Pig weighing versus dip sticking
“Time to weigh the pig.” Do we see any growth yet? Let’s keep checking.
If we were only weighing a pig, hoping for bigger and bigger pork chops and ham, while still providing the same amount and type of feed, then frequent weight checking would be an exercise in self-gratification or reproach.
However, when it comes to interim educational testing, we aren’t really “weighing a pig.” We are providing opportunities to check in (dip stick) and determine what students need most. Additionally, we are providing opportunities for students to learn how to use testing tools, recognize questioning techniques, and ideally, demonstrate their current level of understanding and skill.
End of year standardized assessments are a reality. They provide accountability and identify students’ progress towards the important standards we have set. This helps us plan for targeted interventions and extensions to best meet the needs of our individual students. These assessments help us identify trends for small and large groups of students, often identifying gaps for target populations, all while maintaining high expectations for all of our students.
I recently overheard a couple of other teachers complaining about excess testing and vowing not to give their students any more tests except the minimum required by the state (end of year SBA’s.) They were concerned that time spent on testing was cutting into instructional time.
This conversation set off some self-reflection for me. We were one month into the school year and already I was frustrated with the number of diagnostic dip-sticking that were taking place. I had “given up” a whole week of community building and instructional activities, in favor of placing laptops in front of them so they could struggle through challenging Interim Assessments in Informational Reading, Literature Reading and Editing/Revising.
Was I being unfair to them? Wasting precious time? Hampering our first of year efforts to build a positive, safe, interesting learning space with collaborative routines?
At this point in time, I hadn’t yet hand-scored their short answer writing nor reviewed the students’ results on their multiple choice items. It felt very much like we had “lost precious time” in the classroom, and unnecessarily activated students’ text anxieties.
Once the week of test taking was over, I found myself immersed in their answers and the results.
For example, I learned the 6th grade students had very limited vocabulary and clearly struggled answering all parts of a question.
I discovered that many of my 7th grade students didn’t know how to summarize literary text in the test taking setting, although I had plenty of evidence that they could summarize main ideas when taking Cornell notes in our Social Studies class.
I found that my 8th grade students were answering test questions in a brief and ineffectual way. They were not using the evidence available to them to support their conclusions, despite having proven their ability to do just that in our ELA classroom when answering questions about The Diary of Anne Frank.
This information provided clear insights to guide my instruction going forward. It also suggested to me that my students didn’t view test taking in the same way they experienced classroom experiences and tasks. The 8th grade students, in particular, have had a clear idea of what their teacher expects in an answer, but that didn’t transfer to the test setting.
At this point, I now have a wealth of information to target several gaps, including vocabulary for the sixth grade, literary text analysis and skills practice for the seventh graders, and developing answers completely and taking their time while testing for the eighth grade students.
Teaching to the test
Determining to support students so they can do their best on tests is not necessarily teaching “to the test.” Teachers mustn’t sacrifice high quality instruction for boring lessons in test taking strategies. The best preparation for standardized tests is excellent, standards-based learning opportunities in the classroom.
However, students do benefit from seeing similar questions and test items through their various subjects and classroom instruction, activities and assessments. Test taking shouldn’t be unfamiliar territory, especially when some tests carry relatively high stakes. Instead, test preparation should include multiple short, informal opportunities to encounter the kinds of questions found on end of year tests and to receive immediate feedback about how to improve their answers. This must be within the scope of classroom routines and not a stand-alone supplement that displaces valuable learning activities and engaging instruction.
We want our young people to learn how to get along well with others. We work to build their knowledge and skills across multiple disciplines, including the arts and athletics. We want them to be critical thinkers, able to articulate their innovative ideas, well prepared for a life beyond a classroom setting.
Our attempts to measure these valuable goals will likely fall short, but in the end, the knowledge we gain as we periodically use quality assessments to dipstick our progress is important information for helping us help them achieve success in areas beyond test taking.
Because we aren’t weighing pigs, not even metaphorically.
Interested in reading more about skillfully or poorly using educational assessments?
Harvard School of Education https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/06/how-much-testing-is-too-much/485633/
The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/study-says-standardized-testing-is-overwhelming-nations-public-schools/2015/10/24/8a22092c-79ae-11e5-a958-d889faf561dc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.2d86eec3cdbd
Why we need common core (I choose C) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dY2mRM4i6tY