Tag Archives: assessment

Tests for Non Thinkers.

I had the good fortune to work for a year as the assistant principal in a school for gifted children in grades 3 to 5. It was good fortune because I had an enlightened principal who trusted her group of enthusiastic and skilled teachers to stretch her kids, to engage them and to teach them how to think.

The one blot on the landscape during the year was the round of high stakes standardized testing we endured. The powers-that-be had demonstrated a smidge of wisdom because at least they made these tests untimed.

And therein lay a problem for some of our kids.

It was one of the early days of the testing period and   the time when the school buses would arrive to take the children home was rapidly approaching. One lad was hunched over his desk still struggling with the last test for the day. Very few bubbles had been filled in on his scantron sheet and he was chewing the end of his 2B pencil in frustration. The principal was getting anxious because the buses simply couldn’t be held up if he hadn’t finished the test, but at the same time, it was an untimed test. What to do?

Finally she asked the boy what the trouble was. She knew how bright he was, she knew he should be able to blitz this test. He shook his head and replied, “I just can’t decide which one to choose … it’s so hard having to choose only one”. She smiled, reminded of the the criticism of multiple choices for gifted kids – they can often find a reason why each of the four choices might be right.

“Just answer the questions the way any regular kid would” she advised him.

“Really?’ His face lit up and the test was completed without further hesitation.

What was going on here?

This boy was proving something we all know about these awful, simplistic, multiple choice, fill the bubble tests.

You can’t do them if you think too hard.

This was a child who thought deeply, creatively, saw all the angles, all the possibilities.

This kind of test was not for him.

This kind of test was for the quickly recalled facts, shallow thinking, crank-handle-turning routines and glib formulae that are remembered for the test and then forgotten.

It was not a test for thinkers.

And here’s the problem.

We are creating a generation of kids who are being educated to pass tests that are NOT DESIGNED FOR THINKERS.

Does that worry you as much as it worries me?

 

 

 

 

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Maybe we care too much about the wrong things.

I have just returned from Wellington, New Zealand, where I spoke with my husband on the interplay between language, thinking and learning at the 16th International Conference on Thinking. The last time we spoke at one of these conferences was in 2007 in Sweden. The conference had changed this year and had a significant focus on the teaching of thinking.

Even more exciting than the opportunity to share my own thinking was the opportunity to listen to others.

What was my impression? I came away feeling hopeful. The notion of high stakes standardized testing as an important feature of education was virtually ignored. Curriculum was not ignored and nor was the need for assessment and evaluation, but the bitter debates and the destructive practices that have been circling lately were put into context for me. It’s an unsettling context.

Edward De Bono and John Edwards held an on stage conversation towards the end of the conference. De Bono coined a new word – ‘ebne’ meaning ‘excellent, but not enough‘. Others spoke of the need to avoid ‘either or’ thinking when we consider what is important in education.

Excellent but not enough – ebne.

Avoiding ‘either/or’ arguments.

Could this be a way forward?

Could a new, more positive mind-set dispel some of the fear and the gloom?

I am drawn to those who advocate encouraging administrators, teachers, students and parents to simply turn their backs on the testing program, to refuse to participate, politely and firmly. But I am also aware that this is a confrontational path. We could win the battle, but it will require a wide spread, concerted effort and may involve a lot of pain and disruption for our kids.

Could an alternative be to focus on ‘ebne’, to simply absorb the testing, put it into the place where it really ought to be – simply one of many measures, excellent, but clearly not enough. Instead of a head on fight with the ‘testucators’ might we take the sting out of their program by refusing to take it more seriously than it deserves, by refusing to get into either/or debates about testing or learning?

This too will take a lot of energy because we will need to educate the community. We will need to make sure our kids understand that the test really isn’t the only thing that measures the worth of their learning. Our parents will need to understand, because we educators tell and show them repeatedly, that the standardized testing program is only a small part of the whole assessment and evaluation process. We will need to make sure they understand the weaknesses of the league tables, to see them for what they are – an irrelevancy to the real business of learning.

Our teachers will need to be reassured that they are supported by their administrators and their communities. Principals need to have the courage to resist giving up valuable learning time to the teaching of test taking skills. Reports to parents need to be informative enough to ensure they understand how and how successfully their children are learning regardless of what a single snapshot multiple choice test might say.

It needs to be made obvious when anyone walks through the front door into the school that this is a place where learning is valued, where teachers know what they are doing and where progress is made and charted every day. And we need to encourage the world into our schools to see just how good they are.

We need to feel confident enough to say “I don’t really care too much about your tests. My school is too busy learning, to focus on those. We’ll get them out of the way and then return to the task we do best, the real reason we are here  – teaching.”

It’s Finland all over again! Could their secret to success be that they actually don’t really care too much about the PISA tests they blitz every few years?

