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How I convinced my staff that state standards and PARCC tests benefit kids

Second-graders at Las Animas Elementary work on a science experiment.
Second-graders at Las Animas Elementary work on a science experiment.
Lana Gardner

Our First Person feature spotlights the voices of people on the front lines of the critical education issues facing Colorado. If you’d like to contribute, here are the details.

A few years ago, many teachers in my rural area discounted Colorado’s new academic standards and the upcoming switch to PARCC testing as just another fad. Some suggested that we just wait it out.

I disagreed, and at Las Animas Elementary School, where I am the principal, it was a long, messy process of adjusting how we teach, what materials we use, and how we judge success. But five years later, my staff is stronger and smarter, with a better grasp of content than ever before. I see that translating to better teaching for our students every day.

How we got there feels like an important story for anyone trying to understand what it takes for big changes like these to succeed in real classrooms.

Prior to the shift, our teachers had little to no understanding of academic standards. Book publishers had educators convinced that their textbooks were “standards-based,” and as long as they covered the entire book, students would learn all they needed to know.

To this end, teachers turned in calendars before the start of each school year with lesson numbers mapped to the days. As the year went on, they were left frustrated that they were expected to keep up with that roadmap regardless of students’ understanding of the concepts. Conversations centered on “Chapter 4” or “Lesson 9.2,” instead of actual concepts or students, were the norm.

In my previous role as a high school math teacher, I saw myself that many textbook lessons lacked focus and depth, and expected students to solve problems outside of work we had done in class.

Five years ago, we changed a number of things at once at Las Animas Elementary School. We shifted to Colorado’s new state standards, began writing our own lessons, and committed to focusing on student mastery instead of lesson completion.

Understandably, my staff experienced growing pains. We had many tearful staff meetings and work sessions as teachers dove into the standards. On more than one occasion, someone commented, “We are not assessment writers. We are just the teachers.”

But teachers learned from those experiences. Some of those sessions were spent investigating those so-called standards-based textbooks, and our teachers discovered that stories in those anthologies were often considerably below grade level. Two of the stories in the fourth-grade book were at grade levels 2.7 and 3.3, for example. Those discoveries helped fuel a broader effort to make our teaching more rigorous throughout the school.

PARCC testing in spring 2015 brought out a new array of emotions. Many of my teachers said students felt prepared overall and were confident on the English Language Arts test, but expressed some frustration with math.

This verified to us that we were doing the right work. The assessments also demonstrated the need for renewed focus on math, and we have begun to focus more on number sense in all grades.

My teachers returned that fall energized and ready to deepen their understanding. Today, teachers are using the standards to do things like create project-based tests and to think together in groups about how to best teach math and English through the grade levels.

I often remind myself and my staff that assessment is only useful if it causes performance to improve. After several years of hard work, I think we’re on the right track.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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