Oh boy! Now You Can Take the Tests.

12/14/2011
Standardized Test

Earlier this week I wrote a post called Standardized Tests, good for the geese, good for the ganders in which I challenged everyone who has anything to do with the setting of education policy to follow the lead of one stalwart school board member and take the tests they make students take.

Thanks to the Washington Post’sAnswer Sheet column I took an abbreviated version of the Florida 10th grade math and English tests. I did it at 11:30 at night after being up since 5:00AM, working a full day and taking five hours of grad school classes. You’re allowed to use a calculator and look up general equations like Pythagorean or the volume of a cylinder.

I don’t mean to brag, but I did it all in my head without a calculator and without looking anything up. I got perfect scores in both sections of seven questions each, all in about five minutes.

You can take the same mini-test I did or a sample of the Texas, California, New York, Virginia, Washington DC. or Maryland tests. Let me know which ones you took and how you did. And challenge your governor, your school board members, your state department of education administrators, and your president to relive their adolescence by taking the tests and making public the results.

This should be fun. It was for me, but I’m strange that way.

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Standardized tests: good for the geese, good for the ganders.

12/11/2011
De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

Image via Wikipedia

Something remarkable happened the other day.

A school board member in one of the nation’s largest school districts had the temerity to take the 10th grade standardized tests that he and his cohorts require students to take.

I think this is an excellent idea.

After all, if the tests are appropriate to see what students know then they are also necessary to see what school board members know. School board members should be required to take the same tests students are required to take. To be fair, I’d only require them to take the 10th grade tests. I wouldn’t want to challenge them too much.

Standardized tests are necessary to see what members of state boards of education know. If the state requires an exit exam so students can graduate from high school, then that is the exam the state board members should take. If they can’t pass them they should be removed from their positions and required to repeat high school.

Standardized tests are also necessary to see what the mayors who control school systems and the chancellors they appoint know. After all, if the tests are adequate to judge teacher ability they must certainly be able to judge the ability of the people who hire the teachers, set curriculum and allocate assets to schools.

President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama...

Image via Wikipedia

Arne Duncan should take standardized tests. So should President Obama.

And the results of those exams should be made public.

In fact, standardized testing is a great way to see which of the presidential candidates is most up to the demands of the job, which one can understand the math of the budget or the tax system. I’m sure Newt, Mitt, John, Rick, Ron and even Michelle could pass those tests with flying colors.

I’m starting a movement to have everyone who sets educational policy take the standardized tests, the same ones students do.

Join me. Send a tweet, a text, an email or phone to your school board members, your state legislators, your Congress people, Senators and presidential candidate of choice. Tell them that it is time for them to sit down with a couple of #2 pencils and show us what they know.

After all, it is only fair.

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The Worst Words in Education

01/24/2011
Golden Gloves Prelim Bouts
Image by kate.gardiner via Flickr

“Life is full of harsh realities. And I want as a parent to give my kids the ability to navigate thru life.”

Those are the worst words in education.

They are the worst words because they are used to justify cruelty to children.

What kind of cruelty?

Competition, for one.

I’m not talking about football games, elections for class president or the selection of the prom king and queen.

I’m talking about academic competition, things like spelling bees and other class-wide contests.

This afternoon, before the NFL playoffs, I watched a three-part video in which Rick Lavoie discusses why competitive learning is so problematic, and why it is a bad way to motivate students.

According to Lavoie, there is a major difference between the competition in school and competition elsewhere.  In school we are forced to compete. In life we only compete when we want to.

“The only person motivated by competition is the person who thinks there’s a chance of winning.”

“We do our best work when we compete against ourselves, not against others.”

I learned this in fifth grade.

I loved fifth grade. I’ve written about my experiences in Mrs. Lorenz’s class before.

In a response to that post my friend Mary Beth Hertz commented:  “It seems a common thread is that we remember the teachers who took their time to find out who we were and to treat us as people. We also seem to remember the teachers who were a little out of the box.”

Mrs. Lorenz wasn’t always out of the box and one event in her class came back to me as I watched the LaVoie video.

We had been studying simple machines in science. It was the third of fourth unit of our science study and Mrs. Lorenz decided that instead of giving us a midterm exam, she would have a science bee.

