Saturday, November 30, 2013

Don't Confuse High Stakes Testing With High Expectations

Frank Bruni recently expressed concern, in the usual hackneyed terms, that kids these days are "coddled". Some sports give trophies for participation, or end games early when the difference in score reaches a defined threshold. A middle school near Boston is concerned that kids' feelings might get hurt if they find out that they weren't invited to parties. Some kids get stressed by tests. Bruni complains that "Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment." As anybody, including Bruni, should know, people like Bruni have been writing this sort of column for generations.

All of Bruni's complaints are to set a context for his criticism of people who object to the high stakes standardized testing model imposed upon the nation's schools. Bruni conflates high stakes standardized tests with "tougher instruction [that should] not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them." While Bruni insists, that Common Core is "a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization", even he admits that "n instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate." Yet here he is, calling those who want to engage in the debate paranoiacs and whiners.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?
I don't mind at all the notion that school should be challenging. But what Bruni is overlooking is how standardized testing has displaced a lot of traditional classroom teaching and learning, or that the insistence that children master skills at earlier ages is not necessarily consistent with the students' cognitive development. After pushing more and more traditional first grade material into kindergarten, we're now hearing proposals to raise the age for kindergarten enrollment. If you end up with a kindergarten full of kids who, under the former system, would largely have been in first grade, what are you actually accomplishing?

Here's something it shouldn't take very long to figure out: When you tell a teacher, "Your ranking as a teacher, your ability to keep your job and the amount you are paid depends on how your students do on a series of standardized tests," the odds are that the teacher is going to devote a great deal of effort and classroom time to improving student performance on the test. Bruni ridicules a parent's complaint that as a result of that sort of focus on testing, his eight year old's class was left with "no room for imagination or play". Does Bruni not understand that children can be challenged academically, yet be encouraged in their imagination? Does Bruni not understand that children need breaks in their lessons during the course of a school day? That children can learn from play activities? It would seem not.

Bruni references David Coleman, "noe of the principal architects of the Common Core" as asserting that he favors self-esteem, but wants to "redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work". It's not that self-esteem cannot be derived from hard work, but that's not really what Coleman is talking about. In the schoolyard, self esteem is on the whole negatively correlated with academic performance. Bruni's ridicule of parents who are concerned about their parents feelings is, in a sense, more relevant than Coleman's goal, because Bruni's approach does not involve somehow changing human nature. When Coleman talks about how students "will not enjoy every step of it" but "if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat", he seems to be talking about the end of a very long process. If you don't find a way to let kids learn on an incremental basis that their hard work will be rewarded, you're not going to create an effective learning environment for most kids.

Bruni also references Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who has stated, "ile American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better." But that's not the actual issue. Although certain factions of school reformers like to point to nations that obsess over test scores, holding them out as a model for the nation, it's very clear that we don't have the sort of culture that will cause us to follow the lead of South Korea, with kids leaving school to head over to private academies where they spend additional hours being prepped for tests, and we don't really want to follow the lead of nations that produce kids who are very good at taking tests but not much good at thinking outside the margins of a carefully darkened oval.

If you want good public schools, you don't need to do much. You need to make the profession of teaching sufficiently well respected and remunerated that you attract above average students into the profession, you want to make the task of classroom teaching rewarding, and you want parents who will reinforce the need for their kids to attend school, study and do their homework, behave in class, and achieve academically. When you do that you don't need to obsess over test stores - you can use standardized tests in their traditional manner, to assess individual and group performance with an eye toward improvement, and with no need for teachers to "teach to the test" because the goal is to obtain an accurate assessment as opposed to an artificially inflated score that reflects intensive teaching to the test at the expense of a rich classroom experience.

Ah, but high-stakes standardized testing is so much easier for school administrators and politicians, the ones who have positioned themselves to get prizes for "participation" - a large, steady paycheck with no consequences at all for the failure of schools, teachers or students. And it's so much easier to point to a computer-generated list of scores and pretend that you have objectively evaluated a teacher or school than it is to work hard.

2 comments:

  1. "If you want good public schools, you don't need to do much. You need to make the profession of teaching sufficiently well respected and remunerated that you attract above average students into the profession, you want to make the task of classroom teaching rewarding, and you want parents who will reinforce the need for their kids to attend school, study and do their homework, behave in class, and achieve academically."

    That's not much?!?!

    Two things there are extraordinarily difficult or even impossible. "[Y]ou want to make the task of classroom teaching rewarding" Probably the most sure-fire way of doing that is making sure that students are interested in what you want to teach and are prepared to do what's necessary to learn it. But in most cases, that's not going to happen. Lots of kids are passed on without necessary skills. And (one of the most depressing things about schooling) beyond a certain point somewhere in middle school, most of what schools are trying to sell (knowledge of academic subjects) is not what kids want to buy. So teachers find themselves in a constant struggle to motivate their students (and most are not averse to the threat, "if you don't pass, you won't get a diploma and you'll find it hard to get a good job.")

    "you want parents who will reinforce the need for their kids to attend school, study and do their homework, behave in class, and achieve academically."

    Of course you do. But in lots of cases, you're not going to get it (and in a great tragedy, the poorer the family, the less likely parents are to be this way). Moreover, there's not much you as a teacher or school administrator can do about it.

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    Replies
    1. I was speaking in the sense of its being a short list, so sorry that wasn't clear.

      Still, impossible? We've been much closer in the past, and some nations aren't doing a bad job at present. It's a matter of priorities, and our nation doesn't value education anywhere near as much as you might infer from public rhetoric on the subject.

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