Thursday, February 28, 2013

Standardized Testing

I was recently asked how I felt about standardized testing.  It's a loaded question.

As a college graduate amid the fury of the Nation at Risk report, I recognize that testing is important.  We are not doing the job if students graduate from school unable to read and write.  That's the easy part.  What has happened over the years to put us where we are today?

As a young teacher, there was never any discussion about how anyone would measure my performance.  Every year my principal observed my teaching, provided feedback, gave a full evaluation based on the observations made during the year.  We discussed what we saw.  It was a partnership.  I have no doubt that my students were growing as learners.  (I know for a fact that two of those students became writers as a result of the impact I had on them.) Yet I have no proof.

Standardized testing is the proof.

I have nothing against the testing itself.  I believe teachers should be held accountable for their work.  However, I do not like the climate standardized testing has created.  Too many teachers seem to be constrained by fears that a different lesson may not have a positive impact on learning.  I see this as a problem for students.  They do not get the quality lessons some teachers would like to do because the teachers are feeling too pressed.  This is especially noticeable in the most at-risk schools.

Consider the difference between a private school and a public school.  In the private schools where I taught, standardized testing was given to measure how the students were performing.  Students did not feel stress during testing days.  Teachers did not feel stressed either.  When the results came in, the faculty listened to the results en masse and broke up to decide how to address the gaps.  We were still given freedom to teach the material we liked and provide lessons that met the needs of our students.  In the public schools, it was different.  The teachers were told that the students did not measure up and we were told to make change.  Sadly, in the places where I taught, we did not work as a whole department to address how to gain ground.

I still believe that standardized testing is okay.  However, as a profession we need to find a better way to use the information provided by such testing so that growth is celebrated and stagnation is addressed in a professional manner.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Common Core

I read Diane Ravitch's blog this morning about how she is not supporting the Common Core Learning Standards.  While she makes a case for her point, my concern is that the bottom line is she does not believe that the adoption of these standards will improve student achievement on tests.

My alarm bells started sounding.

As a woman who lives in a federally impacted area (this community educates the children of military families), I know the importance of having some common thread of education.  These children move often all over the country.  It's helpful for them to know that the time they spent in one place does not automatically place them ahead or behind their peers in another school.  In New York State, we had weird math -- Math A and Math B -- a blending of algebra, geometry and trigonometry.  As difficult as it was for the natives, the students who came new to the district had no idea what was being taught.  So, I did see the value of a common core standard.

I also am a 1984 college graduate.  Much of the discussion as I was graduating and after dealt with the number of students who were graduating from high school unable to read.  A Nation at Risk had big impact.

So, why the alarm bells?

First, if we are to shape the future of education based solely on test performance, we are selling ourselves and our children short.  I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the school to teach reading.  We should not pass along those who cannot do.  However, we need to push students further.  I hope that the Common Core Standards will do that.

Second, Ravitch argues that those learners who struggle most (ELL and special ed., for example) do not do well on the test and will be hurt by the standards.  I fear she may be right, but I also think we need to find a way to reach those students and improve our ability to help them learn.  It's my opinion that as long as students are showing improvement, we are doing our jobs.  Some teachers ARE more effective than others, but we need to recognize that sometimes it's the baby steps that are taken that have the biggest impact.  In some respects Ravitch's argument is like tossing chemotherapy because it doesn't work for all patients.

In fact, the only argument that Ravitch makes that I agree with fully is the change in percentage of fiction to informational text that is read.  If students do not have the opportunity to read the ficitonal classics in high school, where will they read them?  English teachers value all types of written works, but fiction is a place to explore.  Removing that makes the English class more like a history class.  I do not appreciate being told what percentage of my curriculum should deal with non-fiction; however, the truth is that students are having difficulty fully comprehending the text.  To meet the needs of those students, we do what we must.