Teaching and testing

I’ve spent the past few days working with 1st graders, trying to show them atlases and dictionaries, and then at the very end of the session, sneak the internet in.

Why? Because on one standardized test or another, there is a question which asks them which would be the best place to find a picture of some animal. Would you look in an atlas, in a dictionary, or on the internet?

Whoever wrote the test item knows that dictionaries don’t have pictures. Except, of course, when you’re six years old, and the whole frickin’ dictionary is pictures.

Up and down the grade levels, our standardized tests ask similarly narrow-minded questions about reference sources that indicate that the people who wrote the test items do not know how the information society works, at least since 2000.

This has been a message for those who think that they’re getting reliable data from those standardized tests.


No Child Left Behind.


My sister Linda is a media specialist in Gwinnett County, where last year they gave their media centers zero dollars to buy books with, but that’s another story. A couple of weeks ago she forwarded to me a response she had gotten from her congressman, who shall remain nameless in his representation of Georgia’s Seventh District, about supporting H.R. 2864.

H.R. 2864 is an amendment to that most perfect of laws, No Child Left Behind. I know what you’re thinking, what kind of madman would advocate changing a law that has served our children so well? Without NCLB, how would we ever have gotten halfway to having every single one of our children performing at or above grade level? (In case you had forgotten, that’s the goal: in 2014, every single child will perform at grade level. We will achieve this by testing them until their ears bleed.)

But Rep. Paul Grijalva [D-AZ] has had an insane idea: what if we required every school to have a highly qualified library media specialist? I know, it’s crazy talk.

As you know, NCLB requires schools to verify that their classroom teachers are “highly qualified,” i.e., provide documentation of their competence in their subject area. This might mean passing a standardized test for teachers, well, duh!, or even having a degree in the subject. If you teach more than one subject, e.g., earth science and biology, then that means providing evidence of competence in both areas.

The more cynical among you have already spotted that “highly qualified” has nothing to do with “highly competent,” which is not adjudicated by NCLB, praise be to its name.

If you teach in a rural school, which by the DOE’s own calculations means about a third of all American schools, and you have to teach all kinds of things because it’s a little hard to get teachers out in the middle of Montana, don’t worry: you have three years to cough up evidence of competence in your field(s). If not, then you have to be fired. Because if we don’t fire you, there’s no way to get 100% of the students performing at grade level by 2014.

That’s “highly qualified.” As columnist Bob Herbert pointed out in his New York Times op/ed of 10/2/07, all that documentation and certification is not the same as effectiveness. (Of course, then Mr. Herbert weasels out of it with “New forms of identifying good teachers … have to be established before any transformation of American schools can occur.” Yup, that’s what we gotta do, all right, all right. Carry on.)

Why, you might ask, would I want to saddle media specialists with the burden of proof that their colleagues in the classroom have to bear? Allow me to point out that even if the amendment only required schools to have any kind of media specialist in their building, it would be a radical move. There are more than a few states which do not, in fact, require schools to have media specialists at all. So if we have to speak NCLBese to make sure schools have such a critical piece of the puzzle on hand, then so be it.

Back to Rep. X and H.R. 2864. My sister had emailed him, asking for his vote in favor of this amendment. Astonishingly, he responded that “quite frankly” he questioned “the need for a library media specialist in every public school.”

His reasoning? He sees maybe the need at the high school level, because high school students regularly engage in academic research for college. But “a fourth grade student has little need for a highly trained library specialist who can teach advanced research techniques.” What a fourth grader needs is a librarian who can “make reading enjoyable,” and “instilling a love of reading does not require an advanced certification in library media studies.”

Actually, Rep. X (I just know I’m going to slip up and call him John Linder in a moment), instilling a love of reading does in fact require advanced certification in your home state of Georgia. We have to have a master’s degree even to get into a media center in this state. So you’re wrong about that.

What else might you be wrong about? Those who keep harping on how our schools have to produce workers who are expected to maintain our nation’s competitiveness in the world economy, and I believe some might even be found in your party, Rep. X, might be startled to hear you say that we don’t need to teach our elementary students how to find and use information, how to evaluate information, how to solve problems with information.

