Theory and Practice

The New Tests

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Can you tell my daughter lives in a home with educators as parents?

Everything you have ever wanted, is on the other side of fear. – George Addair

‘The good teachers are starting to leave’ by Valerie Strauss (The Washington Post, February 27, 2015)

Strauss, a reporter and a former teacher, posts a letter that a high school English teacher wrote to the incoming state superintendent in Georgia. Susan Barber has a positive outlook as a teacher, now seven years into her career. Yet she cannot help but feel disillusioned by the massive amount of testing required of her students. “If I am going to be measured on how well my students read and write, I need more time to teach them to read and write.” She is equally baffled by the amount of money being dumped into an education initiative that has no effect on learning. “Students do not directly benefit from testing, yet that is where the money goes.”

Testing is Biggest Moneymaker for Education Technology Vendors by David Nagel (T|H|E Magazine, February 24, 2015)

A report from the Software and Information Industry Association found that “vendors and publishers raked in $2.5 billion on digital assessment products in the United States in the 2012-2013 school year.” Language arts and mathematics, which happen to be the two topics tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA), were the largest subjects of software purchased.

PARCC Tests and Readability: A Close Look by Russ Walsh (Russ on Reading, February 8, 2015)

Walsh, the coordinator of college reading at Rider University, examines the text complexity of the other widely-used new standardized test, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). He notes that Lexile levels were raised at the request of the authors of the Common Core State Standards. Walsh then uses a battery of reading assessment tools to determine the grade level for each test. The result: Reading passages on the PARCC were “about two grade levels above the readability of the grade and age of the children by measures other than the Lexile level.”

ASCD Testing and Accountability Statement

In a short position paper, accompanied by a brief video explanation, one of the most respected education organizations calls for a two year moratorium on standardized assessments. The organization’s rationale includes “over testing, a narrowing of the curriculum, and a de-emphasis of untested subjects and concepts—the arts, civics, and social and emotional skills, among many others—that are just as important to a student’s development and long-term success.” ASCD also makes a point to separate the Common Core State Standards from “this antiquated accountability system.”

Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing by Christopher Chase (Creative by Nature, February 21, 2015)

This post is a summarized interview with the well-known American linguist and author. Chomsky abhors the focus on competition with standardized assessments because of how it distorts instruction. “The student can’t pursue things, maybe some kid is interested in something, can’t do it because you got to memorize something for this test tomorrow. And the teacher’s future depends on it, as well as the student.” He notes how his own children were subjected to these types of comparisons, separating classmates into high and low level ability groups. Chomsky concludes this interview with a statement that gave me a pause.

All of the mechanisms – testing, assessing, evaluating, measuring – the force people to develop those characteristics… These ideas and concepts have consequences…

No quarter

Normally in these posts, I attempt to analyze the five articles and posts summarized and examine the grey areas of the topic.

But this is not a normal situation. Consider:

  • We are asking eight years olds to take a test that, for many of them, is two grades above their reading level.
  • The tool being used to deliver the test, a computer, gives an additional advantage to kids of more affluent families, because they are more likely to have access to a computer in their homes.
  • The reading for these tests is on a screen that has worse resolution than print, eReaders, and tablets.
  • These tests will take literally days to complete, which ties up the computer lab, which results in other classrooms not being able to use the lab for more important learning activities. (And if your lab is located in your LMC like mine is, kids may not be able to go in and check out books.)
  • The Smarter Balanced Assessment recommends that kids take these tests for 45 minutes at a time, even though eye strain can occur within just 20 minutes of staring at a screen.
  • In spite of the incredible amount of money flowing into these testing companies, their software is subpar. For example, students have to press an “answer box” before actually inputting solutions to math problems. As for the reading portion, the user cannot annotate the text, or even copy and paste parts of the text into their responses. Maybe Diigo should have created these tests (a free tool I use to pull together these articles).
  • What gets tested is what gets taught. Tying teacher evaluations to the results of these assessments helps ensure that the curriculum delivered is narrowed to primarily the core subjects. Creativity declines because the assumption that there is always one right answer to a problem gets reinforced with these tests.
  • Teaching to the test leads to a decline in staff morale, which can result in teachers leaving the profession.

I could go on and on. However, I doubt I am sharing anything readers don’t already know, or at least suspect. Still, I think this information needs to be shared over and over again. Advocacy is an essential part of school leadership. As I recently stated in my post yesterday, “To not advocate is to concede our authority as the experts in our profession.” We are in the right on this one. There is nothing to be afraid of.

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Theory and Practice

Risk and Reward

“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.” – Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford University graduation speech, about being fired from Apple

My wife and daughter ride a zip line across my physical education teacher’s pond.

High-achieving teacher sues state over evaluation labeling her “ineffective” by Valerie Strauss (Washington Post, October 31, 2014)

A New York City educator with an impeccable teaching record was recently given a low rating by the state’s evaluation system. The reason for the discrepancy appears to be the use of value-added measures, or VAM. They compare this year’s standardized assessment results with past year’s students, as well as other grade level learners. The article notes that this method of evaluation is less than reliable, a position supported no less than by the test developers themselves. In the past, other quality educators have received low ratings with VAM. The difference here is both her prinicipal and superintendent wrote letters in support of this teacher and questioned the validity of the results. The outcome of this lawsuit may have a large effect on other states also using similar evaluation models.

