Characteristics of Effective Learning
One of the characteristics of all effective learning experiences in our lives – including those learning experiences that occur outside the classroom – is that they are memorable. Many teachers do their best to make classroom instruction memorable. But if teachers limit themselves to traditional lectures and bubble sheet test prep activities as their entire instructional tactical arsenal, their efforts will be forgotten. There are many ways to create memorability: authentic assessments with an audience, academic contests, experimental activities, school/workplace collaborations, etc. Effective learning and teaching requires a combination of those strategies.
At the same time, we need reliable, believable, numerical measures of student learning. Without these reliable academic measures, children from poverty would almost certainly experience more inequity than they’re already experiencing in our educational system.[i] Bubble sheet tests with their reliable essays and simple extended problems that include packaged scoring rubrics provide us with data that can help us make decisions about how to proceed with academic improvement efforts. Without these tests and some common standards that guide the test and curriculum development, we’re guaranteed to have a disjointed system of mostly weak standards and tests across the country. And our race to the top will quickly become a race to the bottom.[ii]
Anyone who says we don’t need standardized tests is kidding themselves. The question is: How do we marry those two different measurement systems into something that helps our students learn and increases the odds they’ll develop the “soft” less easily measured but very important skills and values that came from Jim’s class play?
(Sections in italics are fictional stories made from composites of multiple actual experiences.)
A district resting on its socioeconomic laurels
In 2013, I was approached about serving as interim school superintendent in the suburban Candle Central School District. I reviewed the district’s student test performance data on the New York State Education Department website, which isn’t sophisticated enough to make true comparisons as it compares apples to oranges, high poverty school districts to low poverty school districts.
So I used a sophisticated measurement of school performance developed by Charles (Charlie) Winters, a New York State School Business Official and respected colleague I had worked with on multiple projects.
As the Business Official for the Newburgh Enlarged City School District and as a consultant for the New York State Association of Small City School Districts, Mr. Winters compiled extensive data sets on student outcomes, demographics, local costs and state support. Mr. Winters used the “scatterplot” graph to display the results because he found it was an effective visual for illustrating multivariate data.
Mr. Winters’s school district comparison data became a key element in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and a companion lawsuit filed by several small cities in New York State that ended in 2006 with a plan to redistribute $5.5 billion in new aid to school districts in the state with the primary focus on serving the largest poverty populations.
I’d come up with a similar measurement based on free and reduced lunch data while I was an urban schools superintendent and before I met Mr. Winters as a way to rate the performance of elementary schools within a district. His much more comprehensive and mathematically accurate system was based on three criteria: free and reduced school lunch percentages, U.S. Census data on poverty and income data from New York State income tax filings. He found a combination of all three that was the best predictor of student performance on the state tests.
When I used Mr. Winters’s system of measurement, the Candle Central School District revealed itself to be a weak performer in comparison with other districts with similar demographics, relatively low poverty and multiple resources.
Judging by Candle Central’s test scores from the previous year (the first year of Common Core testing in the state) teachers hadn’t adjusted to new test expectations. They needed a better handle on curriculum.
I took the job and almost immediately contacted the head of the local school district consortium BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) and arranged for teacher and administrator training. I booked myself and three of the four district principals available during the summer into a three-day-long session of sixth grade math Common Core curriculum training for teachers.
The Candle elementary and middle school math teachers opted out of the training (no pun intended). A lot of that had to do with the fact that they weren’t informed of the training until a couple of weeks before it took place. The elementary school principal and the superintendent who preceded me were both consumed with trying to find new jobs at the time and, as a result, no planning was done to have the teachers available for the summer training.
The training emphasized the new Common Core sixth grade math expectations in ratio and proportion, algebra, coordinate and plane geometry and number line graphs and the more complicated and intricate word problems students were expected to solve with the new Common Core tests.
After all I had read and heard about the Common Core and how much anger it produced in schools and communities, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t all that different from the previous math curriculum. It had fewer topics that were dealt with in greater depth, including more pre-algebra and graphing and pictorial/preliminary equation problem solving tasks. The curriculum presented a higher level of challenge than the old curriculum, but the challenge levels and approach to instruction made sense and aligned with expectations in other countries that outperformed the U.S. on international measures of student academic performance. In short, the Common Core asked students and teachers to do what they should be doing. It was a good curriculum, better than the one it had replaced.
As a former math and science teacher, I could understand the changes in expectations, so I used the training time to evaluate the outlooks and thought processes of my principals, as well as those of teachers from other districts in attendance.
Teachers from the other school districts illustrated the contrast between teachers who have been teaching to a lower standard and teachers using strategies that allow students to meet higher Common Core standards.
The blame game
One of the teachers at the training was Ruth Weiss who had 20-plus years of experience teaching sixth grade math in one of the several smaller urban and socioeconomically diverse school districts in the area. She loved students and loved her job.
She peppered the trainer with questions over all three days of training. Most related to how she could effectively retain the creative projects she used with her students and still bring about high scores for her students on the Common Core tests.
For example, Ruth’s sixth graders used proportions and similar triangles with averages of multiple data measurements to estimate the height of the flagpole in front of the school. They also predicted the time it would take the district’s grounds team to mow the lawn inside the track by computing the area and measuring mowing rates with the grounds team in other areas of the school campus.
She had them estimate the daily average revenue for the cafeteria by surveying lunches and snacks purchased in a set time period, computing revenue estimates based on posted prices and discounts available to students with pre-purchased meal cards as well as students who received free and reduced price lunches and comparing it to the actual weekly revenue reported by the cafeteria staff.
She had students estimate the time it would take three different electric-powered model cars to traverse terrain in the school’s parking lot based on previous measurements for cars. Ruth ended the school year with an elaborate project that required her students to predict flight-to-ground contact times and distances for water balloons shot from a toy cannon set to different angles to the horizon.
Ruth was clearly concerned she had too much new and unfamiliar material to cover in sixth grade Common Core math, and she worried about her students who were weak in basic math facts (7 X 9 = 63) and computational skills (713/23 = 31).
New curriculum expectations would interfere with the real-world projects that typically motivated her students.
At lunch on our third and final day of training Ruth confided in me while holding back tears. The first year of the new teacher evaluation system in which 20 percent of teacher performance was based on their students’ standardized test scores had just passed, and Ruth was rated as a “developing” teacher, which was just barely above the lowest teacher performance category – “ineffective.”
Ruth said the low rating was caused by two things. First: She chose a challenging local assessment that pulled down the scores. Each teacher, with school district approval, chose a local student assessment that counted as 20 percent of the teacher’s evaluation and some chose poorly. Second: She refused to replace her customary student projects with test prep activities.
During training Ruth learned some strategies that would allow her to keep the best of her projects and simultaneously improve her test scores on the new Common Core tests.
The strategies included:
- Completing several projects after the standardized tests were given in April.
- Figuring out which projects help teach skills students need to know.
- Accumulating a portfolio of project work that’s effective, tried and tested.
- Sharing projects with other teachers and trying out their projects later in the year after the standardized tests are administered.
Timing is everything
At the same time that the new Common Core standards were being implemented, a new teacher evaluation system was being implemented with 40 percent of teacher evaluations being based on new Common Core and locally selected tests and the rest on principal observations, documented staff development and training activities completed plus lesson planning.
New York State split the 40 percent for testing into two parts with 20 percent for a “local” test selected by teachers with principal approval and 20 percent coming from the year-end state tests for grades three through eight. In the first year of implementation many teachers and districts chose the wrong test – either too easy or too hard – to make up the local portion of the testing for teacher evaluations, which ultimately led to unreliable teacher evaluations.
For the local portion, most teachers and districts erred on the side of selecting local assessments that were too easy, resulting in all of the teachers being evaluated as “effective” or “highly effective” on the local portion.
In addition, principals rated almost all of their teachers as effective or highly effective on the parts of the teacher evaluations that did not relate to test scores. The result: Statewide less than 1 percent of the teachers were rated as ineffective and fewer than 5 percent fell in the lowest two categories of “ineffective” and “developing.” [iii]
A few districts erred on the other side with local assessments that were much too difficult and had 20 percent or more of their teachers rated “ineffective.” Many of these “ineffective” teachers had produced good test results for their students for many years prior to the new teacher evaluation system and the new Common Core tests.
Not shockingly, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was incensed that less than 1 percent of teachers statewide were rated “ineffective” while 60 to 65 percent of the students scored below “proficient” on the new Common Core-based state tests in their first year of implementation. [iv]
Of course Gov. Cuomo and many others conveniently forgot that most of the students taking the new Common Core tests had been exposed to the new curriculum for only one or two years, while they had worked with a less challenging curriculum for three to eight years prior to the new standards and tests. It was too much change, initiated too quickly and tied to teacher evaluations before anyone had a chance to reasonably make the adjustments required.
