Getting in a Mess Over Testing

In the last week or so, the debate about testing in the US took a significant new direction with a decree from the President, Barack Obama with the headline – “We’ve been doing too much testing.” Here’s a New York Times story with more background on the issues:

New York Times – Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools

There is real irony in this story and the way that it’s reported. Politicians dictating to educators about how children will be educated. For example, no clues are given as to how they’ve arrived at this figure of 2% of instructional time to be given to testing. As the article quite rightly suggests, with testing not defined, who decides what forms part of the 2%? Also, if the testing is rubbish it doesn’t matter whether it occupies 2% of a student’s learning time in school – it’s still going to be wasted time.

Further, we have to be realistic. part of the problem with high stakes testing isn’t the actual time the tests take to conduct. it’s all the other associated lost time that worries me. If, as is often the case, teachers are going to find their performance assessed according to the performance of the students in the exams, we can hardly be surprised that the teachers turn over large amounts of learning time to ‘test preparation’. Before you know it, even with one annual cycle of exams, way more time is lost in revision lessons, exam priming sessions, practicing for the processes of answering the exam questions etc. Before you know it, learning to excel in the exam has become far more important than learning.

Then, in most Indian schools, my experience suggests that combined pressure from the parents, the students and the teachers will see one exam take place per day, with the remainder of the day written off for the child to go home and ‘mug up’ for the next. Then, there are often some days declared as ‘non-instructional’ while the teachers do the marking of the exam papers. Then, we lose some more learning focus and time whilst everyone fills themselves with angst about the results afterwards.

The net effect in an academic year that typically amounts to about 190 school days is that, easily over 10% of learning time is lost to this process. I have always felt that this was truly bizarre if the purpose is really to check progress and point the way for future learning.

So, while the US tackles the mess it’s got itself into with a new limit on testing time, the Indian educators need to take a long cold hard look at the entrenched habits of examinations.

School must be for learning, not testing.

When We Stop Rating People

I have often found something odd about the frequency of hearing teachers especially talk against performance management systems that lead to rating of their work. The arguments may vary somewhat, but usually consist of claims that ratings de-humanise them, that they attempt to objectify their work which is inherently subjective and that it goes against the wishes expressed by management to have people work collaboratively and as teams.

When educators spend so much of their time, traditionally, putting marks and/ or grades on students’ work – both the outcomes and the effort, I find the first tow arguments at times a bit hypocritical. However, I do see a fair amount of justification in the third argument. On the first two, I’m not necessarily saying i disagree with the teachers, but that if they want people to stop putting numbers/ grades and ratings on them I’d love to see the same enthusiasm for finding alternative ways to provide feedback on students’ work! What’s good for the teachers is also good for the students!

When i was in Delhi, we experimented with one term in the year when parents of pupils up to class 8 would receive a ‘Comments only’ report for their child, instead of the traditional ones where parents inevitably focus upon the grades and marks (and particularly those they want to see higher!). One father summed up the feedback of many parents when he told me that this report completely changed the nature of the dialogue he had with his child. He had initially been sceptical. However, what he found was that he and his daughter had a far more open discussion around the teacher feedback, uncluttered by the grades and marks. They talked about strengths as well as areas for development and much more about what help, if any, the child might need to make the targeted improvements.

I was reminded of that when I read this recent article from Harvard business Review about large companies in the US who are shifting away from forced ranking, grades etc. to measure performance of people in the workplace;

Harvard Business Review – Ditching Performance Ratings

The reality is whether we’re talking of students, teachers or employees in any kind of organisation any attempt to distil the essence of who they are and the contribution they make to numbers, grades or other quantifiables will feel like a blunt weapon and a poor way to motivate, inspire or guide to higher levels of achievement and performance. We can, even must, strive to more positive means of motivating and aiding people of all ages to fulfil their potential and to manifest their best self.

Do We All Mean the Same Thing When We Refer To ‘Personalization’?

The simple answer to that question is – no we don’t. For pure profit motives this term which means a perfectly laudable aim and intention in progressive education has been latched on to, corrupted and made to mean something else when used by the EdTech companies when they come peddling their latest snake oils, charms and amulets.

This article sets out well the confusion that has been caused by the mangling distortions of the word. Plainly, to me, the definition used by progressive teachers that emphasises creativity and freedom of learning paths is the most appropriate use of the word.

Mindshift – Big Ideas Article

One interesting aspect of the article is the reference to current educational testing goals being incompatible with personalisation. I’m really not sure this is necessarily the case. I see personalisation as being very closely entwined with differentiation (not mentioned in the article). As one of the comments below the article points out, school systems will and probably should all have common end goals for every pupil. For example, every student should acquire the skills to carry out algebraic equations to a certain level of competency. However, differentiation and personalisation offer the idea that whilst the eventual end goals may be the same for different pupils, modern educational methods (including those that harness the benefits of IT) enable different students to take different paths to the same destination.

