Principals and Online Testing – Part I












By Mel Riddile, Ed.D

Note: I intended that this blog entry would focus only on the technical side of online testing, but so much has happened in recent weeks that I would not do justice to the topic if I ignored the context in which the new, online testing occurs.

With the spring testing season now winding down, principals in a number of states feel as though they are under siege. For some schools, whatever could go wrong has gone wrong.

From my contact with principals in a number of states and my ongoing work with principals in schools in five states, I have learned that online assessments present principals with a number of new and old challenges.

I have divided this post into two parts. Part 1 will address no-technical challenges principals face in implementing the new assessments. Part 2 will address the technical issues.

Following are six non-technical challenges school leaders face in implementing online testing related to the Common Core and new college- and career-ready standards:

The new standards are a decade-long implementation initiative.

Whereas some reformers mistakenly believe that the Common Core and new college- and career-ready standards have already been implemented, I know differently. When our state implemented, new higher standards accompanied by new assessments, every school failed the first iteration of the tests. We learned very quickly what many across the country will learn when they receive the results of their first assessments.

The first round is the real beginning of the implementation process. We all know how important feedback is to the learning process and this is the first time our teachers and students will receive any feedback. Up until now, we have been teaching and praying that we are doing the right thing.

From the very beginning, I have been pushing for a moratorium on the use of test scores from the new tests to evaluate teachers and schools because, from experience, I know that it will take at least three years to gain familiarity with the new assessments before any real progress is made.

The uncertain political climate has poisoned the well for school leaders and cost some schools two years of implementation.

Budget battles, conflicts over perceived federal intrusion into education, debates over the Common Core Standards, and reworking testing contracts have undermined the ability of principals to convince their staffs to stay the course and made the already arduous task of implementing new standards and new assessments even more tenuous. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, and, when it comes to school change, we have attempted to implement too many initiatives at one time, and, as a result, we have failed to follow-up.

The typical teacher has a change history of one new initiative year after year with little to no follow-up. That is why it is so hard for principals to get any meaningful initiative off the ground. The ‘this too shall pass’ attitude is a major impediment to school improvement.

Principals attempting to convince teachers that the new standards are the real thing and are here to stay are frustrated by the conflicting rhetoric emerging from state legislatures. One thing is certain—once states raise standards, they will not lower them.

The overt “opt-out” movement has placed principals in a no-win situation.

Some states and districts are barely impacted by those encouraging students to overtly opt-out of the new assessments—either stay at home or refuse to take the tests outright. Others states have been significantly impacted. One writer urged parents to use the threat to opt-out as a way to get principals to make concessions.

The problem is principals do not make policies regarding standards, testing, or who can opt-out. Principals simply follow the state and district policies. States decide what the tests mean to schools, teachers, and students. The problem lies in the fact the some states have provided little to no guidance to districts and schools regarding opt-out policies. However, the federal government has set mandatory participation levels, which means that, if enough students opt-out, the schools lose federal funding.

When states decide that students are not accountable for their performance on state tests, they are encouraging students to covertly opt-out.

Let me state emphatically that I would not work in a state in which students were not held accountable for the results of state assessments!

The first four years of our state testing were a disaster. We wasted far too much time pleading with students to take the tests seriously. Students were not held accountable for their performance on state tests, but our school was! The reputation of our school and our careers were dependent on the good will of fourteen to eighteen year-olds who were justifiably sick-and-tired of testing and who had never received any meaningful feedback, aside from “proficient” or “below proficient”, from those tests.

Students across the country have been covertly opting-out of tests for years. Students simply mark a box without reading the question also known as “Christmas-treeing” tests. Schools have been closed, principals fired, and teachers transferred based on the results of tests that did not matter for students. I know because I have worked with some of these schools.

One principal told me that his seniors decided to play a prank and “Christmas-tree” their state test. The school went from one of the top schools in the state to being placed on the ‘accredited with warning’ list. In another school, the senior class salutatorian, who is now attending and Ivy League school, failed all his state tests. These students did not overtly opt-out, but they certainly covertly opted-out.

