Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

First grader’s report card has 40 grades

Forty grades on a first-grader’s report card is overwhelming, writes Dave Powell, a high school teacher turned education professor — and father — in Ed Week.

Students get “effort” grades of “excellent” (E), “good” (G), “satisfactory” (S), or “needs improvement” (NI) for art, library, music, and physical education.

They also get grades showing how they compare to “grade-level” students in these subjects plus math, science, reading and social studies: “above level,” “on level,” “developing,” “below level,” “met,” and “not evaluated.”

His son earned an “E” for effort in art, library and PE and a “G” in music. He’s “advanced” in art and PE, but only “proficient” in library and music.

In the academic subjects, effort doesn’t count.

These grades are a hodge-podge of all the other grades I already mentioned. Now, in addition to E, G, S, NI, ABV, ON, DEV, BLO, MET, and two others I forgot to mention—”medical” (M) and “not evaluated” (X)—we’ve got “advanced” (ADV), “proficient” (PRO), “basic” (BAS), and “below basic” (BEL) as choices.

. . . We’ve got 11 subjects being assessed in first grade, including “first grade work habits,” which are assessed in a class called homeroom. We’ve got 15 different grade options that can be assigned, in some combination, in these subjects. We’ve got two separate domains in some subjects (a course grade and an effort grade), and then we’ve got 17 different sub-skills that are being assessed in reading, writing, and listening alone. There are also 12 grades given in homeroom assessing those work habits.

According to the report card, his son is an advanced reader, yet lacks proficiency in reading strategies and oral retelling of stories. His writing skills are “basic,” yet he does well in the sub-categories such as “Spells Word Wall words correctly” and “Spells phonetically if correct spelling is not known.”

While the overall writing grade is on the “ADV-PRO-BAS-BEL” scale, sub-grades for writing are on the “E-G-S-NI” scale used for “effort grades” in the “non-academic” classes.

This is confusing, concludes Powell. And not terribly useful for parents.

Kids with one parent achieve less

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 Students from single-parent families do worse in math than students living with two parents in nearly all countries, but the single-parent achievement gap is especially large in the U.S., writes Ludger Woessmann in Education Next. U.S. children with a single parent are one grade level behind, on average. And the U.S. has a high percentage of one-parent families.

Adjusting for socioeconomic background, such as parental education and the number of books at home, narrows the gap. But it remains higher than the international average.

“It is possible to enhance family environments to improve the quality of parenting, nurturing, and stimulation, and thereby promote healthy child development, writes Woessmann, an economics professor at the University of Munich.

Nipple v. bottle at the playground

Can parents get along? Similac’s new ad on the “Sisterhood of Motherhood” shows a playground brawl with “strollers versus baby slings, breast-fed versus formula-fed, stay-at-home versus working mom, plus yoga moms, lesbian moms and stay-at-home dads,” reports AdWeek.

But when one of those stroller moms (who don’t care about bonding and cuddling with their baby, so they push their child away from them in a stroller instead of wearing them in a wholesome fashion) steps off to step up to the fight, the stroller goes tumbling down the hill. And all the parents go tumbling after.

It’s proving to be controversial.

Law tells parents to limit kids’ tech use

Taiwanese parents are required by law to limit their children’s use of technology to “reasonable” levels, reports Kabir Chibber on Quartz. What’s reasonable? The law doesn’t say. But it threatens to fine parents whose children become “physically or mentally” ill due to overuse of digital devices.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends a maximum of two hours a day of screen time for kids, found in a recent study that 8-year-olds in the U.S. spend an average of eight hours a day with some form of media—and many child-development psychologists urge more unstructured play time.

South Korea now regulates “online games and e-sports as if they were addictive substances,” writes Chibber.

Worried about addiction to online role-playing games, China limits online gamers to three hours of play at a time, reports BBC News. Games are set up to limit a game character’s ability if the player exceeds the three-hour limit.

Free-range mom aids anxious parents

On a new reality show called “World’s Worst Mom,” Lenore Skenazy, an advocate of “free-range parenting,” encourages anxious parents to let their children try new things. That includes a mother who spoon-feeds her 10-year-old son because she’s afraid he’ll choke. The show runs on Thursdays at 9 EST on the Discovery Life channel.

Why do some ideas take hold?

Dan Willingham’s five mini book reviews include a look at Jack Schneider’s book, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse. It asks “why do some ideas from academia gain influence among educators whereas others do not?”

Schneider names four key factors. For ideas to be influential, they must be compatible with teachers’ general philosophical orientation regarding childhood, they must seem of potential importance, there must be some hope of realistically acting on them in the classroom, and they must be transportable across contexts.

I think the first one is the key: People believe an idea because they want to believe it and ignore ideas that challenge their world view.

Willingham also likes The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber, which is subtitled “Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money.”

