Picture with me if you will, the summer ends and teachers everywhere pour over curriculum and academic standards with the hope and desire to create fun and engaging lessons to teach their students during the coming school year. They map out their curriculum for each subject area they will teach so they can pace their teaching and make sure they will cover all necessary information in time for the standardized test in the spring. They start to realize that creativity may have little room in the schedule because the assessment takes center stage and their students must be ready. They understand the multitude of days that are taken away from their teaching to help prepare their class for this test. They begin to wonder what happened to education that tests become the proof that learning has occurred in the classroom.
It is an all too typical scenario for teachers these days.
Teachers battle the desire to want to do creative project based learning but know that it is time-consuming and may take away from preparing students for the test. They realize their job may depend on the test results their students achieve as a measure of how well they can teach. Teachers work hard to create lesson plans to teach the content driven by the academic standards.
Good teachers will spend hours upon hours looking for creative ways to teach those standards.
Great teachers will spend even more time trying to create meaningful and authentic learning through project-based units that incorporate the standards, but these projects take days, sometimes weeks to complete and are not the traditional lessons taught for these learning goals.
However, their students walk away with a meaningful, authentic learning experience but are not spoon fed what and how to think to answer a question on a test. Instead, they make connections between content areas and see the connections in their learning and their life; at least this is what teachers’ desire for the PBL (Project Based Learning) lessons they plan. They work hard to inspire critical thinking and making connections between learning in the classroom to learning in the real world. Isn’t this ultimately what our academic standards were hoping to accomplish, that students can make real life connections to the information they are learning?
As a teacher, the trade-off of taking days and weeks to teach project-based lessons versus daily traditional lessons that teach standard after standard can be a difficult one and depends on the teacher, school, and district as to where priority is. Is the focus authentic learning for the students, or is it learning to memorize for a test which is often forgotten soon afterward? It is a question that teachers must answer themselves while preparing their lessons. It is heavily influenced by their philosophy of teaching but also influenced by the school and district that they teach within. So, what is a teacher to do when so much pressure is upon them for their students to do well in assessments tied to academic standards through standardized testing?
As a teacher in a private school, I am not strictly governed by these state and national mandates, but that does not mean I throw out standards and standardized testing in my classroom. In fact, I use these as tools to help me in my teaching. So what does this look like for a teacher at Hillside Academy? Where is the priority of standards in our classroom and our school? Moreover, what about standardized testing, what place does it hold in our classroom?
I am privileged to work with some fantastic teachers who see teaching as much more than academic standards and standardized assessment, but ones who value the whole child as a unique learner. We strive to fulfill our mission to inspire passionate, confident, and creative students in an individualized, hands-on learning environment integrating our Christian values while striving for academic excellence.
As a middle school teacher at Hillside Academy, I am that teacher who is pouring over my curriculum and standards looking for creative ways to engage my students in authentic, meaningful learning in my classroom.
- I am that teacher who is looking for outside materials that will enhance my textbook curriculum or replace it and may make a lesson come alive for students who learn better differently than through traditional methods.
- I am that teacher who is mapping out my curriculum to make sure I stay focused, knowing what will come next and how long I have to teach any particular content.
- I am that teacher who works hard to make sure that the standards are embed in my lessons and students have gained the knowledge they need to be ready for the next grade level.
- I am that teacher who works hard to know her students, how they learn, and what ways I can engage them in making learning meaningful.
- I am that teacher who is willing to change directions when a lesson just isn’t working and find another way to help my students learn the content I am trying to teach.
- I am that teacher that values multiple ways of assessing my students in their learning so that I can not only see how well they know the information I have taught but can also apply it.
- I am that teacher who strives to know her students well enough, to know some days that the curriculum that I need to teach is not that from a textbook, but it is speaking into the hearts of my students to help change attitudes for learning. It is helping them realize that learning can be creative, messy, silly, and dare I say just plain fun.
- I am one among many teachers at Hillside Academy that share these ideas about teaching our students.
My philosophy of education influences how I teach and what my classroom looks like while teaching. The standards become my skeleton to work from but do not dictate how or what I teach to help students gain that knowledge.
