Getting to know the child behind the test score

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I had a great experience today with a student who has recently arrived in our country. The time I spent with her made me consider how assessments and test scores can overly influence our opinions of students, Especially if we don’t take the time to get to know the child behind the score.

“Gloria” (not her real name, just paying homage to my favourite sitcom, “Modern Family”) has recently arrived from South America. She knows enough English to talk to others and understand most instructions. The start of the school year brings with it a barrage of standardised

assessments to identify the needs of individual students. They serve a purpose in preparing personalised learning programs for children who need both intervention and extension. But raw numbers don’t tell us the full picture. Gloria is a classic example. She scored low in the standard spelling test administered by her classroom teacher. So did many others.

Because of the results, targeted spelling programs were developed to support these students beyond the main class spelling program. Gloria was included in these programs with support from teacher aides. Let me make it clear right here. Teacher aides are fantastic support in classroom. For children with learning difficulties, teacher aides are vital for them to survive the classroom struggle on a daily basis. But sometimes kids with low test scores don’t need teacher aides – they need teaching.

Gloria didn’t score low on the spelling test because of a learning difficulty. She didn’t score low because of a physical disorder or because she has emotional issues that have affected her concentration over the years. Gloria scored low because she speaks Spanish! She doesn’t need a teacher aide to sit with her and work through a worksheet of spelling words. She needs a teacher who has sat down with her, listened to her read words, watched her write words and recognized that her errors were based on the different sounds found in the Spanish language.

I had my first extended experience with Gloria by chance this week. The teacher aide who has been working with her was away and her teacher asked me to step in and take the group, as I was between jobs that morning. As soon as I was handed the spelling worksheet assigned for the week, which was addressing the ‘j’ sound (spelt g-,j-,-dge, -ge), my years of background knowledge in languages through applied linguistics training and Latin rang alarm bells in my head. This was going to be a big challenge for Gloria for one simple reason – j is not j in Spanish and the -dge grapheme doesn’t even exist. This needed to be addressed with Gloria, not because she was a bad speller, but because she had no experience with this spelling system.

While working with Gloria ( and the other two students who were more interested in what was happening at the other end of the building, hence their need for a teacher aide to keep them on task), I discovered a girl with a rich knowledge of her mother tongue’s spelling system. While still interacting with the other students equitably, I was drawn into deep conversations about the similarities of g in Spanish and English, depending on the vowel that followed. We had great dialogues about the different use of e and the end of Spanish words. We notice similarities in letter combinations between the equivalent words in each language like jirafa and giraffe. While reading words in the spelling list on the worksheet, I picked up other issues that were not spelling related but Spanish phonics related. It makes sense that Gloria can’t spell luggage because a Spanish speaker would pronounce it ‘loogage’. U makes one sound in Spanish, in English it makes 2, one of which doesn’t exist in Spanish.

Gloria knows a great deal about spelling conventions, but in Spanish. She doesn’t need a remedial spelling program; she needs an English enrichment program. She understood what we discussed during this lesson we had. The other two just chose some words to learn during the week that they will probably get correct in a test next week but not relate to other experiences of the ‘j’ sound in their writing. Students like Gloria need more than a test score to work them out – they need teachers to get to know them.

I’ve had the same experiences during the Mathematics interviews I’ve been conducting this term. The interviewees were selected based on low test scores. During the interviews, though, I found students with sophisticated mental computation strategies that, based on reading test scores, were having literacy issues not numeracy issues. For others, we discovered why they survived to a certain grade level at an acceptable standard then suddenly dropped alarmingly – they were completely reliant on counting by ones for everything.

Standardised testing and the resultant scores are good indicators for potential learning difficulties or strengths. But they’re no substitute for face to face interactions. And sometimes that one on one interaction needs an experienced hand to really pinpoint the need. I’m committed to working with Gloria as much as I can this year. If our chance meeting didn’t occur, she could have spent the year only working with a teacher aide group with students with learning difficulties. We can’t let the push for standardised testing, even at the diagnostic rather than school comparison level, blind us from the fact we need to get to know our students more intimately. We owe it to the Glorias in our classrooms.

Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 2 Teacher/Student

” And something else that matters more, we’ve taught you how to think!”

Wise words from Miss Bonkers from the pages of “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!”, Dr Seuss'(with help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith) tribute to creativity in schools over standardisation. I open with this YouTube reading of this terrific story as I present my stance on the impact Teachers and their students have on the issue of Standardised testing. This is a follow up post to my take on the System’s successes and failures regarding this concern in education.

As teachers, we work our fingers to the bone to teach our children in the most creative and engaging ways possible. We spend hours each week resourcing quality materials, planning great lessons to get the most out of our students. Then state/national standardised testing time comes around and we completely change our teaching style and focus.

From teaching multiple strategies in Mathematics that will enable our students to be independent, ‘mental calculating’ problem solvers, we suddenly shift back to algorithms and arithmetic drills to prepare them for those quick response multiple choice tests that come by once a year. After months of sharing in the joys of literature and expressing creativity through so many media forms, we cram blocks of texts and lists of question and answer practice sessions into 3 weeks of preparation before the big Literacy test. Five months later when the results finally show up, we sit dismayed that all that effort we put in practising for the test led to little or no change in the previous years’ score. What we don’t get is that, despite the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect.

