A Collection of Shower Thoughts on Assessment

pablo (1)I stand before you, my fellow congregants of the Church of Pedagogy, to utter unto you a statement that verges on blasphemy.  And please, hold your slings and arrows for a moment and allow me to explain.

I do not hate standardized tests.

Stepping off the imaginary pew in my brain, I recognize that saying I do not hate standardized tests strikes an odd chord.  No teacher actually enjoys standardized testing, but as Ashley Rickards states, “…there is an in-between and I don’t think we’re there, yet.” There is a place for standardized tests because, when well crafted (insert laughs and scoffs), they provide insight and knowledge for students, teachers, schools, and districts. However, as a practitioner, I also recognize that a multiple choice test with culturally irrelevant information does not accurately reflect the whole child.

Shower Thoughts on The History:  How Did We Get Here?

There is no shortage of memes, speeches, and articles outlining the evils of our current testing system.  Starting with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and then continued with Race to the Top, the current testing system creates a culture of competition, not learning.  This fundamentally changes how we do school in this country.  There is a fundamental difference between schooling and education, and unfortunately, I believe we have lost sight of what true education is.  So, in an effort to recapture true education while maintaining the need for standardized testing, how do we rework our current system to better capture the true education, knowledge, and being of a child?

Shower Thoughts on The Shift

I do want to draw attention to the fact that I said “rework” and not “change.”  To rework suggests that the system’s resources are strategically reallocated.  Why create a whole system overhaul if only tweaks are needed?  As we tweak, can we consider the not-so-absurd idea that there can be more than one assessment format? Could students have a voice in the specific type of test (i.e. multiple-selection, product-based assessment, oral exam, etc.) they want to take to maximize their chances of successes?

Bringing it Home: Changing the Dogma of Assessment in the Church of Pedagogy

Sarah (name changed), a former student, and I were speaking during lunch during the first day of state testing.  She began lamenting that while she is smart (side note…REALLY SMART), she struggles with multiple choice tests because they are so limiting.  For a divergent thinker like Sarah, multiple choice tests are stifling.  Her brilliance struck me, so I decided to interview her.

Sarah’s words struck me in two ways.  First, Sarah stated that writing would allow her to express herself more effectively.  Furthermore, if writing is something she loves to do, why shouldn’t she have the opportunity to test in a way that is more engaging for her?  Wouldn’t her increased engagement equate to better scores?  Sarah also addressed the idea of drawing answers to demonstrate her thinking process.  With the rise of visual notetaking, could we not adapt the practice to assessment?  Sherrill Knezel notes that she experienced a juvenile detention center where the students used visual notetaking.  According to Knezel, “Personal expression, demonstration of comprehension, and confident engagement were visible through a dry-erase marker. Students who would have not been able to engage with the text in other ways could still do so through the drawings used to represent concepts.”  Imagine these successes if they were transferred over to a standardized testing system.

“The one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient but lazy.”  -James Dyson

Multiple choice tests, even those with limited writing opportunities, are easy.  But as James Dyson said, they are lazy.

I understand the logistical implications of providing different testing formats.  This type of overhaul would take years.  However, in the future, our students will not demonstrate their knowledge and know-how through a one-size-fits-all method.  Why can we not collectively figure out a way to reallocate our resources to meet the needs of the students?  Teachers are nothing if not resourceful and innovative.  Why can we not figure out a way to assess our students’ education instead of their schooling?  To me, it is a no-brainer.  It is possible, we just have to preach the new gospel often enough to make it happen.  We are on the right path when it comes to assessment.  We just aren’t there, yet.  We just need some more converts.

The Connection Between Identity and Policy in Education

The last few weeks have been, to say the least, eventful.  I was given the honor of being chosen as the new 8th grade ELA Master Teacher at Stuart Middle School.  What a change it has been.  On top of trying to meet tons of new colleagues, wrapping my head around my new job, and moving into a coaching and mentoring role, I found myself lacking what I had just so recently found…my teaching identity.  My teaching soul.  I, even as I write this, struggle to know who I am in this new setting.  And on top of all of that, I felt that this space would be unsustainable.  It needed some extra connective tissue.  It needed to be about bigger things than just the observations at work.