“I’m the parent Lieber targets in this book,” he writes. “I want my kids to have the values my wife and I share when it comes to money, but I don’t know how to impart them.”

How parents use Lego

Lego is the biggest toy company in the world, writes Jonathan Ringen on Fast Company. The Danish company has found “a clear distinction between American and European parents,” researcher Anne Flemmert-Jensen says.

American parents don’t like play experiences where they have to step in and help their kids a lot. They want their kids to be able to play by themselves. We see among European parents, it’s okay to sit on the floor and spend time with the kids.

The pink- and purple-accented Lego Friends, designed to attract girls, is designed for role playing, writes Ringen. By contrast, boys like a strong narrative. “Boy-focused lines like Ninjago and Legends of Chima . . .  come with almost comically detailed backstories,” he writes. Both boys and girls like to build.

Lego, you are dead to me, writes Molly Wood. Once kids “grew up happily constructing elaborate vehicles, castles, cities, and imaginary lands.” Now they’re asked to buy increasingly expensive sets.

Walking alone leads to child neglect scrutiny

The day before I started kindergarten, my mother walked me and my six-year-old sister to school and back as a practice run. After that, I walked with my sister or with other baby boomer kids. Nobody was escorted to school by a parent.

After school, we might play at school or in the park or explore the ravines. We had to be home for dinner.

The Meitiv children walk in their suburban neighborhood.

The Meitiv children walk in their neighborhood.

Maryland parents are being investigated for neglect after letting their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk home from the park, reports the Washington Post. It’s about a mile to their home in a safe suburb, say Danielle and Alexander Meitiv.

“We wouldn’t have let them do it if we didn’t think they were ready for it,” Danielle said.

On Dec. 20, someone saw the children walking without an adult and called the police, who drove them home and demanded the father produce ID. Raised in the Soviet Union, he refused, but gave in when six patrol cars rolled up at their house. He agreed to go upstairs for his ID, Danielle told Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids.

The officer said—in front of the kids—that if he came down with anything else, “shots would be fired.” She proceeded to follow him upstairs, and when he said she had no right to do so without a warrant, she insisted that she did.

“Don’t you realize how dangerous the world is?” an officer told the father. “Don’t you watch TV?”

Montgomery County Child Protective Services threatened to take the children away if the Meitivs stick to their “free-range” parenting philosophy, writes Danielle.

“The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely critical for their development — to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.”

“Parenthood is an exercise in risk management,” she said. “Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleep­over? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”

Child abductions are extremely rare, she points out. The children have been taught how to cross streets safely.

“I think what CPS considered neglect, we felt was an essential part of growing up and maturing,” Alexander said. “We feel we’re being bullied into a point of view about child-rearing that we strongly disagree with.”

CPS has demanded entry to the home without a warrant and interviewed the children at school while investigating the Meitivs for neglect. In November, CPS cited the parents for neglect for letting their kids play in the neighborhood park without supervision.

Both scientists, the Meitivs are educated, assertive, articulate and affluent. Call it Parenting While White. They’ve researched child neglect laws, which ban leaving young kids home alone but don’t say they can’t walk or play outside. They can afford a lawyer. And yet, they’re taking a risk by claiming their right to decide what’s best for their children.

Reading aloud linked to frequent reading

Only 31 percent of school-age children read for fun on most days, according to a new Scholastic report. That’s down from 37 percent four years ago. 

Frequent readers aged six to 11 are more likely to say their parents read aloud with them, even after they could read to themselves, notes the New York Times. Restrictions on online time also correlated with frequent reading for pleasure.

For children ages 12 to 17, “one of the largest predictors was whether they had time to read on their own during the school day.”

Children say reading aloud is a special bonding time with parents, said Kristen Harmeling, who worked on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ report urging parent to read to their children from birth.

Of course, children who love to read are generally immersed in households with lots of books and parents who like to read. So while parents who read to their children later in elementary school may encourage those children to become frequent readers on their own, such behavior can also result from “a whole constellation of other things that goes on in those families,” said Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a past president of the International Reading Association.

There is not yet strong research that connects reading aloud at older ages to improved reading comprehension. But some literacy experts said that when parents or teachers read aloud to children even after they can read themselves, the children can hear more complex words or stories than they might tackle themselves.

Other literacy experts say reading to children — or talking with them — helps develop background knowledge. “A two-minute conversation about something on television or something in a magazine or something that you’re reading yourself can also have some of the same positive effects as reading aloud,” said Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I disliked reading aloud — it’s so slow — and was pleased when my daughter learned to read books on her own. (She could read at the age of three and read fluently at four.)  However, we spent a lot of time discussing what she was reading, doing and thinking about, as well as talking about the larger world.

Here’s more on the Scholastic survey and kids picking the books they want to read, which may not be very challenging.