Tag: standardized testing

No Fear

While at a campus I serve recently, I had a conversation that is being repeated a lot in education right now. We discussed the importance of giving our kids the opportunity to participate in a rich array of learning experiences. We talked about the importance of students using technology. The teacher with whom I spoke got an “amen” when she bemoaned the lack of art in the daily lives of students. We spoke of how powerful, engaging, and meaningful these things were, and how they made students want to attend school. We also talked about research that proves the value of such experiences in producing well-rounded, thinking kids who also, by the way, ace those ever-present tests. We talked about how everyone already knows all of these things.

Yet, walk into the average classroom, (particularly the older students get), and what do you find? Very often, you find good teachers and good kids undertaking routine, meaningless tasks. You see worksheets, lectures, and drills. Writing is by formula, as are math and science. History is reduced to memorizing dates or parrotting theme statements. Art and music are…well…down the hall in the kindergarten class (Although some are beginning to advocate eliminating that “fluffy” nonsense.). You see high-quality educators engaging in low-quality tasks with a dogged, single-minded purpose: to get students to pass the tests.

The value of these assessments won’t be debated here. That they are our present and near future reality is beyond debate. We can love them or hate them, but they are in every classroom, staring at us from the middle of the front row. How we respond to them, however, is not set in granite, and this is where we are too often falling short. We attend workshops, read books, and listen to keynote speakers with charming anecdotes and impressive statistics, and we believe. We believe that, when we make learning about solving big problems, working with teams of other learners, creating and sharing beautiful products with a global audience, our kids will succeed on those tests. They will succeed because they have already done tougher things on a routine basis. They will succeed because the research says they will.

Our beliefs, however, falter under the weight of today’s high-stakes system. The pressure to see our kids perform well on formulaic, standardized assessments leads us to implement formulaic, standardized instruction. When the goal is for all students to achieve the same things at the same time, we sacrifice the engaging and individualized learning opportunities in favor of whole-group, single-minded tactics.

There are 2 alternatives:

  1. Continue down the current path, achieving the desired test scores for most, but sacrificing individual needs and real motivation to learn.
  2. Change our tactics, having faith that the research is sound, and believing that kids learn best when engaged in meaningful, powerful tasks, and the tests will take care of themselves.
I believe the ability and desire to take the second path is in the heart of the vast majority of educators. We want to see our kids accomplish great things, develop their unique abilities, and become equipped with knowledge and skills that far exceed those of the tests. To achieve this requires us to rally together and attack our work as a unified team. It requires us to seek out opportunities to learn and grow in our profession, to master the art of teaching. And it requires us to take risks. Of course, the research says the risks are not real, only perceived, so we first have to really believe.

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jp-/2301224820/sizes/s/in/photostream/




21st Century Skills and Standardized Testing (Pt. 2)–Classroom Blogging

Blogs are the first things that come to mind for most when the term Web 2.0 is heard. This is because blogging is one of theblog graphic earliest internet tools that allowed for users to create their own content. Blogging is a big trend in our district, as administrators, teachers, and students are beginning to create a wide variety of blogs, from book discussions to classroom news sites to daily summaries of classroom learning. It has usually been a very rewarding and positive experience, although there have certainly been some valuable lessons learned. Some of the tools used in our district include Edublogs, Learnerblogs, Blogger, and Gaggle.

Blogging helps build numerous 21st century skills, including, but not limited to:

  • Communication and collaboration
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Information literacy
  • Creativity and innovation
  • ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology) Literacy

Students have displayed great enthusiasm for blogging. The platform gives them a broad audience and the ability to receive input from many sources, not just the teacher. In terms of our district’s application of Working on the Work1 principles, blogs offer: novelty and variety; affirmation of performance; authenticity; affiliation; protection from adverse consequences for initial failures; and (when properly planned) clear and compelling product standards. Blogs allow students to create, to practice metacognition, to ask questions, and to communicate with a broad audience.

Blogs make excellent tools for summarizing and note-taking, which Marzanno2 describes as “two of the most powerful skills students can cultivate.”(Marzanno ) Research cited by Marzanno indicates that the impact of students developing these skills can be very dramatic, in terms of students’ performance on standardized assessments. Students can keep their own learning logs or summarize as a part of a larger group or class. Examples might be to summarize a day’s lesson, a book chapter, or a class experiment. When peer reviewing of classmates’ blogs is encouraged, important details are often filled in via comments or clarifying questions.

Blogging comments provide an easy opportunity to reinforce effort and provide recognition, as well. Students, teachers, parents, and other visitors can encourage student writing through supportive comments. Class blogs can link to particularly good examples of students’ work, bringing them further visits and attention.

Blogs, like almost all Web 2.0 tools, are great ways to foster cooperative learning. Students can use a blog to discuss questions related to collaborative projects, seek input on ideas, help with editing and fine-tuning of projects, and more. Cooperative team members can be assigned different tasks, such as editing posts, gathering relevant links, finding images/videos, or keeping groups focused on the assigned tasks.

Blogs are good tools for homework and practice. Teachers can ask questions which extend classroom learning, such as this entry from my wife’s class science blog. In this blog, a question is asked weekly, and students are expected to answer on their own time. This encourages a deeper understanding of concepts, additional resource, and new questions being posed. Teachers at Decatur (TX) Intermediate School created Eagle Science 101, another great example of this type of blog.

Students can also use blogs to test hypotheses and get feedback. When a teacher, for example, poses the question in the above example, “Why do you think so many fossils of aquatic animals are commonly found in our neighborhood?” students may hypothesize that it is due to predators moving them from their aquatic homes. Other students or the teacher can offer alternative ideas or leading questions to redirect the original hypothesis.

