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.

 

Teaching to the (good) test is good

Teaching to the Test Is Good – if the test is good — writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

When he studied journalism at UCLA, students practiced writing news stories in a three-hour lab. The professor provided immediate feedback. Students practiced the skills needed to pass the final exam — and to work as reporters.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

As a speech teacher, he developed units based on speech tournament categories such as humorous interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses.

Gardner would prefer to use standardized tests only to diagnose problems, but that’s not going to happen, he writes. “Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material.” It’s the only to build public support for public schools, he concludes.

The risk of testing

In our zeal for accountability, we’re Assessing Ourselves To Death, writes Matthew Di Carlo in a characteristically thoughtful post on Shanker Blog.

To start with, “educational outcomes, such as graduation and test scores, are signals of or proxies for the traits that lead to success in life, not the cause of that success,” he writes. Pumping up graduation rates won’t improve students’ prospects — or the economy — unless they’ve actually learned the academic and non-cognitive skills employers associate with a high school diploma.

Our relentless focus on test scores has risks, Di Carlo writes. Test-based accountability “has a useful role to play, both for measuring performance and for incentivizing improvement (and, of course, the use of testing data for research purposes is critical),” but “we need to stop putting more and more faith in instruments that are not really designed to bear that burden.”

If we mold policy such that livelihoods depend on increasing scores, and we select and deselect people and institutions based on their ability to do so, then, over time, scores will most likely go up.

The question is what that will mean. A portion of this increase will reflect a concurrent improvement in useful skills and knowledge. But part of it will not (e.g., various forms of score inflation). To the degree the latter is the case, not only will it not help the students, but we will have more and more trouble knowing where we stand. Researchers will be less able to evaluate policies. We’ll end up celebrating and making decisions based on success that isn’t really success, and that’s worse than outright failure.

We need to balance “the power of measurement and incentives against the risks,” Di Carlo concludes.

‘Exemplary’ school taught only reading, math

A Dallas elementary school with “exemplary” math and reading scores taught no science or social studies to third graders, district officials charge. It was all reading and math all the time.  The music teacher taught math instead. Teachers were told to fabricate grades for students in courses they weren’t taught, reports the Dallas Morning News.

Field Elementary principal Roslyn Carter is on paid administrative leave for falsifying grades.

While the investigation has focused on third grade, other grades also may have been affected.

“I do not know of science being taught in 3rd or 4th grade,” school counselor Laura McMillin said in an e-mail to an investigator. “And I am unaware of social studies being taught at all.”

Third- and fifth-grade students who were failing certain classes were assigned to tutoring instead of enrichment classes such as music, art and P.E., the principal admitted. Ninety percent of third graders missed “specials” to prep for the state exam, a math coach said.

Once students had taken the state exam, teachers were allowed teach science, social studies and enrichment classes for the remaining three weeks of the school year.

To end cheating, open up tests

Instead of boosting security for test questions to prevent cheating, why not have open tests? asks Eric Hanushek on Education Next.

He proposes developing a very large bank of test questions that cover the entire curriculum from basic to advanced topics. All questions would be made public. Teachers could teach to the test, knowing they’re covering the entire curriculum. Critics could challenge test questions they think are misleading, irrelevant or otherwise inappropriate.

Then, move to computerized adaptive testing, where answers to an initial set of questions move the student to easier or more difficult items based on responses.  This testing permits accurate assessments at varying levels while lessening test burden from excessive questions that provide little information on individual student performance. Such assessments would not be limited to minimally proficient levels that are the focus of today’s tests, and thus they could provide useful information to districts that find current testing too easy.  Students would be given a random selection of questions, and the answers would go directly into the computer – bypassing the erasure checks, the comparison of responses with other students, and the like.

This is how the FAA tests applicants for a private pilot license, he writes. There are so many possible questions that it’s easier to learn the underlying concepts than to memorize all possible answers.

Students spend less time taking adaptive tests, because they’re not asked lots of too-easy or too-hard questions. Teachers get the results immediately.

Does Hanushek’s idea make sense?

 

 

Attack of the reading tests

Rachel Levy hoped to teach history and geography while developing her high school students’ reading and writing skills. But the principal of her inner-city D.C. school — pre-Rhee — told social studies teachers to spend one-fifth of class time teaching the reading test, Levy writes on Core Knowledge Blog.