It was no surprise when Gov. Cuomo announced plans to introduce legislation that would increase the weight of student test results in teacher evaluations to 50 percent and exclude the local test component. His proposal also required teacher observations by administrators outside the school district, illustrating politicians mistrust for school principals and creating an administrative nightmare for the folks who actually complete the teacher observations.
Later, Gov. Cuomo (and later U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan)[v] totally backed off on these proposed changes. Under significant political pressure from the state teachers union, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), and from droves of parents who refused to let their children take the new Common Core exams, both Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Board of Regents (state level board of education) decided to temporarily forgo teacher evaluations tied to the new Common Core test results. [vi]
Prematurely changing directions when predictable change implementation problems develop and trying the fad of the week to reform U.S. education is a pattern that repeats itself regularly in K-12 education. The pattern has been noted by many educators.[vii]
The truth about testing
I learned the truth about testing when I was assistant superintendent in the New Rochelle City School District, a diverse school district 15 miles north of New York City. Ellin Rossberg was the chairperson for the English Department for New Rochelle High School and two middle schools in the city of New Rochelle, NY.
Ellin knew more about children’s literature and effective English instruction than anyone I ever met. She was also capable of withering imperiousness when she felt I stepped over the line with my many disruptions and changes for the academic program.
Like most school districts at the time, when students arrived at New Rochelle’s two middle schools from six different elementary schools they were grouped into three skill level groups. The problem is the six elementary schools defined the three categories differently, and we needed a quick, simple, easy-to-grade test to measure student performance.
I expected to see another fill-in-the-bubble test, but Ellin had a different, time-tested, reliable method I had never seen before.
She went to each fifth grade classroom and wrote on the chalkboard in her meticulous handwriting a Shakespearean sonnet with all the Old English spellings, capitalizations and punctuation and asked the students to copy it exactly as it had been written.
Teachers collected the copies, reviewed them and sorted students based on the number of errors they made when copying the sonnet. Students with zero or one error went to the “high” group in sixth grade, students with two to three errors went to the “middle” group and students with more than three errors to the “low” group.
Relying on elementary schools for recommendations on group placement was 80 to 85 percent accurate, while Ellin’s placement rate based on this simple test was 95 percent accurate. Initially, I didn’t believe her but she convinced me with data on student transfers that resulted – or didn’t result – from her initial placements.
When it was introduced, the much vilified English language arts (ELA) Common Core exam administered to students in grades three through eight in New York State was an ordeal taking four-and-a-half hours spread out over three school days. (In 2016, New York State began to rein in test times.[viii])
I saw students vomit over fears about the Common Core tests. The tests take months to grade and the results sort students into four skill groups: excel or well above proficient; proficient; partially proficient; and well below proficient with 98 percent reliability.
Ellin’s test sorted students into three groups instead of four and took little time to produce. She gave [ix]students 15 minutes to copy the sonnet and each teacher spent an hour reviewing and scoring an entire class assessment. And Ellin’s test had 95 percent reliability. So to gain 3 percentage points we spent billions of dollars nationally and invested enormous amounts of teacher and student time. This is part of the reason why the public and especially parents have become increasingly unsupportive of the new testing expectations, opting out and using other tactics to demonstrate their displeasure.
And these new English language arts exams have none of Jim McMahon’s play’s enthusiasm, “soft skill” development and memorability.
I am certain if we could identify one of the key English language arts (ELA) test designers from the international corporation Pearson, which receives (or received) most of the millions of dollars spent nationally on newly required testing, and compel her/him to provide us with a one-hour, one-day ELA test that sorted grade three through eight students into four performance groups based on their ELA skills s/he could do it, reluctantly, but s/he could do it.
The cost and time savings would be enormous. Pearson wouldn’t like it but we need to remember: We pay them and they work for us. We design the tasks and they complete them as we expect.
Wouldn’t test reliability suffer? Yes, reliability would drop from the present 98 percent to between 96 and 97 percent, and we can all live with that. Pearson[x] and a few other companies have controlled the test design process across the country with little competition[xi] and (surprise!) they have designed a high-priced, over-engineered monster that makes them millions in profits. As a profit-making enterprise that is their goal. We should not be surprised.
Test secrecy begets fear
The roll-out of the Common Core in New York failed for multiple reasons. Besides overcomplicating the process, the teachers were unable to review sample tests, which produced fear among teachers, parents and students.
What exactly are they asking the students to do? How will the questions be worded? How can I make certain my students will be ready when I can’t see the test? Such secrecy also prevents teachers from uncovering the errors that always creep into even the best standardized tests.
The reason teachers can’t see the tests is not just for exam security; it’s because of cost. If the tests become public after they’re given, then Pearson and test companies like them have to design completely new tests every year and that costs more money for an already expensive enterprise.
Another reason for the secrecy: Pearson uses the actual tests as a way to integrate potential future test questions that don’t count in student scores (field testing them on the students).[xii] Making the tests public is incompatible with test security.
Why not keep the field test questions secret and reveal the questions that count in student scores? We’d save enough with a switch to a one-hour-long test from a four-and-a-half hour test, and then we could release the tests to everyone. It’s a move that would calm a lot of fears.
Releasing the tests would also facilitate work going on in many school districts right now to gear up for the new Common Core standards and test expectations. The smartest districts, principals and teachers are already well on their way to adjusting the curriculums, and the huge drop in student proficiency rates seen in the first two years of Common Core test implementation in New York State[xiii] and other early implementation states will largely be made up in the next 10 years. We could make this process much more efficient and cut the transition time to five years by releasing the tests.
Instructional strategies that make the Common Core work
Anthony Tompkins, a sixth grade teacher in the Common Core training group I attended with Candle Central School District educators, was a tall, slender, 28-year-old African American math teacher. He had been teaching math for seven years and during our three-day-long training session offered some excellent tips on how he’d produced outstanding results on the new Common Core sixth-grade math test – a test students statewide found impossibly difficult.
One of the teachers in our training voiced concern over her students’ weak math fact and computational skills and the time she had to invest to help these students improve these key skills while the students who knew these skills sat on their hands.
“This is one of the few areas where technology can really help,” Anthony told her.
He explained how all of his students use five computers set up in a corner of his classroom in rotating groups during five-minute sessions throughout the class period. During the brief sessions students complete quick math fact and computational challenges at the appropriate level based on their previous performance on the program.
The software program Anthony recommended works on leftover computers found in closets in most schools, and gives the teacher diagnostic information on each student. With that diagnostic information, Anthony zeros in on student weakness and with one or two minutes of focused one-on-one tutoring, while the other students are working on other math activities, moves them past their mini math roadblock. Anthony likened this work on the computer to athletes working out in the weight room every day to gain strength.
Several teachers in the training mentioned not having enough time to cover all the material expected by the new curriculum and the difficult challenge level of the math concepts.
Anthony shook his head: “Man, you guys are stressing way too much and letting these students off too easy,” he said.
For each unit Anthony told them he covered only the topics in the curriculum. And that meant weeding out extraneous topics in the math textbook and in his old lesson plans that were not in the new curriculum, which amounted to about 50 percent of what he had previously taught his students prior to the Common Core standards.
Anthony also said he limited the days he spent on each required topic to the number of days suggested on the state education department’s online curriculum map. For example: Ratios and unit rates, 35 days.
Some teachers objected and said this amounted to spending all their time teaching to the test. Anthony responded that his textbook included every conceivable topic any sixth grade math teacher in the country might address and no one could do justice to all of that curriculum material. Trying to cover the whole textbook was a guaranteed way to ensure the curriculum was a mile wide and an inch deep.
“By focusing solely on the topics in the curriculum and on the tests, I do a much better job of ensuring students master the critical and more intellectually challenging skills,” Anthony said. And, he said, this approach leaves the teaching of other critical skills to teachers at other grade levels where they belong.
When teachers argued that 35 days for this unit was insufficient, he told them his sixth graders finished the test for the ratios and unit rates on day 28. The trainer, who knew Anthony personally and had planned to use him as a plant to improve the training all along, smiled and asked Anthony to explain how he did this. Anthony described an elaborate and very scientific approach to his work in the classroom.
During the first 20 days of instruction on a unit, each week included three days of what teachers would normally call “instruction.”
Each 40-minute math class began with a two-minute math challenge on the front board based on the previous day’s or week’s lesson. This warm-up activity was collected and graded by Anthony before the next day’s class.
