How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

Regular Radical Readers know that high stakes testing is in the forefront of my mind right now.  I guess that’s just what happens when you live and work in a nation hellbent on tying teacher evaluation to the scores that students produce on multiple choice exams.

The testing pressure is worse than usual for me this year simply because in response to President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, North Carolina has introduced new “Measures of Student Learning” exams for science.  That means a “value-added” score based on nothing other than results my students generate on a late-May exam will be tied directly to my evaluation — and, if our Republican-led legislature has its way, will eventually be the SOLE factor in determining whether or not I’m placed on a terminating contract.

Outside of design flaws that will make this “measure of student learning” nearly impossible for the 12-year olds that I teach to actually pass — it is primarily composed of 35 isolated knowledge-driven questions that cover topics from a 23-page curriculum guide that we started learning in July — I’m worried for one main reason:

I don’t think I’ll get through our entire curriculum before the test.

Part of the blame for failing to get through the curriculum before the test rests with the curriculum designers, who really did jam the proverbial kitchen sink into the sixth grade pacing guide.  Need proof?  Then check out this PARTIAL list of “essential” vocabulary words and tell me whether or not you think it’s possible for teachers to engage sixth graders in a meaningful exploration of this content in one year:

Conduction, Convection, Radiation, Heat Transfer, Mediums, Frequency, Amplitude, Pitch, Wavelength, Longitudinal Waves, Transverse Waves, Trough, Crest, Rarefaction, Compression, Electromagnetic Energy, Disturbances.

Melting Point, Boiling Point, Solubility, Solute, Solvent, Saturation, Phase Changes.

Density, Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic, Oceanic Crust, Continental Crust, Plate Tectonics, Alfred Wegener, Convergent Boundaries, Divergent Boundaries, Transform Boundaries, Primary Waves, Secondary Waves, Surface Waves, Parent Rock, Contour Plowing.

Eclipses, Phases of the Moon, Tidal Patterns, Hubble Telescope, International Space Station, Fermi-Gamma-Ray Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Gravitational Force.

And part of the blame for failing to get through the curriculum before the test rests with the calendar writers, who have my students taking our end of grade exam almost THREE FULL WEEKS before our school year actually ends.  If I had another three weeks to work with my students, I’d get through the curriculum without any trouble.

But most of the blame for failing to get through the entire curriculum before the test rests with me.  After all, I spent a TON of class periods covering things that AREN’T going to be tested.

Here’s what we were “wasting our time” on:

Sustained Silent Reading:  My interdisciplinary team made the decision long ago to do silent reading once a week in every classroom.  Our thinking was that students need daily time to read silently AND need to see EVERY teacher as a reader.

We’re PRETTY sure that this time is well spent. Our team is full of passionate readers this year who love talking about books with us.  A colleague stopped by the library the other day while we were reading and asked how we got our kids to be so quiet during SSR time.  My answer: Give kids chances to read every single day.

Time “Wasted”:  30 minutes per week, or two class periods per month.  16 total class periods.

#measureTHATlearning

Teaching the Nonfiction Reading Skills in the Common Core Curriculum:  Science teachers in North Carolina have been buried in training around the literacy standards for social studies, science and the technical subjects in the Common Core curriculum this year.  In fact, it was the PRIMARY professional development that I received — and the expectation was that science teachers would integrate nonfiction reading lessons into their curriculum.

Convinced that teaching students the skills necessary for being literate consumers of scientific text and literate participants in scientific conversations, my learning team jumped into that instruction with two feet.  Check out the lessons that we developed.  Not bad, huh?

Here’s the problem:  NONE of those skills will be tested on the fact-driven “measures of student learning” exams that my kids have to take.  Of course, the language arts teacher on our team is probably jazzed that I spent so much time teaching nonfiction  skills like identifying bias and evaluating evidence, but it ain’t going to help me.

Time “Wasted”:  4 two-day lessons.  A total of 8 class periods.

#measureTHATlearning

Introducing Information Technology Standards:  Here in North Carolina, there is a required Information Technology curriculum that has to be delivered by core area teachers.  That curriculum is actually pretty solid — it addresses essential themes like teaching students to manage and evaluate information in online spaces and encouraging kids to use digital tools to publish for wider audiences.

On my interdisciplinary team, most of those lessons happen in my classroom simply because I’m comfortable with introducing students to digital tools and spaces.  Wrote a book about it, even.

To address those standards, I had my students work in groups to use Diigo to create a shared collection of resources connected to the New York City Soda Ban — a high-interest topic that played a role in our nonfiction reading work.  Check out the lesson here.

We also talked about the characteristics of collaborative dialogue — and then practiced those skills by engaging in a VoiceThread conversation about the New York City Soda Ban.  You can see the conversation here and explore the lessons here.

