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An argument for testing: Does opting out matter?

As an educational leader, I have been asked why I choose not to opt my son out of high-stakes testing. It’s because I don’t care about the tests nor his scores. In fact, I don’t really care about any of the assessments nor grades he’s given in school, high-stakes or otherwise. I care much more about the skills my son is developing and the knowledge he is constructing; and that learning takes place within every aspect of his life (home, school, play, etc.). It simply cannot be measured through any sort of test.

Our students waste a lot of time in school (and with homework) complying with compulsory tasks that do nothing to develop within them the skills they’ll need as they make their way in this ever-shrinking world – testing included. Opting out of a few high-stakes tests won’t change that.

As educators, we need to be in the business of facilitating students’ construction of knowledge.

This can be done by modeling, guiding, mentoring, and purposively facilitating learning opportunities around critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, perseverance, exploration, reflection, and other soft skills WITHIN and THROUGH disciplinary content (e.g. social studies, science, health, math, language).

Unfortunately, our schools have devolved into places where information memorization is valued over knowledge construction, simply because while students’ retained information can be tested and quantified, their knowledge cannot.

Big Data in education

In this episode of the Education Futures Podcast, we chatted with Dr. Cristóbal Cobo, director of research at the Ceibal Foundation in Uruguay. He is an expert on Big Data in education, and he shared his thoughts in our exploration of Cathy O’Neil’s provocative book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.

O’Neil exposes the opaque, black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These “weapons of math destruction” score teachers and students, sort résumés, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set parole, and monitor our health. In an era where we are obsessed with measurement, there are some huge implications for the world of education!

NEW: Once you’ve listened to this episode, why not earn an hour of continuing professional education? After all, you’ve already done half the work. Just go to educationfutures.com/learn, and sign up for the Moodle course that corresponds with this episode. After you post your thoughts in response to the questions we have for you in the “sound off” forum, you can download your certificate of completion.

It’s free, and it’s our gift to you for listening and for supporting us. Simply visit educationfutures.com/learn to earn your free continuing professional education credit.

This is an open conversation, and your participation is invited! Email your stories and responses to us at info@educationfutures.com.

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Education in Finland – Part I

The Finnish approach to education is our focus for this two-part series. Finland has received a lot of attention lately for its top performance in comparative, international assessments of its students and schools.

In this episode, we interview Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a world-renowned expert on the country’s approach to education. He has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher and policy advisor in Finland and has examined education systems around the world. His expertise includes school improvement, international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership. He is the author of the best-selling book, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, and numerous professional articles and book chapters.

We ask, what works in the Finnish approach to schooling that we can learn from? What misconceptions are out there? And, to take what we’ve learned from Finland a reality elsewhere, would it take a revolution? Or is there another way?

NEW: Once you’ve listened to this episode, why not earn an hour of continuing professional education? After all, you’ve already done half the work. Just go to educationfutures.com/learn, and sign up for the Moodle course that corresponds with this episode. After you post your thoughts in response to the questions we have for you in the “sound off” forum, you can download your certificate of completion.

It’s free, and it’s our gift to you for listening and for supporting us. Simply visit educationfutures.com/learn to earn your free continuing professional education credit.

We would love to have your voice in these conversations! To encourage participation, we are offering a special promotion within the next few podcast episodes. Listen for the details, and email your response to program hosts John and Kelly Moravec at info@educationfutures.com for your chance to win something extraordinary!

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New episodes are released every two weeks. Here’s how to follow along:

Lessons from the toilet II: Captive audience

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

This story has an unusual opening. Upon shutting the bathroom stall door at a college campus I was recently visiting, I was greeted by a framed poster of information and upcoming university events called the Captivated Audience Notice (CAN). I’ve seen this method of communication before, titled the Toilet Tribune, the Potty Press, and other clever monikers. But, this particular version irritated me.

