Standardized Tests are Inauthentic

The various points of the year during which we do a lot of standardized testing are tough for me. I hate the stress these tests cause many students and even more teachers. I don’t like the disruption to our routine. I curse the lost time for more meaningful work. (I should note that we spend four days taking state mandated tests at my grade level as well as somewhere between ten and twelve days on district mandated online testing, plus there are one-on-one assessments for the district as well as school-based common assessments. I think we spend at least some time on close to 10% of our days on online testing. If you add the other assessments in they are impacting at least 20% of our days. That’s one day every week, on average.)

I believe those reasons are plenty to cause me to be frustrated. However, as I’ve spent some time thinking deeply about this in the past few weeks, I’ve come to identify a couple of other reasons this really bothers me. I’ll focus on one here (with plans to write about the other soon).

These tests are inherently inauthentic.

I am confident that strong attempts are made to create tests that are as authentic as possible. I don’t doubt the intentions at all. I do doubt that such a thing as an authentic, standardized test is truly possible.

It’s a lot like the way we interact with babies and young children. We ask them lots of questions to which we already know the answer. What color are your shoes? How many cheerios are on your tray? What does a kitty-cat say? Who is that (pointing at a family member)? And so on.

This is what tests do. They ask questions to which we already know the answer so we can tell what the kids know. Asking those questions doesn’t help a young child learn, it just reassures the adult about what they know. Standardized tests are the same. (I could be persuaded they have their place but with many, many stipulations about number of tests length of test, length of time spent on test, quality of test, preparation beforehand, and more.)

So, we’re busy asking kids questions to which we already know the answer (not questions that drive learning or encourage curiosity). We do it in a setting that is often quite different from the rest of their time in school. And we place a lot of value on it. So. Many. Problems.

Back to authenticity, or lack thereof. A reading test does not give a child any choice in what they read. We want kids to be able to read anything, but adult readers know that they do better as readers if they are reading something that interests them. We do make sure students read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry on their reading test. But they read whatever pops up next, no choice about when to read something or which poem they might want to read.

Then we ask questions to which we already know the answer. Questions that, often, don’t reflect the kind of thinking readers do as they engage with a text. Some of the questions are aimed at getting at that thinking, but come at it from such an odd way.

Examples:

When was the last time you read an article or book, got to the end, and thought, “I wonder what question I could create now that would be answered by what I just read,”? I feel confident I know your answer.

Same idea. Have you finished a paragraph or article and stopped to summarize it for yourself? Maybe if it were an unusually challenging text for you. Then you might want to summarize every paragraph or so. But these texts are supposed to be just right for these kids. This isn’t likely to be the kind of thinking they are doing as authentic readers.

Some are definitely better.

At least, it’s better if the word is a challenging one for the reader. If that’s true, they might stop and think about what it could mean. If they already know what it means, this isn’t something they would do.

So how about math?

The tests include word problems so that there is a ‘real world’ context, rather than just naked numbers. But who would actually need to calculate this? Maybe 3 packages of gum to see if there is enough to share at a birthday party or in a class. But 57? Why would the store need to know how many pieces of gum this is?

Same. Why would Alex need to know how many minutes that is?

I get what the test is trying to assess. I don’t get why a kid would ever actually do this.

Yeah. This question is fine. But I’ve watched kids confuse pictures of coins when they do just fine with actual coins.

If we’re going to assess kids it would be better to do it really well. Sit down with a kid and have them count some coins. Show them the results of a survey and ask them how they could share it with others. Have a kid bring a book, read some of it, and share their thinking.

Of course, these are all things teachers do regularly. But somehow that isn’t good enough.

 

(All of the above questions are released items from 3rd grade tests on the Virginia Department of Education website.)

Keeping My Head Above Water

I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster for the past couple of weeks. I am able to go from feeling fabulous and thrilled about life to being frustrated and super cranky in a span of minutes and then back again. Yesterday had multiple distinct instances of this happening. It’s beginning to annoy me (which doesn’t help, I’m sure).

