Parental Notification

On the public agenda for tonight’s school board meeting are three items of interest – changes to the policy on testing regarding parental notification, the 2014 – 2015 school year calendar, and the 2014 internal audit plan.

(1) Changes to Policy 622 – Testing Program

The policy establishes the school board’s intent regarding testing and requirements for notifying parents of tests their children will be given.  The regulation, 622 -1 which was included for information only, establishes the practices and procedures PWCS will follow to achieve that intent.

Three changes to this policy are proposed.  These changes might not seem like that big of a deal, unless you’ve been following what’s been going on in the nation and state regarding public education and testing in particular.  The changes are:

  •  Parental notification of tests to be administered to their children will be moved from the policy to the regulation
  •  PWCS will comply with the requirements of the Virginia Assessment Program
  • PWCS will avoid administering excessive tests, unless they’re needed for an “explicit purpose and validated instructional and / or accountability decision”.

Right now the school board policy on testing requires PWCS to notify parents when their children are assessed as a precursor to inclusion in special ed, ESOL, or gifted programs or as part of ongoing evaluation within those programs.  PWCS proposes to move the parental notification requirement from the school board’s intent as expressed in the policy to the school division’s practice as expressed in the regulation.

Here’s why I think that matters.

One of the biggest movements in education today is the move towards common national academic standards and assessments.  Assessing students, gathering data from those assessments, evaluating that data, and reaching conclusions about students based on the data that was gathered is a major component of that movement.  The Virginia Assessment Program has been aligned with federal US Department of Education regulations regarding assessing students, gathering and reporting data about students in state-wide longitudinal data systems, and sharing assessment data with interested third parties.  These regulations about student assessment and data gathering are from the Va Dept of Education or the US Dept of Education. PWCS doesn’t have any choice but to comply with them and the school division’s policy and regulation on testing has to reflect that.

However, there is nothing in those regulations about parental notification.

Several weeks ago some PWCS middle school students took an exam called the AMC8.  The exam was given to middle school students taking high school level math courses. The exam took the entire instructional period.  Parents weren’t notified that their children would be taking this exam.  Neither our children nor their teachers we’re told anything about the exam – just that it was mandatory.

The AMC8 is an exam created by the Mathematics Association of America.  I had to google it to find out what it was.  According to the MAA, “The examination provides an opportunity to apply the concepts taught at the junior high level to problems which not only range from easy to difficult but also cover a wide range of applications. Many problems are designed to challenge students and to offer problem solving experiences beyond those provided in most junior high school mathematics classes.”

The AMC8 is a fairly innocuous exam.  It’s not supposed to be a test of knowledge.  The test ranks children in the nation, state, district, and school based on their performance on this test, so it is identifiable to individual students.  My child and some of my friends’ children took this exam. Some of those children came home from school devastated by the exam because they couldn’t answer many questions.  These are children who are taking classes ahead of the regular schedule.  These children all know that their performance on tests and grades in school could be used to send them back a level.  Some of them were worried that their scores on this test would be so low that they’d be removed from their classes.

To date parents still don’t know how their children’s scores will be used by PWCS or how it was reported to the MAA.   Most probably don’t even know their children took the exam, unless they mentioned it when they came home.

With the national movement towards more assessments like this one, it is likely that our children will be taking more and more exams that aren’t SOLs or class tests.  The data from those exams may be used by the school district, the Va Dept of Ed, the US Dept of Ed, or other third parties like the MAA, colleges and universities, or even companies selling services and programs.  As long as the test is part of an accountability decision or state or federal program, then it will be administered to our children without our knowledge or consent.

I think that’s wrong.  In my opinion, any time a child is assessed outside of regular day to day instruction, then that child’s parents ought to be notified.  Parents ought to know what exam their child will be given, what the exam will gauge, how the exam results will be used by PWCS, whether the results will be shared outside of PWCS and with whom it will be shared, what those entities will do with the exam results, and how their child’s privacy will be protected.

If the policy establishes the school’s board intent, then right now it appears as if the school board has no intention of directing the school division to notify parents when their children are made to participate in assessments like the AMC8.  Right now, it appears that the intent of the PWC School board is for parents to be uninformed about the level and extent of testing their children are being forced to participate in.

There’s not much PWCS or the school board can do about testing.  It’s part of the national movement and is backed by the state and federal government through the US and Va departments of Education.  What we can do is make sure our parents are as aware as possible of the extent of this testing and data gathering movement as possible.  As the AMC8 example indicates, PWCS will not notify parents unless they have to.  The school board, in my opinion, should insert language into this policy requiring that parents be notified whenever their childcare will be given tests or assessments outside of the scope of day to day instruction AND any time their child’s information is shared outside of PWCS.

One more thing on testing.  Many parents and teachers have begun to complain about the number of tests our children are forced to take.  That’s resulted in an increase in the number of parents refusing to allow their children to be tested.  I suspect that will continue to increase in the coming years.  PWCS proposed changing the regulation on testing such that the implications of refusing testing are clearly explained to parents.  I applaud PWCS for doing this and ask that them to brief the school board and public on the implications of refusing testing.  In a school system this large it would be easy for messages to get mixed up and consistent communication is imperative with something this important.   

(2) On the Consent Agenda – 2014 Audit Plan.

In her short time here the internal auditor discovered a number of issues with financial controls in the school system. At least one of those issues was so severe that it may result in criminal prosecution. She left the school division for another job in another area almost a year ago. In lieu of the number of irregularities she discovered, hiring a new internal auditor should be the first priority here, yet the presentation of the 2014 audit plan fails to mention that this position has been vacant for almost a year.

While there is nothing particularly controversial here, the public should be made aware that the school division has been operating without an internal auditor for more than a few months and should be informed that some of the internal audit work that was planned for this school year simply has not happened because PWCS didn’t have an internal auditor.

In my opinion, because of the nature of the internal auditors position and the types of discoveries the previous internal auditor made while conducting the audits, this item probably shouldn’t be on the Consent Agenda

(3) 2014 – 2015 School Year Calendar.

This is next year’s proposed calendar. You probably want to pay attention to this as it will not change once it’s approved – especially if you want to avoid messes like we have this year with a 2 day week at the end of Christmas break.

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