Standardization, Assessment and Differentiation

These past few weeks were almost entirely consumed with the process of assessment, report card writing and parent teacher conferences.  Part of why I couldn’t write is there was too much to write about. But throughout the process, I was thinking about three buzzwords in education reform: assessment, standardization and differentiation. These are the terms  that principals and ed reformers throw around when they talk about improving instructional “rigor,” another buzzword.

Let’s start with assessment: I cannot tell you how many interviews I’ve been on where most of the questions centered on assessment. On those interviews, I always answered that well, there are so many ways to assess children and discover their needs and interests.  However, assessment in ed reform speak does not connote observation, actually conversing with your students or looking at student work on a regular basis. What they are really asking about is pencil and paper testing, usually in a standardized form. That’s what they mean when they use the word assessment- formulaic, color in the bubble multiple choice tests with the occasional “higher order thinking” wordy question thrown in. This kind of assessment is all the rage because pencil and paper assessments generate data, and the more spreadsheets and pie charts you can create the better you are at teaching, presumably.  In today’s educational climate, the generation of data takes priority over  the quality of children’s learning. If it’s not measurable via a pencil to paper multiple choice test, it’s apparently not worth teaching. Forget intimately knowing your students, strengths, hopes and dreams, forget talking to your students to get to know them, taking notes in, horror of horrors, a notebook , or looking kids in the eye when you talk to them. Education is a business- we poll our target audience and then use that information to figure out how to package what we’re selling. We’re standardizing and streamlining, not because it helps kids learn, but because it allows testing companies, educational boards and politicians to easily evaluate schools without ever having to set foot in a classroom.

Similarly, standardization makes things easier for the test-makers instead of children. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching in South Dakota or in Washington Heights- it is easier for policy makers to show that schools need more or less funding, or that teachers are to blame for all the ills in education if everyone takes the same test, in the same way. Thus, every lesson needs a common core standard and teachers are creating fewer and fewer of their own assessments while schools spend thousands of dollars on pre-packaged curricula. Think of all the money schools could save if teachers were trusted to create curriculum. We could have smaller classes, hire literacy and math coaches, buy more books and art supplies- the list goes on and on.

Then there is differentiation; a noble concept if there ever was one. Teachers are expected to differentiate instruction according to student needs, abilities and interests. Differentiation is good teaching, and it happens more naturally in student centered progressive classrooms. Differentiation stems from the knowledge that all children, all people in fact, are different and should not be treated in exactly the same way. Not all children need to do the same math activity, or write the same stories, or pursue the same projects. Moreover, experiences in the classroom should be hands-on, meaningful and creative enough to appeal to many learning styles and interests. This is all lovely. But how do you differentiate when what you teach and when and how you teach it is completely standardized?  If all the teachers on my grade level are supposed to be “covering” the same teaching points on the same schedule, how can we adjust what we’re doing to meet our students’ needs? Standards and standardized tests are an anathema to true differentiation.

There are too many examples from my teaching experience that illustrate this contradiction. Here are just a few.

My school, unfortunately, uses the DOE recommended Haughton-Mifflin Go Math curriculum. It is 85% workbook worksheets, 15% problem solving and games. The materials are visually confusing and overwhelming, the directions and word problems overly complex and wordy. It has its own internal logic and language which constantly trips up our English language learners and children receiving speech and language services.  Fear not, critics of poor quality, untested curriculum, Go Math comes with two assessment handbooks and a differentiation kit! In the differentiation kit there are more worksheets, because apparently if a worksheet isn’t helping a child understand a mathematical concept, a different, slightly easier worksheet will help them get there. And then of course, there are pre-assessments that you give before starting a unit as well as two days of end of unit  assessments- a multiple choice test and a language heavy “performance task,” designed to show problem solving skills.  Meanwhile, the multiple choice test, which incidentally, is 6 pages long,  gives us a good sense of who can sit still for 45 minutes and not get bored with rote questioning.