Example of one of the 5 simple machines: Screw

Image via Wikipedia

We were divided into two teams according to some criteria or another. Each team had a mix of students from the different levels of ability in the classroom. Whenever a team member answered a question the questioner could challenge the answer. When an answer was challenged, Mrs. Lorenz would render judgment. An incorrect answer would get the answering student eliminated. Failing to challenge an incorrect answer would get both students eliminated. A correct answer would allow the students to remain in the game and the answerer would get to ask a question of the next member of the opposite team.

It sounds very complicated, but we all understood how it worked. We flipped a coin to see which team would get to ask the first question.

The game progressed and each team lost a few players in the first round, and more in the second and third passes through the remaining students. It came down to two students, one of the girls in the class and me.

I asked her a question and she got it right. She asked me to name the five simple machines. I named six and she was smiling broadly as she challenged my answer. If I were wrong she would win. If I were correct, I would win.

Mrs. Lorenz took her time making her judgment. The tension in the room grew.

She looked at me then turned to the girl and told her I was correct.

My teammates were excitedly congratulating me but I was watching the girl’s face and it looked like she was going to cry. Having me lose meant that much to her. I was very upset by the whole situation but did not really understand why.

I have a better idea now. What happened that day more than 45 years ago was very cruel to that girl, to our teammates and to me.

That girl was very smart, she was probably a better student than I was, but she needed to defeat me to feel that way. Because she didn’t, she was ready to cry.

Her teammates felt like losers and my teammates felt like winners. Neither feeling was accurate.

We moved the next year and I have no idea what happened to that girl, but I never took part in a class competition again. If I were forced to, I’d deliberately lose in the first round.

My being smart or not, my achieving or not, has nothing to do with anyone else’s work, only my own.  Whether I choose to compete or not has nothing to do with anyone else. It is my decision and no one can make me compete if I don’t want to.

It seems the realities of school are considerably harsher than those of life. That is cruelty. If we really want school to prepare children for the realities of life, competition should operate the same way in school and out.

Let’s end mandatory competition.

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What Grade Would You Give This? Why?

01/23/2011
Etruscan A.
Image via Wikipedia

As a student I never liked the idea of grades because they never told the right story about my effort (or lack of it), my abilities (or lack of them) or whether I was being challenged enough.

Was that B because I couldn’t do A-level work or because I was not interested enough to do so, or because the assignment was too easy and did not require my full attention or effort?.

As a parent, I don’t like grades because they don’t tell me anything I don’t already know about my son: he’s a great reader and writer who loves history but struggles with math and the whole concept of homework. (except for the math part he is a lot like me as a student).

As a teacher, I don’t like grades because they do not represent a standardized scale of measurement. An inch is an inch and a mile is a mile, but what the hell is a B-minus? Is my b-minus the same as the teacher in the next room’s, in the next school’s? What is the distinction between a B and a C, and does that C I might give mean the work was too challenging for that student or that I could not engage her enough to get her to work hard. Does that B represent an otherwise A student who didn’t try or an otherwise D student who got inspired and worked his tail off.

I also don’t like grades because I see my students concerned more with what grade they might get than with what they might learn in pursuit of that grade.

In addition to teaching in a middle school, I teach at a college, SUNY/Empire State College, that for most of its existence did not give letter grades.

We give them now because graduate schools demand it, but we continue the process of writing narratives about a student’s learning, how that learning was accomplished and how it was demonstrated.

I graduated from this college and my transcript is about a half-inch thick (no wonder grad schools don’t like them), but it gives the best description of me as a learner I have ever seen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could give that kind of description to all students and their parents? What would it take to make that happen?

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Setting High Expectation For Them and Me

09/12/2010
High Hopes
Image by This is Awkward via Flickr

I like quotations.

One of my favorites is Robert Browning’s “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

Talk about setting high expectations!

High expectations are important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers look at something and say, “my kids can’t do that.”

I just said it about something I was looking at in my lesson planning.

Then I realized that of course my students can’t do that, I haven’t taught them how to yet.

Sometimes teachers forget that we don’t have to teach what the students already know and can do but we do have to teach them what they can’t do. We have to expect them to be able to learn it.

If we don’t, they won’t.

My son is a voracious reader who got a perfect score on his 4th grade state ELA test. He wants to grow up to be an English professor.

