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10 posts from January 2013

Kristin | | January 30, 2013

Are Test Results the Best Measure of Achievement?


Test-takingBy Kristin

The Washington State Board of Education is asking for citizen input on how they should "measure the performance of Washington K-12 schools."  They want to improve the Washington Acheivement Index, which provides a snapshot of how schools perform on state tests.

Kristin | | January 28, 2013

Automatic Retention for Non-Reading Third Graders?


PreschoolkidsBy Kristin

A new bill is going before the legislature this week.  Called the "Third Grade Reading Accountability" bill, it requires that schools implement pretty serious remediation interventions for K-3 students who are not reading at standard.  If they still aren't reading at standard in third grade, they can't go to fourth grade.

Part of me is really excited about this. For a long time I've argued against social promotion. As a high school teacher I often taught children who were still reading at the third grade level and I'd think, "How did they get to tenth grade?"  I think we do a big disservice to children to put them in fourth grade- where explicit decoding instruction isn't typically part of the curriculum- when they can't read. 

But another part of me has learned that holding a child back can be pretty traumatic for the child, and doesn't solve the problem. 

I found a great article that helped me clarify my thoughts.  By the National Association of School Psychologists, it outlines a common sense approach to supporting students who are below standard.  It suggests that neither automatic social promotion or automatic retention make sense.  Instead, "When faced with a recommendation to retain a child, the real task is not to decide to retain or not to retain but, rather, to identify specific intervention strategies to enhance the cognitive and social development of the child and promote his or her learning and success at school."

The article goes on to look at the research.  Basically, while retention shows academic gains the following (repeated) year, after 2-3 years the child does worse, and is eventually 5-11 times more likely to drop out of school.  Probably because without intervention strategies tailored to that child's needs, all the same obstacles are still there that prevented him from reading at standard in third grade.

So I've had to shift my position.  I used to dream of the day our legislature would insist a child couldn't leave third grade without reading at the third grade level.  Now, I think I want that decision, and all the other decisions made to help that child, to be up to the family and the teachers.  I don't want it to be mandated.  Maybe the solution is to do a better job of teaching explicit reading skills after third grade.

What do you think?

Tom | | January 27, 2013

The MAP Controversy


Stock-illustration-6396209-compass-rose-ancientBy Tom

When we were in college, learning how to be teachers, we were told that there were two types of assessments: summative and formative. Summative assessments come at the end of the unit or year. Their purpose is to “summarize” the learning that did or didn’t happen. You may remember these as “final tests.”

Formative assessments, on the other hand, come during the course of the unit or school year. Their purpose is to inform students, teachers and parents on the progress made by each student in regards to the learning. Ideally, these tests are used by teachers to adjust the pace or content of instruction; and by students and their parents to adjust the amount or intensity of effort.

The Seattle School District has recently found itself embroiled in a controversy over its assessment system. The district uses the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) as a formative assessment of math and reading comprehension skills. Their students take the computer-based tests twice a year and teachers, students and parents are supposed to use the results as I’ve described above.

This year, however, the teachers at Garfield High voted unanimously to boycott the MAP. Other teachers around the district followed suit, or at least sent words of support. Their basic beef with the test is that it isn’t aligned with their curriculum, rendering it completely useless as a formative assessment, and therefore a waste of precious instructional time.

I don’t teach in Seattle, and I don’t administer the MAP (my district uses something similar) so I don’t know exactly how things turned out this way, but I strongly suspect it has something to do with the fact that secondary English teachers don’t spend much time on direct instruction of reading comprehension, compared to their colleagues at the elementary level. The reading MAP, therefore, wouldn’t give them much feedback on the actual teaching and learning in their classrooms. Math teachers would find themselves equally frustrated, since their classes focus on specific math strands.

At this point things have reached a standoff: the teachers are refusing to administer the tests and the administration has insisted they do so, reluctantly threatening a ten-day, unpaid suspension for non-compliance.

I have to think that the teachers involved in the conflict must be asking themselves an important question: “Is this really the hill I want to die on?” And if it were me, my answer would be “no.”

Kristin | | January 25, 2013

Don't Know Much About History


60401726By Kristin

My students, struggling readers all, are reading a chapter from Junius Edwards' novel, If We Must Die.  We've studied Claude McKay's poem of the same name so my students felt pretty comfortable with what they would encounter thematically, but when Edwards revealed the story's setting by telling us Will had been wounded in Korea and had been fired for trying to register to vote, my students had a hard time inferring the time or the place. 

