Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

As my project for Fun-A-Day commences, you will notice an increase in my blog entries. Most of them will begin with a quotation about education, and my expounding on it. Some will end with one, too!


“Teachers don't just teach; they can be vital personalities who help young people to mature, to understand the world, and to understand themselves. A good education consists of much more than useful facts and marketable skills.”

― Charles Platt


Teachers are not averse to having to prove whether or not a student has mastered a concept. It’s the way you evaluate the student that is important.


From first to twelfth grade in parochial school, we had certain tests each week – spelling, math, grammar – and others periodically. I remember taking exams twice a year in January and June. And the only time we took a standardized test was in grade 4 when we all took the Stanford-Binet. If we didn’t study well or had a learning disability we failed and repeated the grade. Those who couldn’t pass the second year got to try it again or were sent to the local public school. We lost a lot of kids to the public schools, having started first grade with 96 in my class to having 60 in my 8th grade class. Our teachers, right or wrong, were not blamed for our failures, but put the onus of learning what we needed to learn to pass, squarely on our shoulders.


I don’t know what they did in public school but I bet it was different than what we do now. From the beginning of my teaching career in 1975, we carried on giving the same three tests weekly with an occasional extra summative test thrown in for good measure. We were required to assess Reading levels at least twice a year and give the city-wide math tests as the kids progressed through the curriculum.


For the past dozen years, our public school district has required a battery of reading, math and science tests every 6 weeks in addition to diagnostic Reading and Math tests three times a year, as well as the PSSA, Pennsylvania’s standardized test, which was required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Race to the Top (RttT). The PSSA alone is taken over the span of 7 days for grades 3-11. Grades 4 and 8 have additional Science tests and Grades 5, 8 and 11 have 3-4 additional days of PSSA Writing tests. If the child is not performing well of the “formative” 6 week tests, they are given tutoring and a additional series of reading and math tests three times a year. For some children, this totals 4 weeks of some form of standardized testing in their reading and math classes. Not including the regular teacher-made tests throughout the year.


Even though many of the tests given are supposed to be formative, informing instruction, they are increasingly used to assess teachers on their abilities. Teachers in the same grade are expected to teach from the same lesson plan and not deviate, even if the class is having trouble with a concept, we are penalized if we fall behind the pacing schedule for the lessons. We are directed to differentiate our instruction because of the varying levels of ability in our class, teaching in various ways to effectively instruct pupils who are auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners, as well as those who have Individual Educational Prescriptions (IEPs).


Most teachers worth their certificate have been differentiating for years, before it had a name. There is one catch here, if you teach to the strengths of the child, you need to assess in that style to really be able to judge mastery. This may look like a poster, a role play, a report, a rap or song, or a demonstration with manipulatives, which explain how to divide, or the causes of the civil War, or what alliteration means. Every one of your class may indeed be able to do one of those things and convince you that they know what they’re doing. However, none of that matters when taking a standardized test.


Standardized tests measure your ability to choose from 4 answers that are given. If you are a poor reader, you might not understand either the questions or the answers, or the selection itself since everyone is given the grade level test no matter your true level. No accommodations other than extra time or small group testig are allowed. Even kids that are English Language Learners (ELL) must take the test if they have been in the US over a year. There is a certain kind of skill to taking multiple choice tests, which may or may not be the way your students need to express their learning.


The tests measure what a good test-taker knows or remembers on one day during the 180 days they are in school. Kids who are not good test-takers or who need to express themselves differently to be able to succeed, are out of luck. How do you measure mastery using only one of the 7 Intelligences and expect it to be a true measure? If you judge animals on tree climbing, the monkey and the squirrel will get an A, while the fish, dog, and rabbit will fail through no fault of their own. Does that mean the climbers are the most intelligent?


I once taught a student who could not take a written test and pass. If I asked him to explain it, he could usually tell me what I wanted to know. He went the entire year failing every written test and passing every oral exam. I finally didn’t bother to test him via writing, but always individually, by asking questions. When I had to assign him a grade at the end of the year, I gave him all Bs since he was able to explain the needed concepts in a way that indicated mastery, However, there was some consternation by the principal as to his “real” grades and she changed the marks to Cs since he was not able to write down his answers. I didn’t think that was fair at all.


How do I judge success for  a child who never gave up trying and moved ahead two grade levels in reading but was still a year behind?  How about the young man who actually sat in the class and didn’t bolt when frustrated? He could do 3 or 4 math problems but not any more in one sitting without getting upset. What if he got all 4 correct, but it was a 10-question test? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he successful? And the young lady who came to school on time every day that year and never missed a day? This was a child who in previous years was absent more than 40 days a year and showed up late almost every day. Was the year a success for her? And the Special Ed student who worked on a 2nd grade level in 5th grade but was highly successful playing guitar, was he successful?

In the words of William Bruce Cameron, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


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