Monday, October 15, 2012

The test prep I’d like to see

It’s that time of year again: high-stakes testing week in our local schools. In our weekly school newsletter, we received the usual advice about what we should do at home to help our kids score well on the tests. I can’t bear to quote it at length, so you’ll have to click to enlarge:

I especially like the part about how we should “maintain a pleasant home environment” and “avoid unnecessary conflicts.” “Do not add to your child’s stress,” the school thoughtfully advises – because apparently the school wants to impose all the stress itself this week.

What always galls me most about this annual note is that it’s based on the entirely fraudulent premise that maximizing the child’s test scores somehow benefits the child. In fact, if the test were really being used to assess the child’s academic development, you would want the child to perform in a typical, characteristic way, not in a way that is unrepresentative of her usual, everyday abilities. Going out of your way to ensure that the child is unusually well-fed, well-rested, and well-medicated (!), with test-taking strategies freshly rehearsed, could only distort the result in a way that would undermine the purpose of the assessment. It makes no more sense to prep the child to do well on the tests than to prep her to do well in her annual visit to the doctor.

In reality, a high test score doesn’t benefit the child at all; it benefits the school and its staff. They’re the ones whose performance is being measured by these tests, and whose employment could be affected by it. Yet the school leads the kids to believe that the test is somehow a judgment on them, and that a low score would be a personal failure, with unspoken but ominous consequences.

Here’s what I think parents should do to prepare their kids for testing week:

  • Laugh at the notion that their performance on a test in elementary school could have any bearing on their future.

  • Explain that the tests matter for the school, not for the student. Express sympathy for the staff members who are subject to this kind of evaluation, but make it clear that it is not the child’s job to fix the problem.

  • Point out that neither children nor parents need to jump reflexively through every hoop that is placed in front of them.

  • Apologize to the child that she has to spend a big chunk of her week on such a misguided enterprise, when she might otherwise have been learning something.

  • Commiserate with the child about being subject to ill-conceived and burdensome policies, especially when she’s given no vote in the policy-making. If the moment seems right, consider reading her the part of the First Amendment that protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

  • Then ignore the tests entirely. Go on about your usual life, with its typical ration of hectic mornings, lost tempers, and late bedtimes. Treat the tests the way they ought to be treated: as a vehicle the school can use to see how your child is doing and what she might need. There’s no reason for the parents to get involved in them; nor are they important enough to merit any more attention.

If you happen to live in a place where the test results really do directly affect the children – because of tracking, say, or competitive admissions programs – I wouldn’t lie to the child about it, but otherwise I’d take pretty much the same approach. I think it’s just as likely to have a good effect as this kind of thing. But then I’d make a big public stink about my school officials’ decision to make anything important hinge on a ten-year-old’s test scores.


FedUpMom said...

Chris, terrific post.

It makes me furious that principals assume that we parents are just waiting for our instructions from them. Partnership, my (*body part of choice here*).

icl said...

The scores do matter in the ICCSD if your kid is wishing to get into ELP. (ELP may be another good topic for discussion on here). I think they might also use them for placemnt in in high school AP classes as well. Which bothers me since why does the district place more value on the test score than the recommendation of a teacher or the students classwork? A child, especially in grade school doesn't need the added pressure of doing well on this test to get into other programs.

KD said...

To ICL, the test scores alone may grant entrance in to the ELP program, or may prompt additional evaluation. I think using some sort of test is fair in those circumstances, but shouldn't be the only benchmark.

You are right that the scores are also used in some cases for junior high and high school classes. If a kid is borderline, the teacher recommendation can get them placed in a certain class. I suppose one could debate the appropriateness of that system. I'd also have to say here that some sort of assessment is fair, especially when placing kids in classes that are considered above grade level.

I guess the problem I'd see with not using test scores at all for class placement is that you'd have some parents that would be heavily pushing the teacher for the recommendations....which probably happens now to a certain extent.

I don't think there is one perfect system, by the way, for programs like ELP, or placement in junior high or high school classes.

Chris said...

FedUpMom – This principal has a habit of using the newsletter to dispense unsolicited parenting advice.

Like so many other things in school, this whole approach to the tests encourages mindlessness. They’re counting on both the kids and the parents to say, “What, there’s a test? Then I must prep for it to get the best score I can!” Don’t actually think critically about what it’s for, what it means, and whom it serves.

Why can’t the school at least be honest and straightforward about it, and say: “We need your help with this thing that affects us much more than it affects you. As a favor to us, would you please try to do the best you can on these tests?” That would at least be asking nicely instead of trying to delude the kids into serving the school’s interests. But it would still undermine the only defensible purpose of the tests – getting an accurate, unmanipulated sense of how the children are doing.