 

 

 

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Aspirations

When I was an elementary school principal in Virginia we would have a wonderful lunch every months. Each school nominated a girl and boy Citizen of the Month and the School Board would host a sit down lunch at a local hotel. Each child would have an opportunity to stand up, give their name and describe their aspirations. Many, but not all, of these schools served high poverty communities.

What disturbed me most was the that the vast majority of boys would say their goal in life was to be a football or basket ball player. It seemed these were the only role models they knew, the only adult men they looked up to, the ones they most wanted to emulate.

I was, therefore, deeply impressed when I heard a TED talk by the educational scientist Sugata Mitra.

Sit back and be amazed for seventeen minutes as you watch it here:

One of the many things that struck me most deeply was his comment towards the end. He described the ten year old boy who wanted to be a footballer. After watching ten TED videos – he wanted to be Leonardo da Vinci.

This video as well as the one about Caine’s Arcade in my earlier blog both make me question everything we are doing in schools.

I have asked the question before about standardized testing.

Are we stopping our children from learning?

Perhaps the question has even broader application.

 

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“PISA:It’s Poverty Not Stupid” – maybe.

I have just finished reading Mel Riddile’s analysis of the 2009  PISA results published in the NASSP blog “The Principal Difference’ in 2010.

His argument basically is that if we divide the USA population of tested students according to levels of poverty and then compare them with other countries with similar levels, we find we are not doing too badly. He argues that US schools with less than a 25% poverty rate score a creditable PISA score of 551 for the less than 10% population and 527 for the 10% – 24.9% population) – better than any of the other countries with similar (overall) poverty numbers. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that comparing a select group from the USA (only those schools with less than 25% poverty rate) with an entire country with a poverty rate of less than 25% is not comparing like populations. He concludes that the problem with the US reading scores is basically caused by poverty.

This misses the point – that growing levels of poverty may well be the result of problems with education. Classic chicken and egg stuff. The success story of Finland began forty years ago when poverty levels were far different from what they are today. The restructuring of the education system went hand in hand with a growing social equity.

We know this to be true – education is the path out of poverty. It follows that famine, pestilence and natural disasters aside, a growing level of poverty suggests a failure of education.

An extensive analysis of results in the light of social equity can be found in the report “PISA 2009 Results:  Overcoming  Social Background Equity in Learning Opportunities  and Outcomes (Volume 2).

OECD analysis of their test results leads the report to state:

“GDP per capita influences educational success, but this only explains 6% of the differences in average student performance. the other 94% reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference”.

You might protest that growing income inequality in the USA makes a measure such as GDP per capita an unfair yard stick, and in a sense you might be right. But why is there such income disparity? Because a growing segment of the population does not have the educational opportunities to access higher incomes through better paying jobs. Once again poverty and schooling are inextricably linked.

My conclusion?

It’s not poverty. It’s certainly not ‘stupid’. It’s a complex interplay between schooling and poverty, an interplay in which schooling is letting down too many of our kids and leading to an increasing number of them facing futures of poverty.

Mel Riddile says “Instead of looking to low-poverty countries like Finland for direction, we should be looking to take what we already know about educating students in high-performing, high-poverty schools …”. I respectfully disagree – in part. Indeed we DO need to look at countries where a long term vision has created social equity in education where it once did not exist. We must look beyond our boundaries, to resist the “curse of riches” and learn from others.

And yes, we must stop labeling schools as failing. Instead we must recognize that it is the system that is failing and any remedy will be systemic, not school by school. Finland has developed a SYSTEM that ensures there will be no failing schools. We are trying to fix the problem by looking at one school at a time.

We need systemic change.

 

 

 

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PISA.PIRLS.NAPLAN. I’m going Crazy

Maybe it isn’t me going crazy at all. Maybe being out of step with a world bent on testing the life out of learning is the only sane way to be.

Check out this video. Sit back and watch for about 8 minutes.

Then tell me how you design a standardized, multiple choice test to assess these most fundamental learning skills – creative thinking, determination, persistence, observation, experimentation, planning, the ability to finish what you start – the list goes on and on.

Please! Do! Tell me how.

Because if we can’t test these skills and attitudes, if we value our educational practices and achievement on measures that ignore them, then what on earth are we measuring that has any deep meaning for what we doing with our kids?

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OK. It’s Finland again.

 

The more I read about the successes of the Finnish school system the more convinced I become that the key is in its teachers. You can check it out here.

http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/

In Finland the length of the school day is shorter – that’s because great teachers know how to make the most of every minute. Many studies have revealed the enormous amount of time devoted to non-learning tasks in the classroom. Good teachers know how to organize a school day and a group of kids so that time is never wasted.

Time is provided in the school day for professional learning. Good teachers understand they are lifelong learners and are eager to build on their skills. They are committed to learning in their own lives.

There is no strict curriculum, no pacing guides, just broad outlines of areas to be covered. This is because the community and the authorities know they can trust teachers to do what is best. They believe they have the knowledge, the training and the intellectual discipline needed to make the best choices about what kids need to learn and when they need to learn it.

