Testing, testing, and more testing.

As I looked at my school’s online calendar today I couldn’t resist snapping a screen shot:

It reminded me of a post I wrote last May on assessment overload and truly epitomizes how much testing our students are put through. Depending on a students given course load and grade he or she could be in for any combination of these tests, all for different reasons. AP tests the culmination of a rigorous year, college credit on the line; MAP testing to assess yearly progress in math and reading; and NECAP tests in science to assess achievement of the science standards.

Recognizing the importance of assessment I also wanted to bring recognition to the hard work, brain busting effort (hopefully) that our students get put through as the standardized test season begins. How then should that impact instruction? What should teachers do to help make this time easier?

Even as I write, I realize that my own frustration at students skipping my classes to go home after completing AP testing may be unjustly directed. It’s often necessary to stop for a minute to see a situation from the other side. What state would my brain be in after a 4 hour test? Perhaps an afternoon to rejuvenate and rest is just what they needed. Let’s all try to keep perspective.

Standardized Tests: Now ineffective assessments of teacher performance too…

Those of you who follow the thoughts I share on my blog consistently have undoubtedly discovered my disdain for standardized testing. In fact, I have an entire post titled “What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing” that outlines what I believe are the failings of the standardized test for New England, where I am a teacher.

One point I did not really discuss in that previous post is the subsequent use of standardized test scores as means of evaluating teacher performance. If a test can not adequately assess student learning how can we then take that data and try to draw conclusions regarding how successful teachers are as educators. Yet, this is exactly what is happening in some places.

Through a teacher I follow on twitter (@coolcatteacher) an article on this topic was brought to my attention. It outlines the persecution one teacher faced based on her region’s standardized test scores, and the true story of who this teacher really is. I would strongly urge you to read this: “The True Story of Pascale Mauclair” shared on Cool Cat Teacher blog (The rest will make much more sense if you read this first).

I would hope that anyone with any respect for educators, any understanding of the educational process, or experience in the field of education would be as outraged and disgusted by the treatment of this woman. She should be praised for her dedication to providing education to all students. Working tirelessly, I am sure, to provide instruction to these students who without her may not have another option for education.

My first reaction to this article is if we continue down this path of basing teacher performance on student test grades we are going to create conflict and animosity between teachers in schools. It’s a lot easier to teach students who are already engaged in your content, have stable home lives, and amazingly speak the same language as you. So, does this mean that all teachers with seniority will be able to teach these classes, while new teachers will be assigned students who do not fit all or any of these characteristics?

As a new teacher, 3.5 years in, part of my identity as a science teacher is that I believe all students deserve access to science. Understanding science is one of the greatest ways to enrich your life. By understanding the natural world around us we become a more active and inspired member of it. In my few years teaching I have become the general educator in science on a team with three special educators. We are creating a class to provide students access to science. Students who prior to the past few years did not receive true science instruction because they we in alternative programs because of their wide variety of learning impairments or development disabilities.

Our class isn’t perfect; however, it is a step in the right direction. We have provided these students with much more valuable science instruction  and  are always adjust and improving it. These students will be taking the NECAP when they are in 11th grade, or will complete an alternative portfolio if eligible. Should my performance be judged based on these students NECAP scores, A test not designed for them as learners? Would it have been better if they weren’t in a science class? Another teacher can deal with them… These are the thoughts, the problems that stem from forcing teachers to worry about how they will be judged based on ineffective standardized test. Tests not designed with the variety of learners in mind.

Personally, I’d rather give a student the chance to succeed than ignore them so I am not considered a failure.

Another problem I have with the use of this test score is that anyone with any kind of basic stats knowledge could tell you that when you have a sample size of say 11, like Ms. Mauclair’s ESL classroom, conclusions drawn from that data are going to be unreliable given there is too little data. Beyond sample size, the bigger picture is that these students were taking a test, most likely in english, most like written, having had only a few months to a year instruction in the ESL classroom. Again, a test not designed for the learners.

I’d like to see lawyers pass their Bar Exam, a doctor pass the MCAT, or a business graduate student the GRE in a foreign language they have been learning for 3 months. It’s just not reasonable and that expectation would never be forced on those people, so why would it be forced on recently immigrating 6th grade students… it shouldn’t.

Most of all, I am outraged and frustrated at the system the allows teachers to be unjustly persecuted and diminished as professionals by journalists in the media and politicians in office that have no understanding of educational system. They clearly take no time to learn about, nor care to even attempt to understand what is actually behind these standardized test numbers. If they did, this teacher, myself  and so many others would not be feeling so disrespected and unappreciated in our professional.

