Thursday, April 03, 2014

Our Time in a Fire

I’m remiss in writing a few words about Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy, two Boston firefighters who died battling a blaze in the Back Bay last week. 

From every account, both were upstanding men.  Walsh, 42, followed his dad’s footsteps and leaves behind a widow and three children, ages 8 – 3.  Kennedy, 33, single, was an ex-Marine and an Iraq War combat veteran; many family members survive him.  He ran marathons in Boston and Chicago.

You never think about the Fire Department until the day you need them.  It was more than two decades ago, but it seems like yesterday Liz and I woke up in our Chicago apartment to a fire in the early hours, just before 6 am on a Saturday in April.

We’d been out the night before, to a Lincoln Park Italian restaurant, celebrating my new job with Tribune Media Services.  As dinner came to an end, we considered going to Pops for Champagne, another Lincoln Park hot spot, but decided to call it night, instead.

Our apartment, located just north of the intersection of Division and LaSalle, was near a Chicago Fire House.  I was awakened by the sirens, hearing them close in on our building. 

It prompted me to get out of bed and walk to our front door.  Before opening it, I touched it.  The door was cold.  As I opened it, in flew a huge puff of black, ashy smoke, instantly darkening the walls around the door. 

I quickly closed it and ran back to our bedroom, yelling there was a fire and we needed to get out.  Liz was up in an instant, watering down bath towels to place under the door. 

She told me to call the Fire Department, and I asked a question that’s been inscribed in Page Family lore:

“What’s the number?”

“Nine-One-ONE!” she bellowed from the front door.

Then, just before putting down the wet towels, she opened the door, yelling into the dark cloud if anyone called the Fire Department.

“We’re here, ma’am,” said an unseen firefighter in the hallway, his presence blocked out by the dark smoke.

The firefighter then told us to evacuate. 

Our apartment, located on the second floor, was above an open garage.  The windows were so drafty that we covered them in plastic wrap, from December to either April or May, as a means of keeping Chicago’s subzero temperatures out of our little abode. 

Now the plastic was a trap, making it nearly impossible to open the window to the waiting ladder, provided courtesy of the Chicago Fire Department, for our escape.  I grabbed our butcher knife, slicing through the plastic so the window could be opened.

There was a firefighter on the ladder as Liz went out the window.  She’d been calm but as she got onto the ladder and turned to climb down, the firefighter instantly sensed she was nervous and scared.  He coaxed her down in no time flat.

Then I was out, on the ladder in front of the same firefighter, seeing a plume of smoke coming from the window.  Like Liz, I felt nervous and started to shake.  With a few reassuring words from the firefighter, I, too, was down on the ground quickly.

We shook hands with the firefighters, thanking them for their help and walked out to LaSalle Drive.  I looked at my watch.  It was 6:30. 

What struck me that morning was the high level of professionalism each firefighter exhibited.  They took their jobs very seriously even though, in the grand scheme of things, this was a minor incident in which no one died or was injured.

I also recall a brief chat with the Fire Department’s lieutenant or captain who was making sure everyone was okay.  The level of professionalism was nothing short of outstanding.

Within about 15 or 20 minutes, the all clear was given and we walked into the building, looking for Jerry, our landlord, one of the nicest guys we ever met, who also lived in the building.  He was in his office, absolutely beside himself in shock, fear and probably some anger.  He gave Liz the biggest hug he may have ever given in his life.

We assured him we were fine and asked what happened.  The fire started when our neighbor fell asleep before putting out a candle, which tipped over and lit up the place around 5 am. 

Our neighbor was also in the office.  Her father was trying to comfort her.  She was in tears, telling her roommate, over the phone, what happened.

Jerry, then, gave us a tour of the burned out apartment.  For something that was a minor incident, the damage was shocking.  The walls were either black with soot or marked by flames.  The area rugs were burned to a crisp.  It didn’t look like much survived. 

By that time, it was 7 and what to do now?  Seriously, in terms of weekend excitement, how can you top ditching your apartment because of a fire?  You couldn’t.  We were filled with excitement and needed to do something.

We walked over to our apartment, making sure everything was okay.  It was.  Then we did a lot of people do on a Saturday morning in Chicago, we went to Tempo for breakfast.

The firefighters I’ve met are great people.  They take incredible risks – and do so willingly – sometimes putting themselves in great peril. 

Boston firefighters Edward J. Walsh and Michael R. Kennedy were two of them.  May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Common Core's Standardized Tests

The article below was written by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post.  I'm embedding the article and also providing the link to where it can be found on The Post's website.

Any parent reading this should know that they're well within their rights to pull their children out of any field test.  This comes from Sandra Stotsky, a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Dr. Stotsky worked with the people developing Common Core's English Language Arts standards but refused to approve the new standards because, as she saw it, they were providing children with far less of an education in literacy than previously.  James Milgram, a retired Stanford University math professor, worked with the people developing Common Core's math standards and, like Dr. Stotsky, he also refused to approve the new standards, saying they would put American high school students further behind their peers outside of the United States in math.

In fact, when Common Core's advocates presented this new curriculum to the Massachusetts Board of Education about four years ago, the leading math expert for Common Core, Professor Jason Zimba told the Board that Common Core's math standards were designed to put high school student math skills on a level that's acceptable to a non-selective college, i.e., something on a par with a community college.

