Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 1 – The System.

I had been planning to weigh in on the Standardised Testing debate for a while now. Then I spotted this article titled The four biggest myths of the anti-testing backlash and decided to put my ‘two cents worth’ in.

First of all, don’t call me a fence sitter, but I can see what both sides are saying. And that’s part of the problem with the whole debate. It’s just two sides not listening to the other’s point of view. Being a quasi/mutant part teacher, part leader composite being, I get to discuss the postives and negatives of testing with many stakeholders and this is where it all sits with me.

The System Level.

At system level, no one has a coherent, unified explanation of the purpose of Standardised Testing. Is it for tracking student progress or achievement? Is it a means of evaluating the performance of schools, teachers or students? Is it a “one off snapshot of performance to get a general picture of student achievement to be used alongside school/teacher recorded data to build a profile of a student’s strengths and weaknesses” ( phew!) or is it the all important indicator of school and teacher performance that takes precedence over all other evidence of achievement before or after the test? Are we meant to use the results to guide curriculum and school planning or work with the results at a one to one level to build on Individual Learning Plans for students? Are the results intended for educational experts or meant to be published by newspapers and government websites to pigeonhole schools into rankings based on a one off event? Over the years, I hear and see all of these scenarios played out all the time and the end results too often don’t result in targeted learning improvements because we get bogged down in definitions of purpose and mixed agendas.

Testing is necessary. In a mobile, global society, there needs to be some standard we have to set for the typical 10 year old if one year their Dad’s job takes him to Thailand and the next year he ends up in Dubai. Results can be used effectively. Trends can be found at a class or school level that can be addressed quickly. Results can generate purposeful planning conversations based on actual data rather than teacher intuition or generalisations based on a small sample group. Done well, students and their parents can get timely feedback that they can use to address strengths and weaknesses quickly, not when they get their report five months later. Despite what we think, many students like competition and like to know how they are performing against their best mate or nemesis. So I am not against the concept of standardised testing. I have issues with its perceived purpose.

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks at school using a lot of standardised tests. We believe at the leadership level, we have a clear purpose for these tests. The On Demand testing we are using online with entire Grade Levels can give us a snapshot of who is below, at and above standard. From there we plan programs to address needs of groups of students. It’s instant feedback – which is a massive advantage over the ridiculous 5 month waiting period for NAPLAN ( Australia’s nation wide standardised testing program) . The minute the student finishes the test, we can bring up overall and question by question results. But the amount of data can be overwhelming at the micro-level and too general at a macro level. More importantly for me, raw numbers and right and wrong answers tell me what the student can’t do BUT it doesn’t tell me why.

That’s why a more effective form of standardised testing is the one on one interview. Too time consuming to do with every student and often too pointless to use with high achievers or the ‘normed’ student, but what you get the chance to do that makes a real difference to the student’s learning is identify how they think. A instead of C doesn’t tell me why the child couldn’t add two digit numbers; listening to that same student verbalise the misconceptions of addition does. Where standardised testing of the written, whole class nature helps me here is identifying the students who would benefit from the interview. Over the last week, I have had some eye opening interviews and discovered some major issues with some students that NAPLAN and On Demand or class worksheets clearly missed. I’ve also found out that some of the students I interviewed because of Standardised Test results, were not low achievers at all. They were using sophisticated mental computation strategies that will support them in future years and should have helped them ‘ace’ the test. Something else was going on at the test site that a written test can’t begin to pick up.

I don’t know how possible it is but it would be nice if at system level someone could investigate the possibility of an alternative to the 50 question multiple choice question test. Is our priority the Collection of Data about WHO is at risk or finding out HOW we can help the at risk student? I don’t know how practical it is at a system level, but 5 questions on key ideas that ask a child to justify their responses is going to tell me more about what is going on in the head of that student than a score of 12/50.

Testing is vitally important but it’s important to find out how to help our students learn, not simply what they do and don’t know on a given Thursday. Identifying learning issues is what I want to see as the purpose of Standardised Testing. That helps teachers. That helps students. Anything else becomes a political football in a debate between two groups of people who are only providing the media 1o second soundbites to keep the real stakeholders out of the conversation.

Having said that, it is certainly not all the system’s fault. Teachers and students have to be accountable in all of this too. What roles, rights and responsibilities do those at the coalface have in this debate? I’ll cover that in Pt 2 ( or maybe even Pt 3 – depends on how much I ramble on for!!) In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you think? What’s your take on Standardised Testing? Which side of the debate do you support? Join the conversation.

When it comes to Technology, teachers need as much scaffolding as students

Teachers' Technology Inservice.

As teachers, we have come to learn over the years that we should never expect our students to fully understand a new idea without some form of structured support framework, or scaffolding as the current buzzword defines it. If we want them to solve a problem, we tend to provide them with a range of strategies and tools to assist them. Before writing a persuasive text, teachers present a text framework and spend time developing the language structures and features required. It’s common sense thinking that we need to help learners when exposing them to new experiences.

