THE State Writing Test

Our state writing test is coming up in early March and the tension around it is beginning to rise. Our fifth grades departmentalize, so one teacher teaches writing every day, and the others integrate it into Science and Social Studies some, as well as address it in Literacy and Math as they can, so these kids have gotten lots of practice with writing.

What I see, though, from many of the kids, is quite a bit of this:

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In spring of 2013, our writing test will be online, so that all students will do it on the computer. Our teachers have questions about this decision:

Is it best for all kids? Don’t some of us prefer the actual act of writing–pen to paper-to feel that flow of thoughts?  Are we handicapping those kids by forcing them to tell their story through a keyboard?

Will this decision force keyboarding lessons? How fast should kids be able to type?

What about all of those articles that talk about how fast kids can text?  Is this even something we have to worry about?

What about the kids who do NOT text?  Is there an equity issue we need to address?

Will they be allowed, or not, to use a spellchecker? (If integrating contemporary tools, why not utilize the full functionality–is the test on writing or spelling?)

Will the font be fixed, or will they be allowed to use text features as part of their composition (such as bold, underline, italics, etc.)?  They can do that with their handwritten texts, so why not with ones using technology?  They will probably be allowed to use spacing and indenting, so why not the full menu of text features we teach?

But, in the bigger scheme of things, why are we even considering these mechanical kinds of questions about the tools of the word processor?

We have access to the features our state will test through a program called Perspective (formerly NCS Mentor).  Here we can learn about scoring, access anchor papers to show our kids, understand the scoring domains and rubrics, and actually practice scoring actual compositions submitted by real fifth graders.

We can spend a ton of time helping kids understand the process, the scoring domains, rubrics and anchor papers.  Would our time be better spent with kids writing? Some say yes.

I think that our third graders ought to be exploring the access we have to this kind of information.  I believe that when kids clearly understand the expectations and have seen examples–both good and bad–and know the rubrics by which they will be judged, they can more clearly write for the prescribed audience–in this particular case, the test scorers. In this case, the state has provided a reasonable tool by which we can do this kind of teaching. Why not use it–and not just right before the test? Why not make it an integral part of our instruction as one more tool in our arsenal?

However, isn’t the real question this:

Wouldn’t it be better if the state just allowed us to police ourselves and examine our student writing portfolios to see if they can construct a well-organized composition?

What a Hullabaloo!

Recently I posted this to the Cooperative Catalyst Blog, where I find myself blogging more often these days–I have no time to do both right here at the end of the school year. It generated a ton more conversation and controversy than I ever would have possibly envisioned.  See the comments at Joy in Standardized Tests.

Much of the conversation in response to this weeks’ blog posts has centered around joy in learning and joy in school. Here’s my story of this past week.

I am my school’s testing coordinator.  This is my first year doing it and we are doing all of our state tests online.  I am coordinating 10 tests–4 for 3rd and 5th grade and 2 for fourth grade. I decided we were going to take  them in ways that MADE SENSE and that took as little time as possible. I decided I wasn’t going to scare teachers to death about talking to kids, answering questions and supporting them. (Our central office coordinator has good sense–she told us early that what the state requires is that every child has the opportunity to “test well” in an environment that supports that and that folks don’t cheat.  I repeated that to my teachers and told them I trusted them to follow the rules they already know from past years–they are all experienced at this state testing rigamarole!)  I was NOT going to model this testing as a “do or die” situation.  I was going to be calm and assure kids they were going to be fine.

I set up a schedule and approved it with teachers, so they had control and some time to work on the subjects over which they felt less secure.  We started with subjects with which the kids would feel really successful. If kids hadn’t been taking tests in small groups all year, we didn’t set up those artificial situations this time.  Most kids are taking the tests in the lab with their class, as they have been working all year.

I started several weeks ago telling kids about brain gym exercises they could do, sharing success stories from my own experiences. I gave them strategies for relaxing, for narrowing down choices on a multiple choice test, and answered their questions as to what would happen if they didn’t pass. I kept reassuring them this test was simply for the state to let them show what they knew, so it wasn’t going to decide their classes next year, or whether they would “pass their grade.”  I work with kids in all grades 3-5, so I know what I was telling the kids I work with was spreading among most of the kids in those tested grades.

I shared with kids a story of last year.  I was proctoring in a 3rd grade online testing situation, and the computers went down. The teacher and I made eye contact–not knowing how long we’d have to stall. The testing coordinator came in and calmly told us they would get the computers back up as soon as possible and we just needed to be patient. So, knowing we couldn’t let the kids talk to each other, or leave the room as a group, I started teaching them brain exercises–a couple of tricks I had learned form a great PE teacher, Pam Walker. We spent a few minute doing these, with me talking about how it calms them down, gets their brain working to the max, and within a few minutes, the computers were ready for them to log back in and continue.  Those kids did GREAT on that test, and kids heard me when I told them these exercises really work!

