PARCC Exams Start Next Week!!!

Next week, students will be taking the first round of new PARCC exams being administered in Maryland and in other states across the country. These tests are more closely aligned with the common core standards and are much more challenging than the High School Assessments (HSAs) for English and Math they are replacing. This is a good thing! To ensure that we are preparing students to be college and career ready, we need to know they can handle the level of material and the complexity of tasks they will be presented in the “real world.”

So you have more information about these assessments, I present to you my “Fast Five Facts about PARCC” and a bunch of resources you can peruse to learn more about the exams:


Students enrolled in English 10, Algebra I, and Algebra 2 are required to take the PARCC assessments. In fact, taking the English 10 and Algebra I exams is a graduation requirement for students enrolled in these courses for the first time. Passing the assessments will be required for students in the 2016-2017 school year.


No additional test prep is necessary. In many ways, the PARCC exams are more representative of classroom tasks than previous tests because they address more of the skills that students are learning. As a former English teacher, I thought it was crazy that the English HSA didn’t require any writing. The English 10 PARCC exam does!


There are two components of the PARCC exam for each subject: the performance-based assessment (PBA) and the summative assessment. The PBA schedule for March is:

3/3-Algebra I

3/4- Algebra 2

3/5- English 10

3/5- English 10

Students will take the summative assessment in April on the dates listed below:

4/21- Algebra 1

4/22- Algebra 2

4/23- English 10


Since the assessments are computer-based, students are assigned to testing locations around the school that are equipped with computers (computer lab, media center, classrooms). Their teachers will communicate specific testing locations and we will have posters in the front lobby just in case students forget.


Check out some of the links below.


The Official PARCC Website


Good luck to all the students testing. Even though no passing score is required, we still want every student to do his or her best! If you have any questions, feel free to email or call me!

Why Take the AP Exam?

Last week, students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses were invited to attend an information session about registration for the exams scheduled for May. We discussed the cost of the exams ($91/test), the deadlines for registration, and the process for submitting payment and forms, but the most important issue addressed was why students should take the exam (and not just the course).  As a follow up to that meeting, I offer to you the top five reasons to take AP exams:

  • You can earn college credits for passing scores on your exams. The exact number of credits awarded varies based on college/university and exam score, but for some students it can be quite significant. See who accepts your AP exam scores.
  • Even if your college/university doesn’t exempt you from taking a class, you may receive elective credits which help when it comes to registering for classes. Registration is based on number of credits, so having AP credits puts you ahead of other freshmen (and some sophomores depending on how many credits you earn).
  • You could qualify for an AP Scholar award depending on the number of exams you take and the scores you earn.
  • How well does your grade in the class indicate your readiness for college-level material? Wouldn’t it be nice to see how you stack up against the rest of the country? After all, they will be joining your college classes when you enroll.
  • Taking the AP courses helps you with college admissions. They like to see that you have taken the most rigorous course possible. Taking the AP exams helps River Hill High School. It is a great benchmark for us to be able to gauge how good a job we are doing preparing you to be college and career ready. We scratched your back with the course instruction, now it’s your turn to scratch our back by taking the exam.

If you missed the info session or want more specifics about AP exam registration, check your email (student services sent out info through Naviance) or check with your/your student’s counselor!

Mourning the Mixtape


As we head into Valentine’s Day weekend, I can’t help but reminisce about days gone by and what was always a go to gift on Valentine’s Day growing up—the mixtape. For the young people reading this, let me give you a quick education. Before there were playlists on iTunes and CDs made on home computers, people created mixtapes in their double cassette player boomboxes. It might sound a little antiquated, but let me tell you that the painstaking process of making the perfect mixtape was well worth the effort!

Mixtapes were a labor of love, not only for the time and detail to attention that went into creating them, but also because, quite frequently, they were made for the object of your affection. If you wanted a girl or guy to like you, you had to select the perfect songs. And it wasn’t just the content of the songs you had to plan for, but the length too. I always went for 90-minute mixes, so I was looking for a nice selection of 9-10 songs that filled side 1 and another 9-10 songs for side 2.

You had to allow for a few seconds between songs and, of course, you actually had to have the songs. When making a mixtape, you always gathered together your music collection, sometimes reaching out to a friend to borrow a few tracks you might not own. If you were really desperate to obtain the perfect song, you resorted to recording it off the radio, hoping that you could get a clean copy without the DJ talking over it. If all went well, you had a compilation of songs that told special someone just how you were feeling.

