Category Archives: Testing

Your Bar Graphs Don’t Impress (or Inspire) Me.

Years ago when we were Racing to the Top and Leaving No Child Behind, a district leader of a professional development session for language arts teachers that I was sitting in asked participating teams to share their greatest accomplishment from the previous school year.

He was nudging teams towards describing the measurable growth that their students had made towards mastering important outcomes in their required curriculum — “Really look at that test score data,” he said.  “What patterns do you see?  What can we celebrate about your work together!”

Group after group stood up with pie charts and bar graphs, proud of the fact that they had increased student mastery of core curriculum objectives by 6.3% or that benchmark screening data showed that growth in reading proficiency averaged 14 months — and sometimes more for their “at risk” populations.

And then I got up to represent our team.  “Our greatest accomplishment was Jarius*” I said, sharing a beautiful picture of a boy who had won our hearts in place of the pie charts everyone was expecting.

He’d been “a behavior problem” his entire school career — chronically in trouble, chronically absent, and chronically behind academically as a result.  He’d tested us early on — but once he realized that we were on his side, he invested fully.  We pushed him — using data to identify gaps in his knowledge and then developing lessons tailored to address those gaps.  Just as importantly, we tinkered with the role that relationships play in driving student learning — and learned lessons that I still apply today.

I’m not sure how Mr. PD Man felt about our presentation.  But I’m also not sure that he realized I was sending a message that everyone in that flippin’ rippin’ room needed to hear.

My point was a simple one:  Our greatest achievements should never be moving SCORES forward.  Our greatest achievements should be moving STUDENTS forward.

When we stop talking about kids and start talking about numbers, we lose the moral imperative of our work.  The passion that drew every one of us into the classroom in spite of crappy salaries, long hours and little public respect is the notion that we can make a difference in the lives of the kids that we cross paths with.

You can’t motivate me to work harder or to give more by celebrating statistical growth.  Bar graphs bore me.  They feel cold and impersonal — and there’s nothing about the hearts of the best teachers that is cold and impersonal.

Want to motivate me?  Show me a kid who is struggling mightily and ask me if there’s something that I can do to help.  I’ll work harder than anyone you’ve ever seen.  I’m more than willing to throw your data away — but I’ll never throw a kid away.

Now lemme ask YOU an uncomfortable question:  Are your school’s most important goals and/or celebrations SCORE driven or STUDENT driven?   

Odds are that, if you are being honest, you just said, “Score Driven.”

Here’s how I know:  When I look at the websites of schools and districts that I consult with, I see tons of impressive sounding statements like, “We will increase graduation rates by 8% by 2018” or “The percentage of students in our school who are college and career ready will move from 71.8 to 74.5% by 2019.”

Those goals aren’t surprising.  They are a by-product of the accountability culture that has strangled education for the past twenty years.  We think that measurable outcomes define our credibility.

And by no means would I argue that we should IGNORE evidence when trying to determine just how successful we have been as an organization.

But imagine how much more powerful our goals and celebrations would be if you told the story of students who you had moved forward.  Shouldn’t every team be able to point to kids like Jarius that they had influenced?  Inspiration matters — and stories of kids who are better off because of the work that we are doing together are a thousand times more inspiring than banners touting the fact that we “exceeded growth expectations” for the third year running.

George Couros calls this being Child Driven, Evidence Informed.

I call it the first step towards capturing the hearts and minds of your teachers again.  

#trudatchat

 

*Jarius wasn’t his real name.  But his accomplishments really were our greatest success that year.  Take THAT, Data Guy.

___________________

Related Radical Reads:

Meaningful Ain’t Always Measurable

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

All y’all that know me have probably figured out that I find it darn near impossible to hide my disdain for North Carolina’s hard-right legislature.

Since rising to power over the past five to seven years, they’ve spent the majority of their time together pushing through hateful legislation targeting marginalized populations.  The best part:  Pretty darn close to all of their decisions — think banning same sex marriage, creating incredibly gerrymandered voting districts, or forcing transgender citizens to use bathrooms that mirror their biological gender — have been overturned by the court system.  So while simultaneously waving their pocket Constitutions around, they pass law after law that are ruled unconstitutional.

#sheeshchat

That same legislature has also made it their goal to gut public education.

Perhaps most notably, they’ve created a system of “opportunity scholarships” that allow parents to take public tax dollars to the charter schools and/or private schools of their choice.  The result are pretty darn amazing:  93 percent of voucher recipients are using public tax dollars to put their students in Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools.

Worse yet, the bulk of that funding is going to schools that aren’t held accountable for performance at all.  As a parent of a second grader, I support the innovation potential and alternatives that school choice represent — but as a taxpayer I also expect a return on that investment, something that’s hard to prove when millions of dollars are channeled into schools with no real oversight or accountability and where teachers don’t have to be licensed or certified.

