Why Candidates for Governor and State School Superintendent of Georgia Should Oppose High-Stakes Testing?

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"Creative Commons Gravel Hill School 1950" by Erin Nekervis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
“Creative Commons Gravel Hill School 1950” by Erin Nekervis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In an earlier post, I challenged candidates for state school superintendent to oppose the Common Core State Standards.  Today, I am writing to candidates for Governor and State School Superintendent of Georgia to oppose High-Stakes testing.  If they would, they’d open the door to a new paradigm of assessment that would improve education in Georgia beyond their wildest dreams.

Since 2001, the U.S. Department of Education has mandated the annual testing of children as young as 7 years old in mathematics and reading, and most states have added mandated high-stakes testing in writing, science, and social studies.

The American Education Research Association states that it is a violation of professional standards to make decisions about students’ life chances or educational opportunities on the basis of test scores alone.  Yet schools around the state of Georgia and indeed the rest of the country use end-of-the-year tests to make crucial decisions about whether students move on or not.  Additionally, these high-stakes tests have become an even greater burden on students because they know that the test results will be used to grade their teachers.

There is no easy answer to explain why we have an educational system that puts students in harm’s way by the continuous and unparalleled testing program.  When we read the newspapers soon after the release of international, national, or state tests, the emphasis is on who came in first, or who is at the top of the leader board.  No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top have perpetuated an educational model based on competition and winning.

In some cases, officials will do what ever it takes to make sure they either win, or make the cut so that they place high on the leader board.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed the cheating scandal in Atlanta, and revealed that cheating (erasing wrong answers and changing to the correct answers on student test forms) was taking place in most cities and states.

Am I advocating the banning of high-stakes testing because it might lead to cheating.  No.

I am advocating banning high-stakes testing because it does not improve student learning, nor does it help teachers change their instruction to improve student learning.   Most of the those who advocate high-stakes testing believe that American education is failing, and that the fundamental goal of schools is improve achievement scores, and the only way to know if that has occurred is to use high-stakes standardized tests every year, and compare the scores from one year to the next.

But, if we do compare the test results from one year to the next, the results are quite astonishing.  First, we discover that in general, academic performance has gradually increased over time.  Secondly, we do see variation in average scores from one year to the next, but the variation is within expected statistical limits.

To give evidence that you might want to use with your constituents or potential voters, I am going to use a few graphs that were prepared by Mr. Ed Johnson, which were published on this blog earlier this year.  I am also going to use charts from the Anne E. Casey Foundation, and pull together data from various state and federal agencies.

NAEP Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides some of the most reliable data on student learning.  The tests given by NAEP are low-stakes, and an individual student takes only part of the test, so they don’t spend hours sitting for the exam.  NAEP has been studying American education since 1969.

About a decade ago, NAEP launched a study of urban school districts which they refer to as TUDA.  They provide telling results that I think will help you with the case of abolishing high-stakes tests.

The four graphs shown below in Figures 1 and 2 were prepared by Mr. Ed Johnson, an expert on W. Edwards Deming’s system of profound knowledge and how to transform organizations that result in continuous improvement.  He also is an expert in using facts to generate flow charts that help us understand how a system is working.

Figure 1 plots math scores for 21 cities over a ten-year period (for a list of the cities, follow this link).  Note that the scores fall within what are called upper control limits and lower control limits.  In no case do scores fall outside these predicted levels.  Yes, there is variation in the scores.  But they are within expected limits, and the variation is small.  For example, the green and red dots follow the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD).  If you show this graph to citizens in Georgia and ask if these graphs support the idea that our schools are failing, what is the answer? The answer is No.

Figure 1. Control Charts for NAEP TUDA Math Grades 4 & 8, 2003 - 2013
Figure 1. Control Charts for NAEP TUDA Math Grades 4 & 8, 2003 – 2013. Source Ed Johnson

Figure 2 plots reading scores for the same 21 cities over 11 years. Again, note that for the most part, the scores for each district fall within the expected limits, except for five points of measurement.  Each is labeled and as you see, only Charlotte and Hillsborough fall outside on the 4th grade reading TUDA results.  Think about this.  On only these five instances can we show significant variation from what we expect on the reading test.  The obvious thing to do, is to ask, what are these two districts doing, and how might what they are doing apply in other places.  It might be worth studying their system of education.

