Your New Budget Workout—Don’t Forget to Stretch!

Justin_BarbeauGuest post by Justin Barbeau, Director of Technical Assistance, Building Assets, Reducing Risks i3 Project; former Minnesota high school teacher

As next year’s school budgets turn over, administrators start the annual “new budget workout”: the challenge to maintain current programming and support services for students and their families. In order to balance the new budget, district and building leaders must do some heavy lifting, often making difficult curriculum, staffing and student support service decisions.

These decisions are based on: 1) reallocating existing funds or 2) tapping new “outside” funds. With diminishing opportunities for the latter, a school’s ability to stretch existing funds takes on ever increasing significance and scrutiny.

Administrators now need to leverage student performance data to calculate ROI, identify specific areas of inefficiency, and immediately act to make effective structural and procedural improvements.

With the administrators I work with, I specifically talk about the cost of student failures. In college, when a student fails a course, they have to pay to retake it, but in high schools, when a student fails a course, the district pays. If the average course costs a school $233 per credit to offer, and 35 percent of ninth-grade students are failing at least one course, with a class size of 400 students, that’s a loss of more than $65,000 per year. That’s not including the cost incurred to re-offer sections for students to make up the following semester. The ratio of credits received/credits offered used in conjunction with a school’s costs leads to a measure of Return on Investment (ROI), which can inform critical funding decisions.

This is where the Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR) model comes in. BARR dramatically reduces student failures while increasing achievement scores in math and reading. What’s the key to its success? Its comprehensive system for providing and reviewing real-time student data so teacher, student, and parent interventions can be made before failure takes hold.

We know approximately 20–40 percent of ninth-grade students fail one or more classes needed for graduation. In order to reduce this failure rate, it is essential to know the numbers. The BARR model’s systematic approach ensures real-time data on failure rates—disaggregated by subject, team, and student demographics—and additional data trends are monitored and shared. This is data that without BARR, is often not easy to collect and disseminate regularly.

With data coming in weekly, it is easier to identify specific areas with high student failures and provide targeted BARR supports to increase teacher and team effectiveness, which leads to a dramatic reduction in student failures, and the costs associated with them. I’ve watched schools that implement BARR cut the number of ninth-grade failures in half, increase academic achievement and, in turn, create significant cost savings to the district.

The BARR framework allows schools to proactively capture and reallocate funds, stretching existing budgets to bring in new programming which gain a higher return on investment and enhance students’ learning experience.

Poverty: A Reason NOT An Excuse


By Mel Riddile, Ed.D.

Top teachers say that poverty is the most important barrier facing them in their classrooms. Reformers insist that those teachers are merely making excuses for poor achievement of low-income students.

Having worked in and with many high-poverty schools I am, on the one hand, discouraged by the current fad du jour of ignoring poverty as a detractor, and on the other hand, inspired by the fact that I know that, if schools do the right things, the right way, long enough, their students can achieve at high levels. Every day, we learn that more and more schools are beating the odds.

While the mantra of education reformers continues to be ‘No excuses, because poverty is not destiny,’ researchers and practitioners know that “socio-economic circumstance matters to education outcomes.”

Blaming Only Hurts Those Most In Need

Poverty is not an excuse, but a reason for low achievement that can and must be overcome. Ignoring poverty and its impact on under-resourced students, will not improve student performance, nor will it close the achievement gap. In fact, refusing to acknowledge poverty as a barrier to achievement only serves to perpetuate the very conditions that reformers seek to eradicate.

Those of us who have worked in high-poverty schools know all too well about the destructive effect poverty has on children and learning. Poverty’s corrosive effects can only be overcome by ensuring that the best, most experienced teachers and the best, most experienced school leaders are working in the best-equipped schools with the neediest students.

Instead, we have precisely the opposite–the least experienced work with the neediest. Threats, sanctions, punishments, restructuring, closings, and firings only serve to ensure that working in under-resourced schools is viewed as a “career killer” further perpetuating the flight of the best and brightest from those schools.

Under-resourced students are what they are–under-resourced. These children can learn and achieve at high levels if they are provided the resources–teachers, principals, technology, and supports–they need to succeed. They cannot make up for their lack of resources on their own or by working on the same time line as their more advantaged, middle class peers. Nor can they make up for their lack of resources when they are served by the least experienced among us.

The Bottom Line

We must do for other people’s children what we would want done for our children. We must treat every child as though that child were our own. Instead, the reformers, who send their children to expensive private schools, loudly proclaim the failure of public education and advocate for larger classes and less experienced teachers–practices that they would never permit to be used on their own children.

Poverty is not an excuse for low achievement, but poverty is the reason WHY we need reading and math interventions, more learning time for some students, smaller class sizes and more funding for schools serving under-resourced students.

Principals and Online Testing – Part II












By Mel Riddile, Ed.D.

Note: This is the second of a two-part post on the challenges faced by principals implementing online testing tied to the Common Core and new college- and career-ready standards. So much has happened in recent weeks that I divided the entry into two parts because one post would not do justice to the topic.

In part 1, I described that 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 divided this post into two parts. Part 1 addressed no-technical challenges principals face in implementing the new assessments. This entry will address the technical issues.

