Exams aren’t the enemy

Exams Aren’t the Enemy, writes Talmadge Nardi, a high school English teacher, in The Atlantic.

We must continue to be passionate and skillful teachers of critical thinking, writing and reading. And we must also continue to test our students. I am convinced that the combination of the two is what leads my students to success.

Nardi teaches at the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR), a Boston charter school where three-quarters of students are black or Hispanic and a majority come from low-income families. The school ranks very high on the 10th-grade English MCAS, Massachusetts’ standardized exam.

I do virtually no explicit test preparation with my students. What I do instead is teach intensive reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to prepare them for my 11th and 12th-grade college-style seminars and beyond.

Since the MCAS is a handwritten test, she requires handwritten essays so students practice writing clearly and getting by without spellcheck. She also teaches them how to handle multiple-choice questions and how to much to write on essay questions. She reviews the plots and characters of books read in class so students will be prepared to write about a book for the long essay. But it doesn’t take much time and can be useful long after they’ve taken the MCAS, Nardi writes.

Part of college and career readiness is getting ready for exams. The MCAS, for example, is both a skill and an endurance test, and it prepares students to take tests of basic content knowledge–the kind of tests most professionals have to slog through to get to where they are. My students will have to take many such tests to gain access to professional fields like medicine, law, teaching and accounting.

Testing is Good for Teachers and Children, argues Matt Barnum on Dropout Nation. As a teacher, half of his evaluation was based on student performance on as many as five standardized assessments a year. “We knew where we stood in terms of performance, and so did our students,” he writes.

Testing helps students achieve mastery by making it possible to learn from mistakes, adds the editor. It also helps teachers and schools diagnose and address learning issues.

 

From cohorts to competency

Technology makes it much easier to personalize education through show what you know” promotion, concludes The Shift From Cohorts to Competency, a Digital Learning Network Smart Series paper.

The cohort model — children are grouped by age — moves on students who aren’t ready and holds back students who could excel, the authors write. ”A competency-based system frees up students to learn at their own pace and according to their own needs,” said Carri Schneider, one of the authors. “Competency education is the ultimate path to personalization.”

“No excuses’ students struggle in college

“No excuses” charter schools send most or all of their low-income, minority students to college. But do “no excuses” students graduate from college? In Education Next, Robert Pondiscio looks at what charter schools are doing to improve their graduates’ college graduation rates.

KIPP is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids.

Both KIPP and YES Prep track their graduates and report on how well they’re doing. One third of former KIPP middle schoolers have graduated college within six years — four times the average for disadvantaged students, but way below KIPP’s goals.

Black graduates of YES Prep average 1556 in reading, writing and math on the SAT, “far above the national average of 1273 for African Americans, and significantly higher than the 1500 national average for all students.” All graduates have passed at least one AP class. Less than 5 percent of YES Prep grads require remediation in college. Yet the six-year graduation rate is only 41 percent .

 “It wasn’t the academic piece that was holding our kids back,” notes senior director of college initiatives at YES Prep Donald Kamentz. “What we found hands down was it was the noncognitive piece—that tenacity, that grit—that allowed kids to harness those skills and persist when they faced difficulty.”

“What we’ve found with the ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘no excuses’ mentality is that it was very teacher-driven and less student-driven,” says Kametz, acknowledging this is a controversial line of thought in his own halls. A typical No Excuses approach might involve giving demerits or detention for missed assignments or turning in work that’s not “neat and complete.” Kamentz questions whether this tough-love approach helps create the self-advocacy in students they will need to be successful in college. “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college,” he says. “They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.’”

The no-excuses charters are trying to develop ways to strengthen students’ perseverance, “growth mindset” and grit. Some send  ”posses” of students to “right-match” colleges that provide mentoring to first-generation-to-college students. (I love Pondiscio’s phrase: “in helicopter parentis.”)

KIPP, which started with middle schools, is adding elementary and high schools to strengthen academic preparation. The network also is following its alumni through college to help them cope with academic and social challenges. Now there are 1,000 KIPP graduates in college. In a few years, there will be 10,000. KIPP hopes to raise the college graduation rate to 75 percent, as high as students from upper-income families. The short-term goal is a 50 percent graduation rate.