Captivate, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, means to hold the attention of someone by being extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive. Allow me to assure you, none of the information presented on that poster was more than mildly interesting, and it was certainly neither exciting, charming, nor attractive — mainly because it was all irrelevant to me.

In my opinion, a better title for this series of posters would be the “Captive Audience Notice”. While I was not truly a prisoner in the stall, I definitely did not have a choice in whether to use the bathroom, and no real option to escape once I entered the stall. The only choice I had was whether to focus my attention on the poster. My willingness to read the poster stemmed more from the novelty of its placement in the bathroom stall, a location where there was nothing else to capture my attention for the few moments I spent there attending to other matters, than because I was curious about its content. I have absolutely no recollection of what was printed there. It merely served as something to occupy my mind in a situation where I was momentarily held captive by my body’s needs.

This got me thinking. How does the idea of captive versus captivated translate into classrooms? Are our students treated as prisoners prohibited from escaping under the guise of teaching them? Or, are we cultivating experiences that are extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive to hold their attention to facilitate their learning? How often do students attend to something that is irrelevant or uninteresting, simply because they have no choice but to be in the classroom and once there, nothing else for them to do? How often are students’ curiosities piqued by something at school that is so exciting, they can’t help but pay attention? Are they being held captive by teaching or are they being captivated by learning?

A popular meme that appeared on my social media feeds lately shows the Most Interesting Man in the World accompanied by the following text: “I don’t always care about my grade, but when I do it’s at the end of the semester and even though I didn’t do all of the assignments, I’ll ask for extra credit now.”

It’s always presented as a shared experience for teachers to commiserate with one another in a light-hearted manner. But… wait… what if, instead, the meme read, “I don’t always care about learning what my teacher decides is important, but when I do it’s because I’m curious about the topic and decide I want to know more, not because I’m being bribed with points and a grade.”

because i am curious

To me, this seems far more representative of the actual, underlying issue here. And, it certainly paints students in a better light, though not so much the teachers who would prefer to blame them for their lack of attention, motivation, and engagement in assignments that are neither personally relevant nor representative of what is expected of them as modern citizens in our society.

Why do we resort to using points as bribes for compliance? Why do we blame students for not engaging with what we attempt to force them to learn when lessons are designed to fit standards rather than facilitate student growth toward personal learning goals based on individual interests and aptitudes?

As a part of my job, I am required to attend specific professional development opportunities. These are workshops or programs others have chosen for me based on what they believe to be important learning for a person in my role. Some of them are indeed relevant and interesting to me both personally and professionally; many (if not most) are not. Luckily, I also have a few opportunities (though, not many) to select my own options for professional development based on my interests, aptitudes, abilities, and self-assessed needs for growth within my role.

Can you guess which opportunities directly impact my personal growth and professional practice because I engage in and learn from them? Can you guess which opportunities I spend disengaged, either talking with those around me or focused on my laptop, working on activities that are more personally and professionally relevant to me? Can you guess which opportunities I am excited to attend and those I dread?

I theorize that students who are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-centered, unengaging, uninteresting, and irrelevant content deal with their forced captivity in one of three ways: misbehavior, compliance, or a mix of both.

Students who misbehave are disruptive. They talk to each other. They bother other kids. They get up to go to the bathroom when they do not need to go. They sharpen their pencils until all that is left is a tiny, sharp point and an eraser (and then they sharpen the eraser). They doodle. They text their friends. They sing. They tap their pencils as if playing a drum solo in a heavy metal band. They hold a pencil between their thumb and forefinger and wave it up and down so it appears to bend. They make funny noises. They stare out the window. They think about what they plan to do when class is over. They interrupt the teacher. They daydream. They watch the clock. They post on social media. They ask questions that were already addressed. They frustrate the teacher.

I, myself, am guilty of many of these behaviors when faced with being forced to “learn” content someone else has selected for me. How about you?