Seven school districts in the Massachusetts -- Worcester, Norfolk, Peabody, Wachusetts, Mendon-Upton, Tantasqua and Cambridge -- have recognized the rights of parents to have their children opt-out of the new Common Core tests, often referred to as PARCC.

The upcoming PARCC tests are just that, a test.  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is saying they want to see how this new test compares to the MCAS, the standardized test Bay State children have taken since 1998.

The plan, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is to replace the MCAS with the PARCC test, which is also being used in many states around the country.  It's important to know that the MCAS was designed to reflect Bay State's standards only.

More on this in the coming days.

Seven facts you should know about new Common Core tests

By Valerie Strauss, Updated: September 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm

The Common Core State Standards now being implemented in most states and the District of Columbia will soon be accompanied by new standardized tests being developed by two multi-state consortia — the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — with $360 million in federal funds. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that he expects these exams, due to be rolled out in 2014-15, to go beyond the familiar multiple-choice standardized tests students have been forced to take for more than a decade and to be an “absolute game-changer in public education.”
Is he right? Not so much. Here are seven myths and realities about the new tests, from FairTest, or The National Center for Fair & Open Testing,  a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests. You can find more here on FairTest’s website.
Myth: Common Core tests will be much better than current exams, with many items measuring higher-order skills.
Reality: The new tests will largely consist of the same old multiple-choice questions.
Proponents initially said the new assessments would measure — and help teachers promote — critical thinking. In fact, the exams will remain predominantly multiple choice. Heavy reliance on such items continues to promote rote teaching and learning. Assessments will generally include just one session of short performance tasks per subject. Some short-answer and “essay” questions will appear, just as on many current state tests. Common Core math items are often simple computation tasks buried in complex and sometimes confusing “word problems.” The prominent Gordon Commission of measurement and education experts concluded that Common Core tests are currently “far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.”
Myth: Adoption of Common Core exams will end No Child Left Behind testing overkill.
Reality: Under Common Core, there will be many more tests and the same misuses.
The No Child Left Behind law triggered a testing tsunami over the past dozen years, and the Common Core will flood classrooms with even more tests. Both consortia keep mandatory annual English/language arts (ELA) and math testing in grades 3-8, as with NCLB. However, the tests will be longer than current state exams. PARCC will test reading and math in three high school grades instead of one; SBAC moves reading and math tests from 10th grade to 11th. In PARCC states, high schoolers will also take a speaking and listening test. PARCC also offers “formative” tests for kindergarten through second grade. Both consortia produce and encourage additional interim testing two to three times a year. As with NCLB, Common Core tests will be used improperly to make high-stakes decisions, including decisions involving high school graduation, teacher evaluation and school accountability.
Myth: New multi-state assessments will save taxpayers money.
Reality: Test costs will increase for most states. Schools will spend even more for computer infrastructure upgrades.
Costs have been a big concern, especially for the five states that dropped out of a testing consortium as of August 2013. PARCC acknowledges that half its member states will spend more than they do for current tests. Georgia pulled out when PARCC announced costs of new, computer-delivered summative math and ELA tests alone totaling $2.5 million more than its existing state assessment budget.States lack resources to upgrade equipment and bandwidth and provide technical support, at a cost likely to exceed that of the tests themselves. One analysis indicates that Race to the Top would provide districts with less than 10 cents on the dollar to defray those expenses plus mandated teacher evaluations.
Myth: New assessment consortia will actually design the tests rather than well-known test manufacturers who have made mistakes in the past. 
Reality: The same profit-driven companies,  including Pearson, Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, are producing the tests. These firms have long histories of mistakes. The multinational Pearson, for example, has been responsible for poor-quality items, scoring errors, computer system crashes and missed deadlines. Still, Pearson shared $23 million in contracts to design the first 18,000 PARCC test items.
Myth: Common Core assessments are designed to meet the needs of all students.
Reality: Not yet. The new tests could put students with disabilities and English-language learners at risk.
Advocates for English-language learners have raised concerns about a lack of appropriate accommodations. A U.S. Education Department’s technical review assessed the consortia’s efforts in July 2013 and issued a stern warning, saying that attempts to accommodate students with disabilities and ELLs need more attention (Gewertz, 2013).
Myth: Common Core “proficiency” is an objective measure of college- and career-readiness.
Reality: Proficiency levels on Common Core tests are subjective, like all performance levels.
Recent disclosures demonstrate that New York state, which last spring gave students a Common Core-aligned test designed by Pearson even before the consortia-developed tests have come out, set passing scores arbitrarily. There is no evidence that these standards or tests are linked to the skills and knowledge students need for their wide range of college and career choices.
Myth: States have to implement the Common Core assessments.
Reality: No, they don’t.  
High-quality assessment improves teaching and learning and provides useful information about schools. Examples of better assessments include well-designed formative assessmentsperformance assessments that are part of the curriculum (New York Performance Standards Consortium), and portfolios or Learning Records of actual student work. Schools can be evaluated using multiple sources of evidence that includes limited, low-stakes testing, school quality reviews, and samples of ongoing student work.