When our state made the tests barriers to graduation, our world changed. Instead of trying to motivate students to give their best on the state test, we had to figure how to feed them if they took longer on the test and testing ran into the lunch periods. Only those who have worked in schools understand that, the older students get, the harder it is to motivate them to take the state tests seriously. If there is nothing in it for them, they will not take the tests seriously.

Convincing staff and parents that the new assessments are worth the effort?

I can emphatically state that our old assessments were not worth teaching to. In all fairness, those inexpensive, multiple-choice tests were never meant to be an indicator of college or career-readiness. They were simply validating a high school diploma.

Last fall, Paul Furthmyer, principal of Anaconda High School in Montana, asked me if the new Smarter Balanced assessments really were a new kind of assessment? Did these new tests demand deeper thinking from students? The answer is a resounding “Yes.”

One study revealed that only 3-10% of old tests measured higher-order skills. On the other hand, the new, SBAC and PARCC assessments measured high-order thinking ranging from 61% (math) to 78% (ELA).

SBAC               DOK3               DOK4

Math                    49%               21%

ELA                     43%              25%


Some Schools In Some States Are Over-Testing

In some schools, student performance is negatively impacted because students are simply ‘test weary.’ Our state was among the most heavily tested. We had eleven end-of-course exams that were barriers to graduation and the tests were used to calculate AYP. An average student in our school sat for three exams per year as well as expedited re-takes.

From a technology standpoint, our school shut down during the month of testing. We administered thousands of tests and re-tests during that time, and I am not even counting the hundreds of IB and AP exams our students took. Even though we had more tests, I did not believe that our students were over-tested. My objection was that the multiple-choice tests emphasized more ‘gaming the system’ than deeper learning.

Our experience was nothing compared to what some schools are enduring. One principal told me that each of his students sits for twenty tests per year—sixteen district tests and four state tests.


Engaging Parents to Advance Higher Expectations | College Ready

Parents should know that Common Core State Standards are:

• High academic expectations for students in English language arts and mathematics;
• Internationally benchmarked expectations, similar to those in high-performing countries;
• Designed by teachers and other learning experts across the country;
• Informed by the most advanced and current thinking on what students should know and be able to do at each grade level;
• The result of a multi-state effort to prepare all children to succeed, especially students who by necessity move from one state to the next;
• Not curriculum or assessment. They are a clear set of learning expectations that local teachers and districts use to provide customized instruction that meets the needs of their students;
• Aligned with the development of 21st-century skills, which are necessary for success in college and the workplace.


Summer Learning Loss Statistics and Strategies to Reduce Impact

Did you know most students lose two months of knowledge in the summer? Find more statistics and how to promote summer learning in our guide.


Beth Dichter’s insight:

The summer reading slump…as teachers we know that learners will lose skills if they do not use them during the summer. This article (which includes a lengthy infographic) shares statistics about what may happen over one summer (and also shares long- term consequences).

Did you know that a learner at the end of Grade 6 whom has experienced summer learning loss over the years may be 2 years behind their peers?

Or that 2.6 months of math skills are lost over the summer?

Many schools are starting to prepare summer packets with the hope that learners will complete them over the summer. You may find that information in this infographic is worth sharing with parents. They may not be aware of the consequences of how much summer learning loss may impact their child.

Perseverance key to children’s intellectual growth, Stanford scholar says ~ Mindset

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that children are more motivated when they are told their intelligence or talents can grow and expand. “Grit” is also important for children and adults alike because, when facing challenges, setbacks are inevitable.


Most States Stay with Common Core w/ Diverse Political Responses

“You might be thinking that it has become hard to track just what states are doing with respect to reconsidering or taking a second look at the common core. Fortunately, Dan Thatcher of the National Conference of State Legislatures has a handy map tracking reviews, executive orders, and other state actions with respect to the standards. Click here for the most recent version of that common-core map; a version of the map updated April 23 is below, with the key included:”


Vocabulary: Key Is Quality of Conversation, Not Number of Words

A seminal study on the early word gap between the children of college graduates and high school dropouts has led to more nuanced findings about language development.


