Tag Archives: Georgia

Testing Season in Georgia’s Largest Charter School

12 Apr

I can see that this might be one of those multi-part posts where I talk about different aspects of one of my favorite topics: standardized testing.

I’ve been grinding against this sort of testing  for a very, very, very long time.  Granted, most of it was about the alternate assessment because that is where I was living at the time.  Now I live in a vastly different universe.  Still exceptional in a world of exceptionalities!

But I thought it might be informational and beneficial to talk a bit about the logistics involved with state testing for a virtual school that serves students in every single county in the state.  This is something that no other school (as far as I know) in the state could even attempt.  And yet we have been pulling this off for over 7 years.  Mostly without a hitch and certainly without scandal.  (Yeah, I know…I need to blog that)

In the special education department, we start planning for the spring testing before the first day of school.  In fact, we’re preparing for it the day after the last day of spring testing.  It starts with the IEP, and we run annual reviews and amendments to those reviews all year long.  We begin writing in the student’s accommodations, including which tests they will take and which accommodations they will be given.  And then there will be more meetings to amend and fix those as the year progresses, the tests change and the students schedules become altered.

Testing accommodations are among the most important service options that are presently offered on an IEP.  Especially since the academic goals have been rendered essentially meaningless, and the direct services are basically fairly standard and less individual than they ever have been.  Accommodations have a direct impact on what happens to a student on test day, and their subsequent grades, promotion and retention.

It’s obvious that my previous treatment of accommodations, as controversial as it was in those days, needs to be reviewed and updated.  It’s really fun to see the interaction I had in those days among different teachers!  gosh I miss that!

This year, we filled out a gigantic spreadsheet in December listing all of the students and their accommodations for testing.  This was the first of many, many spreadsheets and updates.  Every co-teacher in our department has a full caseload of 26, so this is not a small task.  Almost every task we have takes on gigantic proportions when working on this scale.

As we get closer to testing, one of the first things that comes out to teachers is where they are assigned to test.  Remember, we serve students in every county in the state, and each and every test is given in a face-to-face setting under standard conditions.  And we try to offer testing locations within 50 miles of each and every one of those students.  And every student that is given the End of Grade  (EOG) grades 3-8 test is going to be tested during the same 5 day window of time.  And every End of Course Test (EOCT) is given during the next 5 day period of time.  In total, we will test over 10,000 students across about 50 different locations in the state in a 2 week period.

That’s why this is such a big deal and is unique among all of Georgia’s public school systems.

My first year, I was assigned to a location about 15 miles from my house and it was one of the largest testing locations in the state.  That means that during the first week of testing we had about 300 students that we tested.  Grades 3-5 in the morning and grades 6-8 in the afternoon.  It was done in a community center that used to be a church, so it had a huge main room and then several smaller classroom areas that was perfect for a main administration and then several rooms for various accommodations.  However what was NOT perfect was that the parking lot was too small and had, at most, spaces for about 50 cars with 10-12 of those being taken up by us teachers who were administering the test.  This meant that traffic was lined up on the street during drop-off and parents getting angry before they even got to our door!  So they have since changed locations.  And so have I.

Many of the areas that we test are much smaller, but still have students that need to be tested where few if any teachers live.  That means that many of us will end up traveling and staying in some far-flung location in the middle of nowhere.  Georgia has lots of these areas.  Far flung ones.

For most of the year, students and teachers are in their homes in front of their computers, on the couch, in the bed and wearing pajamas but during testing time, it is “all hands on deck.”  It is a dramatic change for all of us, where we have to get up early, shower, get dressed and adhere to a very rigid and set schedule.  Basically pretty much what the rest of y’all do all year-long!  This radical departure from what happens from the rest of the year produces a lot anxiety and complications that most regular schools don’t have to deal with.  The testing environment is foreign to *everyone!*

Last year I was shipped off to one of the smaller far flung regions and I actually liked it so well, I asked to go back again this year.  It was just more relaxed because larger testing sites means more students and more difficulties that increase exponentially.  It’s just like teaching a larger sized class versus a smaller one.  It’s easier testing 35 students than it is 300, no matter how much help you ship in.  So for about 2 solid weeks, I’m going to be in Troup County Georgia living out of a hotel.  The school is paying for it plus mileage so while it means being away from home it will also sort of be a working vacation minus tourist attractions.  Yes, I’ll be working all day on my feet instead of sitting down, but at the end of the day there won’t be any last minute meetings or IEP meetings or the extra things I usually have.  Much closer to a regular working day.