He followed with an eight to 12 minute lecture on the new content and skills he wanted students to understand and use for the rest of that class period. The eight to 12 minutes of lecture included one or two minutes of preview to tie what he was saying into previous lessons and one or two minutes of wrap-up and summary.
“Talk less and teach more” was Anthony’s motto.
What Anthony meant by “teach more” became apparent as he described his methods and what happened in his classroom on a typical day in greater detail. Following his initial mini lecture on the ratio and unit rates unit, he divided his students into groups of four or five, grouping them based on ability and personality type.
These groups then solved math problems related to Anthony’s mini lectures, but with a few problems mixed in from mini lectures from previous days, weeks and months.
Every five minutes, Anthony’s phone alarm sounded and one or two students from each group of four or five would head to the computers to practice math computational and math fact skills for five minutes. When they returned to the group, one of their peers in the group helped them get up to speed on what the group had done during their absence. With five minutes to go in the period Anthony announced he would collect the group’s work in two minutes. When the time came, all of the students handed in their work to Anthony in a group packet.
Anthony reviewed student work every day, returned it to students the next day with feedback and gave bonus points on major tests to each group based on the number of correct answers given by the entire group.
If the weaker students performed poorly, their performance negatively impacted the group’s bonus opportunities so the better performing students had an incentive to help their weaker peers. But because the students were working for bonus points on the test, no one was penalized if her/his group did not do well on the tests. Anthony used the errors he saw students making in this group work and on their daily start-up challenges and adjusted the next day’s mini lecture accordingly.
“I figured out early on when I was talking at the front of the room my students weren’t really doing the math; I was doing the math,” Anthony said. “They’re the ones who need to do it with me there to monitor and help them if they’re going to learn.”
This process – a kick-off activity followed by group work – went on each day for the first three days of the week. On day four students completed a 20-minute review activity in groups and took a 20-minute independent test covering the content and skills taught in the three lessons from days one, two and three of the week (with a few review questions from previous units thrown in).
Anthony collected the tests and graded them that night and used the results to break the students into three bigger groups of six to nine students.
The next day in class (the fifth and last day of the week or mini unit) the group of six to nine students with the highest scores on the mini unit test were assigned “challenge” activities requiring them to go beyond what had been taught in class that week with the possibility of earning bonus points for correct solutions to the challenge activities. Some of the students worked on these tasks individually and others worked in groups. They all turned in their completed work at the end of class to be graded.
The six to nine mid-level scorers on the mini unit test were given “extension” activities that reinforced the content and skills at the same level of difficulty demonstrated on the mini unit test.
This same group also worked in small groups of two and three students or singly as they chose and their work was collected at the end of class and graded. Correctly completed “extension” activities could be used to replace incorrect answers on mini unit tests for grading purposes.
Anthony took the remaining six to nine weakest mini unit test performers to the side of the classroom and retaught some of the key concepts they missed on the exam using a different approach. After 12 to 15 minutes of working with the “re-teach group,” Anthony circulated in the room to check on student progress for the other groups while the re-teach group completed tasks he would collect and grade to determine whether or not his re-teach efforts were successful.
Again, corrected work on the re-teach activities was used to replace incorrect answers on the mini unit exam for grade book purposes.
Math: Not a spectator sport
I had the same experience as Anthony when I was a math teacher in the 1970s. After a long day of teaching at the blackboard and overhead projector, I turned around and realized my math students were just sitting back and watching and listening while I did all the work in the front of the classroom.
Their test scores on unit after unit showed that my hard work was not resulting in their understanding and being able to apply what I had taught. It was discouraging to say the least. I remember one day in frustration blurting out to one of my classes: “Math is not a spectator sport. You can’t just sit there and watch me do it.”
I assigned and collected homework to be graded, but the students who needed the practice the most didn’t usually do the homework or did it in a rush, all wrong but “completed.” Going through the motions with their homework was no help to their learning. So I made a huge shift in my teaching approach that paid big dividends in student learning.
I limited myself to two to four days of traditional lecture at the overhead or the blackboard. Then I had the students working on a “practice test” in groups in the classroom with me circulating to offer hints and suggestions. I gave no answers just hints and suggestions.
The practice test was challenging and took the best students in the class two hours or more in the classroom and at home to complete. It had the hardest questions I could find on the topic being taught and I graded these tests (one composite test from each group) and gave bonus points to the groups in the classroom with the best overall practice test score.
These bonus points were used by all the group members as an add-on to their scores on the actual unit test (40 minutes in length or one full class period and including questions of moderate difficulty, similar to the questions students would encounter on the Regents exam at the end of the year).
Frequently, the practice test took one whole week of instructional time and when the week was done as a way to prepare for the actual unit test I gave each student a copy of the practice test’s answer key so they could make their own corrections.
Initially, students worked on the practice test only in my classroom. Then one student who wanted to improve his grades convinced me he could learn more if I let him work on the practice test at home. Turns out he received help from his older sister who was a math whiz.
My first reaction on finding this out from another student who felt disadvantaged was horror that I was letting him cheat with help from another student. Then I realized that if he was able to learn the math this way, why not encourage it. So the “practice test” rules changed. It was “anything goes.” I didn’t care if your sister helped you, your older brother at college, if students worked in groups at home or if parents contributed. All I cared about was whether they could demonstrate on the actual test they had learned the math and could apply it themselves.
All of a sudden my students were arguing over the correct solutions to math problems in the cafeteria, on the bus and in the hallway before school. They were also much more engaged in their math study and more successful on the unit tests.
Anthony’s prep test
On day 21 of instruction for the unit on ratios and unit rates, Anthony said he handed out a copy of a preparation test. The prep test included the most challenging problems his students would possibly face on the end-of-unit ratios and unit rates test.
Groups worked together for the next five class periods completing the preparation test. Each student had a copy of the prep test and the group as a whole produced a handwritten copy with answers written by all members of the group on a rotating basis.
Anthony circulated as students worked, offering hints and questions but no answers. They were allowed to use textbooks, notebooks, parents and older siblings, evening phone calls to each other and to older siblings away at college, and even use the Internet to help them complete the prep test.
At the end of class on day five of prep test week (day 25 of the unit), Anthony collected each group’s prep test. He graded it that night (learning requires immediate feedback) and returned it to the group with corrected copies for each group member and an answer key for the preparation test. The group grade on the preparation test would correspond to a set of bonus points on the actual individual end-of-unit test.
How a 5” X 8” index card helps instruction
Anthony’s instructional tactics reminded me of a special education teacher whose classes I observed when I was a high school principal. Her students had trouble remembering details from each unit and organizing the ideas so they could make sense of them for essays that were part of the state exams they had to pass. She encouraged them to create a “cheat sheet” for every subject.
They wrote the details they might need during a unit test and organized them by unit topic on the 5” X 8” card for each corresponding subject. Each student’s card was unique based on her/his own memory and test taking issues. They used pictures or diagrams, wrote down words they found difficult to spell, made notes of dates and names. Whatever they needed. And she allowed students to use their 5” X 8” cards when they took their unit test.
I was certain this was cheating and students wouldn’t retain enough information to pass the state exam where the “cheat sheets” would be prohibited. But in the end she convinced me that when the end of the year arrived her students would have the information on their 5” X 8” cards committed to memory.
She was right. Her “struggling students” aced the state exam and proved me wrong, ultimately internalizing the information on the cards through repeated use. The 5” X 8” cards were worn and well used by the time the state exam arrived.
Using the grading key Anthony provided for the prep test and their own mini unit tests, class notes and corrected copies of the prep test, students worked in groups in class on day 26 of the unit, creating a two-sided 5”X 8” index card with “cheat sheet” type notes for the upcoming individual unit test on ratios and unit rates.
Students crammed in as much information as possible using black ink to fill side one with reminders, notes and problem examples and red ink on the top half of the back to summarize their corrections from key errors on the mini unit tests and the prep test.
The bottom half of the back of the 5” X 8” card was purposely left blank. Anthony circulated and explained errors and corrections from the prep test and shared with the whole class on the overhead good notes he had seen on student 5” X 8” cards.
On day 28, Anthony administered a full period (40 minute) test on ratio and unit rates to all of his sixth grade math classes. This test included questions that reflected Anthony’s best guess at what they might encounter on this topic on the end-of-year state math test plus a sprinkling of questions on topics from previous units. Students referred to their 5” X 8” index cards for the unit on ratios and unit rates and for all previously completed units as they took the test.
Some of the teachers in the training were skeptical of his practices, but Anthony explained that he included questions from previous units on all of his unit tests. By having students create these cards and use them throughout the year to study for and take each unit exam they were forcing themselves to remember what was on the cards.
