Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday's Five - Assessment: Our Students Deserve Better

I've been thinking a lot about assessment lately.  Not "assessment" in the narrow term meaning the high-stakes tests to which we are forced to subject our students, but assessment in the more global sense: how we determine what our students know and change our teaching to make sure they are learning.  That's what assessment is for, isn't it?  Despite the nonsense that is being thrown around by non-educators about the need to test kids to identify bad schools, bad teachers, bad kids, bad administrators, etc., assessment is really about identifying how we can help kids learn more.  The rest is all political mumbo-jumbo that's hurting our kids because it takes the focus off where it should be - student learning.

There are a few reasons that assessment has been at the forefront of my mind lately.  The most obvious is that the last month of school has been a fragmented mess of teachers struggling to promote real learning in the wake of schedule changes, lost teaching time, and stressed students due to mandatory state "assessments."  I've also spent a lot of time reflecting on my own assessment practices as part of my PAEMST application (one of the more grueling and beneficial experiences I've done as a teacher), which is due on May 1st.  Finally, this is the time of year that we place students into their courses for the next year - a practice that has increasingly become dependent on "data" instead of teacher recommendation.

In order to use assessment properly, to increase student learning, here are five things we need to keep in mind:

  1. Use the right tool for the right job.  Often we are told as teachers to "use assessment data to drive instruction."  The problem is that by "assessment data", those making this demand are talking about state assessments, benchmarks, or diagnostics.  You can't make day to day changes that benefit students based on this data.  Learning that one of my students scored low in the "geometry category" five months ago on a state assessment is worthless to me compared with the exit card that showed me that he/she didn't understand that area was a two-dimensional measurement.  The latter allows me to correct the misunderstanding immediately, thus leading to greater learning.
  2. I've heard Chris Lehman say before that educational technology should be like oxygen - imperceptible, ubiquitous, and necessary.  The same can be said for assessment.  We need it and should be using it all the time as a way to guide our students, but if our students are stressed about how they are being graded, ranked, sorted, or judged, they aren't focused on learning.  And learning should be our goal. 
  3. "Assessment" and "Grading" are not interchangeable terms.  Often they are used that way because we tend to want to make everything measureable.  Data doesn't have to be numbers to be useful.  Again, learning should be our focus, not ranking or judging students.  Tests and quizzes will, for better or worse, always likely have a place in schools.  What is more beneficial for students, though:  giving them a 30 on a quiz in which they got 7 out of 10 questions incorrect, or sitting down with that student to discuss their confusion and helping them identify ways to learn what they haven't yet?  "Grading" is something that is done for the benefit of teachers, parents, colleges, and others.  Good "assessment" is done for students. 
  4. Standardized tests, benchmarks, and diagnostic tests are not bad assessments unless we use them in ways for which they were not designed.  When we start using data from a benchmark or diagnostic tests to determine a student's placement in basic or advanced math classes or data from student standardized test scores to judge teacher efficacy and school quality we fail our students.  Arguments that my car got great gas mileage because it goes from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds or that my brother is a great basketball player because he has can punt a football 60 yards would be dismissed as absurd because those aren't valid metrics to use to judge such things.  Why aren't the conclusions we are erroneously drawing from bad metrics in education being dismissed as absurd?  I believe, as Joe Bower put it so well, we can't measure what's important, so we are putting importance on what we can measure.  It needs to stop for the sake of our children.  They deserve better.
  5. We need to do a serious cost/benefit analysis of how we assess students.  The assessments that are given the most importance in schools right now are also the most costly in terms of time and money that have ever been given in schools before.  We spend billions of dollars as a country each year on the tests themselves, test prep materials, and resources to meet the logistics of administering the tests.  We spend weeks of time that could be spent on learning critical thinking and innovation demanding that kids learn test taking skills and low-level thinking facts so that they can pass the tests.  And what do we get?  Lousy data.  Data that is far, far inferior to the formative assessment data I could have collected in much less time and that could have been used immediately to teach students. 
Some will say, "but scores have gone up since we started testing kids, so there must be some benefit to all this testing."  While scores on state tests have gone up, this argument is totally false.  We, the public are being manipulated.  Politicians have made the tests easier over the years to show how wonderful they (the politicians) are at "improving education."  Anyone who has compared state tests from 7 or 8 years ago to current tests can see this easily.  Our students score almost exactly the same on international tests as they did before we implemented high-stakes testing.  We've spent trillions of dollars and countless hours of time that could have been spent on real learning for nothing.  Actually, it hasn't been for nothing.  We've spent it to make politicians look good and to help their buddies who own stock in companies that produce testing materials make a buck.  We could have gotten so much more for so much less.  Maybe it's time to let educators determine how to educate our kids. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday's Five - Influencing Political Change

Many people, including teachers, are turned off by politics.  It's understandable.  Lately it seems that every candidate is bought by corporation and special interest money, and is more interested in following their party's line than doing what's best for the country.
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With Pennsylvania's primary approaching next week, I've been thinking of how our students have increasingly been hurt by politicians who further their agendas in the name of "educational reform", and what options we have as educators to change that trend.  After all, if we are so fed up with politics that we avoid the process, who will advocate for real education reform?  Here are five suggestions for getting involved.

