Solving a man-made problem

One of education’s dirty little secrets is that schools give what they call their ‘end of the year’ tests about six weeks before the end of school. The school year is only 5/6th of the way done, but it’s testing time, and everything stops.

School's outThink about that for a moment, maybe put yourself in the shoes of a teacher or a student. If you’re a kid, the message is clear: the year is over! Time to kick back and relax. However, if you happen to be a conscientious teacher, you have to climb a big hill every morning and afternoon for the next five or six weeks, because you have to try to interest your students in what they know doesn’t matter.

Left unexplored is what’s being tested. Do these tests cover everything that the students are supposed to have learned, or merely 5/6ths of the material? If they cover everything, isn’t that unfair to those who are being judged by the results (students and, increasingly, their teachers)? If they cover just 5/6th of the course content, will that mean that many students will never get past, say, World War II in history?

Why this happens is no mystery: it’s done for administrative convenience, to give the test companies time to run the test papers through their machines, process the scores, and get them back to the school districts as early as possible in the summer. With so many tests and so few companies, the bottleneck is frightening, worse than the lines at the toll booths on a summer evening when everyone is driving back from the beach.

What makes this bottleneck worse are the mistakes that occur. Imagine if the toll collectors randomly collected different amounts from some drivers! That’s what happens when the machines begin their mass processing: they make mistakes!

(It’s bad in another way: Districts used to be able to get a cheaper rate if they agreed to give the tests early, a ‘bargain’ that poorer districts took advantage of to save money. This harmed their students, who ended up taking the tests before they had actually covered the material they were being tested on. I recall being in a school in a poor district in Michigan during ‘end of year’ testing—in late February! That may well contribute to education’s infamous ‘achievement gap.’)

This mess is education’s equivalent of an iatrogenic (essentially ‘doctor-caused’) condition in medicine, meaning that we do it to ourselves. Since we created it, we ought to be able to prevent it in the first place.

I see three solutions, two of which are more hypothetical than real. The first would require getting rid of high-stakes machine-scored tests or at least minimizing their importance, and that’s just not in the cards. Is there a technological solution? Could the bottleneck be eliminated, with faster machines? The IRS once faced a similar bottleneck, long lines at the post office as the April 15th deadline approached, and if the IRS can solve a problem, then perhaps anyone can. But the momentum is on the side of more machine-scored tests in more subjects, not fewer in fewer, and so any improvement in the machines themselves will neither save the day nor solve the problem.

No, we are stuck with ‘end of the year’ tests being given only 5/6ths of the way through the year. But there is a solution, one I became aware of last week when I visited Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, California, just up the road from where I live. On the day I visited, the students were about to take the STAR tests, California’s state exams. Founder Diane Tavenner told me that the faculty had adapted the curriculum to the reality of the 5/6th-1/6th absurdity. “We teach everything that’s going to be on the test before the test,” she said. “We’ve changed the schedule so that kids have the same amount of class time going in.” (In other words, they learn about World War II, Korea and Vietnam!)

“But what happens next, once the state tests are over”” I asked. “That’s the best part of the year,” she said with a smile. “All our students take an elective class, one subject from May 17th through June 11th,” she said with pride, showing me the list of 18 choices.

The elective called Musical Theatre, for example, is described thusly: “Join in an exciting and challenging class of musical theater. Learn to sing and dance and develop your public speaking skills while expressing yourself. You will move to the music, create with your classmates and have a chance to perform well-known musicals. This is a great opportunity to discover your shining star and develop new skills. Come join the fun!!

But it’s also work with consequences, because students are expected to demonstrate what they’ve accomplished in end-of-the-year performances for the entire school.

Tavenner knows that students enjoy digging deeply into something they’ve chosen. “Kids aren’t afraid of work,” she said, “but they don’t like busy work, and that’s what school can be once the state tests are over.”

Tavenner isn’t the only member of her family who’s aware of the weird scheduling in regular schools. “My second grade son asked me last week why he was taking the ‘end of the year’ tests when it wasn’t the end of the year,” she wrote in an email. “People wonder why our students are trailing the world in academic achievement. The truth is as a nation we have come to accept an entire array of school rules that make absolutely no sense.”

Students at Tavenner’s school are presented with the menu of electives much earlier in the year and make their choices during first semester. They’re expected to find their adult mentors, decide if they are going to work alone or on a team, and develop a work plan, all before the start of second semester.

And while students are deep in their projects in the next few weeks, Summit’s faculty will be engaged in serious professional development, Tavenner said. “We spend this time trying to improve our own practice, figuring out ways to become better at our craft.”

Because Summit is a charter school, it has the flexibility to adapt to situations, including this stupid and educationally counterproductive one imposed on schools by adults behaving stupidly. Just being a charter school isn’t the solution per se, because not all of them put real learning first. Unfortunately, in my experience, most charter schools do not ‘think outside the box’ they way the folks at Summit do.

In a perfect world, the school district that Summit is part of would be watching and trying to learn from this ‘experiment.’ That hasn’t happened yet, Tavenner said, but it may.

That’s just one example of flexibility and imagination in the face of bureaucratic idiocy. I’d love to hear more examples.

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5 thoughts on “Solving a man-made problem

  1. This addresses the issue at a high school, but what about K-8? Could that last six weeks be used as the 1/6th for the coming school year? Even with the summer gap this could work. The first week(s) of school are review anyway. It seems if the first sixth of fourth grade begins at the end of third, for example, then by the time the testing occurs in spring of fourth grade, it would be the full 6/6ths. I don’t underestimate the challenge this presents in making the shift, but it would be better for students. And, maybe parents wouldn’t be so willing to lop off the last week of school for budget cuts or vacations because “no one is doing any learning anyway.”

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  2. I’d argue that this works for ANY grade level, most especially K-8.

    The K-8 students need open-ended inquiry projects and group activities too!

    I’d argue that this is one way to get companion assessment of students’ abilities to learn and problem-solve, maybe reducing the impact or at least the stress levels of the common testing.
    I’d also argue it will have an impact on the generalized test scores each time through the cycle.
    Imagine a portfolio of results of these efforts in conjunction with any existing exit requirements.
    I think so much of this that I’d even suggest a shorter version during the holiday period at the end of the year.

    I’d bet any assessment of learning with such activities would show superior outcomes.

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  3. That’s a fine example, and I’m sure if you dug around you’d find plenty of others – creative approaches at traditional public schools and charter schools. It’s a situation that students face not only with state tests, but also A.P. tests.

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  4. I get that some people think the tests are the major, and perhaps only measure. I don’t. Further, I think doing a lot of different stuff after the tests just reinforces with students and staff that all that matters, all they are preparing for, are the tests.

    At our middle and high school we put up with the state tests, but they do not drive our curriculum. We keep on teaching right after the tests and through the end of the year, aiming for our performance based final examinations, our senior projects, and our graduation portfolios. And kids keep going to their internships.

    The first solution John gives is the right one–eliminate the reliance on the tests. Until then, we should focus on engaging every student in a challenging curriculum throughout the school year, test or no test.

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