Why I somewhat agree with ETFO’s negative position on standardized testing

Pencil on school test. Click for Peter Greene's article on Huff Post.

Pencil on school test. Click for Peter Greene’s article on Huff Post.

Who benefits the most from standardized testing? Certainly, in Ontario, the EQAO agency which conducts the testing benefits to the tune of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars a year. Another beneficiary is the Fraser Institute that provides annual “reports” on how schools rank. As well, some schools and municipalities benefit when schools in their areas have averages that are higher than the norm — resulting in some parents actually relocating to those communities.

However, contrary to the Fraser Institute’s “key academic indicators of school performance” (on page 5 in the above link), their reports are empty of specifics. Here, for example is what some of those so-called indicators look like.

1. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in reading
2. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in writing; and
3. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in mathematics.

Now, exactly where are the “academic” or “learning objectives” in the indicators? Do the test results indicate, for example, that students were able to identify words in text — which is the first “fluency” phase of reading? Or, in terms of comprehension, do the test results prove that students in Grade 3 were able to identify the main idea in a paragraph? Or, in the average level of achievement in math, were the Grade 3’s able to add and subtract in three columns?

In other words, while the Fraser Institute’s Report indicates there are four standards used by EQAO (e.g., levels one to four), their indicators actually indicate nothing.

There is so much more to a school than cold, static, standardized test results. There are academic subjects such as social studies, history and science. There is also phys ed and extra-curricular activities, such as chess clubs, bands, art clubs, basketball, volleyball and baseball. In all those instances, children are learning new things, as well as how to get along with others and how to cope in the world.

Plus, let’s not forget there are opportunities for parents to volunteer and get to know their child’s teachers and what goes on in their child’s school day to day.

I frequently hear non-teachers talking about the entitlement attitude of today’s teachers. That too bothers me and I say so regularly. However, how many parents, in the midst of such complaining, will also tell you that they like and appreciate their own children’s teachers?

In the U.S., under President Obama, teachers have been fired for low standardized test results that measure so little of what students are actually learning. As Peter Greene says in his Huff Post column: “What about identifying schools that need help? Is the data used to help those schools? Not unless by ‘help’ you mean ‘close’ or ‘take over’ or ‘strip of resources so students can go to a charter instead.’ Our [the U.S.] current system does not identify schools for help; it identifies schools for punishment.”

Anyway, check out this video and list of reasons the Ontario elementary teachers union (ETFO) recommends a random sampling approach, as opposed to 100% standardized participation in the various grades affected. It is why I somewhat agree with their complaints about EQAO standardized testing. There really are other methods of evaluation that would be more helpful to parents.

To improve EQAO math scores, ON teachers should include drills

Originally published on February 6th, 2014.

As a former teacher, and later, a learning specialist and teacher-educator, I can confirm that it is acceptable practice when Ontario teachers use problem solving and discovery math approaches.

Yet, something is not quite right, otherwise there would not be a decline in EQAO standardized test results at the Grade 3 and 6 levels.

Some say the “problem” is too much “problem solving” and “discovery math.” I don’t believe that is the case. Rather, I think it is just that something is missing — multiplication table memorization and old fashioned basic skills drills.

First, however, I would like to clarify why blanket reform of how math is taught in Ontario is not necessary. Discovery math has been around for a very long time. It simply means a child is provided with a math related problem and in the solving of that problem, not only build on math skills they already have, but learn new ones through trial and error.

For example:

Back in the late 1970s when I taught Grade 5 math, I taught measurement by discovery. The preamble the students were given was that the classroom had been destroyed (by fire or flood) the night before and everything had to be replaced. They were provided with a sheet of paper that had the prices for all the replacement products. They then had to measure the floor and chalk/bulletin boards to know how much tile/slate/wall board was going to be needed and how much it would cost. By the time they were finished, they had indeed “discovered” everything they needed to know about measurement.

However, that was not the only way we taught. Over and above regular lessons, I had daily oral time tables practice and daily computational written drills.

Now, think about it. Above, I was talking about a measurement discovery exercise that today’s parents (now 40ish) probably experienced because that math curriculum unit was in an Ontario province-wide Junior level ministry document. Yet, when we did that, we not only didn’t yet have personal computers, we didn’t have fax machines or cell phones either. And, that is just over thirty years ago!

So, change and discovery is non-stop as is technological invention. Reform that goes back in time is simply not the right direction we should be moving our children. However, that is not to say, Ontario’s curriculum planners and teachers should not include the kind of standard lessons and drills we did back then within today’s curriculum mix. They should.

That the Ontario Liberal government is going to put $4 million into teaching teachers math skills is rather strange, unless the teachers in the classroom today were never taught the basic skills in the first place. Since it is not that many years ago that I taught prospective teachers, I doubt that very much. Rather, I think it is simply government covering over a problem with a band aid.