After teachers get their assignments, then the administration goes about the task of assigning students to their sites.  It’s not an easy thing because students will often move and forget to tell the school where they moved to.  So we send surveys for students or parents to complete making sure the address we have on file is correct.   While this is being worked on, there are trainings, trainings and more trainings that us teachers attend regarding testing procedures.  We have testing security and integrity drummed into us, as if the news of the Atlanta teacher scandal didn’t make enough of a case.  I notice they always come out with news about this right before testing season, just to make sure the point is driven home: “Comply or ELSE!”

As special educators we go over our caseloads over and over again to make sure we have the correct accommodations for the correct test clearly spelled and marked on their IEP.  One mis-marked checkbox and we get a call to amend the IEP.  It is a stressful time for our department as we are also in the middle of doing annual reviews.  Actually, we are always in the middle of doing annual reviews!  We are also in the middle of registering for next year’s classes and getting ready to run through the Summary of Performance for each graduating senior.  Egad…what a painful thing to look forward to and I have at least 5 of them to do!

So the two weeks of testing is actually fairly relaxing compared to what’s coming afterwards.

So now we teachers are divided into site teams, with one person designated as a site coordinator for each week of testing.  Unlike other school systems where the elementary teachers give the elementary test and high school teachers doing their own, in my school system it is *everyone*– high school, middles school and elementary joining together to give ALL of the tests.  It’s a huge deal.   The person lucky enough to be selected as a site coordinator is the one who puts together the site plane, dividing up students and teachers and who and where within the site various testing accommodations will be administered.  This year, we have an added bonus of delivering the test online to certain students who have certain accommodations so there will be the typical test booklets and answer sheets but also some computers to manage.

This next week is the week before testing and it is when things really start to gear up.  Each site team has a day where we will go to a central metro Atlanta location for a half day of more training followed by an afternoon of assembling the materials that we will need for the first week of testing.  This is a pretty substantial undertaking as we have to make sure we get it as close to right as possible as many of these sites are hundreds of miles away and there is no “going to the office” on the spur of the moment to pick up something you might have forgotten, like a test booklet, a manual or answer sheet.  We put together our site kits that include all of the testing materials and labels, sticking the labels on the booklets and answer sheets, making sure that they match exactly.  And we count and count and count some more and write down how many of each thing we have for we have to make sure that we bring back exactly the same amount of stuff that we check out.  Once we are absolutely sure that we have everything we need and that everything matches exactly, we can seal our boxes up with the specially numbered seals.   Inside that box are also about 5 more seals as we will have to count and recount everything in that box each and every day and reseal the box each day of the test.  We also get spare pencils, scratch paper, calculators and this year, computers.

Once the box is sealed up, the testing coordinator takes it and locks it somewhere safe and then the next Monday morning we open the seals, recount and divide the stuff among the various test examiners.

Every parent of every child has been informed of where their site location is.  They have received a flyer with the time they have to report and they also have to fill out an emergency and release form.  They will also receive a call from one of the examiners from their testing site.  When they arrive to the test site they will show a photo ID and sign their student in.  This is quite a production since for many students they will be going to a new space where they have never been before, around students and teachers they have never seen before.  While some high school students might have seen my name or heard my voice or seen my picture, NONE of the elementary students will have the slightest idea of who I am!  So this can be a time of anxiety for a lot of these families.

