Teardown of PARCC via TestNav

I recently had an opportunity to watch a class of 4th graders attempt to take a PARCC test via the TestNav website. I was disappointed by the interface, let alone how the content failed to keep some students on task. Later I googled a sample test to try it out for myself, and was absolutely HORRIFIED at what I was witnessing. Following is a page-by-page report of the TestNav PARCC test, specifically 4th grade ELA (English Language Arts).

tl;dr – TestNav sucks

Starting point: http://parcc.pearson.com/practice-tests/english/

The very fact that Pearson is behind this raises serious red flags for me. My professional experience with Pearson is that they are in it solely to make money. They don’t give a crap about content and/or actual assessments. Again, this is my own take, others may differ.


Page (or screen) 1. The very first sentence does a great job at setting the scene and describing the overall objective of this test. So I read the story and moved on to the question. Or thought I had read the story. Paragraph 18? I only see three paragraphs. Oh, there are 22 “paragraphs” altogether, wow! A bit more reading to do. This is problem #1. How is a child supposed to know there is more to read “below the fold”? There are no instructions to scroll down, and the interface blankly assumes that the user inherently knows how to interpret the scrollbar near the text. Minus one point for Pearson. Problem number two; I spent about 5 minutes or so reading through this story, and this first page is asking two questions about a single word in the entire thing. So now my mind is all caught up about the definition of a single word, and the rest of the story gets flushed out of my short term memory.

Final problem; so I answer two questions. What next. Ahh, yes, the right arrow button, like a web browser. Good thing there are instructions for that (/sarcasm).


Read on to see the other 22 pages and my conclusion…

Read the rest of this entry »

money and the state budget

There is a syndicated article in the NG today talking about how the state intends to chop ONE BILLION DOLLARS out from Education. Doing the math, right now the unbalanced budget has $13.2B set aside for Education, but we have to subtract out a massive $5B for pensions which brings it down to $8.2B for everything else in schools. Divided by 3862 public schools in the state of Illinois, that averages to roughly $2M per school or about $3993 per student. Unit 4 receives a little over $15M from the state (FY2014 state budget form) for the Educational Fund(*), which comes out to $1623 per student (9383 total students). Ironically, according to ISBE Superintendent Christopher Koch, the “statutory amount set for general state aid” per child is $6119. Which is obviously meaningless and a sad joke. There is a ton of talk about “pension reform” and I have not figured out how the proposed “balanced budget” of chopping $1B will affect pensions. If we assume the worst-case scenario where pensions are left alone, that brings the money for Education down to $7.2B, or $1.86M average per school ($3505 per student); for Unit 4, an oversimplified guess would put the cut at $2.1M (total down to $13.3M), or $1421.6 per student.

Unit 4 has a $103M budget(*), and Gene Logas and the rest of the Finance team has placed us in a really well-padded financial position. Except we are cutting into that buffer space with additional raises for both teachers and administrators over the next three years due to the contract negotiations last year.

* UPDATE NOTE: The total Unit 4 budget is $138,853,108 – I am focusing on the Educational portion of the budget from which teachers are paid (among other things).

It is quite unclear how Gov. Quinn’s promise to protect Early Childhood Learning will play into this picture. I am not smart enough to figure that out. *grin* If you are, or if you know of someone who is, please pitch in.

All this to say that I am quite confident Unit 4 will be fine for the next few years, but we have to be diligent and very careful with how we plan our future. My sincere hope is that all stakeholders can come to the table to exercise “community involved planning” to dream up ways we can maximize our dollars.


New school report cards (Common Core)

Stephanie Stuart announced the new report cards (and “structure”) actively being both developed and implemented via the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE):


The article gives a little introduction and explains some things parents might expect. Stephanie also highlights several things like how the overall graduation rate has increased by about 5 points, how two schools made AYP and how the district is embracing these changes. Note, this is not about the new Common Core report cards teachers use to assess and evaluate students.


Common Core is a funny thing; I think there is a lot of good ideas and a lot of good potential, but I am also hearing that it is being rushed to implementation way too fast. I intend to write another post that delves into this a little more deeply. This post is about the school report card.

I was not able to find the Unit 4 report card on the ISBE website, yet. The state report card is available. Also, the Illinois Interactive Report Card (IIRC) website has been revamped and is MUCH BETTER! I encourage you to check it out – the Unit 4 report card gives you a lot of “fast facts” that are relevant and some (more to come?) offer relatively easy drilldowns for more information:


Here is a VIMEO of the new report card:


The Vimeo video makes  a point in regards to using the new report card to learn about the school climate and learning environment. I found that to be a very interesting idea, yet was quite disappointed when I tried to find it. After a bit of digging, I did eventually find a PDF listed under School Environment that shows the questions and responses to the 5Essentials survey, from both teachers and students. However, not all surveys are available for all schools (I did some spot checking, not a comprehensive search).

Overall, I am very much liking the new version of the Illinois Report Card website. Looking to dive into it a bit more.

Hearing on State school funding

Before you start laughing too loud, I know… what state school funding?