The crux of the matter is, then, that for Ontario’s children to improve on EQAO standardized math tests, teachers need to be encouraged and allowed to integrate old fashioned math practices, which as I said above, needs to include the memorization of timetables and basic number facts, into their current problem solving and discovery approaches.

President Obama gets it right allowing flexibility re standardized testing

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama won in the war on students and teachers — a war that used standardized test results to hit everyone over the head.  As Fox News reported

“Obama said Thursday that the states would be granted the flexibility in exchange for implementing ‘high standards.’ ‘The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones. Standards and accountability, those are the right goals,’ Obama said. But he said educators shouldn’t have to ‘teach to the test,’ and said the new benchmarks will incorporate other factors for measuring school and teacher achievement.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I agree with the importance of standardized tests for accountability and setting general benchmarks for student achievement. However,  I don’t agree those types of narrowly focused scores should be used by parents to pick a school, or as justification to close schools or in some cases as justification to fire teachers. Check out this Google page for a few examples of the war of words and actions going on in the U.S. regarding this issue.

Remember, while it may not be politically correct to say so, not all children are the same intellectually. So, holding a teacher responsible for a student who cannot or will not learn, is not only unfair but unrealistic. In other words, it is worthy to have a goal that no child be left behind. But, certain special needs may indeed mean a child is left behind. However, instead of penalizing a school or a teacher when that happens, the school system or state needs to have accommodations in place to help the teachers help that child be all he or she can be.

Look, I used to run a private reading clinic that involved a lot more than the pre and post tests that were administered to the children and youth. Yes, those tests are important. But so too is observing how well a child can scan words, how well they can phonetically pronounce sounds and words, how well they can read silently and what strategies they use to remember what the story or text was about.

For instance, when you are reading this sentence silently, you are “hearing” the words in your head.  That’s called “sub-vocalizing.” Therefore, if someone can only read by moving their lips, they are not completely processing “the meaning” of what they are reading. The result is, of course, they will not have time to remember what they read and subsequently do badly on standardized tests. However, if a variety of evaluation methods are used with all children, a better picture will emerge of how well they are performing in real life, as opposed to a temporary set-up testing situation.

Anyway, my point is that I agree with Obama on this one. Yes, by all means, maintain annual or regular standardized tests. But, also include a variety of evaluation methods — methods that don’t penalize either the student, the teacher, a school or even an entire school district and state.

H/T Jack’s Newswatch # 8. Here also is my “standardized testing” archive on what I have written on this topic before.

A “balanced” standardized testing approach is a good thing

Update 5pm Friday, October 21, 2011: I just got a Google Alert to this Christian Science Monitor breaking news item that the United States Senate voted this afternoon to drop the provision in the No Child Left Behind law that required annual standardized testing improvements.  That is a huge victory for all those who have seen the damage that the provision did to everyone involved in public education — state officials, school administrators, teachers and students. So, just as I agreed with Michael Zwaagstra’s views below, there will now be a chance for the U.S. to have a balanced approach between standardized testing in reading and math and the rest of the curriculum. My guess is the cheating will now stop as well!

Here also is the same announcement via the New York Times.

[…]

According to Michael Zwaagstra at Troy Media,   a balanced approach to standardized testing is a good thing.  Zwaagstra, a research fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Manitoba high school teacher and the author of “What’s wrong with our schools and how we can fix them,” seems very balanced in his analysis as well. As such, as a former teacher myself (and retired teacher educator), for the most part I agree with what he has written.

However, the key word is “balanced.” From what I am reading is happening in the United States, what Obama’s Department of Education is insisting on is anything but balanced. Rather, they are stressing the importance of annual test results to such an extent that some states are asking for exemptions, while others are busy firing teachers. In fact, with the number of teachers being fired and others quitting, the U.S. is going to have a major teacher shortage in the not too distant future.  

No doubt, that is what concerns Canada’s teachers’ unions and teachers themselves. Could that type of extremism, in a drip by drip approach, become the norm in Canada as well? I would say not as long as Canadian parents and lawmakers are kept aware of what balanced means.

The bottom line is that some form of standardized testing is absolutely essential for accountability and to provide benchmarks on academic achievement, particularly in reading and math. However, that said, while those objective measures of performance are important, so are all the other things that go on in our schools — our music, our visual art, our athletics, our class trips, our debates, our spelling bees and our speech contests.

In other words, acknowledging all those aspects of learning and schooling is what a well-rounded education looks like — in preparation for a job and real life. Because, remember, jobs in real life are not just about the specific skills and knowledge required, be they engineering, law, carpentry or plumbing. Certainly, those components are crucial. But, and this is the big but, there is also the equally important ability to get along with other people, be they co-workers or customers, as well as to be able to problem-solve and think creatively. You don’t get those skills through teaching to the test.

So, yes, the crux of the matter is that a “balanced” standardized testing approach can be a good thing.

NY Regents test cheating measures leaving a quality education behind?

Read this Wall Street Journal article by the Associated Press. It is about cheating on standardized tests and the policies New York is putting in place to stop it.