But it can be a very rewarding experience as well, as teachers, students and parents can connect with each other face-to-face.  We do have events where we all can get together in our respective regions but this is the one time where students and families will actually be gathering up according to their neighborhoods.  This is one reason I richly prefer the smaller testing site as it’s more possible to establish a friendlier and more relaxed connection to a smaller group of families.  The larger sites are not nearly as personal and tend to be much more stressful for everyone, but there are still connections that will be made and often endure until that student graduates.

We’ll test one group in the morning and another group in the afternoon, each administration being about a 3 hour grind.  None of us are used to being on our feet all day, so us teachers are pretty footsore by the end of the first day as we work the room, actively monitoring the students as they take their tests.  Then we’ll count and recount all materials before resealing the boxes until the next test the next day.  Once that is done, we go home or to a hotel to collapse until the next day to do it all over again.  This will go on all week.  Generally Monday is the hardest as families arrive from all over and hopefully can find the site and arrive on time.

On either Friday evening or early Saturday morning, the site coordinators will converge at the main office to turn in their EOG tests and pick up their EOC tests which will hopefully be sealed and ready in their separate boxes, making the swap relatively painless.  “Relatively” is the operative term as the EOG materials will have to be checked in.  That means unsealing and more counting and then sorting and dividing the booklets, answer sheets and other materials.  At every single stage of this, there is careful attention paid to the accommodations to make sure that they have been given correctly for the correct tests.

And then the next week, we do it all over again for the high school tests.  This is generally easier because not every student has to take every test.  So the groups tend to be much smaller with proportionally fewer accommodations to administer.  So instead of the full 35 students, there might only be 20 for both of the ELA tests.  But there is probably more counting involved as the tests are arranged by subject and not by grade like the EOG.  And you can never count just one– you have to count ALL of them–every test whether you’ve given it that day or not to make sure they are all there.  Lots of counting and recounting.

Because we are dispersed all throughout the state, it would be impossible for a cheating scandal on such a large scale as happened in Atlanta to take place.  And even if it did happen, it would be too easy to track and narrow down exactly where it happened and who it happened with.  Eventually, all of the students will take it online and I suspect that will simplify this process greatly.  No bubbling of answer documents, no test booklets to count and really very little to turn in as it all gets turned in when the student hits the “submit” button.

Oddly enough, it’s because we are a virtual school that we have yet to fully adopt the online version.  since the students could not use their own computers and it has to be in a controlled and supervised environment we haven’t quite yet gotten the logistics of pulling together and deploying enough computers for all of our 10,000 students on the same day at the same time.  But we will be working toward that.  This year, it’s mostly students with specific accommodations that will have the machines as well as students in certain sites that will be designated online sites.  The online administration will open up some new assessment methods and opportunities as well as make testing itself more secure and less prone to the sort of human errors and interventions that have cropped up in previous years.  And if we can get the deployment of thousands of machines down across the state, it might make our testing lives a lot easier.

The Truth About Charter Schools: The Students

14 Sep

I knew not everyone would agree with my take in my last article on Charter schools and the charter school amendment.  I will admit that the issue is a bit complex, muddied by some emotional rhetoric on both sides.  And I freely admit that I can be as shameless of a purveyor of rhetoric as anyone.  Writing without hyperbole is just kinda boring.

Lost in all of the debate, accusations and political gamesmanship is the main focus and subject: students.  They are the ones who will ultimately gain or suffer by what we do or don’t do in November.

The anti-choice folks state very passionately that the students in traditional schools will ultimately suffer due to the funding that will be taken away from their schools, causing more overcrowding and more deplorable conditions.  And I can sympathize as I have witnessed first-hand what has happened to the education system in my beloved district.  Paras were the first to be let go, and then the furloughs and then loss of benefits and finally the overcrowding of almost every class in every school.  Teacher morale was at an all-time low when I left that setting.  Conditions have not improved by any degree or measure in the 2 years since then.  So in some sense, it appears that by taking money away, I advocate making things even worse!

