Monthly Archives: November 2015

What is “at stake” with Testing?

Image result for huhI don’t recall when I first heard the phrase, but I do remember the cognitive dissonance I felt upon first hearing it.    The words implied something I was uncomfortable believing.  And to resolve that dissonance I set out to learn more about it:   “high-stakes testing”.   What is it?  What does it mean?  Is testing in our schools really a high-stakes activity?  And for whom?  And under what circumstances?

“High Stakes” in the English lexicon

 What are ‘stakes’?  And what, therefore, are ‘high stakes’?  Let’s consult the dictionary (a research method I frequently used in middle school!)  Stakes are the amount wagered, or one’s monetary interest or share in a venture.  And,  high-stakes  describes “a ​situation that has a lot of ​risk and in which someone is likely to either get or ​lose an ​advantage, or a lot of ​money.”

Image result for high stakes pokerFrom 1960 to 1990,  the adjective phrase “high-stakes” was most often used in reference to gambling.  Google Ngram, which counts the frequency of words uses in all printed sources, shows us that eight of the top ten most frequent uses of “high stakes” in this period were related to wagering (poker, gambling, games, bingo (!), card games, etc.)  This usage continues today.  For example, I saw an advertisement on a sports website the other day for “high stakes fantasy football”.  This usage makes sense, as gambling is a win/lose proposition and usually an all/nothing outcome.  If you wager on a hand of cards, you either lose it all or walk away with much more than you came with.   (Perhaps this element of risk and highly-variable outcomes is part of the appeal of gambling.)

high stakes ngram 1960 1990


In the 1990s, the phrase “high stakes testing” broke into the top 10, and within a few years, it rocketed to the top of Google Ngram charts.  By 2008 six of the top 10 uses of “high stakes” were in reference to testing and accountability.

high stakes ngram 1990 2008

What caused the usage explosion?   In 1998 Louisiana implemented standardized testing, with an extra kicker.  They would use the test results with fourth and eight graders to stop the practice of  ‘social promotion‘.   If the test was not passed, students would be held back and given extra help.    A number of other states quickly followed in the footsteps of Louisiana.  

In 2002 No Child Left Behind was passed by the Federal Government, mandating the annual testing of 3rd – 8th graders, with the aim of ensuring all children receive a good local education.  Holding back students was not a feature of NCLB, but there were accountability provisions for schools not making suitable annual progress.    The term “high stakes testing” emerged as a way to describe these accountability systems.

What is “at stake” with testing today?

In the U.S. today, the “stakes” of testing are not always consistent from state to state.  And it is not always easy to determine what the rules and consequences truly are in a given jurisdiction.   Moreover, the stakes may  be different for each actor in the school system:   students, teachers, and districts.  

In Pennsylvania, there are two exams which are administered by law:  the PSSA, and the Keystones.  These compulsory exams are the cornerstones of the state accountability system.  Therefore, this is where we should focus our attention to understand how much is at stake.

I will start with the PSSAs.  In my next three posts, I will examine what is at stake for students, teachers, and schools.


Class Size Fact Set for UCFSD

On Monday, the school board had an extended discussion on class size guidelines and the specific circumstances of Hillendale Elementary’s third grade students.   I gave a 15 minute presentation to help educate the board and the community on this topic.

To explain how class size guidelines work, I show how cohorts of students are turned into classroom sections.  In addition, I illustrate how cohort size relates to average class size.    Finally, I examine actual class sizes at our four elementary schools over the last six school years.   How common is it for a student to experience a larger class size in our district?   Why does a uniform class size policy lead to different class sizes at four schools?  And is there any evidence in our PSSA scores that class size matters?

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3 Reasons to Tune in to Tonight’s School Board Meeting

Reason #1

The Board will appoint a new director for Region A tonight.  This new school board director will serve out the remaining two years of Keith Knauss’ term.  Three strong candidates are seeking the appointment:  Elise Anderson, Jeanne Best, and Al Iacocca.

Reason #2

Tonight the administration will present the annual Student Growth and Achievement Report.  School-level reports will be delivered by each building principal, analyzing the results of PSSA’s, Keystone Exams, and (for UHS) SATs.   Principals will also discuss what they take away from those results and how programs, instruction, or curriculum will be changed to further improve the opportunity for student learning.  This is a great opportunity to hear directly from our Principals.

Reason #3

Finally, there may be a vote to add additional supports for the Hillendale 3rd grade, which has class sizes of 24 for Language Arts.  The administration, following our class guidelines, has looked carefully at the situation and believes that the best course of action for our students is to keep classes and groupings intact.  Some board members want to override the administration, and may force a vote tonight.

I argued last week that such an action is unfair to the students and families at our other schools, and that it is unwise for a board to override routine educational decisions that have been made in good faith by our educational leaders.  I have heard from several residents and parents already.  If you have a point of view, I would also love to hear from you.  You are also invited to address the whole board during public comments, or send a short email in advance to the whole school Board.

You can join in person in the District Office at 7:30pm tonight, or watch via live-streaming from

My Comments on Class Size and Hillendale 3rd grade

Background:  Parents of 3rd grade Hillendale Elementary students have petitioned the UCF School Board to reduce class sizes for Hillendale 3rd grade.   The administration has recommended keeping the Hillendale 3rd grade class sizes in its current configuration, which meets the UCFSD class size guidelines.  The parents are requesting that the School Board overrule the administration and depart from the district’s class size policy.

Below are my remarks delivered at the November 9 School Board Work Session

I would like to comment on class size optimization, and the specific request for the board (and Administration) to take actions to address the 3rd grade class sizes at Hillendale, where there is one classroom of 25 students, and one classroom of 26 students.

I would first like to address the specific request before us and then I would like to address the larger policy issue of class sizes.

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Election Results: All UCF School Board Races

Congratulations to the winners of Tuesday’s school board elections!

Based on the unofficial results, the voters have returned four sitting school board members (Dupuis, Daniels, Lindner, and yours truly).  In addition, voters elected John Murphy in Region C, who will replace Kathy Do.    The region C race was was decided by about 10 votes.  Despite the results being unofficial the candidates appear to have accepted the results as ‘final’.

The new board takes office on December 1.

Election Results All Regions Nov 2015


Sources are Chester County Voter Services (text search for ‘Unionville’)  and Delaware County (Chadds Ford).



Campaign Signs

One of the signs of an upcoming election is the proliferation of campaign signs along the road. You can’t run a political campaign without yard signs, right?

Before I knew that I would be unopposed on the ballot, I worked on campaign signs with my oldest son.   He provided the expertise on the graphics software; we brainstormed together and came up with one traditional sign and two more creative options.  Our masterpieces are below.  Which one is your favorite?  Scroll to the bottom to cast your anonymous vote; maybe the winner will turn into a real sign in 2019?

Poster-Other2 Poster-ChalkBoard Poster-Apple