Sunday, August 5, 2018

Louisiana Schools to Pilot New Testing Program

I have a friend that refers to the endless cycle of education initiatives as "Stalin's five-year plan."

We've all seen them - from Kagan to Harry Wong to Whole Brain, one after the other meant to revolutionize and improve education and student performance.  Districts invest time and money in the programs, spend countless dollars on inservice, training, and materials, then the plan is abandoned for the next shiny thing that comes.  Repeat cycle.

That's why when I ranted and railed about the newest curriculum implementation, the Louisiana version of Common Core, my friend smiled sweetly and said, "Just remember.  Stalin's five-year plan."

And thus things keep changing.

At least nothing stays stagnant this way, right?

Last month, the Louisiana Department of Education's proposal for a new kind of testing was approved by the U.S. Department of Education:

This new pilot measuring students' knowledge of specific books, rather than texts they have not read before, the test aspires to build knowledge of facts and texts in students. "Research shows students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to effectively read about it," said State Superintendent John White.

This just seems like common sense, right?

Louisiana has five years to develop and pilot this assessment and it will be rolled out in five districts: Ouachita Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish, and St. Tammany Parish, as well as KIPP Public Charter Schools and Collegiate Academies in Orleans Parish.

Key points of this new program will include:
Combining English and social studies tests to streamline state testing;  
Measuring what students have learned via passages from books that students have read, rather than passages that they have not read as part of the curriculum;  
Assessing students through several brief assessments throughout the year, rather than one longer test at the end of the year;  
Preserving local control as to which books and which assessments their students will take.

I am cautiously interested.

The district in which I teach is on block schedule. Last year, first semester, which ran from August to December, we had minimum fourteen days of standardized testing.  Second semester, we backed off of that to about ten days.  This year, it looks like about seven days.  That's an estimate.  Are we starting to see the error of our testing ways?

The tests students currently take are supposedly aligned to the the standards students cover in the classroom, not necessarily the content.  Theoretically, if you can identify and analyze a main idea in one text, you can do it in any other.

My complaint with the current curriculum has been, in part,  that it strips fiction to bare bones and focuses heavily on some very dry non-fiction.  We don't read whole novels at all, ever.  The problem with that is not in the non-fiction necessarily, but think of what's lost with the loss of fiction!  We need both fiction and non-fiction because both serve to build background knowledge.

In my own reading this summer I went to the land of Inkheart and learned a little bit about book restoration and how valuable books are; I visited fantastic realms and looked at things from other perspectives. I read The 57 Bus and gained knowledge I did not previously have about people who identify as agender and about hate crimes. The lessons of tolerance and acceptance were reinforced. I read Boy21 and saw how friends can help each other through trying times.  I read The Other Wes Moore and learned a lot about how environment shapes character and how the most impulsive decisions can change lives.  I read The Book Whisperer and Teach Like a Pirate to expand my professional development and learned valuable lessons from both.  We gain background knowledge from both fiction and non-fiction.

Do you think the majority of my students spent the summer reading and expanding their own background knowledge?

This new system of assessment recognizes the knowledge gap that many students have.  This is something that the Six Way Paragraphs program also recognizes, which I have used in my lower level classes to build background knowledge and raise reading comprehension skills.

From the Louisiana Department of Education's proposal:

Being a literate member of society necessitates not only strong reading skills but also knowledge of the world and how it works. Adults comprehend and evaluate news articles, workplace documents, novels, web pages, and social media posts not just because they know what individual words mean, but because they know something about the topic each text contains. Likewise, it is widely known that students with large amounts of background knowledge read at more advanced levels. Yet states have built reading and writing tests that do not always value the background knowledge students bring to them, including students’ deep understanding of books and texts they have studied previously. Instead, state tests preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful.

Read that last line again:  "...states preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful."

We've been teaching skills over content and content is not meaningful unless it is relevant and makes a connection.

Nobody knows this better than the teacher in the room with the student, and my student may not engage with the same subject matter as your student.  I need the power to make that decision.

More from the Louisiana proposal: (emphasis mine)

Though improved dramatically in the past three years, the Louisiana Assessment of Education Progress (LEAP) continues to measure the ELA standards, including specific skills such as summarizing passages and locating main ideas, but it does not go above that to measure whether students have developed a base of knowledge. Consequently, in many schools a focus on discrete reading skills predominates the English classroom, with minimal attention paid to knowledge.

Again, we are measuring standards, not knowledge.  They are not the same thing.  One produces test competence, the other functioning, well-rounded human beings.

Under this new pilot program, Louisiana proposes to still focus on standards but also content:  "drawing on students’ deep knowledge of content and books from their daily classroom experiences—rather than a random assortment of texts, as are typically used on large-scale assessments."

Currently, when students get to the LEAP at the end of the year, what they read on that test is nothing like what they read in class and only serves to make those tests frustrating to students and raises anxiety to terrible levels.  Additionally, this format shakes confidence in what these high-stakes tests actually measure.

It's even possible, under this as yet undeveloped program, that the test students take in one school or one district may vary from one another:
By developing the new format in a way that is standards-aligned, valid, reliable, high-quality, and comparable to the current, content agnostic LEAP ELA test, Louisiana districts will have the flexibility to choose the LEAP format that best matches their curricular program. In this way, the IADA will make assessments more relevant and connected to the classroom for Louisiana teachers and students, while still providing valid, reliable, and transparent data on student achievement and growth.
I've got to say it: I love this term: "content agnostic LEAP ELA test."  I need that on a sign.

Students would be tested during the year on what they've covered in class and then a shorter, less horrific, summative assessment at the end of the year.

Clearly this new assessment program hasn't been written yet and so there is still much that remains to be seen.  I am all for getting rid of all these interim tests and three days of EOC testing.

Most of all, I hope that some flexibility is returned to the classroom and some sort of recognition that the teacher is a trained professional who does not need a script or canned slides.  I hope that the state returns some autonomy to the teacher who can best judge what the students before him need to read and how to engage them.

Students will read when they have choice, and when they are engaged with a subject, and a student that reads is a student that develops knowledge.  A student forced to read Carrie Chapman Catt's suffrage speech will more than likely tune out and learn nothing, (no disrespect intended to Carrie Chapman Catt).

Relevance matters.

I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps the Louisiana DOE is beginning to see the faults in the Guidebooks and to hear the cries of frustrated teachers across the state.

But again, maybe it's just part of Stalin's five-year plan.

Further Reading:
A New Vision for Assessment in Louisiana (Louisiana DOE)
Louisiana's New Pilot Offers New Way to Assess Student Achievement (BR Proud)
Louisiana First to Have Innovative Assessments Approved (Education Dive)
Betsy DeVoss Oks Louisiana Pitch to Use Innovative Tests (Education Week)
Louisiana LEAP Scores Show Reasonable Improvement but not Extraordinary Growth (NOLA)

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