Re-post of “Explanations Aren’t Excuses”

This is a repost of an excellent piece by Michaele Sommerville–A. Mercer
Explanations aren’t excuses. Really.

The kindergarten students from last year are enjoying their time as first graders. From what I’ve heard, their teachers are enjoying their sparkling personalities, humor, and talents as well. Yes, oh yes, let’s not forget those academic skills too: we made sure our students could count past 111 (the kindergarten standard in the district was 30), they could write their first and last names, problem solve not only mathematical problems but social situations as well, interact appropriately with teachers and classmates, and many of them were enjoying reading and sharing their thoughts through writing. They laughed, giggled, shared, observed, inquired, negotiated, apologized, encouraged, sang, took risks, re-evaluated, and grew. Unfortunately those last traits couldn’t be measured by criterion referenced tests.

For those students we had in our classrooms for the entire year, CRT evaluations were done in addition to DIBELS and any other assessments we wanted to use. My colleague and I chose to create our own assessments to use throughout the year as there were no evaluation tools provided that were developmentally appropriate in determining our students’ starting points to monitor progress and need. We wanted to observe if students demonstrated hand dominance, had fine-motor control over items such as pencils, crayons, scissors, paintbrushes, blocks (large and small), math and science manipulatives, etc., and we did pre-screens to determine speech and language needs, identify children experiencing delays, and figure out which students, if any, had comprehension issues when it came to language. We observed them during recess and PE, and maintained a dialogue with their music and physical education teachers in order evaluate gross motor strengths and needs. Our nurse and other district health staff screened our students’ vision, hearing, and overall general health and well-being. With parent input and involvement, observations from support staff, other teachers, the E.L.L. Department and speech/language therapist, my colleague and I were able to map out our students’ baseline pretty quickly.

Throughout the year, we assessed our students regularly, both formally and informally. We observed them, asked for input from families, teachers, and support staff, and made copies of all of our mid-quarters and DIBELS “data” for other teachers, committees and administration with the hope that everyone being informed would benefit our students. The year flew by, and soon it was time for our last round of DIBELS and the last math and reading CRT’s. While we had substitutes provided for our DIBELS assessments, we had to make do with whatever quiet time we could find for the math and reading CRT’s. Most of our students understood that while the additional assessment time was a drag, it was important that they do their best.

The scores did not surprise me or my colleague, and were a true representation of what our students were willing or able to demonstrate on their day of testing for math or reading. The CRT’s gave us no opportunity to provide additional information about our students’ strengths and needs, nor did the tests catch each and every child on his or her “best day.” Between our classes, at least six students had parents who had recently deployed to Iraq, and several others were experiencing deployment preparations at home. Six more students were bilingual, and five additional students required extra help and focus on speech and language issues. Students were helped by us, by support staff, teachers’ assistants, and academic tutors. Families stayed involved and communicated with us regularly and were eager to know the results of the assessments.

Apparently our school was notified that our kindergarten class had the lowest CRT scores in the district. Blame-laying and consequences have since ensued, as it turns out, BEFORE the “data” was accurately interpreted. Both of our class lists have the CRT results from students who not only transferred to different schools, but who were tested at different schools (yep, the kiddos weren’t even on our roll) after attending those schools for the majority of the school year. One student spoke fluent…GERMAN, had never attended pre-school, and was only in my class for a day before being transferred to an E.L.L. classroom with a German translator, and my other “low score” student was a child who had a behavior IEP for most of the year, who had made incredible progress in all areas that any person in our school could rattle off a list about. Guess what he didn’t like doing? Testing. And gee, since he was six years old and not big on compliance, guess who blew it off? Yep, my little angel. He gave the best hugs, had the biggest smile, and beat incredible social odds in the year I had him. My colleague had a similar character in her class.