I started asking around yesterday about what students do now that equates with a mixtape and the results were disappointing to say the least. Texting, tweeting, and snapchat don’t really accomplish what a great mixtape did. There’s no tangible gift to look at, listen to (over and over again), and interpret hidden meaning in. There’s not a lot of time and effort put into social media messages. There’s just no matching what we had with the mixtapes back in the day. It is truly sad that youth today will never know the joy of making or receiving a mixtape.

I was joking around with a teacher about creating a mixtape app, but discovered that someone (actually a lot of people) had already beat me to it. Some have a mock up of a boombox and the ability to add songs to each “side.” Other apps offer the creator the option to add artwork to the cassette case. I’m still looking for the app that allows the user to share the mixtape with someone—that’s the best part! So what’s on your Valentine’s Day Mixtape?

Meet the Big 3!

“He was the last man on the bench all season. He was the last man on the bench the previous season. He was the last man on the bench the year before that. In his career, he’s played 31 minutes. He’s scored two points. But he stayed. On a team with future NBA draft picks, he’s the one who’s ordinary.”

—Michael Graff, writing about former Maryland Basketball player Earl Badu

You probably don’t recognize the name Earl Badu, but you may have heard of some of his Terrapin teammates like Chris Wilcox, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake, or Juan Dixon. While these guys were featured prominently on the 2002 National Championship team, Earl Badu is known more for being a fan favorite at Cole Field House.

On many occasions when the win had been secured, the Terrapin section called out for their man to sub in…Baduuuuu! He certainly didn’t get a lot of playing time, but he made every minute count and made a lot of people happy just by entering the game. In a tragic turn of events, Badu took his own life in 2012, but he will always be remembered as the 5’9” guard from Ghana who captured the hearts of faithful fans at Cole Field House.

At River Hill this year, the boys basketball team has its own version of Earl Badu in a group of juniors who call themselves “the Big 3.” I sat down with Tim French, Danny Isaac, and Ciande Ndiritu this week to learn more about who these guys are and what they are all about. Check out my mini-interview below:

The Big 3 from Nick Novak on Vimeo.

My New Mantra

I had a lot of fun yesterday when we were off from school for a snow day. I wasn’t at home playing video games. I wasn’t outside sledding. I was at work…and on Twitter. To help pass the time, I decided to create a little River Hill trivia contest and run it through social media. Over the course of the day, I got to talk to three different students on the phone when they called in with a response, tweeted with current students, alumni, and staff members, and ultimately had a blast doing it. I mean, how can you not enjoy posting Dikembe Mutombo pics?

Why can’t work be enjoyable? Why can’t school be enjoyable? This year, my mantra has been “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Every day, I am looking for ways to have a good time. Maybe it’s visiting a classroom and seeing a cool lesson or having a deep conversation with a student or a teacher about the latest Dr. Who episode. Perhaps I have the chance to sit in on a lecture and learn something new or hear a sneak preview of the big finale piece for the upcoming concert. Some of the normal aspects of my job really do give me great pleasure (I’m kind of sick like that). I love talking to parents about the awesome things happening at River Hill; I derive great satisfaction from developing solutions to problems at the school; and I could spend hours in a midyear conference with a teacher talking about the innovative activities he/she has designed to promote student learning.

My “work” is trying to make it a great day to be a Hawk. I am usually successful in making that a reality for myself, but my true goal is for students and staff to feel the same way as I do. I remember when we used to give the HCPSS climate survey to students every year and one particular question always stood out to me–“I like going to school.” This question, above any other, was probably the most important question on the survey. If students don’t enjoy their classes, if they don’t like at least one teacher or staff member at the school, then all of our efforts are for naught.

We need to make sure that students are enjoying themselves, that they are having a chance at least once, hopefully more than once a day, to HAVE FUN! And that is only possible if we all commit to it. If you’re a teacher reading this, think about what is fun about your job and do it everyday. If you’re a parent reading this, encourage your child to think about what is fun about school and do it everyday. And if you’re a student reading this, think about what is fun about school and do it everyday. Just remember–if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!

The 21st Century Pen Pal

“Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance – or soon, even language.”

–Thomas Friedman

When I was in 4th grade, my teacher thought it would be great to learn about world geography by assigning everyone pen pals from countries like Norway, China, and Mexico. I remember my excitement every time I found a letter from my pen pal Octavio in the mailbox and getting a chance to read about his sister’s quinceañera and holidays like Dia de los Muertos.