Even differentiation gets subjected to a lot of abusive corruption where it often appears to be a simplistic process of setting students in to different ability groups and then adopting different paths with each group that almost always pre-suppose different levels of eventual outcome (high, medium and low end goal expectations). Instead, I see differentiation and persoanalisation as harnessing all the tools available to educators (include ICT) to enable different students to take different paths, different sequences of units and activities, different pacing and methods, but with THE SAME level of end expectations and goals.

In this way, personalisation isn’t incompatible with common end tests and exams.

Numbers Rule, OK?

Do you ever have an ‘off day’?

Maybe, a day when you don’t feel at your best, when your energy level is down, when concentration comes a bit harder, when that sniffle and cold that won’t go away is getting you down, when you had a disagreement with a family member and said some harsh words that are now playing on your mind, when the demise of a beloved pet has left you feeling sad and listless?

I’m guessing everyone reading answered ‘Yes’ to at least one of those – after all, to some extent, these are the things that make us human.

Now, supposing you knew that whilst experiencing ‘one of those days’ you were to be subjected to a high stakes test that could have earth-shattering impact for your future, maybe even cause you to lose your job? Well, as an adult, of course, you would figure that, as hard as it might be, you would need to put aside your emotions, park them or pack them up in a box for a while and deal with them after the high stakes test is over.

But, what if you were just 10 years old?

We talk about being a profession that wants to be respected. We talk about being child-centric, learner-centric and caring about the ‘whole child’. Then, we go and make Class 5 children stake their futures on high stakes tests. In all of that, how much faith and trust are we placing in the ‘test makers’ to practice an exact science that ensures that the high stakes test really measures what it intends to measure (let alone that it tests what needs to be tested).

These are just a few thoughts that went through my mind when I read this superb and impassioned blog post from my good friend, Dr Sue Lyle. In it she reflects very effectively on the dangers inherent in the current trend to want to use hard measurable data to drive decision making in education, both at the level of the individual student as well as at a whole school or even whole state/ district/ County level.

Dr Sue Lyle – blog post – Number Rule OK
(Click on the link above to read Dr Lyle’s article)

This is a debate on which more educators need to speak up, not necessarily just to talk about what ‘we don’t want’, but also to explore and brainstorm alternatives that can meet the needs of systemic improvement whilst preventing the harm caused by the remorseless pursuit of simplistic data. I, for one, don’t want to reach the day when we just shrug and accept that the best we can hope for is that schools and teachers teach well to the test!

Evernote as a Tool for Education

I made my own first tentative explorations with the Evernote App in early 2012. Within a relatively short time I was pretty convinced that I’d found a new set of tools that enabled me to be more efficient, to marshal and organise resources, thoughts, ideas and data.

I started out purely using it in my personal life. As time went on, I started to explore ways to use it professionally. As a leader, one of the best uses I found was as a readily accessible place to make short, rough notes relating to interactions with staff and teachers, classroom observations and anything that might be relevant at some point in time.

I remember (and I’m sure many others have had similar experiences) in my early career when annual appraisals used to come around. You would get ‘psyched up’ for the interview with the big boss, make notes and go in believing that there was good case for giving me the highest rating on the appraisal and therefore a good bonus! What then invariably happened was a wishy-washy discussion that ended with some vague comments about how ‘there should always be something to aim for’ as explanation for why i’d been given a rating below the top (and therefore a smaller bonus!). As if this didn’t irk enough, what was even more troubling was the fact that where any data or evidence was given relating to my performance it was usually no more than 3-4 weeks old. Thus, I was supposedly being appraised on a year’s performance and yet nothing more than a month old was ever brought forward as evidence – positive or negative. Of course, the main reason for this was that record keeping during and throughout the year was non-existent. So, when it came time for the annual appraisals and ‘big boss’ sat down to write them he had to dredge his memory – which clearly didn’t pick up too much that was older than a month.

The overall result – an appraisal system that actually demotivated me, left me thinking less of ‘big boss’ and falling back on my ‘inner compass’ to figure out how effectively i was performing in my job. If there was one positive that came out of all this it was that I told myself repeatedly that when (if?) I became a leader I would ensure that i kept notes and records all year so that when it came time to do annual appraisals they would be fair, open and truly reflective of tangible data across the whole year.

My experience with Evernote was that this was the perfect tool for this. It doesn’t matter where i am, whether I’m using my laptop, phone or tablet, it’s so easy to capture a few jotted notes each day. They can be in audio format, occasionally even pictures/ photos and each can be stored in a folder against that person’s name. They don’t need to be finely crafted documents – capture immediately is the essence.

I’ve increasingly come to believe that for a teacher this offers similar benefits to document what’s happening with a class of students and with each individual in the class. The results – an ability to get a ‘helicopter view’ of what’s working, what needs to be changed etc. Also, I reckon assessment reports of real quality will almost write themselves with real tangible evidence to back up the statements made.

I was also interested to come across the following links. The first comes from a teacher, showing how he’s used Evernote to organise an entire year’s course and curriculum material, assessments and supporting documents. It also becomes a direct communication tool with the student who access specific files and folders

The Nerdy Teacher – Evernote for Lesson Planning

The second has a few ideas about how students can use Evernote themselves to organise and plan their work, keep notes and prepare for academic achievement;

Evernote for Academic Achievement

IT in Education – It’s Not All Good

Diane Ravitch has been a powerful voice in education in the US over the last few years, so i was interested to read her perspective on the risks and ills associated with the rapid inroads being made by IT in to all aspects of education.

