My Humble Thoughts on Education (Did I mention I’m a teacher?)

As I drove to work this morning, NPR played a piece about standardized testing in California. Try as I might, I can’t find the link to the story, so I’ll give you a similar link from the Mercury News. Basically, California plans to phase out standardized testing and use a computer-based test that attempts to measure critical thinking instead. This is all part of the adoption of the National Common Core Standards.

Students will enter their responses into the computer, typing in what they think instead of selecting from a list of choices. On the surface, this may sound better than multiple choice. However, low income kids often do not have access to computers at home, while their wealthier counterparts often have personal devices at their disposal. The same goes at school. Some schools in California have a laptop for every kid, then there are schools like mine, with one computer lab shared by grades K-12.

As an added layer, English learners (ELs) communicate differently than their English-only peers, making their responses hard to compare. Even if the tests adjust for ELs, many families of ELs are afraid to identify as non-English speaking at home, making it impossible for schools to legally designate countless students who would benefit from the modifications.

As much as standardized testing may get under my skin, it is a way to measure students in all socioeconomic groups with less favor given to more privileged populations. Sure, there are still disparities in accessing the content on the test, as an EL fifth grader reading at a first grade level may not be able to accurately demonstrate his ability to think through problems he cannot 100% read, but at least he does not also have to hunt and peck his way through the test on a keyboard. Instead, he can pick an option that verbalizes what he may not be able to write on his own.

My two cents. If we want to fix education, open-ended testing on computers is not the answer. I hope I am proven wrong, (especially if the state actually goes through with it and I have to give these tests to my students). However, my initial impression is that a shift of this nature gives unfair advantage to students with wealthier backgrounds. True assessment of understanding requires different modes of input/output for different students. Traditional standardized tests may not fit the bill, but the solution seems worse.

I worry that our desperation for education reform is creating outcomes that do not reflect the realities of teaching students with different learning needs. I’ll leave you with a link to a Huffington Post article that illustrates some of the other attempts at education reform underway. I’d comment but that would be a whole different 500+ word entry, (and this teacher is a little on the tired side already).

Instead, I’ll just say that my school is part of a huge trial evaluation program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the next five years to increase teacher effectiveness. I was also trained through a residency program funded by these same grants. As weird as it is to think about, I am one of those data points that will shape the debate on reform. So far my little dot is more effective than expected, but also a little wary of the implications.

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10 thoughts on “My Humble Thoughts on Education (Did I mention I’m a teacher?)

  1. kingmidget says:

    “my school is part of a huge trial evaluation program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the next five years to increase teacher effectiveness” So, the question is, what are the components of this evaluation program? Feel free to not answer that question, by the way, as it would probably take a few more posts to do so. 🙂
    I was thinking the proposal you describe here made better sense than the standard test crap (!), but you’ve opened my mind to what may be some increased unfairness that results from the new concept.
    All I know is that I’d like to get away from the ridiculous number of standardized tests students have to take these days and give teachers and schools more freedom to teach. It just seems, and it’s probably all anecdotal, that we’re losing the battle in raising truly educated children who are capable of thinking analytically, writing and speaking effectively and correctly, and also giving them an opportunity to spread their creative and artistic wings.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      It’s definitely a wordy explanation. There are a number of measures. I’m resisting the urge to have an opinion of the whole process until I give it a chance. I think it’s incredibly important that teachers are held accountable for the job they do, just like in any other field. We’ll see what I think when it’s all over and done. For now, it’s an interesting experiment…

      As for the testing, I agree we need to shift our focus. The four weeks after testing are my favorite of the year. Not because I stop teaching, but because I get to teach all the standards without worrying about which ones are most heavily weighted on the test. That said, I work really hard to push as much debate/discussion/higher thinking as possible in my classroom, which is something I feel my whole organization does a good job doing as well. It would just be nice to not feel so much pressure.

      For the time being, standardized tests provide a way for low income schools to demonstrate their ability to close the achievement gap. I fear that making the output harder to measure will in turn widen the appearance of the gap, even though these students are often able to communicate great/deep understanding when allowed to show in whichever way makes the most sense for them, (be it verbally, written, etc.).