It has occurred to me that one of the factors, and I’m sure there’s more than one, is the amount of testing/assessing we’re doing right now. As I sit here in my classroom on this Friday morning we have fifteen days left. I know this not because I’m ready to be finished, but because I need every one of those days to count.

from John.Schultz’s flickr

Here are the things I want us to do in those fifteen days:

  • finish our poems to put together our class poetry anthology
  • celebrate ourselves as writers, both with peers and with our families, looking back at the writing we’ve done this year
  • look back on the reading we’ve done this year and choose one (or a few) book(s) to create a book talk or book trailer for next year’s third graders
  • celebrate ourselves as readers, creating a poster/journal/video to reflect on how we’ve grown as readers throughout the year and what goals we have for ourselves as readers this summer
  • explore how we are similar to various mathematicians and scientists to set us up to continue thinking and asking questions about math throughout the summer
  • celebrate what we love about each other in some way to wrap up our year together

Here are the things we have to do in those fifteen days:

  • universal screener in reading
  • universal screener in math
  • Developmental Reading Assessments (one-on-one with every student, often two or three times)
  • Math SMARTR goal (done in small group or one-on-one)
  • do a performance based assessment in either science or math to turn in to the district
  • finish our science unit on simple machines
  • learn something about ancient Mali, Greece, and Rome

Writing these things out in black and white helps me see why I’m feeling cranky a lot these days. I know what I value and what I believe will serve my students best but I also know what is required of me (because of what others value and believe will serve my students best).

Before you tell me to just ignore all of those things on the ‘have to do’ list, please don’t. I push back. I fight for what I believe matters. I have to pick battles and these aren’t the ones I’ll choose. (If I were to choose one of these, however, it would be the dang universal screener.) Instead I’ll do all I can to make the ‘have to do’ list as painless and quick as possible and focus on the ‘want to do’ list. I will also work to be sure my students feel the impact of the ‘have to do’ list far less than the ‘want to do’ list.

I may hit June 15th and need a week-long nap, but we’ll do this as well as we possibly can. I want my students to feel, on that day, as I do: ready for a break but sad to be saying goodbye to this community, this family we’ve created together.

May These Readings Bring You Joy

A collection of pieces I’ve read recently that really hit me…

I loved using wordless picture books in first grade and kindergarten but haven’t figured out how to do it as well in third grade. Mary Lee Hahn shared some beautiful ones here and her process with students to use them as read alouds. I’m looking forward to giving this a try.

As Kevin Hodgson writes daily (something that impresses the heck out of me) it is not surprising that I regularly have something of his open in a tab, waiting to be shared. This one is specifically about the challenges of reading online and what we need to do to support students in this.

While difficulties with online reading may have to do with the lay-out of the pages (texts are first displayed as full page and then reduced to a scrollable text box when paired with questions), I am realizing that I have not done enough to explicitly teach how to read for content and information on a screen.

Given the amount of reading I do online and I think my students will do in the future, this is something I need to be thinking carefully about.

As my husband is a college professor we run in similar and yet different circles. It always fascinates me when our worlds collide, as they did in this piece from Bud Hunt. He is writing about a day spent with two of my husband’s colleagues, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris. That’s not why the piece is worth your time, however. Bud writes about empathy and agency and working through the hard and scary parts.

Sean opened the day with a challenge, a provocation of a sort, to help us remember to be imaginative and awake in how we approach the systems we work in and help to shape.

I love Kate Messner’s books and am grateful to her for all she does to support teachers. Her years in the classroom show up through all of her work. Right now she’s writing a series of blog posts, this is the most recent, about the process of writing her newest book. The book intrigues me for so many reasons and I can’t wait for my copy to arrive soon. I’m hoping it will be one of our read alouds next year, for all it will offer students as readers and as writers. These blog posts will also be wonderful teaching tools to help students better understand the writing process and all its possibilities.

Finally, I love Julia Torres’s writing. Just love it. I have so many mixed emotions about the end of each school year and Julia has helped me clarify some of them in this piece. She writes about how endings, like the end of a school year, are also beginnings.

But what if, rather than avoiding, fearing, or dreading endings, we learned to see them another way?  What if we saw endings as beginnings, as the chance to have a fresh start, to begin anew stronger, bolder, better–with all that brought our last conversation, adventure, relationship, situation, to it’s finish.  It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone if a part of us fears we will never see them again, but what if we knew that separation is an illusion, that everyone we’ve ever loved is just a thought away at any time?