So, as I said, there has been quite a monumental shift in my life; there has been much to think about. Hence my short, likely unnoticed (knowingly self-deprecating…go ahead and laugh), hiatus.  Thankfully, I think I have begun to crawl back out of that hole.  I will explain in two parts and then, hopefully, tie it back together.


Honoring the Students

As I have settled into my new role, I have had the good fortune of running into some wonderful pieces of insight.  The first comes from an article posted on Edutopia entitled, “What Makes for a Master Teacher?”  And while I read this article, I was blown away by a single concept.  Ben Johnson writes:

“In many cases, there are students who have to take care of their siblings in the morning, get them ready for school, feed them, then hop on a city bus or subway, and then after school doing everything in reverse, and then they have a part-time job and go to work all evening to help the family income. Many students make significant sacrifices to even get to school every day.”

Then the moment Johnson took my breath away.  “We need to honor their sacrifices by honoring their time with real learning.”

I get it.  Fluff days happen.  And for the teachers who truly care, they happen rarely.  But even rarely is too often.  If the professional goal of a teacher is to teach, then that is what we must do day in and day out.  Look around.  Teachers aren’t always considered the epitome of what it means to be a professional.  Why?  Too many stories about movie days and fluff lessons could be a start.  To paraphrase Janine Paul of The Verbal Judo Institute, it only takes one to ruin the reputation of an entire entity.  So how is this connected to identity and policy?  Stay tuned…


Being the Middle Wo(man)

Ask a teacher why they may feel hamstrung as a professional in our society, they very well may say it is that the people who make the laws and curriculum aren’t actually in the classroom.  Ask a parent why they feel any emotion about the school system, they will likely respond in a manner that is dependent upon their understanding of what their child is learning, why they are learning it, and the manner by which it is taught.  They don’t care about policy.  They care about their kid, and justifiably so.    There is a disconnect.  Look below.

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Image from The Verbal Judo Institute

When a school or society makes a policy, they rely on the teacher to bring that vision to the students and parents.  When a parent is operating under the influence of rage, joy, or any other emotion, they don’t associate that emotion with the policies of the state or nation, but rather with the teacher who their child sees every day.  The teacher is the middle man.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to see the policies of their superiors done with fidelity, while helping the clientele understand the whys, whats, and hows.  And, on top of it, teachers are often asked to be the ones who break through the negative emotions of students and parents to help them see the greater picture.

So again you ask…policy and identity and being the middle man…what’s the connection?  Here it comes.


Wrapping Up

Here is what it comes down to.  Teachers teach because they are called to do it.  It is in their DNA.  Once they learn that about themselves, and truly honor students with quality, engaging education, powerful change will come.  Teachers need to know thyself.  Teachers need to embody the fact that teaching is an art, a science, a passion, and a profession unlike any other.  It is unique in that has facets of almost every other profession within it.  Furthermore, teachers must understand that they have to bring that central, passionate identity to every interaction.  Policy won’t change until our voice is valued. And that won’t happen until we are no longer middle men, but rather change agents from within the system (cue double-agent spy music).

pablo (7)Whether in sports, the workplace, or regular life, our strength as a society comes not from the individual, but from the collective.  When each individual works to be the best part of the greater society, everyone is better.  In education, a teacher’s identity is theirs.  It is not mandated by state policy, building procedures, or the newest fad.  It belongs solely to them.  And the process of understanding that identity can be, if fostered correctly, almost sacred to a teacher.

A teacher is there to teach, and it should by dogmatic to honor a student with a high class education.  Only in doing so, and with an understanding of a teacher’s personal style and abilities, will policy finally change.  Carol Ann Tomlinson writes, “A great coach never achieves greatness for himself or his team by working to make all his players alike.”  I am a teacher.  Though our skills differ, we together embody the profession of education.  Together, we can change perception, policy, and the conversation around our noble calling.  Know who you are, know what we can be, and let’s get some change done.

And for me, that change begins this year as I continue to get my new school a new reputation by embodying the change I want to see in the education world.  Hopefully, I can bring a few along with me for the ride.

Citations:

  1. Johnson, B. (2011, March 31). What Makes for a Master Teacher? Retrieved July 27, 2016, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/master-teacher-definition-ben-johnson
  2. Paul, J. (26, July 07). The Contact Professional. Speech presented in Kentucky, Louisville.