By the end of the year and before the state tests they had committed the cards to memory. In addition, time spent reviewing material was much more efficient when done in short bursts throughout the year rather than all at once at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, despite Anthony’s clear understanding of the new Common Core standards and his careful study of the curriculum on the state education department website what he thought would be on the state test was a best guess because Anthony couldn’t see real examples of the sixth grade test due to exam security policies.
Anthony said he corrected all of his students’ tests that evening, an arduous task of about five hours for the 120 students assigned to his five classes, but he emphasized that this quick turnaround for graded student work was key to his success.
On day 29, Anthony said he divided his class into three groups based on unit test scores.
The “extra challenges” group used the lower half of the back of their 5” X 8” cards to record in blue ink notes on the unit test questions they had missed. They used the remaining time during the next six class days to complete two “expansion” projects similar to those Ruth Weiss did with her class.
Anthony said these projects were selected due to their interesting and motivational nature, their “soft skill” development and their memorability.
Each project included a rigorous scoring rubric students had to familiarize themselves with as they completed independent learning tasks in small groups of two to four students. They earned grade book bonus points for accurately completed project work.
The second group completed the same 5” X 8” card and then completed several sample problems similar to those found on the prep test for the topics they had missed on the unit test, selecting their specific questions from a bank of problems pre-selected by Anthony. Correct answers replaced missed questions on their unit exam for grade book purposes. After this work was done in one to three class periods, this second group completed at least one “expansion” project.
Anthony pulled the last group of six to nine students to the side and retaught one of the pre-selected key concepts many of them had missed on the unit test. He did this every day for the next four days and helped students as they completed the final corrections for their 5” X 8” cards.
They took a quiz every day on the retaught material with review questions and questions from other parts of the unit mixed in and while this quiz was being completed Anthony circulated to offer help to students working on “expansion” projects.
Anthony collected the final quizzes and all the work completed by the other two groups every day and graded it and returned it the next time class met. Correctly completed questions replaced incorrect answers on the unit test in Anthony’s grade book. Completed project work earned bonus points for students regardless of which group they were in.
Lastly, Anthony explained that his room was always open for his students before school, during lunch and after school to retake any portion of any exam or quiz and replace any question any student had missed on a test or quiz with a replacement question preapproved by Anthony.
This process could be repeated until the student answered a question correctly or until they were satisfied with their grade. The only expectation was students had to show up in his room with their math notebook showing all the completed homework, quizzes, notes, prep tests, unit tests and 5” X 8” cards. Almost half of Anthony’s students had a 4.00 grade-point average for sixth grade math.
“I could never do that,” one of the teachers in training said. “I believe in high standards for students and besides these students will have you giving them make-up tests and questions forever if you let them. You’re doing too much for them. They need to work harder.”
“It’s true; I’m working harder to provide added testing opportunities. But they’re working harder too,” Anthony said. “Actually, the harder I work, the harder they work,” he said.
“This new Common Core curriculum and these new tests are difficult and that means students and teachers have to work harder. Students who try a tough test question five times before they get it right work harder than students who get it right on the first try. And in the end the student who tried to answer the question five times knows as much as the student who answered it right on the first try.
“If they have worked harder and they know just as much, why shouldn’t they get the same grade?” Anthony asked. “I like to think what I am doing is the definition of having high expectations for all my students.”
Not the only way
Anthony’s approach is not the only way to be successful with the Common Core or any challenging set of academic standards. Many theme-based schools, magnet schools and charter schools and many effective teachers in regular public schools combine instructional approaches.
Some common instructional elements are found in all these successful approaches, including:
- Daily multilevel instruction that provides extra challenges for students who are ready for them and re-teaching for students who need it.
- Limited time in whole group lecture.
- More time in individual and small group student work with teachers circulating to coach and support students as they work.
- Authentic assessments that encourage student creativity, problem solving and teamwork.
- Opportunities for students to improve their grades through re-testing.
- Daily corrections of group work and individual student work to provide feedback for student improvement.
- Diagnosis of student learning for instructional adjustments by the teacher.
You have to assess students every day, diagnose learning needs every day and adjust instruction every day. Instruction and assessment are the same thing. You have to know where learners are.
The teachers talk
At 3 p.m. on Friday, the training ended and about a third of the teachers left, but many stayed behind to ask questions of the trainer and Anthony.
I sat in the back of the room with my three principals as quiet as a mouse. When one of my principals started to make a comment, I gestured silently for her to sit back and listen, and we did.
These teachers had grown accustomed to our sitting there. We were not their bosses so my guess was we were hearing real and valuable teacher thoughts and fears about the new Common Core standards, the new tests based on those standards and the teacher evaluation system tied to them. This is what we heard.
First, Ruth, the teacher who wanted to continue using her cadre of expansion projects, expressed her fears about giving up her projects as she switched over to Anthony’s approach.
Anthony reassured her that his students did many similar projects and that he would be glad to help her adjust her projects in order to fit as many as possible into his suggested time schedule. Three others asked if they could be part of that ongoing conversation, and they all exchanged email addresses.
Another teacher spoke up. “I want to first apologize if I say this wrong, but I think Anthony’s suggested teaching approach amounts to all test prep all the time. Anthony, don’t you want to have any say in what you teach these students? You’re spending all your time preparing them for this test.”
Anthony responded: “Before the Common Core I pretty much followed my textbook and reviewed for the test in March and April. I threw in a few projects I liked at the end of the year after the state test.
“Now, I follow the Common Core guidelines and throw in many of the same projects after the unit tests and at the end of the year. What I’m teaching is not that different from before. It’s actually less content now. It’s more challenging content and skills but fewer topics. What is really different is how I am teaching with more group work, more re-teaching and a lot more extra challenges and expanded projects for the students who are ready for them.”
Anthony admitted that he didn’t think he was the one who should be setting the standards for the curriculum and that, that was a job for the state education department. He did, however, want to determine how to teach the standards. He thought his students were working harder and doing more challenging math in his classroom than they were before the Common Core.
Another teacher came back to the grading issue. “Anthony, don’t your students just take advantage of you with this constant re-testing and all the chances to improve their grades. Aren’t you just giving high grades to students who really don’t understand the math?”
“Look, I know it’s hard to believe but try it,” Anthony said. “Teach one section using this approach for one marking period and review your results. I bet you’ll move all your classes to the grading-and-instructional approach I’m advocating after one marking period. You’ll see the results in student motivation.
“Yes, some of the students will take advantage,” he said, “more than I like to admit, but overall it’s worth it because I get so much more out of them on a daily basis.”
The proof was in the test scores. Students Anthony initially expected to score 1’s or 2’s achieved 3’s and even 4’s on the tests.
“I can set up a grading system where students sometimes take advantage of me but are working hard all the time and learning higher level math or I can set up a grading system that makes certain they don’t ever take advantage of me and learn less.”
One teacher asked a question I knew from experience was probably a concern for several in our training group. “When I try group work and projects where students are doing more independent tasks on their own without my direct guidance, my students misbehave, joke around and waste time. They don’t complete the tasks I set up for them to do. Anthony’s approach requires a kind of student that isn’t showing up in my classroom.”
Ruth responded to the question/comment. “I struggled with the same problem for years until I signed up for a teacher training session offered here by BOCES called Classroom Management for Open-Ended Instruction,” she said. “The instructor is great and she provides real strategies that will help you and your students better manage open-ended tasks more effectively. I could never do the projects I do now without those strategies.”
Several others who had taken the same training agreed.
A quiet teacher who hadn’t spoken at all in three days chimed in. “I wish this training had been available last summer. My students and I would have done better with the state test. But I’m concerned about finding time in my schedule to create three different lesson plans for three levels of student for every topic and grading all the quizzes and test papers and returning them to students the next day. And unless I missed something, this is necessary to make Anthony’s system work.”
Anthony responded. “The first year is a killer, but I’ll be able to re-use 70 percent of what I created for lesson plans last year again this year. The other 30 percent will be new strategies and content. By the way I plan to talk a lot with Ruth about her excellent projects because integrating some of what she has created will be a good part of that 30 percent of the change I’m envisioning.”
Anthony made another suggestion: “Share lesson planning tasks with the other teachers,” he said. “One can produce ‘challenge tasks’ for this unit, another can produce ‘expansion projects’ and another can work on organizing activities for re-teaching. Also, I have most of my stuff in Word documents. I can share it electronically.”
The trainer assured everyone she would share Anthony’s email address.
“And I spend every available minute during the school day correcting papers so that at night I don’t have to take as much home as you might think,” Anthony added.