See what I mean? Beautiful.

Love Is…

Last week I wrote about reading Zero by Kathryn Otoshi to my students in the lead up to our state standardized tests. Another book we read during that time was Love by Matt de la Pena and Loren Long. I hope Matt de la Pena writes picture book after picture book given how much I loved Last Stop on Market Street and this one. The illustrations in Love are equally as stunning and powerful as the words. If, somehow, you’ve missed this book (which seems like a challenge given the reception is has gotten) find a copy immediately.

We read the book, slowly, savoring it. Then we talked about the ways love is described in the book and the ways we might describe love. I gave each student a heart-shaped post-it note to write an idea they have about love. Families and hugs are recurring themes. These ideas hung in our classroom all through our test taking days. Now I’ve hung them, along with the book jacket, in the hallway for more folks to enjoy.

 

Slo-Mo Domino Chain

If we are stuck indoors for recess this is a go to activity for my 3rd graders. There is always at least one student who wants the dominoes and sets them up for this chain reaction. I’m not sure what made this such a consistently loved activity.

We have watched some videos of elaborate domino chains. (I frequently have some short, fun video open in a tab, ready to show my class when we have a few minutes unexpectedly free. Right now it’s this one that’s been waiting for a while.)

I also have always been willing to record their creations, usually in slo mo, making them even more fascinating to watch. That could also be a factor.

Whatever the reason for their ongoing love of this activity, it brings me great joy. Typically there are three to five students working together to build their vision. They will spend a good fifteen to twenty minutes planning and building before grabbing me to record it. That’s no small feat for eight and nine year olds. Not the time, they can spend far longer focused on things they love, but the collaboration. And the body control not to accidentally knock it down during the construction process. Well, that has happened, but it’s surprisingly rare.

It’s so hard to know what a group of children will want to do or use and it can change throughout the year. It feels like a win that I have these dominoes on hand for them. It’ll be interesting to see what next year’s group latches onto…

Discipline Ourselves First

Discipline.
Classroom management.
Expectations.
Rules.

I have complicated relationships with all of those terms. Too often I feel schools and teachers define those ideas as being about controlling students rather than helping students learn to be responsible for themselves. (I feel this is true because I know I’ve done it and will likely do it again and again even as I try hard to avoid it.) Also, note, I’m not saying students need to learn to ‘control themselves’ instead of us controlling them. Control is another term, when talking about students having control, that is complicated and often used poorly.

When I read about schools doing ‘innovative’ things when it comes to discipline I am immediately skeptical. I expect, and sadly am often right, that what the schools are doing looks more student-centered or innovative, but is really simply a twist on the traditional and doesn’t actually upend anything that matters. It isn’t actually innovative.

Mindfulness is one example of this. I am a strong believer in what mindfulness can offer our students but only if it is done in a way that respects and trusts them. There are many schools using mindfulness as a tool to keep kids more compliant with rules and expectations that are unreasonable. Kids are taught to practice mindful breathing rather than get upset. But sometimes they should be upset! Sometimes their reality is unfair and absurd and they shouldn’t have to learn to deal with it calmly.

So when schools are unwilling to question their structures and the adults in the building are unwilling to analyze their beliefs and biases, then ‘innovative’ behavior ideas are of little interest to me. It’s unsurprising, given that attitude, that I was hesitant to read this article, One Ohio School’s Quest to Rethink Bad Behavior: Rather than enforcing a top-down mandate, the school trains teachers in the science behind trauma and leaves the rest up to them. The subtitle did give me hope as understanding how trauma affects students (and adults, if we stop to think about it) is an important piece for teachers to have.

This quote also gave me some hope.

“If the focus is on what the adults are doing, that’s where you get the bang for your buck. We can control what the adults do,” explained Olympia Della Flora, the school’s principal, when I visited this spring. “How are [the children] going to learn a positive way of dealing with conflict if we’re not the ones showing it?”

There’s a lot to unpack there and I have many thoughts about it, most of them positive.