Fast forward to the 21st century and correspondence between students in different countries is more conveniently handled through email or better yet through video conferencing programs like Skype or Google Hangout. One of the first uses of Skype I remember seeing at River Hill was when social studies teacher Callie Casper connected with a class in Australia so students could discuss voting laws in the country. As she recalls, “my students were able to have direct contact and dialogue with students in Australia about politics and voting. It was so much more real than me just saying, ‘In Australia voting is a requirement’. They got to ask students about what that meant in their culture and the impact.

Mrs. Casper’s class did this several years ago, so Skype was still relatively new and River Hill didn’t have wireless at the time. Our computers here did have that ability, so Casper’s students had to bring their laptops with cameras and hardwire into the internet. Also, because they were skyping with a class on the other side of the world, they had to work out the timing. As expected, her students loved it. The teacher in Australia arranged with the RSPCA to bring a baby wallaby to school and they brought it around to each camera so the students could see it.

After Callie Casper broke the ice, many teachers have followed in her footsteps to include videoconferencing as a regular part of instruction. I checked with our teachers this year about what they were using Skype and Google Hangout for and here’s what they said:

Business- Teresa Waters and Michael Ahr did a Skype session with the founder and owner of TV Talk for Teresa’s entrepreneurship class last year. It’s on YouTube:

Career and Research Development-Just last week Angela Johnson and Katie Noecker skyped with a former River Hill student who is now doing contract work with Google. Students had a chance to discuss her education and career path.

Computer Science-Team Rocket, River Hill’s Zero Robotics tean, used Google Hangout to have several long meetings during class with their alliance teams in both Spain and Italy. They also communicated using shared Google docs, Google Chat, a private Facebook group and email. They discussed strategies, and shared code with each other. The last few minutes before the deadline they were in the classroom at 5:00 chatting with Italy and speaking to two kids from home on various platforms.

English-Kristin Mitchell’s students used Google Hangout to discuss their Enterprise in Literature project with personnel at the Ayn Rand institute. This is a cross-curricular project that Teresa Waters’ Marketing class and Kristin’s Leadership class are working on.

English- Rachael Schultz used Skype to give her students an opportunity to talk to a climber who had scaled Mt. Kiliminjaro. As one of her students indicated, “It gave more insight than just reading the book (Into Thin Air)—a personal account was helpful and easier to relate to.”

English- Lin Storey is trying to promote connections between her students and professionals throughout the nation. Because of the expense for travel and lodging, it is often impossible for writers to visit River Hill. Therefore, skyping is the perfect alternative. Students really enjoy this experience. Ms. Storey makes sure they have well-prepared questions and get to practice their speaking and listening skills.

Journalism-During Dave Vitalgliano’s podcast projects, the students connect/discuss via Skype while recording the conversation with other software.

Math- Roger Demaree uses neither Skype nor Google Hangout; however, he does use videoconferencing for daily instruction. As the teacher of the county’s digital learning differential equations course, Mr. Demaree connects online with students from around the county who watch Mr. Demaree’s class online and participate virtually through their computers.

Music-Richard McCready used Skype so he didn’t have to travel to give a lecture. This saved UMiami a lot of money, and him a lot of time. He was able to use the front and rear facing cameras to switch between a view of him talking to the students and views of computers with student examples.

One Book, One River Hill- English instructional team leader Diane Curry set up a Skype session with Gene Yang, the author of American Born Chinese. Student and staff got to hear first-hand about the choices they made while writing the graphic novel.

Spanish-Norda Hodgson-Clopein’s Spanish 5 AST students skyped with the AP students at Archbishop Spalding High School last year.

Theater Arts-Pam Land’s theater arts class was able to hear from an expert in the field who was not able to come to us, nor were we able to come to him. Students asked questions in real time and the guest speaker was able to walk us through the set he was working on. They loved it. It was like going on a field trip, but we never left the classroom.

Countless other teachers indicated they were planning on using Skype or Google Hangout later this year. How fantastic that so many people are incorporating this great technology into their lessons? What once seemed impossible is now just a normal aspect of 21st century teaching and learning!

Course Registration for 2015-2016

Student schedule requests for the 2015-2016 school year are being collected today and throughout the week. However, counselors will be meeting with each student and there is still time to make changes. Please read the following Words of Wisdom from the Student Services Department:

1) Make sure the courses you select help meet graduation requirements? You need to fulfill your fine arts, technology, and “program choice” completer requirement. Check these courses off of your four-year plan.

