More Pondering On Midterm and Final Exams…

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Last week’s initial post on the value of traditional midterm and final exams drew quite a bit of interest. Due to the great discussions that I had with people in the comment section of the original post, on Twitter, and face-to-face, I was made aware of a few posts and articles that also touched upon this topic. You can check them out below:

Are Midterms Really Necessary In A Climate Of Assessment? – By Dawn Casey-Rowe on Teach Thought

In this post, Casey-Rowe describes is clear about her disdain for mid-term exams and also the fact that we have much better options to monitor the progress of our students in this day and age.

“It’s time for midterms. I hate midterms. They take up so much time–several days of review, a week of administering, and then all the correcting. To top it off, they place students in a high-anxiety environment. I feel like I’m hazing them rather than teaching…And all of this is unnecessary. I can tell if a student understands without a week of exams. We have the technology and the pedagogy to microassess students.”

The Procedure’ and how it is harming education – via Marion Brady in The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet

In this article Brady discusses the “The Procedure” which has come to play such an integral role in our nation’s schools. 

“The Procedure: 1. Take notes during lectures, and hi-lite key sentences in the textbook. 2. Before a big test, load the notes and hi-lited passages into short-term memory. 3. Take the test. 4. Flush short-term memory and prepare for its re-use. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that just about everybody in the country thinks The Procedure isn’t just acceptable but essential. It’s so broadly used, so familiar, so taken-for-granted, that many schools and universities go to great pains to accommodate it. Some even have rituals to enhance it. 

 The Procedure, of course, is called “cramming.” Do it well and it leads steadily up the academic ladder.

But here’s a question: Does The Procedure have anything do with educating?”

Bye-bye, Blue Books? – Harvard Magazine

This article from Harvard Magazine actually ran back in the summer of 2010 regarding a change to the faculty members’ handbook which took away the mandate of a three-hour exam at the end of each course. 

“The administrative logic aside, reversing the default procedure for scheduling examinations reflects a pedagogical reality. It appears that finals are going the way of the dodo.”

American Schools Need More Testing Not Less – by Ezekiel J. Emanual in New Republic

My short summation of this article is that it is a call for more formative assessments in an era where high-stakes standardized testing is taking to much of our focus.

“In the modern era, when information can be more easily—and accurately—Googled than mentally recalled, old-fashioned testing strikes its critics as obsolete…
But it turns out that the right kinds of assessments—frequent, short tests—can actually yield big educational benefits. It’s called the “testing effect…”

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PARCC Will Replace MCAS For Most BPS Students

This post originally appeared on Superintendent Conti’s Blog

In case you missed it in the news last week, the Massachusetts Board of Education voted to accept a two-year transition plan to the PARCC assessment. The original plan to implement PARCC testing called for all Massachusetts students begin taking the new assessment in 2015, but MA Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester has been listening to school and district leaders across the state and has advocated for a more gradual transition:
“I have heard a great deal from school superintendents and others about the importance of pacing ourselves so that schools can implement PARCC and other reform initiatives in a thoughtful way,”he said in the memo. “This transition approach is responsive to the field…”
Many of the concerns schools have is in regards to the online aspect of PARCC testing, something that is new to our state. In order to help facilitate this transition, Burlington has volunteered to help support students and educators across the state in this transition.
We are pleased to be participating in the Spring 2014 PARCC Field Test – and have asked PARCC to expand the sample of our students involved because we believe that this experience will be good for children in Burlington and across the state. The Burlington Community has generously provided us with the technological resources to expand our Field Test to include all students. We are also lucky to have talented people working in the district who are willing to learn from this experience and to share this knowledge with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and across Massachusetts.
Our plan is to use different devices at different grades (i.e. tablets, chromebooks, computer labs, etc.) to determine which environment is best for students. We will be conducting focus groups with students and teachers after each testing window and sharing this information with our stakeholders and other school districts to help prepare for what is ahead.  This district preview will help us to better prepare our students and curriculum for future test administrations.
Because our students are participating in the PARCC, we have the option of opting out of MCAS English Language Arts and Math testing at all grades except grade 10 . Our sophomores will have to take both PARCC and MCAS due to both the state graduation requirement and to qualify for the Adams’ scholarships.  In other words, it appears that we will not be administering the MCAS Test this year (aside from grade 10 and possibly Science in grades 5,8,9)
There are two testing windows for the PARCC assessments. The first, for the Performance Based Assessment (PBA), is March 24 – April 11 and the second, for the End of Year Assessment (EOY), is May 19 – June 6. The PBA consists of three testing sessions and the EOY consists of two. We will share more specifics in regards to dates for each grade as soon as we coordinate them with the DESE and PARCC testing officials.
We have been informed that we will not see the results of the Field Test.  Pearson (the creator of the PARCC test) may share district results but they will not be sharing individual school or student results.  While this may concern some parents, we feel confident in our ability to continue to show evidence of students growth through a variety of assessments that our staff members conduct throughout the year.
You may have lots of questions.  We have lots of questions.  We will be getting out more information as it becomes available.