Teachers were told to make a chart for each student showing how well he or she did on each skill, such as “context clues.”

Then I was supposed to target my lesson plans to teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses. . . . such instruction and data collection had to be documented in our lesson plan books and during classroom observations.

Teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses?

While testing doesn’t require such stupidities, few educators have the patience to rely on a “well-rounded and knowledge-rich curriculum” to raise scores gradually, Levy writes.

She tried to persuade colleagues that the way to raise test scores was to “teach content and have students read and write as much as possible.”  No one agreed.

Now raising three children, Levy blogs at All Things Education.

Update:  You need to know how to teach but you also need to know your subject very well, writes Michael Bromley, a social studies teacher who guest-blogged for Rick Hess on Ed Week.  “No matter the teaching strategy, if you don’t have something valid, interesting, and important to teach there will be no learning.”

In June, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report showing core historical illiteracy among American school children. In response, famed historian David McCullough told the Wall Street Journal, “People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively because they’re often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing.”

Wait a minute, there, David, hold on: modern pedagogy states that qualified, education-proficient teachers can teach anything, so long as the correct strategies for student engagement are followed. Isn’t that the problem? David replies, “You can’t love something you don’t know any more than you can love someone you don’t know.” Amen, brother . . .

If you don’t know the subject, your students won’t either, Bromley concludes.

Study: Tests lead to few learning gains

Test-based accountability systems have demonstrated little or no effect on learning and weak safeguards against “gaming” the system, concludes a National Academies of Science report.

A committee of education experts analyzed 15 test-based incentive programs, notes Education Week.  These included No Child Left Behind, test-based teacher incentive-pay systems in Texas, Chicago, Nashville and elsewhere, high school exit exams in various states, pay-for-scores programs for students in New York City and Coshocton, Ohio and experiments in teacher incentive-pay in India and student and teacher test incentives in Israel and Kenya.

On the whole, the panel found the accountability programs often used assessments too narrow to accurately measure progress on program goals and used rewards or sanctions not directly tied to the people whose behavior the programs wanted to change. Moreover, the programs often had insufficient safeguards and monitoring to prevent students or staff from simply gaming the system to produce high test scores disconnected from the learning the tests were meant to inspire.

Test-based accountability often encourages teaching test-taking strategies or drilling students who are closest to meeting the proficiency cut-score, the report found.

Accountability based on graduation rates encourages schools to push out unsuccessful students, so they can be counted as transfers rather than drop-outs.

High school exit exams have decreased graduation rates by 2 percentage points, the report estimated.

While school test scores have risen under NCLB, student achievement gains have been tiny on NAEP, which schools have no motivation to game.

Recruiting and training good teachers

We know teacher education needs radical changes, writes Deborah Loewenberg Ball in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Let’s do it.

First, let’s agree that teaching is about more than just being smart and knowing a subject, that it requires a set of skills that prospective teachers must be taught and should demonstrate before they take over a classroom. . . .

Second, let’s identify the set of skills that are fundamental to safe and responsible teaching. These should not be pedagogical generalities, such as “knowing learners” or “classroom management,” but specific, crucial skills, like being able to explain fractions in several different ways, or to gain and maintain the attention of a class, or to accurately and fluently diagnose specific student confusions. These should be the compact list of teaching practices that put children at risk when teachers cannot do them well enough. The work on this is well under way; the University of Michigan will have a draft of a score of such high-leverage practices available within a few months.

Many teachers and ed writers blogged about last week’s conference on recruiting and training good teachers organized by Carnegie and the Education Writers Association, including Manderson’s Bubble, EDLeaderNews, The Jose Vilson, Outside the Cave and Ed Beat.

Effective teachers know their students, wrote TeacherKen, who has more here.

Teach to the dreams, wrote TeacherManDC in his conference post.

Ms. No Neck will never be America’s Next Top Model if she cannot answer questions from Tyra Banks using proper English.   Mr. Pretty Boy will never hurdle his way into the Olympics if he continues to dodge whatever emotional challenges confront him.  The characters and ideas we encounter in literature and essays will help Ms. Bag Lady discard personal weight she should never have had to bear.  Crisp, succinct writing (and thinking) will assist Mr. Detective as he seeks to unravel, decipher, and defuse the turbulent racial history he inherited.

