Friday, August 1, 2014

McMahon Kindergarten: A More Rounded Picture

Get comfy, folks, this is long!  

I've just arrived home from a very productive and pleasant meeting with Natalie's school's assistant principal.  I had an impromptu meeting with her back in June, during which I got some basic information about assessments for Kindergarten.  Since then, I had lots of follow up questions about assessments and general questions about Kindergarten (everything from her teacher's name to their use of direct phonics instruction).

Before I get into the specifics, I have to say that aside from her running late, the meeting was very positive.  I felt a little uncomfortable knowing that we will be opting out of testing, which goes against some aspects of her job.  But, she never pushed back hard when I mentioned opting out.  What was awesome was that there was only one question she did not have an answer for, and that was a question where the answer could be very teacher specific.  Everything else she was knowledgeable or found the answer for me on the spot.  Many times during out meeting, she asked if I wanted to see a document for myself and she pulled out books, and binders, and computer documents.  That really made me feel valued and included. 

One of the best things I learned was that the school is currently finishing developing a standards based report card, which I was allowed to look at as well as one accompanying rubric.  I agree with this direction, feeling that standards based increases transparency for parents and students as well as enforcing that learning is what is graded (versus attendance or behavior).

I also got to see a the curriculum map for literacy to see how the standards are broken down over the course of the year.  I mentioned how that seemed constricting to me as a teacher.  She explained the importance given the migratory nature of Lewiston's  population.  Also, the map had priority standards at the top.  She said that there were some common units used now and that there might be common assessments coming.

The whole school has a schedule to follow, which varies as necessary by grade level.  She showed me the exact schedule, but I didn't write it down in detail.  Natalie's day will look vaguely like this:
  • Arrival, 
  • morning meeting, 
  • first literacy block (45 min), 
  • snack, 
  • recess (15 min, becomes indoor in winter because takes too long for the little kids to dress), 
  • specials (art, gym, music, library, guidance), 
  • flex learning (enrichment and remediation), 
  • second literacy block (60 min), 
  • lunch (25 min),  12:40pm
  • recess (25 min), 
  • math (75 min), 
  • dismissal.  
For literacy, the second literacy block is composed of centers with reading groups meeting with the teacher.  These centers also often have choice built in.  Math also involves centers and time with the teacher.  Even though there is a new math textbook, she said the school is moving in a workshop direction and she would hope that the textbook would be used less often than problem solving activities.  Science and social studies are integrated in their other work. 
Some other specifics about literacy (because that is what I know to ask about).  I expressed concern about Kindergarteners needing to read emergent texts by the end of the year.  She brought me down to look at the level A-D books and explained that by end of K they are looking for kids to be reading at level C.  This was much less daunting.  Even though I feel Natalie will be okay with this, I still feel that this might be asking to much since this used to first grade work.  They do try to have 50% fiction, but struggle to find on level nonfiction.  Generally, they do not limit student book selection by their tested level, though sometimes their selection is limited to certain books to target fluency.  They will have a listening center which often has higher level books and they are not really limited in the school library.  Kindergarteners are not explicitly taught phonics rules, even though they are tested on their knowledge of letter sounds and phonemic awareness.   Inventive spelling is encouraged.

Here is everything I learned about testing. This combines information from both meetings I've had with the assistant principal. 

Three standardized assessments are offered at the Kindergarten level, though Smarter Balanced will be added when it comes to the state in Spring 2015.  We did not speak about Smarter Balanced other than to say it will evaluate meeting Common Core standards and that it is adaptive.  Smarter Balanced scores will also likely be connected to teacher evaluations in the future. 

