Montclair Superintendent's Latest Message on Assessments

MontclairSchool districtMontclair Superintendent, Dr. Penny MacCormack, just sent the following message about how the district will move forward after the breach of assessments:

Dear Montclair Schools Community,

Upon further investigation it seems likely that more of the common assessments designed by our teachers to determine student readiness to meet the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were made available publicly.  We have launched a full legal investigation to determine how the common assessments came to be posted to an external website without our knowledge and to identify the individual or individuals involved.

As a result, we will be using the assessments in a slightly different way.  It is important to note that these assessments were always meant to be used to help us learn how to best support students as we prepare them to meet the new, more rigorous CCSS.  Therefore, I am asking our Principals to work with their teacher teams to determine how the assessments can be used to determine student preparation for the major learning standards without attaching student grades.  We will also ask that teacher teams (common content area/grade level) be given ample time to meet and share their learning from this work. Finally, teachers will keep parents informed about student progress towards the new standards.

The common assessments were designed to meet several goals including the goal to address student learning needs in connection to the CCSS, state requirements for benchmarking student progress, and the state-approved school improvement plans for our two focus schools (Bullock, Glenfield). In addition, teachers are required to give assessments at regular intervals to be used by teacher teams for meeting student needs and sharing best practices as part of the state-mandated new teacher evaluation system; the common assessments were designed to support teachers in meeting this requirement.

Currently units two, three and four assessments are not posted to the password-protected teacher portal.  However, we continue to be concerned that these assessments may become vulnerable to similar threats.  With this in mind we will be providing these assessments to teacher teams to be used as models for the development of school-level common assessments aligned to district curriculum and designed to inform student progress to the CCSS.

Penny MacCormack

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  1. So wait…new assessments will be created now? Was that summer’s worth of taxpayer money to the tune of $400k wasted now? How has she developed this new plan at 6:30 pm, without consulting anyone in the classroom? Can the ineptitude get any more evident? She is absolutely lost. Hands down…she has no clue.

  2. However much it cost to create these assessments (400k?) is lost because someone felt a need to show us how terrible and evil the Super is. Someone who I’m sure screams about how important the “kids” are.

    As for creating this new plan, the Super and the other educators (many of whom have spent YEARS teaching in the district) don’t need to “consult” with every classroom teacher about every decision. It’s crazy to even think that.

    Here, the Super has responded in a measured, if not obvious manner.

    Remember, these are interim assessments that are of no consequence as detailed above. For the teachers that were going to use them as exam grades, they will have to find something else. A pain in the ass for sure, but not a biggie for a professional educator.

    But to say that because some idiot may have violated the law by posting this (if the person is an employee) and the Super is responding to it this shows how inept she is makes little sense.

  3. This is CHEATING!! Either a student or teacher has engaged in immoral and/or criminal acts to make the same old point over and over again. Blah, blah, too many tests are bad and scary – whaaaaaa.
    Let the students take the exams already and let’s see how it plays out.
    A prediction….the students who have poor teachers will not do as well as the students with better teachers. The poor teachers will have to work harder and improve themselves.
    Who is so afraid of seeing this result that they will resort to CHEATING and STEALING?

  4. It is mind-boggling that a321 has figured this all out yet we are still looking for who did it. A321 obviously has superior investigative skills so why bother with any investigation. It was obviously a dastardly teacher (most likely the union and their divide and conquer mentality) or a moronic student who managed to outwit people paid $100k+. Why don’t we save that money and just reintroduce child labor?

    It’s amazing that the same people who yell about teachers never wanting accountability don’t want to hold our superintendent or boe responsible. Hypocrites.

  5. Ummm….. Tell us how exactly do you hold someone “responsible” for the potentially illegal activity of an employee?

    Or do you believe that this is a part of the Super and BOE’s evil plan: steal the test, post it online and…….. do what exactly?

    Or perhaps you want to have limit all access to teaching material to only a few. And when teachers need it, they will be given it?