If all we do is teach our students how to take a test by giving them superficial tips like ” two of the answers don’t make sense so it really just comes down to a couple of choices” ( not realising that we might sense that there are two stupid choices in the multiple choice options but a 9 year old doesn’t), little will be achieved for those who need to improve. If we think pointing out some key words and phrases that will probably come up in the test next week will make a difference when we can’t possibly predict every word that may appear, children will continue to stress and panic, selecting the first response that includes something they are familiar with. Why else would a child select the “Dogs chase cats” option after reading text that mentions animals of different sizes ( including dogs and cats) and the correct answer is obvious to us ” Animals come in different shapes and sizes?” What’s missing here is a lack of logic from the child…..and this is key to the problem we are perpetuating too often as teachers. We are not teaching the students to THINK.

Before a child can read a book, he can THINK about the book’s meaning, events and characters in conversation with their teacher or parents. Before a child understands what + and ÷ means she can THINK about what happens when you put two groups together or share lollies with your friends and families. Before a child can sort out the difference between isosceles and equilateral triangles, she can THINK about how to put blocks together to build a toy house. THINK about how Lego blocks can teach children about arrays and counting patterns. THINK about how we can argue about issues in their lives before a child knows how to construct a persuasive essay with paragraphs for each argument or even spell or write. As schools and Education departments, let’s start THINKING about a THINKING curriculum.

Phonics is important. Word recognition is vital. Being Level 28 by the end of Grade 2 is a must. It’s all pointless, though, if we have achieved all this without emphasising the importance of THINKING along the way. No Thinking equals no comprehension equals failed reading test. Rote counting is needed but not if the counter isn’t THINKING about what he is counting, why he is counting and is actually counting something. Any skill isolated from THINKING is not helping a child grow as a rational, problem solving student.

Dangerously Irrelevant’s Scott MacLeod, referencing a blogpost by Kevin ‘Doc’ Dougherty reflects on the importance of teaching above the test, not to the test. We need to get our students to struggle. Struggle leads to THINKING. THINKING leads to the ability to look at a question in a standardised test and logically work through a process that leads to a correct answer. I’ve been doing lots of focused standardised tests lately, not in preparation for the upcoming NAPLAN tests in May, but to identify student skill levels so we can plan differentiated programs for them. In watching the students, the number of times they are making irrational choices for answers is astounding. They’re not THINKING.

Yes, there is unfamiliar but relevant vocabulary in these tests that we have disregarded in the past. We are addressing that and exposing the students to a more sophisticated and varied language, struggle and all.As observing teachers, we are beginning to recognise that we are not presenting problems in our day to day teaching ( not test preparation ) in the variety of ways problems are presented in these tests. We are teaching down, dumbing down, teaching to the lower end of the scale, call it what you like. If we force feed every step of the process, explain every instruction without letting children struggle to work out what the instructions or questions mean, always present mathematical problems as numbers rather than written or visual problems, we let them down. We fail to teach them to THINK. So we are now making sure our presentation of problems, information and texts in general are varied and challenging.

So while it is an exaggerated work of fiction, lets look to Miss Bonkers and the school in Diffendoofer for guidance. Yes we need standardised testing to check progress and assess learning. Yes we need to see if our students are performing to a standard that is accepted across the country. But we do not have to teach the content of a test or how to take a test. We need to teach them how to THINK.

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.

Can we reconcile standardised testing with Personalised Learning?

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions and Professional development sessions this year in my role as Maths lead learner that have revolved around the use of standardised testing and the role of data in improving outcomes. Twitter and Ed blogs are awash with concerns about the “dumbing down” of education today because of the direction to “teach to the test” so our schools’ publicly available data can improve (which in a more positive way should be phrased as ” so our student outcomes can improve).

At the same time, we are led to “worship at the altar” of the Ken Robinsons of the world who are leading us in this inevitable Education Revolution of personalised learning, creativity, student autonomy and voice and choice. Entire Education systems have published documents directing us to following this revolution, which to make it clear I am a big proponent of, only for this lofty goal to consciously or unconsciously hit the proverbial brick wall when our latest NAPLAN ( insert own country’s national testing program here) results come a-visiting to inform us we didn’t score as well as we need to. Suddenly, we as a system turn our curriculum into a series of ‘how tos” in comprehending test questions.

Can we get the balance right? Should we balance it? Is it possible to reconcile the unfortunate reality of needing decent test scores to feel good about your school’s achievements with our far more worthy, yet politically undervalued aim of developing creative, critical thinking, community minded, self driven, connected life long learners? Can we counteract the undoubted power of the the once a year standardised test score with our own data reflecting year long achievements? In a single reflective blog post I can’t answer the question definitively nor do I have all the data the research experts can throw at us to support their view point. Nevertheless, here are my views, and my views alone on some of the burning issues we face in our ideological battle between standardisation and Personalised learning.