I do not advocate taking money away as much as I advocate taking children away.  And many parents are doing just that, at great cost and sacrifice.  The giant brick and mortar factory schools are crumbling.

So who are the students in my school?  I am now teaching in the largest charter school in the state, and one of the largest in the nation.  We don’t have buses, we don’t have lunchrooms and we don’t have sports teams.  What we do have are students.  Over 12,000 of them in Georgia, with a long waiting list of more who want to get in.

Over 50% of our kids qualified for free and reduced lunches when they went to a brick and mortar school.  Over 1000 receive special education services at every level.They come from towns that I have never heard of, all over the state, from every ethnic background.  Some are urban and some are rural.  But one thing they all have in common is hope.  A hope for a better future, a new start and some way of attaining their goals.  Intimately linked to these students are their parents who aspire for better and greater things for their children.  Most have chosen to stay home to be their children’s learning coach and to invest personally in their child’s education.  They make the sacrifice of career in order to offer something better for their children, giving up much economically, which is especially poignant in today’s economy.  A few of them were already homeschooling while for many this is their first foray into taking charge of their children’s education, becoming true partners with the educational system, interfacing with the teachers, the curriculum and the classes.  Every single day, there are parents who attend classes with their children, sitting right beside them, helping and guiding them.

K12 has a Facebook page which often asks parents this question: Why did you choose K12?

There are scores of replies that can generally be categorized as follows:

“My child was bullied”, “My child was too distracted,” “My child was repeatedly bullied and there was nothing the school could do”, “The classes were too overcrowded for my child to learn” “My child was bullied and did not want to go to school anymore” “My child was not making progress” “My child was bullied and harassed daily and the school would not do anything” “My child needed a more stable learning environment and I did not have enough knowledge to home school” “My child was attacked and stabbed” “I was fed up with what was going on in my home school” “There were too many fights at my child’s neighborhood schools” “My child needed to learn at her own pace” “My child was afraid to go to school because of the bullying and fights””My child became afraid to go to go to school after she was attacked” “My child has a medical condition and she was missing too many assignments” “The only social skills my child was exposed to was fighting, bullying, cursing and swearing””We could not afford a private school and our neighborhood school in south Fulton was too violent and my child was not learning anything” “My child had a disability and his needs were not being met” “My child has aspergers and was teased relentlessly” “My child needs 1:1 support to be successful” “My child became so depressed and withdrawn, they did want to leave the house after starting middle school.  I later found out she was being teased and bullied daily”

You get the picture?  Your school may not have any of these problems and you may have the best and most dedicated teachers in the world.  But these children are refugees from the world of traditional schooling.  Their entire school experience, for many of them, was dictated by their zip code.  If you live in a nice, suburban wealthy neighborhood, you might not have many problems in your school of overcrowding, gangs, bullying, distractions or other things that make daily life for many students a living hell.  All of the families might be well-adjusted and involved in the local PTA.  Every classroom might be staffed by a highly qualified, enthusiastic teacher who incorporates technology and engagement into every lesson.

But for too many of the children I and my fellow teachers serve, this was not their experience.  Their experiences were so bad, that many single parents sacrificed many opportunities in order to provide the safe, nurturing and distraction-free environment that only a parent can provide in their own home so that their children can attend school without the fear and anxiety that comes with being a victim of harassment, bullying and abuse.  They were looking for a new start where they could again become confident learners without being persecuted for being “different.”

I hope to eventually blog my own transformational experience since joining this incredible team.  But suffice it to say that I adore my students as well as their parents who have sacrificed so much to offer their children what they perceive to be their best chance at success.  I owe it to them to do the best that I can for them, and I am a tenacious advocate for their cause.  They inspire me to be a better teacher.

