In an age of accountability and high stakes testing, public education has accomplished a lot. We have managed to utilize assessment data trends to identify resources and programs to support students’ educational needs. We have also learned how to breakdown objectives or learning standards to their most intricate parts to align our resources. Most of all we have developed ways to hold educators accountable for student achievement…One question remains: at what cost are we making all of these efforts? In other words, what have we sacrificed for this “data-driven” approach to education?

From the literature on students’ motivation for learning, we have come to understand that students learn more when they experience activities that they enjoy and find meaningful and interesting. However, as educators face growing pressure to prepare students to perform well in math and reading in high-stakes testing, public schools slip into predictable traps. Namely, educators implement instructional strategies that boil down content to isolated bits of information at the same time that they dramatically reduce the amount of time and resources used to engage students in creative, interdisciplinary activities and real-world projects that inspire learning.

We also know that students are motivated to work harder when they are able to personalize the purpose of learning. Yet, our high-stakes testing culture communicates to students that we value scoring well on tests as the overarching goal for engaging in learning. Sometimes in curriculum and teacher professional development, teachers and principals blur the lines between student learning and student achievement when they promote blatant “teaching to the test” practices couched in ideas like “backwards planning” or “teaching with the end in mind.”

Finally, research shows that academic achievement is influenced, in part, by self-concept and self-efficacy. Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing encourages teachers and administrators to view students as test-score increasers or suppressors rather than contributors to the learning environment or in terms of their incredible human potential. In turn, students, especially those from impoverished or at-risk environments, perceive this and come to define themselves as winners or losers on the basis of their test performance, to their academic and emotional detriment.

With our current trends, it is clear that high stakes testing and accountability are not likely to go away anytime soon.  Nevertheless, leaders in school systems can take measures to minimize their harmful effects and to foster a school culture that emphasizes student learning and preparation for life’s challenges.  Here are a few ideas to begin this process:

1. If school leaders want to ensure that students get enough test practice, they should schedule periodic practice times that are spread throughout the year rather than just two or three weeks before high-stakes tests are administered. Schools should, at least, refrain from engaging in test-prep boot camps where they shut down regular classroom instruction for intense focus specifically on the test at hand. Such activities only reinforce the impression that the test is the primary goal of schooling.

2. Administrators and teachers should work together to foster a productive mindset about testing. As a start, rebrand “tests” as “performance opportunities” and use language in the classroom that focuses on mastering knowledge, improving individual ability.

3. School leaders should focus on the value of schooling as a method to prepare how to live. As teachers use instructional resources and pedagogy that bring fun and authentic engagement back to the classroom, students can be encouraged to participate in activities that relate to what they’re going to be doing outside of and beyond school.

4. Administrators and teachers should strive to create a culture that encourages cooperation and service instead of competition. We now know that students are more likely to be successful in school when they have a sense of belonging. Making these kinds of connections leads to a more significant effort, greater persistence, and positive attitudes. Feelings of rejection have the opposite effects.

If we put the same energy and intensity that we have invested in high-stakes testing into understanding how to enhance the quality of students’ learning experiences, we might actually experience more success in getting more students to reach their full potential…and, hopefully, make room for learning in education again.

Satisfying the demand for highly skilled workers is the key to maintaining competitiveness and prosperity in the global economy.  For this reason, many educational policymakers strive to craft policies that assist educators in developing a stronger workforce.  This was the intended aim of the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act put forth by the Bush administration. However well intended the NCLB Act was, the consequences of several key requirements have turned out to be counterproductive.

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Houston iTunesU

Houston iTunesU

Recently the Texas Commissioner of Education, Michael L. Williams, announced that he was deferring implementation of a 15 percent grading requirement for the 2012-2013 school year.  This news was received by the vast majority of educators across Texas with jubilation and relief.  To put this reaction in context, you would have to understand the policy’s origins and scope.  When the state of Texas decided to upgrade its assessment and accountability system in 2009, it included a ruling that made a student’s score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) end-of-course examinations count toward15 percent of the student’s final grade in each tested subject area.

Now at first glance that would seem alarming, but when you consider the fact that students would be required to take several more assessments with more rigorous content and testing conditions, it became a serious anxiety accelerant for school administrators and educators.   Commissioner William’s decision marks the second year the rule has been deferred. In the 2011-2012 school year, more than 1,100 of the state’s more than 1,200 school districts notified the Texas Education Agency that they would be selecting the voluntary deferral option.  Even though school systems have been given a reprieve with regard to the 15% grading requirement, students still must take all STAAR tests and meet all requirements for graduation.