What drives me the craziest is that while simultaneously funneling monies into schools that are not held accountable for student performance, the SAME legislature passed a sweeping bill in 2013 — patriotically named the Excellent Public Schools Act — that is specifically designed to HOLD public schools accountable for student performance.

The law was odious all the way around, stripping tenure rights from teachers, putting all teachers on one year contracts, revamping the teacher pay scale to nudge veterans out of the classroom, and instituting rigorous retention policies for students in third grade.  Thankfully — like most of the legislation passed by our ham-handed politicians — much of the law has been reversed by our state court system in subsequent years.

One piece of that legislation remains in place, however:  An A-F grading system for public schools based on scores earned by students on standardized tests given at the end of every school year.

Here’s how it works:  Every public school — and remember, that DOESN’T include private schools taking public dollars — is given a single letter grade that is supposed to make it easy for parents to determine how their child’s school is performing.  Go to a school that is rated an A?  It’s time for a celebration!  Have a child in a school that is rated an F?  It’s time to abandon ship.  Apply for an opportunity scholarship and run to one of those private schools popping up all around you.  Never mind the fact that similar school accountability systems in other states have been abject failures, open to constant revision and manipulation by influential politicians and communities.  Let’s do this!

But it gets worse:  Here in North Carolina, 80 percent of a school’s letter grade is based strictly on performance and only 20 percent is based on actual student growth — and that’s an improvement over the original proposal that didn’t include student growth as a consideration for school ratings at all.

What’s the consequence of emphasizing performance over growth in school ratings?

Schools and systems serving high percentages of students living in poverty are at a real disadvantage.  Need proof?  Then check out this WRAL review of the 2015-2016 School Performance Grades:

“The data show school grades continue to correlate closely with the poverty levels of schools. Among all schools last year that received a D or F, 93 percent had enrollments with at least 50 percent of students from low-income families. Conversely, among schools that received at least a B, 75.7 percent had enrollments with less than 50 percent of students from low-income families, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.”

Simple translation:  Your child is WAY more likely to go to a school labeled as a failure if you live in a poor community than if you live in a middle to upper middle class community — even IF the kids in your child’s classes are moving forward faster than peers in wealthier schools.  After all, growth doesn’t matter much to North Carolina’s legislators.  Final performance does.

Think about the logical consequences of that simple truth.

Year after year, poor communities — which both nationally and here in North Carolina are often disproportionately populated by people of color — are told that their public schools are failing children.  That discourages investment in the community — what business is going to relocate to a region where every school is rated a D or an F — and depresses home values.  Finding high-paying jobs and building long-term wealth both become more difficult, making it even harder to advance as an individual OR as a community.

Then, here in North Carolina, parents from those same poor communities are offered “opportunity scholarships” to take their students to private schools that are NOT REQUIRED to report at all on their performance.  Worse yet, those private schools often spend less than half of what is spent on a student in a public school.  Teachers are underpaid and uncertified, programs like school lunches and athletics aren’t offered, and extra services for students with special needs are not always available.

That feels a heck of a lot like institutional racism to me.  Am I wrong?

_______________

Related Radical Reads:

Want to Fix Education?  Start Addressing Poverty.

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools

 

 

 

 

First Comes Achievement. Then Comes Confidence.

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit here on the Radical titled Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid.  In it, I shared the story of my daughter — who came home broken one day because her progress report wasn’t what she expected it to be.  Her peers were earning threes and fours, but her report was covered in twos — and while she knows little about what those numbers really mean, she felt like a failure.  That broke my heart.

A reader named David Cain — who happens to have an equally vibrant six year old daughter — stopped by and left a brilliant comment that you should read in full.  Here’s the part that caught my eye, though:

Your daughter does not “master expected outcomes,” she does much, much more as she already demonstrates mastery of unexpected outcomes. Her own genius shines through the narrow parameters of a grading and assessment system that was poorly able to meet the needs of twentieth-century learning, let alone 21.5-century learning.

David’s right, isn’t he.  EVERY kid learns much, much more than the “expected outcomes” during the course of any given school year.

(click here to enlarge/view/download original image on Flickr)

Slide_MaththatREALLYMattered

Whether it happens inside or outside of our classrooms, our kids are always learning.

Some master new interpersonal skills, giving them the ability to work in groups or to serve as a leader in formal or informal settings.  Some become more confident in themselves, proving once and for all that they really are competent and capable learners.  Some discover their lifelong passions, falling in love with a topic or a subject that leaves them energized every time that they think about it.  Some begin to recognize the connection between their own actions and success, developing the independence characteristic of successful individuals.

