Test more, not less

Testing is under attack, but the solution is more testing, not less, argue Russ Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

New Common Core tests demand more of students, pushing down proficiency rates even in suburban schools, they write. That’s accelerated the push to test only in a few grade levels.

Linda Darling-Hammond, who advised one the consortia developing the new tests, recommends three tests — once in elementary, middle and high school — while still breaking out scores for “vulnerable” groups.

Her proposal would end value-added evaluation of teachers and schools, they write.

. . .  value-added calculations at the teacher level depend on the difference between the test scores of a teacher’s students at the end of the school year and the test scores of those same students at the end of the previous school year.  The annual gain in test scores of the teacher’s students, with some additional statistical information, is the teacher’s value-added.  

. . . Value-added can’t be calculated for many teachers as it is, but in the tested grades and subjects in which it can be estimated, it provides an important point of validation for other more widely deployed measures such as classroom observations. It is also the basis for calculating the school’s value-added, e.g., the test score gains between 3rd and 5th grade for all the students attending a particular elementary school relative to the gains in other elementary schools.

The fewer kids who are tested the more unreliable the scores: Testing at only one grade level “makes results nearly meaningless,” especially for the “vulnerable” subgroups, Whitehurst and Lindquist conclude.

Testing more is the answer, they write.

Consider what would happen to the pervasive test-prep sessions that consume weeks of class time in many schools leading up to the end-of-the-year test if students, instead, spent an hour or so monthly being tested on content drawn from their lessons in the previous few weeks.   Under this scenario the high stakes tests blend into the tests and quizzes that good teachers have always given their students regularly, and that research shows without a doubt increase student learning.

Monthly tests (on computers, I assume) would give teachers feedback in time to adapt their teaching.

Chicago school rations bathroom visits

A Chicago elementary school, facing closure for low test scores, is rationing bathroom visits, reports Anthony Cody in his Ed Week Teacher blog. Here’s the memo sent to teachers:

Dear Faculty,

Welcome back and Happy New Year! In order to maximize student learning and reduce the loss of instructional time, we are implementing two new restroom policies.

1. Designated Restroom Times – Take your class to use the restroom only during your allotted time so that multiple groups of students are not competing to use the facilities. Also, the expectation is that the restroom break should last only five minutes. Before leaving for the restroom, clearly communicate the behavioral expectations and the time limit. Use your watch or stopwatch to time the students and praise them when they meet the behavior and time expectations. . . .

2. Restroom Passes – In addition to scheduled restroom breaks, students will be given restroom passes to use if they need to use the restroom outside of the scheduled time. Students will be given two restroom passes to use between now and the end of the quarter. They can choose to hold on to them and trade them in for a reward at the end of the quarter. 

. . . Have students fill in their names as soon as they receive them. Passes are invalid if names are crossed out for another name.

For the upper grades, students can use one teacher’s pass in another classroom, but they still only get the same number of passes per quarter.

Use a class roster to have student initial next to their name to indicate that they received the passes.

Have students fill in the “time out” and “time in” and then turn the pass in to the teacher when finished. This will help them practice the CCS of telling time with both digital and analog clocks.

This micromanagement shows “intense pressure to raise test scores,” writes Cody. He provides another memo with bulletin board guidelines.  

Bulletin Boards should reflect the academic rigor and the differentiated instruction of the Common Core State Standards that are taking place in the classroom and school.  Bulletin board work should . . . be attractive, stimulating learning stimuli — not mere decoration.  No worksheets are allowed and avoid commercial materials.  In addition, each bulletin board must have an “I Can” statement in student-friendly language, rubric, specific feedback, title, and a brief (2-3 sentences) description of the activity that took place to produce the work.  Classroom bulletin boards should have current work (nothing past 2 weeks).

One wonders: Why is there so much teacher turnover? (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

My very large high school locked most of the restrooms to prevent smoking. (Teachers had rebelled against restroom patrol duty.) I learned planning and self-control.

Test prep can prevent remediation

Some community college students who fail placement tests don’t really need remedial classes, researchers say. Colleges should tell students their scores matter and give everyone a practice test, they recommend.

Duncan disses ‘white suburban moms’

Why the resistance to Common Core standards? “White suburban moms are learning “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told state superintendents Friday.

That’s annoyed Common Core critics.

Duncan believes the alternative is to say, “Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better,” said aide Massie Ritsch in an e-mail to the Washington Post. 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, back the Core, but slammed the rollout:  “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.

Arne Duncan is right, says RiShawn Biddle, a strong Core supporter.

A worksheet for kindergarteners on how to fill in test bubbles –don’t color the pictures! — is for sale on TeachersPayTeachers.com, reports EAG News. Maggie’s Kindergarten charges $5 per download for the test prep practice sheets, which cover Common Core (and non-Core) skills.

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.