Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal –

Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal –

This article from todays NYTimes is alarming, but not all that surprising to me. What is really being assessed when tests create so much anxiety and pressure on students, parents, teachers, and administrators?

As a teacher, I’ve gone from worrying about how well my students do, to actually focusing on their mistakes. Mistakes actually provide you with a lot more information. Being able to analyze kids’ errors helps me understand and reflect on what I need to change. When I look at a test item, and see that more than half of my class got the item incorrect, it’s a good place to start asking myself why.

Unfortunately, standardized tests are good for expediency, but not always good for learning. The wrong answer doesn’t always provide enough insight. Take 2-digit subtraction with regrouping (borrowing), for example. If a child got the answer wrong, was it due to a misunderstanding of place value, did the child have a directionality issue, did they miss a step in the algorithm, did they simply add by mistake. A good standardized test may include incorrect answers that reveal some of the reasons, but not necessarily all. The only way to know for sure is to observe a child doing the problem and then asking them to explain what they did and why. It’s amazing the kind of insight you can gain from a few simple questions. Furthermore, with a test that provides four possible answers there’s a good chance your student had no clue, but guessed correctly. The correct answer provides very little information.

The other problem with some of the standardized tests out there, is the timeliness of the test-makers correcting and returning the results. By the time many schools get them back, it’s well past the point that they can inform the teacher with something useful about what they can change. With NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and RTTT (Race to the Top), the focus of test scores often becomes, “How did we do?” rather than “What can we learn from this?”

Many test companies are going to computer testing, which I think is great in terms of timeliness, but I wonder how kids 7 and under will do with a mouse. I’d rather the little ones touch their answers on a touch screen, but I suppose a mouse isn’t that far removed from filling in bubbles with a pencil.

This news story isn’t the first of its kind, but I hope it helps change the kind of pressure and anxiety that these tests can place on everyone involved. I’m not opposed to standardized tests; I think there’s a place for them. We have to keep asking, though, what are these tests actually testing and how can they help us be more effective. I hope that the policy makers behind NCLB and RTTT can learn from their mistakes and make student assessment something that’s actually FOR students and teachers rather than an assessment OF them.

I have one other minor criticism about these tests: they create a mindset of having only one right answer to a problem. While this may be true for a test item, we know that innovation comes from thinking outside the bubble and entertaining many possible solutions to more complex problems. By all means use standardized tests, but also include student interviews, their own reflections and assessments, observations, and the myriad of other assessment tools available.

Making Data Beautiful

Making sense of student ERB test scores on a spread sheet can be daunting for some, and after staring at those numbers for a while, make one’s eyes a little blurry. Turning those numbers or any kind of numerical data into something more concrete, like a pie chart or bar graph makes it much easier to read and grasp. Taking it one step further and pairing up with other data could reveal some interesting patterns. For example, with the test scores I mentioned, when comparing them to other schools, what if we were able to include data on the size of the school as well. Would the results change? What is the statistical significance when comparing a school with one class per grade to one that might have 10 classes per grade. Does the sample size change the data set in a way that might be interesting? There are many other ways one can think about data and there has been quite a rise in what is called an infographic: taking the data, adding some design to it, and representing it in a way that can be visualized so it can be easier to understand.

In his TED talk below, David McCandless draws interesting conclusions from complex datasets and pairing them together. So instead of looking at simply what country has the biggest military budget, he might pair that with the country’s GDP and suddenly, the results are quite different. He also has a blog worth checking out called Information Is Beautiful. It’s definitely worth checking out.




Test Prep at Age Four???

Private School Screening Test Loses Some Clout –

Oh yes, the dreaded ERBs are in the news again (click the link above for the article). It would be hard to convince me that testing for the purposes of admission in pre-K and K seem like a bad idea. The article focuses mostly on test prep, competition, and anxiety which are all terrible things to expect a 4 year old to do. Then there is also the validity in question. 4 year olds? What about late bloomers?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for standardized tests, but how they are used and how much weight they hold, should be carefully scrutinized.

My school administers a test put out by the Educational Records Bureau (the same company mentioned in the article) called the CPT4 every year. Here are some significant differences in how we use these tests to make them more meaningful:

  • It is administered in the fall, so that when we get results in late December, we can actually use the data and compare it to our own assessments, and then further customize instruction for each child for the remainder of the school year.
  • We do not use the tests for admissions or advancement.
  • Only kids in 2nd grade and above take it.
  • We try our best to minimize anxiety (in parents, teachers, and students) – although admittedly, sometimes this can be difficult.
  • We look at trends in the scores across grades to plan for school-wide initiatives and to examine how we teach.
  • “Prepping” them for the test is kept to a minimum – a few hours the week before.
  • The ERB is not our only assessment tool, but part of a whole set of tools. Seeing relationships between these tools is an example of what Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind, as symphony.

Any teacher knows how much you can learn from a child by simply having a conversation with them.