The Toll of High Stakes Tests on Non-Traditional Learners

This guest post by Bobbi Snow, co-founder of The Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville, VA, exposes the impact high stakes testing has her school’s neuro-diverse students and the teachers who work with them. It was originally published on Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog

Exam

He was already exhausted and had 58 questions to go. On the second problem of the 8th grade math exam he was stuck for almost 30 minutes.  This is the state standardized test given to all 8th graders in Virginia. Jim is a visual learner and needed to draw the answers for each possible option. Pausing a moment Jim reached into his snack bag and announced “Help me out here Pringles.”  Turning to me he commented, “I hear salt helps the brain.” I smiled.

I was drained watching Jim’s agony, as he thought out every problem and bounced from question to question.  But if I was drained, Jim was miserable.  He wanted to do well.  He stayed at it for five hours. The computer doesn’t fit Jim’s style of learning or showing what he knows. He is a hands-on, multitasking young man who likes to verbalize aloud what he thinks and figure out multiple solutions. He is an outside-the-box big thinker.

Melissa had a similar experience taking her SOL test.  Melissa thinks like an artist and has the kinds of skills we will need in this  century.  She asks questions that connect to other questions and has trouble with information that is separated into decompartmentalized chunks.  She just kept drifting off the test into some other world more interesting to Melissa.  She tried to engage me in pondering some of these bigger interesting questions but I am a seasoned proctor and I gave my Buddha look and reminded her I could not have discussions during the testing.  I brought my sewing in to establish a calm environment and stitched away.  In the middle of the test Melissa said in a panic, “What if I fail this?”  My heart felt touched knowing how scared she was at that moment. She returned to the test muttering, “This is a disaster.”

These are two students who do their work, have good analytical skills, and an intense desire to do well in school.  Their families support them to use their minds well. Teachers did adequate review and they were well prepared for the tests. They both felt like terrible failures. So many of their peers felt the same.

And so did I.  I know as a charter school we are being judged by the outside world to do well on high stakes testing.  The mission of our school is to help students who have been unsuccessful in their previous schools become thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Our goal is to prepare young people for the real world and as a public school we also accept the responsibility of preparing students for their testing lives.

But there are so many consequences that come with this acceptance.  One of our first year teachers reviewed the results of the writing tests and felt devastated by a few of her student’s scores. She felt that she had let them down by not preparing them well enough to pass. She sunk into her own feelings of failure as a teacher and considered shoring up the curriculum to be more aligned to the test.  This was because three perfectly wonderful students who are able thinkers and creative beyond what most adults we know could ever contribute to a conversation much less a class were deemed not worthy of scoring the necessary 400 points to pass the essay test. They were close. But no cigar. Was their prompt they were given too off target for their life experience?  Was it their anxiety that day that kept them from a good sequencing of ideas?  What exactly was their issue?

One test, one day of a test, made this gifted teacher second-guess her whole year of teaching.  How will it affect her next year when she has to make decisions about our arts infused project-based activities?  Will she want to reduce the class to worksheets and drill to review concepts and skills?

I believe in accountability and knowing what works for students to be successful. There are better ways than this one-size-fits-all testing to assess and record what students know.

As educators, are we seen as so limited that we cannot be trusted to create our own rigorous assessment tools and be judged by them?  Let us become the agents of our own work and design how to define mastery and be held accountable to our standards.  We will invest ourselves to figure out the mysteries of what a quality education means and can provide.  Until then we are held hostage to a system that is archaic, harmful for many students and teachers and missing an opportunity to involve local stakeholders in addressing the crisis in education.

For now we will just have to hope that Pringles can help.

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Compfight cc

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

By Guest Blogger: Donna Smart Isaacs, Teacher & All Kinds of Minds Facilitator

Two years ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine, accepting a teaching job in a two-room K-8 island school. In the process, I was required to take two standardized national competency tests (i.e., PRAXIS tests). Nearly 30 years of professional experience and expertise in the field of education—and my eligibility to teach in the state of Maine—were reduced to 240 multiple-choice questions.

Achieving a successful exam score was dependent on my knowledge of labels describing errant behaviors (e.g., pica—“eating everything in sight”) or facts I could easily find by pressing a button on my computer (e.g., identify and locate the origin of Buddhism on a map). Despite passing both tests, I left feeling insulted, angry and disillusioned with the state and future of education. The tests measured nothing more than my ability to perform on “high stakes” multiple-choice tests. I wondered—Is this the norm to which we’ve also reduced our students and schools?

Recently, my daughter returned home from her first semester of college explaining to me why she was satisfied with a “B+” in a course for which she had worked very hard to achieve an “A”: “I loved the course”, she said. “I performed well in all the class discussions and on all my papers, but I did poorly on the quizzes. I’m happy, though, because that tells me I understood the material. I might need to look up an author or a term, but I’m OK with that. I know how to do that.”