(This year, when that teacher came to the lab with her kids, she handed me a copy of some brain gym exercises she had gotten from the web.  Knowing she wouldn’t have me in there this year, she came prepared to do her own version of pumping up those kids with brain gym work!)

So, I’ve had the joy each day of testing to see each child go into the labs, to smile at them to tell them how great I know they are going to do, and I have been the one, in the middle of the test, when they ask to take a break or get a drink of water, or go to the bathroom, to be able to smile at them and say how proud I am of them for being such a good learner, or how well I just know they are going to do, or how smart I know they are.  I get to touch their shoulder and give them a friendly “You can do it” smile. I get to reassure them someone believes in them and  I see their taller stance as they re-enter the testing room. I get to be another person (besides their teacher) who says in many ways, “I believe in you.”

It’s been an awesome week.  I have felt so great being able to pump kids up and see their smiles as they re-enter a testing room.  Teachers AND kids are talking about how they are not feeling the stress this year as in years past.  Our scores are coming back and they are good–we have LOTS of advanced passes, and high pass rates.

Are our scores perfect?  No.  Do we still have work to do?  Yes. But, kids and teachers are saying it doesn’t feel like they are taking an SOL test. They have had practice doing this, they know their stuff, and they are doing it in familiar surroundings with knowledge and comfort.

Kids are smiling and feeling okay about their testing. Teachers are feeling proud of their work this year, as their kids ARE showing what they know. Our tech folks have done a GREAT job setting this up for success and tech glitches have been few and far between.  One of them sits with me each day to support me, just in case, and those folks, too, smile at the kids and ooze calmness.

Do I think multiple choice tests are the best way for kids to show what they know?  Of course not.  Do I think they need to take over our lives?  Of course not.  Do I think they can be one piece of what we do?  Sure. Do I think kids can handle them?  Of course–it all depends on the adults around them.

While this may sound like it’s all about what I do with the kids, it’s really all of my teachers–they model belief in their kids.  They teach well.  They work hard all year and reward hard work in their classrooms.  They are simply reaping the rewards of their dedication and care. . .and I get  to help!

I have had fun this past week helping teachers be calm and helping kids be calm. I have had several kids walk out of the testing room to go to the bathroom and give ME a thumbs up sign!

And I’m not kidding, I have seen MOST kids smile beginning the test AND ending it.

Joy is often in how you approach a task.

Standards Matter, But Kids Matter More–And Passionate Educators Make a Difference!

It’s that time of year. We’re entering the last quarter in US schools and that means standardized testing is taking over the classrooms and dreams–or nightmares–of many teachers and students. So many times, we go about that test prep all the wrong way. Sometimes, though, drastic measures are needed. I’d love to hear your comments on the drastic measures noted below.

I’ll never forget being in an at-risk school and the fifth grade teacher leaving mid-year–(his wife got a job elsewhere, so he had to follow. I love that story!) The principal asked if I would leave my “gifted technology teacher” job to go into fifth grade and teach the rest of the year.  I agreed, and we decided to departmentalize so I taught math and social studies and my partner teacher taught science and reading.

When the kids came back  from winter break in January, we assessed the heck out of them with practice tests to see where we were.  It was dismal. As I remember, the results showed that we could expect fewer than than 50% potential passing students in all areas. SO, we went to work.  The other teacher, Jennifer Morgan, and I knew we had to get the kids to believe in themselves–so our first job was to show them the data and convince them they COULD do it. These kids had had repeated years of failure and felt school was a place to survive–not enjoy or learn from.

We met with them and explained how the SOL tests worked, what a distractor was, and told them we would not only be working on test-taking skills with them, but also that we would make sure they learned the content. We wanted them to be confident going into the tests, and  we told them that we were sure they would blow the top off the tests.  (This was in a school where not one class before had ever met the standard score needed for AYP.) In fact, I was blown away when we (the principal, and both of us teachers) first met with the whole group and explained our plan and  Bobby asked, “Why do you think we can do it? My brother says any kids who have been here are stupid.”

Our response was to talk about the difference between effort and luck and help them understand that it was effort that would get us over the hump of not reaching our goals.  We spoke to the importance of believing in yourself and trying your hardest.  We told them we would NOT wish them good luck the day of the test, because it is not an issue of luck, but hard work and determination. AND, we told them we would be with them each and every step of the way helping them and supporting them.

We began by showing them their math test data and have THEM analyze it for the standards they didn’t know. Each child had a folder with the SOL standards in the front with the standards they needed to work on highlighted.  Bobby had skipped items on the test–the principal sat down with him and showed that if he had answered them, PURELY GUESSING, his score rose 4 points–so he clearly got that he needed to answer each and every question–and he became our evangelist for that test-taking skill.