But, the real discovery here is to look at all math and reading TUDA results.  There are roughly 408 points of measurement shown in these four graphs, and in only five instances was the variation outside the range expected.   That is 0.012 percent. The systems of teaching math and reading in these 21 cities is predictable and consistent.

We can also see that there are no major swings in the test results.  When we send kids to school, we have a very good idea what to expect.  Another way to say this is that the system is performing as expected.

Or better yet, our teachers are doing it!

But there is always a need for improvement.  In Ed Johnson’s and W. Edwards Deming’s world of human systems, there is always the expectation for improvement.  The methods of improvement do not include the outright firing of department heads, or rank and file workers, any more than would we think that firing principals and teachers and bringing in uncertified and inexperienced teachers would help the situation.   But this is exactly what the Georgia Department of Education mandates when schools “fail” to meet the standards two years in a row.  Schools in this situation are labeled “turnaround schools.”

Here is what you need to know.  The high-stakes testing model is designed to make it very difficult for some schools, especially those schools where most of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches (a statistic used to identify the poverty level of a school).  We know that students in less affluent schools will not do as well on these tests as students attending affluent schools.  It’s an unsustainable situation because these schools and their neighborhoods are punished by either closing the school or labeling it a turnaround.  But this is a sure ticket for financial rewards for charter management companies and teacher temp agencies including Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.  Follow this link to find out a better way to help these schools.

Labeling schools as failures is not sustainable.  It will not improve instruction. It represents an inaccurate interpretation of testing, and it is perverting a system that should be helping families, rather than punishing them.

Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th & 8th Grade, 2002 - 2013.  Source: Ed Johnson
Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th & 8th Grade, 2002 – 2013. Source: Ed Johnson

If We Were to Ban High-Stakes Tests?

Ok.  As a candidate for governor or state school superintendent in Georgia, and you were to go around the state campaigning for the banning of high-stakes tests, the odds are you would be elected.  You will be surprised who will support you, but you will need to tell the rest of the story.

Yes, you will support the idea of banning high-stakes tests.  But you need to clear that you are not suggesting that teachers and administrators all of a sudden stop assessing students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you have been a teacher, you know that the assessment system  you use in your classroom has a major impact on student learning and classroom behavior.  Assessment is an integral aspect of teaching.  As teachers we assess students during every class session, and interaction that we have with them.  Teachers know that assessment, used as part of instruction, does indeed help student learning.  This is not an opinion.  One of the foremost researchers on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London and he has found that formative assessment strategies do improve learning for students.  Formative, unlike the high-stakes tests that the government mandates, are embedded in instruction.  In my view, formative assessment is assessment for learning, not of learning.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment are tools and methods that teachers use to humanize learning, and give students opportunities to apply their learning, and to engage in activities that involve communication, problem solving and team work–the kinds of skills and abilities that are important today, and will be tomorrow.

As a candidate for governor or state school superintendent you should listen to your most important constituency, and this is the professional teachers in public schools.  Last year, there were more than 111,000 teachers in Georgia teaching 1.6 million students.

So, what would happen if you said to nearly 1.6 million students (and their parents) and 111,000 teachers that the state would no longer need high-stakes tests.  Would the education system crumble?  Would students all of sudden not be motivated to learn?

It would thrive.  And it would free up a lot of money that would otherwise go to corporations.

According to a Brookings Institute report, the cost of testing in the U.S. exceeds $1.7 billion.  But according to the report, that is only for payments to testing vendors who also score the tests.  But what is the cost for lost instructional time.  In Georgia, the CRCT exams and high-school end-of-course exams take three-four weeks during the year.  So for about 4 weeks or about 12% of the school year, high-stakes exams dominate the school experience.

What’s the cost of 4 weeks of testing?  Well according to the Brookings Institute, about $600 billion is spent on education in the U.S. per year.  According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, the 2015 fiscal year budget for K-12 education is $7.95 billion.  The cost of high-stakes testing is at least $950 million.

Every school in the state already has experts on assessment, and these educators need to be supported to collaborate with colleagues to develop assessment methods that will improve student learning, and increase student’s love of learning.

We know from many research studies that the best predictor of success in college & career (college & career is the favored purpose of reformers such as Bill Gates) are grades, not test scores.   Teachers are in the best place to assess their students.  Not only are they able to create their own tests, but there are multiple resources available that teachers already use to help their students learn.