The same, of course, should be the case in supporting learning for our fellow teachers. From Literacy Co-ordinators to Mathematics Leaders, Education consultants to teacher mentors, it is accepted practice to take a methodical, measured approach to develop teacher capacity in any given curriculum area. With one glaring exception. For reasons that have no grounding in common sense or educational practicality, Technology is just thrown at us and expected to magically stick to us and develop. What actually happens is that it slides right off, repelled by the totally justified and expected reluctance of older teachers who trained as teachers before computers evolved beyond command lines or inexperienced teachers who are still getting their heads around making their challenging students stay in their seats. The lack of a systematic framework for developing teacher capacity and competency in teaching with technology is a massive black hole in Education today. We bandy around the term 21st Century learners every day at school but where is the plan for ensuring 21st century teaching and learning is taking place?

At the moment , I am reading the book, “Leading for Instructional Improvement – How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise” by Stephen Fink and Anneke Markholt. Chapter Eight begins by focusing on the idea of Reciprocal Accountability.

“Reciprocal Accountability simply means that if we are going to hold you accountable for something, we have an equal and commensurate responsibility to ensure you know how to do what we are expecting you to do (Elmore’ 2000; Resnick and Glennan, 2002). Practically speaking, this important concept means that accountability must go hand in hand with organizational capacity building with a specific focus on ensuring that teachers and leaders have the expertise necessary to ensure high achievement for all students. ” ( pg 221-2). It goes on to say that “teachers must know deeply each of their students as individual learners, differentiating their instruction accordingly so that each student meets the expected standard regardless of the student’s starting place……..the concept of reciprocal accountability provides the same useful lens to examine the relationship between teachers and principals…..Although principals don’t take the relationship between teachers and students for granted, they often fail to recognize the similar reciprocal nature of their roles with their own teachers.” ( pg 222)

This is particularly true when it comes to developing teacher skills in using and teaching with Technology. We can’t just hand over thousands of dollars of equipment and expect teachers to be accountable for the effective use of it if they don’t know how. So what do we do about it?

For me it comes down to these points.

  1. PLTs dedicated to Technology integration into our teaching practices
  2. A constant focus on Technology throughout lesson and unit planning
  3. A restructuring of the role of ICT Leaders/teachers in schools
  4. A greater focus on Technology in Teacher Training programs
  5. A commitment to Technology Professional Development courses on an equal footing with Literacy and Numeracy Projects.

Professional Learning Team Meetings (PLTs)

Justifiably so, many of a school’s PLT Meeting times are dedicated to Literacy and Numeracy. In the current educational climate, we have to ensure we are doing everything in our power to improve student outcomes in these areas. However, if the system is going to make genuine improvements in the use of Technology in our classrooms, school and department level leadership needs to commit to PLTs for this area of Teaching and Learning. Teachers need time to learn about new trends in Web 2.0 tools, read and discuss articles about educational technology, investigate how current and future technologies can enhance the learning in their classrooms. It’s one thing to run 20 minute “”Techie Brekkies”  before or after school or teacher organised TeachMeets on weekends  to introduce an app or a web tool to an interested group of teachers but for real educational change there has to be a place for “All in” meetings. These PLTs would challenge teachers to delve deeper into their thinking about how, why, when, how often and who with  Technology can be used in their lessons. Staff meetings alone only brush the surface as 30-40 adults add a single thought to the conversation. PLTs allow for the in depth scaffolding of what is needed.

Technology Focus in Planning

Technology will never be properly integrated into our daily classroom practice effectively without strategically planning for its application in our weekly learning experiences. I’m not talking about teachers booking in “computer time” for students to publish their work or planning for research on the internet. That’s been the default behaviour since computers came into our classroom. It’s not even about planning specific workshops involving tech tools. I’m talking about the systematic weekly planning  for tech integration in all subject areas – where applicable of course ( I’m not advocating blanket 24/7 inclusion of technology; that would be counter productive). This would be a natural follow up from earlier PLTs but it would also involve a school wide schema that would highlight areas to consider when planning.

For example,

  • How can we use collaboration in this task – so what ICT can support this?
  • How can we collect information from students for this activity – can I use online polls, a shared noticeboard, online forum?
  • What virtual manipulatives websites are available to support my Maths lesson?

Literacy and Numeracy Planning proformas would be almost universally expected in schools to assist planning. It’s time ICT had a planning structure as well.

The role of the ICT Leader/teacher

Pedagogically, the most important change that needs to take place if we are ever to truly embrace Technology systemically across education systems is the role of the ICT leader/teacher. While this is in no way the case in all schools, there is too much responsibility placed on the shoulders of the designated ICT teacher to teach the students how to use computers. In my experience, and again I’m not suggesting this happens everywhere, this has only led to a generation of students doing computer related projects in the ICT Lab and not making a link between the tools they used in there to their general work with the classroom teacher or at home. It made sense when computers first came into schools in the 80s and early 90s. The ICT teachers were often the only staff members who knew what to do and most schools only had the funds for a small number of computers to share. But its been 15-20 years since then and we still have Computer lessons once a week in some schools, despite the ubiquity of 1:1 computer/student ratios in many instances.