I sit in front of the television with papers to be corrected and correct at every commercial. If I have leftover papers at bedtime I set the alarm a little early to finish them off in the morning. I average one minute per student a day of paper correction time or two hours for my 120 students. And my prep time this first year, without the help of other teachers, was about 90 minutes per day and that was for all three levels. It’s hard work, but it’s doable.”
Then another teacher spoke up. “Look, I know these new tests and this new curriculum are probably what we should be teaching but this teacher evaluation system isn’t fair.”
Another agreed. “We had no warning and no time to prepare. The new curriculum arrives and with it the new tests and – boom! – our evaluations are pulled down because of student test scores on a test we’ve never even seen. On top of that, this was the first year our students ever experienced the Common Core standards. For seven years from pre-k to grade five we have one expectation and all of a sudden in grade six they drop this test on them and on us?! That’s not right.”
Meanwhile another teacher said her district picked the wrong local tests and 25 percent of the teachers were deemed “ineffective.” And this happened in a school district with some of the highest state test scores in the region.
One teacher was obviously angry. “More than half our teachers have no state tests to worry about in their evaluations,” she said. “That’s totally unfair!”
The first teacher who had spoken on this issue spoke again. “If there’s a problem with tenure then fix the tenure law. Why do they have to tie teacher evaluations to brand new tests?”
And her angry friend sitting next to her spat out: “They set the cut scores where they did just to make us all look bad. They knew before the test was given how many students would achieve below proficient. This was rigged. I read it in the newspaper.” [xiv]
Then the trainer responded: “You’re right this isn’t fair, but it is reality. And we can make it work if we follow the curriculum, use the tactics we’ve talked about these past three days and maintain a positive, professional attitude.”
On that note: They all headed home.
Let’s unpack and analyze teacher concern
Ruth’s concern that she will have to lose all of her creative and motivational projects is real but probably overstated. Anthony integrated a number of projects into his approach and will likely use Ruth’s ideas to integrate more.
In the past, Ruth used 100 out of 180 class periods for her projects. Some of this was time wasted.
Meanwhile, Anthony used about 40 class periods for project completion in his first year with the Common Core and will be increasing this to 60 periods with year two’s improvements.
If Ruth improved her classroom management and her procedures for moving students through the project work more efficiently, she could keep most of what she does with her projects in this 60-period allotment and at the same time align the projects more closely with the Common Core expectations.
Many teachers need training in classroom management and procedures for open-ended student projects and group activities and a wise principal would organize this type of classroom management training for teachers.
Another place where Anthony manages time well is in his mini lectures. Too many teachers spend too much time lecturing to their students when the students learn better working individually and in groups on the content and skills the curriculum requires. This means fewer and more focused, brief lectures.
Ultimately, Anthony’s methods are more time consuming and more challenging for the teacher, but there’s no way around it. The daily grind of grading papers and readjusting instruction are a requirement of the job and the job may take more than eight hours a day.
Gains in teacher effectiveness will only come with better planning, daily feedback to students about their learning and fewer long, boring lectures. That goes for every kind of education, every kind of learning, whether it’s a doctor trying to educate her/his diabetic patients on how to live healthier lives and mitigate the damage to their overall health and well-being or the algebra teacher trying to educate students in her/his classroom.
Anthony’s two hours of daily paper correction provides each student in his class with 25 to 30 minutes of individual personalized feedback before the end-of-unit exam is given. That’s the data that really needs to be produced and analyzed so that instruction can be differentiated and the education system improved.
As Anthony circulates in his classroom, while his students are completing individual and group work, his students receive more targeted feedback that improves their understanding. Teachers who lecture can try to check for student understanding with oral group and individual questions and verbal and nonverbal responses from students, but nothing beats leaning over a student’s shoulder and asking the right question to diagnose student understanding and identify learning roadblocks.
Anthony’s daily classroom circulation interactions with his students allow him to offer his students exactly the right personalized hint, encouragement or correction.
Anthony’s students have opportunities to improve and correct their errors before the end-of-unit exam and even after that exam because of his re-testing procedures. Contrast Anthony’s approach with what happens in most classrooms where students take a unit exam, receive a grade and then move on, and you’ll understand why Anthony’s a more effective teacher.
Teachers frequently complain students seldom really even read or react to their comments and corrections after hours of paper grading. Why would they? They can’t change the past in a test-and-move-on culture.
Anthony’s response to the “succumbing to test prep all the time” accusation is on target. This is a very common and important teacher concern.[xv] His classroom is NOT all test prep all the time. In fact, he’s getting students ready for the test by having them take the test and giving them feedback so they can correct their errors. This is how we’ve all learned everything we know. It’s not a new idea.[xvi]
The picture Anthony paints of his classroom is a high-energy, not-a-minute wasted, teamwork-oriented learning environment. Yes, class time is focused clearly on the topics and skills that will be measured on the sixth grade Common Core math test. But do we really want Anthony or any other sixth grade math teacher teaching something else?
Anthony is also on target with regard to who should set the standards for the curriculum. The sixth grade math teacher in your local middle school is not the person who should be determining what math skills sixth graders should be learning and the appropriate challenge level of that learning.
Yes, that local math teacher should be as creative and inspiring as possible in seeing to it that her/his students meet and exceed the standards, but s/he should not be deciding the standards.
When we talk about standards we’re talking about which basic content and skills are taught and learned. Most sixth grade math teachers are not qualified to make that judgment.
Like Anthony, all teachers have carte blanche when it comes to determining how the curriculum is taught but not what skills and content students are required to learn. That is the job of the state and federal education departments.
But isn’t the Common Core a mistake? Aren’t a number of states having second thoughts and backing out? Every time New York State increased the expectations for students with Basic Competency Tests in the 1970s, Regents Competency Tests in the 1980s, Regents exam passing grades for all high school graduates in the 1990s and finally No Child Left Behind state tests in the 2000s, many teachers and some parents said our students couldn’t pass these tests and pressured the state to give up on the new expectations. And every time these teachers and parents were wrong. We should initially expect lower test proficiency rates, but eventually, as students and teachers adjust to these new expectations, the test results will improve.[xvii] For once, let’s be patient.
Common Core myths
The Common Core standards are not a mistake despite their recent decrease in popularity.[xviii] Myths about the Common Core standards and their failure are prevalent but mostly misguided.[xix] The standards are tied to a new, more challenging curriculum more in line with the academic expectations for students in countries that outperform the U.S. on international achievement tests and more in line with the expectations of the global workplace and for good citizenship for the future. These standards are “rigorous and traditional” according to Michael Petrelli of the Fordham Institute.[xx] Many teachers who initially resisted the Common Core are now proponents.[xxi] And, when all is said and done, the U.S. student testing system is not all that onerous.[xxii]
Good arguments can be made that changing the standards and increasing test difficulty by themselves won’t raise achievement and that we should have just used one of the sets of standards already in place in our most effective states like Massachusetts. Unfortunately, we didn’t just duplicate what was working in Massachusetts, and we’re now far enough down the road we should continue rather than change directions yet again.
One of the biggest reasons why U.S. efforts at education reform over the past 40 years have failed time and again is unnecessary changes in direction as soon as we encounter reform difficulties. And then there’s the excuse that the Common Core is taking all the fun and tradition out of school.[xxiii] Of course, that excuse is probably coming from some folks who would rather waste a couple of weeks getting ready for the holiday pageant.
And then there’s the real truth: “There’s nothing wrong with teaching to the test if it’s a good test.” Pearson’s tests are far from perfect, but they are better in terms of the content and skills expected of students at each grade level than the tests they’re replacing.
Some school districts, schools, teachers and students who normally rank as superior in student achievement (at least in their own minds) are struggling with the implementation of Common Core which has been much too rapid in some states like my home state of New York. But it is also true that these “superior” students and schools could achieve more.[xxiv]
The politically motivated Common Core implementation calendar set by New York State’s governor, by the New York State Board of Regents and by our drive-by education commissioners was poorly timed and implemented. But a poor implementation calendar doesn’t mean we should abandon a positive, long overdue change in the curriculum.
Do more of the right things at the right time
This new curriculum asks students to do more of the right things at the right time. For example, in sixth grade math the students being taught Common Core standards are being asked to solve algebraic equations with pictures and graphs and with symbolic variables that create abstract equations. This was previously found in the eighth and ninth grade math curriculum.
Frequently, the equations U.S. students saw in their eighth or ninth grade textbooks prior to Common Core were solved without the pictures or graphs and only with abstract equations with variables. Using these pictures and graphs at the sixth grade level helps students understand more fully what the equations with variables mean and introduces them to algebra at an earlier grade level.