His 7th grade English teacher told us that he has much deeper understanding of the assigned readings than the other students in the class and showed it every day in class discussions in which, she said, he sounded more like a high school student than a 7th grader.

But she could not give him the A he otherwise so richly deserved because he did not do his homework.

She wasn’t teaching English. She was teaching compliance.

Then there was his 8th grade honors English teacher who gave the class the homework assignment of making a list of the characters in a play they were reading. No, not character analyses. Not character sketches. Not a chart of the inter-relationships among characters.

Just a list of their names.

My son refused to do the homework because, as he wrote in a note to his teacher, it was inane and insulting to honors English students who were well aware that there is a list of a play’s characters right in the front of the script.

His ELA grades kept going down because of low or misguided teacher expectations, not because he was any less interested in ELA and not because he was any less capable of reading with insight and writing with clarity.

My son did struggle with math. He never got a grade above a D in any aspect of math.

Mathematics homework
Image via Wikipedia

But his 6th grade math teacher had clear, explicit and very high expectations for the class and she taught students how to meet them.

He got an A.

More than that, he began to understand that he was not bad at math, that he should not expect for it to be too difficult for him.

Students need to know their teachers believe in them.

They need their teachers to set clear, specific, high goals and make them explicit.

Then they need their teachers to teach them how to meet those goals.

My students can learn how to meet them.

Your students can learn how to meet them.

Now it is up to us to learn how to set them.

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Oops, there I go again…

08/25/2010
White Tiger Mouth wide open!
Image by kabils via Flickr

I need to learn to keep my mouth shut more often.

This is doubly so when my ‘mouth’ is my fingers typing here, on Facebook or, most important, on Twitter where  I am known as Spedteacher.

Here’s what happens when I don’t.

I hate when that happens. But it is completely my fault when it does.

So now I’ll be easy to find on most Tuesday evenings starting at 8:30PM NYC time.

#spedchat is for teachers (and not just special ed teachers, either), parents, administrators, students and everyone else with any connection or interest in special education issues.

Topics proposed for the first chat on August 31st are:

  • How can parent-teacher relations be improved?
  • What do grades mean in special education?
  • Is inclusion working for general and special education students?
  • How do we get general education teachers to understand? (the current leader in the voting)
  • How have school budget cuts affected special education?

You can participate in the decision about what the topic will be by voting here.

To participate in the chat just log onto Twitter ( if you don’t have an account you can get one free, here ), then search for the hashtag #spedchat.

For a better explanation of all of this please visit my co-conspirator and #spedchat moderator Damian Bariexca’s excellent blog.

I hope to see you Tuesday.

I’ll probably get myself into even more trouble.

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Teacher Gets A Final Report Card: B-

06/16/2010
Students holding report cards.
Image via Wikipedia

It is report card time again.

I give one to each of my students and my students give one to me.

I started this earlier this year and I did very well in the first quarter.

My students tell me that in some ways I improved as the year went on. In other ways I did not.

As in the past, I let each student decide what criteria was important to them and how they would grade me. I do this so I don’t impose my idea of what is important on them.

On my first report card I got very favorable grades. This time the students were more discerning.

“We always learn something in class (Progress: 75%) but you need to be more tough (Discipline 40%) Overall grade: 65,” wrote one boy.

“You as a person: A+. You as a teacher: C-. Surprise tests are never a good idea,” a girl explained.

But another student wrote, “You always prepared us for tests, you always spent extra time with me when I didn’t understand something.”

Two students said I get out of control sometimes, and two others asked how I manage to keep myself under control all the time (deep breathing I learned in yoga class).

Many students offered suggestions for how I could improve:

speak more clearly.

explain more, even when we don’t ask questions.

give more work.

be a tougher disciplinarian.

control the class better.

get a different job.

Other students appreciated that I:

gave choices about assignments.

assigned a lot of projects.

played music and served food from the countries we studied.

am open to criticism.

don’t hold grudges.

Today I also told my 6th grade students that I would be their homeroom and social studies teacher next year.

Only two people shouted out “OH, NO!”

Three girls hugged me. Two boys hugged me.

When report cards are what you seek you see they come in all forms.

One troubled boy tried to throw a chair at me.

Another boy stopped him.

In my mind, that’s a B- average.

Lots of room for improvement, indeed.

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New Mirrors. Less Smoke?

