April 26, 2015

Staying the Course During Testing Season

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On today’s blog, we reintroduce you to our friends and colleagues from North Carolina, Hope Reagan and Alice Oakley.  Testing is a hot-bed topic in education and in this post, they share some of their thoughts and observations about test preparation as well as some insight about staying the course during this hectic time. 

‘Tis the season of testing and with this season comes a real pet peeve of ours. This pet peeve being schools who choose to essentially shut down instruction to start the heavy duty test preparation work, months before the actual test date. Seemingly, they move into panic mode. It has been our experience when panic mode sets in, the game plan for what is best for children can be misplaced. This kind of work can be disguised with fancy names such as strategy groups, data clusters or Links, as in linking what you know with how to take a test. Beware.


According to many people, teaching to the test is as unavoidable and those who opt not to succumb to the pressure will reap harsh consequences under tough accountability systems.

We worry when we hear such stories as the principal who turned up the dial on his staff to start test preparation as early as three months before the test and a brave teacher spoke up challenged this idea, “Wouldn’t it make sense to just keep teaching in a purposeful and meaningful way like we do everyday in our classrooms?” he suggested.

We are thankful for teachers who teach this way and think this way.

In stark contrast we celebrate when we hear about a principal who told her entire staff if she saw test preparation in the form of item testing before two weeks of the actual end of grade test, she would put them on an action plan. She explained that the practice was unethical and “curriculum teaching” should continue in classrooms to prepare students for the EOG not “item teaching”. She also compared it to fool’s gold – you don’t actual have what you think you have.

We are thankful for principals like this.


What is wrong with teaching to the test?


There are different ways of thinking about “teaching to the test”.  We really like the way assessment expert W. James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: “curriculum teaching” and “item-teaching.”4 Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.


For example, if students will be tested on author’s purpose in reading, curriculum teachers will set students up to think about (evaluate) the many reasons authors choose to write, the structures in which authors use to lay out their message and how the message is created through main ideas and details or a well developed plot. Students will read and discuss many types of texts to experience and evaluate author’s purpose and they will also practice authentically writing for different purposes in order to apply these ideas.


Item teachers narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on state assessments.


Mr. Popham goes on to say the latter is unethical. We believe it!



Staying the Course


Tony Dungy says in is book Quiet Strength, “Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan.”


We would argue that the best way to prepare students for high stakes tests is to stay the course with teaching the curriculum with rigor and purpose. As we work in classroom as coaches, we see effective instruction – students gathered together talking about a good book they are reading, writing that is being revised, edited and finally published, application of content through project based learning and math concepts being explored at a deep level so that more complex problems can be solved. What more could we ask for?


We know, based on research, that effective instruction is correlated with student achievement. Why would we want to stop this type of teaching months before the end of grade test?

What is 21st Century Writing, Anyway?

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Every six to eight years, education reinvents itself, usually focusing on the exact opposite of the most recent reinvention. Of late, influenced by the roll out of the Common Core State Standards, writing’s reinvention has focused on making arguments and writing informational pieces. Conversations about the nuances of this type of writing–persuasive vs. argument, citing evidence, the role of emotion/voice, etc.–abound, and experts have weighed in heavily. All of this discussion, revolves around an interest in making students “college and career” ready. But what does this mean, anyway? In reality, however, even those of us who are considered literacy “experts” can only imagine the role of writing in the careers of future.

The authors of the Common Core made much of the role that informational reading and writing plays in the work world. They based their insights on analysis of the materials that people read (past tense, which means it’s already obsolete) on their jobs, many of which were governmental. These jobs, however, or at least the way they are performed, are already obsolete, as manuals are already being replaced with video orientations and printed material in general is already moving from text-based to image-based.

Consider the following text, which most of us have heard many times:

“Welcome aboard and thanks for flying with us. We’re committed to making your flight safe and comfortable. So, before we depart, we will be showing a brief safety presentation. This information can help you if there is an emergency, so it’s important to pay close attention, even if you are a frequent flyer.

All carry-on items should now be stored securely, either in an overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, and all aisles, exits, and bulkhead areas should be clear. Your mobile phone and other electronic devices should be turned off. Once air born, we’ll let you know when you can use approved, electronic devices. But note that some items, such as phones, may not be used in flight at any time. You’ll find a list of approved electronic devices in the in-flight information section of Sky magazine.  …”

This traditional text conveys the necessary information for not dying during a plane crash, but how well does it consider the audience? Now, consider this current version of Delta’s safety “speech.”

Now, which of these two types of writing is more interesting to “read?” Which do you think better communicates how to stay safe in a crash? Which way would you like your loved ones to get their flight safety information?

And about the writing … . Which version do you think was more interesting to write? And which do you think was more fun to write? And, which do you think was more difficult to write? Which do you think better reflects 21st century writing.

When Delta first wrote its safety text (example 1), no one could have imagined the later, video option, just as we can’t imagine the ways people will read and write on their jobs in 20, 30, 50 years. What we do know is that, in the coming decades, people will have more and more ways of communicating ideas, and their jobs will likely involve keeping up with these possibilities, knowing their audience, and selecting the best way to communicate to that audience.




Giving Students Authentic Reasons to Read

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In a post titled Sending Children Off to Do Big Things, we wrote about how exposing children to picture book biographies can help them better understand the connection between mindset, passion, and effort. In this post, we introduced readers to the Heart, Head, Hands and Feet Lesson from Reading Wellness which utilizes the following graphic organizer:

Student HHHF

Since sharing this post, as well as some of our favorite titles for Heart, Head, Hands and Feet in a post titled They Grew Up Reading and Writingwe have heard from several readers by way of email and recently, a school media coordinator from North Carolina shared these reflections with us about using Heart, Head, Hands and Feet with a teacher beginning a unit on biography looking to “push” her students. This teacher reported exciting results which made us wonder how this lesson has gone for others who have tried this with their students.  We’d love to see pictures of your graphic organizers and hear stories from the classroom if you have them.  If you’re not familiar with this lesson, you can find more information about it in this document as well a more comprehensive list of titles that work well with this lesson.


Looking forward to hearing from you!