Every adult in the building has received training on how children respond to trauma. They’ve come to understand how trauma can make kids emotionally volatile and prone to misinterpret accidental bumps or offhand remarks as hostile. They’ve learned how to de-escalate conflict, and to interpret misbehavior not as a personal attack or an act of defiance. And they’re perennially looking for new ways to help the kids manage their overwhelming feelings and control their impulses.

The article does address the fact that many punishment systems in schools impact students of color far more than white students. That’s an important piece to acknowledge. It goes back to the first quote and focusing on the adults.

Managing student behavior has long been seen as a student issue. I believe it is as much, or even more so, an adult issue.

Sometimes it is because adults don’t know how to support children who are facing/have faced trauma.
Sometimes it is because adults take behavior personally.
Sometimes it is because school policies are harming children.
Sometimes it is because adults have biases that impact how they view children and what they expect.

Children are learning and growing and facing challenges. They are children. As the adults in the building and in their lives we have to act like adults. We have to recognize that we are a player in this issue and our beliefs, actions, and language impact the children. We have to look at ourselves first.

(There is a second article that is almost a photo essay. I saw it first. I think that may have increased my skepticism.)

Sexism and Critical Literacy

It has become crystal clear to me recently that at least a few boys in my class have some significant issues with female authority figures in a way that they don’t with male authority figures. There are lots of reasons this is true, many of them systemic within our society.

As we head into the last five or so weeks of our year together this is something I’ll be thinking about a lot. It was easy for me to ignore and deny because (mostly) they didn’t have issues with me. But we’ve spent the year together, building relationships, coming to trust and respect one another. The issue has been highlighted when it comes to women in other roles in our school. Women they see far less frequently than they do me. So I need to think about what this means for the rest of our time together.

Luckily, we finished a book last Wednesday and were ready to begin a new one. I had already realized we had read far more fiction than nonfiction and that this next, possibly last, book needed to be nonfiction. I also haven’t been thrilled with the diversity in my read alouds and felt that I could do better in that area. So I chose Rad Women Worldwide for our next title. We began the book on Thursday, discussing our expectations for it based on the cover and title. I showed them the endpages with the world map and spots for each of the women in the book. We read the introduction and first two biographies (Enheduanna and Malala Yousfazai). As we’ve read and discussed Malala before, that pulled in anyone who was still hesitant.

At the end of that day’s reading I told the students that this author, Kate Schatz, has also written a book called Rad American Women, A-Z. I told them if they were interested that I have the book and would be happy for them to read it.

One of my boys immediately said, “Did she write any books about men?” This was said without malice or sneering or sarcasm. It was a genuine question. I turned back to the introduction we had read and reread this bit,

The history of the world is vast, amazing, and fascinating. But so often the stories we hear and lessons we learn focus on the contributions and actions of men.

We didn’t dig deep with those sentences on Thursday. But we’ll clearly return to them. Third graders are just beginning to look more critically at the world around them rather than accept it all at face value. Those two sentences and the rest of this book will help us ask some important questions and, hopefully, think deeply about our own ideas and values.

This is an uphill battle as there are plenty of messages in books, on television, in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, in music, etc., etc., etc. that feed sexism. But the sooner we can begin to look critically at those messages and the media we consume and look critically at what it makes us feel and think, the better.

We Learn a Lot at Recess Too

On a stunning day during recess one of my students came to me crying. Through the tears and gasping breath she said, “They told me I’m not perfect!”

When I asked for more information I learned that she had been jumping rope with others (quite a few of them in another grade and not kids she knows well). They told her the rope hit her foot and she’s sure it wasn’t her, it was another kid jumping with her.

It’s not clear to me if these other kids actually use the words “not perfect” with her or if that is what she took from the exchange. Either way, it clearly hurt. She’s eight years old and can still see herself as flawless. While it is important to recognize that we are all human, it is a tough lesson to learn.

The next day a group of three of my third graders came over. They were upset and claimed that fourth graders kicked them off the hill. The hill is a sloping area at one end of our field and it goes on for a long way. I couldn’t really understand how the fourth graders kicked them off. As I asked more questions, I noticed that no one was on the hill. So I said, “Well, the fourth graders aren’t there now.” They looked back over there and were clearly still not satisfied.