Do you think any parents actually followed these recommendations and talked to their kids about “key words” and “negative words” and “looking for information in the question”? If so, I would sure like to have been a fly on the wall for one of those conversations. You would certainly have to have a different relationship with your kids than the one I have with mine.

Chris said...

I also like this one: “If your child is disappointed after taking a test, reassure him or her that there will be plenty of opportunities to improve and succeed.” That’s right: plenty of opportunities. Standardized tests are now like streetcars: miss one, and it isn’t long before the next one comes along.

Chris said...

ICL and KD – Thanks for commenting! It’s true that the tests are one way that the school evaluates who will be invited into ELP (the Extended Learning Program) in elementary school. If ELP is going to be limited to “high-achieving” students, I don’t have any real objection to using the test results in that way, though I like the idea of relying on teachers’ judgment for that, too. But:

1. If that was all these tests were for, I don’t for a minute think that the school would be anxiously encouraging test prep in this way. This isn’t at all driven by concern for the child’s sake.

2. ELP is a nice program, and the kids who were in it at Hoover last year seemed to enjoy it. But it just means that for a couple of hours a week they get to leave their other classes and do something more interesting. It’s a nice break, but failing to qualify for it isn’t going to limit the kids’ future in any way. It’s certainly not worth stressing the kids out even a little bit for. Better to model keeping a sane perspective on the tests.

3. Why is ELP limited to particularly “high-achieving” (in the very narrow sense of the word) students anyway? From what I’ve seen, the ELP activities are both interesting and perfectly accessible to a lot of kids who wouldn’t qualify under the selection criteria. (Last year at Hoover, for example, they learned about the legal system and put on a mock trial.) It’s not as if the non-selected kids are somehow lagging way behind and in need of remedial instruction – the test cut-offs are quite high. We can’t find two hours a week to “enrich” everyone’s school experience?

4. I assume that the test results in junior high and high school do play a role in sorting kids into different classes, which I don’t find so objectionable (though, again, I like the idea of teacher input, too). But if that’s the case, why would anyone want the tests to be anything other than an accurate reflection of the child’s typical abilities? Would we really want the parents to try to get the kids to qualify for a more advanced class via last-minute test prep? Would a parent even want that? Maybe – but only if we don’t really think the tests are a good measure to begin with, or if we think that the seats in the advanced class have been artificially restricted to fewer kids than would benefit from it (like with ELP).

I can see the value of counseling students and parents about what courses might be appropriate for any particular student, and how test results could play a role in that. But I guess I’m not sure why the ultimate decision to enroll in an advanced class, or in something like ELP, shouldn’t be up to the kids and parents, as long as the student has taken whatever prerequisite classes he or she needs. Taking the most advanced class isn’t the best idea for everyone, but why not let people take an informed risk if they want to? Isn’t that itself potentially a valuable learning experience?

Chris said...

ICL -- By the way, the value of AP classes is a topic in and of itself. Many people say that the whole AP phenomenon has sacrificed actual learning for a specious credentialing. Interesting recent article here.

As for ELP, things could certainly be worse. Check out the situation in New York.

icl said...

The thing is about the ELP, is your child is nominated and they don't get into ELP, they ask why and then they are told that they didn't score high enough on the Assessments and the CogAT test. So, the next time these tests roll around they know that if they "test high enough" it will automatically get them into special classes. They are aware of this without parents ever mentioing it to them. So I don't like that anxiety is caused in that way. But as you both said, there needs to be some type of measurement for placing kids--I just wish the teachers opinion held a little value. (when it comes to ELP placement) and that the tests weren't the deciding factor.

Chris said...

ICL -- I agree. Especially since there doesn't seem to be any purpose to excluding kids below a very high test score, I'm more comfortable with using teacher recommendations than with test cutoffs (if people have to be excluded at all). I can see why teachers might not want to be the heavy, and why people might complain about a more subjective selection process, but I don't think those are good reasons not to use that approach. Anything that relies on teachers' judgment is open to those criticisms, but if anything I need we need a bigger role for teacher judgment in our system, and a smaller one for numerical assessments based on tests that can't ever tell us as much as we wish they would. That's the whole reason to think of teachers as professionals, as opposed to just script-readers and test-administrators.

FedUpMom said...

Wow, Chris, you trust teachers more than I do. I particularly don't trust teachers to do a good job of identifying truly gifted students, who are not always high-achieving teacher's pets.

I guess you could argue that, if the gifted program is really just a club with some fun activities (this is also true for our public schools), it doesn't make much difference if a gifted kid doesn't get in. It would still matter for the kid's self-esteem, though.

