Ben-Hem and Standardized Testing

If you are the parent of a third or fourth grade student you know that this week marks the beginning of PARCC testing. If your kiddos are a bit younger, you may be hearing a lot of talk about PARCC testing in the community and in the media. Whether you are new to the PARCC conversation or have been involved for a long time, it is important that you understand why we are working with the PARCC assessment and where we stand as a professionals with this new standardized test.

Background and Context

In 1993 the Massachusetts legislature enacted an aggressive educational reform agenda. One major outcome of this legislation was the implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). MCAS was intended to measure the overall efficacy of schools, districts, and the state in ensuring that all students had access to and were mastering the skills and concepts spelled out in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Just a few years after MCAS was implemented in Massachusetts, the federal government signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In 2001, this law brought with it a considerable focus on holding public schools accountable by measuring student learning using standardized testing results. The accountability movement achieved the desired outcome of focusing schools on student achievement and using data to make strategic decisions about how to best meet the needs of a diverse student population. Unfortunately, the accountability movement achieved a number of unintended outcomes.

The accountability systems outlined in NCLB detailed serious consequences should a school not achieve at the performance targets spelled out in the law. The penalties associated with “failure” pushed schools to focus narrowly on tested curriculum and caused a high degree of anxiety amongst professionals at all levels of the public education sector. Sadly, this focus on testing and the related anxiety spilled over to families, students, and communities.

As the accountability movement gained momentum in the years following the implementation of NCLB, the tumult and debate over test scores and the performance of public schools continued. In 2008 the federal government made its latest attempt to bring about sweeping educational reform. This time the reform did not come in the form of law but in a competitive grant program known as Race to the Top (RTTT).

RTTT provided states with an opportunity to apply for grants using twenty-eight criteria to judge applications. Grant winners would share in the $4.35 billion encapsulated in RTTT. Four of those criteria focused on standards and assessment. In order to score points states had to submit plans that committed to “developing and implementing high quality assessments.” These federal grant criteria are the fuel behind the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and PARCC.

One of the primary criticisms of MCAS has been and continues to be that it tests low level thinking and comprehension skills. In its current format, the MCAS assessments do not provide insight into the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are so critical to life in the twenty-first century. PARCC assessments were designed to enhance MCAS like assessments by creating testing scenarios that provided those insights into higher order thinking and problem solving skills while maintaining the standardize testing regiment necessary for school accountability purposes. Time and experience will allow professionals to judge whether the PARCC assessment meets that need and achieves its intended outcome.

What are the next steps for PARCC at Ben-Hem?

PARCC is a new standardized testing measure. As such, the test developer (Pearson) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) need to calibrate the tests to make sure that they assess the skills and concepts that they are intended to measure and that the skills and concepts are grade level appropriate. Because of the need to tune these assessments, the results, in essence, don’t count this year. You might hear educators say things like, “… we are being held-harmless this year.” When they say this they are referring to the fact that the testing results will not count for school accountability measures.

Beyond the fine tuning of the test, there are also a huge number of technical, staff training, and student preparation elements that we are working out. The PARCC tests will be taken on iPads using an application developed by Pearson called TestNav. Implementing computer based standardized testing on a broad scale presents a massive challenge that has taken many, many months to sort out and prepare for.

How is Ben-Hem managing PARCC testing with students?

The public discourse surrounding the CCSS and PARCC can best be described as heated and divisive. Regardless of the public debate, we are choosing to use PARCC as an opportunity to do something positive for our students and for our community.

Over the course of my career, I have heard many teachers talking about “getting kids ready for MCAS.” I have heard parents talking about the stress that their their children feel and I have seen kids get incredibly worked up about these assessments. None of these outcomes remotely resemble what we hope for our schools and our students. These are the outcomes we intend to change and I ask that parents and families join us in this worthwhile endeavor.

At school, we are taking a three pronged approach.

  1. We are focusing on the idea that the PARCC assessment is a test of the test. We are explaining to students that Massachusetts still isn’t sure how good the test is and that giving it to kids will let them know just how good (or bad) the test is.
  2. We are reinforcing the message that these tests aren’t a measure of a person’s intelligence or capacity to learn and perform. Standardized tests, no matter how good, are not exact measures of students knowledge and understanding. If a student took a standardized test on fifteen different occasions, we would expect to get fifteen different scores that fall within a range of scores that third graders normally fall into. Understanding this variability helps kids to understand that the test is not a certain measure of what they know and are able to do.
  3. We are moving away from “MCAS preparation.” This is the practice of dedicating teaching and learning time to taking mock tests and focusing on how to take test questions apart to get the right answers. There is no question that we have an ethical obligation to our students to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge to participate effectively in PARCC examinations. To do so we provide orientation to the online testing environment and the overall layout and format of the test. Beyond this orientation to the test and testing environment we will entrust success on any standardized test to the amazing learning opportunities that this community provides for its students and children.