  1. NWEA (Northwestern Evaluation Association) is a computerized test.  The students take the exam three times a year.  There are both one hour math and literacy exams.  This totals 6 hours of testing annually, though some students may take more or less time.  Children Kindergarten can not read, generally, so they listen to the questions using headphones.  Students without computer skills are at a disadvantage.  The NWEA scores are used as part of the teacher evaluations (even though the test is not designed to be used in this fashion).  On the teacher evaluation rubric, 20 points out of 100 deal with testing data.  Eight points deal with school and team level data while the other twelve points are directed for a student learning objective that each team of teachers chooses to focus on each year.  This assessment is used across the district and in many other districts in Maine.  Many schools decided to use it years ago, but over the years districts have dropped out due to the cost.  The teachers and school administrators did not choose this assessment, but rather it was a top down discussion.  The test was put in place for growth monitoring for individual students and for larger comparisons of data.  The testing window for the fall administration of the exam lasts four weeks.  It typically starts in this school about mid-September.  (For my daughter, that would mean before she even hits her fifth birthday!)
  2.  Aimswebb (a product of the Pearson company).   This exam is an interview the student has with the teacher.  It focuses on early literacy and early numeracy at the Kindergarten level.  Literacy looks at fluency with letter identification and sounds, reading nonsense words, and segmenting sounds of words.  Meanwhile, the math address numeral identification, choosing the greater quantity of two choices, and adding a missing number in a sequence.  All math questions only use numbers up to ten.  At this level, each segment of the test is only one minute long (I find this a pro and a con.  It is shortness could either be stressful for a student who works slowly or it could reduce stress for a student who can't handle a long assessment).  The district chose to use this exam specifically for RTI (response to intervention).  Originally, it was used only with students needing intervention, but then the moved it to all students to help identify the ones requiring interventions.  (I made the point that a teacher could do this without a purchased standardized exam such as this).  Even though the website for this product plugs that it can be administered bi-weekly, the school does not use it that frequently.  Generally, it is only given three times annually, though it can be give more often for students who are receiving interventions.  The testing window for this exam is set by the company.  The window opens that first day of school and goes through Oct 15th.  Winter session is in January, and at the Kindergarten level a few of the more complex areas are held off until this session.  The last window is in May. Scores for this assessment are often very low at the start to set a baseline for growth.  (Again, pros and cons to this). 
  3. Fontas and Pinnell (the assessment is a product of Hienmann, but the names are of two literacy researchers).  This assessment is an interview done with the teachers.  A list of sight words is presented to the student, and based on the reading of that list, the teacher choose a leveled reader for the student to read aloud.  The teacher then records errors, and later analyzes these mistakes to inform instruction and to determine a reading level.  Unlike Aimswebb which only tests a few specific skills, this exam gives a broader picture of reading.  (Some might make the claim that Aimswebb works with a phonics approach and this exam more of a whole language approach.  The school choosing to use both seems contradictory, but the school hopes to move to a more comprehensive approach to reading).  Similar tests are the DRA and the Rigby.  For Kindergarten, they hope for a student to be at level C by the end of the year.  Books at level A through at least C are emergent texts.  Thus, meeting this goal would comply with the CC standard stating Kindergarteners should read emergent texts.  For the school as a whole, this test is administered fall, winter, and spring, but they hold off on the first assessment for Kindergarten (for reasons that seem really obvious to me!  Not many Kindergarteners arrive reading).  This exam was a choice by teachers at the school who decided to receive training with this assessment.  However, with new literacy coaches in the school and a new literacy director for the district, there will likely be changes during or after this year.  
 I had a few questions regarding testing in general.  None of these assessments are directly tied to promotion or retention, and neither is meeting particular CC standards.  Poor performance might be an indicator of a larger problem which might lead to retention, though retention is not frequent and usually tied to developmental readiness.  (Speaking of developmental readiness, she tried to help me find a source that gave a chronology for developmental skills.  She had a couple in mind, but didn't have them at that time).  She told me last year and this year, teachers have incentive pay for test scores, funded by a grant.  She did not know how individual teachers explain testing to their classes (though she did say the youngest ones think it a game).  She expressed displeasure at teachers who put too much emphasis on the testing, including over the top rewards for hitting goals that might be too high to begin with. 

Alright, I think that is everything.  I'll revise if I remember something I missed.  :)

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