Conversely, compliant students follow the rules. They stay in their assigned seats. They remain silent during work time. They use their time wisely. They make pretty posters. They diligently take notes. They follow all directions. They listen the first time. They memorize. They copy from the board. They develop flashy slide shows. They repeat facts. They do what they are told.

My hunch is that the these compliant students are mostly comprised of rule-followers who do what they are told because it is how they were taught to “play school.” They may be motivated by praise, points, and grades, but they are not engaged in learning. They likely get very little out of what is being taught; thus, although their behavior may be preferable because it is easier for teachers to manage, their learning is no better than that of their misbehaving peers.

While it may seem like the ideal classroom situation to have rows of dutiful students, silently listening, scribbling down notes, following directions, memorizing information, and repeating facts, in reality, these students are held captive by teaching. The students who comply do so because there is nothing else to attend to.

In my experience, when people are captivated by what they are learning, they behave appropriately (and by this I mean fittingly, according to the learning situation) simply because they are interested in a topic that is of personal relevance. They are excited and motivated to learn more. They identify what is important enough to learn and what is not. They decide the best way to do the learning. They determine their own modes through which to make their learning visible to others. They determine whether to make their learning visible to others. They explore new avenues of learning just to learn more. They seek out new resources. If a prerequisite skill exists that must be attained in order to facilitate their learning, they will master that, too. And, they stop learning about something that is no longer of interest to them and move on to the next topic.

Being truly captivated by learning is hard work! No matter the topic, it requires creativity, reflection, determination, problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, self-assessment, perseverance, and the transfer and translation of knowledge into new situations.

These are the kinds of skills our students deserve to have as they leave our school systems. These are the kinds of skills their potential employers will be requiring. These are the kinds of skills people need to succeed, no matter the path they choose. And, as educators, it is our job to provide them with opportunities to develop these skills.

How do we really want to educate? Do we want compliant students who either do what they are told or misbehave because they are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-focused instruction? Or, are we willing to facilitate students’ captivation in their own learning?

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

If we want our students to leave school with the requisite skills necessary for success along any path they choose, we must provide them with opportunities to think for themselves and make decisions about what is important to learn and when and how to do the learning. Only then will students truly be captivated by their learning and not held captive by our teaching.

Bulgarian students dream about future schools

As we shared earlier, Project Dream School started with a simple question: If you could build a dream school, what would you do?

This morning, I received some inspiring ideas. Elena Stateva writes,

Dear Dr. Moravec,

I would like to share with the you the Dream Schools of my students. They worked on them as a project for their Philosophy in English class (grades 8-11). We are from Bulgaria, and we are part of a summer school program.

And these dreams are inspiring: Robot teachers? No tests? Creativity and the development of individual identity?! Read on:

PROJECT: “JUST A DREAM”
Creators: Radoslav Asparuhov (16), Daniel Rashin (18)

Just a Dream is a school made of technologies, but not only about technology. It places a very high value on the potential of technology to transform the ways we see education. As full-fledged citizens of our dynamic modernity, students at Just a Dream are extensively trained how to use technology in the most innovative and effective way. For example, sculptures and other three-dimensional figures are created on computers, thus enabling students to develop their spatial and analytical intelligences. Top-notch technological innovations render the school one of the pioneers of knowmadic thinking.

Furthermore, Just a Dream gives students the crucial opportunity to have a practical go at their field. Relevant internships at successful companies are provided to each student, through a wide a range of sponsors. The sponsorship by highly acclaimed names in the business makes it possible for the students to go to school and use their modern facilities practically for free. In fact, these companies often recruit graduates from Just a Dream as the most prepared professionals.

In addition, Just a Dream is a school which recognizes extracurricular activities, within and outside the professional field, as essential to students’ academic and personal growth. Therefore, school trips are regularly organized, featuring exciting destinations in the country and abroad.

