Should we test them? or not test them? (Hint: Those are the wrong questions…)

This time of year in Michigan, standardized testing is on everyone’s mind. This year is a little more frantic than others, I’m afraid. Michigan’s Department of Education is piloting the online version of a new state test. In my role, I’ve spent a lot of time contributing to support all over the state trying to help concerned educators prepare themselves and their students for this transition.

Besides that, every Michigan HS Junior is given a chance to take a college entrance exam. Since the inception of this practice, this exam had always been the ACT. Then, just after the new year, news broke (somewhat out of nowhere) that Michigan was going to switch to giving the SAT.

Now, each of these tests has a whole machine surrounding it. There are practice tests, prep sessions, special activities put in place to prepare for both the look and feel of the testing items as well as for the content. In many ways, “teaching-to-the-test” has become a foregone conclusion. This is especially true in districts who are working very, very hard to improve the test scores for evaluative or punitive reasons. (More on this later.)

All of this fervor can really make a guy wonder whether or not this testing is worth all the hassle. Are we doing good things to education by instituting all of this testing? Are frequent assessments the right way to go?

And I think those are the wrong questions.

Consider a person who is hyper-interested in his or her weight. Like dangerously so. This person steps on the scale several times a day. And makes aggressive changes for the sake of gaining or losing 10 or 20 lbs very, very quickly. On what can we blame this problem?

Lots of things, I suspect. This person may have a background with some experiences that need to be reconciled. This person may have anxiety issues that need to be resolved. This person may be in a personal or professional relationship that puts unrealistic pressure on his or her appearance. This person may spend too much time focusing on and associating with other people who have similar habits. There is a culture that he or she has become a part of that feeds into this point-of-view.

The scale that he or she steps isn’t the problem (provided the scale is accurate). The scale is the tool that provides the information. The information is then getting abuse by the recipient. The solution to this problem is NOT to dispose of the scale. The abusive recipient is still going to seek for information and they will find it in perceived tightness of clothes, or calories consumed or duration of a workout.

What we need to adjust is the response to the information.

Right now, we are asking our schools to step on the scale too frequently, and making too much of the number we get.

Look, changes in policy and curricula often show effects slowly. And we should look for slow, sustained improvement. This is evidence of a cultural change that is becoming a new standard. Just like the dieter who is looking to lose 50 pounds. A two-year journey losing a three or four pounds per month doesn’t make for an exciting, story. It doens’t get you on NBC Shows, but it’s healthy. It’s sustainable. It is evidence that a real change has taken place.

It is with this in mind that I will assert that the tests aren’t the problem with our educational testing culture. While I suspect that we are testing too much. If the person from the analogy has a scale in every room, then it might be useful to reduce that number to one, but it would be wrong to blame the tests. They are giving us information. And we in the educational community aren’t handling the influx of information very well.

So, I have some thoughts about this.

What if we only formally and decisively tested students every other year? When it comes to state tests that determine school ratings, funding, oversight, and evaluation, how about we get on an every other year plan. We aren’t looking for quick-hitting solutions. We are looking for culture changes. The most effective instructional and curricular changes take time to go from implementation to fruitful improvement anyway. So, if the 2013 testing cycle revealed content weaknesses in a certain area, then you have 24 months to implement an update to your system that will improve it. Then in 2015, we’ll see how it’s going.

Taking a standardized test well is NOT a meaningful life skill with which to send students away from school. I’ve heard this one from a variety of different angles. The “they’ll-need-it-to-get-through-college” argument, to the “managing-test-anxiety” argument, to the “we-need-our-scores-to-jump-30-percentage-points-in-3-months” argument. This has been the most troubling development I’ve seen. This goes beyond “teaching-to-the-test”. This is downright teaching test-taking strategies as though the skill of taking a test has any application. It doesn’t. Students need to take tests well because we choose to test them. When we change our focus, we change this skill set. It is completely dependent on our choice. EVERY SINGLE other skill we want students to leave school with are determined by appealing to some outside need. Critical thinking, basic math skills, reading, obedience, playing well with others, healthy eating, tolerance for diversity, etc. These are things that you can EASILY give reasons for students leaving school with these skills in their hip pockets. So, why are we spending one second teaching standardized teaching strategies?