I know that those who oppose the charter school amendment, in their own way, are advocating for children too.  They fear that the traditional schools demise will be hastened by the advent and rise of charter schools like these.  But the genie is out of the bottle.  While you might be able to slow the process, the changes are coming.  I’m not sure what you expect to happen within the next 10 years with traditional schools, but I can tell you what we saw in the last 10 years does not bode well.  Schools, schooling and learning are going to be transformed.  They MUST be transformed.  Putting these kids back into traditional schools after what they suffered through and after having tasted the sweetness of success, would be devastating.  Why would you do this?  Why would you send a child who has found success and confidence in this new environment back into the old environment where fear and failure ruled their lives?

Many detractors point out that charter schools do not do any better than the traditional schools when it comes to test scores, the current rubric of measured success in American education today.  And this is true in my school, where the gains are often modest at best.  But read the comment excerpts above.  The case could be made that many of these students suffer from PTSD, and many of them came to us 1, 2 and even 3 years behind.  These are not kids who were achieving well in their old schools, and often sought escape, refuge and asylum after a long string of failure.  I know of no parent who makes the decision to withdraw their child from their neighborhood school lightly as the decision carries with it some serious economic, social and lifestyle consequences.  Change is never easy, and this sort of change for young people is pretty drastic.  But given the comments above, I have to ask you: What would YOU do?  Should your zip code be the sole arbiter of your child’s educational success?  Should the quality of your child’s education and life be dictated solely by the economy of your neighborhood?

Jane and I are in the midst of the very same discussion as so many parents today.  We look at the declining state of our neighborhood schools and we are fearful of what will happen in the future.  My oldest son’s middle school does try very hard and they have done their best to address the instances of bullying that have occurred.  They really have put a lot of effort into trying to provide a safe environment that enables him to succeed as best they can.  But the high school up the street is a nightmare engaged in a seeming race to the bottom.  We are looking at our options, and they are few.  But there ARE options, thank goodness.

And this is one thing that I think detractors of charter schools overlook.  Simply having viable options in place that are close by can actually help your neighborhood school.  When those options are not in place, the more dramatic sacrifice is to pull up the stakes and move.  When your option is dictated solely by your zip code and there are no other options many, many families choose to change zip codes.  At least a neighborhood charter school keeps involved families in play to be won back if the schools can turn things around.  But once families leave their neighborhoods, you begin to see businesses close their doors and board up their windows.

Is K12 or any other charter school perfect?  Absolutely not, and I do intend to blog an open letter to the good folks in Herndon, VA at some point.  But in the meantime, it provides a place for at least 12,000 of Georgia’s children who, for whatever reason, did not fit in at their traditional brick and mortar schools.  Our beloved State School Superintendent has voiced his willingness to send those 12,000 students and their families back to the schools they fled from, and bar the door to keep them there.  Georgia’s families will be once again tied to their schools based on their zip codes and their income.

In a world where knowledge and information are ubiquitous, it is time to put an end to the educational apartheid that exists in the state of Georgia and around the country.  The quality of a child’s education should not be dictated by their township anymore than it was in South Africa in 1980.  It was wrong then and there, and it is wrong here and now.  Today I can shop in a neighboring town’s store (or online) for better goods, go to a neighboring town for better health care or attend a church anywhere that I care to drive.  But my child can not attend a school outside of the district or zoning lines.

We owe it to our children to offer opportunity and choice.  We need to decide the type of world we are going to live in.  The amendment, like it or not, IS a referendum on choice and opportunity for Georgia’s families.  Are we going to follow the same path that we have been on for the last 10-12 years?  Or are we going to risk something different?

The traditional public schools have a problem that has become a ubiquitous epidemic.  It is persistent and rampant.  It is also a problem that completely disappears once students enter our school.

John Barge, the teacher’s unions, the school boards and so many others who hate our charter school are not addressing or talking about it.  Their failure to effectively deal with it has created a demand that would simply not otherwise exist.   Now these same people are are trying to take my kids; the ones I teach; the ones who have escaped to a safe and secure place where they can actually learn and return them to the same conditions they fled from.  Where is the outrage?  Where is the shame?



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