      Anyway, just food for thought.

      • kingmidget says:

        There’s no doubt that we need to have a way of measuring teacher performance — awarding good teachers and helping teachers who are struggling and, yes, even eventually dismissing teachers who just can’t get it done. There’s also no doubt we need to come up with a way to measure student performance to ensure we are doing everything we can to give them the tools they need to achieve. However, the standardized testing, I think, has utterly failed in that regard. I don’t know what the better alternative is. One thing I like about charter schools is that they’re exploring alternatives.

      • oliviaobryon says:

        Much agreed to all of that. It’s just difficult to test students with different needs in a uniform manner that can be compared across schools/districts/states. I don’t have the answer but I’m hopeful that at least if there is a movement away from the traditional tests something will come of it… Otherwise it will just be an unfair way to compare teachers and their students…

      • kingmidget says:

        That’s exactly why we need to get away from this idea that standardized tests are how we measure both student and teacher performance.

      • oliviaobryon says:

        Any ideas how to do that? I’m curious because some of the courses I took to get my master’s in ed focused on the inequities in measuring student performance through standardized testing, but also argued that if you want to measure everyone against each other it’s the most objective way. I’d love to hear solutions! 🙂

      • kingmidget says:

        Not sure where this will show up in the comment strong, but it’s in response to your question about how to measure student and teacher performance without standardized tests. I’m no expert on the subject … there clearly is a role for standardized tests, but they should not be the central focus of measurement. Why can’t it be more focused on the standards that are adopted for the different subjects being taught in school. I realize it could end up being more subjective, but rather than a standardized test being the measurement of performance, why not grades, representing the long-term work a student does, as measured against his or her peers, and based on sound standards.
        The reality is that no system will ever be able to accommodate all of the differences in our student population these days. When I was a kid, growing up in a middle class neighborhood, our elementary school was overwhelmingly white — there were a few Asian families, a few African-American families, and a few Hispanic families — but probably 90% of the students were white, middle class and growing up in two parent homes. As a result, there was a similarity in our backgrounds and knowledge base. There were maybe only two or three or four different levels of performance. Now, if you go into a 4th grade class with 25 students, you may be looking at 25 different socio-economic backgrounds. Every kid bringing a different set of issues or skills to the classroom. There is nothing standardized about the kids … how can we possibly expect then to assess them in a standardized fashion.
        Seems to me that standards that apply to the coursework and against which kids are measured based on the grades they receive provides a broader set of data and allows for a greater variety of ways to measure success or failure than a standardized, one size fits all, test. It can also be used to measure teachers. And, I think it would provide an opportunity for teachers to teach more creatively than teaching to the test.
        I’d love to know what your charter school is doing to come up with a better way to evaluate both students and teachers.
        I pretty much can’t stand how standardized tests and No Child Left Behind have taken over our educational system.

      • oliviaobryon says:

        All interesting observations. The trouble is that grading is subjective, so cumulative grades can’t be used to compare teachers or schools, since every teacher grades differently and gives different types of assessments. While I’m definitely not a fan of standardized tests, I see that it provides a way to compare as objectively as possible, (despite obvious flaws). Fortunately, the teacher evaluation model we’re using only includes testing as a portion and measures the growth of my students individually against every other student who scored the exact same as they did the previous year, (to show whether I helped them grow at an average or better than average rate). Balancing accountability with fairness and balanced emphasis put on creativity and critical thinking is a really complex challenge. I don’t have answers, only opinions about what I see work and not work, (and the pressure I feel when measured against everyone else).

  2. So interesting! I can’t believe that I missed this since I have NPR on pretty much constantly, but I’m intrigued and will read the article later tonight.

    I don’t think there is ever going to be a standardized test that will be fair to every student. It is a square peg answer to a round, triangular, and oval shaped issue.

    I would love to hear more on this from your point of view as time goes on.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      It was on around 7AM, I think it was a Capitol Public Radio piece… And, yes, I agree that standardized tests just aren’t set up to measure the learning of students with different needs, (let alone critical thinking). I just worry that open ended questions on a computer won’t provide the forum for low-income kids to show what they know either… Blah.

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