The math skills our sixth grade students are now learning are being taught in Japan, Korea, China and Finland – to the highest scoring math students in the world.
The same can be said for Common Core level expectations in English language arts. Before the “Every Student Succeeds Act” replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015,[xxv] New York State planned to implement Common Core level science and social studies standards that were designed to mesh with the higher standards in math and ELA. Our students and teachers can and should be achieving at these levels with this more challenging content and skills, but it will take time.
Meanwhile, jumping to firm conclusions about teacher and student performance in the first year of new tests is clearly premature. Unfortunately, in the meantime some of the parents who think their children are math, English, science and social studies stars on the world stage will be finding out otherwise for a while as we get our house in order.
That’s no reason to abandon the Common Core. Did parents really think we could increase the challenge level of the curriculum and not have their students bringing home homework problems and assignments the parents didn’t recognize? That’s nonsensical. [xxvi]
Teacher concern about the time required for paper grading and lesson planning for three different levels of students in each class is valid. Most full-time middle school and high school teachers in the U.S. teach students in their classrooms between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours a day, usually in five or six classes of 40 to 50 minutes each.
While some schools have different block schedules with longer periods, the total contact teaching time for middle and high school teachers remains in the three-and-a-half hour to four-and-a-half hour range. Most middle school and high school teachers also have a duty/supervision assignment for lunchroom, bus supervision, study halls, etc., of 30 minutes to one hour each day.
Anthony said he spent two hours a day grading papers and one and a half hours per day doing lesson planning. All told, he and his peers with similar schedules would be putting in about eight to ten hours per day to complete these tasks with some of this preparation and paper grading time done in school and some at home.
Elementary teachers spend an average of 30 to 60 minutes more per day teaching their students (most have no duty/assignment or a shorter duty period) and probably spend 30 to 60 minutes less per day on average committed to paper grading (fewer students) and preparation (much less challenging content and skills).
Note: Anthony has voluntarily extended his work day beyond the hours outlined here by giving his students opportunities to re-test on questions they missed on tests and quizzes. In any case, this is not an excessive, burnout type of schedule for a professional like a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an architect, a dentist or a teacher.
As a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent throughout my career, I worked ten to 12 hours a day during the school year with seven to eight hour days per day throughout the summer (I worked every summer.), and I had normal vacations and weekends off. All professionals should expect this type of work schedule.
However, some teachers see this issue differently. Some teacher contracts in the strong union states describe “five 42-minute class periods of instruction, one 42-minute supervision period, one 42-minute preparation period and one duty free lunch period of 30 minutes.” Some teachers and their union representatives have tried to take this to mean that all the preparation activities and paper grading must be accomplished in that 42-minute preparation period. Not so.
In addition to the three to four hours per day of preparation and paper correcting time, teacher leaders need to work the equivalent of one full month of the present two-month summer break to improve curriculum and testing for their schools. Some other selected teachers with the best skills for re-teaching should be working with the students who are struggling during one month to six weeks of the summer break to help those students catch up.
Those teachers selected to work these extra leadership roles and complete extra summer teaching assignments should be paid extra for their additional time and efforts, creating a new rung on the career ladder for teachers so that all teachers are not paid the same wage based solely on their time in the job and their educational level (masters, doctorate, graduate credit hours, etc.).
The elephant in the room
As to the “elephant in the room” – tying teacher evaluations to test scores – the answer is both complex and simple. The simple part is that the standardized test scores achieved by any teacher’s students must be an integral part of how that teacher’s performance is evaluated. When I worked as a high school principal, I always checked high school exit exam performance for students whose teachers I supervised.
Frequently, these exam results produced questions and surprises for me. Why did the students of a social studies teacher I observed using good teaching strategies perform at lower levels than expected on the Regents exam? Why had the students of a math teacher I observed to be a lackluster performer in the classroom outperform others in classes of his colleagues with seemingly better instructional strategies and work ethics? Why had the students of a teacher I considered one of my best teachers and whose students always performed well on the Regents exams taken a sudden dive after five years of exemplary performance?
It is statistically very difficult to exclusively use high school exit exams and grade three to eight end-of-year bubble sheet math and English language arts tests to develop sound conclusions about teacher effectiveness.
The student sample sizes are too small and the sample variability is too large to draw immediate conclusions.
A fourth grade teacher with a weak class of 24 students this year will look a lot worse in comparison to her/his much stronger class of 24 last year. The statistical projected growth measurements for students (most frequently called value-added), which take into account each student’s prior exam performances, can take the rough edges off of this discrepancy.
However, a few students moving one way or the other in a group of 15 to 30 – due to a variety of student personal issues like a serious student or parent illness, a divorce, a family move, a lost job for a parent – can quickly change students and teachers from “good performers” to “bad performers” on test measurement scales.
Three consecutive years of strong or weak performance in a row for a teacher with math or English language arts tests means much more than one year by itself.
Anthony, like most middle school math and English language arts teachers and some high school teachers, has 120 students taking the test at the end of the year so the initial assumption would be that statistically this is enough of a database to make a solid conclusion about his teaching effectiveness.
However, the variability of one sixth grade group of 120 students to another group of 120 and the variability that came with the new untried Common Core tests with the new curriculum would still leave me hesitant to jump to firm conclusions after just one year.
Two years of consistent strong or weak performance at this level with this number of students is a better base for a principal to use to make decisions about teacher effectiveness and instructional improvement goals and strategies for principals and teachers.
Even after two years I would be looking at the transition time from the old curriculum and tests to the new curriculum and Common Core tests and giving most teachers the benefit of the doubt until I saw a third consecutive year of weak performance. And the fact that the new Common Core tests are not available to teachers and principals makes this transition time longer.
Teachers whose classroom tactics result in poor test scores are usually spending too much time teaching skills and content not on the test and not enough time teaching skills and content that are on the test. There is also frequently an old textbook, curriculum, syllabus or old lesson plan involved.
Conversely, the teacher whose students outperform a principal’s expectations based on classroom observations has probably done a good job of teaching the skills and content tested and has allocated her/his time for each skill area properly.
To overcome this problem principals and teachers have to examine the test data, single out specifically where student performance is falling short and create a more effective timeline for instruction throughout the year. The hard part will be getting good teachers to stop teaching topics and units that are not tested and focus in depth on the topics being tested.
Most states and our federal government have spent a lot of money hiring experts to determine what topics should be taught and for how long and at what grade level. If each teacher follows the state level curriculum and their peers at other grade levels do the same, their students will receive the comprehensive preparation they need. Stopping effective teachers from teaching everything in the textbook rather than what’s in the curriculum is hard, but it is a critical task for the principal whose role it is to improve instruction and results.
One strategy principals can use to help this process is to get all the teachers at a grade level (all the fourth grade math teachers, all the sixth grade math teachers, etc.) together for a day every semester or every quarter if possible with substitute coverage for the teachers or on a day over the summer or during a school break to do the critical curriculum weeding and share teaching strategies and projects, tests and instructional materials.
These efforts will be more valuable if teacher coaches (trainers who are not the teachers’ supervisors, who do not complete teacher evaluations and who understand the elements of good teaching, the new curriculum and the tests) are in the room to help them and if one of the teachers receives a stipend to be a teacher leader for their group.
Principals and department chairpersons should join these groups for a half hour at the beginning and end of their full day’s work to offer support and guidance, but the administrators should leave these tasks to the teachers as much as possible.
The “local” testing component used for teacher evaluations in New York State was obviously a compromise negotiated between the state level teacher union, the governor and the state education department to soften the blow of using the Common Core tests as part of teacher evaluations.
The union had an understandable concern that the Common Core tests would be too difficult and, as a result, too many teachers being unfairly evaluated as “ineffective” or “developing” during the early implementation phase.
It turned out to be a bad compromise. Many districts used packaged computerized tests that were designed to mirror the expectations on the end-of-year Common Core tests only to find that these “local” tests, which were supposed to help teachers identify skills for re-teaching their students, produced scores that artificially lowered teacher evaluations.
In the end, a better solution is for principals and the state to use multiple years of student performance for teacher evaluation purposes and to implement an exam process with prep tests and re-testing possibilities to avoid the contamination of the instructionally valid process of re-testing and re-teaching that comes with using these tools for teacher evaluation.
As for the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation that should come from these student test results, the jury is still out on that and some experts think this whole idea of teacher evaluations based on student test performance is unfair and misguided. However, my experience tells me 30 to 50 percent of the teacher’s evaluation should be based on student test scores once everyone has confidence in the tests and knows the expectations.
