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Following Obama's Call, States Start Redoing Their Tests

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President Obama is promising to improve the quality of assessments used under NCLB. Even though he has yet to introduce a detailed plan to reauthorize the law, states are at work on doing just that.

Once again, Kentucky is out in front. Washington state and Texas aren't far behind. See my story now online.

One quote that got left in my notebook: "This is very much driven out of Washington now," said Stanley Rabinowitz, the testing director at WestEd, referring to Obama's campaign promises and his rhetoric since taking office.

Here are two examples:

From the White House Web site's detailing of the administration's agenda: "Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. They will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner."

From the president's March 10 speech on education: "I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity."

The stimulus dollars may help start the process. But it's unlikely that all states will be rewriting their tests until NCLB reauthorization is finished.

3 Comments

Three items stand out to me:
1. Money for zero to five. In Georgia, we have a lottery funded pre-k program and at 5 kids can go to kindergarten. Since our programs are paid for, will Georgia get the same amount of money as other states that do not have the lottery pre-K programs. Also, pre-k programs are in day cares, which do not have the curriculum that pre-k in our public schools have, and many of the day care programs are only a half day instead of a full day. At five, the child can attend a public school's kindergarten program in Georgia
2. I absolutely applaud the norm referenced test. Although our kids take it in Georgia it does not count for anything, and the ITBS is downplayed because it doesn't count against the school. However, our school district uses it to flag "gifted kids"
3. The research shows that parent involvement is vital in the academic progress of their children. The research does NOT show, ONLY POOR parents should be involved. Therefore, the language of the NCLB law must include ALL parents because if the locals are not getting extra money, they are NOT being inclusive. In fact in our district evey bit of parent involvement policy and language specifically states Title I parents. Money for parent involvement for Title I kids attracts few parents because they simply don't have the resources to be involved, which is why the federal government allocates funds in the first place. However, what is unfair to ALL parents who want their child to succceed? The money simply goes toward a "patsy" to fill in the parent slot, who then fulfills the vagueness of parent involvement mandates.

Several years ago, when I taught Advanced Placement U.S. history, I had a student who grossly underperformed during the school year, yet somehow managed to score a "5" on the AP exam. I asked him how he managed to accomplish this feat and he remarked, "I spent two weeks straight studying, reading, and reviewing, and that's all I needed." In the same class, I had a student who read every word of the text, took copious class notes, met with me during office hours, yet only scored a "2" on the same exam. How could this happen?

Students are different, and the quicker and more honestly that teachers, schools, and policy makers address this critical issue, the less likely it will be that two students in the same class in the same school will end up as far apart as my two AP students. My mistake was not seeing the difference in the two students and their needs while I was teaching them. I missed the mark with both of them. Or did I? One student scored a "5," the ultimate measure of achievement, according to the metric of the standardized AP exam. So I was a successful teacher with him, based on AP measures. But, he produced very little work for me and for himself over the course of an entire academic year. The other student, who scored a "2," failed, according to the AP metric, yet he showed up each day in class, contributed to discussion, was an active learner, acquired analytical thinking and writing skills, and surpassed his own expectations of what he could do to keep up with the rigorous demands of a college-level course.

Many AP teachers hold to the hard and fast rule that a student's grades in the course should correspond closely with their performance on the AP exam. For example, a student who has earned As in the course should score a 5, or at least a 4 on the exam. Inversely, a student who earns Cs and Ds in the course (like the first student described above) should score a 1 or a 2 on the exam. Oftentimes, this one to one thinking plays out to be true. However, there are those rare moments when the pattern does not hold. This is the danger of standardized testing.

The news that President Obama will continue on with No Child Left Behind and look to standardized test scores to measure school, teacher, and student performance presents troubled, misguided thinking. These are desperate times for sure, with the economy in free fall, coupled with rising numbers of failing schools crossing the 6,000 mark. However, looking to standardized test results misses the subtle and sometimes vast differences that exist between students and their learning styles. The one size fits all approach is simply short-sighted and fails to account for customized approaches to measuring student performance and bolstering low-performing schools, teachers, and students.

The whole premise of NCLB is off target and does nothing to address the needs of higher end learners, like the first student described at the beginning of this article. Some students do not need to go through every day of class at school; they grow bored with routine and are eager, intellectually curious, and ravenous when it comes to pursuing an area of interest beyond the "core" monolithic curriculum. One teacher with whom I spoke recently, expressed frustration over one of his students, who did not appear engaged in class and acted somewhat defiant when called upon to contribute to class discussion. The student was taking an AP government course, and had read on her own beyond the curriculum, and had been doing so for years with her parents and siblings, and was impatient with the pace of the class. She did not need the class and my advice to the teacher was to leave her alone and develop individualized work for her. She should find a mentor, perhaps a judge, and pursue academic opportunities under the guidance of an authentic expert, I suggested. The teacher scratched his head in puzzlement, but realized that perhaps he was taking the wrong tack with the student, in terms of pushing her to comply with the course requirements, when in fact, she needed to be challenged beyond what was being offered on a day to day basis.

Sadly, this type of situation arises all too often in schools where the needs of gifted learners are not adequately addressed. It is not that schools are not capable of adapting curriculum to meet the needs of these students. But it does require a shift in mindset and paradigm. The everyone moves at the same pace with the same set of materials approach is fast losing currency, especially with the proliferation of online learning opportunities, and flex books, where teachers can use open source text to cobble together customized texts for individual students. In fact, the textbook will soon be obsolete. At some universities, textbooks have been shelved, lectures have been turned into podcasts and students come to class to engage in simulations and learning modules, instead of passively digesting reams of content.

Students still need content, and they need to be held accountable for their learning. They need to know how to read, write, add, subtract, but they also need to be able to digest, in an intelligible, intellectually honest manner, the voluminous amount of information coming at them every day. Different students will demand alternative curricular approaches, like flexible instruction and modified courses of study, depending on their needs and abilities. If testing serves the purpose of further identifying and refining the model for learning that will best serve each student, then it has a place in education. But if testing is used merely as an end, to determine, however artificially, student, teacher, and school performance, then President Obama will have done no more than perpetuate the monolithically flawed policies of NCLB.

The point is that educational policy makers need to find a way to account for nuances and standardized testing as an end is no way to improve education.

I understand your point about having a student's grades reflect what their "high stakes test" results indicate. Their seems to be a pressure to have them be consistent with each other. I know here in CT, at least my district, we do not have the assessment tools or background that we can accurately correlate what we do in the classroom and the state assessment.How is it fair that a student who performs well in class and not do well on the state assessment receive a lower grade than what they earned on the classroom assessment? In part i think it is a shame that so much emphasis has been put on these assessments. Then i ponder maybe the assessments were created to keep teachers moving and doing their job, if we were doing our job in the first place we would not have had these assessments. We are in economic hard times, but yet all of the professional development and paper and time spent on these "high stake assessments" may be better spent on better school environments and better teacher development. I can train a non-teacher to teach, assess and score a standard set by our state, but i cannot teach them the actual skill behind it in order to be a successful reader, math student or writer.

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  • Michael Theriault: I understand your point about having a student's grades reflect read more
  • Matt: Several years ago, when I taught Advanced Placement U.S. history, read more
  • Kathy: Three items stand out to me: 1. Money for zero read more

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