In my opinion, ICT leaders/teachers should serve the same role as Literacy and Numeracy Leaders. Instead of being release teachers showing students how to make a Powerpoint presentation while their teachers are planning with the Literacy Leader, the ICT Leader should be at planning as well, guiding the integration of Technology in the Literacy Lessons. The ICT Leader should be working with the teachers during lessons supporting the teachers and students, not working for them.

Teacher Training and Technology

When I started my teacher training back in the mid 1980s, we were still inserting floppies into Hard Drives to turn them on and the sum total of our computer experience was commanding a pixelated turtle to move around a black and white screen. Computer technology has certainly grown exponentially since then but sadly, teacher training in its use has not. As an experienced teacher with a well rounded knowledge of both the technology and the pedagogical knowledge to go with it, I want to see a change in the level of knowledge and awareness of ICT tools in the new teachers coming into schools. This is in no way a criticism of the teachers themselves. Indeed many do come with their own self taught knowledge of Technology, just as I have relied on my own initiative to become the “tech guru” I am today. It is a critique of Teacher Training Programs at universities. Now again, I fully understand that we need to ensure teachers are prepared to improve students’ literacy and numeracy skills. That has been my main aim for 25 years. However, just like we can’t expect our students to truly learn the true power of technology through weekly ICT Lab lessons, nor can we expect graduate teachers to be any more TechEd-savvy if all they get is one semester of ICT 101. To improve the ICT in schools now, we need young teachers leading the change, supporting the more experienced teachers who missed out on the ICT training in their early days.

We talk about being Life Long Learners every day of the year in the Educational Community. Maybe our Professors and Lecturers who lack the requisite skills in ICT need to commit some of their vast experience, knowledge and skill to learning how they can integrate Technology Education into their own courses so that student teachers can develop an understanding and awareness of how ICT can be used across all curriculum areas. This is a huge challenge. It may be too late for our current crop of elder statesmen at University but at some stage if we are going to get serious about 21st Century Learning, this shift needs to take place.

Technology Professional Development Programs

Without blowing my own trumpet, I consider myself to be an expert teacher in all areas of the curriculum and have been for many years. And yet, it has been deemed necessary for me to be sent off to numerous PD Programs in Literacy, Numeracy, Religious Education, Inquiry and Health and PE, as have many of my colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, I have very much appreciated the investment and opportunities. There is no doubt  my fellow teachers and I have greatly expanded our repertoire of teaching skills as a result of these experiences. Again though, missing from these experiences was Technology PD. Not a problem for me as I have been able to educate myself in this area. Clearly this has not been the case for a large number of other teachers in the Educational Community.

Georgia Educational Technology Conference 2008

Governments have poured massive amounts of tax payer funded cash into schools and education system in general to build up access to ICT equipment. The lack of planning, though. has left out the far more important area of funding Professional Development. I see no purpose in handing $3 million over to a school to purchase equipment but spending no money on training the teachers how to use it. It goes back to my earlier quote about Reciprocal Accountability. Systems have funded 2 year PD courses for entire schools in Numeracy and Literacy, including visits to their schools by experts to support their improvement. All we get in ICT PD is an invitation to a 3 Day Conference run by a Technology company that the school has to pay for itself – and they’re not cheap. Now I was lucky to attend a day at one of these Conferences last year with a donated ticket. It was one of the most inspiring experiences of my teaching career and resulted in a massive shift in my thinking about ICT. I learned about Web tools I had never heard of that are now indispensable in my teaching. I’m writing this blog as a result of the conference. That’s not good enough for schools overall, though. As I’ve already discussed, gaining access to teachers to share my experiences through PLTs, planning or Staff Meetings is a big ask when school already have commitments to Literacy, Numeracy, Religious Education, and so on. We need more whole staff PD in Technology so everyone can develop, not just the chosen few.

Final thought

It’s not going to happen overnight. Real change doesn’t. But it has to happen soon. In the 90s I attended a conference on 21st Century Learning as we looked to the future of Education. We’re now into the second decade of that century and the system wide change hasn’t happened. If we don’t reassess our current practice, we’ll arrive in the 22nd Century still talking about it. I dont pretend it will be easy or I have all the answers. I want Literacy to improve and we need time for that. I want Numeracy to improve and we need even more time for that. Somehow, we need these two very important areas to improve alongside Technology so that we can work on all of them at the same time. We can’t expect the kids to get it without us. Sure they probably know how to use all this Web Stuff and apps better than us already but they still need us to show them how to use it to learn. Teachers need to know how to provide that support and we have to plan for it.

There’s no doubt I have overgeneralised in some of my criticisms and overstated some problems but it is how I feel. What do you think? Is your experience different? Better? What ideas for improving Technology do you have? What’s happened at your school or district or even country level? Would love to hear from you.