What about merit pay for teachers whose students score well on the exams? Until we have some data that says the new Common Core standards are paying off with higher student achievement, and that the new teacher evaluations based on student test scores prove reliable and valid, we should wait with that bonus money for teachers whose students score better on the tests. When the data shows consistent reliability, then we can consider the bonus option, but the option had better take into account student poverty. In truth, I would rather first see any “bonus” money going to teachers who effectively provide leadership for their peers as they implement and adjust to the Common Core or who provide extra “catch-up” instruction to students who struggle.
The present data on the PISA, one of the international tests used to compare U.S. math performance to other countries, with 34 countries and 50 states (84 total), shows Massachusetts ranked number seven in the list of 84 and Mississippi ranked 82 in the same list of 84.[xxvii] Interestingly, the variability between poor and wealthy school districts in both states is four to five times as great as their state-to-state comparisons.
In other words, students from poverty in both our highest performing state and our lowest performing state do much worse than students from wealth and advantage in the same states. But surprisingly, U.S. students who come from the most educated homes don’t compare well with their peers from other countries.
The teacher concern about cut scores being set by the state at artificially high levels which were designed to produce predictable student failure and teacher embarrassment is inaccurate but understandable. New York State attempted to set the cut scores for proficient levels of student test performance on the new Common Core tests at the same levels as proficient levels on the international tests used for country-to-country comparisons since the 1970s (NAEP, PISA, TIMSS).
Bear in mind: Putting in place new standards and curricula along with more challenging tests will not by itself raise student achievement. Educators – teachers and principals – have to change their practices. Tests and curricula are just the targets.
In the first year of implementation with the Common Core and the new tests it was reasonable to assume that student performance would improve only slightly or not at all. Since mathematical correlations of what had been labeled proficient on the old tests as to compare international tests already existed it wasn’t hard to estimate what percentage of New York State students would score at proficient on the new Common Core tests.
The testing “experts” who designed the test knew ahead of time students who performed at 80 percent proficient on the previous standards would only be 40 percent proficient on the new standards. Test developers and the state education department knew only 35 to 40 percent of students would test as proficient or better.[xxviii] And that’s exactly what happened.
The students didn’t know any less, but the new tests showed 35 to 40 percent were proficient or better statewide and the old tests showed 75 to 80 percent were proficient or better with just about the same level of academic skills being demonstrated by the students on both tests.
It’s not hard to understand teachers’ concerns about these new tests making students and teachers look bad, but the international comparison data showed for years that only 35 to 40 percent of New York State students were proficient on more difficult tests. We just replaced our old easier exams with a test more in line with the existing international benchmarks. This change was poorly explained by the state education department, the media and the politicians looking for an opportunity to play both sides of this divisive issue.
Both Anthony and Ruth mentioned the value of student project work in their classes. This brings us back to Jim McMahon’s play and the use of authentic assessments for student academic work. Is there any role for authentic assessments in our move to a Common Core curriculum and new more challenging tests or are we stuck with “succumbing to test prep all the time?”
Can authentic assessments actually work?
When I worked as an assistant superintendent in New Rochelle City School District outside of New York City, the New York State Education Department was run by two commissioners with somewhat different mindsets regarding student testing and evaluation.
Tom Sobol brought in some very interesting ideas that included the possibility that authentic assessments of students’ academic work like Jim McMahon’s play should somehow be integrated into the testing and evaluation process leading to high school graduation.
Commissioner Sobol created an opportunity for school districts to apply for waivers that allowed them to replace a portion of the bubble sheet tests with authentic assessments scored with elaborate and very specific rubrics designed by professionals in the school districts.
Sobol’s successor, Richard Mills, started his tenure as a commissioner supportive of authentic assessments. However, Commissioner Mills also oversaw the implementation of new Regents exam graduation standards. The new exams meant a significant increase in the academic skills required for a high school diploma.
With the new reportedly harder tests being phased in, Commissioner Mills came under pressure from politicians, psychometricians, testing companies and lawyers who worked for the New York State Education Department to eliminate the possibility of any type of waivers from any portion of the traditional standardized testing.
The New York State Education Department’s lawyers feared lawsuits from parents of students who didn’t graduate due to failure on new and tougher required Regents exams and exam reliability was a key to their defense.
Assessing students’ work on a play was too unreliable to defend in court, and Commissioner Mills withdrew his support for authentic assessments. In my experience, school district and state education department lawyers seldom lose because they seldom fight. These lawyers seem to me from 40-plus years of watching them too eager to sidestep any conflict even when the fight is difficult but worth the cost.
During the two-year gap in time between Commissioner Sobol’s waiver opportunity introduction and Commissioner Mills capitulation to the education department’s lawyers, I worked with a large team of teachers, department chair people and principals at New Rochelle and applied for and received approval for 13 waivers to integrate a variety of authentic assessments into the state required student testing and assessment system for the New Rochelle City School District.
One of the most successful authentic assessments was a project at Isaac Young Middle School where eighth grade accelerated Regents Biology students completed research projects with doctors who worked at the Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle. The hospital was within walking distance of the school.
Isaac Young was the city’s most diverse middle school with a student population including 30 to 40 percent middle class and upper middle class whites, Hispanics, African Americans and Asians mixed with a larger number of lower income and poverty students of the same racial diversity.
Students substituted an authentic assessment research project in place of 12 multiple choice questions. The switch amounted to 20 out of the total of 100 points on the traditional bubble sheet Biology Regents exams. Each student had a doctor-mentor and the project included lab work, data collection and analysis, a written paper with conclusions and a public oral presentation (sometimes in both English and Spanish).
The rubrics used to evaluate student work were elaborate and time consuming to implement. The effort by the teachers and the principal was enormous. The oral presentations showed off these wonderfully diverse students dressed in white lab coats with ties and business attire and their computer PowerPoints. The applause and beaming students and parents at the end of these presentations brought back the goosebumps and memories of Jim McMahon’s students and their play performance.
Over my career I have led many groups of international teachers and principals on tours of our U.S. schools. Since the students from many of the countries that send these visitors outperform U.S. students on international exams, I initially wondered why they were visiting us when we should have been visiting them.
It turned out they wanted to understand why American schools produce so many students who excelled in creative enterprises like entrepreneurship, the arts and scientific research.
Which approach to student academic assessment will maintain and enhance this unique strength of U.S. students? Jim’s play and the Biology research projects at Isaac Young Middle School or long lectures followed by drill and practice bubble sheet tests?
I’ve often wondered how many of those Isaac Young Middle School students are doctors today and would cite this project as the beginning of their pursuit of a medical career. I don’t wonder how many remember the experience. I know – they all remember it.
I also believe strongly that whether they chose a career as a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer or anything really, participation in this assessment became a formative part of how they saw themselves as learners.
But didn’t we sacrifice some of the reliability of the traditional bubble sheet Biology Regents exam? Yes, probably one to three percent, but wasn’t it worth the small loss in reliability?
Scaling authentic assessments
So how could we bring these ideas up to scale so that students, parents, teachers and the public are supportive of academic testing and assessment? Our goals need to include using the student assessment process as a way to boost student achievement and motivation to learn, as well as improve the image students have of themselves as learners (like Jim’s play). The following should be part of any improvement plan:
- Maintain a base of psychometrically reliable student academic performance measures that allow us to be certain all schools are growing and no populations – not minorities, poor students, special education students or anyone else – is being left behind due to weak or fuzzy standards. If you don’t think our student standards and achievement levels are too low for today’s global economy, check out what Fareed Zakaria has to say in the Washington Post.[xxix]
- Dramatically reduce the time and cost of the bubble sheet tests and tell the test makers (and their competitors) the tests must be 60 minutes total for English language arts in grades three through eight and an additional 60 minutes for math once a year. The results of these tests should be made public just as they are now except that the scoring should be completed within two weeks of test administration and the results made public no later than one month after the test’s administration so that teachers completing assessment and instructional improvement planning work over the summer have access to the test results. We also need to make all the tests public immediately after the tests are given (minus any field test questions) to help guide instructional improvements.
- Require high school teachers to replace up to 20 percent of their standardized test (Regents exams in New York State) with a project like the one we completed at Isaac Young Middle School with eighth grade biology students. These projects with their detailed scoring rubrics could be drawn from a bank of state education department approved projects or created by classroom teachers and submitted to the state education department project bank for advance approval.
- Encourage elementary and middle school teachers to create their own English language arts, math, science and social studies related projects with the same elaborate scoring rubrics and share approved projects on the state education department website with teacher-authors named and recognized. Adventurous states should include students’ scores on these projects in their grade three to eight English language arts and math public test performance reports.
