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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Data/Assessment Obstacle Course

Like many schools we have a fair number of standardized tests that help us determine student progress, growth, and learning.

Today I became alarmed as I watched students taking a test with a large number of question types that we haven't studied yet this year. As I watched the students take the test I remembered that last year I provided a week of general math review prior to the test anticipating the test questions. This year I didn't remember to do that so several strong students were stumped by a fair number of measurement and geometry questions that included content we haven't reviewed yet this year.

I like my students to do well on standardized tests for many reasons. First of all everyone likes to do well on tests. Next, if my students do well on these tests then I have greater freedom and support to teach in ways that I believe and have researched to be deep, creative, and responsive. If the scores are not good, then there tends to be a lot support, direction, feedback, and review of your work as a teacher. After all teachers are often judged by their scores.

One reason that teachers are judged by their scores is that it's an easy data point to look at, analyze, and compare. It takes a lot more time to sit down and talk to a teacher about his/her program, research, efforts, students, and direction. It's much easier to look at a list of scores and make decisions about educators. Yet, all scores and data are not created equally, and we have to be mindful of where the scores come from and how they are gained. Scores represent far more than one teacher's efforts over a few months of a year--scores are affected by many, many factors, some positive and some perhaps not so positive.

Last year I noticed that another standardized test included a list of concepts and vocabulary not covered in our curriculum so I reviewed those concepts and vocabulary with students prior to the test, and the scores, overall, were good. People were pleased. I'll do the same this year since today's assessment reminded me of that.

In a sense, scores are a lot like an obstacle course, and perhaps sadly, scores can be gamed too by the way a class is taught, the environment in which a test is given, the time of year a test is created, the increase in difficulty presented, the choice of topics, and so much more. I'm not a test expert so I can't begin to understand all of this at this time.

As a data/assessment obstacle course you have a list of tests throughout the year and you prep and prepare the students for those tests in a large number of ways mindful of the impact of the preparation. Is this teaching to the test? Yes and hopefully no too. I know I have to get the best possible scores for a large number of reasons, but I know that for students to truly do well on any of these tests they need to have a strong foundation of math knowledge, interest, and confidence so that's what I'm really aiming for.

Next year I'll be sure to add this assessment prep to the overall yearly plan, but for now I'll have to see it as the learning experience it is. In general, I'm a fan of data, especially data that helps me to respond to each child's needs with greater focus, depth, creativity, and care. I just wish it was used in ways that uplift the learner and teacher more. I'll be thinking about that.