2) Pick courses that match your interests. Take courses that excite you; don’t take courses solely for the purpose of building a competitive transcript. Which course would you rather be in—the one you WANT to be in or the one you HAVE to be in?

3) Think about what college majors or careers you are interested in exploring and select courses that are best-suited to meet your goals. Also, look at the career academies. There are many great career programs offered here at River Hill and over at the Applications Research Laboratory.

4) Teachers put a great deal of thought into recommendations; if you do not agree with the recommendation please speak with the teacher. Making recommendations in January can be difficult, but teachers will often revisit recommendations later in the year if your grades, work ethic, etc improve in the second semester.

5) Take full advantage of the knowledge and help of your school counselor. He or she knows what college admissions officers are looking for as well as what the expectations are for the courses you may be interested in. Having a discussion NOW about the courses that might help prepare you for Pre-Law programs is better than waiting until next school year when you might not be able to change your schedule.

6) Take the most rigorous courses you can handle while maintaining an A or B average. Colleges and universities do like to see Honors, GT, and AP courses on your transcript, but not when you’re earning C’s or D’s. Push yourself, but be sure not to get in over your head.

7) Remember the amount of time you spend doing extracurricular and social activities when determining the rigor of your courses. Use the homework minutes sheet as a guide for planning your course selection. You might want to take four AP classes, but do you have the time in your after school schedule to complete at least two hours of homework just for those classes. Start with your bedtime (hopefully no later than 11pm), then subtract 2:30pm (end of the school day). That’s the time you have to work with. When you factor in dinner time, practices, activities, etc, you’ll be left with how much time you can dedicate to homework.

8) Make sure there is balance in your course selection. Take at least one “fun” course. If your schedule is filled with rigorous, homework heavy classes, you will most likely struggle at some point. Pick a class or two that is fun, lighter on the homework, and something you’re interested in. You might consider being a peer assistant or a student aide.

9) Although graduation requirements state that students must take two years of world languages at the high school level, most colleges prefer students to complete at least level 3 of a world language. If you start with level 1 in high school, you should also take levels 2 and 3.

10) Every student applying to college should attempt at least one AP course. The best way to prepare for the rigor of college is to see what the expectations are now. You don’t need to load up on APs if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, but find the area you are strongest in and push yourself in that content area.

Let’s Make Snow Days E-Learning Days

From Yeterday's Snow in DC! Thank goodness HCPSS closed schools!

From Yeterday’s Snow in DC! Thank goodness HCPSS closed schools!

Schools across Maryland, including Howard County, were closed on Tuesday January 6th, so we will have an additional day to make up…in June. Let’s be honest-nobody is looking forward to that (except maybe the seniors who celebrate each snow day as a day they won’t have to make up). And, if we’re being honest, let’s recognize that a day in June doesn’t really help that much. A student may be reading The Great Gatsby this week, but will probably be preparing for finals in June. An extra day to review doesn’t help much-what the student and teacher needs is more time for Gatsby.

Now you may say, why not just shift everything back a day? Okay, yes that does work when it’s just ONE day, but what happens when there are multiple days lost for inclement weather? Interrupting the continuity of a unit plan is extremely frustrating and days missed can’t always be added back at a later date. Invariably, things get cut out of the curriculum and students end up missing out. In some cases, such as AP courses for which the exam date is fixed, adding dates later in the year doesn’t help because those lessons and course content are needed before the exam not after it.

Many teachers have already started getting students accustomed to checking the class website or Edmodo page on snow days so they can keep up with class activities. Wouldn’t it be nice if the work that students and teachers were doing on these days “off” actually counted? I think it’s time that we scrapped snow days in favor of E-Learning days. I’ve mentioned the concept through various venues–coffee with the principal, PTSA meetings, I may have even wrote about it in a previous post. The idea is really taking off in districts across the United States; check out what’s happening out in Indiana.

We have some work to do as a county to ensure that all students have access to the internet and a device, but with a new learning management system on the way, the time is coming when we can sit at home and sing “Let It Snow” as we meet up in virtual classrooms. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!

PSAT Results Are In . . . Now What?


It’s been a couple of months since students took the PSAT, but results just came in this week. Students received their reports on Monday and now the questions from both students and parents begin. Whether you/your student is a sophomore or a junior (or perhaps one of the freshmen who tested), you’re probably wondering what should I do now? Here are some helpful hints you might want to consider:

* If you want more information about understanding your PSAT results, HCPSS is holding info nights on January 13th (Wilde Lake HS) and January 14th (Marriotts Ridge HS). Both sessions begin at 7pm. You are also welcome to talk to your/your child’s counselor about the results.

