Tuesday, January 23, 2018

LCI and SOLs

Tuesdays are slow for education bills, but the House Appropriations Sub Committee on K-12 did take up a bill that would change how the Commonwealth computes the Local Composite Index (LCI). The LCI is the knife the Commonwealth uses to cut the pie of K-12 funding. Using one formula, Virginia determines each locality's "ability to pay" their share for the operation of the public schools in their division. In theory, this formula determines if any local government has a lesser or greater ability to raise local resources to cover the cost of funding their public schools. The formula is flawed without question. Legislators have talked about how flawed the formula is for years, but to fix the formula, you have to change how you use the knife to cut the pie. There will be winners and losers. That is, in my opinion, why we haven't switched knives.

This morning the LCI debate was kicked down the road again as Delegate Gooditis, a new member of the House struck her bill that would have made changes to the formula that would have, likely, helped the school divisions in her district. That is an admirable goal, but it comes at the expense of other divisions, which is why these individual bills are problematic. Instead Virginia needs to do a deep-dive study into how we fund our public schools. We need to look at the knife we use to equitably cut the pie, but unless the pie is bigger, there will always be those whose piece is just too small. Let's change the knife, but lets get a bigger pie that more accurately reflects the needs of our schools.

For now, the best vehicle Virginia has for increasing the size of the pie is by increasing the at-risk add on funding. This funding is directed to the students the most in need and every single school division in the Commonwealth would receive some additional state funding. Those school divisions with high rates of students who meet the Federal definition of poverty would receive the most through the at-risk add on. It is time to direct state funding to these students and divisions. Our current pie doesn't cover it, and our knife fails to take into account students who live in poverty.

Contact your legislator and ask them to support increasing the at-risk add on.

Yesterday I told you about the SOL reduction bills and the outstanding testimony Tracey Mercier gave to the subcommittee in support of the bills to reduce VA's standardized testing requirements down to the Federal level. She did a wonderful job telling her story, and the story of all of us who are dealing with our culture of testing. I will leave you with her words.

"Good evening Delegate Bell, other distinguished members of the committee, and guests. My name is Tracey Mercier, I am a constituent of Delegate Pillion, a parent, and an elementary special education teacher in Bristol. With your permission, I would like to speak in support of HB1162.

In 2015, when just five SOL assessments were no longer required, the difference in the expenditures going to Pearson Incorporated, according to Commonwealth Data Point, from the previous year was around $13.7 million. If that amount had been reallocated to Direct Aid, and divided equally among Virginia’s school divisions, each one would have received more than $104,000, for a total of more than $312,000 since then.  That may not seem like a lot of money for some, but you’d be surprised what cash-strapped school divisions could do with it. 

As a teacher, it has been very disheartening seeing tens of millions of dollars going annually to assessments, while school divisions delay repairing buildings, or cut personnel, classes, and budgets because they don’t have enough funding, but the money for testing is always there. Many of our students are taught in crumbling, poorly insulated buildings, without hot water or reliable Internet access which hinders learning. Or I see students who would benefit from small group instruction and intervention, but the personnel isn’t there to provide it. Adding this money to direct aid would enable our public schools to provide more for those students who need more.

Please know that I am not against standards or appropriate assessments, but I am highly concerned that the high stakes associated with these tests, have turned our children into test takers, instead of creative, critical, and collaborative thinkers. These tests do not prepare our children for the real world, for the depth, breadth, and diversity of our global economy, so why are we giving more than are required?

SOL testing has caused our students to view high school as an ending, not a beginning to a life full of potential. With fewer SOL tests, more time and money could be invested in project based learning, authentic assessments, or actually completing science experiments instead of just reading about them, or going on field trips to see how math and science are used in advanced manufacturing plants instead of just solving word problems.

Another casualty of administering more tests is, children are afraid of making mistakes, instead of seeing them as opportunities to grow, improve, and learn they see themselves as failures. More and more students are experiencing anxiety when they don’t grasp a concept immediately, and beat themselves up over it because they’re afraid of failing these tests. Tests that no college, university, military institution, or post-secondary vocational/technical school requires from their applicants. What truly makes people successful, can never be assessed by a standardized test…honesty, kindness, flexibility, empathy, humor, tenacity, motivation, and so many other characteristics that we value as civilized society. Why are we giving more tests than are required?
While some think increasing testing has increased learning, because of the extra time devoted to pre-benchmark tests, benchmark tests, post-benchmark tests, reviewing for SOL tests, completing released SOL tests to practice test taking strategies, and then taking SOL tests…students actually have less time to learn. On average, I’d estimate that eight to ten weeks of instruction and learning are lost. It rips out a teacher’s heart when a student gets excited about a classroom discussion, and wants to dig deeper, but we have to cut them off, because we have to keep up with the pacing guide to cover all the standards before the tests…making the curriculum shallow instead of deep. Why are we giving more tests than are required and losing more invaluable instructional time?

In closing, since the inception of the SOL assessments, Virginia has given testing giant, Pearson almost half a billion dollars…but we’ve lost more than that…our children have lost the love of learning for the sake of learning, they’ve lost some of the happiest memories of their school years that we were fortunate enough to have, some have lost music, art, time to play, and peace of mind. Again, I ask, why are we giving more tests than are required?

Our Commonwealth’s most cherished resource, our children, deserve the additional instructional time, additional resources, additional opportunities, and reduced pressure.

I thank you for your time and for your service to our great Commonwealth."