Authors: Testing kills love of reading

Testing kills children’s “love of reading,” according to a bunch of children’s authors and illustrators who signed Fair Test‘s open letter to President Obama. Judy Blume, Maya Angelou and Jules Feiffer are the big names.

. . . requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.

We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.

Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.

If children’s love of reading has declined in recent years, blame multimedia, responds Patrick Riccards in Are you there, God. It’s me, Eduflack.

Do we blame the bubble sheet, or do we blame the multitude of options now competing for a young learner’s attention?

Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of testing being blamed for all that is perceived wrong in our country.  . . . We ignore that testing has been a part of our public schools for as long as we’ve had public schools.  We overlook that testing data can play a meaningful role in improving both teaching and learning.  We avoid the true debate, a discussion about ensuring the value of testing and the use and application of high-quality assessments.

You know what really kills the love of reading? Not being able to read very well.

‘Listen’ to students who hate testing

Frustrated with test prep, Ankur Singh took time off from college talk to students, teachers and parents about the “dehumanizing” effect of standardized testing. Here’s the trailer for Listen.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: ”A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

New SAT aims to help low-income students

By focusing on what’s taught in school, the new SAT will help students who can’t afford test prep, writes Ilana Garon, a Bronx high school teacher.

The ACT has passed the SAT in popularity, notes Garon.

While both the current SAT and the ACT have Reading and Writing sections, the SAT currently focuses on vocabulary and more verbally complex reading passages, while the ACT does away with vocabulary definition questions in favor of questions about punctuation and a longer, more involved focus on writing mechanics. In the Reading section, the ACT features articles in four known categories (as opposed to the random selection offered on the SAT), as well as a Science section, which makes students analyze graphs. The Math section of the ACT more closely aligns with a high school math curriculum, while the SAT features some logic games, which are more similar to LSAT questions, and does not include trigonometry.

Students who are strong in math or visually oriented will do better on the ACT, while “verbal” students “may find the SAT plays to their strengths,” writes Garon.

One of the on-going problems with the current SAT is not that it is “harder” than the ACT (as some would argue) but the fact that, more than its rival, it focuses on material outside of the scope of a high school curriculum. For wealthier students, an SAT tutor becomes a mandatory accessory; for many poor students, this type of service is out of reach, leaving them to take a test that is disconnected from what they’re learning in their regular classes with only sparse opportunities for preparation

College Board plans to inform low-income achievers about scholarships and aid to pay their way to selective colleges. But raising college awareness may be less important than redesigning the test, concludes Garon.

I’m not optimistic that the new SAT will be an equalizer:  Students who go to academically strong schools will have a huge advantage.

Myths of the anti-testing backlash

Test haters have become myth makers, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Jennifer Borgioli on Gadfly.

The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

. . . research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers.

. . . Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to catch kids up and get them back on the path to success.

Testing also is blamed for “drill-and-kill” instruction that existed long before the testing-and-accountability era, they write.

All else being equal, the students who typically fare better on state tests are those whose teachers focus not on empty test-taking tricks but rather on content-rich and intellectually engaging curriculum.

Ironically, an anti-testing position paper by the Chicago Teachers Union showed test-prepping teachers’ students scored lower on the ACT than students who were given “intellectually demanding work.”

Standardized tests don’t measure “what really matters” in education, such as critical thinking or social and emotional skills, critics complain. No test can measure everything, concede Porter-Magee and Borgioli. But many skills can be evaluated.

Anti-testers argue that setting standards and aligning assessments to them doesn’t work because it’s not what the Finns do.

Our own history suggests that it is exactly the states that have set rigorous standards connected to strong accountability regimes—most notably, Massachusetts—that have seen the greatest gains for all students, not just our most disadvantaged.

Meaningful reform will “require the effective measurement of student achievement that tests make possible,” they conclude.

Testing first

New York schools will spend more days on testing and test prep than instruction in 2013-14, according to Students Last, a satire site.

New York State’s Education Commissioner John King (said):  ”We acknowledge that given the number of days for benchmark assessments, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, state tests, mid-terms, finals, exams for English Language Learners and those taking alternative assessments, unit tests, make-up days for those who were absent and given that teachers typically use the weeks before a high-stakes exam for test preparation, that for the first time in New York State history there are actually fewer instructional days than testing days.”

Asked if he saw anything wrong with requiring more testing than teaching, Commissioner King responded, “I don’t really give a crap. My children attend private school.”

The first comment is satire too. At least, I hope so.

Hard-working Asians ace admissions tests

Admission to New York City’s elite high schools is by test score only. Asian-Americans, who make up 14 percent of public school students, qualify for a majority of seats, reports the New York Times in Asians’ Success in High School Admissions Tests Seen as Issue by Some..

Civil rights groups complain low-income families can’t afford test prep. The city started free test prep programs for blacks and Hispanics, but was forced to open them to all students. Now 43 percent of participants come from Asian families.

Ting Shi, whose immigrant parents work long hours in a laundromat, used free test prep to qualify for Stuyvesant, the most elite high school. It’s 72 percent Asian, only 4 percent black and Hispanic.

In Asia, tests are “viewed not so much as measures of intelligence, but of industriousness,” students tell the Times.

Most of our parents don’t believe in ‘gifted,’ ” said Riyan Iqbal, 15, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, as he and his friends — of Bengali, Korean and Indian descent — meandered toward the subway from the Bronx High School of Science one recent afternoon. “It’s all about hard work.”

