Thursday, April 19, 2007

More Thoughts on Standardized Testing

There is a great article at GreatSchools called "What's So Bad About Teaching to the Test?"

I have problems with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It's a federal law with requirements and sanctions, but no funding. And it heavily relies on standardized testing. Each state has its own standards and tests. Are these all of the same quality? No. Is NCLB pushing the states toward the same high level? I don't know, perhaps. Either way, NCLB puts another layer, the federal one, on all the state ones. It's more administration, and I don't see how it's improving the quality of education that I provide.

I had already read in American Educator about the study done by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) mentioned in the article above. Luckily, California, where I teach, is one of the eleven (11) states that they found where the state standardized tests are aligned to the state content standards. I quote:

Eleven states met our criteria for having both strong content standards and documenting in a transparent manner that their tests align to them in all NCLB-required grades and subjects.

They are: California, Indiana,* Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico,* New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. (*State isn’t yet testing in science at the high school level.)

The AFT commends these 11 states for meeting this challenge. We consider these states to be leading the pack in terms of standards, alignment, and transparency.

Of these 11 states, Tennessee stands out. In addition to having strong standards across the board and tests aligned to them, its standards documents clearly specify which standards will be tested, and its high school standards are written course by course.

So, I am "teaching to the test" because I'm teaching the state standards for my grade level, which is what my students are tested on. That's not true of teachers in all fifty states. And it's not necessarily the teacher's fault. It may be a problem at the state level.

However, they are only tested on English-Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science. History/Social Science is left out. And push come to shove, when we get close to the standardized tests, history begins to fall by the wayside. I won't even mention the arts or health.

I previously mentioned that there is too much emphasis placed on tests. Here is a quote from the article above that addresses that directly:

Is There Too Much Emphasis on the Tests?
An Education Week survey in 2000 showed that 66% of teachers thought that state tests were forcing them to concentrate too much on what was tested, which meant other important subject matter was not covered. Subjects like social studies and the arts, which are not mandated for testing under NCLB, get less attention.

Many testing experts prefer performance-based assessments — those that require students to demonstrate critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. These tests typically require students to write open-ended answers to demonstrate writing skills or show how they came up with the answers to math problems. But the majority of state tests are of the multiple-choice variety. States shy away from performance-based tests because they tend to be expensive to score and have problems with reliability in scoring.

Though I have serious issues with standardized testing, I don't give them less than 100%. I am a professional. Whether I like it or not doesn't really enter into the equation. Standardized tests are here and will be for the forseeable future. For me to not prepare my students to the best of my ability to do well on those tests would be doing them a considerable disservice.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Thoughts on API and Standardized Testing

KleoPatra asked:

Is that good or bad? Is this room for improvement or is it a sign of times to come? Curious what you make of it all...

referring to this post.

It's good and bad. We've stayed where we were in some cases. We were ranked as an 8 last year and we're still an 8 this year. I'm not sure what the criteria (score) is to get us ranked as a 9, or as a 10 for that matter. So I'm not sure how much as a school overall we need to raise our API (Academic Performance Index).

We did go up 21 points, which I think is a good improvement. Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. I think that most of our student sub-groups improved, except for our socioeconomically disadvanted students. So, that's not good, and clearly needs improving.

But there are more general problems with standardized testing...

One, I don't like them. Too much emphasis is put on them. It causes a lot of stress for students and teachers that is unnecessary.

Two, I don't know how useful they are. It would be better to administer a comprehensive test like this at the end of the school year. But in California, the STAR test is administered about 80% of the way through the school year. I'm not sure that students and their parents understand that no one is really expected to be able to answer 100% of the questions. There are some things I haven't taught yet; the school year is not over. Because I teach fifth grade and my current students will be in middle school next year, I don't receive their test scores for this school year; they are sent to their next school. I know how each of them did last year when they were in fourth grade, but I never get their scores from fifth grade. I think this is a serious gap. We teachers have all this accountability, but the information isn't being properly distributed. I think the middle school teachers should continue to get the results, but I should too. How can I see what impact I've had on my students if I don't get the test scores so I can make comarisons? I can't. We do get an overall picture of how they did as a group at the beginning of the next school year, but not the specifics that would be actually useful. Granted, I don't think most teachers are that interested in the specific data like I am, but it should still be routinely provided. Because I don't see the results, it really has no impact on the teaching I'm doing. The assessments, tests, quizzes, assignments, etc. that I give drive my instruction because I see the results of my teaching. I don't see the results of the standardized tests, so it doesn't really impact my instruction. It takes up a lot of time, but doesn't help me be a better teacher.

Just for clarification... STAR stands for Standardized Testing and Reporting. This is what the state of California calls it's standardized testing program. Everyone calls it the STAR test, but what we actually administer is the CST, the California Standards Test. And by accountability, I mean I'm a public school teacher. I'm essentially a public servant. Anyone can ask me about what and how I'm teaching. The results of of my students' results on the CST is turned into an API for my school. And the API is published on the web and in local newspapers. Parents look at the API for prospective schools. It impacts property values. Again, too much emphasis is placed on these results.

Three, I don't think standardized tests are a good measure of what my students can do. It's just one test. Or a series of tests over the course of a handful of days. Relative to the rest of the year, these few tests carry too much weight. What about all the other work and learning that we've done the rest of the year? That doesn't seem to count. It gets lost in the equation. They're tested in English-Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science. English includes reading comprehension, spelling, grammar, writing, etc. There's no real writing component; the students don't write anything. They just fill in bubbles. What about History/Social Science? We teach it, but it's not tested. Is it because it's not as important? One could interpret it that way.

Okay, I think that's enough for today. I'm sure I could write more, but I'm pretty tired and I think it's time to stop.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dave Brubeck!

