Category Archives: testing

What I’ve Been Reading

Tim Stahmer’s blog post, It’s Not Pearson’s Fault, led me to the Forbes profile of the education giant. As Tim noted, it was worth the read. Two statements from Pearson executives stood out for me. In the very first paragraph, we see how difficult it is to pin down educational concepts. Jennifer Rheinfold writes of Pearson’s goals: “The goal is not merely to build a more successful and sustainable business—an imperative as Pearson’s traditional print operations shrivel—but also to improve the lives of millions of people throughout the world.” But the quote that follows from CEO John Fallon shows an interesting take on improving lives when he comments, ““What we’re trying to do is the same thing—to help improve learning outcomes.” Which translates to test scores. 

Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education advisor, wrote a report on Pakistan in which he refers to his education philosophy–standards and accountability–as “deliverology.” The image of education invoked by this word is a traditional, teacher- and curriculum-centered practice where students are the recipients rather than the participants.

The Man With 26 Million Students refers to Zach Sims, the founder of Codeacademy. Coding is the foreign language of our era. Fluency allows you greater creativity as you have more control over the development environment. But programming is more than that: it has a logic and syntax that requires critical thinking and deeper learning is often experienced through failure rather than success as Tom Woodward suggests in his post, Rookie Javascript Mistakes.  I’ve been playing around with the Kano I bought and going through the challenges for students that help them grasp programming concepts. I “learned” to program the way Tom did, by thinking about what I wanted to accomplish and finding bits of code that allowed me to do that.  Working through tutorials are helping solidify my understanding. After I finish this post, I’m going to try out this weekend’s pizza challenge.

#28daysofwriting from Oliver Quinlan describes Tom Barrett’s project to blog 28 minutes for the next 28 days. I’m in and hoping that the commitment, one I’ve tried before, will indeed kickstart this blog. I’ve signed on officially and this is my first post.



More On Making Learning Relevant

Sometime after I posted the last entry on the relevance of Algebra, I was paging through a book catalog and it seemed like each page had at least one book that focused on how and why literature mattered. Here are just a few of the titles:

I haven’t ordered any of them. I’ve already read Moby Dick and W.H. Auden and spent a lot of time teaching children Shakespeare. At some point I realized I was trying to turn them into English majors, when what I really wanted to do was help them learn to love reading the way I did. If, eventually, they found Melville and Auden and the Bard, so much the better. But to force it upon them meant it only led to the inevitable question of why they needed to read it in the first place.

It is an interesting side note that the authors of these books are writers who were probably English majors at some point in their lives so perhaps the lesson here is that, if you plan to become a writer, then reading literature is part of the career path.

And then there’s this blog entry from Edutopia just published today: Why Do We Need To Learn This? Allen Mendler offers strategies for answering the question that might diffuse the immediate situation but never gets to the heart of the answer which is that someone, somewhere decided that “this” was important for everyone to know and, as Mendler does point out, it is going to be on a high-stakes test:

Upon hearing the “When will I ever use this?” refrain, a high school teacher I work with tells her students, “I’m not sure because I don’t know what you want to be in your life. But if you give me a list of everything you plan to do and accomplish, I’ll do my best to let you know when we cover something that I think you might use.” When kids say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” her response is, “Exactly. You might need it next week, next year or never. But it is going to be on Friday’s test, not because I want to make you miserable, but because at the end of the year, it is going to be on the state test, and if you want to pass, you need to know it.”

So, you have to know it because I’m going to test it and later someone else is going to test it? I think this is probably the worst answer to the question but the most relevant in our high-stakes world and that just makes me sad.


Testing Zombies

As a defender of public education, I took Tom Woodward’s challenge Scott McLeod’s challenge seriously. I want to fight fire with fire in the war being waged against public education. Tom Scott outlines the seven steps of the strategy being used by organizations like the Chamber of Commerce. His blog entry is worth a read despite the depressing conclusion. Go, read…

i didn’t want to believe that public education could be beaten by such a blatantly cynical sound bite campaign. So, I set out to answer step for step using high-stakes testing as the target.

According to Tom Scott, step 1 is to get a snappy slogan. I came up with “Stop the Testing Tragedy.” Maybe not all that snappy but I don’t have the benefit of a focus group.

Step 2 is to create made up statistics to prove my point. Instead, I used real but sketchy statistics. Some 40% of students suffer from the anxiety that has been shown to influence test scores and cause other physical and emotional damage. The slide show outlines the sketchiness: most research happened prior to our current testing craze engendered by No Child Left Behind. And the studies don’t distinguish between classroom and high-stakes testing. Plus, the percentages are all over the board in the studies  cited: “Current estimates of the percentage of students in a classroom affected by test anxiety range from a low of about 1% to a high of over 40% (Cizek & Burg, 2006, p. 29).” So my stat is true but who knows “how” true. What I do know is that I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that kids are stressed out by testing from students, parents and teachers.



Step 3 is to come up with a graphic. I wanted to use the drooling kid from Ferris Beuhler but it was more gross than eye catching so I went for this one instead. She needs a speech bubble but I don’t have a writing crew so for now we just get the scream.


Step 4 involves maps…and there’s where I got distracted. I thought I would make a map of all the states that Tom Scott mentioned who beat Finland. Or states that had reasonable opt out policies. Or maybe all the states where there had been test protests this spring.   That last idea led me to the Rhode Island students who dressed up like zombies to protest state tests.