06/10/2010
Tweed Courthouse, New York City - The headquar...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never been shy about my contempt for standardized tests and the data derived from them.

If you’re in a hurry, I’ll save you time by saying that my opinion is not at all changed by the new way the New York City Department of Education is going to figure what all the numbers generated by their multitude of tests mean when it comes to measuring school effectiveness.

It seems that the NYCDOE has realized that their metrics for reflecting school effectiveness for the past couple of years were based on smoke, not that they’d ever admit that publicly.

The formulas used to determine whether or not a child or aggregate of children made or didn’t make a year of progress during a school year were, to put it gently, completely worthless at best, and thoroughly misleading.

All the pressure, sweat, hours, anguish and anxiety teachers, principals, parents and, students dedicated to that year of progress were all spent in pursuit of ephemera.

The re-drawn chart comparing the various gradi...
Image via Wikipedia

Nothing makes a person dedicated to a job like finding out that the back-office folk who wouldn’t know what to do in a classroom if they could find their way into one were all piling wool in front of our eyes.

We know this now because the NYCDOE is introducing a new way of measuring progress that is more complex, less comprehensible, most likely not any more reliable, yet – somehow – liberating.

Starting this year the progress of any student will only be measured against the progress of other students who scored the same as they did the previous year.

The annual progress of a student who scored a 1.75 on our four point scale in the ELA test last year will only be measured against the progress of other students across the city who also scored 1.75 on that same grade’s ELA test last year.

If there are ten other students who scored a 1.75 on that test, and this year our boy scores higher than six of the others, he will be in the 60th percentile and will be considered to have done well in relation to his peers.

Scatter-gumbel
Image via Wikipedia

If he scores higher than only one of his peers his teachers need to figure out why they’re not more effective.

This, roughly, is the brief explanation of the new system my principal gave my colleagues and I today.

He said it was the short version. He also said it was all he could give us because the rest is a bunch on statistical jargon explained in a thirty slide PowerPoint that not even he, a very smart man, understood completely.

But he also said that one side effect of the new system for figuring student progress is that it allowed us to stop worrying about annual progress for the school and each of its subgroups.

That liberates us to do more of what most of us became teachers to do, focus on the individual child.

That is an unintended consequence of this new system of mirrors reflecting back what we accomplish.

And this set of mirrors comes with much less smoke disguising what we see.

Is this what progress looks like?

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Better Students? Not My Job!

06/08/2010
Dr Kildare 002
Image by Tinker*Tailor via Flickr

Can You Name Five Famous Teachers? Four? Three?

I bet you’d have no trouble naming five famous lawyers.

Go ahead. Try.

Easy, wasn’t it?

Naming five famous doctors is a breeze, too.

I bet you can even name five famous living economists.

Teachers?

Famous teachers are hard to come by.

Is it because teaching is thought of as women’s work? Perhaps.

Is it because teachers don’t toot their own horns? That, too.

The problem with not tooting our horns is it makes us easy to ignore, easy to disregard.

How many teachers are at the table when education policy is being formulated and debated?

How is it that all the decisions about teaching and learning are being made by people who are not teachers?

I recently asked my teacher groups on Twitter to tell me how they’ve made a difference in the lives of children and their families.

I was looking for examples of the sorts of things that teachers do that don’t show up on those infernal standardized tests.

I got a few of those:

But mostly teachers told me the 140-character-or-fewer stories of how teachers made a difference in their lives.

There are few famous teachers but we all have teachers who affected us deeply, not necessarily academically. They got to us in ways that helped us grow, helped us become better people.

Much of the talk about education these days is about how America is falling behind, how students in Kansas can’t compete with kids from kids from Korea, Kenya or Katmandu.

Teachers are blamed and exhorted to create better students.

Sorry, that’s not my job.

Better students come from homes with parents who around to read to and talk with their children instead of having to work three jobs to feed and clothe them.

Better students come from better communities that are able to support libraries and where the development of children is everyone’s concern and a kid may have only one mother and one father but is blessed with a dozen or more ‘parents.’

If it is not my job or any teacher’s job to create better students, what is it that we do?

In all honesty, as much as I love history, it is not important to me that every student knows how the enmity the American revolutionaries felt towards King George III affects our lives today (do you know?).

What’s important to me is that every student knows how to tell fact from fiction, not confuse opinion with authority.