Last night, we saw Dave Brubeck in concert as part of SF Jazz spring season.

First, he played with his current quartet, Bobby Militello on saxophone and flute, Michael Moore on bass, and Randy Jones on drums. They were amazing to watch. There was great interplay amongst all the musicians. There were some great moments between Dave on piano and Michael on bass. On a couple of songs, Dave would start out, and just play solo piano, and then they'd launch into a song with all of them playing. They opened with "On the Sunny Side of the Street." I wish I was better versed in jazz, because I didn't recognize any of the other songs, except one, and it's title escapes me. But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

After an intermission, the quartet was joined by a big band, mostly horns, but more various percussion. They played a tribute/medley of Count Basie tunes, as well as an extended piece from Brubeck's Elementals suite; this music is currently being used by the San Francisco Symphony as well. Near the end he broke out the songs that made him a star, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Take Five" from his famous Time Out album. It was amazing to hear these live, and I loved the big band arrangements. And then he closed with "Take the "A" Train!"

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lafayette Elementary API

So I went to the state website, and looked up the API score for the school I teach at. We have an API (Academic Performance Index) score of 829. Which is the same score our English Language Learners got. Our socioeconomically disadvantaged students scored 798, 2 points below the 800 the state wants; our Asian students scored 830, and our White students scored 871.

We have a statewide rank of 8 (out of 10), but only a similar schools rank of 3. I don't really understand this similar schools ranking, and when I clicked on the button for a similar school report I was told, "There is no similar schools report available for this school." I think that if you give a school an 8 and a 3, there really should be a report so you can understand why it's a 3.

The base API for our district is 753.

Our 2005 API was 808, so we essentially went up 21 points.

GreatSchools is a great website, which presents all this information better than the state website, because it's all right there in one place and they use graphics. Check us out at GreatSchools: Lafayette Elementary.

API Scores Released

Again, these are excerpted from an article titled County API marks better but still lag from March 28, 2007:

Based on scores from state standardized tests, the 2006-2007 Academic Performance Index, released by the California Department of Education Tuesday, rates schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000, with 800 being the state's target score.

Schools across the state have continued to show progress since the API was implemented in 1999, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said Tuesday during a press conference.

Over the last eight years, for example, he said the median API for elementary schools in the state has increased 129 points to 758. For middle schools, it grew 91 points to 724 and for high schools, it showed an 80-point gain to 700, he said, adding that there's still more work to be done, especially at the high school level.

These gains, O'Connell said, have prompted state officials to discuss the possibility of increasing the state's API benchmark. But, for now, he said it will stay at 800.

"These results show, once again, that students are making consistent progress," he said.

The API report also includes a "statewide rank" which shows how schools compare to the rest of the state as well as a "similar schools rank," showing how they fare next to schools with similar challenges and educational opportunities. Both of these are on a scale of 1 to 10.

O'Connell said students who are African American, Hispanic, in special education and from low socioeconomic backgrounds are lagging behind on the API.

"Closing the achievement gap remains a top priority for me," he said. "Closing the achievement gap is not only an economic imperative, it's a moral imperative."

To view all of the API results, go to:

Standardized Testing - Again!

This is an excerpt of the article titled below, originally from 3/26/2007:

Heat is on with school testing
Students caught between Sacramento's rising demands, feds' No Child Left Behind Act
By Sharon Noguchi

Ready. Set. Go fill in those bubbles.

California's students are sharpening their No. 2 pencils for the spring testing season, which kicks into high gear Tuesday. That's when the state Department of Education will release school rankings from last year's STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) tests and goals for this year's round.

With government upping the ante by setting goals and threatening to punish schools that don't make the grade, standardized tests play a bigger role in public schools than ever. Starting in second grade, students practice taking timed multiple-choice exams. By fourth grade, teachers must ensure that their students master 110 skills in language arts and math.

Increasingly, many teachers and administrators feel they're caught in a vise, pressured by the rising demands of Sacramento and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Although schools have long administered standardized tests, a decade ago they took on greater significance. Eager to calm a public upset about students who couldn't read or do math, California legislators created benchmarks that ramp up annually.

Schools now have about four weeks left to teach new concepts and skills, reinforce previous lessons and give practice tests before the annual STAR tests are given in late April or early May.

When scores come out in late August, schools examine their federal and state marks to see where students soared andwhere they fell flat. Teachers use the results to decide how to teach in the new school year.

Neither the state nor the federal government makes any allowances for tougher-to-teach children.

The state does consider where schools start and gives them credit for rising scores.

"Our goals are much more realistic," said Bob Bernstein, the state's testing chief.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act expects every student in every school to achieve the same level. Every year the law demands increasing percentages of students attain proficiency in language and math. But it leaves it to the states to define proficiency.

But supporters of No Child Left Behind, both liberals and conservatives, maintain that its title says it all. Schools must educate every child, regardless of circumstances, to meet high standards.

Educators agree with the vision. But many teachers wonder how multiple-choice testing will achieve it. What, they ask, is gained by forcing students who don't understand English to take tests they don't comprehend?

Federal and state laws also mandate that special-education students take the same tests as other students.

For state standards, each school is expected to grow from 5 to 30 points each year — the lower the score, the higher the expectations — until they score at least 800 out of 1,000 possible points. In addition, various clusters of students — classified by ethnicity, poverty or language — must achieve the same gains.

When the state enacted high-stakes tests in the early 1990s, it promised to measure learning in different ways, to see what students can do in a real context. For example: Could they write a letter to a grandparent? Or figure out how much wood and mesh they'd need to build a rabbit pen?

After a short-lived attempt in the mid-1990s at such "real-world assessment," the state opted for the strictly multiple-choice STAR tests.