Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Extreme Test Prep

The message is clear, "Increase test scores!"  Our collective test scores were not what some wanted, hence it's been one subtle message after another basically saying, what matters is test scores.

This is challenging in so many ways.  First it matters because the test mandates are steep and narrow.  For example fourth graders have to read text, plan a reading response that includes a rich topic sentence that responds to the question, include four pieces of direct evidence from the text that include rich vocabulary, write four explanations that show how the evidence supports the answer, and add a closing sentence that summarizes the "big idea" answer. A clear, concise answer like that requires careful reading, planning, and craft. Yesterday after one such session a little boy shook his hand and said, "My hand hurts."

Similarly, the students have to read complex math problems, figure out the multi-step questions, understand the math and language well, demonstrate their solution in pictures, numbers, and/or words, and write a clear answer.  They have to craft this answer on a one page sheet with lines and a very small grid in the corner. The questions represent a wide, deep array of math concepts, skills, and knowledge.

And, these young students also have to learn to craft a four-page narrative, persuasive essay, or possibly informational text that is clearly organized with evidence of rich language, voice, and writers' craft. Like the reading response answers, this effort requires that students handwrite a draft, edit the draft, then rewrite by hand a final copy--it's a full day of writing.  A few children have keyboarding privileges, but the keyboarding is limited since they cannot use spell check, grammar check, images, or other worthy online writing tools. It's too bad that all children can't craft these stories with a tech device and all the wonderful writing tools available on that device similar to the way almost every writer writes today.

Now when I was reviewing all these goals with students, I felt so challenged.  On one hand, yes, I want my students to all get great scores mostly because students, parents, and teachers won't have to worry about the ramifications of getting low scores.  I also want my students to learn to be wonderful readers, writers, and mathematicians, but all of this learning requires lots and lots of repetition to get those good scores, and the repetition of these direct skills requires lots of seat work, handwriting, and very dry, direct work--not the meaningful, child-centered project base learning that's possible.  We'll end the year with that worthy learning once these tests are past.

Before the testing started many years ago, some children were slipping through without good reading and writing skills, and that's one reason why I'm not totally against tests--when children became a test score, some children got more attention, and good attention that wasn't provided before.  And, an early start of solidifying essential skills is also good--children need a strong foundation for learning well. Also the common core standards are rich and deep, every time I pose a well crafted lesson based on the standards, the students are motivated to think and wonder deeply.

However, there seems to be a developmental mismatch since I find myself rushing through important learning in dry ways in order to cover the large number of possible questions, and that's not good teaching. I wish I could take the time needed to foster a really rich meaningful digital story with children instead of multiple repetitions of a handwritten narrative.  I wish we could spend the week building, creating, and making to learn area and perimeter with depth rather than multiple practice sets so I can fit in a number of other concepts.  Yet, I realize that to lessen the standards might mean that people will use the worksheets to teach the simpler standards, and the learning/teaching won't be richer over all.

So, what to do--I think every system needs to think deeply about their learners. What do your learners need?  What do our learners need?  When is a test score a low priority because we are choosing a student's needs over a test score, and when is the test score the right goal for some students?  How do we balance the day, and provide the appropriate supports to meet the needs of all children?

Further, with new evaluation systems for teachers and leaders that require evidence--when does the collection of evidence serve as a natural result of teaching/learning well, and when does evidence collection take the place of the time we need to do good work.

In summary, we need time to talk about the important issues.  Skirting around issues of importance, mandates, and subtlety serve to swerve us away from the important conversations we need to have today about teaching children well.