Imagine a realm where your progress as a student is judged by much more than standardized test scores, and where support for your interests and strengths harnesses your achievement power.
That realm may already exist in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, but it is about to be enhanced. Berkshire Hills just won a spot in a competitive national program to improve learning and teaching.
The NEA Foundation Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning selected the district for its commitment to helping “students who are currently not learning at levels equal to their peers,” said Bonnie Cullison, the Institute’s Vice President of Programs. “We’re interested in districts that want to close the achievement gap.”
The district is one of four around the country to join the network this year. Berkshire Hills is the only small rural district of the four, said Superintendent Peter Dillon, who with a district delegation that included Teachers Union President Steve Estelle, went to the Foundation’s conference in Washington, D.C., last month on the Foundation’s behalf. Dillon said speakers at the conference included New York Times columnist Charles Blow and Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright-Edelman. The NEA Foundation is a public education charity organization that provides grants and support to school districts nationwide.
“Our goal for the next two years is to develop methods to comprehensively assess and promote student passion, growth and achievement,” Dillon said. “We’re obligated to assess kids by MCAS [testing] and other state tests — we’re not rejecting it, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.”
Dillon says this is about using a student’s “passion to move them forward,” and finding other ways — such as performance assessments — to see if a student understands the material.
“In addition to written test evaluation,” Dillon said, “students might write speeches and give them in the community…we tend to put a lot of attention on standardized testing, so we try to come up with other things that let kids demonstrate that they understand something.” Dillon said this is “very natural in music and art, but it has not been the case,” with other disciplines and subjects.
As part of a small grant, the Institute will provide “technical support,” Cullison said. A facilitator will help the district and the teachers union once a month for the next two years, in addition to other assistance and conferences, Dillon added.
“The reason the Institute exists is that we believe that if everyone who is responsible for learning is focused and working together to solve problems, they will be solved,” Cullison said. She also noted that traditional education “based on a 1950s model where students are sorted in a variety of ways…is no longer working,” when it comes to “struggling kids.”
Cullison said changing those structures “is really impossible.” The Institute, she added, wants the districts they work with to be “a little bit risk-taking about what they want to do in changing the structure of the way things work, so that they work better for kids.”
“The idea we’re driving towards is making learning useful,” said Berkshire Hills’ Director of Learning and Teaching Joshua Briggs. The district is already using performance assessments that include projects to gauge what a student understands — or does not — and where students and teachers “need to go deeper with the knowledge.” Measures other than standardized tests “require more work,” Briggs said, but “we feel it’s worth spending the time and effort.”
Teachers Union President and Monument High math teacher Steve Estelle is pleased with this opportunity. “We’re trying to be thoughtful about improving student learning instead of just waiting for it to happen,” Estelle said. “It’s non-competitive and non-combative — we’re here as volunteers, not negotiating. We’re here for something we both agree upon.”
That includes making students partners in their learning. The Institute worked with West Springfield’s district, which through innovation, Cullison said, saw real changes develop in the elementary school. Instead of simply giving students feedback, teachers there asked students “where did you struggle, where was it easy.” When teachers do this, Cullison said, “kids are given more responsibility and they take more responsibility.”
Standardized testing is under fire across the country. Parents and teachers have grown mutinous. In Florida, The New York Times reported Sunday, November 9, a furor has erupted over student and teacher meltdowns over testing mandates. On her Facebook page, one Gainesville kindergarten teacher said she refused to give state-mandated reading tests to her students. Parents and educators applauded.
According to a recent Time Magazine article, teachers in a number of states have filed lawsuits over excessive testing mandates, and in New Mexico teachers protested by burning their evaluations.
Berkshire Hills is proud that its testing doesn’t begin until third grade, Briggs said at a recent school committee meeting where he presented third grade MCAS results that showed lower than state average scores. Briggs said that it could be a “good sign…it means they’re doing other things…” besides filling bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.
Newly elected Berkshire Hills School Committee member Bill Fields is a vocal opponent of state and federal mandates that he says have gone too far. “Maybe we ought to challenge the Common Core,” Fields said at the last meeting, referring to the standardized set of goals for students. “Maybe this is inappropriate for our district.”
“What MCAS does not tell us,” Briggs said at the meeting, “is passion, engagement, committed learners…it is only one piece of information, and one piece of information can be misleading.” But what it does do, Briggs added, is “surfaces certain kinds of information….” The MCAS also spots learning problems related to poverty, he said. “It raises a question. That’s the best way we can use this data.”
Indeed, the poverty rate in “Southern Berkshires is climbing significantly,” Briggs said, noting a roughly 37 percent poverty rate at Muddy Brook Elementary School. The rate was based on the number of free lunch applications. According to the Institute’s information about all the participating districts, the overall Berkshire Hills poverty rate is 23.2 percent, significantly lower than the others.
With the advent of performance assessments, Briggs said, “you really can’t just look at one kind of data. We’ve made [standardized tests] obsolete by virtue of all these other things we’re doing.”
Cullison says standardized tests “do not measure progress, they measure knowledge at a particular point in time. They have their value, but they should be put inside a bigger package…you can measure progress in art and physical education, but we’ve written those subjects off. But those subjects are what help build success in other subjects.”
“We’re public schools — we have to show we’re making progress,” Superintendent Dillon said. “Rather than simply rejecting the testing I want to come up with an alternative.”
Dillon says he wants the innovative strategies ahead to be “integrated into the fabric of our work. This district is known for meaningful authentic work.”