No student, they said, was off the hook. Riyan, the son of a taxi driver and a Duane Reade cashier, and his schoolmates said their parents routinely plied them with motivational tales about the trials they endured back home, walking to school barefoot, struggling with hunger, being set back by floods and political unrest. “You try to make up for their hardships,” Riyan said.

Story ends with Emmie Cheng, a Cambodian emigre, who runs a shoe importing company. She spent $2,000 this year on tutoring programs and prep classes for her daughter Kassidi.

Cheng’s “father and four brothers died of starvation during Cambodia’s civil war.” In the U.S., her mother worked in a garment factory.  “This is the easy part,” Cheng said.

Alfie Kohn’s message: Half-crazy, half-true

Alfie Kohn’s arguments are “half-crazy and half-true,” argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Like most demagogues, Kohn knows how to tap into his audience’s raw emotions—anger, feelings of powerlessness, and resentment of a ruling elite. In his case, he puts voice to what many educators already believe: That school reform is a corporate plot to turn young people into docile employees; that an obsession with standardized testing is crowding out any real intellectual engagement in our schools; and that teachers have no say over what happens inside their own classrooms.

Kohn is right about “mindless, soul-killing” schools, writes Petrilli, who concedes test-based accountability has narrowed the curriculum at many inner-city schools. But Kohn is wrong in calling for Dewey-style progressivism, Petrilli writes.

What Kohn refuses to wrestle with is the argument—made by Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch Jr., among others—that progressive education might work well for children of the affluent but tends to be disastrous for children of the poor.

Democratic decision-making, self-directed studies, internal motivation, and the like are wonderful aspirations. But when it comes to lifting children out of poverty, heavy doses of basic skills, rich content, and clear expectations have been proven time and again to be more effective.

The modern school reform movement is is fueled by “outrage at the nation’s lack of social mobility,” Petrilli writes. “Backing away from accountability, teacher effectiveness, and academic ‘rigor’ would likely create an even bleaker future for children growing up in poverty—children for whom school matters most.”

 

 

Chicago fails to close achievement gaps

After 16 years of school reform, Chicago’s “racial gaps in achievement have steadily increased,” according to a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.  White and Asian students are making more progress than Latinos; blacks are “falling behind all other groups.”

Some initiatives, such as closing underperforming schools, may have hurt students, Jean-Claude Brizard, the new superintendent, told the Chicago Tribune.

If school closings destabilized certain neighborhoods, other efforts were ineffective — millions of dollars pumped into countless after-school initiatives and tutoring and mentoring programs geared toward African-American students, only to see math and reading scores languish and many students fall further behind.

The percentage of black students meeting benchmarks on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test has grown at a faster rate than whites’ progress. But the consortium looked at average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  “NAEP scores don’t just look at a percentage of students that pass a certain cut of points. It talks about the average scores, so it’s a much better way to look at trends over time,” (researcher Marisa) de la Torre said.

Over the last 20 years, graduation rates in Chicago have improved dramatically, the study found. Math scores improved slightly in elementary and middle schools while reading scores “have remained fairly flat for two decades.”

NCLB stands for No Chance for Latinos and Blacks, writes Coach G, who began teacher inner-city Chicago students in 1993. Even in the pre-reform era, two years before Mayor Richard Daley took control of the city’s schools, there was pressure to raise reading and math scores, Coach G recalls.

No Child Left Behind increased pressure to replace “rich curriculum with test prep,” he writes. Schools cut back on teaching writing: In many schools, the three Rs were reduced to two.  Other responses:

  • providing tutoring and other individualized services for on-the-bubble students who were just short of a proficient score the previous year, while neglecting the most deficient and most advanced students
  • preventing students from taking advanced classes if the content wouldn’t be on the test
  • enabling students’ self-defeating behavior
  • holding teachers accountable for results without providing them the support they need to achieve those results

Years ago, a testing guru told me the most effective way to raise students test scores is to teach writing. It even works for math scores, he said. Filling in bubbles? A waste of time after the first five minutes, he said.

 

A good school leaves a few behind

Despite years of high scores without really trying, Oyster River Middle School is trying test prep to meet No Child Left Behind targets, writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. The school in a prosperous New Hampshire town “needs improvement” because some special ed students aren’t proficient on the state exam, he writes.

In September the school announced a new motto, “Fill the Box.” Students have been told that their best chance for a high score on the state English test is to use all the blank space allotted for the essay. “You have to write as much as you can,” says Jay Richard, the principal. “People have studied these things.”

Actually, writing well works too.

The school also makes sure students get a good night’s sleep and eat “brain food” before the state tests.

In hopes of raising reading scores, Principal Richard, a former special education teacher, has decided to pull special ed students from mainstream classes at times for individual instruction.

Will this be better or just different?

“I believe we can do better,” Mr. Richard said. “We have to. This is the law.”

OK, the principal thinks it’s better. Surely, that’s a good thing.

Under Arne Duncan’s waivers, schools wouldn’t need to focus as much on low-achieving subgroups, Winerip writes. Isn’t that a bad thing? Apparently not.

Winerip’s story shows why No Child Left Behind was necessary, responds Eduwonk. It’s easy to ignore special ed students (the school’s low-income students may be lagging too),  if nobody’s looking.  “What about the poor students or special education students there? Don’t they matter?”