Despite all of our resources, district-provided, parent-provided, teacher-provided, support staff-provided, even classmate-provided, not every child was equally successful in all areas of the CRT’s. Even though we had S.F.A. kindergarten materials and used them, not all students were equally successful. Even though I had over a decade’s worth of teaching experience, not all of my students were equally successful in the way the district expected us to measure it. All students demonstrated terrific growth, academically and socially. All were eager learners, eager participants, and none of them ran with scissors. Some did better at geometric concepts than others. Some still had to make an effort to remind themselves to enunciate the last sounds in words because of speech delays experienced long before we ever had them as students. All of them were well on their way to being able to make the most of their future school adventures, and intrinsically, they KNEW IT.

Roughly one-fifth of our students didn’t ace the math and reading CRT’s. And that’s all the district saw when looking at the numbers crunched at the bottom of the class list. There were childrens’ names on our lists who weren’t even students of ours, and their scores brought down the overall total. Was that known to administrators before punitive measures were put into play? Nope. “It doesn’t matter. I’m embarrassed we have the lowest scores in the district.” Yes folks, a quote. There were students who might not have aced the CRT’s but certainly did accomplish all they needed to in order to move on to the first grade. Did THAT matter to the district administrators? Nope. Did the fact that the testing data itself was misinterpreted and frankly, incorrect, matter to the administration? Nope.

Most intelligent people understand that when 100% mastery is reported in classrooms and schools with such diverse students, such diverse prior schema, such diverse social and cultural expectations, such diverse strengths, skills and needs, that there’s more than a strong possibility that test results may have been…inaccurately reported. Yes folks, I’m saying that someone, somewhere, is LYING. And I’m also saying that administrators and districts are encouraging them, even quite possibly, requiring them to do so. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that deception can’t possibly be the accepted norm because heck, someone somewhere would catch it and then be the whistleblower on all those other teachers. What’s the other option then? Teachers are required to teach the test, the CRT’s, the DIBELS exercises, whatever. So they can honestly say that their 100% success rate has been demonstrated by their students. Too bad that teaching the test robs students and teachers of all of the other benefits and skills that public schools are expected to provide.

Teachers aren’t saying no. Parents aren’t saying no. Administrators aren’t saying no. Districts aren’t saying no. We’re not making our government say no. And more of this illogical and unusable “data” will continue to be used and will be considered valid. A child who speaks fluent German in someone elses’ classroom will still be labeled an “excuse,” instead of an “explanation” when looking at data. He’ll be an excuse instead of the exceptional student that I wish I could have kept in my room. My students’ cultural diversity will be labeled as an “excuse” when I offer that diversity up as an explanation for their lower scores, while that same diversity will be seen as a “plus” for those students who scored high. The only bottom line today is the SCORE, whether it’s accurate or not.

It’s an interesting moment when you’ve been accused of not doing your job. I thought I did it, and did it well. I felt the parents and my colleagues were as equally committed, and I thought we had formed a good alliance through honesty that would benefit the first grade teachers and the students on this continuation of the school adventure. Apparently the bottom line is I should have lied. Or taught the test. And I should always accept “data” that is put in front of me as fact.

After all, administrators do.

2 thoughts on “Re-post of “Explanations Aren’t Excuses”

  1. In this post you’ve managed to say, beautifully no less, so many of the things educators struggle to put into words on a daily basis. Reading this was so reassuring and validating to me. It helped me feel re-energized to continue to working to change the way we judge schools and students and to simply continue teaching as well as I possibly can.

  2. Thank you Jenny. As it turns out, the post was a way for me to help my now former colleagues (my family has re-located to a different state) say what they and I feel can’t be said as they continue to deal with the repercussions of this situation. Punitive, er, “corrective” actions have already been put into play and my friends have had to reconcile themselves with the fact that they “got into trouble” NOT for being “bad” teachers, but for being HONEST. I’ve continued the story in regard to colleague validation, involvement, and “self care” on my own blog,, which is where “Explanations” was orginally posted.

    Have a GREAT year!

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