They would approve highly of the fact that I start teaching second graders how to look up books and find them on the shelf, that in fact by Thanksgiving almost all of them can do it flawlessly, and that by the end of the year I have first graders and kindergarteners who have learned the same skill.

They would really approve of the fact that all of third grade spends the year learning to implement the Big 6 model using a wide variety of information sources, including the internet. These are eight-year-olds, Rep. X., and yet you would have me wait an entire year more before even trying to “instill a love of reading”? Are you talking story time, Rep. X? Honey, please.

And so you can see why, when talk turns to reauthorizing NCLB, all blessings upon it, I just roll my eyes. Look who’s doing the reauthorization. Can we test them until their eyes bleed?

Wonderful Car (Day 235/365)

Yes, I finally got work done. I listened through Blake’s Wonderful Car Delivers Us Wonderfully Well and made a few tweaks. Pretty subtle, but they were necessary. I think it sounds marginally better.

In other work, I dug out my personality profile from when I was a student at GHP in 1970. I find that it is the Cattell 16PF Profile. We were given this test, and then called in by the counselor (Eddie Najjar, a theatre person actually, and kin to the Mansours here in Newnan) to discuss it. He would show us our score on each item, and then we got to choose which of the synonyms on that end of the scale we thought described us.

Looking at it now, I’m a little surprised to see that I was in the average range for Self-Assured. Geez, I was an insufferable little thing. I must have cheated on the test.

Anyway, I dug it out because I’m going to use its scales to give my little bloggers a handle on describing characters from their books. If they can see some contrasting personality traits, they can latch on to one or two to hang their writing on.

A brief rant (Day 138/365)

I’m still sick, so this will be short.

The National Center on Education and the Economy is one of those purportedly “non-partisan” groups that weighs in every now and then on what we’re doing wrong in our schools. This last week, they trumpeted their New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce’s report: Tough Choices or Tough Times.

Newspaper and online articles breathlessly conveyed the meat of the matter: we have to totally revamp the way we’re teaching our kids, or the U.S. will fall behind in the economic race. Our students have to become team workers, globally aware, and creative. Bare bones testing is killing our schools and our nation. Report to be released Thursday.

Well, okay, I think, about time someone sees the light. I’ll withhold judgment until I see the report, but this could be good.

So on Thursday I track down their site to read the report, or to download it and read it if it’s not all online.

Go ahead, go take a look at the report. I’ll wait for you here.

Continue reading “A brief rant (Day 138/365)”

Out of our minds 2 (Day 115/365)

I read chapter two in Sir Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds, wherein he examines what he calls the septic focus in education and society on purely academic skills. He explains where our respect for this narrow set of human activity has come from and the impact (both positive and negative) it has had on the world.

He looks at IQ as a factor in academicism and at the (same) skills that particular number purports to measure. He also looks at the assumptions underlying England’s “eleven-plus” exam, which separates the sheep from the goats at the end of sixth form. All are found wanting.

Continue reading “Out of our minds 2 (Day 115/365)”

More educational research

Those of you who have been with me for a while may recall a post I wrote on educational research, in which I stated my overall disdain for most research. One set of data beloved of our current administration’s education minions is the NAEP, the National Assessement of Educational Progress, the “only test administered across the nation in all the states.” In fact, it bills itself as “The Nation’s Report Card.” That’s how important it is.


Back when I first became aware of the NAEP, I thought, well, at least it’s consistent, right? Only sort of no: after I thought about it, I realized that my school was not taking this test every year, and in fact I didn’t remember it ever taking the test. So where is this report card coming from?

The way it works is that schools are randomly selected from across the country each year to be the data sources. Well, that’s okay, sort of, because you can get a “scientific sample” to give good data.

Only sort of no: within each randomly selected school, a small number of students is chosen to take the test. It’s not even random, because selected students and their parents must agree to be the guinea pigs. This small number of students then takes the test, which lasts less than an hour, and it’s from this set of data that we get our Report Card.

That’s right: when you read about how “scores are up” or “down” or our children are the stupidest of all civilized nations, this is the test they’re talking about. A 50-minute test administered to a not-quite-random sample of students scattered across the nation.