Here is how you can help.

  1. Reiterate the messages we are sharing with kids. Kids feel more comfortable when they know that the adults in their lives are on the same page.
  2. If your kids mention PARCC, give your children information not opinions about the test. Help them by giving facts. There are many great resources that describe the tests and their content.
  3. Reinforce the idea that they should do their best work just like they do on any other school day. The only difference is that on PARCC testing days they will do their best work on an iPad.
  4. Relax. PARCC scores will in no way limit your child’s admission to honors courses or any other opportunities later in life. These tests are designed to give a general sense of how children are performing and what they may need in terms of instructional focus in future months and years.

There is a lot here and I understand that this is a lot of information to take in. If there are questions you have that are not answered here, please feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at



We want to hear from you!

BenHemLogoStrong family and community engagement is an essential element of any high performing school. Ben-Hem is fortunate to serve a community that is dedicated to the education of its young people. Year after year Ben-Hem families invest the time and energy it takes to support their children and the community at large. The Ben-Hem PTO is a driving force in focusing the efforts of parents by providing meaningful opportunities for parents to engage in and support the work of the school. Through fundraising, volunteer opportunities, enrichment programming, and community building events the PTO works tirelessly to enhance learning and opportunities for our children.

The amazing work of the PTO is one piece of the family and community engagement puzzle. Parent and community feedback is another. Ben-Hem has always valued the input of parents as we have worked to improve overall school function. Through informal interactions, meetings with parents, parent-teacher conferences and many other avenues, we gain a great deal of information as to the perceived function and quality of our programs and practices. While these sources of data are very helpful, we want to expand opportunities for families to provide us with feedback.

This year Mr. Kelly will host monthly parent coffees to provide parents and family members with an opportunity to come in to school and discuss how things are going, share ideas, and ask questions. The schedule for “Mr. Kelly’s Coffee” follows:

  • November 12th at 8:30 a.m.
  • December 11th at 4:00 p.m.
  • January 13th at 7:00 p.m.
  • February 10th at 8:30 a.m.
  • March 12th at 7:00 p.m.
  • April 14th at 4:30 p.m.
  • May 19th at 8:30 a.m.

In addition to these listening opportunities, Mr. Kelly has also posted a quick feedback form on Ben-Hem’s web-site. This form is intended to provide parents and community members with a quick and easy opportunity to provide the school with thoughts, comments, or questions. Please take time periodically to let us know how we are doing and what we can do to improve our service to this community.

The First Weeks of School

classroom_communitySchool is back in session and all of our students are here and having a great time with their teachers and all of our support staff. Classrooms are getting up and running and this is a subject that parents often ask a lot of questions about. What happens during the first few weeks of school? It would be easy to just say “Magic!” But that is surely an oversimplification of what is an incredibly complex process.

Community Building

 Community building is arguably one of the most critical tasks that teachers undertake during the first six weeks of school. The extent to which students engage in teaching and learning is a function of the healthy learning environment that teachers and students create together in the first few days and weeks of the school year.

Effective learning communities are founded on a few basic principles. These include:

  1. Shared Vision: A common and shared vision of why we are here, what we are here to do and how the classroom will operate in order to achieve those ends.

  2. Rules and Routines: A common and shared understanding of the rules and routines that will govern classroom operation. These rules and routines are developed collaboratively. Teachers lead the process and students participate in their development.

  3. Strong Relationships: Teachers and students develop strong individual relationships founded on mutual understanding and respect.

  4. Ownership: In coming to respect the classroom environment and understand the people they share the classroom with, children develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the learning environment.

 It is important for parents and families to understand that this is an incredibly important time of year and the focus is on building a classroom climate that is highly conducive to learning and growth. To do so teachers focus the majority of their time during the first few weeks on community building, routine setting, and expectations. Over time this creates a situation in which teachers spend less and less time on management of the classroom and more and more time on teaching and learning.


Expectations and routines are the tools that teachers use to operationalize the community described above.Behavioral expectations are what we think of as rules. These positive statements govern how we interact with the other members of our classroom and school community.

