Monday, February 20, 2012

File Under: All Roads Lead to Rome, Cross-Referenced to Mandatory Reading

The book every K-12 content developer--assessment and curriculum--should read is Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, which was recommended to me by a colleague and likeminded comrade in quality assessment content development, Carmen, a senior level genius expert at Anonymous Testing Company.

To say that the tests administered yearly at grades 3-8 (inclusive) are high stakes cannot possibly begin to convey what this means for students, teachers, and school administrators and how NCLB has transformed the educational landscape. The flames are licking at their feet every minute of every day.

And even when we who are informed are talking about this, and about how awful it is that teachers must teach to the tests and that the assessments are driving the curricula--it's one thing to talk about it, and it's another thing to experience it.  If you're not a student, teacher, principal, or parent, this book is the closest you can get to the fire.

Like the children in Tested, my daughters' skills and knowledge are assessed so frequently at school (and what is taught is often so narrowly focused--the algebra teacher actually labels each homework assignment with the assessable standard and tells parents that she does this so she will know whether students will answer those questions correctly on the state test) that I'm shocked by how little genuine instruction they actually receive and so I supplement their classroom instruction by offering my own reading, writing, social studies, and science lectures. Which may bore them nigh unto death, who knows, but I refuse to send them out into the world as little ignorami ignoramuses. (For math homework help, we turn to my friend and cohort and math content area genius expert Carrie Frech, who works at a major testing organization).

My daughters came home last week emitting little puffs of indignation over the latest district benchmark assessment. (They swiped it and brought it home to show me.) When I read it, I was horrified. It was a passage-dependent writing prompt. I didn't see a rubric, God knows what horrors hide behind that curtain, but I assume the responses were scored for reading and writing.

The story, a tedious adaptation of a folktale, was poorly written and at the fourth grade level (this, for an eighth grade gifted and talented program; my daughters are currently reading The Great Gatsby and Rebecca for their next book reports, and yet they're being assessed with text suitable for fourth grade?). What was there was was presented at an extremely literal level of understanding. Nothing in the story allowed for any genuine analysis of narrative elements nor interpretation of literary devices, and yet the writing prompt required the students to do just that. I don't know how they could. You can't make a pie out of one apple. The multiple-choice section (developed by a company relatively new to the game for whom I'd done some work a few years ago and by whose lack of understanding of test development at that time had shocked me) was no better. The girls told me that there was one question that was so nonsensical that, districtwide, the teachers' form of protest was simply to give all of their students the answer. Does anyone see any value whatsoever in the use of such an assessment tool?

When I did some work for this company a few years ago, I observed their inexperience with and lack of knowledge about assessment. Maybe things have changed since then, I don't know. What I do know is that this company--the same one that has little assessment background--doesn't perform any field testing of the test content and there is no data whatsoever to indicate that we can make any kind of accurate inferences about what students know and can do based on such poorly constructed assessments. But this company does a good job of selling, and the districts buy the dream fantasy idea that the products will 1) give teachers information about their students that will help them get students ready for the state test and 2) predict how students will perform on the state test. Neither claim is possible, particularly with assessments that violate the most basic quality standards.

All roads lead to Rome; it all comes back to the Quality Manifesto.

(And it must be said that certainly there is room for quality improvements in the classroom as well, and there was room even before NCLB. What passes for instruction in some classrooms horrifies me just as much as any quality train wreck I see in the assessment world. Two teachers at my daughters' school ROUTINELY play audio of the textbooks instead of teaching--this, in science, which I think we can all agree requires hands-on instruction; it's still bad in reading, but not quite so bad). One of these teachers also ROUTINELY spends twenty minutes or so of the fifty minute class period discussing her personal life to the captive audience of eighth-graders--they know all about her kids, her husband, her political views, her hobbies, her extended family, and her domestic habits. So do I. Unless someone is a friend, loved one, or crazy person celebrity, there's probably not much in her life you want to hear about for twenty minutes straight, and yet that is what this teacher subjects her students to instead of teaching them.)

UPDATE: Identified my book-readin' comrade by name. Thanks, Carmen!
UPDATE: Added a link.
UPDATE THE THIRD: Removed a link, anonymized an identity.

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