I’ve never seen a school or educational department include students (or even suggest it) in the process of collecting or analyzing the formal and decisive testing data. Why not? When it is becoming more and more evident that there are huge gains to be made by putting students in a position to self-monitor and to train them to be competent in doing so, why are we allowing this opportunity to pass us by. (I don’t think our decision-makers trust young people as much as you and I do.) Perhaps while we are training them to be effective self-monitors, we see minutes that they could be spending practice math problems ticking away. It’s too bad that we have begun to operate on such a short-sighted view of efficiency.

Look folks, I’m not any more excited about this hyper-evaluative testing culture than anyone else, but I think that we need to take a step back from our repulsion and really look at what the problem is so that we can really solve it.

Testing at the speed of… change.

I have a question:

Will the problems the public education system be solved by employing standards-based solutions like Common Core (or some other standard-based curriculum)?

This seems like an interesting question. A lot of follow-up questions would be needed.

1. What are public education’s problems?

2. What’s causing the problems?

3. What do we do about problems that aren’t solvable under current law?

4. Are certain standards-based solutions better than others?

5. What will education look like when all its problems are solved?


I don’t want to sound like a skeptic, but, here in Michigan, we’ve been at this for a while.

In Novemeber 2005, the National Governor’s Conference decided that high schools weren’t rigorous enough to prepare students “for an increasingly competitive global economy.” In Michigan, this led directly to the development of the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

The results weren’t good. By 2011, the state set the proficiency “cut scores” at 39% of the MEAP Test questions correct. (Got that? The Michigan Department of Education was cool writing a test, giving to every student in the state, and calling “proficient” any student who could get 40% of the test right.) This, of course, showed that 90% of 3rd graders were proficient in mathematics statewide. By 2012, when the cut score was raised to 65%, statewide proficiency dropped to closer to 40%.

So, after all this, apparently, the people of Michigan wanted Common Core. So, along with that, we passed some other laws to try to get Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top money (We failed, by the way. Then we failed again. Then we failed for a third time.)

After all that, we’d changed a number of laws, including approving the Common Core standards. However, a lot of those laws were designed to appeal to Arne Duncan and his several billion dollars, which never came.

So, we have a department of education that has approved Common Core. By January of 2012, the state was gearing up for the Smarter Balance Test. We even had school districts running trials and pilot testing situations (my district included), even as the state legislature determined that it didn’t have the funds to support Common Core.

Bear in mind, these changes had all come quite quickly. If this upcoming junior class (class of 2016) is to take the Smarter Balance Assessment, it would have done so after an education that included no standards (from kindergarten to 2nd grade), Michigan Merit Standards (3rd grade until 7th grade), and Common Core Standards (since 8th grade). Keeping in mind the implementation dip that is going to accompany the transition periods, it’s really any wonder why we have any expectations for this group beyond simply finishing the test.

And the speed of change wasn’t being lost on people. Common Core dissent is gaining publicity and some think that is makes for some pretty compelling television. So, Michigan is stuck having blazed a trail that isn’t exactly popular and isn’t exactly funded.

Moreover, in the past month, a new set of questions is brewing in Michigan: What test will those students be taking next year? The public pressure is mounting. Business leaders and education groups support it, but there is a lot of apprehension over the online nature of the test. (And Bill Gates suddenly isn’t a huge fan of high-stakes testing anyway.)

So, it looks like we’ll stick with MEAP another year, except we might steal some of the Smarter Balance questions. We currently don’t have a test written, or dates to plan on. The only certainty we have is that we can rest assured, there will be some test we will have to give.

I started teaching in 2006. This has been my experience for the entirety of my career. All of this flurry over which standards, which test, which questions. For what? People are yelling, negotiating, quitting their jobs over all of this. But we still don’t have an answer to the original question.

Will the problems the public education system be solved by employing standards-based solutions like Common Core (or some other standard-based curriculum)?

Oh, and don’t forget. We need to grow consensus on those five questions BEFORE we get to the original, bigger question. Here’s the problem. We aren’t prepared to try to build consensus on those five questions, at least not in the right way. Discussions like these require cooler heads. (Every been in a meeting when people start to get worked up? All progress stops until everyone calms down.)

