Saturday, January 31, 2009

Case in Point: Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

There is a television show on Fox called Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader that seems to perfectly capture the irony of education today. In the show, adults compete with 11-year-old kids to answer trivia questions that are typically found on the tests these kids take during the school year. The questions include social studies, math and geography concepts. Here a some examples:
Rods and cones are found in what part of the eye?
- the cornea
- the pupil
- the retina

Which planet in our solar system has a moon named Titan?
- Saturn
- Jupiter
- Venus

What makes this show amusing to many is that quite often the students get more answers right than the adults do. Does anyone wonder why we focus our children’s education on trivia that doesn’t seem to be remembered or useful as an adult? Do the students wonder why they are tested on these facts when adults don’t seem to need to know them. I wonder!

In the Information Age we have very easy access to facts as we need them. This access has changed the way we adults behave. When we feel ill, we can look up symptoms on the internet to determine what may be the condition, the cause, and treatment. We still see doctors of course but they do not have the same absolute authority as before. They are not the only source of knowledge any more. Even my children’s pediatrician now walks in to the examination room with his lap top that helps to take constellations of symptoms and determine its cause, condition and treatment. They are not expected to have an encyclopedic memory of children’s illnesses and how to treat them. I am comforted that they have access to these tools.

In a similar fashion many people are starting to work on their own taxes this season using Turbo Tax and other such programs. We no longer need to rely on tax accountants as the sole source of meeting these needs, though we still value their specialized knowledge, especially when our taxes get complex. Even our tax accountants rely on sophisticated software to enable them to do their jobs more easily, efficiently, and accurately.

These examples show how the Information Age has empowered us. It has made knowledge common. It is shared and available for the greater good. Even very specialized fields rely on a repository of information, rather than the need to know everything.

If this is how life in the real world is now, is it necessary for our children to prepare for adulthood by memorizing isolated facts? No. But this is what standardized testing encourages. Our schools need to be places of inspiration and wonder. They need to prepare our students for adulthood by drawing out their innate and unique abilities, to cultivate a sense of curiosity, to broaden their understanding of the world. I want my children to understand how the body works as a whole and to be acquainted with vast and amazing universe we are a small part of. It is less important to memorize the names of moons and eye parts. A test should determine how well concepts have been assimilated. It should not be used to determine what to teach. That is backwards and counterproductive. Let’s not waste our children’s time in school.

Incidentally, if you did not know the answer to the example questions, you are not alone. The retina works with the rods and cones and Titan is a moon that orbits Saturn. I looked it up in seconds on the internet. I don’t need to know that kind of trivia in my day-to-day life and I bet you don’t either, unless you are an Optometrist or an Astronomer.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Alternatives to High Stakes Testing

High stakes testing is for the benefit and purposes of the institution on a micro level (a school) and a macro level (public schools in a national sense), not for the student. Offering one standardized test to prove competency gained by a year of school makes it easy for the school to quickly and easily determine the achievement and aptitude of its students in a measurable, efficient, and objective way. Ideally the data it yields makes it very easy for:
• a school’s leaders and teachers to determine how well they are doing their job and where to devote more time and resources
• a teacher to determine retention or promotion
• a school district’s leaders to determine school closures, teacher pay and firing and hiring decisions
• a college to make acceptance decisions
• scholarship allocation
• a lawmaker or politician to determine new policy
• a community to understand how well local schools are doing in order to make choices on which schools to choose for their children
• a student to understand how smart he is as compared to others nationally and locally. From this the student can make decisions about staying in school or not, which college to choose, eligibility for college, subject matter to study, etc.

This score card reading and the resulting decisions can all be achieved without having to invest any attempt at understanding the curriculum, the day-to-day lesson plans, the classroom dynamics, and the student’s daily home lives (including the circumstances on test days). It does not require the score card reader to bother with information about the individual student over the course of the year such as special needs, improvement, attention, attitude, breakthroughs in understanding, participation, and effort. A high stakes test cannot take any of these factors into account. To get a clearer, more accurate picture of a student’s achievement and aptitude, a more holistic approach is required, and this can be time consuming, subjective, non-standard, and messy. A teacher (ideally with a parent’s input) is in the best position to collect, assess and report that kind of comprehensive data on each student and to use it in the student’s best interest.

Examples of holistic, ongoing assessments – what to look for:
• To assess children’s kinesthetic abilities during preschool years, we would observe their motor skills in balancing, skipping, walking backwards, etc.
• With elementary age students the teacher observes concentration, lesson retention, composition of artwork (which can give clues to their development), social interactions, and speech among other things.
• Older students can show their abilities and improvements with lesson retention, integration, and application.

Examples of student activity - how to assess:
• Students can write and illustrate notebooks to strengthen subject retention and feel a sense of ownership in their learning.
• They can create portfolios over the course of the year.
• Give presentations to practice preparation and confident public speaking.
• Team projects with observations of teamwork, overall team success, and peer reviews. This can go further with a science fair style event where community is invited and the team must describe their project, their conclusions, and answer questions.
• Research papers
• Oral interviews or essay style exams

This kind of data, not gathered with a Scantron, makes it hard for others divorced from the day to day functioning of the classroom to make decisions based on the voluminous and non-standard data. But the question must be asked, what are schools for? Are they for the benefit of students or for institutions? I think we would all agree that schools are intended to provide an education for all children for their benefit and for the benefit of a nation as a whole. If this is true, then we need to do a better, more thoughtful and careful job of determining how well students are doing and how well we are serving them. Of course it is beneficial to have assessment data, but taking the easy way out with high stakes testing is the least telling and most damaging way to attain it and make decisions based upon it. Our current assessment models are producing more dropouts (disproportionately minority students) than accountability.
According to the book “Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools” by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner, the “pressures of high-stakes testing erode the validity of test scores and distort the integrity of the education system.” They provide extensive research and documentation to make their argument, which is based on Campbell’s Law, which states that the greater the social consequences associated with a quantitative indicator (such as test scores), the more likely it is that they indicator will corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor. Additionally, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) strongly opposes “the use of large-scale testing as the sole determinant for making critical, high stakes decisions about individual students and education systems, including access to educational opportunity, retention or promotion, graduation or receipt of a diploma.” Further, they argue that standardized test scores should not be used to establish rewards or sanctions for any school or its staff.

The effect and severity of punishments associated with high-stakes testing are disproportionate with the offense. There is something wrong with punishing a school or a teacher for a student’s test results when many of the factors that significantly impact student achievement, like attendance or parental involvement are beyond their control. Furthermore, it is often the case that the schools that get punished by withheld funding are the schools that need it the most. This punishes all students and staff. Even worse, the punishment of a withheld diploma or a promotion can have devastating, life-long consequences for an individual. We need to get away from the lab rat model of punishment and reward and focus on the goal of education.
Finally when we put so much stock on a high stakes test, it sends the message to administrators, teachers, parents, students, politicians – our communities in a broad sense, that the test is the goal, not the learning, understanding, knowledge, preparedness and personal growth that we talk about as being the goal of education. This testing reverses the process and the motivation of education and encourages teachers to teach to the test, which changes the mode of teaching to rote memorization of facts and the mechanical practice of testable skills. It has the negative consequence of narrowing the curriculum with emphasis on basic skills. What about the arts that foster creativity and innovation, which employers say is sorely lacking in today’s employees? What about big-picture thinking or a cooperative work ethic? What about emotional intelligence or critical thinking? These skills are important predictors of success in life but difficult to test. There is so much more to a solid education than what is possible to test.