I agree with you that enrichment should be available to all the kids.

Dr. Christy Wolfe said...

Re: ELP. When my daughter was "tagged" based on her test-taking abilities, we opted not to follow up on it. I felt like it was a program that didn't quite meet its goal of informed, challenging enrichment. From a philosophical point of view, I believe that teaching that engages and inspires the "gifted" kids is teaching that engages and inspires ALL kids so we shouldn't track.

Now, fast forward: my much more competitive son has been "tagged" and he is GUNG HO on getting into ELP. Ironically, he is the child who might benefit more from working on his empathy skills over his math skills; moving him into an elite chosen group probably won't help him in the long run.

Being a child of Iowa, where I took Iowa Tests every year from 3rd through 12th grade and went on and took the ACT and the SAT, I remember when the tests were used NOT to measure the student but instead to measure the SCHOOL. In 5th grade, my school scored poorly on "map-reading skills." For the next two years, we learned how to read maps: we learned about scaling; coordinates; estimating distance and travel time; etc. Guess what? By that second year, we kicked azz in the map-reading category on the exams. See? That's how it was supposed to work: schools were supposed to be able to find weaknesses in their curriculum based on the test scores and "shore up" those areas. While we students all competitively compared scores, we always understood that the tests were a measure of what we were or were not learning and not a measure of our own intelligence.

For the record, I am a MEAN map-reader. My brother (also a product of the "bad maps" cohort) was in the military and was the navigator for his tank because...(you guessed it) one else in the tank knew how to read a map.

KD said...

From what I know of the ELP program I definitely think it could be opened up to more kids.

For Chris, as far as your earlier posts, I generally agree.

I don't think the current testing system is the only way we could screen kids for classes...I'm sure there are much shorter assessments that could be used.

If all we used was teacher input, I'd think the junior high math teacher would want the elementary math teacher to be able to articulate why a kid should be in one math class vs. another.

As far as letting families make the decisions themselves...maybe the district could try that with more classes. What expectations would we have of the teacher for helping a student who might not be best suited for such a class, especially for a class that might be considered not grade level appropriate?

icl said...

In the research I have found regarding ELP, the most fair way to judge a child for entrance into gifted programs is to weigh the test score, teach recommendation and parent recommendation equally. In WI, a parent sued the over ELP and won and the judge determined it should be based on different pieces of iformation and a matrix was created. (The parent sued since they moved from one district to another and the new district was telling them their child was not gifted. The judge also said there needed to be a statewide method.) This is not happening in the ICCSD. They must have the required test scores. It doesn't matter if they are one point behind the score (as happened with my child). Personally I agree with you all the not getting into the program is not the end of the world, since it doesn't appear that they are doing anything that everyone couldn't benefit from. But for the child who wants to be bonding socially with the kids that are in the program and is so close to getting and doesn't, it really is bummer for them.

Chris said...

FedUpMom – Either that or I’m just much more down on standardized tests. Sure, they’re less subjective, but so is a random-number generator. Given what goes on in our ELP, it’s just really hard to articulate any connection at all to how well a child scores on a standardized test. Again, I think I’d rather open the program up to anyone who wants to try it, but if the school insists on restricting it, I’d be more comfortable with basing it on teacher recommendations.

Christy – thanks for commenting! Those were the days – when test scores were a means, not the end. I know that in theory they could still be used that way, but we are now so far from that world that it’s hard to see how we could get back to that way of thinking.

KD – That’s got to be part of the reason the school doesn’t want to let just anyone enroll in an advanced class. I can understand it, and you wouldn’t want the teacher to have to start gearing the whole class to the kids who probably shouldn’t have taken it. But if a kid is over clearly his or her head, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with the teacher saying, “I’m sorry, there’s only so much time I can spend helping you with this. I really think you’d be better off transferring to the less-advanced-level class.” In college, if you sign yourself up for a class that’s over your head, you’re probably lucky even to get that much attention from the professor. The students deal with it, and sometimes make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. But as a factual matter, I bet you’re right that that’s a big part of it.

Icl – That social disappointment is definitely real. I’d be more inclined to say “those are the breaks” if there really were a persuasive reason for limiting ELP to very-high-scoring kids, but I’m not seeing it.

I suppose the idea is that some kids are just sitting in class bored because the standard curriculum is stuff they already know, and that we should give them something more challenging to do. But at two hours a week, ELP barely makes a dent in that concern. Moreover, from what I’ve seen, ELP’s strength isn’t that it’s particularly challenging, but just that it’s more interesting and engaging than the standard fare. Being bored by the standard fare isn’t limited to just students who score super-high on tests; everyone would benefit from more interesting and engaging things to think about.