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

The transition from paper-and-pencil to online assessments takes several years before it becomes normal.

We learned from previous experiences with online instruction that it usually took time to work out the technical problems. So, when we began high-stakes, online testing, we expected problems. We prepared for problems, and we learned from the problems. In other words, online testing was rarely perfect. Our school made the transition from paper and pencil tests to total online testing. The four-year transition to online tests was full of problems from which we learned a number of useful lessons. Having gone through that painful change, I cannot imagine making that switch in a single year. I spent a decade under online testing. If everything else remained the same, the move from paper to online testing would be a huge challenge, but this is only one of many testing changes.

Cheating Scandals Place a Premium on Test Security

Cheating scandals around the country have brought more and more scrutiny on how school leaders manage the testing process. When we had paper and pencil tests, I was paranoid about test security. I had workers install a special lock on a storage room with no outside windows that we used to store the tests. Two people had keys to the room–the district locksmith and our testing coordinator. I never saw or touched a test in all the years we gave paper and pencil tests.

I was relieved when we went to online tests, because the security was much better and easier to manage. We had guidelines for how teachers were to supervise the assessments and each proctor signed an agreement.

Better tests cost more and take more time to administer.

In the past, many states chose the cheapest and least effective tests money could buy, but held schools, teachers, and principals to the highest levels of accountability. “Improve your test scores or we will find someone who can,” a district leader once said to me.

One state spent less that $12 per student on annual assessments and later withdrew from one of the two testing consortia because the cost of the tests was too high. In fact, the average per student spending of the states in the consortia was approximately $29. Incidentally, that same state also has one of the highest gaps between state proficiency scores and proficiency on NAEP assessments, but had high-stakes accountability measures for schools and teachers.

For many schools without adequate technology, logistics are a nightmare.

One principal told me that it took months to plan the movement of students to operating computers during the testing period. The more tests and students a school tests, the more challenging the planning process. Most schools have to shut down their libraries and labs and devote their entire inventory of computer hardware to testing for an entire month.

Lack of Hardware and Software

“Fewer than 30 percent of K-12 school technology leaders believed their district was ready for online assessments, according to an annual survey by the Consortium for School Networking.” Yes, we were told that old computers and operating systems would run the new tests, the reality is that they do not run well. Principals tell me that old operating systems with old network cards frequently lose network connections.

In addition, one principal in a state with years of online testing experience learned that, while tablets and Chromebooks worked with the old multiple-choice tests, he had to purchase computer mice because his students became frustrated because they could not navigate the tests and use the test tools without them.

Inadequate Infrastructure

The move to online testing has exposed the lack of technology in many schools. In Oklahoma, only 20% of schools reported having enough technology to participate in online assessments. Overall, “63 percent of public schools don’t have access to broadband speeds needed for digital learning. The problem is particularly acute in rural and low-income districts: Only 14 percent in those areas meet high-speed Internet targets.”

In our school, we conducted speed tests on every device and we performed stress tests on our network throughout the school every year before the testing season. We would set up a number of computers in a room using a continuous ping test, which would overload the network. We found that, from year to year, network access points would go bad, need to be reset, or become overloaded due to changes in course offerings and room assignments.

Need to Build Student Tech Skills

Many schools have stepped up their work on computer skills because their states’ paper-and-pencil tests are moving online. “Their primary concern is ensuring that students have access to these technology tools prior to sitting down for online tests.”

Context matters! We learned that the lack of familiarity with online tests and the skills needed to navigate the tests was hurting our students. In fact, some find that student performance actually drops with initial administration of online tests. If our students were going to succeed, they needed regular exposure to online assessments throughout the school year. As most states shift their required tests to computers, teachers are discovering that their students are missing key technical skills needed to show what they know.

We believed that our students tested better in familiar environments—their classrooms. While this is not convenient, it did result in significant improvement in student attitude and performance.

One expert advises that schools integrate the testing “into the regular classroom schedule by stopping the test when needed and picking it back up again at a convenient time in the future (within test parameters) until each student is finished. The advantages that he outlined for this approach include avoiding shutting down the school so everyone can take a test, giving more tests and using less testing time, and taking into account student fatigue. He advised educators to stop treating online tests like paper tests because “locking a kid in a room for 2 ½ hours with a bubble sheet is not the gold standard of validity.”

Vendor failures

The rash of vendor failures nationwide has undermined schools and districts that have made huge financial commitments to upgrade their hardware and infrastructure. For example, Virginia, which is not a Common Core state, but has over a decade of experience with online testing using Pearson as the vendor, has surprisingly experienced serious interruptions and failures proving that even the most experienced vendors are undergoing overload with the mass migration to online testing.

Some states provide a hedge against vendor server failures. For example, Virginia “allows the local storage of test answers as students move through the test so no completed answers are lost, thus reducing the impact of network and local connectivity issues on students already testing.

The bottom line is that, with the exception of the massive vendor server failures, we expected problems. However, experience has taught me two important lessons. First, online assessment is worth the effort. Second, each year we found fewer problems.

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)


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