Imagine if you were a high school biology teacher, and it was announced that the state would no longer need high-stakes tests.  How would this affect your teaching, and especially your relationship with your students.  One obvious difference is that the curriculum will expand because you no longer would be forced to teach to the test.  No longer would the students in your class be required to take tests that would be used to not only to decide whether they progress to the next science course, but the tests would no longer be used to decide if you keep your job.

In the next post, I’ll go into more detail about what assessment would look like in this alternative paradigm.

In the meantime, are you willing to discuss the possibility of returning the education of students into the hands of professional teachers?

 

5 Qualities of Systems Thinking and Communal Classrooms

Systems thinking teaching and learning can happen in any classroom, but it has a better chance of being successful when the school’s principles and policies are rooted in systems thinking.  However, as you will find out, the qualities that characterize systems thinking classrooms can be applied to any classroom.

Systems thinking schools and classrooms seek interconnectivity. They are based on partnerships. Partnerships with parents, collaboration among peers, including teachers and students. There is also a very powerful attempt to seek curriculum interconnectivity based on the lived experiences of students and teachers. For curriculum to be relevant, it needs to be locally designed and implemented by professional teachers and administrators who believe in the principles that follow.

Figure 1.  The classroom nested within a school which is nested within a community and the world at large.  Source: Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Kindle Location 522). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Extracted Jan. 29, 2014
Figure 1. The classroom nested within a school which is nested within a community and the world at large. Source: Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Kindle Location 522). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Extracted Jan. 29, 2014

One of the leading scholars in the field of systems thinking schools is Peter A. Barnard. He has written a ground-breaking book, The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (public library).  Relevant here are his comments about some of the values upon which systems thinking schools are based.  He writes:

Systems thinking is not the same as systems per se, but that systems thinking is liberating, creative, and elegant and that it removes the angst from the way people work. Systems thinking also harbors a profound and positive view of people, their creative ability, and their intrinsic nature and all of this makes it a joy to work with. It is a different way of looking at management and a better way of valuing and enabling people, and especially those who live out their lives in our schools.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 151-152). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Systems thinking schools (and classrooms) connect the boundaries that we have worked very hard to set up, especially in the West.  We divide or put everything into different boxes–science here, math there, social science over there, art and music way over there.  Even within the content areas such as science, we divide the world into the familiar subjects of earth science, life science, and physical science.  All of these separations, according Margaret J. Wheatley, are strange and unnatural separations.  In systems thinking schools, there is an overwhelming effort to see the world “anew” and when teachers witness teaching and learning that is based on connections, teaming, learning together, they often say, “this is so natural, its common sense.”  But to organize schools and classrooms as systems thinking environments means that we have to thinking differently and come to grips with  why learning is so dependent on connections, networks, interdependencies, social interactions, collaboration, and team work.

In this post I name five qualities of teaching and learning in a systems thinking classroom.  I’ve decided to focus on the “system thinking classroom,” perhaps one that is housed in a systems thinking school.

A systems thinking classroom can not be made by simply copying another teacher’s classroom.  Each classroom system is unique composed of 20 – 40 students  and one or more teachers.  In a systems thinking approach, the teacher is a leader, much like the principal is a leader of the school.  Yet, all classrooms in a particular school are part of that system, and tend to run in similar ways–in systems thinking speak: the system causes its own behavior.  This means that we have to set aside our old beliefs and realize that we do not have a teacher quality problem.  We have a systems problem. We have to look at the school as a whole process that includes parents, community and the knowledge society beyond.  (See Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 334-335). R&L Education. Kindle Edition).

A systems thinking classroom is a rich environment in which every student believes that they can be a learner and mentor with other students in their classroom.   The psychological organization of the classroom would lead to enhanced interpersonal relationships and students would learn to excel by participating in learning teams throughout the semester or year.  The learning of science, for instance, would be seen as not only a responsibility of the each student, but there would be an interdependent learning environment enhanced by mentoring, tutoring, and team work.  The class as a whole would take responsibility for learning, whether the course is science, mathematics, world history, anthropology, art appreciation, health and physical education,  integrated arts, English as a Second language, and so forth.

The Systems Thinking and Communal Classroom

It won’t surprise you, but a systems thinking classroom is what Dr. Chris Emdin calls a communal classroom.  Dr. Emdin, a leading researcher of urban teaching and learning, and Professor of science education at Teachers College uses the concept of “communal classroom.”  Dr. Emdin explains that communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, the corporate classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on cooperation and progressive values.