I’d love to create our own assessments, where kids are doing something instead of just filling in the blank, something that demonstrates their thinking rather than their language struggles or short attention span. But we can’t differentiate how we test, and we are limited in how much we can differentiate how we teach.

The sheer volume of the assessments is a problem on its own. In math, we are spending three whole days per unit solely on testing. That’s about 27 lessons a year where my poor seven year students are sitting silently, getting frustrated and answering boring test questions instead of engaging in meaningful explorations and activities. And what do we do with all this data we accumulate? Well, we do try our best to use it as well as our informal assessments to differentiate. We create math games, we make math groups and teach each group differently, we try to provide opportunities for open ended problem solving and hands-on work. At a certain point, however, we need to hand in our checklist and move on to the next chapter. I have 4 students in my class who entered second grade lacking basic counting skills, one-t0-one correspondence and simple addition. We have been working with them in a small group on those pre-K and K skills. They are learning and working hard. But on their report card, we had to give them a demoralizing 1. In other words, we had to quantify what they are doing because it is easier to scan a list of numbers than read through the comments that go with them. Again, good for test-making and grading adults, not good for kids.

Even a high quality test is mostly valuable for adults, not for students. How much time do we want to take away from learning for something that does little for our kids? There are so many other ways to assess children’s abilities. You can  conference with them while they are working, look at the work they produce, listen in on conversations, notice student behavior, have them reflect on their learning, or even better, collaborate on meaningful projects where kids need to use what they know toward a real-life purpose.  You could even video yourself teaching. These forms of assessment can happen while kids are actively engaged in meaningful work or play, so you can measure skills in context rather than measuring their ability to sit still and focus. If we want to truly differentiate, we should be able to assess different children in different ways, and teachers should be able to create their own tests.

Here is another example of the incompatible priorities of the ed reformers. One of the standardized curricula we are supposed to use is Fundations. Fundations is a phonics program that includes a daily script. Some people swear by it. My co-teacher and I had recently decided that it wasn’t working for our class, although we are officially supposed to use it every day.  It was not differentiated and was either too easy for the kids who were already strong readers or not helping the kids who struggled. So we decided to create word study groups based on an assessment. Hooray assessments guiding instruction! Unfortunately for my co-teacher, our principal happened to walk in while she was teaching fundations- as we’re are supposed to do. Weeks later, when we received our formal observation feedback, we were critiqued for not including higher order thinking questions into the lesson.  This is indicative of a larger problem- the contradictory priorities of Ed Reform. How can higher order thinking, or as they used to call it, critical thinking, be fostered in an atmosphere of standardization and uniformity?

Final example: I recently went to a wonderful professional development day at Teacher’s College on reading intervention.  I’ll be honest, my experiences with Teacher’s College in the past have been pretty negative and I am not a  fan of Writer’s Workshop in an early childhood context. This workshop, however, was both inspiring and affirming. Much of what we learned, sadly, can never be implemented in schools dominated by the teacher evaluation process and the obsession with generating data. In summary, the presenter argued that you don’t need a checklist or a list of prompts to teach reading. Rather, kids need to have authentic experiences with good books, they need to talk about their reading and learn to self monitor as they read.

The presenter also spoke about the importance of affirming student voices by making eye contact when they talk to you and prompting them to discuss their reading using open ended questions rather than asking test-driven questions about the main idea or what happened first. Yet many teachers are told that they need a checklist in front of them at all times with which to mark whether students have acquired certain skills. As you would expect, that makes children nervous and communicates that we don’t really care about what they have to say. Imagine if you met a friend for lunch and throughout your conversation you were checking off items on spreadsheet instead of genuinely responding to their ideas. Students need opportunities to have real conversations with their teachers and peers about books, to hear stories read aloud, and show that they comprehend a story in a way that suits their learning style.