It’s shameful, and we need it too change. Our students depend on it.

Happy Birthday!

Today marks the 1st birthday of Is This Science?! What a great year it’s been. First and foremost I want to thank all of my faithful readers. Your responses and opinions truly mean a lot; providing inspiration to continue to write the next post.

It’s been a busy year with just under 5,500 views, due in part to being freshly pressed in April. I am pleased and amazed!  Knowing that my thoughts have been read by so many* far exceeds any expectations I had going into this endeavor a year ago.

*Don’t worry, I am a scientist, I realize those are not 5,500 individual people. I’m thankful for the repeat offenders.

To honor the 1 year anniversary of ITS? I’ve put together a collection of my personal favorite posts from 2011. Enjoy!

Bang!: The post that kicked off ITS? an introduction of me and my goals.

Man vs. Chicken: A Battle in the Name of Science: My reflection on a great activity I use in my Human Biology class, featured by WordPress, being freshly pressed.

We’re All People: A reminder to teachers to keep in mind our students are people too. And like all people, have lots of distractions, turmoil, chaos in their lives. So, let’s treat them accordingly.

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing: The trouble with standardized testing, my take.

“Is that a clip on?” and Teaching: A Community Approach two examples of how I put a strong emphasis on building community in my classroom. Nothing says community like tie tying and grilled cheese.

Cheers to another great year! Stay tuned for what’s to come!

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing

For those of you unfamiliar with NECAP testing, it is the New England Common Assessment Program. A standardized test that aims to assess student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine. It is scored on a scale of 1-4 based on proficiency at meeting grade level expectations. 4 being proficient with distinction, 3 being proficient, 2 is partially proficient and finally a 1 is substantially below proficient.

Being a science teacher I have only worked with, and experienced the NECAP Science test. So, the following is based on my experiences proctoring and analyzing data collected from the NECAP Science exam.

There are 4 main problems I have with the NECAP test:

1. The Breadth is too Wide

The exam is taken by 8th graders and again as 11th graders. This means that in 11th grade students are taking a science test based on 3 years of content. In my school the average student would have taken Physical and Earth science , Biology, and Chemistry in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, respectfully.

That’s a whole lot of science to expect students to remember, especially given that the questions do not focus on the big, over-arching ideas from those branches of science. Instead, they focus on  specific scientific factoids that you remember or your don’t. Basing student proficiency in science on 60 or so questions from 3 years of content is ludicrous, and unfair to our students.

From my own experience flipping through the exam last year there were several chemistry questions about reactions and chemical bonding that I’m not sure I would have answered correctly, even with extensive post-high school scientific study.

The test covers too much content and the focus is too specific. It’s like trying to understand the whole universe with one telescope.

2. Little Depth of Knowledge

As I previously mentioned the majority of the test focuses on the ability to recall a specific fact about a topic, with a huge library of possible scientific topics to choose from. This means that students who are good at recall and can pull out those facts, filed away long ago, will do great; however, students that are not as successful at remembering just where the equation for photosynthesis got stored in their brain 1.5 years ago will not be quite so successful.

Beyond this, the test does little to assess higher order thinking, like hypothesizing, designing experiments and conducting them, or and making judgements and evaluating the validity of that hypothesis. Processes from levels 5 and 6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating and evaluating. Instead the test focuses on remembering, describing, and solving, levels 1-3.

This is frustrating because science is about using the scientific method, inquiry, to learn and solve problems. In my classroom especially, I put a strong focus into teaching students how to think scientifically. Learning how to develop a hypothesis and then design and conduct an experiment. From there we can then analyze the results of that experiment and make judgements on the validity of our hypothesis by drawing conclusions. All higher order thinking skills, levels 5 and 6 according to Bloom, and none are adequately assessed by NECAP.

I may not have remembered the answer to a NECAP question about chemistry, even as a science teacher, but I’ll tell you, I’ve learned the skills to find out the correct answer. Which skills are more important to have? Which skills are more important to assess in our students?

3. There is No Motivation

NECAP test scores have no impact on students’ ability to obtain course credit, graduate, go to college or get a job. There is no motivation. No reward for putting your best effort in and no punishment for making doodles all over the test instead of answering the questions.

So, how can we expect to get students best efforts and accurate results when we demand that they spend three days, taking 2-4 hours of standardized tests a day, without any way of showing them that we value their time and best effort because the nature of the test has no value in their life.