  1. Check the voting record of both your state and federal representatives and senators.  Just because someone claims that they are have supported education doesn't mean that they really have.  After all, those cutting funding, firing teachers, mandating endless student testing without educational benefit, and creating unfunded mandates for our schools are claiming that all make education better.  A simple Google search with your representatives name and "voting record" will probably get you what you need.
  2. Do research for yourself instead of blindly following the advice of others.  Teachers unions and organizations will undoubtedly be happy to tell you for whom you should vote.  Don't be a sheep being led blindly.  Research the candidates to make sure they actually believe in the same things you do.
  3. Follow the money.  If you know what corporations, individuals, and organizations are donating big money to a candidate, you have a pretty good idea of what policies they are likely to support.
  4. Prioritize education.  If we as teachers don't vote based on what candidates are likely to do right by our students and schools, should we really be surprised that others don't either?
  5. Spread the word.  If you find a candidate who you really believe is going to make a difference, share that knowledge with everyone you know.  Blog about it, campaign for them, talk about it in the faculty room.  If there isn't a candidate you can support, spread the word about the issues that matter.  Tell the world how harmful certain policies are to your students.  Blog about positive reforms you like to see.  Your voice is louder and more influential than you think.  Use it for good!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday's Five - Wisdom of Age, Wonder of Youth

Let me start this post by saying that I am amazed at the wonders of modern technology, invigorated by the natural wonder of kids, and appreciative for the wisdom of older generations.  I'm writing this post on my iPad at 36,000 feet while flying home from a visit with my grandparents in Florida.  Last night I heard wonderful stories about the jobs they had between my grandfather's service in WWII and the time he opened a jewelry store in New York. This morning I had the pleasure of explaining to my 6 year old why walking on the clouds he sees from the plane window would be impossible. Great stuff!
Photo Credit:  worradmu
Along those lines, I was wondering if it's possible to combine those 3 things (technology, wisdom of the older generation, and the wonders of youth) to create incredible learning opportunities for our students.  Here's five ideas:
  1. Service learning projects involving local senior centers.  Students could read to seniors, help maintain the gardens, or help in other ways.  Afterwards, they could blog about their experiences and what they learned.
  2. Invite senior experts into the school, or videoconference, to offer guidance on projects.  I am always looking for community members to help my students learn about real-word situations and problem solving.  There are plenty of situations where students can collaborate with retired members of the community.  My grandfather, for example, has Skyped in with middle school students to explain his experiences as a Jewish soldier liberating Concentration Camps during World War II.
  3. Allow students to teach what they learn to seniors.  My grandparents mention often that they love when their community brings in college professors to give lectures.  Why can't our students do the same thing? My students would love to teach others how to use new technology, share their learning experiences, and present their projects with others.  It seems like a perfect match.
  4. Invite local seniors in for a "games day" where they can teach their favorite card and board games to students.  The kids can then create descriptions and written directions of the games afterwards to publish on the class wiki or website.  In addition to being the catalyst for a great writing assignment, the interaction during the games would be great for everyone involved. 
  5. Have children publish a biography of their grand-parent or other senior as a blog post.  They can do a series of interviews, and then compile a collection of stories from that person's life.  This way, the stories are saved forever, and students get a chance to learn a bit about their family history. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday's Five - Five Great Education Quotes

Today was my first day of break, and I found it hard to think of good ideas for today's post.  When I'd think of a good idea, the motivation to write about it wasn't there.  I also came up with some pretty lame ideas that would have been fun to write about.  I didn't think anyone would have wanted to read "Five Things I'd Rather Be Doing than Blogging Right Now" or "Five Ways the New York Yankees Are More Evil than Textbook Companies."  Instead of stressing about it, I took a nap.  It's amazing how wonderful a well placed break in the school calendar can be.

Finally, I settled on sharing a few of my favorite quotes related to education.  I've already done a Friday's Five where I shared my favorite Walt Disney quotes on education, so I'm leaving Walt off the list today, even though some of his quotes are fantastic.  It's worth clicking the link above and checking them out.

  1. "Knowledge without character is a power for evil only, as seen in the instances of so many 'talented thieves' and 'gentleman rascals' in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi
  2. "Real education consists of drawing the best out of yourself.  What better book can there be than the book of humanity?" - Mahatma Gandhi
  3. "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." - Thomas Jefferson
  4. "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" - Aristotle
  5. "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically... Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." - Martin Luther King Jr.
There are so many great education quotes out there; it was difficult to narrow the list down to five.  What  are some of your favorites?  Please share with us in the comment section below, or on the Facebook page!

Image Credit: dimland