Behavioral expectations in classrooms are meant to provide students with general operating procedures that give guidance in the many settings and interactions students encounter throughout the day. This is why many classroom behavioral expectations include some formulation of the golden rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” These types of open ended behavioral expectations are most beneficial to children because they require consideration, choice, and reflection on the part of the child.

Consideration, choice, and reflection operate in the cycle of developing and refining human behavior. The open ended behavioral expectations that we described above provide the opportunities that children need to continue the process of internalizing this orientation to their behavior.

 When making choices, the child must consider how they would want to be treated before acting (most of our youngsters are just in the beginning stages of developing this skill). The consideration of self in thinking about others is key to developing empathy and a sense of responsibility. As we have all seen with young children, the ability to control impulses is a skill that takes thousands of hours of practice (and an ocean of parent’s patience) to develop. Consideration is one of the underlying skills that supports the child’s ability to inhibit their impulses and make positive choices.

The notion of choice is key. Children (and adults) make thousands of choices every day and they are responsible for those choices. The concept of choice is often a difficult one for children to begin to grasp early on in their lives. You will often hear pre-school and primary age students say things like, “She made me do it.” Obviously this is not the case and supporting children in developing internal responsibility for the choices they make is an exercise that takes many years. Broad, open ended behavioral expectations provide opportunities for practice and learning.

Reflection is an integral element of the behavioral development and learning process. Helping children to reflect upon and consider the impact rather than the behavior is where the real learning lives. Asking a child to reflect on a poor choice is so important. Instead of demanding that a child share a toy, ask them “How would you feel if ______ chose not to share with you? How do you think you are making ______ feel when you choose not to share with them?”  Few children will intentionally choose to continue a behavior that is hurting another person. Having these discussions on the good side of the behavioral continuum is equally important as this builds confidence and engenders future success. “You chose to share your toy today! How does that make you feel? How do you think ________ feels because you shared?”


Establishing routines takes time, practice, and skill. For children to feel safe and secure, it is important that they experience a certain level of “order” and structure in their routine. It is equally important that these routines are consistent so that children know what to expect.  Many of our children already have some routines established at home; from brushing their teeth before bed or going to sleep at a set time, routines help our children develop important executive functioning skills that foster independence.

Developing independence builds confidence in children, and when children are confident in themselves, they are highly motivated to learn.  Teachers often involve children in the development of these routines and spend a significant portion of the early school days, helping children learn the routines for these reasons.

From learning how to enter school, going from their classroom to Specials, entering the cafeteria, exiting the cafeteria, going out to recess, discovering how to ask for the nurse or the bathroom, to learning silent signals and how to participate in class, or how to exit the building, children have so many routines to learn during the first few weeks of school!  Just think of how difficult it was to adjust to the new morning routine, to waking up early, getting ready and having breakfast.  Now they have more adjustments and more routines to learn!

During these first few weeks of school, these adjustments can be tiring for children.  The good news, however, is that when practiced over time, they benefit our children immensely.

Great start of school resources for families!


The start of school is always a time filled with anticipation, excitement, and (sometimes)anxiety. Parents and families often ask what they can do to provide information, reduce anxiety, and get the year off to a great start. Here are a few great resources to help out on that front.

Starting School from PBSParents

  • This is a great piece that covers many topics relating to supporting students through the start of school. It also includes links to more specific topics including separation anxiety, school transitions, food allergies, etc.

Homework: A Guide for Parents from The National Association of School Psychologists

  • This is a comprehensive article covering setting expectations, developing routines and supporting kids (and families) in developing healthy and effective homework behaviors.

16 Ways to Prep for School Separation Anxiety from

  • This piece is really helpful in thinking about and preparing for kiddos who might have some difficulty separating from their families during the start of school. The article offers concrete recommendations that families can put into play right away.

8 Ways You Can Build a Good Relationship With Your Child’s Teacher from The National Center for Learning Disabilities

  • This is a quick and easy read with simple advice for getting your relationship with your child’s teacher off on the right foot.

School Wide Positive Behavior Supports

maslowA successful learning environment is predicated on the idea that students feel safe and comfortable in their classroom and school. This is a sensible conclusion when you think about it. If a child is worried about something then chances are she is not completely focused on her work.