  6. This is too funny! Communistic agenda run amuck! You ask for (and vote for) central command and control…you got it! Manufactured, govt dictated fairness, equality, and harmony has you all at each other’s throats. The more you try, the worse you will fail. I’m doing just fine as a Montclair alum who’s parents didn’t know what grade I was in , never mind when my tests were or how “fair” they were, Water seeks it’s own level, it all comes out in the wash,…etc. You are elevating the status of the bureaucracy. Teach your kids to navigate imperfection, not to seek perfection. Your kids’ scores are your kids’ scores. Make THEM accountable instead of the cheat(s) you so desperately want to avenge. It will be time better spent! The imperfect Montclair school system of my youth was a genuine life experience that served up REAL and valuable life lessons…and, um….more harmony than I see here!

  7. It’s time some of you Barista readers and parents like idratherbeat63 grow up. Unless this was a colossal tech mistake, the likelihood is that it was sabotage. And likely it’s sabotage from someone helping the MEA.

    The mayor is right. It is an abhorrent violation of democratic process.

    But instead, too many of you believe that because you (and Montclair) are “progressive”, there is some special political treatment due to excuse this action. Instead, all you’re doing is behaving like irrational whiners and defenders of Montclair’s educational mediocrity. Some of you are actually on the wrong side of liberalism and progressivism today and should instead be demanding improvement and better performance from our teachers and students.

    Why do I say this?

    Where were you for years when your help was really needed with political push back against Mr. BS himself – our last superintendent. Instead, Alvarez conned you out of $40 million for a new school that was not needed — using the false fear tactic of reducing class size? Most of you were sheep and just followed along then. Anyone who complained was positioned as being against the kids.

    And where were you all during the years when school budgets and debt kept skyrocketing with no concurrent improvement in academic performance? Again, you were largely silent because Alvarez talked the progressive PC talk? Were you there instead pushing back against his spending nonsense about successfully reducing the achievement gap which everyone bought hook, line and sinker while all the time the gap was increasing?

    No, most were silent and accepting because he really understood Montclair. And then, when you actually had a real chance to make a change – you instead voted against the direct election of our school board. If every liberal winner here really wanted to impact policy – the town blew that chance for more direct democracy.

    Instead, the end result of the Alvarez reign with his PC quota nonsense at the time was that we are now more in debt, have lower school test scores and even lower statewide rankings. Those are the hard facts – not opinions.

    So now, today, the DULY APPOINTED BOARD OF ED which the town agreed was the way to go democratically – has decided to bring in a new superintendent to try and do something about our middling educational returns. Yes, it’s someone who has a philosophy of more accountability and testing instead of keeping things touchy feelie and just talking about how special and progressive we are.

    But immediately, she’s anti-union and an ogre who doesn’t understand Montclair because she wants better actual results and wants to get rid of some dead wood teachers. And our current board members are seen as fascists in the last union negotiations because they only gave out teacher raises that were the second highest in Essex county.

    Why is Macormack an ogre? Because she has a different path than some of you to address our lower ranking results? Because she has a different approach than some teachers and parents – many who were long term defenders of educational mediocrity?

    Some you oppose her testing approach on very reasonable, intellectual grounds. Alright. Express yourself. Be very specific what is better. But just using buzzwords like: “corporate tool, Broad Academy virus, charter school advocate etc. – say nothing. Because there’s no requirement your vision should prevail.

    There’s nothing gone wrong from a process standpoint here. It’s just that you don’t have power to impose your views which essentially have been tried and not done all that well in the past. Someone else’s vision is now in play.

    Her approach hasn’t even been rolled out yet, so who says she’s wrong, especially when the past data and rankings show that some kind of change is clearly needed. But you weren’t there demanding that change in the past. You played ball with mediocrity.

    Sorry, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you wanted to really influence policy and demand real change, then we needed an elected board. The town said “no” to that and so now, representative and indirect democracy is still what’s at play.

    Don’t like our appointed board today, demand that the mayor change them all out. You don’t like the mayor on his education picks, recall him or vote him out next election.