The question about questions
One of the biggest issues is this whole perception that we must “teach to the test.” How often have you been directed to give the children more practice in comprehending the type of questions the students will face on the test. The mistake we often make here is we try to teach the children strategies in question answering; looking for key words, identifying reasonable and unreasonable answers. What we fail to do is look at the curriculum content behind the question and analyse how effectively we are teaching that content.

In our Mathematics Leadership team, we are spending a lot of time doing just that. We are making use of the data and the actual test questions to find possible gaps, not just in content, but also in the way we present that content. What language is used in the question- do we use that language? How was the mathematical concept represented – do we represent it that way? ( example from this year’s NAPLAN test – I doubled a number then subtracted 4. I was left with 8. What was the original number? Have we used this worded problem based representation or have we just used function machines or algebra forms? It’s a perfectly reasonable question that we just never presented to our students in that way)

So our aim in our team is not to “teach to the test” but to understand how we can teach effectively what might be in the test. That might just sound like a subtle rephrasing of he same thing but it’s not. We need to improve our knowledge of how concepts can be represented. We need to build the vocabulary and contextual range of teachers and students so that in our Maths classes we can provide all possible thinking experiences that may arise in “that test”. Not by doing practice tests, but by incorporating the language and representations found in these tests in our normal engaging lessons. The same applies to Literacy tests. Do we have a great enough range of questions in our day to day English teaching that are similar to the types of questions being asked in the test?

We also use the data from standardised testing ( not just NAPLAN but an On Demand Testing system) to plan for personalised learning for our students in Maths. We are able to identify student skill levels in different areas of the Maths curriculum and cater for differing needs. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my blog.

Having said that, I still have concerns about how the impost of the testing regime affects teaching, especially in Maths. As an education system, we have spent years extolling the virtues of Habits of Mind, Multiple intelligences and Learning styles. Mounds of research has emphasised that today’s students are very much visual learners. We have implemented technology integration across curriculum areas. And yet, despite all this, the ONLY data collection system we rely on is heavily skewed towards a linguistic test. Word problems and written responses. Maths is not just word problems. Life is not full of word problems and comprehension questions.

We have to get the balance right so that we have a curriculum that values verbal, physical, hands on, real life experiences above test questions. Primary School isn’t just a means for progressing to the textbook world of secondary school, where the student is surround by word problems and nothing else. We still need to problem solve, not just word problem answer.

And we can’t just put all our eggs in the standardised test basket in terms of assessment. There is real danger that teachers will lose faith in their own judgment, their own assessment tasks, the quality work the children produce before and after “that test”. It’s all too easy to just accept the score of the national test as a reflection of the student’s achievement, especially when it is public and known to the parents. While data from tests can be effective in planning programs for extension and intervention, the tests are still just an indication of performance on that given day. We have to trust the worth of all that other data we collect during the year – the student’s work. Which means we have to make that data work better for us. This leads to my next point.

Data vs. Data
Two things evident from the data from standardised tests are
It gets analysed; and
It gets publicised
Therefore we have to make sure our other data can be analysed effectively and we have to make it public so it can be used in a positive light.

Consistent, methodical use of checklists, rubrics, annotated samples. assessment spreadsheets and the like coupled with effective means of sorting and presenting the data so that it can be effectively analysed and used for improvement is the first part of the process. The second is counteracting the power of the publication of standardised test results. We can easily bemoan the unfairness of the misuse and misrepresentation the data. We can cry foul at the cold, limited process of league tables making you look like an underachiever because you’re one percentage point away from moving from below average to average. Or you could fight back and proactively publicise your year round data showing the students are far better achievers than that one off test suggests.

This is where the power of the Internet comes in. If you’re concerned prospective parents are put off by the red mark on the website showing national test results, start advertising your school’s achievements on line. Utilise the school website and class/student blogs to post exemplary work publicly. Use digital portfolios to showcase student progress year round to their parents so they can compare what their child has achieved all year as opposed to that test from May. Kill off the bad publicity a low ranking on the test score website gives you with the good publicity of getting student work published in public forums like local newspapers, community radio or other education based websites. Enter Writing, Maths or Arts competitions that don’t judge student acheivement by 40 minute test papers but by in-depth thinking and creativity and celebrate the results. Get your school involved in community, local, national and global projects to show what your students can achieve beyond a multiple choice question booklet.

One set of data should not outweigh multiple sets. Be organised. Be proactive. Know what data you have. Make it clear and accessible. Stop saying “our children are better than these results” and start proving they are. We live in a data driven age of education. Take control of the wheel yourself instead of being driven by external data.

There is a place for standardised testing. The data it provides can help us plan for Personalised learning. We, and by we I mean teachers, principals, education departments, parents, and most of all political leaders, have to get the balance right. We can’t talk of 21st Century education revolutions and then get judged by 19th/20th century methods. Politicians need to LISTEN to us and TRUST our data. Schools and Education systems have to create, collect and publicise data that CAN be TRUSTED. That’s the balance we need to find. I’m no expert. I’m just a teacher with an opinion. Sometimes we need to be heard.

What do you think? Have you found the balance between the standardised national test and a creative, purposeful school curriculum? Join the conversation.