But How Will Their Students Pass The State Assessment?

As our students in Massachusetts settle in for their annual round of “high-stakes” testing, I think it is the perfect time for people to take a few minutes to watch the video from TEDxCreativeCoast titled The Future Will Not Be Multiple Choice.  The presentation by Jaime McGrath (an elementary school teacher in Savannah, GA) and Drew Davies (a web designer) was posted on Mind Shift’s blog about a month ago and I forgot about it until I saw a tweet last night with the link. It really is a must watch for anyone who thinks that our current educational structure is adequate.

It’s no newsflash the current structure of most classrooms is unchanged from the structure that was created to educate students for an industrial society back in the 19th Century.  At one point in our history fitting the right piece in the right hole as quickly as possible and being able to retain large amounts of trivial information in order to regurgitate it or draw from it quickly may have actually been useful. However in a day and age where asking the right questions is of more value than providing a quick response to a multiple choice question, we are past the point of needing a change.

In fact the findings of educators like McGrath, who stray from the current script and look at problem-based education and a focus on “design thinking” are clear.

“All we did was give them the challenge, point them in the right direction and give them the space to be creative,” noted McGrath.  

Here are a few of my take-aways made by the co-presenters Jaime McGrath (an elementary school teacher in Savannah, GA) and Drew Davies (a web designer):

  • Reports predict that 65% of our students will be working in jobs that don’t exist yet.
  • “Such simple tasks as manipulation of blocks helps infants and toddlers develop early skills, including math literacy – the language of numbers.” Huttenlocher, Jordan, and Levine 1994
  • Don’t need students skilled in picking A, B, C, D 
  • “A true understanding of reality is not possible without a certain element of imagination…” Lev Vygotsky 
  • Design in education compliments all learning styles 
  • Will it be messy and risky? But what is the reality we are trying to prepare our kids for? 
  • The future is not a multiple choice test, it is a design challenge

So my question about the state assessment (or a national assessment) posed above was – “How will these students pass the state (or national) assessment. Here’s my answer –  “Who Cares!”

I think the bottom line is that students who are being taught in classrooms where they are being taught to think will be successful on any measure.

Testing, Testing, 1,2,3…

Think outside the bubble
 (Photo credit: MrSchuReads)

As I read through Marion Brady’s great article in The Answer Sheet titled A REAL Paradigm Shift, I can’t help thinking about how difficult it is to create an educational experience for our students that is vastly different than the one we experienced ourselves.  When we talk about redesigning our curriculum, we have to first consider origin of the word curriculum. 

Curriculum came from the Latin word ‘Currere’ which means race course/ to run/ run way, referring to the course of deeds and experiences through which children grow to become mature adults (via Wikipedia).

This is where we hit our biggest obstacle in changing the way we do school in our country.  The folks leading the way, the educators, have a tremendous hurdle to overcome in the fact that for most of us the “deeds and experiences” we have had do not mirror the experiences that we need to lead our current crop of students through.  As I make a disclaimer that I am one of those educators trying to unlearn my own formal education, I am not saying that this is an impossible task.