Lemov: How teachers get better

Doug Lemov’s new book, Practice Perfect,gives teachers (and others) “42 rules for getting better at getting better.” In an Amazon interview, Lemov and co-authors Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, call for practicing strengths, instead of focusing on weaknesses. It’s a myth that practice should stop when you achieve competence, they say.

What marks champions is their excellence at something—they may have weaknesses, but their strengths are honed and polished to the level of brilliance. The value of practice begins at mastery!

Practice has a reputation for being dull, but its “fun, exciting, and ideal for adults,” they believe.

“Educrats have long warned of the perils of rote and repetition,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee in an Education Gadfly review. ”But they’re wrong.”

Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, “based on thousands of hours spent observing outstanding teachers in action” argued that “great teaching requires the mastery of seemingly mundane but crucially important knowledge and skills,” Porter-Magee writes.

Practice Perfect‘s 42 rules “are simple, practical, and grounded in common sense, as well as respect for the practice and repetition that we need to help teachers (and students) achieve mastery.”

They also present a damning critique of the multi-billion dollar teacher professional-development industry. By shying away from skill repetition, most PD programs offer the equivalent of art-appreciation courses and then ask teachers to paint masterpieces.

Teachers need to hone their skills with one another — with coaching and feedback—before they try new skills in the classroom.

Math needs a revolution too

Math Needs a Revolution, Too, writes Barry Garelick in response to The Atlantic story, The Writing Revolution. He first encountered reform math when his daughter was in second grade.

. . . understanding takes precedence over procedure and process trumps content. In this world, memorization is looked down upon as “rote learning” and thus addition and subtraction facts are not drilled in the classroom–it’s something for students to learn at home. Inefficient methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing are taught in the belief that such methods expose the conceptual underpinning of what is happening during these operations. The standard (and efficient) methods for these operations are delayed sometimes until 4th and 5th grades, when students are deemed ready to learn procedural fluency.

Students are expected to “think like mathematicians” before acquiring the analytic tools necessary to do so, Garelick writes. Procedural skills are taught on a “just in time” basis.

Such a process may eliminate what the education establishment views as tedious “drill and kill” exercises, but it results in poor learning and lack of mastery. Students generally work in groups with teachers who “facilitate” rather than providing direct instruction.

As reform math has become the norm in K-6 classrooms, high school math teachers are trying to teach algebra to students who “do not know how to do simple mathematical procedures,” he writes.

In math, as in writing, learning the fundamentals may not be fun or engaging. It may require practice. But students who skip the basics rarely develop the ability to “think like mathematicians” or write like “authors.” They’re confused. And bored.

Self-paced math lab replaces remedial classes

Frustrated by high failure rates in remedial math classes, one community college now assigns all remedial students to a math lab, where they work at their own pace, moving on when they achieve mastery.

Free e-books may be a bad deal for tech-poor students, a community college dean writes.

A cheaper, faster, online degree

After a shaky start, Western Governors University — an accredited, low-cost, nonprofit online university — is helping working adults earn degrees quickly and cheaply. WGU degrees are based on mastery, not on “seat time,” enabling the average bachelor’s graduate to finish a degree in 30 months for about $15,000.

Also on Community College SpotlightWomen make up nearly half the community college faculty in science, math and technology fields.

Kansas City updates grade levels

Some school districts are returning to an old idea, AP reports. They’re grouping students by performance rather than age. The boldest experiment will start in Kansas City, Missouri schools this fall when 17,000 students will switch to the new system.

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Kansas City’s traditional public schools have seen enrollment fall by half as students move to suburbs or enroll in charter or private schools; 40 percent of schools are closing.  The district spent $2 billion in state desegregation case funds without raising test scores. Kansas City is desperate. Superintendent John Covington will start the new system in elementary schools.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”

In a Marzano Research Laboratory study of 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado and Florida, “researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.”

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school then failed a test the state requires for graduation.

Now, he said if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent.

Teachers love the new approach, Johnson says.