In my classroom, my priority is to help my students learn that they have the tools to acquire knowledge, how they can use those tools and the importance of being lifelong learners. In my classroom students begin to believe that like a plaque on former President Reagan’s desk said, “It Can Be Done.”
In my classroom, my students know I will guide them to accomplish the projects given but I will not do it for them or tell them my way is the only way it can be done when many paths lead to the same finish line. This thought process becomes the meat on that skeleton of “academic standard” bones. If my students memorize facts only to pass a test but do not learn that they have the capacity and tools to learn anything they set their mind to, those details become meaningless.
If they have an attitude that school is boring and learning math or science is useless to them, then I have failed as a teacher, even if they can show they know the facts of math and science that I had taught. Standards in education are meant to guide us in understanding what information is necessary for one grade to be successful so they are prepared to move forward to the next grade level. However, this learning is spiraled and often added to as students pass from one grade to the next. Topics revisited throughout a student’s lifetime in school allow no standard to be taught in pure isolation and never to be seen or used ever again. There are some rhymes and reasons to having academic standards to guide us.
Our current standards of learning help to create an agreement across school districts, states, and even our nation, in which everyone hopes to be on the same page teaching our children. Having standards of learning are not the problem. They are important to help give guidance in what should be taught in each grade as well as across the grade levels. The problem happens when we are so standard focused we suck the life out of our classroom and learning becomes stagnant and boring.
Learning must be meaningful.
The other problem ends up happening when we elevate one assessment of those standards above the many other evaluations that the classroom teachers do on a regular basis that determine how well our students understand what we taught. As a teacher I know that students have off days when taking a test, they are tired, hungry, or struggle to stay focused. Students take computerized tests but may struggle with the navigation of the technology, and technology can fail at times. Additionally, some students are just poor test takers using traditional assessments due to high test taking anxiety, but given the opportunity to show you what they know through a different way the student may surprise you in how well he or she understands what they have learned.
So if a student does poorly on the standardized test what does that mean? Did they not know the information? Did the teacher do a poor job teaching them? Is the test flawed? Alternatively, did they just have an off day? There are so many questions that one must consider when looking at results. What if the results did not match what the teacher sees in the classroom? What does that say about the student, the classroom teacher, and the test? How can we best use the standardized assessments of academic standards of learning and the data showing the results? Why is there so much importance on how a child ranks compared to other children as if that one score tells you who that child is? Have we forgotten that a student is not the measure of one test score but the whole of their learning in the classroom and even more importantly outside of it?
I never realized how flawed standardized testing could be until I became a scorer for state standardized testing across the United States.
This is not to say all standardized testing is flawed but only to share my own experience. Imagine a room filled with college-educated men and women who pour over tens of thousands of questions from standardized tests with anchor papers in hand of acceptable answers trying to score each answer that a student has given. Anchor papers are those agreed upon answers with accepted scores that help the scorer know how to assess a student’s answer.
They are the best example of each score at that level.
I was a scorer for three seasons back in the early 2000’s, and my mother is currently in her 10th year as a scorer. I remember one particular year I scored a test covering 5th-grade social studies, which mainly tested content on the US government.
For hours I read answers that showed that students did not know the answer to the most basic questions such as “What are the 3 branches of government?” or “What are the requirements for a person to be eligible to become President of the United States?” As people scored thousands of papers with 0’s and 1’s out of 3 or 4 point scales, the representatives from that particular state were seeing trends in the scores and began to show concern. They stopped all scoring and started to look for ways to give students more points for their answers.
What was once very clear on what was the answer that was to be accepted or not accepted, all of a sudden became a very gray area. Supervisors started encouraging scorers to make sure that there were no other points that could they could give from the student’s answers. Scorers who fought earlier to give points to answers where the intent was clear but the answers were written poorly, were told no, and now they were being informed the guidelines are relaxed. Can you imagine how the test representatives felt seeing a vast group of tests where students scored very poorly? What would that say about the state, the school district, the school, or even the teacher?