The rub here is that while I believe in teachers and know that they would be up to the challenge of creating a new reality in our schools, we cannot begin to tackle this work in places where our present and future judges educators, students, schools, and communities on their latest round of standardized test scores.   For educators, this is a never-ending rat race that typically evolves into an environment of “test prep” that is equally unfulfilling for them and their students.  As our state begins a redesigned teacher evaluation process that links teachers to the test scores of their students, I can’t help thinking we are headed towards an infinite loop…    

As Brady points out, as long as education reform efforts in our country continue to define accountability so narrowly, we are perpetuating a myth that there is something significant is happening or will happen.

“Standardized tests are to accountability what a finger in the wind is to a weather station. What they measure — information stored in memory — is useful, but for kids facing an unknown future, that’s not nearly enough. They need to know how to create new knowledge. That knowledge will be original, and standardized tests can’t evaluate original, non-standard thought.”

In this model, we may be able to ensure that certain things are being taught, but even this will not guarantee that significant learning is taking place.

Anyone disagree?

Related articles

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What Are Standardized Tests Preparing Our Kids For?

De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.
  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the weekend, an interesting article titled A warning to college profs from a high school teacher ran in The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet Column.  The article, which has generated well over 1,000 comments already, was written by award-winning high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein from Washington, D.C.  Despite the article’s title, Bernstein is really sending a warning to all of us about the current reality concerning our students and the climate of testing that has overtaken our educational system.  

His concluding paragraph sums up his thoughts:

“Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”

While Bernstein’s conclusion is very general, he also cites some concrete reasons for the state of the current crop of students heading out of our public high schools being ill-prepared for what is ahead of them.

…most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure.

According to Bernstein, these problems also carry over into Advanced Placement courses due to the nature of the AP Exams. As a teacher who spent time scoring the writing portion on the exams, he saw limitations in the scoring mechanism.

“If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words.”

Unfortunately, with PARCC testing due to commence in 2015 for our students, we are looking ahead to even more time spent on standardized testing and not less.

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The End of Standardized Testing? Hey, A Guy Can Dream…

No one I know takes standardize tests for a living
 (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)
As many of us in education dream about a public education system that is not predicated on standardized test scores, there is actually movement in some places to put an end (or at least a pause) to the ridiculous rat race of “high-stakes testing” we have been involved in.  Sam Chaltain recently posted Has Testing Reached A Tipping Point  on his blog and it is a must read for those interested in this topic.  

In the short video below, Chaltain describes schools in other nations where a student’s teachers “the ones who know a student best” design the most meaningful tests a student will take.  He advocates for school communities to answer the following questions:

What are our measures of success for our students? How do we know we are being successful?
While many are skeptical that anything dramatic will take place to change our nation’s plans to test students more often than any other country in the world, Chaltain notes some blips on the radar screen that he hopes will lead to more action for this important cause.

“Consider three separate data points as evidence: Maryland, where the superintendent of the state’s largest district of schools has called for a three-year moratorium on standardized tests; Washington, where one school’s decision to boycott its state tests has spread to other schools and communities; and Texas, where a proposed Senate bill would significantly reduce the number of state standardized tests students must pass to graduate.”

It would be interesting to see how a moratorium on testing would impact our students. I will continue to pray that we have an opportunity to see the day it happens!

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The MCAS School Rankings Stink!

Since the first time I saw the school rankings in the Boston Globe over a decade ago, I have been frustrated by the simplistic and misleading approach that this news outlet has taken in publicizing the scores from our state’s high stakes test.  The approach is simply to rate the top schools from “Number One” to whatever the final number is depending on the grade level that was tested. For instance, if you were a school that had third graders in your building last spring then you had 954 other schools to compare yourself with.

As I discuss my thoughts here on these rankings, I need to make it clear that my intention is not to criticize or praise a school that I reference, but simply to clarify how this works for those who take these rankings too seriously.