    Because just complaining that you don’t like the philosophical changes now being attempted by a new Superintendent – someone who hasn’t even really tried what she wants to do, is just acting like petulant children who have not gotten their way.

    If P. Macormack’s approach doesn’t work, we’ll know soon enough. Meanwhile, give the lady a chance to succeed or fail. And start to grow up politically. This is largely about union jobs and exposing those not performing – not about your kids tests score. By not seeing that, you are giving liberals a bad name.

  8. I am a teacher and a citizen of Montclair and I do not think the quarterly assessments will be effective. There is no evidence to support that this methodology increases student achievement. Professionals in education should expect and demand evidence to support instructional strategies; unfortunately, in this era of data-driven reform, there is scant evidence to support the effectiveness of much of what is being implemented and enforced. There are data to support learning and the data lie in the field of cognitive science. There are studies that do show that retrieval increases long-term memory and a good teacher will use this instructional strategy in class frequently. Retrieval exercises can be as low-stress as questioning students in class, Do Now exercises, quizzes and teaching study strategies such as flashcards and quizzing oneself. In addition, good teachers reteach all the time/every day, not just after a quarterly exam. I check/grade informal/formative assessments throughout my units, pick up misconceptions and reteach. You need to get inside the students’ heads, meet them where they are and help guide them to where you want them to be to reach the standards you set forth at the beginning of the unit. Quarterly assessments do not factor into the equation for me. And contrary to what people in town (people who are not in the classroom) think and what the BOE has stated, quarterly assessments are a disruption to the flow of learning. I will lose some days at the end of each MP because of the quarterly assessments–days that I could be teaching. And to think that students don’t care how they do on these tests is naive; there is a sizable number of students at the HS that care very much about how they do on each and every test. And they are stressed about the quarterlies.

    The Super/BOE talks frequently about ensuring that students are “career and college ready.” Colleges do not administer quarterly exams–they give finals, whether they are exams or papers/projects. And these finals typically cover a semester, which is akin to two MPs in high school. So, I fail to see how quarterly exams are getting students ready for college. (But, that’s not really the intent of these exams, anyways.)

    And yes, these exams do most certainly lead to “teaching to the test.” Some think that’s fine; I do not. Any teacher worth his salt knows that he can teach a student to memorize an answer but that is all it is–memorizing an answer. Sometimes this is fine for straight-up recall but often times, there is very little comprehension involved. I have seen this often–change the question just a bit and the student cannot arrive at the correct answer. All the teachers have access to the quarterly assessments so even subconsciously, they are teaching to the test. And there is always the likelihood that it’s not a good test that some people are being forced to teach to. I do write my own tests–I look for what I consider to be good questions in various books for my subject matter, I look all over for well-constructed, thoughtful questions. Not all standardized questions are good questions and many are ambiguous and awful. And I write some of the open-ended questions myself.

    Also, standardization is not always a good thing–it often leads to mediocrity. This move toward lockstep in the classroom makes me shudder, actually, and that is exactly what quarterly assessments lead to. Here is a wonderful little blog post that details the pitfalls of the extreme move toward standardization: There is a great quote in there from Seymour Papert, the MIT mathematician who invented the Logo programming language. He is very against standardization.

    There are bad teachers. I wish they weren’t teaching, also. But these new mandates from Central Office will not get rid of the bad teachers and they handicap the good teachers. Supervisors/administrators who do their jobs can get rid of bad teachers. It’s not easy but it’s certainly possible.

  9. Now this above is a perfectly fine level of philosophical and intellectual criticism to what the Super/BOE are advocating. It doesn’t say she’s a “corporate tool.” It says what is proposed is not going to be that effective for “learning.”

    That’s the level of debate we can and should have. But what’s missing however, is the alternative process that the poster can point to directly to really get rid of failing teachers. Because right now, it’s virtually impossible to remove them. Saying supervisors “can” do it under our current union climate is just not being real. And therefore, what we are left with is testing – real data – which does show student learning retention. Is it perfect – no. But again, it appears that the goal behind the assessments is not just to see student “leaning” per say, but also to find out and remove who is not a very good teacher.