Oh, and there’s these other questions that are going to come into play.

6. Should kids who fail to meet a proficiency standard move on with support and accommodations? or be held back to start the program all over again?

7. What are the academic grounds on which a student should be eligible to be a varsity athlete? What level of participation is acceptable if the student doesn’t meet all the standards?

8. What is the acceptable age at which a young person, or their family, should be able to freely opt a student out of the state’s preferred education program without penalty? What are the conditions on which an opt-out application is accepted?

All of these questions I have seen people yell and scream in disagreement with each other. Yelling. Over athletic eligibility and the disagreement over social promotion vs. retention.

Education is filled with passionate people. We don’t need any more passion. We need more wisdom. We need calmness. Patience.

I would love to see the State of Michigan (or any state) just stop all of this madness until it can issue a research-based negotiated document answering those 8 questions with rationales, just so that we know that those answers have been factored into any plan to move forward.

I hate to sound like a skeptic, but until we are prepared to clearly build consensus on those eight questions, all of our “fixes” are much more likely to make the problems worse, not better.


Where are education’s Sabermetrics?


In the last couple decades, baseball has gone through a statistical revolution because of a fairly simple question: “How good is that baseball player?” For the previous 8 or 10 decades, there were a limited number of metrics that got used to evaluate ballplayers. Hitters, for example, were evaluated by how often they got a hit (batting average), how often their at bat produced a run (RBI), how many home runs they hit. Pitchers were evaluated by the number of batters they struck out, how many runs the other team scored that the pitcher “earned”, and how many games the pitcher started in which the pitcher’s team won (or thereabouts… the pitcher “win” is actually a pretty odd (and seemingly useless) stat…).

What made those statistics appealing is that they were fairly easy to compile and communicate.

But there was a problem: traditional metrics didn’t tell enough of the story. Perhaps a pitcher earning a win had more to do with them pitching for a team that scored a lot of runs. Perhaps a hitter with a lot of home runs played in a home ballpark with shorter fences. Perhaps a hitter with a higher batting average rarely walked and hit into a lot of double plays. The traditional metrics became difficult to trust (especially to an owner deciding to commit tens of millions of dollars to a player). So, new statistical measures were developed that attempted to factor in all of the nuanced information that baseball can provide. (Read all about it…)

Education is dealing with a similar issue. We are trying to become a data-driven. We want to use data to tell us what the education world is like. So, we started measuring things. Important things… like literacy.

Well, this floated across my Facebook wall…

Literacy was at 98%, huh?

Literacy was at 98%, huh?

One can fairly easily derive the intended meaning of this meme. It would seem like “” would like us to think that in 1850, the world was a much more educated place because 98% (of… something…) were literate.

But let’s examine the statement “literacy was at 98 percent.” Talk about a loaded statement! 98 percent of students could decode a text? 98 percent of eligible voters could read the ballot? 98% of families owned a book? What does “literacy was at 98 percent” mean?

Maybe there was a test, and 98% of the kids passed it, which is good, except perhaps before Massachusetts made education compulsory, only kids who could read went to school.

Literacy is complicated. There are some parts of education that are easy to measure. (For example, attendance, homework completion, correct multiple-choice answers, grade-point average). We’d like literacy to be easier, so we invest in tests like DIBELS that attempt take a student’s literacy and work it down to a set of ratings that are easy to communicate. The ACT does the same thing with college readiness. College readiness is complicated, too, but reading an ACT score isn’t complicated.

We’ve tried to quantify as much as we can. We’ve tried to quantify student performance, teacher performance, curriculum performance. We want to know how well they are working. We want to know where we are being successful and where we are letting our students down. That’s a good thing.

The problem is that there are some incredibly important parts of education that are very difficult to measure. Like, impact of an individual classroom management strategy on student achievement, student engagement, scheduling classes to optimize student achievement or the role of extra-curriculars. These are HUGE questions with answers that are not easily quantified. And most school districts are without the means (time, money, qualified personnel) to do an in-depth analysis necessary to achieve a well-rounded look at a complicated issue like overall student achievement for each student each year. So we substitute with some easier to achieve metrics like DIBELS, an ACT score, and grade point average.

