Mar 23

Ask Better Questions

This week, the Providence Student Union (http://www.providencestudentunion.org/about-psu/) published the results of an experiment they conducted. They gave fifty successful adults a math test that was based on the sample New England Common Assessment Program. Rhode Island uses the NECAP as a high-stakes test where students must achieve at least “Partially Proficient” to graduate high school.

Who can argue with making sure that students are at least “Partially Proficient” in math?

Except, apparently you don’t need to be considered partially proficient to be successful, as the results show:

The results were: Four of the 50 adults got a score that would have been “proficient with distinction,”  seven would have scored “proficient,” nine would have scored “partially proficient,” and 30 – or 60 percent – would have scored “substantially below proficient.” Students scoring in the last category are at risk of not graduating from high school. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/03/19/sixty-percent-of-adults-who-took-standardized-test-bombed/)

Now, some folks will say that the adults didn’t have the time to study for the test, but that isn’t the point. The point is that these successful adults were no longer proficient in the math skills on the test because they did not use them in their day-to-day lives. And yet, Rhode Island is going mandate “Partially Proficient” as a graduation requirement for students starting next year.

Why?

If we are to have mandatory graduation exams, let’s base them on the skills that adults need in their world. What would happen if we asked successful adults what the math they used day-to-day was? Do most people use the quadratic equation or do they need more math skills that allow them to create budgets for their business, calculate interest rates on their mortgages, understand polling data in the New York Times?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach skills beyond what may show up on a graduation exam. What it means is that we have to start asking better questions about what skills are necessary for a high school diploma. And we need to start asking better questions to our students too.

Oct 31

Sucking the Joy

I don’t remember the twitter name of the Wisconsin principal who tweeted out that his elementary school had to “field test” some new state test today. On Halloween. But it was pretty clearly communicated in his 140 characters that he was pretty furious about.

I don’t blame him.

Who thought that was a good idea? Who thought that Halloween is a day to sit kids in silence to take a standardized test? I suppose when you believe in continuous testing (h/t Gary Stager for the term) then one day is like any other – a good day for testing. But for those of us who believe that school is not just about the tests kids take, this is a horrible idea.

It’s not that kids can’t learn on Halloween just because they are in (or thinking about) costumes – they can and they do. It’s that especially on a day like Halloween, schools should give time to learn with joy, celebrate the community, and make sure that every person in the community has a chance to smile. Personally, I think that’s a pretty good agenda for every day, but Halloween is even more special.

SLA spent today doing really interesting work in classes while also dressed as Dr. Who characters and Catwoman and Hunter S. Thompson and Waldo and a host of other costumes. I walked around the building, guitar in hand, dressed in black as Johnny Cash. Kids smiled and every classroom was able to take a moment and guess who I was, and I think I serenaded every class with the chorus of “Ring of Fire.” And at the end of the day, we had a costume fashion show that was fun and joyful and awesome.

But also, work was really done. It was a presentation day in 10th grade BioChemistry, I listened in on some amazing conservations in Mr. Kay’s English class, Mr. Block was helping kids dissect a complicated reading in a lovely housedress and Ms. Garvey’s class was working through equations even as Ms. Garvey was dressed up as a basketball ref. Kids smiled and laughed maybe a little more than a normal day and snapped a lot more photos than usual, but they also were fully engaged in the work of the day.

Some days lend themselves better than other to teaching the idea that we can teach and learn and laugh together in powerful ways. Some days are made to celebrate the idea that we can celebrate our individuality and our community. Halloween is one of those days. But somewhere in Wisconsin, some bureaucrat didn’t care about all that and told a principal that “field testing” some shiny new test was more important. So the kids in that school sat in silence, desks in rows, and took someone else’s test.

What a powerful mistake. What a way to suck the joy from what is supposed to be a joyful day. What a way to send a message to kids that joy and fun and laughter have little to no place in school.

What a powerful example of all the way our education policy in so many states and as a nation is just flat out getting it wrong.