Take Notes From the Pros by Laura Pappano (New York Times, October 31, 2014)

One of the latest industries popping up in the higher education setting is the selling of lecture notes. Students have leveraged technology to distribute their work for a small fee, usually around $10. While having detailed notes have been correlated with increased achievement, current research is showing that the professor is still the best source for this information. In a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kiewra, a professor at the University of Nebraska, he found that “groups that reviewed instructor notes performed best.” If the professor isn’t sharing his or her lecture notes, a recommended strategy is to paraphrase what is being said, instead of writing it down verbatim. This method of summarization promotes deep thinking, which helps retention. The article reminded me of a short video about visual note taking shared by Crista Anderson (@cristama):

Charter School Boasts Big Pay and Big Results by Leslie Brody (Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2014)

The title for this article immediately caught my attention. A charter school in New York City has observed marked improvement in their students’ tests scores, primarily in mathematics but across the board in all core academics. The set up is nothing if not interesting: few administrators, teachers getting paid over $125,000, and daylong auditions for teaching candidates looking to land a job in this school. The faculty also participates in peer observations weekly to get feedback on their performance. So what’s the catch? There are larger class sizes to allow for more professional development time. Also, the staff is expected to work longer hours, which most teachers already do. I think the biggest red flag for me was the fact that this school has a 47% attrition rate. After reading this article, I felt there were too many variables to determine what really led to improved student achievement.

Dynamic Versus Static Dictionary With and Without Printed Focal Words in E-Book Reading as Facilitator for Word Learning by Ofra Korat et al (Reading Research Quarterly, Fall 2014)

In this study, researchers analyzed the impact that eBooks with visuals and built-in word supports might have on students’ understanding of key vocabulary. What they found was students benefited the most from words that were noted and attached to dynamic (animated) visuals. The researchers, from Israel, provided necessary background knowledge in the published study about cognitive load. Readers struggle to comprehend the text if there are too many pieces of information to attend to. The results shared here are worth disseminating to classroom teachers, as they consider apps and eReaders for the classroom. Does the technology get in the way of the learning, or does it augment the experience?

Designating the MVP: Facilitating Classroom Discussions About Texts by Carolyn Strom (The Reading Teacher, October 2014)

This article was selected for a close reading with my entire staff during a recent professional development day. It describes a protocol that teachers can use with students to find the main points (M), visualize (V), or find a phrase that stays (P). The acronym “MVP” provides a nice association for students who are familiar with its more common usage in the sports world. After our day of learning, multiple teachers let me know that they found the strategy described in this article to be very applicable to their areas, whether primary, intermediate, or as a specialist.

In summary…

When my wife and daughter decided to ride the zip line across my physical education teacher’s pond, there was some decision-making that occurred before they hopped on the rope. For example, would the thrill of the experience outweigh the possibility of falling in the water? Obviously, they said yes. But their was safety in this risk. The water was determined to be fairly clean. People were on both sides of the pond, ready to jump in should trouble arise. Safety precautions were reviewed beforehand. The environment created for this experience made it that much more likely that my wife and daughter would participate and be successful.

My purpose in telling this story is to explain the conundrum education currently faces with these new teacher evaluation systems. Yes, every student should have access to a great education, every year. Systems should be in place to help ensure quality. But is assessing a teacher’s effectiveness by using test scores and value-added measures the best way to do this? I say no. Beyond the fact that the results are unreliable, when we publically rate teachers, we create a climate of competitiveness instead of a culture of collaboration. Will professors, and K-12 educators in general, be open to sharing their coursework with students and the world? Will teachers be willing to apply the MVP stategy in their classrooms, knowing that their initial efforts may not pan out as expected? Will teachers experiment with different reading experiences on tablets and eReaders, and risk the time and possible loss in instruction inherent with action research?

We should not stifle creativity in the name of accountability. Our efforts to control the outcomes with education can often detract from the very same results we look to improve. At the same time, creativity and accountability do not have to be mutually exclusive. Steve Jobs did not get fired from Apple because of his lack of knowledge, or an inability to create a great product. His initial failings had more to do with his lack of trust he had in his colleagues. When he came back to Apple, he was more inclusive in acknowledging others’ ideas and gave top performers some latitude and leadership roles. Not that he wasn’t still obsessive about the products produced. He just learned to hire great people and allow them to reach their own potential.

How can we create learning environments where risk is rewarded? That is the essence of research. Disappointing results can be just as helpful as a study that leads to success. But when our students’ test results are tied to our evaluations and even our pay, little innovation is possible. The outcome will be instruction that lacks the essential elements necessary for learning to occur – time, trust, relationships, and connectedness. With that, one of my most important roles as a school leader is to create a learning environment with soft landings, lots of supportive people, and permission to innovate. Only then are the rewards attainable.