From the NG’s syndication of the Associated Press:


“A hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12 at the Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green St., C.”


According to the latest Unit 4 budget proposal, the state gives Unit 4 $15 million, which accounts for 17% of our district’s budget. Ironically, the ISBE is allowed to dictate a majority of what our schools do. This is the definition of “unfunded mandates.”


On the campaign trail, current BOE Presdient Laurie Bonnett spoke about becoming more financially independent. Initially, I did (and still do) think is an awesome idea, and in fact, I have spoken to a previous Board about this very concept. I wonder, though, hypothetically speaking, if we were to become truly, 100% financially independent, does that mean we can start to disregard some of the more stringent rules from the state that tend to be obstacles rather than tools? If we were so inclined, could we then rewrite our policies to actually make sense and be accessible to the common person? Currently, a bulk of our district policies are handed down from lawyers in the ISBE, and as such, are all in legalese and flowery with extraneous language. We the community do not really own it because it is not accessible to us. Can we change that?


The news article implies that those who attend will be able to voice their concerns and their thoughts will be “factored” up the ladder and presented to lawyers and elected officials (and something called the Senate Education Funding Committee) who will decide the future of education funding for the next year. Personally, I have never seen any evidence that the voice of those in the trenches have any impact whatosever on those that make decisions in this context. I would love to be proven wrong.


The last sentence of the article reads:

“Those who are unable to attend one of the five public hearings are encouraged to email feedback to the state board of education at isbefy15@isbe.net.”


I intend to take advantage of that email address and learn a few more things.


If teachers do strike, what about kids on free/reduced meals?

Some notes are bouncing around the PTA Council, and an important thread has developed – if the teachers do decide to strike, what do we do about the families that depend on free/reduced meals? Below is a message from Mary Davis:

I have been thinking about the strike and how students can still get meals. I am contacting ISBE to find out how activities need to be presented so we can offer breakfast and lunch and/or snack.

I do not have a list of PTA Presidents. Would you please send this to all and cc me?

Thank you,

Mary Davis, CDM, CFPP
Food Service Director
Office: 217-351-3852
Fax: 217-373-1247


The Rabbit hole of Parental Engagement via the Illinois State Board of Education

While prepping for the Aug 20th BOE meeting, I noticed a URL at the bottom of one of the PDFs in the BoardDocs (“FY13 Title III Budget.pdf (100 KB)“); you can try typing it in yourself, but you will get an error – I suspect you actually have to log into the ISBE webpage, and on top of that, I think the URL is just the front end of a series of http POST (techy talk for saying that the full URL is not in the address bar). But enough of that. I went looking for the grant information via the ISBE search page and stumbled upon a Family Engagement page, buried deep in the Grants directory. Why? This is just so weird. I am pretty big on family engagement and I am online a bit, but I have never heard about ISBE efforts at family engagement. Why is it under “Grants” of all things?


But the fun doesn’t stop there. I was curious about this so-called “Family Engagement Tool” and dove into the link. With a bunch of rah-rah, they then point you to yet another link, IllinoisParents.org. I am impressed that someone did a bunch of work to compile a directory of diverse resources, and apparently a group of folks have got their heads together to think about how families should be engaged. But I cannot shake the feeling that this is all theory. I cannot sink my teeth into any of it. If you are still curious about the “Family Engagement Tool”, you are urged to continue deeper into the rabbit hole by going to the SchoolCommunityNetwork, yet another directory of resources and more theory-crafting. Eventually that leads you even further to Indicators In Action, a whole set of online courses designed to teach the aspiring learner about how schools are connected to communities via a series of videocasts. After following all those links and becoming more and more disappointed, the last thing I wanted was a 2-hour online video class that describes how somebody thinks schools are communities.



Somewhere down the line, I came across this definition of the Family Engagement Tool:

The Family Engagement Tool (FET) is a web-based tool that guides a school team in assessing every aspect of its family engagement programs and practices. The team creates and monitors an improvement plan based on indicators of effective practice.


Guides? I am so lost that I don’t even know what I am doing on these pages anymore. No wonder I have never heard of this beastly entity. 🙂


I will offer an alternative. Instead of getting enough credits to minor in Family Engagement, just use some common sense:

  1. Listen to what other people say – which means you might have to go to where they are, as they are not always (if ever) going to come to you
  2. Tell people what you heard them say
  3. Act on what you heard them say
  4. Tell them what you did and see what they think about it. And, *gasp*, you might just have to go back to where they are to do so


This whole thing of Family Engagement is tricky; most families are already so engaged they are drowning. It might be the family with two career parents, who are obviously engaged in their work places. Or the family where the kids have extracurricular activities 8 days of the week (not a typo, just seeing if you are reading this). Or the single-parent family where the bread-winner is scraping by on 2.5 jobs. Or natives from another country trying to make sense of our backwards culture. Some parents already go to every PTA meeting, or every school function, or volunteer every school day in classes. We are all in different places. But I’m with Vandana Shiva when she compares the non-locality of quantum theory to the interconnectedness of human beings – we are already community, and what we do is already shaping it.