Going back to third grade for a moment, the “number one” ranked school in the state in English Language Arts was the Richmond Consolidated School which had 100-percent of its students score in either Advanced or Proficient.  By the way, the Richmond Consolidated School tested only 19 students. Compare this to the school that had the largest third grade population in the state, the Woodland School in Milford, MA which tested 303 students and ranked 571.  Clearly we are comparing apples and oranges and it is unfair to the students and teachers to portray such a misleading picture. There are countless examples of these same types of comparisons that can be done at every grade level.  This is without even getting into the demographics of individual schools and communities.

Here’s a another thing that irks me about the ratings

Using the Grade 10 English Language Arts rankings as an example this time, I would like to ask this question.  Do you think that a school ranked “number one” clearly outperformed a school ranked 99th?  While the answer is an emphatic NO,  if I were a typical parent from Andover, Brookline or any of the 23 schools that were ranked 99 I would probably be wondering why my child’s school is apparently so far away from “number one.”

The explanation is pretty straight forward, there were 28 schools that had 100% of their students score either Advanced or Proficient and were therefore ranked “number one.” The next ranking was “number 29,” a ranking that was shared by 22 schools that had 99% of its students scoring in the top two levels of the ELA MCAS.  So, the good news for folks who ranked “number 99” is that 96% of their students scored either Advanced or Proficient.

Growth Scores Are A Better Measure

Thankfully our state’s Department of Education has moved to a growth model in regards to testing.  What is a growth model?

Here is a quick definition from the DESE’s website

For K-12 education, the phrase “growth model” describes a method of measuring individual student progress on statewide assessments (tests) by tracking the scores of the same students from one year to the next. Traditional student assessment reports tell you about a student’s achievement, whereas growth reports tell you how much change or “growth” there has been in achievement from year to year.

Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to these measures? Isn’t it more important to show where students were and how we track their growth and chart their progress compared to all of the students who had a similar score during the previous school year?   For example, if we had a student who was in the lowest category (warning), shouldn’t we get some credit for moving them along to the next level (needs improvement)?  The obvious answer is – yes!

In addition, I am sure that there are students that walk in the door in September and could score in the advanced level on that year’s MCAS test on day one of the school year.  Therefore, I think it is insignificant when these students score advanced in May of the same school year.  Again, we need to show that we are supporting student growth no matter where they are on day one of the school year.

One More Thing About Ranking Ourselves Based On Standardized Test Scores  

For those who aren’t aware of the correlations between socioeconomics and standardized test, there are clear connections between standardized test results and the median household income in a community or a state.  Check out the graphic below depicting average NAEP scores across our country and the median household income in each state.


Concluding Thoughts About Standardized Tests
In closing, I think that measuring student progress is critical. However, I think we have to keep standardized test results in the proper perspective. In Burlington, we are always of the opinion that we can do a better job for our students. There are certainly areas where we think our state tests scores could be better and we will have plans in place to accomplish this. However, we also have to be careful not to be focused solely on these tests when we talk about our progress.  Our feeling is that these tests are the floor and not the ceiling for what we hope to see our students accomplish.  As a community, we need to make sure that we are utilizing multiple measures to chart the progress of our schools and our students.  
As a parent of three children in another district (grade 1, grade 7 , and grade 9), I am less concerned about the standardized test scores of my students and more interested in whether or not they are developing the skills that they will need to be successful after their formal education is complete. I am fairly confident that their MCAS results or their scores on whatever new federal or state standardized test comes down the pike is not something that will have a major impact in their success.  If the major focus of their schools is on these results then I pretty sure I can find a computer program that can prepare them equally well.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we need schools more than ever. The dilemma is that we need schools that realize the world that we are preparing our students for is one that has changed dramatically and that we cannot prepare students with business as usual.
Here are few blog posts that reference this idea:

An Interesting Question To Ponder – Are Schools KillingYour Child’s Creativity?

A decade of No Child Left Behind: Lessons from a policy failure

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