  • The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.
  • “It’s not just the word gap; it’s what you use language for,” said Barbara T. Bowman, a child-development professor and co-founder of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute.
  • Children of professionals also heard twice as many unique words, and twice as many “encouraging” versus “discouraging” conversations (“What did you think of that?” versus “Don’t touch that,” for example.) By the end of the study, more than 85 percent of the vocabulary, conversational patterns, and language complexity of the 3-year-olds had come from their families, and children of professionals had vocabularies more than twice as large as peers in families receiving welfare.
  • children with an “enriched language environment” hear about 20,000 words a day—22 million words by age 3—while disadvantaged children hear half as many or fewer.
  • But if recent studies shrunk the word gap from the Hart and Risley study, they also magnified the importance of parent-child conversations.
  • “Conversational turns are vastly more important than the number of words a child is exposed to,” Ms. Gilkerson said.
Note to teachers: Purposeful classroom discussion is critical to acquisition of vocabulary.

Teacher Engagement Matters

While this study relates to business, it does apply directly to principals’ efforts to engage teachers in collaborative decision making.

“Engaged companies outperform their competition, Gallup finds.
And when it comes to assessing their workforces’ engagement,
those companies measure the right things in the right way.”

Collaborative leadership makes a huge difference in a number of key areas of school effectiveness:
  1. Community Perceptions (Customer Loyalty)
  2. Use of Instructional Time (Productivity)
  3. Teacher Turnover
  4. Safety and Student Behavior
  5. Teacher  and Student Absenteeism
  6. Teaching Quality (Product Quality)
  7. Student Achievement (Profitability)
  8. Loss, Theft, Damaged Equipment (Shrinkage)


Context Matters: What psychology tells us about student achievement

Children reproduce the character of their schools and the society around them.

If we want to make our schools more effective, we have to redirect our energy and focus on ensuring that they are supportive settings. “You can do it, you belong, and your efforts will pay off,” must be the message and reality conveyed to all students in every classroom.”


Computer troubles (yet again) create havoc on testing day in FL (state test)

The state blames the vendor.

Students across Florida were supposed to spend Monday taking computer-based standardized exams — high school students, end-of-course tests; kids in Grades 5-10, the math portion of the new high-stakes Florida Standards Assessment.


In some states, it is the vendor. In others, the problem is the state computers and servers. In some instances, the district is the problem. While in other situations, the school has the problem. 

States, districts, and schools with more experience with online testing have fewer issues. 

Dragging educational assessment into the 21st Century has proven to be much more difficult that anticipated, unless one goes through a multi-year transition process as our school did.Then you completely understand the potential issues.

These are predictable problems that must, at some time, be addressed before we can enter the modern age.

Principals Getting Into Classrooms

Getting Into Classrooms

  1. Block out time: I find that when I make the effort to block out time for observations, I can tell the urgent demands to wait until I am done with my observations. Perhaps even more importantly, if I share my plan with my secretary, she can hold at bay many of the urgent demands and sometimes solve them for me.
  2. Set a goal and announce in publicly: Just as a goal is a wish unless it is written down, when we share our goals with others, they can help us reach them. I have found that it is helpful to let my teachers know of my observation goal to visit their classroom every day and enlist their help in making it happen. If I know that a teacher is expecting me to be in his classroom that day, it is more likely that I will make every effort to be there. After all, I do not want to let the teacher down or show lack of professionalism or poor planning.
  3. Set up a routine: This helps me because I don’t have to think about a habit. It’s easy to plan for, and the teachers and students know that I will not be in my office, so they do not look for me at those times. Perhaps the greatest benefit I see is the change seen in the perspective of the teachers.


4. Success Every Day: Set up a routine and set goals that you can meet every day, even days in which everything seems to go wrong.

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