It is important to me that all my students can wade through the pervasive media environment and know how to form and communicate a reasoned opinion and cast an informed vote.

No, we don’t want to create better students.

We want to create better adults.

Better adults become better parents. Better adults create better, more caring and supportive communities.

All those critics who want America to have better students, you’re setting your sights far too low.

We all know, low expectations cause poor performance.

Need proof?

Just look at our politicians.

We don’t expect much from them.

And when it comes to education policy, not much is exactly what we get.

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Pushing Beyond Their Limits

05/20/2010
Six Flag Great Adventure from high up
Image by xmascarol via Flickr

I’ve got a great 6th grade social studies class.

They’re bright, chatty, funny, ambitious, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the hunt for grades.

It’s really sad to see, all these very sharp kids more concerned with getting the right answer and scoring 100 on tests than actually learning and making connections.

It is as if we’ve taught them to just regurgitate information instead of constructing knowledge.

I do what I can to fight that tendency.

I’m not big on tests, but a couple of months ago I started giving this class weekly assessments of some kind.

I’ve told these kids that everything in life, every moment, is a test and I’ve reinforced that occasionally by announcing the assessment after it has occurred.

Today I realized that I could not give them their weekly assessment tomorrow because they would be away on the 6th grade end-of-year trip, so I started class today with the announcement that I had good and bad news for them.

I gave them the bad news first: “There’s no room on the bus so I won’t be able to go to Great Adventures with you tomorrow.”

The students were stunned and upset. Then I reminded them that I had good news, too.

“Because you’ll be on your trip tomorrow I can’t give you your weekly assessment then…,”

Cheers!

“…so Ill have to do it today,”

Shock!

Some were angry, some very worried, and one girl looked like she was going to cry.

Even S, as close to a dream student as I’m even likely to see, reacted like I had betrayed her.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance the past two weeks or so and we’ve talked about how it contrasted with the Medieval era, how culture flourished and new styles of art, music, eating and fashion had emerged.

The past two days we’ve been starting to look at the age of exploration, discussing why people explore and looking at maps of the known world in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Europe in 1470

Image via Wikipedia

My assessment today had one question.

What was it about the last half of the 15th Century and first half of the 16th that led to the massive amount of exploration by Europeans in that time? What else was going on that led to an explosion of voyages on sea and land in search of riches, spices, and the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia?

I was looking for my students to think about the Renaissance and how it really was a rebirth of culture. We had discussed how that rebirth was possible because of the relative peace of that era.

I wanted them to realize that the same peace that fostered the curiosity and creativity of the Renaissance also fostered curiosity about the earth and its limits.

As I walked around the room I realized that no one was giving me the type of answer I was expecting.

Many students were telling me why people explored and the rest were describing conditions of war, poverty and pestilence common in Medieval times.

I restated the question in different words.

No change in their answers. Even the one or two who realized this was the Renaissance time-period did not make the connection.

I stopped the assessment.

I explained that almost everyone was heading off in the wrong direction, that I knew they knew what was actually going on in the 1490s and beyond, but that they were giving me details of an earlier time.

Only now do I realize they were telling me why people have emigrated in the past century, something many of them have done.

In the middle of the class I knew that they had not made the intellectual leap I thought they would.

Most of the kids were angry that I had stopped them from continuing to write their answers, even after I told them they were going off in the wrong direction. After all, they had worked hard putting their ideas on paper.

The more accomplished students in the class were angry because I had asked them such a complex question.

I told them that I thought they could make the intellectual leap I was asking them to, but perhaps I was asking too much. I reminded them that after a few years teaching intellectually challenged students, I was still learning how to teach and assess intellectually gifted ones.

Then I told them that if they get every question right every time, they’re not being challenged enough; that they would not know what they were capable of until they failed at something because they had over-reached or had been over-challenged.

I explained that I assess them constantly and already knew that they got what was different about the Renaissance, that they understood many of the reasons men and women go off into the unknown.

“I know what you know,” I said,  “Now I want to discover what you’re doing with what you know.”

They thought for a while.

They looked at each other.

They looked at the floor.

They looked at me.

Finally one tiny girl spoke up.

“I remember at the beginning of the year you told us you would be very different from any other teacher we’ve had.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And I’m going to be your social studies teacher again next year!”

Smiles all around.

I think it was my proudest moment in my teaching career.

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