And those have become our Pitcher Wins, RBI, and Home Run. They don’t tell us nearly enough of the story.

Where’s our sabermetrics? Where can education go to see the stats that can combine to provide a more three-dimensional look at our system, our teachers, and our students? I understand why baseball got the first turn with the statisticians. There’s way more money in it. Maybe some of you stats folks who have decided that your financial future is secure wouldn’t mind e-mailing me. We’ll sit down. I’ll share with you the data I have (a ton) and we can develop some formulas that produce some metrics. Maybe you can tell me how well that curriculum program is working? How about what kind of environment a particular student performs best in? Which types of literacy patterns are strong predictors for future struggles in mathematics or science?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Policies of Fear

photo credit: Flickr user "Orange42" - used under Creative Commons - no changes were made besides resizing -

photo credit: Flickr user “Orange42” – used under Creative Commons – no changes were made besides resizing –

What are we afraid of?

In education? A lot of things, it seems. At least that could be the assumption if someone looked at the ways that we use policy to make decisions on behalf of our young people.

The causal onlooker might assume…

We are afraid that our young people (and their families) won’t value the education we provide. (That’s why we have laws that require students to come to school until they reach the age of 18.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value mathematics. (That’s why we require students to take four years of mathematics in high school successfully completing at least Algebra II.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value reading and writing. (That’s why we require students to take four years of English Language Arts in high school.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value college readiness. (That’s why we require each student to be given the ACT test during their junior year of high school.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value other cultures. (That’s why we require each student to successfully complete two years of a foreign language.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value their own health. (That’s why we require them to take gym class. That’s why we require them to be served vegetables. That’s why we outlaw soda.)

So, our policies have helped us fend off that which we fear, right? Well, not so fast. We can legislate our students to be on site, and largely we have. The compulsory attendance rules are enough to convince the overwhelming majority of students to attend their classes almost daily. But it can’t make them value it.

Consider the likely state of a basketball team if each student was require to play a season. Coaches would probably spend an awful lot of their practice time deciding what to do about student who are literally only there because the state requires them to be. This would take its toll on the quality of the coaching that the program would be able to provide.

And because of the inherently competitive nature of basketball, we have no problem making decisions in the best interest of the quality of the programming. While I am not advocating for tryouts and cuts into the high school mathematics program, I think that it is fair to assume that the compulsory nature of the program has the same effect… and that the effect is undesirable.

As a math teacher, my job has never been so secure. The state has ensured my classes are full every hour, every year. Those kids don’t have a choice. They have to get through Algebra II and they have to take a math class their senior year if they should happen to go on ahead (that’s the law in Michigan, where I teach). They don’t have to value mathematics. They just have to earn credit.

So, we’ve won, right? Armed with 4 years of math, they are ready for college… Well, not so fast. Still much remediation is needed at the college level (at least in New York… and Washington… and California… and Illinois… ).

We can legislate them sitting in class. We can’t legislate that they value it. And they appear not to be valuing it.  An article from the APA discuss this very issue:

Teachers have observed that after second or third grade, many students begin to show signs of losing their motivation to learn. What happened to that natural eagerness to go to school and the curiosity to learn that is so apparent in preschool, first, and second grade students? Why do students progressively seem to take less responsibility for their own learning? This challenge only grows as students move from upper elementary to secondary school levels. (from Barbara McCombs, emphasis mine)

This seems like a natural consequence of us increasing the amount of non-negotiables that we a putting on our students. Think like a teenager: What’s the point of taking ownership if you are simply going to tell us everything that we have to do anyway?

The article continues to assert that motivation improves as teachers “provide meaningful choices” to help “students develop a sense of ownership over the learning process.” Also that, “motivation to learn is a thoughtful process of aligning student choices so that students see the value of these choices as tools for meeting their learning needs and goals.”

Finally, that we teachers should “involve students in setting objectives” and “appeal to student interest and curiosity.”

So, now we are faced with a very real conundrum. If ownership improves motivation, what is the natural consequence of legally forcing our young people to come to a place where most of their decisions are made for them?