Again — not bad stuff, huh?  But nothing in these lessons is going to be tested either — even though it IS a part of the required curriculum that students are supposed to be introduced to.

Time “Wasted”:  8 class periods.

#measureTHATlearning

Spending Two-Weeks Introducing the Scientific Method with an Actual Lab: Probably the worst decision that I made this year was deciding to start the year by introducing the scientific method with a lab activity.  We spent the first few weeks using different liquids and materials to explore density — the ONE theme that appears again and again in the content of our curriculum.

It was a pretty awesome experience for the  kids.

They know little about density when they come to sixth grade, so watching liquids separate out even after they are mixed and shaken vigorously raises a TON of wonder questions in their minds — and because density appears so frequently in our curriculum, I’ve been able to use that experience as a starting point for a thousand conversations in our study of the required curriculum.

What I loved the most, though, was watching groups ask their own density-related extension questions — and then try to figure out how they could (1). develop a lab to test their hypothesis and (2). communicate their findings with others.  Those are fundamental scientific behaviors, right?

Unfortunately, they’re not TESTED scientific behaviors.

Time “Wasted”:  8 class periods.

#measureTHATlearning

Allowing Students to Ask and Answer their Own Wonder Questions:  One of my favorite goals in the Common Core writing standards for science and social studies argues that students should be able to “conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.”

That’s AWESOME, isn’t it?  We are LITERALLY saying that students should be spending regular time in schools asking and then researching answers for their OWN questions.

To tackle this goal, I started the year by having my kids spend 5-10 minutes at the end of each class period recording interesting questions connected to the content that we were studying.  Then, at the end of the quarter, students had an entire class period to study one of the questions that they had generated during the quarter.

That practice, sadly, was pushed aside at the beginning of the second semester when I realized that we were going to run out of time before testing season started.  To ensure that my kids were prepared to ANSWER questions, I stopped having them ASK questions — but not before we’d “wasted” another chunk of valuable instructional minutes.

Time “Wasted”:  5-10 minutes per day, or two class periods per month for one semester.  8 total class periods.

#measureTHATlearning

If my math is right, that means I spent 48 class periods on things that AREN’T going to be tested.  That WAS a foolish decision, right?

I should have known better than to spend so much time encouraging reading, introducing the skills necessary to tackle nonfiction text, teaching about the role that technology can play in making learning easier, developing the core behaviors of scientists, and allowing my kids to ask and answer their own questions.

#measureTHATlearning

Never mind the fact that EVERY one of those skills is a part of one of the three different required curricula that I’m supposed to teach or that EVERY one of those skills are skills that sophisticated, responsible learners must master in order to be “college and career ready.”

The only thing that matters right now is that NONE of those skills will show up on our “measures of student learning” exam, so spending time on them was a decision that I’ll pay for when my students struggle to answer questions about Contour Plowing, Pangaea, Geotropism,  the Chandra X-Ray Observatory or the Fermi-Gamma Ray Telescope in a few weeks.

Unless I get lucky and the 35 multiple choice questions chosen by test writers all cover the content that I DID get through, the results could be disastrous:  My “value-added score” will be low, “needs-improvement” will be slapped next to my name, and I’ll be placed on a terminating contract all in the name of “holding teachers accountable.”

I won’t make the same mistake twice, y’all.  

Science is going to look a lot different in my room next year.  Whether I like it or not, the content that is tested will get WAY more attention than the content that isn’t — and I’m pretty sure that’s NOT a good thing.

#sheesh

_______________________________

Related Radical Reads:

 The Monster You’ve Created

Stuffing Kids with Content

What DO We Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do

 

4 comments

  1. Billie Wofford

    We have block scheduling but are required to have students read silently for thirty minutes each block of English. I still have a dilemma. Each student gets to pick his/her own library book. This works great for my students who like to read. For the others, I have to read a book to them or play an audio just to get them to finish a book. They often show up without a book so it’s wasted time watching them look at a class book they don’t intend to read. The irony is that this is all fiction reading when our state tests are shifting to non-fiction test items. So how do we build the reading stamina from Diary of a Wimpy Kid type texts?

  2. Mary Davis, NBCT

    Bill, I have just started reading your column and I am so impressed. Don’t change a thing about teaching science.. I am sick and tired of these tests and their unnatural importance. Please send this column to Obama and your Carolina people. I am a special ed. teacher and the other special education teacher I split the grade with has tried to make me feel guilty about not doing enough “test prep” etc. I told her that I am sure that her students might surpass mine on the “TEST” but mine might actually read a book this summer and be able to comprehend it. Keep your spirit! I wish you were teaching next to me.

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  4. Tracy Gilmer

    I understand completely. Have you tried combining some of the “Time Wasters”? Can silent sustained reading be reading science material that will be used for an assignment later? Can you use tested objectives to help teach those that are not? Just a thought from a non-science teacher.