Many teachers (not all) would compete to create and submit to the state education department interesting and educationally valid projects utilizing unique local opportunities and partnerships that create challenging learning opportunities, memorability, goosebumps and beaming smiles from teachers, students and parents.
The teacher concern that more than half of the teachers – physical education, art, music and vocational teachers – have no state tests for their students that will impact their teacher evaluations is actually an advantage for the school, for the students and for their teachers.
For some teachers like high school music and art teachers, vocational teachers and physical education teachers this lack of state testing gives them the freedom to create and implement challenging rigorous authentic assessments throughout the school year and as capstone activities for the courses they teach.
Imagine the learning excitement that could be created with a system of carefully structured rigorous, authentic assessments with well-designed scoring rubrics and public presentations and demonstrations of student academic work. For teachers whose jobs involve preparing students for exit exams to be taken in later years in high school (English 9, Social Studies 9, etc.), authentic assessments throughout the year can be integrated with instructional and exit test scaffolding, which is already a common practice whereby instruction is broken down into smaller increasingly challenging steps that lead logically to exit test levels.
Scaffolding instruction contains exams with questions that lead up to what’s required on a final course – or in New York State a Regents – exam. It works by asking students to answer part of a more complicated question that they’ll eventually have to answer fully on the final exam, thereby teaching them the structure of a question and the characteristics of the best answers.
The principal’s job becomes making certain that all of these measures of student academic performance are rigorous and emphasize essential content and skills (including required math and English language arts skills). The principal should also be checking to ensure these authentic assessments are memorable and achieve student growth on the “soft” skills: motivation, confidence, teamwork, communication and perception of oneself as a self-correcting learner. And, of course, student performance on these measures should count in the teacher’s evaluation.
While some educators would abandon the Common Core standards and the push for better standardized tests (See Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System and her opinion piece in The New York Times.[xxx]), I believe we need stronger, simpler, shorter and cheaper standardized tests coupled with world class authentic assessments.
[i] Robert C. Bobb, “Standardized tests can help combat inequity,” The Washington Post, August 28, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/standardized-tests-can-help-combat-inequity/2015/08/28/0e91e7be-46aa-11e5-8e7d-9c033e6745d8_story.html
[ii] Harold O. Levy, “The dumbing-down of state testing,” The Washington Post, October 2, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-standardized-testing-shell-game/2015/10/02/1f16c6f8-690b-11e5-9223-70cb36460919_story.html?postshare=771444001226743
[iii] Jessica Bakeman, “State announces high teacher scores, hopes union fears are calmed,” Politico, October 22, 2013. http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/politics/2013/10/8534883/state-announces-high-teacher-scores-hopes-union-fears-are-calmed
[iv] Kate Taylor, “Cuomo Fights Rating System in Which Few Teachers Are Bad,” The New York Times, March 22, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/nyregion/cuomo-fights-rating-system-in-which-few-teachers-are-bad.html
[v] Motoko Rich, “States Given a Reprieve on Ratings of Teachers,” The New York Times, August 21, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/22/education/education-secretary-allows-reprieve-on-test-based-teacher-ratings.html?emc=edit_tnt_20140821&nlid=47562199&tntemail0=y
[vi] Kate Taylor, “Cuomo, in Shift, Is Said to Back Reducing Test Scores’ Role in Teacher Reviews,” The New York Times, November 25, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/nyregion/cuomo-in-shift-is-said-to-back-reducing-test-scores-role-in-teacher-reviews.html
[vii] Patrick Welsh, “Four decades of failed school reform,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/four-decades-of-failed-school-reform/2013/09/27/dc9f2f34-2561-11e3-b75d-5b7f66349852_story.html
[viii] Jon Campbell, “Common Core: How much shorter will NY’s tests get?,” Poughkeepsie Journal, February 1, 2016, http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/news/local/new-york/2016/02/01/common-core-how-much-shorter-nys-tests-get/79645086/
[ix] Geoff Decker, “New York ditches controversial test-maker Pearson,” Chalkbeat, July 9, 2015, http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/ny/2015/07/09/new-york-ditches-controversial-test-maker-pearson/#.Vxfjy0fIa70
[x] Alan Singer, “Pearson Education Can Run, But It Cannot Hide,” Huffington Post, December 15, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/pearson-education-can-run_b_6327566.html
[xi] Sharon Lurye, “Concerns rising over Pearson, the company behind PARCC and other tests,” Philly Voice, March 17, 2015. http://www.phillyvoice.com/concerns-rising-over-pearson/
[xii] Hiten Samtani, “More Parents Are Saying No to Pearson’s Field Tests,” Schoolbook WNYC, May 23, 2012. http://www.wnyc.org/story/303153-more-parents-are-saying-no-to-pearsons-field-tests/
[xiii] Javier C. Hernandez and Robert Gebloff, “Test Scores Sink as New York Adopts Tougher Benchmarks,” The New York Times, August 7, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/nyregion/under-new-standards-students-see-sharp-decline-in-test-scores.html
[xiv] Valerie Strauss, “How come officials could predict new test score results?,” The Washington Post, August 12, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/08/12/how-come-officials-could-predict-results-on-new-test-scores/
[xv] Valerie Strauss, “Why a kindergarten teacher is running for Congress,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/20/why-a-kindergarten-teacher-is-running-for-congress/
[xvi] Benedict Carey, “Studying for the Test by Taking It,” The New York Times, November 22, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/sunday-review/studying-for-the-test-by-taking-it.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone
[xvii] Editorial Board, “D.C. and Maryland test results look bad, but they show the rigor of new standards,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dc-and-maryland-test-results-look-bad-but-they-show-the-rigor-of-new-standards/2015/10/30/a894b9e8-7e79-11e5-beba-927fd8634498_story.html?postshare=9701446324341060
[xviii] T. Rees Shapiro, “Common Core educational standards are losing support nationwide, poll shows,” The Washington Post, August 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/common-core-educational-standards-are-losing-support-nationwide-poll-shows/2014/08/19/67b1f20c-27cb-11e4-8593-da634b334390_story.html
[xix] Valerie Strauss, “Five myths about the Common Core,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-the-common-core/2013/12/13/da05f832-5c40-11e3-be07-006c776266ed_story.html
[xx] Robert Petrelli, “The RNC on the CCSSI, OMG!,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, April 17, 2013, https://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2013/the-rnc-on-the-ccssi-omg.html
[xxi] Kyle Schwartz, “A struggle worth having for students,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-struggle-worth-having-for-students/2015/03/24/544cb41e-cf4f-11e4-8a46-b1dc9be5a8ff_story.html
[xxii] Kevin Huffman, “We don’t test students as much as people think we do. And the stakes aren’t really that high.,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-dont-test-students-as-much-as-people-think-we-do-and-the-stakes-arent-really-that-high/2015/10/30/3d66de1c-7e79-11e5-beba-927fd8634498_story.html?postshare=3671446775439749
[xxiii] Valerie Strauss, “Kindergarten show canceled so kids can keep studying to become ‘college and career ready.’ Really.,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/26/kindergarten-show-canceled-so-kids-can-keep-working-to-become-college-and-career-ready-really/
[xxiv] Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Petersen and Ludger Woessmann, “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests,” EducationNext, Fall 2014, http://educationnext.org/us-students-educated-families-lag-international-tests/
[xxv] Gregory Korte, “The Every Student Succeeds Act vs. No Child Left Behind: What’s changed?,” USA Today, December 11, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/12/10/every-student-succeeds-act-vs-no-child-left-behind-whats-changed/77088780/
[xxvi] Alia Wong, “When Parents Are the Ones Getting Schooled by the Common Core,” The Atlantic, August 5, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/08/common-core-schools-parents/400559/
[xxvii] James Marshall Crotty, “If Massachusetts Were A Country, Its Students Would Rank 9th In The World,” Forbes/Education, September 29, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmarshallcrotty/2014/09/29/if-massachusetts-were-a-country
[xxviii] Valerie Strauss, “The scary way Common Core test ‘cut scores’ are selected,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/29/the-scary-way-common-core-test-cut-scores-are-selected/
[xxix] Fareed Zakaria, “Fareed Zakaria: America’s educational failings,” The Washington Post, May 1. 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fareed-zakaria-americas-educational-failings/2014/05/01/b61eaa22-d15c-11e3-9e25-188ebe1fa93b_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend
[xxx] Diane Ravitch, “The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students,” The New York Times, July 23, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/24/opinion/sunday/the-common-core-costs-billions-and-hurts-students.html?emc=eta1