Testing zombies…now there’s an idea that could catch on. I went looking for copyright friendly images of zombies and what did I discover? The poster for Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain. That took the rest of the evening.

According to Tom Scott, there are three more steps: make report cards, use social media, spend boat loads of money. Educators are busy making real report cards, struggling to provide authentic assessment in a world that prefers letter grades and test scores. They certainly don’t have boat loads of money and what they do have goes to buying classroom essentials from crayons to tissues to books. Not to mention that they are spending their days with second graders instead of marketing consultants and research assistants. 

But social media is accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, school filters and fear mongers often keep educators from engaging with social media in professionally productive ways. Posting student work and classroom success stories could go a long way to telling a very different story about what is happening in public education when teachers are willing to shut the door and skip test prep for a few days.

But now may be the time to dig in and fight with whatever tools we do have. There was some buzz this spring as several educators very publicly left the profession because testing clashed with their principles. There is a ground swell of opposition to testing in the general public even those who do not have children in school. Recently, I was at a meeting of local historical leaders and it didn’t take long for them to lament how testing has led to a narrowing of the history curriculum that forced out any mention of the rich local history in a region that includes Nat Turner’s rebellion. I encouraged them to talk to their legislators and let them know that not everyone thinks testing is the way to figure out if our schools are successful.

Educators must speak up for themselves and those of us who believe in what they do, must also speak up. And, I’d like to believe we can do it not through incorrect, misleading information but by telling true stories of teachers and students and classrooms. And a few zombie posters…

The Danger of Data: A Charter School Update

Interesting follow up to yesterday’s post about charter schools.  The Commonwealth Foundation points to evidence that more charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress than traditional schools. It turns out that this positive trend was manufactured by the state’s Secretary of  Education by turning charter schools into districts so they have a lower standard to meet for AYP.

Diane Ravitch covered the story on her blog this morning, concluding, “This is the intersection of politics and education, where the data are adjusted for political ends.”

With a simple definition change, failing schools were now successful schools.  Their traditional counterparts did not have that same luxury so they continue to struggle to meet the increasingly stringent demands of the law. I’m reminded of a Pennsylvania school superintendent I interviewed several years ago.  He assured me that he knew his school would never reach the 100% pass rate but that he and his faculty was going to continue to work hard to help all their student succeed as long as they were allowed to do so. The deck is stacked against these educators in so many ways that the most amazing part is that they keep working every day.

Finding the People in the Picture

This fall, I will be teaching an introductory qualitative research course. My own dissertation research used a qualitative methodology to learn more about how teachers plan for the use of technology. I interviewed and observed teachers at work in their classrooms with their students. I wrote short vignettes describing that work and the challenges they faced from high-stakes testing to inadequate access to resources. While I’m sure my research will not have much of any impact, I am proud of the way I represented the complexity of the classroom through the voice of the teachers.

For me, that’s the value of this kind of research. Certainly, quantitative research with its percentages and statistics and measures of error, is useful for wider “big picture” sort of research, providing access to general trends and suggestions for practices that might lead to greater success in whatever given area is being studied. But, qualitative research paints a different picture, of the people themselves, the ones who make saying anything definitive about education very difficult. I am often much more interested in those personal stories and insights than in the big picture ideas because they remind us that education is first, and foremost, about human beings.

If you’ve been following the news about the school in Rhode Island that had decided to fire all its teachers as part of its reform efforts, you’ve seen a glimpse of this tension between the big picture and the individual people. The latest news is that the administrators and teachers have negotiated an agreement and they will not be fired after all. My thoughts about the agreement itself are for another post, what I’m interested in here is the way the story plays out in the version I read at NPR.

You have to scroll all the way to the bottom to find the people in the story. The teachers are only present in the person of the union boss while the school district itself is represented by the Superintendents and a state administrator. They aren’t really “people” in my book but talking points who are saying all the right things about this agreement and the efforts they are making to improve education in their district. Even the Obama administration plays a role, but again, one that is preordained and peppered with words like “accountability” and “chronically underperforming.”

But there, in the last few sentences are the people: the parents and students who haven’t been involved in the agreement and yet who will be influenced by its outcomes.

The teachers largely have won the support of students and parents, many of whom believe the staff has been made a scapegoat for the woes of a high school in one of the state’s poorest cities. Norma Velez, whose 15-year-old son, Jose, is a sophomore, said she was pleased to see the teachers return. “When the teachers teach to students — some of them — they don’t want to cooperate with the teachers,” Velez said. “They just do what they want, and they hold up the rest of the students.” Julia Pickett, a 17-year-old senior, bristled at the description of the school as failing. “I don’t like that perception of us. I think we’re a great school,” she said. “Just one test score doesn’t determine whether a school is good or bad.”

Here’s that glimpse of the real people behind the “facts” of the story…the brief insight into the kinds of classrooms these teachers face each day. The momentarily glimmer of the idea that the human beings behind the numbers don’t see themselves as failures. And, in support of my own bias, the suggestion that teachers are not the only ones to blame but have been part of a wider failure of imagination throughout the education community that has developed simplistic, easy to evaluate definitions of student achievement and success. It does often get boiled down to a number–just one test score–and the human beings get lost.