Well, hello? Are U.S. education officials so close to the situation they can’t see what they are doing to an entire generation of teachers and students? I mean, are they reflecting on why cheating has become such a problem?  And, no I am not making excuses for cheating. I simply see what is going on as desperation. There but the grace of God go I!   

I mean, think about it. You have just spent four to six years of your life getting qualified to teach. Then, you are finally hired to do what you love doing. However, all your success is wrapped up in the misguided view that teachers are 100% responsible for what each and every child learns. Look, I’m not making excuses for poor teachers. But, most teachers are doing their best and there is such a thing as individual differences

Remember the old-fashioned Bell Curve? Well, out of every group of students, some will get A’s, a few will get D’s or F’s and everyone else will be in the middle with B’s and C’s.  In other words, unless you are teaching a gifted class or a special education class, the children will not all pass with the same approximate score. In fact, even in those exceptional situations I mentioned, there will be a standard distribution of grades.

I know lawmakers and parents want accountability in the U.S., just as they do in our Canadian provinces. I get that! But, no matter where standardized tests are being used, the results are just one indicator of how a child, a teacher or school is performing. I mean, there is so much more that goes on in a school — athletics, clubs, music groups, the visual and the performing arts, to mention only a few. 

Think down the road. What will post-secondary institutions, the trades and other employers get when the current crop of students — those familiar only with “teaching-to the-test” instructional methods — graduate from high school? Will they get creative, innovative and inspiring learners? Will they get the type of risk taking behaviour needed to be an investor or entrepreneur? Not if school districts keep up the current punitive policies. Rather, they will not only get rote learners who are afraid to take any chances whatsoever, but those who require constant feedback and supervision.

In my opinion then, the crux of the matter is, if the current U.S. policy on standardized testing was put in place by the Bush administration so that no child would be left behind, what they are doing instead, is leaving the notion of a quality education behind.

Education activists seek to collaborate with Occupy Wall Streeters

Here are two paragraphs from an interesting article from yesterday’s Washington Post — by Valerie Strauss.

A group of parents, educators, students and activists who have organized to work to eliminate high-stakes testing in public education is now seeking to collaborate with the Occupy Wall Street protest movement on specific demands regarding school reform.

The movement, called United Opt Out National , encourages parents to use “opt out” rules in their school districts that allow students to stay home when standardized tests are given. They say that the focus on high-stakes standardized testing in the No Child Left Behind era has failed to improve student achievement and instead has narrowed curricula, wasted public resources and caused anxiety and fear in children and teachers.”

What this proves to me is that every social or political group that wants media and/or Internet coverage is jumping on board the “Occupy” protests. In this instance, I feel it only weakens the “United Opt Out National” message. However, I can see why they are doing it.  Rather than using standardized testing results as the basis for providing children with the skills and knowledge they don’t yet have, U.S. school district administrators are using them to label teachers as bad. The result? Few university/college graduates are now going to enter the teaching profession which will result in a major teacher shortage in the U.S. in the not too distant future.

Here also are two related articles: (1) the Los Angeles Times on whether or not there is currently “too much emphasis on testing;” and (2) Outlook Online regarding U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan facing off with hundreds of Oregon educators.

Update Monday, October 17, 2011: Looks like the Obama Administration is looking for a way to reform the “No Child Left Behind” evaluation model. To find out more, read this.

EQAO & issue of cheating re standardized tests

There were allegations that a principal with the Thames Valley District School Board (London, Ontario) unfairly opened an Ontario’s Education & Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized testing package ahead of time so that teachers could prepare students.  To read about the whole issue and the outcome of the investigation, check out Hugo’s blog at The Education Reporter

Now, Hugo does a very good job of explaining the ifs, ands and buts of the allegations, along with providing highlights from the report of an investigation into the incident. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to call what happened “cheating.” Breaking EQAO rules perhaps, but not cheating. I say that carefully because not letting teachers know what a testing package is about is going against everything I have ever learned about how to teach kids — and that is to always review curriculum content and demonstrate skills before a test.   

In my opinion then, this is a power struggle between EQAO and the professionals in the system. You will do as EQAO says or else you will be punished by your school board — maybe even be fired. Isn’t it, in fact, cheating the students when teachers have to completely ignore their pleas and questions during the time they are completing the EQAO tests. Some students, let’s not forget, are only 8 years old and in Grade 3 and don’t yet have abstract reasoning skills.

So, while I agree with the concept of standardized testing, I would recommend that EQAO ease the rules to allow teachers to better prepare their students — which will help reduce the stress for everyone involved. Otherwise, the testing process, in Ontario at least, is not really about finding out how well our children are performing, or how well individual schools are performing in relation to others, but how well they are at test taking.

Which begs the question: Would advance preparation be considered simply “teaching to the test?” And, if so, what would be wrong with that? In my view, nothing, as long as the preparation time was short because, after all is said and done, the validity of the tests would still be there given it is individual children who complete them.  

Something to think about.