Policymakers saw a problem with math achievement, so they require kids to take more math, removing a certain amount of ownership from the students. Well, when ownership drops, motivation follows. When motivation drops, achievement follows. When achievement drops, new policies are put in place that remove a little more ownership from the students. Then ownership suffers, and when that happens… you see where this might be headed?

And just like people simply never “got used” to prohibition, it seems unreasonable that students will eventually begin to self-motivate in a place where there is very little academic autonomy.

All this having been said, I don’t think compulsory education is going away. I don’t think math requirements are going away. So, what are we to do?

That makes the job of the math teacher to do everything they can to convince students that our math classes are useful. (I’ve talked about this before: In my “useless math class” series from earlier in the year.) Each course they take is an opportunity to learn how to model and solve problems of ever-increasing complexity and realism. Each course provides practice at modeling life situation mathematically because the math provides the means to focus on the essential variables of the problem. Each course provides an opportunity to develop a way to cope with the struggles that come with learning challenging material and being supported in the process of developing deeper understanding.

The education system is facing a problem in the area of mathematics. But low achievement is a symptom. It isn’t the problem. The problem is that our classes aren’t valued by our young people. That is a problem we can’t policy away. That is a problem we have to fix in the classroom by putting our students through valuable experience after valuable experience after valuable experience. The #MTBoS is working hard to develop those experiences for teachers at all levels.

Given the ways that the policies are undercutting our classes effectiveness, the conversation has never been more important.

Reflecting on the Common Core…

photo credit: flickr user "Irargerich" - Used under Creative Commons

photo credit: flickr user “Irargerich” – Used under Creative Commons

A lot has been said about the Common Core State Standards in the last year. Some of it has been by me. Some has been by guys like Glenn Beck who is not a big fanMost (if not all) states have some sort of a “Stop Common Core” group. There is even a #stopcommoncore hashtag on Twitter that turns up quite a few results (although some use that hashtag as a means of highlighting objections in the arguments of CCSS opponents.)

The pub isn’t all negative. Some groups, The NEA among them, have come out in favor. Phil Valentine has some good things to say in support.

It is possible that both sides are probably overstating the impact that the CCSS will have. That being said, I will admit that I have some opinions on the CCSS. This year is our first year introducing a new geometry curriculum that we designed around the CCSS. I’ve written a few pieces before this one that have chronicled my journey through a CCSS-aligned geometry class. For example, I’ve documented that the CCSS places a greater emphasis on the use of specific vocabulary that I was used to in the past. I have also discussed (both here AND here) that the CCSS has present the idea of mathematical proof in a different light that I have found to be much more engaging to the students.

As I read the different articles that are being written, it seems like the beliefs about the inherent goodness or badness of CCSS has a lot to do with how you view the most beneficial actions of the teacher and the student in the process of learning. It’s about labels. Proponents call it “creativity” or “open-ended”. Opponents call it “wishy-washy” or “fuzzy”.

I suspect they are seeing and describing the same thing and disagreeing on whether or not those things are good or bad.

To illustrate this point further, a “Stop Common Core” website in Oregon posted a condemned CCSS math lesson because the students “must come to consensus on whether or not the answer is correct” and “convince others of their opinion on the matter.” The piece ends with “What do opinions and consensus have to do with math?”

The authors of this website are objecting to a teaching style. They are objecting to the value of a student’s opinion in the process of learning mathematics. Fair enough, but that was an argument long before the CCSS came around. I can remember heated discussions during my undergrad courses about the role of student opinion and discussion. (My personal favorite was the discussion as to when, if ever, 1/2 + 1/2 = 2/4 is actually a correct answer. One of my classmates rather vehemently ended his desire to be a math teacher that day.)

The CCSS have become a lightning rod for a ton of simmering arguments that haven’t been settled and aren’t new.

Consensus-building and opinions in mathematics vs. the authority of the instructor and the textbook. Classical literature vs. technical reading. The CCSS have woken up a lot of frustrations that are leading to some high-level decisions such as the Michigan State House of Representatives submitting a budget that blocks the Department of Education’s spending on the CCSS.

It is a little strange thinking that I am making a statement in a fairly-heated national debate every time I give my students some geometry to explore, but it seems like I do.

And I am prepared to make that statement more explicitly as I continue this reflection.