    When all is said and done – what’s wrong with that. Everyone is evaluated in life and teachers should be no different. I’m sure the system will figure out a way to factor out our student’s personal and background variables to see that the majority of a teacher’s classes are getting and the learning the material needed. And conversely, while not perfect, there will at least be some information gleamed from this that shows that a majority of a teacher’s students are not getting what they needed and therefore that individual needs to go.

    That should be a major goal from this process – be it the issues raised to about effectiveness to overall learning itself.

  10. Jpal, that was a thoughtful, well-articulated post. As a parent who had been very much in the middle on these issues, I actually really appreciate hearing from reasonable educators and what they think.

    I also find in interesting that this very much seems a proxy war–we are being told/sold that the testing/reforms are all for the good of the kids, but as spotontarget explicitly states (as a supporter of these changes): “This is largely about union jobs and exposing those not performing – not about your kids tests score.” So there is the strategy.

    The people I trust most in this whole issue are the good teachers in the district that I respect and know have the students best interests at heart–not the union, not the Superintendent, not the BOE, not Chris Christie and his future runs for office. I hope they continue to make thoughtful, reasonable arguments for those of us trying to really understand the issues here.

  11. As a parent, as a former public school teacher, and simply as a concerned citizen, I’ve tried very much to stay open-minded and weigh the pros and cons of this new approach. I think there are some real positives: we should have minimum standards of what kids are able to do by the end of each grade, and providing teachers with some more objective analysis of the progress their kids are making toward those goals is a positive thing, at least in the subject areas that are more amenable to such measurement, such as math. Unfortunately, my daughter had a lousy teacher last year, and I think tests such as these might have forced that teacher to take more proactive steps to make sure that all students had mastered, say, their basic addition and subtraction facts (which she did not). So, from the point of view of having common tests meant to set a floor for teachers and their students to meet — that is something that is likely a good thing.

    Similarly, I think that we should be setting high expectations for all of our students, and the fact that so many students, whether rich or poor, black or white, etc., are not meeting the basic proficiency standards for their grades is a tragedy we have a moral imperative to address immediately.

    But I am concerned that the pace in my elementary school student’s math class this year has been very, very fast, and about the impact that the fast pace may have on students across the spectrum. Some of that may be our perspective just because my kid did have such a lousy teacher who didn’t ensure that the kids mastered the material last year, but I also think this goes beyond our issues regarding one teacher. For my kid, I think the faster pace is a really positive development: it’s a challenge, and she has been rising to it. In addition, I am glad that she is discovering early in her school career that success in school requires hard work and determination, and isn’t simply a function of native intelligence.

    But my daughter is a strong student with involved and supportive parents: isn’t the achievement gap going to widen further when other students in her grade, who may not have parents who are as involved and supportive, don’t (or can’t) provide their children with the support I provide to my child, such as requiring her to practice her math facts each night as part of her homework?

    The new approach seems to be requiring teachers to cover so much and to keep plowing ahead so quickly to prepare these kids for these assessments that they can’t stop and do the re-teaching necessary to ensure that ALL students exhibit true mastery. Similarly, from the outside it appears to me as a parent that even the most gifted teacher in the world can’t do much differentiation with students in connection with the new math curriculum, because the students who need a little more time/different approaches to grasp the same material can’t have that time since there is simply so much material that needs to be covered before the first quarterly assessment.

    As her teacher said to me when I raised this issue, “Well, the silver lining is that for the first time ever, not one parent has complained that the class is moving too slowly/isn’t challenging enough.” Maybe that’s a good thing, and all kids — like mine — are rising to the challenge of higher expectations. I certainly hope so! But if not, my fear is that this approach is going to solidify the lines between the haves and have nots, the achievers and the slackers, earlier and earlier so that it’ll be harder than ever for those who aren’t succeeding so early to move into the achiever group.

    Part of the reason that I (and, I suspect, a lot of local parents) have remained on the sidelines of this debate is that we see both sides and are trying to stay open-minded regarding this new approach. But my fear is that without taking an incremental approach, we are going to end up leaving more and more kids behind, as the parents who can provide the support necessary for success, and the parents who can’t (much as they might want to), don’t.