In this post I am going to explore these five characters of systems thinking/communal classrooms:

  • Learning
  • Tutoring
  • Student Voice
  • Team Learning
  • Assessment for Learning

Learning

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 7.49.38 PMWhen you walk into a systems thinking classroom, you can smell learning.  It permeates the air, and the teacher has created a learning environment in which learning is a natural result of interactions and interdependencies among the students and teacher and the world outside the classroom.  Such a classroom is communal.

The teacher is not the only one in the communal classroom that is responsible for student learning.  Not at all.

This quote from Peter Barnard’s book (public library) gets at what we would envision in a systems thinking classroom, especially if someone asked the teacher who is going to make sure my child learns.   Perhaps this might be one way to answer the question.

When a child enters a school, responsibility for learning is a shared process, and there are many learning relationships that need to be enabled. System management and design must reflect this.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 2151-2153). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Years ago in one of my graduate classes, a high school mathematics teacher believed and put into practice Barnard’s notion of learning as a shared process.  He talked about his calculus class.  Someone asked him what was his approach to teaching calculus.  He said that he believed students would begin to learn calculus when they were ready.  I visited his class and realized that his informal style of classroom organization enabled students to move to and from calculus problems, and that students would seek each other out for tutoring and support.  There was also a sense in the classroom that everyone was in some way, involved in other student’s learning of mathematics. And this was in the 1970s.

There is another aspect of learning that is implicit in communal and systems thinking classrooms, and that is for teachers to make a conscious effort to shift priorities away from giving answers to helping students find new questions.  This idea is a fundamental concept of Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching, and is described in his fascinating book about teaching and learning, The Falconer (public library).

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.

In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.  Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Tutoring

In Peter Barnard’s (public library) investigation of systems thinking schools, one of the major conceptions for changing the landscape of schools was what he called Vertical Tutoring (VT).  VT is tutoring across different age groups–older students helping younger students.  But schools in the U.S. are organized horizontally, including home-rooms.  However, Barnard suggests organizing home-rooms vertically could have profound effects on learning.  He writes:

Home groups— what US education calls homerooms— become a mixture of students from different grades or years, and this small change, when understood at a systems level, sparks a whole sequence of amazing events throughout the school. It can kick-start a process of school redesign from the inside out. Such changes, however, have to be understood, managed, and values-driven.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 73-75). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

supportIf your teaching high school biology in the U.S., however, most of your students are the same age, and same grade.  Is it possible to apply the concept of VT in a classroom where most of the students are the same age.  I believe we can.

For many years I conducted seminars on cooperative learning for middle and high school science teachers.  Although I developed three more seminars which were presented nationally through the Bureau of Education and Research (BER), my goal in each seminar was to involve teachers, sometimes in groups ranging from 50 – 150, in a collaborative learning experience which could be a pedagogical tool to involve students in tutoring.  In most cases, we advocated learning teams of four students, and this was done to give teachers concrete experiences in team learning and team problem solving.  But we also explored the value of splitting the four member team into tutorial partnerships.  In these partnerships, one partner could teach each other, listen to another attempting to solve a word or mathematics problem, quiz each other on the content that they were studying, select a question from their text, and ask one person to answer and the other to tutor by encouraging and providing clues to answer the questions.

There are many ways to carry out tutoring as a cooperative strategy to help students enjoy and learn at the same time.  Here is a link to a collection of cooperative learning methods suitable for student tutoring.

Tutoring is a fundamental aspect of systems thinking classrooms.  Although students will have to learn new interpersonal skills, in the end the classroom will be more interactive, and students will begin to see the value of teaching each other.

Student Voice

The systems thinking classroom uncovers a significant reason that will influence not only learning, but the attitudes and dispositions of people in the class.  That factor is student voice–the opportunity of students to present their ideas, and have their ideas and opinions heard.

One of the leading researchers in the field of science education is Professor Ken Tobin, Presidential Professor of Urban Education, City University of New York.  In a recent research study that was published as a chapter in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers, Dr. Tobin explored the idea of having student teachers recruit two high school students they were teaching to give feedback on their teaching and suggestions on how to “better teach kids like me.”  All prospective teachers in this urban education program used this system of seeking student voice.

Unfortunately, the usual method that we might use to seek student voice is at the end of a unit, or the end of the course when we “might” ask for their opinions and attitudes toward the subject, course, and the instructor.  This is not as transparent a system as actually asking students to meet with you, and discuss how to improve teaching.