When you have parents telling students “not to worry about the tests”, “don’t work too hard”, they “don’t matter to you” (all things student have told me) then why would we expect a full effort. Yes, there are those students that are intrinsically motivated to excel at all things they are exposed; however, this in not all of our students. If we want to get a the best effort from students we have to motivate them to do so, just like any other aspect of life.

4. It is Standardized.

The problem I have will all standardized tests is that students don’t have standardized brains. I know that each and every one of my students comes from a different home life, school back ground, support system, even genetic make-up (I am a Biologist after all). So, they are not going to learn in a standardized way. As a result I don’t teach each student the same, I don’t interact with all students in the same way, and I especially don’t assess students’ learning in the same manner.

So, why then, if all students learn differently, would we base the progress of student learning and school performance on one type of assessment. We should not.

We need an alternative.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning; however, NECAP is not the right tool. For the reasons outlined above I believe NECAP does not present an adequate portrayal of student learning and does not present adequate evidence of the hard work, time, and dedication I know that I put into teaching my students every day, and assume my colleagues do as well.

Though, as a Vermonter and Red Sox fan, a piece of me dies saying this: perharps we should take a page out of New York’s book and look at their Regents Exams. From what I understand, they are standardized yearly exams that specifically test the  content of the course the student was enrolled in that year. For instance taking a Biology Regents Exam are you take Biology (brilliant!). The results of which are directly connected to achieving a regents diploma at graduation. Both narrowing the breadth of the exam and attaching student ownership to the results.

This still is not perfect though. It would still be a standardized test, and would most likely rely on assessing lower order thinking, testing primarily recall ability. Though it would take out a few strong variables. But do we really need all students to pass the same test? Does that test what they have actually learned and taken away from a class?

Perhaps the science fairs that so many schools put on should be connected to assessing student learning in science. Having a nationally or regionally standardize form for assessing students ability to develop, test, and evaluate hypotheses. This would allow for the assessment of recall and basic facts in the background information, while also assessing higher order thinking. This form of assessment would also be broad and open-ended enough that students with a variety of cognitive, motor and communication abilities could perform the task in a differentiated manner. I think I’m on to something! More on this later.

Whatever the tool is, we need to find a new one. A way to assess students and to judge the success of our schools other than a standardized test that sets all but a small window of students up for failure from the start. I don’t have the solution, but I’m working on it.

Assessment Overload: How to explode a teenage brain.

Assessment, this isn’t a new topic for me. I believe strongly in using assessment tools to judge student learning and adjust instruction, the basis of formative assessment. However, just how much can you, or should you, use a heavy duty standardized assessment to judge student learning? At what point do students get burnt out and the assessment tools just being “gotten over with” versus actually measuring student ability.

Over the past month and into the next few weeks students of various grades will be taking MAP testing in English, MAP testing in Math (two tests to judge student progress and can be compared year to year), SATs, NECAP Tests, AP tests,  on top of any quizzes, tests and other forms of assessment in their regular classes. ABSURD!

How can we expected students to be assessed accurately when they have to take 2, 3 even 4 standardized tests all with varying levels of actual importance to their lives. I know if I had NECAP tests, AP tests and SATs within a 3 week period the two tests that would further my college career and life in general would surely get more of my brain power than a test aiming to gauge student learning as a tool to assess the school as a whole, and has no bearing on me the individual student. Such is life as a human, we prioritize based on level of relative importance based on our own needs and goals.

All of these tests also take time, class time. To me there is a point at which the class time lost for all of these assessments inhibits the main goal, instruction and student learning, and the benefits of the assessment no longer out weigh the loses.

All I have to say is I’m glad I’m not a high school today dealing with all of these standardized tests, on top of school work, on top of being a teenager… a feat in itself.

If we want to truly measure student learning with accuracy something has got to give. If we continue to bombard students with test after test I’m afraid the despair I hear in their voices as they walk through the halls to “more testing” is going to translate in less effort on assessments because A) they have nothing left to give at test time or B) they are sick of spewing their brains out every couple of weeks onto another test.

Also, how good are these assessments anyways? From my training and experience as a teacher I have learned, read, and heard over and over standardized tests are not the best assessment tool. So, why are we using so many? Does a shotgun of standardized tests equal one actual good assessment? I doubt it, but that’s an issue all to itself.

Maybe a student brain explosion caused by assessment overload would lead to much needed changes, but I wouldn’t want it to be any of my students…