We talked about it, figured it out and moved on, but it's more evidence to me that knowing history helps a student's reading as much as the ability to read helps a student learn history.  I'm increasingly concerned at the way history, social studies and civics get pushed to the side to make more time for math and reading.  Eliminating history to give students an extra dose of reading was brought up as a possibility at a recent department meeting.  This is being done for struggling readers at some Seattle schools in an effort to raise reading scores on standardized tests. My colleagues refuse to go this route and as a teacher, historian and parent, I am glad.  Standardized tests are one kind of reading, and not one that lasts for long.  Being able to read and appreciate literature and being an equipped citizen are lifelong skills, and two that I prioritize in my instruction.

Tom | | January 21, 2013

The Triple-Girl Friendship


Mean-girls-photoBy Tom

I am a reasonably effective fourth grade teacher. I know how to plan lessons, deliver instruction and grade papers. I can manage a classroom and hold the attention of students. I can scold.

I have other talents. I can fly-fish, sail a J 24 single-handed and ski through moguls. I can grill a steak, fry a burger and toast a cheese sandwich. I can make meat lasagna, chicken curry and turkey enchiladas. I can blend a daiquiri, shoot tequila and mix a martini. I have made beer.

I can ride a bike from Seattle to Portland in one day. I have run a marathon. I have climbed Mount Si, Mount Pilchuk and most of Mount Baker. I have swum laps.

I can write a five-paragraph essay. About anything. I can write a business letter, a friendly letter and a resume. I can write a personal narrative, a trickster tale or a fable. I can write a haiku.

I can paint a house. I can clean a roof, fix a pipe and unclog a toilet. I can replace rain gutters, start a lawn from seed and build a fence. I have replaced a garbage disposal.

I can do all of these things and more; yet I cannot, for the life of me, support, sustain or even fathom the triple-girl friendship.

Like wet snow on a steep slope or a six-point lead at halftime, the triple-girl friendship is inherently unstable. It’s asking for trouble, like a fish tank on a golf course or an old man on ice skates. It is caesium. It is your first bike ride.

The triple-girl friendship has no memory of its own failure. It ruined last week’s literature circle, yet honestly believes it can collaborate on a five-slide Oregon Trail PowerPoint. It cannot. It drove last month’s chaperone crazy, yet pleads to be together on next month’s field trip. It will not. The triple girl friendship goes out to recess with three smiles and a long jump rope. It comes back crying.

The triple-girl friendship defies counseling. It can write in eloquent cursive exactly what it did wrong and what it will do differently next time, and then do exactly what it did wrong again. It can recite the anti-bullying pledge with no sense of irony.

It is late January. There are just about 100 more days of school. Lord help me.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | January 17, 2013

The Kids want to Learn about Ducks! Time to review the Next Generation Science Standards


Duckby Maren Johnson

You've never seen science standards like these before. There's a big change coming to science education in Washington state and in much of the rest of the country, and if you want to have a say in it, the time is now. The final public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards is now open for review and will close on January 29, so give those standards a glance! Read as much or as little of it as you want--all feedback welcome. With a strong integration of science and engineering practices with traditional science content, these new standards are challenging and thought provoking. Washington state is very likely to adopt these later this spring, possibly in March, so now's your chance to weigh in.

I've had a few different opportunities to discuss this draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): once in a charming rural cafe with a group composed mainly of local science teachers; once in an urban conference room with science education professionals who were primarily not teachers; and on Twitter at #NGSS and #NGSSchat--check out those hashtags!

So what did people have to say about these standards which are radically different from what we have now in both form and content?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development | January 12, 2013

Reading, Thinking, the Media and the Truth


I teach 9th grade English so one of my Common Core State Standards reads like this: 

Informational Texts: Delineate and evaluate argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I usually focus most on this standard when examining logical fallacies portrayed in advertising as part of my propaganda unit during the teaching of Animal Farm. The kids quickly see the illogical and unsupported claims about toothpastes, beauty products, diet pills and any number of other too-good-to-be-true product pitches. When the validity of the reasoning only takes a moment of critical thought to deconstruct, they get good at it. When claims are presented that "seem" valid on first blush, though, the kids have a hard time decoding the nuance of falsehood behind the presumptive truth.