Let me return to Tobin’s research.  He was interested in going back to the urban classroom as a teacher to explore the structures of schooling that are typically ignored by the top down reform efforts dominating American education.  Instead his goal was to find out how curriculum is enacted, what we could learn when the voices of students and teachers are heard.  Here was a professor who was willing to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching and learning–high school students and teachers.

I wrote the following about his research in a closing article in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers: Practicing What We Teach (public library) .

And in Tobin’s case, it was a teenager from an urban school, whose population was 90% African-American, and many of them living in poverty, that provided a way forward.  Tobin is quite open about his initial failure as an “urban, low-track science teacher,” and as a result recruited a high school student (as he had asked his teacher education students) for ideas on how to “better teach kids like me.”  Respect (acceptance & trust), genuineness (realness), and empathic understanding appeared to be crucial aspects of the cogen activity that emerged from Tobin’s struggle to work with urban youth.  Tobin puts it this way:

Although it took us some time to label the activity cogen we created rules to foster dialogue in which participants established and maintained focus, ensured that turns at talk and time for talk were equalized, and that all participants were respectful to all others. The end goal was to strive for consensus on what to do to improve the quality of learning environments. In so doing all participants would endeavor to understand and respect one another’s perspectives, their rights to be different, and acknowledge others as resources for their own learning.

One intriguing notion to take away from Ken’s research was his willingness to give voice—listen–if you will, to students. Are we willing to listen to our teacher education students?  Could our courses at the university level integrate the principles of “cogen” such that students voice is lent to determining the nature of syllabi, agenda topics, and types of investigations?  Should our teacher education courses be co-taught with experienced science teachers?  As Tobin explains, “cogen is an activity that explicitly values the right to speak and be heard.  It is also implicitly based on democratic values, and on the ideas of Carl Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships (public library).  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.  (Dias, M., Eich. C., Brantlley-Dias, L. Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers, Springer, 2013, pp. 291 – 292)

Teachers in systems thinking classrooms would involve students in giving the kind of feedback that will result in the improvement of the quality of life in the classroom, and open the possibility of implementing student ideas when they mean the most–now.

Team Learning

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

pusch_gtp_staged_pict2pictInstead of using the attribute of cooperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use cooperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

Please follow this link for more details on team learning.

Assessment for Learning

Peter Barnard devotes the last chapter of his book to the subject of “assessment for learning.”  In most of our schools, assessment too often is reported as a grade, a test score, or a ranking, none of which give students or their parents information to interpret what these mean in terms of student learning.

Bernard highlights this kind of assessment, and especially in the context of the current linear model of schools.  He says:

In the linear model, it is left for the parents to somehow do the summative job, but with almost no relevant data available to them. This is not easy given the jargon, the grades, and restricted language that schools increasingly use to presumably keep parents at bay! They receive limited information at the time it cannot be used!  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 2732-2734). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Bernard says that in our penchant to test, the classroom becomes “test-dominant,” and what is lost is the intrinsic nature of real learning.  Teachers and students (and rightly so, parents) are stressed and burdened by testing, so much so that parents around the country are protesting, and indeed opting their children out of high-stakes testing.  Some superintendents, school boards, and teacher unions are calling for a moratorium on high-stakes testing, but little has been done.

Yet, classroom teachers have known (it seems forever) that end-of-year tests do not lead to conversation that students and parents need to help them improve their learning.  Teachers know that they need to use both summative (end of unit or end of year) assessments, and formative assessments. Formative assessments are the everyday methods that teachers use to help their students improve their learning and understanding.

Assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding of science, and to inform and improve their teaching.  Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to find the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.  Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum.  The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Formative assessments, unlike high-stakes testing, are embedded into instruction.  These assessments are part of the “regular” science curriculum.  Formative assessments are flexible, and take into account the diverse nature of helping students learn science.

One of the leading researchers in the world on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London.  In a presentation by Dylan Wiliam, Black says this about formative assessment:

Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning.

Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.

Teaching that acknowledges the value of systems thinking and communal classrooms suggests a transformation from the industrial model to one that is holistic, and one that is based on interdependence and cooperation.  In my view, teachers that embrace these values practice an art, or what I call “artistry of teaching.”

What would add to this discussion?  Are there other qualities of systems thinking classrooms that you add?  What are they?