In this article she shares three ways in which the technology infiltration is not positive or in the best interest of high quality education:

Scientific American – Diane Ravitch

Of the three negatives she highlights I don’t really have enough experience of virtual charter schools to comment. However, I am in complete agreement and share her fears about the second issue – computerized marking. I first became aware of Pearson’s moves in this area with EDEXCEL when I was in Bangladesh 6-7 years ago. One of my first fears was that the tests/ assessments themselves would get adjusted to fit with the capabilities of the programs, rather than IT adding real value to enhance the existing process.

I am also reminded of a not dissimilar situation that caused me concerns. I once sat through a number of meetings where fellow educators were advocating the appointment of junior teachers whose major responsibility would have been to do the marking for more senior teachers, thereby freeing them up to spend more time lecturing students! my biggest concern was that this over-emphasized assessment as testing, ignoring its formative role. In my view a piece of work isn’t marked just to determine how much was right and wrong. Equally important is the understanding of the teacher from the perspective of both the individual student and the class collectively – in what ways did they make mistakes, what types of errors were made, what can be deduced about their knowledge and what must be done to meet their need. The same problem arises with computerized marking. Thew teacher loses the connect with the nature of where students are in their learning and therefore will fail to respond sensitively in adjusting delivery to meet their needs.

Ravitch’s third concern is the ‘Big Brother’ fear which always arises with most new technology developments. With healthy skepticism and the right checks and balances this one can be addressed satisfactorily.

To me, the most important message coming out of the article is the need to be extremely wary of attempts to turn assessment over to technology. Whilst it continues to play such an important part in our children’s education i believe it must stay in the hands of real teachers.

Government & Education

What should be the role of government in education? Do politicians and civil servants have any special skills or abilities that makes them uniquely well placed to determine what’s right for the education of a nation’s children? When governments do run education, do they do a good job of it? What would be the results if they let educators get on with education without hindrance?

These are all questions that would probably see the majority of people concluding that government should get out of the way. However, instead the world over they continue to behave as though the citizenry are dangerously misguided fools whose children need the protection of their wisdom and involvement. Along with that, they plainly think that educators are a bunch of dangerous reactionaries who need to be kept under very firm control.

A classic example of the problems has appeared in the last few days in England. The Cambridge Primary Review has been carrying out vigorous research over the last 6 years. I’ve met a couple of the educators involved – certainly no reactionary fools, these. Amongst the conclusions of their report are that ‘formal teaching’ of younger children should not commence until they are 6 years of age. This would bring England in to line with much of Europe, where young children only commence formal schooling at age 6 or 7.

However, the immediate response of the British government has been a telling one;

“England’s schools minister Vernon Coaker said the government was already reforming primary education to make the curriculum less prescriptive and free it up for teachers.

He added: “A school starting age of six would be completely counter-productive – we want to make sure children are playing and learning from an early age and to give parents the choice for their child to start in the September following their fourth birthday.”

The review also questioned the educational values of SATs – regular tests taken by children at the ages of 7, 11 and 14 in England, but their reason for doubting was fascinating;
“Our expert group on assessment said it would be a backward step to scrap English and maths tests at 11 and we are piloting a School Report Card, which will give parents a far broader picture of how schools are doing.”

In other words, in the eyes of the Minister testing of children and producing report cards has nothing to do with partners working together to enable each child to fulfil their potential. Oh no, these are to check up on the schools and make sure they’re doing their job properly. Which job are they to be doing and what does ‘properly’ look like? Well, it’s the job the government says they are supposed to be doing and the measures that work will only be the ones that they can test for easily and do comparisons.

So, sorry children, but you have to keep taking these tests because government doesn’t trust educators. They must be checked and regulated as a bunch of reactionary trouble makers and if the children doing tests is the only way, then so be it!

So, is there any evidence that these approaches are producing great education and young people emerging in to the world after education well prepared to contribute to the world, to be and to do all they are capable of? Irrelevant question, apparently.

There are many things which result from such approaches; teachers teach to the assessment process, especially when that’s the basis on which they and their school will be judged. Teachers push through every means possible to make these assessments easy so that they increase their chances of success. Never mind that this fails to stretch the most gifted of students.

Here in India right now these are very valid questions to be talking about. We have an HRD Minister in Mr Kapil Sibal who is prepared to open up the debates nationally about what kind of an education system we need in the twenty first century. I am often saddened that here in India there are painfully few people engaged in the kind of rigorous research represented by the Cambridge Primary Review in an Indian context.

However, if we can build such a high quality research base in India it will be vitally important that we give the findings of such research their due respect. Not, like the government in England, reject it all because it doesn’t fit with their ways of working.

There is an old saying that “If they can’t learn the way we teach, then we must teach the way they learn.” Maybe we can make a new version of this, “If they can’t educate the way we govern, then we must govern to suit the way they educate.”

BBC Article
CWE-briefing

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