I felt proud of my daughter’s conclusion. A more common response I have encountered from students when they experience a task that seems meaningless and/or impossible is, “Why bother?” How many of our students become disillusioned and discouraged after a poor performance on a test? How often does failure result in a defeatist mindset being established and/or reinforced, turning a student off to school, or worse—to learning? (Greene, 2008) Likewise, being an effective teacher has little to do with performance on standardized tests.
I believe the following characteristics are essential for effective teaching:

  • Advocacy for students’ rights to equal access to learning outcomes
  • Modeling thirst for knowledge and desire for self improvement
  • Provision of a moral yardstick through both instruction and example (e.g., exhibition of respect)
  • Desire and ability to share experience and expertise—contribution to the professional development of others, and willingness to learn from colleagues, including 21st century skills
  • Creation and maintenance of an environment that feels simultaneously stimulating and safe to children
  • Understanding how people learn in general, and how individual students learn in particular; ability to leverage neurodevelopmental strengths and affinities to overcome areas of struggle (Levine. 2001, 2002)
  • Knowing the needs of the community; incorporating community service in learning tasks on local, national and global levels
  • Clarity and communication of purpose; ability to make learning tasks as authentic and meaningful as possible
  • Asking the right questions, and asking “higher order” questions that move students from “knowledge and understanding” to “application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation” of ideas (Bloom, 1954)
  • Establishment of collaborative partnerships with parents, colleagues and students

Effective teachers possess a combination of skills, knowledge and talent (Buckingham & Curt, 1999). Skills can be studied, observed, imitated, practiced—and even perfected. Knowledge can be learned from concerted study and/or experience. Talent, however, combines practice and hard work with passion. Talent includes fostering instincts and intuitions, creativity and self-knowledge. The ability to engage students in the moment with a tone, gesture, rhythm, song or a sparkle of humor—is not included in college teacher preparation programs, nor can it be assessed by the Educational Testing Service’s multiple-choice PRAXIS tests.

In order to attain a shared vision of what makes teachers effective, we must agree on what it is we want our students to accomplish. Effective teaching and learning are not achieved through studying cookie cutter recipes. Likewise, we must resist the temptation to trivialize practice and performance measures by reducing them to standardized “competency” tests. Our goal should be to attract and retain passionate, effective teachers who possess the characteristics listed above and more—who will teach our nation’s children with necessary skill, knowledge and talent, and who will cultivate students’ potential to access and participate in 21st century global society.

Visit ReThink Learning Now to read about other perspectives on teacher effectiveness.

About the Author: Donna Smart Isaacs was a Special Education teacher for 15 years prior to working for 5 years as a senior learning specialist at the Center for School Success in West Lebanon, NH.  She is a national facilitator for both the School Reform Initiative and the All Kinds of Minds Institute.  She currently lives on an island off the coast of Maine, where she teaches in a two-room K-8 school.

Rosie O’Donnell explains how to “attune a child.”

By Mary-Dean Barringer, All Kinds of Minds CEO

It took Rosie O’Donnell less than three minutes to describe an educational approach advocated by the All Kinds of Minds Institute. The New York Times shares a video where O’Donnell, and her son, talk about how they pinpointed the root of his learning struggles. It’s the best description of the “attuning a student process” I’ve found! (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/little-known-disorder-can-take-a-toll-on-learning/?8dpc)

Ms. O’Donnell’s notices the offbeat way her son responds to particular situations. “He hadn’t learned how to learn yet.” With careful observations, she and others were able to determine the specific breakdown—an auditory processing weakness. Blake was then able to get the targeted interventions and instructional support strategies he needed. Ms. O’Donnell helped him—and his siblings—realize he was not dumb; his brain was just wired differently.

And ask her son what he thinks and he’ll tell you, “It took a lot of work for me to get this smart but now I am smart.”

But Ms. O’Donnell says that process is not just about better grades. “It definitely affected his whole world,” she said of her son. “Not just learning. It cuts them off from society, from interactions. To see the difference in who he is today versus who he was two years ago, and then to contemplate what would have happened had we not been able to catch it — I think he would have been lost.”

At All Kinds of Minds we know that students differ in how they are “wired” to learn, and that the observations of these individual learning profiles – including strengths and weaknesses – can be better understood through knowledge of the brain activities that affect learning.

Our research shows that when educators have an understanding of this knowledge – along with tools and strategies for applying it in their classrooms – they are more effective teachers. They look at students differently. They make better observations about their students and where they are having trouble. They better understand why students are struggling. And they know how to target instruction to help the Blakes in their school.

And the result is exactly what Ms. O’Donnell and Blake share with us–hope, possibility, optimism, belief.

For the students it translates into a belief in themselves as smart learners. For the teachers it translates into optimism that all they can help all students learn. For the parents it translates into hope for a successful life for their child. And for us at All Kinds of Minds, it reminds us of the possibility that all of us just might be able to transform education, even if it starts with a child at a time.

Teacher Buy In

I’ve been talking to folks outside of the Forman community about how we get teachers to buy in to Schools Attuned. I find this a fascinating topic. So often, those who are closest to the point of impact for students who learning differently serve as advocates who champion the cause. Some classroom teachers respond by explaining that they are not special educators or that they did not go into teaching to work with “these kids.” Classroom teachers, public and private, have these students in their classes. Most classroom teachers do not have an understanding of variations in learning or learning differences. We need to be mindful of the time needed for teachers to change their mindset. Teachers need to have the opportunity to be heard and their concerns should not be discounted. By listening deeply we may gain the place where we should begin our work in presenting a new framework for understanding. This is the first step to creating a partnership that leads up to teacher buy in. The Schools Attuned work provides the opportunity to pull back and learn more about student learning. Once the classroom teacher gains an appreciation for variations in learning using the specificity characteristic of the Schools Attuned model, there is forward motion.