Clueless in Atlanta; Not So in Seattle

Maureen Downey is the education blogger at Get Schooled on the Atlanta Journal-Journal (AJC) website, and writes occasional education editorials for the newspaper. In her post today, she wonders why the teachers in Seattle are protesting by refusing to administer a test they are required to give three times per year to all students in their classes. She puts it this way:

What’s odd to me is the test Seattle teachers are choosing to protest, which is the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The high performing City of Decatur Schools uses MAP testing as well, giving it three times a year to see where students begin, where they are mid-year and where they are at the end of the year.

My kids attend Decatur schools and are not intimidated by MAP testing as it has been part of their education for a long time. Nor are they overly concerned with the scores, which they get instantly as the test is taken on a computer. I would be interested in what other Decatur parents out there think about MAP.

Downey clearly doesn’t understand the reasons for teachers boycotting the exam.  The MAP, purports to measure student’s academic performance in reading, math, language and science.  It is a product of the Northwest Evaluation Association, a testing company in Portland, Oregon.  MAP is computer generated test that adapts to student responses.  Downey claims that her children have no problem with the test as it is used at Decatur High School, a school located next to Atlanta.  That may be so, but her reasoning is flawed about why the teachers in Seattle refuse to give the test.

Here’s the deal.  Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announced their refusal to administer the standardized test, MAP.  The teachers believe it wastes time, money and resources.  According to one report, the test is useless for Algebra I students since the test is about probability and statistics and geometry, which are not in the curriculum.  Because students are told that the results on the test will not affect their grade or graduation, many do not take the test seriously.

But the real reason is that the teachers know that the test results do not offer formative assessment information that benefits them or their students.   In fact, some of the teachers want to replace the MAP standardized test with portfolios and tests that are related to their curriculum.

Seattle Public Schools paid $4 million to the company that its superintendent served as a member of the board of directors.  If the district spends this much on a test that doesn’t impact students, imagine what they pay for the other required standardized high-stakes tests.

What Downey misses here is that teachers in Seattle are not clueless about evaluation.  They know that assessment should be for learning.  The use of a test such as MAP DOES NOT promote student learning.  It has little meaning to specific students needs, and teachers’ expectations.

Downey needs to understand that assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding , and to inform and improve their teaching. Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to find the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.

Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum. The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Although banning high-stakes testing needs to done, assessment for learning is not a simple idea, but one that requires a multidimensional approach to assessment in the service of student learning.

The fact that teachers are willing to take the risk and act on their professional knowledge that these tests are not pedagogically valid.  Like their colleagues in Chicago, the Seattle teachers are willing to say no.

What do you think about this issue?  Are the teachers in Seattle acting in the interest of their students?

Scoring Teachers: Perversion by Policymakers

Policymakers have perverted teaching, and reduced the evaluation of teachers to a number based on questionable and unreliable data.   Not only do researchers at major universities caution policymakers about using Value-Added Models (VAMs), but using such a system that is based on student test scores will destroy the central character of teaching.

Wordle based on On Teaching by Kahlil Gibran, The Profit.

As a teacher I have always been guided by several core principles to help my students learn.  I believed that my role was to facilitate learning and to help students understand science that would be meaningful to their own lives.  Long ago, I realized that as teachers we need to treat students with respect and communicate genuinely as in person-to-person encounters.  This was crucial if I wanted to create a classroom where students would feel free to collaborate with each other and me.   Secondly I realized that it was important to prize my students, which led to a more trusting environment.  And I learned early in my career that the best teachers in my departments were empathic toward their students.  Trying to understand students from their point of view is an important core condition in my classroom.  Respect, prizing, and empathizing were three core conditions that I found were essential to my own approach to teaching.  The teacher is one that helps lead students to their understandings.  These understanding can not be poured from the teacher’s head to the head’s of the students.  Student needs to construct their own learning. As the poet Kahlil Gibran says in the Wordle shown here, we can can not give our understanding directly to others.

But,

…because much more weight is given to student achievement test scores, we have to wonder how communication between students and teachers will change?  How will the bond of trust between students and teachers be affected?  If one’s evaluation is based on student test scores, won’t this narrow the curriculum to “teach to the test,” and wouldn’t it be smart for teachers to find out which standards (they can’t test them all) are emphasized on high-stakes tests, and center teaching in on these standards? And wouldn’t it be more likely that teachers would prefer not to teach special education, English language learners, and students with behavioral problems?