The fact that they know I expect each of them to pass the AP English Language exam in May is part of it, but not most of it.  The most-of-it part is that they expect it too.  I did not give them that; it was there all along.  Like the teachers I met on Friday, and the ones with which I share a  building, I just help them find the courage to dream the dream out loud–and then claim it.

Ariel Sacks suggested an excellent story idea for education writers:  Does innovative teaching lead to better test scores? There’s no need to teach to the test, one presenter argued. Teach well and students will test well.

Let’s hear from innovative teachers who see big gains in their students’ test scores but do not seem to “teach to the test”.  What populations do they work with?  What type of schools do they work in?  What do they focus their curriculum on, and to what do they attribute the success of their students on the test?  Are there things these teachers think are important to teach, but leave out, because they aren’t tested skills or content?  Where do “soft” skills like collaboration, self-reflection, creativity, and empathy figure into their classrooms and curriculum?

Let’s also hear from teachers who refuse to teach to the test and who may not see huge gains on test scores, but who have been deemed excellent, innovative teachers by other measures, such as National Board Certification, feedback by their colleagues, school leaders, students and parents.  What is their rationale for the choices they make regarding curriculum and teaching style?  What growth do they see in their students, and why don’t they think it’s being measured accurately or at all or by the standardized test?

A testing expert once told me that research had found that time spent teaching to the test is wasted. When teachers spend more time teaching writing, their students’ scores improve in both English Language Arts and math. Why would it help in math? Writing improves logic and thinking skills, he said.

Update: EWA reports on the conference on EdBeat.

Failure to educate

In her final year as a Boston public high school teacher, Junia Yearwood attended her first  graduation ceremony.  It was a charade, she writes in the Boston Globe.

I knew that most of my students who walked across the stage, amidst the cheers, whistles, camera flashes, and shout-outs from parents, family, and friends, were not functionally literate. They were unable to perform the minimum skills necessary to negotiate society: reading the local newspapers, filling out a job application, or following basic written instructions; even fewer had achieved empowering literacy enabling them to closely read, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate text.

However, they were all college bound — the ultimate goal of our school’s vision statement — clutching knapsacks stuffed with our symbols of academic success: multiple college acceptances, a high school diploma; an official transcript indicating they had passed the MCAS test and had met all graduation requirements; several glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors; and one compelling personal statement, their college essay.

Yearwood started as a 12th-grade English teacher in 1977 in Roxbury. Over the years, she saw the advent on tests, such as the MCAS.

Teachers, instructors, and administrators made the test the curriculum, taught to the test, drilled for the test, coached for the test, taught strategies to take the test, and gave generous rewards (pizza parties) for passing the test. Students practiced, studied for, and passed the test — but remained illiterate.

Students were given A’s and B’s “for passing in assignments (quality not a factor), for behaving well in class, for regular attendance, for completing homework assignments that were given a check mark but never read,” Yearwood writes.

Teachers were pressured to pass undeserving students so they could walk across the state at graduation. If necessary to produce a graduate, administrators found MCAS waivers, transferred students to a “special needs” category or put students in online “credit recovery.”

Last June, she attended graduation for the first time ” at the urgings of my students — the ones whose desire to learn, to become better readers and writers, and whose unrelenting hard work earned them a spot on the graduation list — and the admonition of a close friend who warned that my refusal to attend was an act of selfishness, of not thinking about my students who deserved the honor and respect signified by my presence.”

Yearwood appears in a 2008 Globe story about attempts to turn around English High in Jamaica Plain, where she taught for most of her career.  She gives a D- to a student who makes up missing work on the last day in hopes of walking across the stage to pick up a diploma.

China, Singapore are 'ugly models'

Americans should stop envying the education system in Singapore and China, argues Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosophy and law professor, in The New Republic. For any nation that aspires to remain a democracy, Singapore and China are ugly models, she argues.

Rote learning and teaching to the test are so common in Singapore and China that both nations are worried their graduates lack the “analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation,” Nussbaum writes.

In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”

The reforms haven’t been implemented: Teacher pay is  linked to test scores and teachers find it easier to “follow a formula.”

In both nations, there is no freedom to criticize the government or the political system.  Singapore’s citizenship education consists of analyzing why the government’s policy is correct, she writes.

Singapore and China aren’t producing the innovators their economies will need, Nussbaum argues. They suppress “imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.”

Nussbaum recommends South Korea and India for those looking for an Asian education model. I thought both put a lot of emphasis on tests.