It gets worse. I often wondered at the drop off in scores between elementary and high school. You’ve read about that, how our 4th graders are up there with the rest of the world, but somehow they all get stupid by 8th grade (which makes sense, if you know middle school), but then get even stupider in high school. How does this happen?

As a principal of my acquaintance told me, when she was in charge of the test at the high school, the only students who would agree to the test were the losers who simply didn’t want to be in class. Not one of our best and brightest were included. The AP kids, the gifted kids, didn’t want to miss class.

At least at the elementary level, they work their little hearts out on the test. We tell them it’s important, and they believe us. The scabs at the high school don’t care whether it’s important or not. They just slough their way through it and kick back, enjoying their hour of freedom before sauntering back to “Life Skills Math.”

Nor does the NAEP gather any data about what might produce a school’s scores. Funding? Nope. Funding for the media center? Nope. What reading series do K-3 classrooms use? Nada. They scope out the kids’ home language and whether the family owns a computer, and that’s about it. (Their database of info on schools only includes data from the 2003-2004 school year. Their population data for my school, for example, is about 200 students off. Next year, if they follow the same schedule, they’ll be about 500 off.)

So there it is. The next time you read about the requirement to use “research-based strategies” in improving student “achievement,” remember that it’s from the same people who bring you the “Nation’s Report Card,” with about the same level of rigor in their “research.”

Fun things to do with your SACS visitors

Yes, I’ve been lazy. It’s easy to get that way when you’re at the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program for six weeks, working with amazing kids and fabulous teachers 24/7. Here’s a little stopgap before I actually get inspired.

Those of you who are not educators might like to know that every five years or so your schools must be accredited, which means we must produce reams and reams of paper that documents that we are worthy. For us in Georgia, the accrediting organization is SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. We crank out these volumes in preparation for a visit from the “SACS team,” which sweeps through like locusts in a three-day visit and not only reads our reports [::stifles snicker::] but also visits our classrooms and interviews random teachers and students and parents.

So, in order to better prepare us for our SACS visit, here are some fun things to do for your SACS visitors (Guess which one of these I actually did):

  • At breakfast, put food into your pockets, “for later.”
  • Whenever you meet a SACS team member, inquire amiably about this “SACS thing” and how they “got into it.”
  • When asked what the school’s mission is, say that it’s to “test the children until their ears bleed.”
  • Hang a black leather mask and cat-o’-nine-tails in your closet door.
  • Do the same, only in 1st grader size.
  • Whenever a team member’s back is turned, say, “Oops!” and then just smile broadly when they turn around.
  • Display the filthy limericks your class wrote on a bulletin board.
  • If asked about the emergency plan, just pat your pocket and say, “If anything comes up, I’ll know how to handle it.”
  • Replace all the alphabet charts with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.
  • When queried about the school’s improvement plan, comment that you “don’t really cotton to all this modern stuff.”
  • Have e-Bay up on your browser, and periodically run over to check it.
  • Share with the team members your students’ exemplary ITBS score sheets, with the names obviously whited out and written over.
  • Keep the class hamster in your pocket. Or in your hair.
  • If asked what stumbling blocks you see preventing you from implementing your action plan, say, “The county administration.” Or “No Child Left Behind.”
  • Reach into your purse repeatedly and take a swig from the small bottle you keep there.
  • Say, “Class, can anyone tell me what Billy did wrong this time?”
  • Keep asking, “You’re not writing this down, are you?”
  • Give the children noogies.
  • Reward the children with skull tattoos.
  • Announce to the class, “Y’all go to the media center and read for a while. Miss _____ is tired and needs a nap.”
  • Shout “Food fight!” in the cafeteria.
  • Be showing Rambo, Part III when they walk in.
  • When asked about any aspect of the SACS report, give a wrong answer and then say, “No, wait, that was last time.”
  • Keep smiling!

Till next time!

Education research

I just completed a course in education research. Well, technically I haven’t completed it, because my main project, if it’s accepted by the instructor, can’t even take place until this summer, but in any case the course is over.

Here’s what I’ve learned: all data is bogus.