Blogs are fantastic tools that go far beyond their often perceived role of serving as a soapbox for sharing opinions with the masses. They address a number of classroom goals and can be used in ways that are research-proven methods of improving student achievement across the curriculum and on standardized tests, all while fostering 21st century skills and high student engagement.

Coming next: classroom wikis.

1Schlechty, Phillip C. Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

2Marzanno, Robert J. et al. Classroom Instruction that Works. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

21st Century Skills and Standardized Testing–Not Mutually Exclusive (Pt.1)

One of the most frustrating things for me, as an Instructional Technology Specialist, is breaking down thebarricade barriers created by the present-day environment that places standardized testing ahead of so much of what the real-world actually demands. Skills such as problem-solving, collaborating, creativity, and the like are pushed aside, often only rearing their heads late in the school year, once the standardized testing is completed. Teachers and administrators are under such pressure to perform on the exams that they often reply with, “I would love to use technology, but I need to get my kids ready for the test,” or, “I don’t have time for extra stuff right now–the test is coming up soon.” What is most unfortunate is that bad practices have been preached for so long now (repetitive practice tests, worksheets, skill-and-drill, etc.) as the solution that many educators have come to believe that they are THE way to raise student achievement. What results is that students end up with a limited, narrow skill-set focused on only strategies that will nudge up test scores.

This practice runs contradictory to much educational research, which supports the idea that students truly achieve more when taught broader skills, and when the curriculum is enriched, meaningful, and engaging. It also shows a disregard for the cries of business and industry, who want graduates who can perform much higher level tasks. So, then, what is the answer? How does a school balance the demands of a poorly-crafted accountability system while still preparing its students for life in the new millennium? While I don’t pretend to know all the answers, I can see some possible steps in the right direction, based upon the research of respected educators and the experiences of many educators and myself. This will be part 1 in a series that will attempt to offer some practical ways that teachers can utilize technology, specifically the tools of the Read/Write Web, to accomplish both goals.

First of all, it is important to understand what is meant by 21st Century Skills. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, these include:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology) Literacy
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Self-direction
  • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
  • Productivity and Accountability
  • Leadership and Responsibility

(Framework for 21st Century Learning–pdf)

It is fair to say that these skills are not reflected in today’s standardized tests, which focus on basic skills almost exclusively.Students testing 21st Century skills require learners to be able to look at information from many sources at many angles, to twist and shape it, to seek the input of others, and to create a product that is new, unique, and useful.

Fortunately, there are some basic skills and instructional concepts that have practical applications towards both the demands of the testing system and the demands of the real world. And I believe the tools of the read/write web can be utilized to foster these skills in our students and create learning environments that encourage higher student achievement, not just on the tests, but in their broader academic pursuits. It is possible to do all of this without boring students to the point of disengagement or even rebellion with the standard, drill-and-kill or pre-packaged approach of too many educators.

In their book, Classroom Instruction that Works1, Robert Marzanno, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock touch on several key skills, including:

  • Identifying Similarities and Differences
  • Summarizing and Note-Taking
  • Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
  • Homework and Practice
  • Nonlinguistic Representations
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
  • Generating and Testing Hypotheses
  • Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers

The authors examined and combined dozens of research studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of these skills, not only as general tools, but in actually bringing about higher student achievement on the tests. What Marzanno et al propose is that more emphasis is placed upon skills that overlap the curriculum areas and provide students with tools that will help withTest almost any academic task, rather than simply teaching a 5-step procedure to finding a square root.

In addition to teaching students broadly applicable skills, teachers can foster an environment that encourages students to be more engaged and to perform at a level that will push them beyond the basics. In his book, Working on the Work2, Phillip Schlechty proposes that teachers focus less on specific skills and more on the nature and quality of the work students are asked to complete. By getting students truly, deeply involved in what they are doing, they will work harder, learn more, and retain that knowledge better. He outlines ten design qualities for student work that can encourage such performance:

  • Content and Substance: Educators, in collaboration with the community, identify the essential learnings and skills that students must master.
  • Organization of Knowledge: Content is organized so that access to the material is clear and relatively easy for all students.
  • Product Focus: Engaging work almost always focuses on a product or performance of value to students.
  • Clear and Compelling Product Standards: The Standards for assessing the products or the performances are clear and important to students.
  • Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures: Students receive feedback on their work and have opportunities to reach the Standard throughout the process.
  • Affirmation of Performance: Student products are observed by persons other than the teacher.
  • Affiliation: The design of the work requires cooperative action among students and adults.
  • Novelty and Variety: The work is varied in methods and format so that students use a variety of skills, media, and modes of analysis.
  • Choice: Students are provided with choice in the ways of doing the work and the methods of presentation.
  • Authenticity: The work has significance and is related to consequences in the present lives of students.

(Source: Fife Public Schools)

By putting more thought into the type of work students are asked to complete, Schlechty asserts, they will achieve greater heights in terms of daily performance, behavior, attendance, and, of course, on the tests.

What I will be trying to do in this series is to focus on student use of Web 2.0 tools to learn and apply the skills Marzanno outlined, as well as to create the type of academic environment envisioned by Schlechty. By doing so, I hope that it can be demonstrated that it is not necessary to abandon the good practices of quality teaching and learning in the name of state-mandated testing. Rather, the narrow goals of such testing can and will be reached by teaching a broader, more meaningful curriculum, and through the use of web-based tools that will foster true student engagement. Reader feedback will be greatly appreciated, as this is something of a brainstorm, so please chime in with suggestions, disagreements, or questions.

Coming next: Classroom blogging

1Marzanno, Robert J. et al. Classroom Instruction that Works. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

2Schlechty, Phillip C. Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

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