There is no ‘payment by results’ because there is a proven belief that all the teachers are good teachers. They do not gain entry to the profession until they have demonstrated that.

Children have around 75 minutes of free play each day because teachers understand that ‘the work of childhood is play’ and they understand how to integrate the things children learn in the playground with the things going on in the classroom.

Teacher candidates are selected from the top 10% of high school graduates. No one becomes a teacher in Finland because they couldn’t get into another course and because of good pay or long  holidays.

The profession is held in high regard and much is expected of teachers. It is more difficult to enter university to become a primary teacher in Finland than it is to enter medical school in some universities.

There is no whole scale testing of children until they are 16. Teachers are trusted to know what is needed and then to provided it.

30% of primary school aged children receive some form of additional learning support as soon as their teachers deem it necessary. Learning problems are addressed as they are revealed and noticed by highly skilled teachers.

93.2% of students graduate from high school in Finland compared with 76.82% in the USA. And in the USA we need to keep in mind the reality that this percentage is inflated by the “credit recovery’ programs that allow for a D graduation after the completion of a short summer course for failing students. Finnish students stay at school and succeed because they have had a history of quality teaching.

In other words the quality of the Finnish education system rests on the quality of the teachers.

The quality of the teachers is ensured by a demanding initial selection system and a lengthy period of professional preparation during which the ongoing suitability for teaching is constantly monitored.

You don’t get into a classroom in Finland if you are anything other than a highly skilled teacher.

 

Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY) has commented that all over the world nations are tinkering with education. Mostly they look at rewriting standards and curriculum and then they work at designing tests.

What they fail to do, and the single thing that they MUST do, is look at the teachers.

Finland began reforming its education in the 1960s.

There are no magic bullets.

There are no short cuts.

If we don’t begin the hard work now, when will we?

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How Bad Can It Get?

Let me tell you just how bad it can get – this relentless striving towards the ‘benchmark’. It reaches a pinnacle in the creation of the Pacing Guide. This nightmarish document becomes the focus of everything the teacher does in the classroom.

How is it created? Not by evil trolls beavering away in subterranean caves, lit by the flickering fires of hell. No. It is created by well-meaning souls who believe they are doing Something Good for education.

And it’s done more or less like this.

A careful examination of past standardized tests reveals the sections of the mandated curriculum that have been tested most frequently as well as the number of questions that relate to each area of the curriculum.

Each section of the curriculum is given a loading based largely on the proportion of questions it attracted in these past tests. This analysis will form the basis of the content and timing of the Pacing Guide.

A curriculum is developed for each grade level based on this analysis, making sure that previously untested areas of the curriculum are not left out entirely, but ensuring that the topics attracting the biggest number of questions also get the most time.

The school year is broken up into, for example, nine week units. The curriculum is similarly divided.

A test is devised for the end of each nine week period. Its format will closely resemble the high stakes test to be taken at the end of the school year. It will test exactly what was in the nine week curriculum and its questions will reflect the same priorities that went into the decisions about the content focus – the more likely it is to be tested, the more we focus on it.

The data obtained from these nine week tests will be provided to principals quickly so that they can call to account every teacher whose students are not meeting expectations. There will be an accountability meeting with each of these teachers in the principal’s office.

We now have a system in place that provides a ‘laser-like’ focus on the material to be tested by the State. From time to time an Assistant Superintendent will visit the school and pop into classrooms. Her task is to make sure that on this particular Tuesday, or Friday, or whenever, every teacher is teaching exactly what is expected according to the Pacing Guide. The teachers know better than to deviate from the Pacing Guide because its content will be tested at the end of the nine weeks and they will be held to account.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KIDS?

Let’s get something very clear here and now.

The role of the kids is to pass the tests so the schools are accredited and the district isn’t penalized.

The students’ task is to make sure the district doesn’t look bad.

This is how bad it can and has become.

It doesn’t matter if there is a violent thunder storm rolling about over the top of the school, fascinating the kids. We can’t talk or read or write about that. It’s Wednesday and the Pacing Guide says we should be learning about Mali.

It doesn’t matter that James has just come back from a holiday in Mexico and saw a parade on the Day of the Dead. He has photos, and a head full of questions. But it’s Monday and the Pacing Guide says we need to work hard on understanding the water cycle.

It doesn’t matter that Timmy still doesn’t understand the multiplication of fractions. He has to move on or he won’t have covered the rest of the topics by the end of the nine weeks. He can come back after school, at the weekend, in the summer … to plug the gaps in his understanding. We know that the building of mathematical understanding is a cumulative process and a misunderstanding now will undermine everything that comes next, but we just have to move on.

Yes, this is how bad it gets.

Perhaps the greatest evil of high stakes standardized testing is that it takes our eyes away from the children and focuses them instead on the tests themselves.

Children become sources of data.

Learning becomes something that is cut, sliced, packaged and weighed.

Until we rid ourselves of this impediment to education and find valid, humane, child centred forms of assessment, testing will continue to STOP our children from learning.

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