Abraham Maslow captured this concept in 1943 in a work called “A Theory of Human Motivation.”  Maslow’s work set forth the idea that all human beings are driven by a set of hierarchical needs and that higher level needs cannot be attended to until lower level needs are met. The first two levels are physiological and safety. Learning falls into a set of higher level cognitive needs. This theory is why we ask kids who are struggling if they got a good night’s sleep or if they had breakfast. These basic physiological needs have a significant impact on their learning.

Beyond physiological needs is the need for safety. The child needs to know that they are physically and emotionally safe before they are able to attend to learning. Providing a safe and predictable environment for 600 students who come to learn with over 75 adult faculty members creates a dynamic challenge for a school.

To meet this challenge Ben-Hem faculty and staff have developed and implemented a system of School Wide Positive Behavior Supports (SWPBS).  The SWPBS approach to school culture is predicated on the idea that human behavior is learned and, therefore, needs to be taught. It is the proactive approach to teaching positive behavioral expectations that separates SWPBS from traditional behavior management techniques.

The Open Circle program is one that families hear a lot about during curriculum nights and in teacher newsletters. The Open Circle program is Ben-Hem’s primary curriculum resource for teaching students what it means to be a friend and a student. The inter and intrapersonal skills developed through Open Circle are critical to ensuring our students are safe and successful in school. When programs like Open Circle are not used the social curriculum becomes the “hidden curriculum.” Open Circle supports our teachers in transferring this “hidden curriculum” into a clear and explicit trajectory of teaching and learning that provides the foundation of a positive school culture and climate.

Teaching is only the first step in this process. Instruction is most effective when the content and expectations are consistent from classroom to classroom and year to year. Stability and predictability are part of making sure those basic needs that Maslow described are met. To ensure that behavioral expectations are consistent in all classrooms and settings, our teachers use a common set of guiding principles when developing classroom rules. Providing fundamental principles ensures continuity of expectations while providing for flexibility in adapting rules and expectations to specific environments.

The social and emotional skills of our students are critically important to their success. Teaching and supporting the development of these skills and abilities is a high priority for Ben-Hem and one that we know ensures high levels of learning for our students. School Wide Positive Behavior Supports is an effective model that we implement to ensure this learning throughout the day and year. Let us know if you have any questions about social and emotional learning or School Wide Positive Behavior Supports.

Bus Assemblies at Ben-Hem

Rules for a safe and CAREing bus ride.

Riding the bus to and from school is a big responsibility for students. The ride to and from school is a great time to talk with friends and relax before and after a hard day’s work. It can also be a time when students behave in ways that do not seem so CAREing. To help our students understand our expectations for behavior on the bus, we hold bus assemblies during the first few weeks of school. During a bus assembly students from each bus join Mr. Kelly and Mr. Gatto in the cafeteria for a pretend bus ride. While we are on the ride in the

cafeteria, students sit on the bus, discuss the rules, and use hypothetical situations to apply the rules and solve common problems that arise on the bus. Some of those common problems are:

  • How to find a seat?
  • What to do if someone takes my seat?
  • What to do if someone is not being nice?
  • What to do if someone is not following the rules?

Mr. Gatto speaking to a bus full of Bobcats!

The CARE Challenge

Hello my name is Lola and I am in 3rd grade. Today I am here to tell you what I think about the CARE challenge. I think that it is a wonderful way for kids to learn  a bit about what CARE means and how to be a CAREing bobcat.I try to really say what I think is right to do if a kid finds him or her self in the same situation as a CARE challenge. When I write a CARE challenge I try to  really show ALL of my effort.I really think that being a bobcat  means showing all of the core values all the time. I am proud to be a bobcat and I know it.

Lola1 lola2

Thank You For All The Food!!


Thank you for all the donations we have received so far. We have collected 282 pieces of food. We have helped in Natick’s effort to feed the hungry in Natick. We hope our efforts to feed Natick succeed and a lot less people in Natick are hungry. We are really thankful that so many people are donating food and we  are so happy that so many families care about hunger in Natick. We also want to thank the families who donated Thanksgiving food. It helped make much more Thanksgivings in Natick. Thank you for reading this blog and thanks for the food.


Adam  and Jake

CAREing at Ben-Hem!

This morning I was holding the door and Mr. Kelly asked me to write a paper about what I was doing. I wrote the paper and then Mr. Kelly and I put it online for you to see.

Make sure you are being respectful. It is important to be respectful because other people will treat you the same way.

Thank you for reading my letter and getting inspired.

Laurel Sheehy
Grade 1, Ben-Hem