I’ll Take Atoms for iTunes

ID-100240631My 11-year old loves science. And I love to encourage her to learn, explore, and experiment. When she came home last week from school, this was the conversation:

Child: “Mama, can we go to the book store to get some books on atoms?”
Me: “Oh, that’s great, of course we can go. What do you want to learn?”
Child: “What they are and how they work.”
Me: “Super. How did you get interested in atoms?”
Child: “Well, they are going to be on the DCCAS tests that we are taking in 2 weeks and we haven’t had a chance to study them yet so I need to learn about them.”

Wow. OK. So I can look at the positives: I have a child who loves to learn, is motivated to want to go out and research various scientific concepts, and wants to do well.

Now let’s explore the negatives: Although she loves science and has a wonderful teacher, she is feeling the stress of the upcoming tests and is anxious. And she feels it is her responsibility to know everything about atoms–information, facts, and concepts that someone in the district main office who doesn’t understand how difficult it is to shove nine major science topics into 7 months of school (I was a teacher–I know) has decided that all DC elementary school students should know.

My daughter has been subjected, I would estimate, to at least a month’s worth of district-based testing in the three years we have been here. And this does not include the actual test prep.

Every day, I stumble across another article about the current US educational system and culture, with its focus on data, data, and more data. Many teachers are frustrated and mad. Groups of parents are upset. And in some schools, students are even protesting.

But apparently, no one is listening and most seem to accept this as the new normal. There is a general consensus that we need to do something about our US educational system. But apparently, the only solution by those in charge is to measure progress through standardized tests. And a lot of them. We are even giving them to students in the primary grades. (See: “Kindergarten teacher: My job is now about tests and data—not children. I quit.”)

UnknownMy children’s public elementary, middle, and high schools are supposedly ranked as some of the best public schools in the city. Yet there is really something fundamentally wrong with the idea that students at the high school go to pep rallies and then win iTunes gift certificates for doing well on the district’s standardized tests. (See: “Pep Rallies, Music Videos, and Cash Aim to Inspire Students on D.C. Tests“) I  tried explaining all of this to my Eastern European immigrant parents, but they didn’t get it. Then again, neither do I. What surprises me the most is that in our high-powered community, most of the parents seem to accept this as ok. The counter-argument supporting the educational emphasis on testing begins with: “But how else are we going to know how they are doing?

A few weeks ago, after students took the DC required PIA tests the following note was sent home:

As you may know, 5th grade students take a DCPS generated test every six weeks; these are the PIAs (Paced Interim Assessments).  The PIAs are aligned to what has been taught in reading and math, in grades 2-5, for the previous 6 weeks.  In addition, they are informative tools that allow teachers to determine next steps for instruction.

Teachers prepare students for these tests in a number of ways.  DCPS provides us with a number of resources, posted on the DCPS teachers’ website.  One of the resources posted for teachers is all PIA tests given in the 2011-2012 academic year, the first year the PIAs were administered to 3rd, 4th and 5th grade DCPS students.  To prepare students, we used these assessments that were posted on the DCPS Intranet; when students took the latest PIAs, however, we discovered that those practice assessments were identical to the February 2014 PIA assessment.

We know that there were students who were upset about this and we so appreciate their honesty and their sense of right and wrong.  We will be talking with those students who have expressed concerns to us, assuring them that teachers had followed normal, DCPS procedures in using this particular resource.  And we hope you will also pass this information on to your children, if they expressed any concern.

So the answer to: “But how else are we going to know how they are doing?” is that we still don’t.  So if you are a supporter of testing, you should be alarmed. When students see the test questions ahead of time on a test that is supposed to provide some sort of evidence to what the district needs to do to improve education, the results are not valid. The Chancellor, however, can share great news with the community that students are doing really well.

I received a note from the elementary school yesterday, explaining that this week students are expected to cram for the upcoming standardized DCCAS tests. The school blog stated how administrators had “the pleasure” of speaking to the children about the upcoming tests, encouraging them to do their best. So this week, instead of reading books, working on research projects, and solving real-world problems, they are taking practice tests—a lot of them. Everyone is under pressure. And the sad part is that once again, we’ll probably be reading about some flaw in the testing, for whatever reason, that occurs. (See: “Review Find Serious Test-Taking Violations in Four DC Schools.”)

It would be wonderful if school officials would actually educate themselves with an understanding of how children learn best and study the extremely successful models that motivate, engage, and support students and learning. Education needs to become the priority. In Finland, students rarely take standardized tests in their school career, and yet on the international PISA examination, they have scored the highest for decades. At the end of high school, Finnish students take matriculation exams that are a “measure of students’ general academic maturity, including their readiness to continue studies in higher education.” (See: “The Brainy Questions on Finland’s Only High-stakes Standardized Test“) This test is really the only major, high-stakes test that they take.

As a nation, Finland places the education of their children at the top of their list of priorities. They provide equal access to all (see: “Finnish Education Chief: ‘We Created a School System Based on Equality’.”) They develop meaningful, engaging curriculums that integrate the arts, develop creativity, provide plenty of time for physical exercise, and challenge students. Their motto is: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” And instead of winning an iTunes gift card, doing well on the Finnish high-school matriculation exam is a “sign of being a mature, educated person in Finnish society.”


Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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