core values. But where is the equity in giving the same test to a child who has experience playing on an iPad while another has never even held one?

In addition, not all kindergarden classes have support from paraprofessionals. In a class with para help, both the teacher and the para can do assessments, potentially cutting testing time in half. But in a class staffed with only a teacher, more time must be spent on assessment, leaving even less time for instruction. Less time spent teaching means students do not perform as well on said assessments. It is a vicious cycle that leaves schools with less money struggling even more.

A teacher who spends twice as much time assessing students will nevertheless be evaluated on the same criteria as a teacher who has para support. Where is the equity?

Teacher C adds, “We’re asking our teachers, instead of attending to their students, to get on their iPads and log data. There’s no instruction but there’s documentation.”

Colorado education activist and former K teacher, Peggy Robertson, writes, “GOLD reshapes the teacher’s role into one of data manager.”

Vernon Jones, Director of Omar D. Blair Charter School, explains, “Teachers coming into the classroom now have a different burden: the stamina for assessment. This is especially difficult when you’ve come into teaching to bring the joy of learning.”

Permission or not

TS Gold is web-based. Photos, videos and anecdotal information about your children live on TS Gold’s platform. DPS has been using TS Gold in Early Childhood Education for several years and is now in its second year of using it for kindergarten. For the first time, kindergarten parents will be asked to give permission for photos and videos to be uploaded to the system. ECE parents do not have to give permission.

Neither Lane, from DPS’ Accountability, Research & Evaluation Department nor Cheryl Caldwell, DPS Director of Early Education, knew why kindergarten parents had to give their permission but ECE parents did not. Caldwell said that DPS had always honored parental requests to not have their children evaluated by TS Gold.

There is a general Big Brother creepiness factor to having information about your child posted on a for-profit vendor’s site, without your knowledge. DPS has contractual agreements with TS Gold that protect students’ personal identifiable information. But TS, as per the contract, can nonetheless use student data to perfect and support its own products.

Give them just a little more time

During the interview Teacher B exclaimed, “Ask any teacher, what do you need the most? They will all say time!”

How can educators balance assessments, teaching, and the reality of dealing with very young children who come to them with a multitude of needs and life experiences?

With that in mind, consider Teacher B’s reality check: “Kids aren’t allowed to play; they aren’t allowed to do what they are wired to do. We’re standards driven and the kids have to hit their marks.”

With so much time spent on assessments, there is simply not enough time for teachers to do what they do best: teach.

Teaching vs. padding pocket books

“Who are we doing this for and to what end?” These are the questions Jones asks when he ponders the value of TS Gold and other assessment models. “Is this helping the children grow and helping us to support them as they become who they want to be? Testing can’t be disconnected from that. We aren’t here to pad someone’s research or pocket books.”

Initially in DPS, Race to the Top money was used to fund TS Gold. But in the last two years, the district has paid TS Gold more than $363,000, according to information obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request. And each year, more data needs to be stored. In addition, some schools pay a per pupil fee from their own budgets for IStation. That small amount is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total amount paid by taxpayers for standardized testing.

In February 2015, Teaching Strategies LLC issued a press release announcing it had acquired Tadpoles, “a leading provider of child management solutions to the private childcare market.”

From birth to college

As the company moves to expand its reach, it aligns itself with a statewide push in Colorado to gather longitudinal data on each child, from birth to college and work.   

Parents should be aware that behavioral, social-emotional and academic data on their children is being gathered and stored, whether or not that data is useful to teachers. If it’s not serving the teachers, is it serving the students? The parents?

Ask DPS for a list of your child’s assessments and what will be assessed? Ask what data will be uploaded to what platform and how long it will “live” there. Ask if the data can be deleted? And ask to what end?

Be an informed parent.

Lynn Kalinauskas is Education Chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

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