PROJECT: “MY DREAM SCHOOL”
Creators: Victoria Ivanova (17), Magdalena Kostadinova (15), Blagovest Pilarski (16)

My Dream School is a unique institution, notable for its out-of-the-box, ground-breaking philosophy. Using a student-centered approach, which values what really is best for the student (and not for the administration, for example), My Dream School incorporates a wide range of fundamental practices. Combining the arts and technologies, students experience a comprehensive headstart to their professional careers. All subjects are taught in a way, which does not stifle student’s ideas, but on the contrary – encourages students to have their own opinion. Thus, My Dream School stimulates its student body to be active citizens, able to think critically about the world around them, instead of following blindly the leaders of today.

Moreover, My Dream School defines the term “revolutionary”, with its grade-less system and robotized teacher collective. Originating from the notion of boosting motivation internally (as opposed to externally, which is often the case), My Dream School has removed assessment completely, allowing its scholars to pursue knowledge itself, and not just good grades. The replacement of teachers by robots has further contributed to the establishment of an objective, knowledge- and skill-oriented classroom, free of discrimination and favoritism. Thus, students can learn in a safe, conflict-free and thought- provoking environment.

In addition, My Dream School puts great emphasis on the connection between learning and nature. During the weekends, students can enjoy environmental activities, such as hiking in the mountains, which build up mind and body together. The beautiful parks surrounding the school are themselves a source of relaxation, inspiration and energy.

PROJECT: “ART SCHOOL”
Creators: Elena Kehayova (15), Dafina Nedeva (15)

The name of this school – Art School – already speaks a lot about its fundamental values. And yet, the Art School is much more than a school about art. It is a school where students go not only to grow in the direction of their talent, but where they actually find their talent and grow as a whole person. At Art School only the core subjects are obligatory – Literature, Math, Foreign Languages. The other subjects are a matter of preference: each student has the right to choose every part of their education. This freedom allows the students to explore their interests, inclinations and talents, to strengthen them or create them. Creativity – this is the key word which this school emanates through all its elements – from its facilities, to its curriculum, and of course – its teachers. The teaching collective is distinguished with its sharp eye to talent, broad mind for creativity and liberal view on individuality.

In addition to its exceptional creativity, Art School prides itself with a policy which preserves equality and prevents discrimination. Everybody at Art School is regarded equally, as an equal member of the school community.

Want more? Have a dream to share? Project Dream School invites you to submit your dreams online at http://projectdreamschool.org/

McCain and Obama on educational change

Few topics are as political as education, in which at least basic schooling is compulsory for all Americans. It is fitting, then, that we conclude this week’s focus on change with a look at the changes that presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama each propose for U.S. education. After analyzing educational policy statements on each candidate’s website, one contender clearly presents an agenda for educational change: Barack Obama. Unfortunately, Sen. McCain only provides a short statement on his educational stance, while Sen. Obama, in addition to an outline for action he proposes, provides a comprehensive plan for lifetime success through education.

McCain focuses his statements on education on school choice –that is, if a school fails a student, then the student should have the freedom to move to a different school. McCain believes that many schools are failing, and No Child Left Behind helps to illustrate the problem. Obama believes that public education was broken before NCLB –and that NCLB was intended to fix the problem, but was poorly conceived, never properly funded, and was poorly implemented.

Excerpts from statements made by each campaign:

On No Child Left Behind

McCain: No Child Left Behind has focused our attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard. John McCain believes that we can no longer accept low standards for some students and high standards for others. In this age of honest reporting, we finally see what is happening to students who were previously invisible. While that is progress all its own, it compels us to seek and find solutions to the dismal facts before us.

Obama: Reform NCLB, by funding the law. Obama believes teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. He will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner. Obama will also improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them.

On Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics (STEM)

McCain: Unknown.

Obama: Obama will recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession and will support efforts to help these teachers learn from professionals in the field. He will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.

On Non-Formal Education

McCain: Unknown.

Obama: Obama will double funding for the main federal support for afterschool programs, the 21st Century Learning Centers program, to serve one million more children.