    When I was a teacher, we implemented a dramatic new approach in our high school (in rural community in another state), that required portfolios, senior projects and presentations, etc., for our students to graduate. But we implemented that program gradually over a period of years, and made lots of tweaks along the way in reaction to what was (or wasn’t) working. My fear here is that we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater by taking away the teachers’ professional judgment and ability to determine pacing that makes sense and supports their students’ learning needs.

  12. “But we implemented that program gradually over a period of years, and made lots of tweaks along the way in reaction to what was (or wasn’t) working.”

    @falafelchickpea: If Montclair had started implementing a program when NJ adopted the Common Core Standards in 2010, then this “dramatic” new approach would not have been necessary. Unfortunately, as detailed on the below timeline, NOTHING had been done by the former superintendent to prepare the students for the PARCC assessments that students must take at the end of the 2014-15 school year. At this late stage, we just don’t have the luxury of implementing a program “gradually over the years.”

    June 2010: New Jersey Adopts Common Core Standards. (Since NJ adopted the Common Core Standards, students will take The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment in the 2014-15 school year.)

    2010 – 2011 school year: No plan or strategy proposed or implemented by former superintendent Alvarez to prepare the students for the PARCC assessment in 2014-15 school year.

    2011 – 2012 school year: No plan or strategy proposed or implemented by former superintendent Alvarez to prepare the students for the PARCC assessment in 2014-15 school year.

    June 30, 2012: Former superintendent Alvarez resigns.

    November 1, 2012: Penny McCormack starts as superintendent.

    2013 – 2014 school year: District begins implementing superintendent MacCormack’s Strategic Plan, which includes four common assessments.

    2014 – 2015 school year: PARCC assessments will be administred to students.

  13. Should we educate children in 2013 using top-down management style reminiscent of the bureaucracy in Eastern Europe during the 1960’s?

  14. @ jpal, C’mon: “Any teacher worth his salt knows that he can teach a student to memorize an answer but that is all it is–memorizing an answer.”

    We memorized A LOT in school the times tables, the States, the Presidents, math, art, music. Hell, I have a TON of stuff “memorized.”

    So if “memorization” is not how one learns, do tell. (I won’t even bring up the idea of an athlete’s “muscle memory,” or the idea that you do the same thing- OVER & OVER AGAIN- so it becomes second nature. And that’s how I STILL know that 2+2=4.

  15. profwilliams, what is so wonderful about you is that you are openly a great pretender and you provide so much humor with it.

    Beyond that, there is little that is helpful. Clearly you do not know the difference between “memorizing 2 + 2 = 4” and “knowing 2 + 2 = 4.” You do not know the difference between memorizing and knowing. And, indeed, it is the absence of the knowing part that so often makes your otherwise great pretending sad.

  16. Prof,
    With all due respect, I feel horribly for your students. Memorization is the most superficial form of learning and serves no real purpose other than being able to regurgitate “important” facts on those assessments you swear your students really appreciate. Look at bloom’s and tell me your students are actually learning to think rather than memorize. As a teacher myself, there is a huge difference.

    The question is how do you assess them? Not all assessments check for learning or analysis and synthesis, and your belief that superficial learning serves a purpose leads me to assume your assessments would fit perfectly with the pen/paper scantron tests that the Montclair BOE and super are pushing.

    Please spend a couple of years in a general level elementary/secondary classroom where students are forced to be there, where their reading levels run the gamut of college-ready down to 6th grade, where IEP’s and 504’s must be legally adhered to, where interest doesn’t dictate why students are there…and then tell me your presumably test-oriented focus will work for all of them and actually not have a negative impact on some. Then I may consider your elevated sense of self and ideas of education legitimately valid.

    What you speak from is some professorial high horse where you are not forced to differentiate between your students in a college setting that simply says “give us your damn money.” Such luxuries aren’t afford in the every day public school, including Montclair.

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