After days and weeks had passed and scores were still very low the supervisors told us to stop scoring, and they were sending all the test papers to another scoring site out of state to redo the entire test again and hope to get higher scores. The test officials were to meet to determine what needed to be adjusted to give more freedom in the answers before the test could be scored again. I do not know what happened the second time this particular batch of papers were scored because it is all kept confidential, we only knew the state we were scoring but no particular city or school district. What I can tell you was that it was clear that many students did not know this information.
It was clear that had our scores been kept this particular batch of test papers were going to get very low scores as a whole, and it would not look good. It was also clear that those in charge were not willing to accept that low data if they could help it, even if it meant interpreting the standards in a different way to allow for higher scores. There is something fundamentally wrong with that picture. If you can change the standard when you do not like the outcome, then was that standard really important or is it the final test score that holds more importance than the standards? Does this also speak to how we view and value education as a whole? Why can’t we accept that sometimes students do not know the answer, can’t remember the answer, or dare I say it were poorly taught the information, or it was forgotten to be taught all together? This snapshot in time told me something crucial about assessments. It taught me that the final score many not be as accurate of a picture of learning as I may assume it to be.
At Hillside Academy we do administer a school wide standardized test one time a year. We use the MAP testing. MAP stands for Measure of Academic Progress. It is a computerized standardized test that allows the school to see how our students, in general, may measure up to other students across the US at each grade level. This particular test adjusts to the student as they take the test. The test pushes the student to see how much they know and then will adjust up and down according to their answers. In that sense, this is a much different test than the typical standardized test where everyone has the exact test with no variation. This test changes according to the student taking it.
We use this test as a general guideline to see how well we are doing as a school. We also use it as a way to look for trends that may help us strengthen curriculum in areas where we may see lower scores across a particular grade level or levels. It forces us back to the academic standards to make sure that we have taught them or look at better ways we can teach that standard that will stay with our student’s learning long term. It also gives us confirmation on areas where our curriculum is strong across the grade levels.
We recognize that this test is only a snapshot in time and can give us valuable information as a school but it is not the only thing we would use to measure strengths and weaknesses. For the individual student, this test can show how they did compare to other students taking the test. However, again it is still only a snapshot. Some students may do very well on the test, but their overall grades and work in the classroom may not reflect that. In these cases, we must dig deeper to look at why there is such a discrepancy. Other students may do very poorly or not get as high scores as expected but are doing well in the classroom. Again we have to dig deeper into why these results do not match what we see daily. It is always a challenging task to help parents understand these test scores and what information we can glean from them. We work hard in helping parents see that their child is more than any one test score or grade and how any one piece of the puzzle apart from the rest of the pieces does not tell a complete story of who that child is as a student. At Hillside Academy we strive to see the whole picture for each student academically and to value them as a whole child, not a grade or a test score. Our students really matter to us.
As a teacher, it is important to align my teaching with standards to assure that students have a high standard of learning that will be met at each grade level. Our current academic standards provide that framework for us. However, it is up to me to plan creative and authentic lessons that teach my students these standards and make learning meaningful.
It is my hope that I can inspire my students to develop a love of learning that goes beyond the classroom and goes beyond any academic standard that was met. When it comes to assessing my students in this learning, I must remember that all students will not do well on standardized testing and other forms of assessment are necessary to have a clear picture of their learning.
As Diane Ravitch, historian of education and professor of Education at New York University said, “Sometimes, the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine in standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds.” I challenge other teachers to join me in a call to realign our thinking in the way we teach so that it really highlights our priorities of learning in our classrooms but does not forget the standards that help us stay focused so our students learn what they need to at each grade level. Remember your teaching is more than a standard and your students are more than a test score.
For more information on the Common Core Standards http://www.corestandards.org/
For more information on the Next Generation Science Standards http://www.nextgenscience.org/
For more information the MAP test https://www.nwea.org/assessments/map/
For more information on the Smarter Balance Standardized Test (current WA public school state test) http://www.smarterbalanced.org/
For more information on becoming a scorer for standardized tests http://www.pearsonassessments.com/careers.html