Obama’s “STEP UP” plan addresses the achievement gap by supporting summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children through partnerships between local schools and community organizations.

On Higher Education

McCain: Unknown.

Obama: Obama will make college affordable for all Americans by creating a new American Opportunity Tax Credit. This universal and fully refundable credit will ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans, and will cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at the average public college or university and make community college tuition completely free for most students. Obama will also ensure that the tax credit is available to families at the time of enrollment by using prior year’s tax data to deliver the credit when tuition is due.

Obama will streamline the financial aid process by eliminating the current federal financial aid application and enabling families to apply simply by checking a box on their tax form, authorizing their tax information to be used, and eliminating the need for a separate application.

On Responsibility for Education

McCain: If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools. John McCain believes parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children. He finds it beyond hypocritical that many of those who would refuse to allow public school parents to choose their child’s school would never agree to force their own children into a school that did not work or was unsafe. They can make another choice. John McCain believes that is a fundamental and essential right we should honor for all parents.

Obama: The Obama plan will encourage schools and parents to work together to establish a school-family contract laying out expectations for student attendance, behavior, and homework. These contracts would be provided to families in their native language when possible and would include information on tutoring, academic support, and public school choice options for students.

Right now, Sen. Obama is the only candidate who shares a plan for educational reform. As the election nears, we will revisit the positions on the two candidates. If the McCain campaign comes forward with a plan for educational change, we will share it with you at EducationFutures.com as the election nears.

Knowing what we know

As mentioned last week, schools have a hard time determining how students are doing, or what they know. The problem, argues Dr. David Shupe, founder of the eLumen Collaborative, is present at all levels of formal education and is becoming an issue for accreditors. To address the problem, eLumen has created a technology-centered approach to “authentic assessment” (a rubrics-based mix of formative and summative assessments) and is rolling out their product to colleges and universities across the United States.

eLumen Collaborative’s approach to higher education is “Let it be clear what students know and can do,” and they really mean it. Their software models a generic process (with variations) for an academic institution systematically attending to expected and actual student achievement, and individual colleges and universities, to the extent that they use it, come to resemble such an institution. The process is straightforward: faculty, working together, define the specific expected student learning outcomes throughout the institution and its programs and explicit evaluation criteria for each. When these are associated with catalog courses (again in different ways), course instructors link work that students will already be doing to these outcomes — whenever and wherever they choose to do so — and then evaluate this work through those specific lens — e.g., what has this student shown in this activity concerning his or her ability to … [whatever specific outcome(s) the faculty (and perhaps the students) have chosen]. These are judgments that faculty are already making – the difference is that each student is evaluated relative to explicit standards (rather than simply to each other) and that the software is used to record those evaluations.

Given that these data are digital and in an integrated relational database, the system can generate instantaneous reports on actual student achievement — per student, per set of students, per student learning outcome, per set of student learning outcomes, per catalog course, per program, per institution, and selected combinations of these — an array of data on student achievement that has never before been visible. Also, when a program chooses, its students (and authorized advisors) can see, in real time, his or her own data and see how their own achievement record compares to any set of expected student learning outcomes that a program or the institution has devised. Likewise, the appropriate committee can see how any defined set of students stands relative to the same define set of expectations. Perhaps the best analogy is the point-of-sale technology that has revolutionized the retail industry.

What if this were adopted in PreK-12, home schooling, corporate professional development, etc.?

What do you know?

The StarTribune ran a positive piece that raises awareness of David Shupe’s eLumen Collaborative, a Web-based, enterprise-level application for tracking student competencies. The project began as a response to a simple question that higher education institutions and graduates have a hard time answering: What, precisely, did graduating students learn, and what competencies have they developed?

The software allows for faculty-driven assessments via dynamically-generated rubrics, with the possibility of incorporating student-driven assessments as well. Will this signal a new trend in assessments for the 21st century? …or, do we need to push for something beyond rubrics? …beyond assessments?