Saturday, November 5, 2011

Standardized Testing

I think there are a handful of issues related to public education such as funding, unions, merit based pay, and standardized testing. Many of these issues are hot topics and are being debated from the teacher’s lounge to the halls of Washington DC. For me, the issue I see having the greatest impact on my students and my classroom is the over emphasis on standardized testing. I am a believer in student driven and individualized learning for all students. Standardized testing flies in the face of this belief or at least appears to do so as it is currently being used.

For me, I see the reason we have standardized testing is more about holding teachers accountable rather than measuring student learning. We want to be able to say that all our teachers are teaching the same content and we are all on the same page either as a school district or a state. The reason it is being used in such a way is that it is easy to use simple test questions and pull data to evaluate and make decisions from. We use these to make decisions on teacher effectiveness and student learning because they are easily scored and measured.

The problem with such an approach to teacher evaluation and student measurement is that it is not the whole picture but often is treated as such. Standardized tests largely require low level thinking skills and ask students to simply recall and regurgitate facts and procedural items. They do not reflect a student’s ability to creatively solve problems, work collaboratively with peers, or use creative problem solving. If we think in terms of life skills and 21st Century Skills, standardize tests are not able to adequately assessing these skills. With that in mind, educators know the value of such skills and yet they are not being considered when a student is evaluated in terms of a standardized test score.

The effects of such overdependence on standardized tests score often have significant consequences in a number of areas of education. For one, curriculum is often driven by these tests. The order of units and chapters are put in place to align with these tests rather than a logical sequence based on best practice or what is best for the cognitive development of students. Scope and sequence for tested curricular areas are being decided by testing schedules rather than by what is best for student’s learning. 

Another effect is the potential implications for teachers whose students underperform on such tests. In some cases teachers are being held accountable for low tests scores or unjustly receiving accolades for high scores. Often these scores are the results of student affluence rather than teaching ability or inability and yet teachers are being held accountable for them. In addition to teachers, whole schools and districts are being blamed for poor test scores. Schools are being put on watch lists and in some cases being reconstituted or closed based on these scores.

In my opinion, the most profound impact is being felt by the students themselves. For many, this is the key indicator or their success or failure within the academic realm. They are sorted, ranked, and placed in classes solely based on a standardized test score. Intelligent students who test poorly are unjustly hurt by these tests as well as students who struggle within the confines of the format of such tests. Too often a student’s academic value is being decided by a one size fits all test. Students are individuals that learn, grow, and demonstrate their learning in unique and different ways. Standardized tests do not allow for this to happen.

In terms of a solution, there are a few things that can be done to help this issue. First, the test themselves are actually not bad if used in a specific way. If they are used simply to determine a student’s ability to recall facts, dates, and definitions, then they are adequate. However, they should not be the sum of all a student’s academic parts. In addition, they cannot be the focus of weeks and months of preparation nor should budget line items be in place for “test prep”. Too much learning time is being wasted in an effort to teach to the test. In addition, they should not be the sole tool used to measure a student which they often are. Yes, it would be nice to not have any tests and trust students and teachers to be constantly learning and making progress. However, that is idealistic and not practical in all cases. Therefore, we need to make sure in addition to tests of rote memorization if required, that we have performance assessments, observational data, critical thinking tasks, and other tools aimed at evaluating the whole student. Students are unique individuals and our assessment of them, when necessary, should reflect that.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Message

Many of you are probably aware that I was recently named Illinois Teacher of the Year. As a result of that honor, I am a nominee for National Teacher of the Year. Part of the process was a packet of paperwork that I recently submitted to "nationals" last week. Among the many questions and topics was one that asked what my message would be about our profession to fellow teachers and the general public. Below is an excerpt from my answer...

My message would be a simple one; it is all about the kids. Regardless if you are a teacher, parent, administrator, school board member or politician, every single decision you make must come down the kids in the seats. We as educators and those that have any hand in education must be held accountable to the students first and foremost. If we cannot walk up to a child and explain to them why we made the decision we did, then we shouldn’t be doing it.

Students are what this entire profession is about and we often lose our focus in the midst of budgets, meetings, trainings, politics, and indecision. Bottom line we need to be in tune to what the needs of the students are and use all of our individual and collective resources to meet those needs. This has to go beyond words but must be reinforced with actions.

I would ask parents to use all their available resources to help their child be successful at home and trust teachers to do what is best for them. In addition, I would ask parents to respectfully advocate for their child and be as involved as possible in their child’s education.

I would ask teachers to remain focused on the kids in the classroom and do whatever they can to meet the needs of each of them individually. I would also ask them to never be content and always find ways to hone their craft to be better for their students.

I would ask administrators both at the building and district levels to stay in touch and grounded in the work being done in the classroom. They need to be present in classrooms to put student’s faces and names behind the decisions they will be called upon to make.

I would ask politicians and corporate reformers to defer to the experts in education before making decisions. If decisions are being made about education, then I would ask educators to be at the table as well as those being educated.

Lastly, I would say that we are stronger and better together and need to stop competing, hiding and being afraid of the collaboration that will benefit us all and in turn benefit students.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

You Hate Kids?

I recently had a comment left on a previous post causing me to pause and think. The comment:


There was some further conversation within the comments but I stand by my original thoughts that you have to remain centered around kids in everything you do. With that in mind, I don’t think you can be a good teacher if you “hate” kids. Sure you might be able to present the content well and be an expert in your discipline. However, so much of a teacher’s effectiveness lies in their ability to create strong and positive relationships. I may be wrong, but if I hated kids, I don’t think I would be even remotely close to a “good” teacher, regardless of your definition of “good”.  How can you do your job well if you hate the very thing your job centers around?

The example that was given in the comment strand was a pastry chef could be a great chef even if they hated croissants. Now, it may be possible that a chef hates croissants.  However, if they do and make a halfhearted croissant the consequence is hardly life threatening. If a teacher took a halfhearted approach to kids, I feel as though the consequences are worse in the long run. I feel as though the best teachers are able to connect with kids on a personal level to create meaningful relationships that I doubt are possible if you don’t “like” kids.

As a parent, I would be appalled to think my son’s teachers hated kids. Kids are able to pick up on those feelings and it will certainly impact their state of mind when they sit in the classroom. In my own experiences, I learned very well in classes where the teacher’s love for their students was evident and came through in the work they did. I even recall a brilliant teacher who clearly knew his subject matter but just as clearly hated being a teacher as well as the kids in his room. His inability to connect with the students ultimately impacted the learning and I can vouch for that first hand.

Am I wrong? Can you be a good teacher and hate kids?