Again, I asked more questions and finally realized they wanted the complete hill to themselves. Not only that, they said, “We need the whole hill and field.” I’ll admit, I was so surprised I laughed. When I got my poker face back I told them they would have to share the hill and field with other students.

My natural reaction to both of these situations is to feel that these students should know better. They should have better coping strategies for these problems.

But they are third graders, not adults. This is when they are learning coping strategies for situations like these and many others. They are young enough to still be quite egocentric. Some of that is a good thing. I don’t want to squash their self-confidence or sense of value in themselves. I do want to help them extend that to other people around them.

Mothers Day – #HackAHoliday

My first year teaching, twenty years ago, I had a boy in my fourth grade class whose mom had abandoned his family when he was four. At ten he was still waiting for her to return. It broke my heart. It also put Mothers Day in a whole new light for me.

In the intervening years Mothers Day, like many other holidays, has become more and more complicated for me. Yesterday my daughters and I were at a funeral home to see their former babysitter as she said goodbye to her mother. Today must be hard for her. Today we went to Charlottesville to spend the day with family, including my sister-in-law who lost her five year old son two months ago. I know today was difficult for her.

Mothers Day celebrates those of us who are blessed enough to have strong relationships with our mothers and/or our children right now. We should take Mothers Day to count our blessings and be grateful for how lucky we are.

Instead, it feels to me like a day that isolates anyone who doesn’t fit that mold. People, like my daughters’ babysitter, who have lost their mother. People, like my sister-in-law, who have lost their child. People who never had a child. People who have a terrible relationship with their mother. People who have a terrible relationship with their child. People who do not have a mother.

I think those folks already feel somewhat isolated in our society, at least at times, and Mothers Day only adds to that. It doesn’t feel inclusive. I see a lot of people on social media sharing things in attempts to include everyone. That is kind and caring. But I don’t think it actually solves the problem. It doesn’t actually include all of those people. It highlights their difference and says it is okay. That’s something. But, honestly, I’d rather just get rid of Mothers Day.

My husband asked me today if I would rather we not celebrate it (for me – not for the rest of the extended family – I will only make this decision for myself). I said yes. I’d rather not have this holiday. I don’t need to be celebrated on this day because my family appreciates me regularly. Which is another blessing I have.

So, for Mothers Day today, I am counting my blessings and recognizing the ways in which I have been so lucky in my life. That’s how I’m going to #HackAHoliday. I’m taking this holiday and  making it work for me.

(My family went to town with the #HackAHoliday concept. Our 14 year old said she had Galentine’s Day with her friend because she doesn’t have a boyfriend and that was her way to celebrate. My husband then suggested Gripesgiving. I told him he is welcome to celebrate it but not with us. Our youngest said no one would want to celebrate that but he and I both informed her that wouldn’t be true.)

I should also note that I have wonderful mothers in my life, both my own and my mother-in-law as well as my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and aunts and so many wonderful women. I am blessed beyond words.

Our wedding twenty years ago with both sets of parents.

Soaring Together

We’re deep in our state testing and will be for a few weeks. As much as our entire school, including an amazing administration, works to not making testing more stressful than it inherently is, there is stress. Teachers feel it. Students feel it. It’s there and impacts us all.

As we headed into this period, I read Zero by Kathryn Otoshi to my class.

I wanted our lead up to testing to involve some uplifting, validating books. This was my first choice. Initially I planned to just read it and make sure we had time to talk about it. But I realized my students shouldn’t have to sit on the carpet for 45 minutes so we should do something in addition to reading and talking. So a quick google search turned up some things that definitely supported my goals.

After reading and some great discussion, students headed off to think about what they value about themselves. We also spent some time thinking about what we value about each other (we made lists for each student that they got to keep).

We also thought about how we can help each other soar the way the numbers soared together in Zero. We made these balloons. On one side we wrote ways we can help each other soar and on the other we wrote how we feel when we do.

 

We’ve read the book twice now. I have no doubt we’ll read it again. The kids talked about how we all matter and how much better things are when we work together. Picture books are the best.