She also pointed out that sometimes, it’s the assessment, not the child, that is the problem. A child can understand a story without being able to immediately find the main idea or retell it in order. How often do adults read a book and then retell the entire story in sequence? Almost never. We respond to what we read on a more personal level. We talk about what we found interesting- what connects to our own ideas and experiences. Children deserve to do this too. Instead, much of what we’re assessing is test driven- we’re looking for skills needed for test taking, not for reading.

With the pervasive demands of testing and standardization, it is no wonder true differentiation falls by the wayside. A few days ago, I commented to two third grade teachers at my school about how far ahead they were in the math curriculum. They replied that many of their students “aren’t getting it,” but they need to get through a certain number of units before the test in April. Too often, our hands our tied- we assess and assess in every way possible,  but we still need to cross off the next teaching point on our curriculum maps and we still need to follow whatever script we’re given- at least officially. Good teachers are confident and sneaky enough to slow things down or speed them up, to hide their Fundations materials in the closet and created differentiated word study activities and groups, to secretly create math games and find Marilyn Burns lessons online to use in the place of yet another worksheet, to launch projects that are meaningful and student driven in spite of the social studies textbooks collecting dust on the shelves- but when we teach like that, we are taking a risk. We risk a negative evaluation, we risk bad test scores, we risk getting chastised and we risk alienating colleagues. There is also the risk of failure, a risk fewer and fewer teachers are willing to take. But ask anyone, and they will tell you that to be a good teacher, you need to be able to fearlessly try a thing out and then learn from it when it doesn’t work.

Some people like tests. They like spreadsheets and pre-packaged curricula. They like not having to take risks and differentiate in a meaningful way. But even those teachers need a sense of ownership over their teaching as well as opportunities to bring themselves into the classroom. Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from differentiation. Teachers, like their students, have different strengths and interests. I, for one, can’t follow a scripted program for the life of me. But with the new teacher evaluation system, it seems that the craze for data has spread to teacher evaluation too. Instead of a conversation with a constructive mix of positive and negative feedback, we get a 2 page checklist weeks later, and a feeling of dread whenever we talk to administrators. We know that good teaching is personal- it is differentiated in the sense that is has to do with who the learners really are. But, when teaching and learning are subjected to standardization on a national level, assessment becomes something you do for your boss, not for your practice, and differentiation remains an elusive dream you wrestle with each day as you open up your teacher’s guide and grade the latest test.


Project based learning; Making science and social studies count

Amid the whirlwind that is education reform, many educators lose sight of the parts of the day that make school meaningful and fun- art, music, P.E. , social studies, and science. These are the projects, games and studies that are getting pushed more and more to the margins of the school day because of high-stakes testing in ELA and Math. Even at my school, with an administration that is pushing project based learning, the third grade skims the science and social studies content, because the bulk of the day is dedicated toward teaching toward the tests.  At the same time, since there aren’t standardized tests in these these subjects yet, there is a tiny bit more freedom for both teachers and students. In that vein, for this post I thought I would take a break from criticism and share something positive- something that can happen when teachers are allowed to ditch the script and get creative.

We teach science and social studies because we want kids to learn about themselves, their natural, cultural and physical environment and understand basic features and processes that are a part or their lives. Perhaps more important, we want them to develop habits of inquiry, problem solving, discovery, and collaboration. It’s not whether they remember who built which landmark in NYC, but whether they know how to pose questions to clarify and challenge, how to plan and work with peers, to listen, respond, critique, investigate and how to solve problems by testing out multiple possibilities. Yes we do want them to acquire knowledge- but remembering that they will only hold on to what they can relate to and what they will continue to use: if we want them to remember the 6 plant parts, we need to instill a love of plants and gardening in them through tangible experiences so that the knowledge remains relevant. If we want them to remember structures of government- we have to give them a sense that they are powerful and have a responsibility to vote in elections, that their lives are influenced by unseen forces. If we want them to remember details about New Amsterdam; we have to instill a love of history and a love of their city- so that they come back to it again and again as they grow.

