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4/16: School Testing, Part 2:

Just What Are We Assessing?

As I mentioned in last week’s Journal, it is testing season in America for our 3rd – 8th graders. My point last week was that a successful testing outcome is largely dependent on a child’s ability to navigate the test itself.

This week, let’s look at this point more closely. But before we do that, it’s important to understand how school achievement is characterized by many pundits in the media today; the point made over and over is that too many children are not measuring up to grade level standards. The statistics, in fact, are deplorable. Listening to this can lead to discouragement because we all know how important an educated populace is.

But what standards are we expecting children to live up to?

Have any of you looked at a test from start to finish? I recommend that every adult in America take a practice test online. While paper tests are also available, most American school children now test online, probably because it’s less expensive, it’s ‘greener’, and there is less chance that the tests will become compromised through human handling.

Here is a website that offers practice tests for the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career). PARCC is directly correlated with Common Core; in fact, the states who have adopted Common Core use PARCC or a derivative for their testing platforms. If you have not examined Common Core, it’s also a good idea to look at the standards at prior to taking the test.

The savvy teacher spends much of her instructional time during February and March teaching children how to take these practice tests. The even savvier teacher shows them to her students in September, and every month after!

The practice math test I showed my own students this week contains 31 questions. The real test they will take this week will easily have three times that number of questions, divided into three tests taken on three succeeding days. There is a time limit of 60 minutes per test (for math; 90 for reading). Only students who have accommodations in place can exceed this time limit, having been granted “extended time”, according to their state’s regulations.

How does a child get “accommodations”? In some states, these accommodations must be documented in an IEP, meaning they are for special ed students only. In other states, accommodations can be accorded to students who have a documented need for them, regardless of IEP status. Sometimes this documentation need only be the teacher’s notes in a weekly planner, as is the case for my former state of Colorado. I discuss this in my book Chaos in Our Schools in “Teaching to the Test”.

My former assistant principal began counseling us in mid-August each year to document for students who might need extended time (or even worse, a scribe) on their test in April. If an accommodation was documented at least three times prior to October 1, it would be allowed during testing. Anyone with extended time could not test with the general population of a class; they were removed to an alternate location and given the test with other extended time students. A child who was documented for scribing had to be given the test one-on-one, with an adult who would type the answers dictated by the student. Hmmm…think of the potential ramifications of that!

Why all this pandemonium over testing settings and accommodations?

Test results directly affect entire schools, determining which schools are put on probation and monitored closely by the district. As you might imagine, this situation becomes a strait jacket for the principal; poor performance can be devastating to one’s career. The stress, of course, trickles down to each teacher. Assigning accommodations becomes a necessary strategy in surviving the impossibility of Common Core and the assessments that measure it. Imagine the testing outcomes if accommodations were not in place for a lot of our students!

What does a typical assessment look like? Here are some samples from the 5th grade math test I will administer:

Understanding that a fraction is another way to show division is a precursor for algebra. But there are also precursors for this concept. Until those precursors are in place, getting this question correct is guesswork. Incidentally, the correct answer is D.

Around 2/3 of the questions on the fifth-grade practice test involve using fractions, either with algebra or geometry. The other third involve decimals. Fractions and decimals can only successfully be taught after whole-number concepts are cemented, at least mostly. This happens at different times for children, usually between grades three and five. If a child is having trouble understanding whole-number place value, it is not wise to throw decimal place value at him; the confusion fostered could throw his brain into a tizzy.

Here is the easiest problem I saw on the practice test for my fifth graders:

Most students easily remember the multiples of 10, so it is probably not difficult to pick out answer C as the correct choice. If a child gets this question wrong, however, there is very little chance he will get any of the other multiplication questions correct. What is the purpose of asking children who have not memorized their multiplication tables to solve multiplication and division word problems? If a child were provided a multiplication facts chart, you would be able to see if he is able to manipulate those facts in different problem-solving scenarios. That could be useful in placing him in classes that meet his needs.

Being bad at memorization (or even lazy at it) should not control whether a child is labeled proficient at understanding math concepts. Again, what exactly are we testing? If we want to know whether a child has memorized his multiplication and division facts, we should add a section directly for that. For problem-solving whose accuracy depends on access to these facts, an online tool can be included in the test, the same way the test includes an interactive ruler, protractor, and certain formulas that children are not required to remember.

​ (Why are children required to memorize math facts but not math formulas anyway?) As a child, I did not have my math facts down until some time in 6th grade; even though I was a hard worker as a student, I would never have passed the 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade math tests given to our students today.

Most of the questions on these math tests involve multiple thought processes and a lot of reading. Here’s an example of a multiple-step problem that is actually on the more straightforward side:

The test proctor (usually the classroom teacher) is not allowed to read anything to a child who does not have documented accommodations or explain anything the child sees on his test screen. Being prohibited from doing something and actually not doing it in a classroom with the door closed are often two very different things, however. With the stakes as high as they are, does anyone believe teachers are not doing what they can to assist students who appear on the verge of tears from frustration?

As an aside, I’ll note here that Best Practices in instruction indicate that collaborative learning is the best way to teach students to problem-solve. That means that students are given instruction and guided through solving problems. They are then put into groups to solve problems together, with the teacher doing her best to move among the groups offering guidance. Even when students are given tests in class, they are often allowed to ask clarifying questions of their teachers. And after the test is graded, they are put into groups with others who fared about the same on the test to discuss what they think they did wrong and try to correct their mistakes. The only time they are required to work completely solo without any opportunity to ask questions or collaborate is on these yearly tests.

Here's the final example I'll share in today's Journal. Try to imagine being 11 years old, in fith grade, as you stare at this monstrosity:

Most children today have seen the type of diagram depicted at the top and many will even recognize it as a way to represent multiplication. But the numbers and letters on the diagram will not correlate to much else in their previous instruction; that is, unless they have shown enough advancement in aptitude to have been taught geometry using algebra concepts. For most fifth graders, this is an improbability because their teachers do not have the math acumen to understand it themselves. Nor should they! This is easily 8th grade content, if you were a student in 2010.

It's fine to provide advanced content questions on an assessment if the purpose is to divide students into appropriate teaching and learning situations. But that is not the purpose. All these questions are considered regular fifth grade material. That means that if you fail even a third of the questions, you are at the bottom spectrum of fifth grade achievement. But are you really?

Before we decry the achievement of modern elementary students, let us understand how that achievement is assessed. Examine these tests and the standards that are used to create them. They are advanced standards. There are two reasons we should be concerned about this.

One, to become advanced at learning, sustained high effort is required, beginning in kindergarten. If we want that for our children, we need to require them to work harder than they do now, and we need to make the outcome of testing matter to them. This would mean placing children in classes according to their test results, again beginning in kindergarten. That does not happen, by and large, in our public schools. Children of all aptitudes are placed in groups of 30 or more, with teachers expected to perform miracles with all.

Two, requiring advanced learning of all children is directly oppositional to living in a free society. Many of our students opt out because it is hard work. Since there is nothing riding on their success, it doesn’t matter, for them. Frustration for teachers, administrators, and politicians, however, rides high.

This leads to even more measures that involve pushing learning on children

without actually requiring anything of them.

If you are interested in other questions contained on these tests, check out our page devoted to testing here. It’s worth becoming informed before passing judgment on where our schoolchildren are heading in life.

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