I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but scientific research can’t seem to pin down what works and doesn’t work in our schools. “Smaller class size,” says the Kentucky study. “Not really,” says a study from London. “Accelerated Reader,” says Renaissance Learning and all its ‘research institute’ fronts. “Not likely,” says other studies.

“Read to your kids,” says all kinds of studies. “Nope,” says a study released today by the feds, which says nothing parents do makes as much difference as how much money they make and how much education they got before having children.


What’s the deal here? Big Pharma does this all the time: control group, test group, crunch the numbers, and hey presto! reliable data. And Vioxx.

So why can’t education do the same thing? This is an easy one: they can’t control the variables. Ever. In any way. Sure, you can “take them into account using statistical methods,” like chicken feathers and eye of newt, I suppose, but the problem there is garbage in, garbage out.

However, there is a bigger problem with educational research, and that is measuring results. Scratch a study and you’ll find they’re all about the same thing: increasing student achievement.

Quick: what is “achievement”?

You see the problem. Even if we all agreed that “student achievement” was properly measured by the standardized tests we have or might develop, which we don’t, by the way, the problem remains that the variables going into the results of standardized tests are just as squirrelly and uncontrollable as those skewing the study itself.

Here’s a direct quote from the horrible, horrible textbook from the course which just ended: “Of course, if the mechanisms underlying the creation of academic achievement were understood completely, and if each of the variables was measured well, then a longitudinal survey… could provide adequate information on causal effects.” [Haertel, G. D. & Means, B. (Eds.). (2003). Evaluating educational technologies: Effective research designs for improving learning. p. 196-7]

This of course is the classic Ham & Egg routine from vaudeville: “If we had any ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had any eggs.” But nobody’s laughing, somehow.

Until we all agree on what achievement is, until we have a universal standard to measure and ways to measure it, then all educational research must be regarded with suspicion.

Governors, business, and the toughening of standards

On Feb. 28, the estimable New York Times reported on one of the seemingly biweekly governors conferences. (Perdue on the phone to Schwarzenegger: “Hey, I’ve never been to Rhode Island either! Let’s go talk about inner city crime!”)

At this particular conference, they were rattling around about No Child Left Behind, or as we call it at my school, Every Child Dragged Along, and the Times reported that the governors said that “business leaders” said that workers were arriving without the appropriate level of skills. The governors responded by deciding to “toughen the standards,” i.e., make the tests harder. Well, thirteen of the governors did. Those big ol’ important states didn’t. But thirteen of the smaller ones did.

Workers without skills? What does that mean?

Let’s assume for a moment that these leaders of business cannot possibly be talking about college grads. And let’s be a little more generous and assume that they are probably not talking about graduates of any of our technical schools.

So what does that leave us? High school graduates? Are we talking about high school kids not having “skills”?

Okay, well, then, I think it’s wonderful that the leaders of our business world are concerned that their workers come to them without a firm knowledge of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, or the Bohr model of the atom, or the difference between a Petrarchan and a Shakespearean sonnet.

What? That’s not it? That’s not what they’re whining about? Oh, skills, not knowledge. I get it. They have an unacceptably large number of high school level workers who cannot read, write, compute, etc. Well, that’s different.

Now I can totally see why the governors would immediately want to make the tests harder.

Are these people actually the leaders of our economic system?

If it were me, I’d be taxing the hell out of business to pay for elementary reading coaches, to pay for a radical restructuring of K-2, to pay for whatever it would take so that every child who is capable would in fact be reading by 3rd grade. But that’s me, liberal that I am.

Last year, I was at the Georgia State STAR Student banquet, where I heard a leader of business actually say, “If we raised the graduation rate in Georgia to [some number I’ve forgotten], it would add an extra [some number in the millions] to our state’s economy.” He said it to a room full of Georgia’s absolute best educators and students, apparently without realizing that all of us were thinking, “So what you’re saying is that it would be worth it to Georgia’s businesses to give us that amount of money to improve schools?”

But, liberal that I am, I don’t think that’s what he was suggesting. I think what he and the governors want is for us to take those students who would have dropped out thirty years ago and, by sitting on them harder, turn them into the 12% who actually graduated, and that’s just the ones that graduated, not the ones who went to college. And then, you see, the profits will just roll in.

Well, not to the schools, but you get the idea.