The route information takes nowadays is more like the game of telephone than ever before, with information being stripped, twisted and de-contextualized until it emerges at the end of the line as a statement whose meaning is a completely different message than the original referent. Thus, our challenge is not to help students spot the obviously fallacious reasoning, but to have their radar on for the subtle (and I believe, often intentionally manipulative) misinformation, misguidance, incompleteness, or writerly interpretation that portrays itself as truth and fact.

This was already in my mind when I read this seemingly innocuous passage in an article about teachers:

Maren Johnson | National Board Certification, Professional Development, Science, Weblogs | January 6, 2013

Writing about Teaching


Way back, when I signed up to be a teacher, and a science teacher at that, I never imagined the amount of writing I was going to be doing. Yes, I expected to write some curriculum, student assessments, and the like, but I never really contemplated writing about teaching.

Tom | | January 3, 2013

A Discussion About Recess


2011468213678By Tom

A few months ago I was visiting a friend of mine who teaches high school English. We were in his classroom and he showed me his grade book. I noticed that in some of his classes, most of the students were missing most of their assignments. I asked him about this.

“There’s really not much I can do about it. I assign work, collect it, grade it and post the scores on-line. Some kids just don’t turn in their work. Other than giving them an F, there’s not much else I can do, since some kids simply couldn’t care less about their grades.”

I explained how things work in my classroom. I assign work and then collect it. If a student doesn’t have it, they do it during recess. Period. No questions, no yelling, no discussion. Their names go up on the whiteboard and they come back to the room after lunch to get it done. I’m in the room anyway, taking care of paperwork, and I don’t mind the company.

And if someone misbehaves or wastes time during the day, I put a tally next to their name on my clipboard. Each tally mark equals one minute of lost recess during our second recess, which we have toward the end of the day.

I use first recess to take care of missing assignments and I use second recess to take care of misbehavior. And it works beautifully. I have the best-behaved class in the school with literally no missing assignments.

But then I came across this article in USA Today. Basically, a bunch of pediatricians want us to leave recess sacred; don’t make kids do schoolwork when they should be out playing and don’t withhold recess as a form of punishment.

In other words, don’t do what I do.

I can see their point. Recess is an important time for kids to blow off steam, get some exercise, mingle, and just “be kids.” For most children, it’s their favorite time of the day. It certainly was for me, when I was young.

But pediatricians aren’t teachers. They deal with one kid at a time, for ten or fifteen minutes, with their parents in the room. They’re not trying make 25 to 30 kids work quietly at something most of them would rather not do for seven hours a day.

At a certain level, teachers need leverage. For those of us at the elementary level, recess gives us that. 

What do you think? 

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | January 2, 2013

A New Proposal

Photo Dec 30, 2012, 9:54 PM

By Maren Johnson

A press release, an op-ed, and a television interview—what’s up with all the media on Washington state assessment? Our Superintendent of Public Instruction just released a new proposal: reduce the number of exit exams required for high school graduation from five to three. This proposal shows concern for mitigating some of the negative effects of large amounts of testing on the Class of 2015, sophomores I currently have as students. Specifically, the number of math exams would be reduced from two to one, and reading and writing would be combined into a single exam. In science, however, the proposal would still move forward with a brand new graduation requirement this year focusing on biology. This means that not only will our state’s sole high school science exam be in biology, but the emphasis on biology will also be increased by making that exam high stakes.

Randy Dorn cited some excellent reasons for the overall reduction in assessments, saying “too much classroom time is devoted to preparing for tests, taking tests and preparing to retake tests.” He also noted the high cost of Washington’s assessment system.

However, there is another factor besides cost and time that comes into play here: assessment drives instruction. When there is a single high stakes science assessment, and that assessment is in biology, then chemistry, physics, and earth science will be neglected. An alternate idea: we could keep administering our existing biology EOC, which would satisfy federal requirements, but delink the biology EOC from graduation. Eliminating the graduation requirement would relieve the current pressure on schools, which, in many cases, is distorting high school science education to emphasize biology. Delinking the biology exam from graduation would also save a considerable amount of money in remediation, retakes, and rescoring. Most expenditures in education hold out some promise of benefit: this expenditure is actually detrimental to science education in our state by marginalizing chemistry, physics, earth science, and STEM.

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