Even though most of the state appears to be finding a resolution, I am troubled by the majority reaction and am left with several yet-to-be answered still questions for theTexas Education Commissioner and K-12 School system educators throughout the state.

  • Why do we have so many conflicts with the 15% rule in the first place?
  • Who is looking into the nearly 100 out of the 1200 independent school systems that did not request a deferral of the 15% ruling during the first year of implementation, and how are these school system fairing? What led them to reject the deferral?
  • What does all the conflict with the 15% ruling really reveal about the Texas Educational System?

In summary, I am left with wonderments of the potential of the new state of Texas assessment and accountability system.  One can not help but notice how that the system is being altered from what its planners originally intended.  This is not to say adjustments are not needed, but the goal is to improve student achievement, all of these backtrackings no the 15% rule could be the proverbial beginning of the end. This end is the political dismantling of a once-promising state assessment and accountability system that supports more rigor and better student preparedness for their post-secondary endeavors.  Perhaps we are simply witnessing an assessment accountability system deferred.

By now many of you have heard about the recent reports of rampant teacher cheating and unethical practices in the Atlanta public school system.  What kind of world are we living in when the adults responsible for shaping the minds of our future leaders resort to cheating of this magnitude?  Since the reports surfaced, I have been trying to understand why or how this could happen.  Now, I’m not saying that it is implausible for anyone to cheat, after all, it is an element of human nature to cheat.  I also realize that cheating takes place every day in different forms, but isn’t there a line somewhere?  Actually, there isn’t.

You better believe that this is not the first time the teachers in Atlanta, or teachers all over America for that matter, have cheated.  I believe this cheating is a symptom of a more substantial problem.  So much of our educational system encourages this kind of behavior.  Since the advent of the era of high stakes testing, many school systems have felt the pressure to meet standards with limited or no additional resources including highly qualified teachers. I have personally seen teachers succumb to the pressure to get students to pass the test that they simply “teach the test” in an effort to get higher scores.  This only creates an even bigger problem for the school system in subsequent years which leads to more pressure to cheat. Some public school systems fall in line with similar behavior by constantly manipulating data to satisfy the ever-growing political pressures to meet or exceed standards (often self-imposed standards).  Together, these behaviors seem to suggest that the accountability system, which includes the high stakes testing, data reporting, and a whole host of other political constraints, is what drives public education today and produces the right conditions for cheating on all levels.

Well, that is what I think about this scandal, but I would like to know what you think about the sad state of affairs in the Atlanta Public School System.

Report: Widespread Cheating in Atlanta Schools — by Teachers.

Check out this Get Schooled blog post by Maureen Downey on the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools. I would like to know if you agree.  Set unrealistic test score quotas and people will either fail or cheat | Get Schooled.


High Stakes Testing Culture

In an age of accountability and high stakes testing, we have accomplished a lot. We have managed to learn how to analyze assessment data to determine trends. We have also learned how to break down objectives or learning standards into their most intricate parts. Most of all we have learned how to make ourselves feel good about our data.

Everybody is “data-driven” these days. But what does that really mean? There still exists a culture of assessment “I got ya”. Frankly, we are so focused on assessments that we have missed the whole boat on instruction. If we put the same energy and intensity that we have invested in assessments into quality instruction, we might actually have more accurate assessments. Now I realize having quality assessments can and should drive instruction, we just need to vary it a little.

Fundamental Questions

How can we, as school systems, transition from a culture assessment for accountability to one focused on students learning?  any of you may have experienced an educational system that has figured how the “game” of high stakes state testing.  The more intimately involved you are with teaching and learning the more repulsive the idea of playing with what state standards are taught and tested to merely make a school district look good.

I am ready to buck the system by actually teaching and assessing for student learning first.  I am not saying we should do away with summative assessments of learning.  I realize how necessary it is for every school system.  I would just like to see the focus put in the proper balance. Maybe we could even move toward looking at project-based work or performance-based assessments. In future posts, I will share some different strategies for assessing for learning.  In the meantime, I guess we will keep plowing away at making more new tests.

Assessment for Learning vs. Assessment of Learning