Jennifer and I made up a system we called “SOL Points” where kids got points for participating in extra work on content, emphasizing  to the kids it was the effort that counted. (Extra work counted things like making posters to put in the hallways so others kids saw them and that reinforced content, attending extra work sessions, reading books at home, being on time with homework and correctly doing the daily “do nows”, etc.) Each child had a folder where we DAILY reported to parents the behavior in class-and the students self-rated their effort. The goal was 100 points in a short amount of time to earn a special field trip to be determined by the students.  (In the end they chose a walking tour of our downtown mall–as many of these kids had little experience with traveling outside of their rural area.)

We offered OPEN after-school tutoring twice a week, and almost EVERY student chose to come, so we had groups of 20 kids for tutoring. We scaffolded the kids every way we could to help them understand they WERE learning and they WERE going to succeed–that their hard work was paying off.  We–all of the teachers–SPED, Guidance, Title 1 teachers, gym teachers, librarian, everyone in the building–worked to help this group of kids understand they were smart, they could do it and they just needed to work hard and believe in themselves. We integrated skills whenever we could, teaching stem and leaf plots through looking at test scores of the class- so the group could see them rising.

Jennifer had the kids practice reading skills with science texts.  We used Virginia Pathways to teach the history standards, having them do history like historians do. We used hands on materials to teach measurement–we compared bags of candy weighed in ounces and grams, and used students from the University of Virginia to help with the groups so they had more individual support and attention.

Our Central Office Science facilitator, Chuck Pace, and our County tech support person, Becky Fisher, came out to do “gym science” once a week during their gym time.  Our gym teacher did brain gym exercises with them during this time to help them attend to the hands on stuff Chuck and Becky led them through. Our county math people came out and targeted specific skills with individual kids as the test came near that still hadn’t gotten the skill–they literally pulled kids throughout the day and worked one on one or in small groups on the patterns, functions and algebra strand.

During lunch, I offered read aloud time–to share one of MY passions, so over half the fifth grade came to my room each day to eat their lunch as they listened to me read picture books and share great literature on my document camera–they loved hearing stories they hadn’t heard before, especially as I shared stories of my love for these books. We read Ghost Cadet during our study of the Civil War and took them to the New Market Battlefield–and an anonymous donor bought each child their own “Cadet Kit.” An observer would have thought they were given gold–but that kit was simply part of the power of the community we were building.

It was an amazing 5 months–and then May came with all the glory of the tests. Our kids WERE  confident.  They DID know it–and they did pass the test well enough so that our school earned AYP for the first time.

More importantly though, the passion we had–all of the adults involved–showed these students that we thought it was important for them to learn.  It was crucial for them to believe in themselves as we believed in them.

The scores were amazing–in the high eighties and even one in the low nineties as I recall.   Even more incredible, though, were some anomalies we found.

I had a Hispanic kid who was identified for Title 1 services–after working with her a short time, I pulled her OUT of title 1 and two months later she was identified gifted.  I did a spot check through our student information system on some of these kids and she is in 11th grade now, in Adv. German, AP Language and Composition, Honors Calculus, Honors Physics, and taking History at our local community college.

Our resident jokester–whose sense of humor often got in the way of learning–is now in Adv. History, Adv Chemistry, adv. College Algebra and Trig, Adv. German and Honors English.

A quiet girl who just KNEW she would never succeed at this is currently in Adv. History, Adv. Chemistry, Adv. German and Honors English.

Another girl is in Adv History, taking nursing at CATEC, and is also studying digital imaging. (These kids also got to take home digital cameras in fifth grade.)

And, is there a connection between our “doing history as historians do” and the fact most kids I checked are in advanced history classes OR taking history at the local community college?

MANY of these kids are extremely successful at school.  I wish I could say all of them are, but that’s simply not true.  However, I KNOW we made a difference in the lives of many–and it was because of the passion we educators had–and the belief that ALL children can learn.
Check out our gap data on history and science for that year–the first picture is black/white and the second is free and reduced lunch kids.

black white data 2004

SES data 2004

These were children who, as a group,  had experienced very little success in school.  They had very little belief in themselves as successful learners.  Yet, they learned that passionate educators exist–a whole lot of them who helped them AND that their effort paid off in standardized testing AND learning.

For about a week now, @PamMoran has been tweeting about joy of learning, and how the culture of schools and sometimes teachers either nurture or kill student passion for learning. The blogging members of the Cooperative Catalyst Blog agreed several weeks ago to all read the book, Wounded by School and write about it.  I think this is the week we’ll be doing that, so be sure to check it out tomorrow. (We post on Monday.)