Some fail for the first time — and then realize that moving beyond failure is simply a part of a life well-lived.  Some wrestle with difficult friendships and the impact that those relationships can have on one’s well-being and sense of satisfaction.  Some start to see criticism as a form of coaching, designed to improve rather than to destroy.  Some realize that an entire world’s worth of learning is an Internet connection away and begin clicking their way to new discoveries on their own.

What does this all mean for us classroom teacher types?

First, we need to stop defining our students as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that schools are required to report on.  

Doing so cheapens “the whole child” that we used to be so passionate about protecting.  In our quest to identify and then remediate “struggling students”(read: the kids likely to score poorly on standardized reading and math exams at the end of the school year), we’ve forgotten that there are plenty of reasons that those exact same students deserve to be celebrated. And whether we will admit it or not, overlooking the successes of struggling students influences our interactions with the kids in our classrooms.  If you are genuinely convinced that a kid is a failure, how likely are you to work hard to help them succeed?

#stewinthatchat

But more importantly, we also have to make sure that our students don’t define THEMSELVES as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that we are required to report on.

What I worry about the most with my daughter — who is a mirror reflection of many of the kids in my classroom — is that she has already begun to doubt herself.  She knows that doing well in school is important.  She knows that the “report card” — which is filled out by someone who is always judging her, is sent home in a special envelope a few times a year, and must be signed by her mom and dad — matters more than anything else that happens in school.  She also knows that (1). Kids are being ranked and sorted by the numbers that appear on those report cards and that (2). She’s at the bottom of the pile.

What she doesn’t know is that in a lot of ways, she’s MORE than the intellectual equal of her peers.  She may not have mastered all of her word families yet, but she probably knows more about life in Colonial America than anyone in her class.  It’s true that she’s a level or two behind in her reading, but ask her about how the structures and functions of individual plants aid in the survival of species, and she’ll talk your ear off.  “Tell me more, Daddy!” — proof of her curiosity and her appetite for learning — comes out of her mouth a thousand times a day.

One of the quotes that is currently driving my own thinking about classroom feedback and assessment comes from this Jan Chappius and Rick Stiggins article.  They write:

First comes achievement and then comes confidence.  With increased confidence, comes the belief that learning is possible.  Success must be framed in terms of academic attainments that represent a significant personal stretch.  Focused effort with an expectation of success is essential.  Students must come to honestly believe that what counts here — indeed the only thing that counts here — is that learning results from the effort expended.

If Chappius and Stiggins are right that achievement precedes confidence, that confidence determines effort and that effort leads to success, then our top assessment priority must be to point out to every student the places where they ARE achieving and where they HAVE succeeded through focused effort.  But that can’t happen when our definitions of “achievement” and “success” are limited to “mastering expected outcomes.”  That can only happen when we start to celebrate the unexpected outcomes that our kids are mastering.

#trudatchat

___________________

Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

 

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.

#truDATchat

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Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

Watch This: The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools

Have you had a chance to see Will Richardson’s recent Tedx talk titled The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools yet?  If not, watch it right now:

What resonates the most with me is Richardson’s argument that there is a very real disconnect between our beliefs about schooling and the practices that we embrace in schools.

I wrestle with that disconnect almost every single day — and it’s professionally exhausting.  As a sixth grade science teacher, I am responsible for teaching students about TONS of trivia.  So far this year, the kids in my classroom have:

  • memorized the parts of a flowering plant.
  • studied the difference between the A, B and C horizon in a soil profile.
  • learned about the basic properties of soil.
  • sorted rocks into categories including intrusive/extrusive, clastic/nonclastic and foliated/nonfoliated.
  • tried to keep hydro-, ge0- and thigmotropisms straight.

You see the problem there, don’t you?  The emphasis in each of those examples is on KNOWING, when science classes should prioritize DOING.  Instead of asking and answering interesting questions, we are racing to cover the content in the required curriculum.  My classroom prioritizes schooling, not learning — and that’s a function of the priorities set in our required curriculum.

That’s a tangible example of the disconnect that Will is describing.

If we REALLY cared about developing students who are critical thinkers who can work creatively across domains and who can solve problems collaboratively — which I believe are the RIGHT goals — then those practices would stand at the center of our classrooms and our assessments and our evaluations and observations of good teaching.

The sad truth, though, is while we are more than willing to give lip service to the notion that schools should be different, we continue to embrace traditional definitions of what “successful schools” look like in action.  No one is held accountable for creating learning spaces that facilitate higher order behaviors.  Instead, we’re held accountable for the results we produce on standardized tests.

That has to change.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach This Year

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

Turned Into a Testing Machine