In my classroom, against the odds, we are engaged in a purposeful, interdisciplinary science and social studies project. Although I’ve always been a project lover, this year was my first introduction to project based learning. In project based learning, long term projects stem from real-world problems, needs, or questions. Many progressive schools engage in amazing interdisciplinary thematic units and projects: Brooklyn bridge studies, Hudson river, the Lenape. These units include trips, art, writing, collaborative work, model making. Project based learning does all that but with a real life purpose, whether it is creating signage for a museum exhibit, re-purposing an empty lot or figuring out the best way to get from here to there.

My co-teacher and I were so excited about this idea and we quickly found our issue. We decided that we should try to figure out the best way to protect New York city from storms and flooding, so we mapped out a loose progression for our project, found a friend from Red-Hook to help us launch and got started. In order to address this problem, our class decided we needed to learn about NYC geography and neighborhoods, flooding, storms, buildings, landforms,and coastal ecosystems. Here’s what it looks like at the moment- during writing, the kids are researching topics of their choice to write information books about low-elevation neighborhoods in the city. in science, we are learning about landforms, weathering and coastal erosion. In social studies, we are visiting neighborhoods around the city and will begin constructing a map of NYC that highlights elevation and the neighborhoods we’re studying. We’re not covering material, we’re not checking bullet points off a list. We don’t know exactly where the project will head, which solution we will settle on or how we will present our findings. We’re not transmitting information.  What we are doing is collaborating, asking questions, making plans, solving problems- in short we’re offering our students an experience that will stick with them whether they remember the facts they learn along the way or not. We’re empowering children by letting their interests and ideas guide the project, and by allowing them to tackle a problem in the real world- a problem they can all understand and relate to. And we’re having a blast.

The kids meanwhile, are all about it. They bring in books from home about neighborhoods and hurricanes. They casually use the word elevation or erosion as they make connections to our project throughout the day. And all the kids are into it- from the four students reading at a third grade level to the ones who are just beginning to read at a kindergarten level.  The quiet kids who never raise their hands, some of whom have pretty sever learning disabilities, are suddenly jumping out of their seats wanting to share their observations and original thoughts. My over-energetic boys are sitting still and examining maps of NYC and hurricane footage. And then of course- the real reason I love social studies- our students are learning a lot about working together. Each afternoon we devote to our project, they practice taking turns, listening to each other, making a plan before diving in, making sure that everyone has a role to play, respecting each others ideas and abilities. My co-teacher and I are learning along the way as well, thinking about how to better plan our next project, how to make sure all the loose ends come together.  I’m amazed by the growth we’ve seen already, and can’t keep from dreaming up projects for the rest of the year.

How did this happen? Well, first, we hid all our science and social studies textbooks in the back of our closet. The thought of using textbooks in either of those subjects appalls me. We also used the scope and sequence as a starting point rather than a bible. We quietly compressed much of  the first social studies unit- rules, rights and responsibilities, ( a developmentally inappropriate unit on government) and thus were able to launch our project in early October.

This kind of learning should be happening daily. I know this makes me sound a little doomsday-ish- but I truly believe that in the age of climate change, drone warfare, stem cells, smart phones, and decreasing bio-diversity among other countless scientific phenomenon that impact our lives, kids should be engaging with science materials and concepts daily. Not to mention that kids love it- nothing is more developmentally appropriate in early childhood than digging in the dirt, building a shelter, planting veggies or learning about animals- science gets kids outside, boosts happiness and cements their connection to the natural world, all while fostering habits of inquiry and wonder. Likewise, in an age of societal instability and diversity, social studies, with an emphasis on collaborative problem solving, community building inside and outside of school, critical thinking and social justice should be woven into each school day and each discipline. This is the kind of learning that helps us fully become ourselves, that helps us find meaning and even helps us survive whatever life throws at us. This is the kind of learning that does more than prepare children for the future- it fully engages them in the present.

On that note, some Dewey before I go:  “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.”