Evaluating teachers using VAMs isolates teachers, one from another, and further distances teachers from their students.  This is a a perversion.
Continue reading “Scoring Teachers: Perversion by Policymakers”

If We Ban High Stakes Testing, How Can We Assess Learning in Science?

High stakes testing should not be used to make significant decisions about student performance (achievement in a course, passing a course, being promoted, graduating) and should be banned.  In this post we explore formative assessment methods, and show how teachers to make decisions and judgments about student achievement should use a combination of formative and summative assessments.

Some would argue that we don’t have the science right to make such a decision.  If you were to interview staff at Achieve, Inc. or the Fordham Foundation, they would strenuously argue against this decision, and claim that we really don’t the data to make this decision that would ban high-stakes testing.  The truth is, we have the data to make the decision that we should Not use high-stakes tests to make important educational decisions.  As Nichols and Berliner point out in their research Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools:

High-Stakes Conundrum

For very respected researchers (Nichols, Glass and Berliner) to say there is no need for research on high-stakes testing is an enigma, or a puzzlement for not only educators, but politicians and corporate leaders advancing the use of high-stakes tests as a way of finding out if students measure up to the standards they insist all students should be held accountable.  For some of them, it is mind-boggling that anyone would suggest that high-stakes testing be banned.

If we do that, how will be able to assess students’ academic progress in science, mathematics, social studies, English, language arts, technology, music, art, or physical education?

Classroom assessment of learning involves analyzing multiple forms of evidence for making judgments about student learning, and the effectiveness of teaching.  No single criteria (such as a test) can be used to make judgments about what or to what extent students have learned science.  How can we possibly use bubble high-stakes tests to assess students’ ability to ask questions, design an experiment, collect data, and interpret the results?  How can we possibly assess all of the standards that the National Research Council will recommend that students achieve in a science course with a 40 – 50 item multiple-choice test given on one day in the spring of the year?  It’s nonsense, and unreasonable.

Question: So what are we to do?

Answer: Assessment for learning, not Assessment of learning

In their book, Nichols and Berliner point out that it is a legitimate request for citizens and school boards to know how students, teachers, and their schools are doing.  It is not a legitimate request to base this on a high-stakes test for at least two reasons: first, the research evidence does not support the claim that the pressure of high-stakes tests will increase student learning; and secondly, it is a violation of professional standards (according to the American Education Research Association) to make decisions that effect students life chances or educational opportunities on the basis of test scores alone.

 Their recommendation is that we shift away from assessment of learning to assessment for learning.  It is the kind of paradigm shift  that I have written about on this blog that will help us solve the high-stakes conundrum.

Assessment of Learning

Assessment of learning is also known as summative assessment.  Summative assessments tend to be one-dimensional.  The assessments are apart from the curriculum, yet uncannily drives teaching (teaching for the test, or removing interesting, hands-on activities so as to devote more time to teaching to the test).  Tests that are assessments of learning are context independent, and are inflexible.  All we have to do is think about the annual administration of high-stakes tests which will be used to punish or reward students and teachers—tests that were written by staff at some corporation that have not a clue about the curriculum for which they write.

Assessment for Learning

Assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding of science, and to inform and improve their teaching.  Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to identify the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.  Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum.  The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Formative assessments, unlike high-stakes testing, are embedded into instruction.  These assessments are part of the “regular” science curriculum.  Formative assessments are flexible, and take into account the diverse nature of helping students learn science.

One of the leading researchers in the world on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London.  In a presentation by Dylan Wiliam, Black says this about formative assessment:

Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning.

Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.

Although banning high-stakes testing needs to done, assessment for learning is not a simplistic idea, but one that requires a multidimensional approach to assessment in the service of student learning. Here are formative methods used by science teachers, and described in The Art of Teaching Science:

Formative Assessment Methods: Summative Methods. Click on the image, and then click on PowerPoint Slides to see a presentation on assessment

Do We Throw Out Summative Assessments?

No.  We adopt the philosophy of a multidimensional approach, and use a number of summative assessment methods that teachers use to make judgments about student learning and progress.  No one form of summative assessment is enough to determine the extent or nature of student learning.

End-of-course tests can still be used, and indeed it might be more valid if these tests were developed by teachers the district, across school lines.   For example, a team of teachers using the biology standards that the district agreed upon could develop a biology test for introductory biology.   The image below lists a collection of methods that could be used:

Summative Methods. Click on the image, and then click on Powerpoint Slides to see a presentation on assessment

 

References