There’s also an argument to be made that “gifted and talented” kids learn differently and would benefit from a different kind of curriculum. But ELP just isn’t a “gifted and talented” program in that sense. It’s more like just a token to make the parents of high-scoring kids feel like there’s some individuation going on. Again, it’s a nice break for the kids who are in it, but without a more coherent rationale for its exclusivity, it’s hard to justify the downsides.

Daniel said...

The ability to think in a subset of the full human set of thinking abilities becomes a *debility* when the person‘s cognitive functional autonomy regarding the input structure is overridden or otherwise interfered with. Today, this interference is committed usually with the best of intentions, by an assembly-line\programming method of teaching. So, within an imposed and micro-managed 'learning' context, children whose socio-linguistic development is 'lagging behind' that of their *average* grade-age-mates need relatively more unambiguous terminology, within such a context, in order to keep from being unwittingly forced into acquiring robotic habits of approaching print.

Hence the supposed indispensability of Diane McGuinness’ ‘correct’ version of terminology for teaching phonics (namely, 'letters represent sounds', not 'letters make sounds', see McGuinness: Why Our Children Can't Read). But, it is these very children whom politically pressured teachers then find must be induced the more to submit to the 'programming'.

Such an approach to teaching human beings is like standing on the Earth while thinking there’s a genuine need to make an entire separate planet from scratch in order to grow some plants: you get so caught up in figuring out how to make a planet from scratch that you fail to recognize what you're standing on.

Kathy said...

The entrance requirement to ELP was changed this last year. It now requires a very high score on Iowa Assessment AND Cogat AND teacher and parent recommendation. So yes, they are downsizing the program (because they need all the money to operate the new buildings-administrators aren't cheap labor like teachers). I have asked several times to Pam Ehly, did anyone at Hoover make it into the ELP this year with the new requirements in place and I keep getting stonewalled. (i.e. "We don't break it down by year because the number is too small.") But then, in August Pam got an award from the ITAG (Iowa Talented and Gifted) board for being an “Administrator of the Year”, nominated by her subordinate (Kathy Jepson) "In nominating Pam, Kathy emphasizes Pam’s advocacy for gifted programming. She has led the gifted education Curriculum Review process and supported the implementation of the Curriculum Review Improvement Plan." She literally constricted the entrance requirements (you know, we can't have too many kids being intellectually sated!)and got an award for it! Do you think that she corroborates strategy with Mitt Romney, Terry Branstad, Scott Walker, et al on how to balance budgets?

Chris said...

Kathy -- I tend to have the same two reactions to so much of what I hear about how the schools select kids for ELP: (1) The process makes little sense, and (2) why so much selectivity to get into a program that really adds up to very little?

There is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to so much of what I hear from district administrators. "Advocacy for gifted programming" means "offering it to fewer kids"?

Anonymous said...

Do they even still have separate groups for reading and math for kids of varying abilities or is it 'en-masse teaching simultaneously to the lowest standard'?

When I was a kid, they had multiple levels with different text books for BOTH subjects. Heck, I was in a multi grade room where us more advanced kids could get the faster pace, more complex teaching to keep us stimulated.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting. I don't know the answer, but it's my sense that all of kids in a grade are working on the same math at the same time, though the kids who finish their work faster may be given more advanced problems to work on in the remaining time. As I understand No Child Left Behind, there's really no incentive to move any kids beyond the requisite "grade-level," even if they're ready for it.

My experience in elementary school, for what it's worth, was very much the opposite. Our town had its own math curriculum in which everyone worked at his or her own pace through the material, so everyone in the room was at a different stage from everyone else. It was called the West Hartford Individualized Math Program, and every day we all spent time "doing our WHIMP." I don't remember how they did any classroom teaching in that system, or how well it worked educationally -- but I still get a kick out of the name.

Joanie said...

I teach 5th grade in my neighborhood public school (that's just me being open about who I am).
That being said, I always told my kids (not my students, but my biological kids) that I didn't care how they did on the test. They could do great, they could fail, and it wouldn't matter a lick to me. For that matter, if they wanted to stay home the day of the test, that was okay with me also (they never did). I told them that the only reason I could see for the test was so the governor of our state could use it as bragging rights against another governor (my spin on things). It seemed to ease their minds, somewhat. Sad, too, the amount of stress my kids felt over the tests. (They never needed to, because they always scored very high, but still they stressed.) What are we doing to the children in this nation?

Chris said...

Joanie -- Good question. Isn't it awful that, even after you tell your kids it doesn't affect them, they're still stressed out by it? Shows how powerful the message coming from the school is.