* PSAT scores are fairly good predictors for performance on the SAT. Juniors should register for a Spring administration of the SAT, especially if they did pretty well on the PSAT.

* Don’t take the SAT before you prepare in some way. PSAT score reports include answers to questions and categories of questions missed. Use this information in conjunction with the My College Quickstart program (address on score report) to develop a plan of action for addressing areas for improvement.

*Scores could reveal the need for additional test prep classes. Options through River Hill include after school or Saturday classes sponsored by the PTSA or a year long for credit course students can take during the school day.

* Score reports include information about AP Potential. Based on your PSAT scores, you could be a good candidate to enroll in one or more AP courses at River Hill. Take a look at the courses that are recommended and discuss your options with your teachers and your counselor. They will help you select courses that challenge you without overwhelming you.

* Sophomores who scored at the highest levels of performance may be invited to participate in a special PSAT prep course over the summer. This program helps improve students’ chances of qualifying as a National Merit Semifinalist in their junior year. Counselors will inform students whose scores qualify them for this summer program.

* Juniors who scored at the highest levels of performance may qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist, depending on the Selection Index for this administration. Notification won’t take place until the Fall of your senior year.

If you have any questions about this topic or any other, feel free to shoot me an email at!

Finding Our Place in the World

When it comes to academics, we’ve seen River Hill standout in county rankings. We’ve fared pretty well in State rankings too. In National comparisons, River Hill has managed to make a name for itself in publications like Newsweek and US News and World Report. But how well do we stack up on the international stage? That’s the question HCPSS sought to answer when it signed on to administer the OECD test for schools last year (actually HCPSS was interested in all 12 high schools, but I’m just focused on our results).

As Dr. Foose wrote on her blog, she:

“decided to implement the OECD test at Howard County because we want our graduates to have a competitive edge, not just in the United States, but globally. This test provides the first real opportunity for individual schools to compare their performance against that of the PISA-ranked nations.  The results give us meaningful feedback about how well we are preparing our students in reading, math, and science as compared to their peers in Korea, Finland, and other world-leaders in education.”

What a great decision that was because, as a result of the test, we have copious data about students’ proficiency in reading, math, and science. Let’s explore how River Hill did by taking a look at the data shared on the HCPSS website.

On the reading section of the exam, River Hill students earned a mean score of 548, which places them behind Shanghai-China, but ahead of Korea, Finland, Hong Kong-China, and many other successful countries. As the chart below illustrates, 20% of our test takers scored at level 5 proficiency, which is considered “world class” for PISA comparisons. In the United States, only 10% of test takers score at level 5 or 6. Although more than half of the test takers scored at level 4 or above, 10% of students were below the level 2 threshold which PISA considers to be a baseline level of proficiency. Clearly, there is work to be done.

Reading Proficiency

Reading Proficiency

A mean score of 574 for the math section puts River Hill once again behind Shanghai-China, but ahead of Asian powerhouses Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei. The proficiency level breakdown is pretty impressive here as 40% of student test takers reached either level 5 or level 6 proficiency. For the 2009 PISA administration, only 10% of students in the United States reached that “world-class” threshold. Only 6% of River Hill test takers were below level 2 proficiency, which is less than the national average, but still not where we want to be.

Math Proficiency

Math Proficiency

Finally, for the science section of the exam, River Hill’s mean score of 562 places us ahead of Finland, Hong Kong-China, and Singapore, but behind…you guessed it, Shanghai-China. 17% of River Hill students reached level 5 proficiency and another 37% were at level 4. Once again, River Hill outpaced the US score of 9% of students at level 5 or 6. Only 4% of students were below the level 2 threshold, which is the lowest percentage for any subsection, but is nevertheless an area we want to improve on.

Science Proficiency

Science Proficiency

Today, I had an opportunity to work with all of the middle school and high school principals in a workshop to dig deeper into our data and explore high-leverage strategies we might implement to improve our school’s performance. One of the observations that consistently came up was how much we have already seen instruction change over the last few years. Teachers are working extremely hard to incorporate the State’s college and career ready standards into the daily instruction. In addition, class activities are more student-centered with greater emphasis given to using evidence to support assertions and connect to real world problems/scenarios. Middle school students are already starting to engage in the type of complex and challenging tasks that they will eventually encounter on the PARCC exam, SAT, AP, and the OECD test for high schools. The future is certainly bright and I look forward to seeing how we do next time around.


For more information, check out the following websites:

America Achieves