Monthly Archives: September 2016

Go ahead and “teach to the test”; Assessment should be fair to kids

I do not like parallel parking and I avoid it at all costs.  However, when my kids were learning to drive, I taught them all how to parallel park because I knew it would be part of the road test.  It would not have been fair to my kids for them to take the test if they were not prepared. Assessment should be fair.

In Ontario the results of the EQAO spring assessments (grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) have been recently released and there is the usual chatter and angst and discussion about the validity of standardized testing.  Of course, we as teachers, feel joyful when our students do well and miserable when our students do poorly.  That makes sense; our students’ performance is, in part, a reflection on us as teachers.  But, we often go to great lengths to find other reasons to dismiss the testing.  That makes sense as well but it may not be productive.

There are things that happen with the EQAO assessments in Ontario that I do not like.  Individual school results are printed in the newspapers without taking into consideration a myriad of other factors.  In many boards, targets for individual schools are set, based on last year’s results.  And, a part of me does wonder if grade 3 students, eight year olds, are really able to  demonstrate their knowledge in that kind of setting.

However, there are things about the EQAO assessments I do like.  They are based on the Ontario curriculum and the questions, for the most part, are challenging for students.  The question I ask teachers all the time is:  would you be happy if all your students could answer these questions at the end of the year or are the questions unfair, pointless, and not based on the curriculum?  Invariably the answer is that the questions are fair and we would all be thrilled if our students could answer them.

So then, why not “teach to the test”?  The phrase “teach to the test” gets bandied about as if it were a bad thing.  And, if the test was simply full of  the same factual questions year after year, so that all teachers did all year long was to drill students on those questions, then I would agree that “teaching to the test” would be a waste of everyone’s time.  But the reality is that the test is based on the curriculum and the questions are designed so that we would be happy if our students could answer them.

Go ahead and teach to the test then, I say.  If you can do so, and your students are all successful, how is that a bad thing?  It is based on the curriculum so you know your students know their stuff.  The questions are designed to be challenging so you know your students are thinking and succeeding.  Your students will feel good about themselves during the test, because they will know how to do it, and afterwards when they get their results.  And you, the teacher, will feel good, because your efforts paid off.  Public confidence in education will be high.  Where’s the down side?

In Ontario, and most other jurisdictions with standardized testing, past tests and sample questions are available.  Neither the format or the type of question is a mystery.  The question then becomes:   are you teaching throughout the year in ways that make the assessment fair to your students?  

  • If you never ask questions during the year that are the same level of difficulty and complexity to the EQAO questions, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your students have never seen a multiple choice type format prior to the standardized testing (and no one has ever told them that the very best wrong answer will be there), then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your students don’t know that it is okay to do the figuring out on a piece of scrap paper before choosing an answer in multiple choice (and many don’t know this), then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your math students are not given opportunities throughout the year to determine which manipulatives they will need, instead of you as the teacher telling them, then you aren’t being fair.  (Because during the assessment the student can go get a manipulative off the shelf but you can’t put it in front of them).
  • If your students never have to do work and solve problems independently, without you rescuing them, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If you don’t return to big key ideas multiple times throughout the year, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If you have never examined the scoring guides for the questions, so that you know the expectations, then you aren’t being fair.

I am definitely not advocating that students spend all year practicing pasts tests.  Nor am I advocating that teachers put lots of pressure on students with regards to the tests.  I am suggesting, however, that teachers not ignore the test.

Education is about the “what if”.  What if all of our students were to demonstrate high levels of competence on the standardized tests that we know are based on curriculum and demand our students to be critical thinkers?  We would all be thrilled. Assessment should be fair to students.  So, go ahead and teach your class so that all assessments are fair to them, even the standardized ones.

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Filed under EQAO, pedagogy, standardized testing, Uncategorized

Where did that teacher go? Helping students to make their own decisions

I was looking at some of the EQAO (Ontario’s standardized test in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) questions in an attempt to understand why many of our students are not doing well.  The problems were hard!  They were tricky!  I actually had to read one of the grade 6 math questions a few times to figure out what to do!  And I think of myself as fairly competent in math, and quite literate.  When looking at some of the other questions in math I noticed that quite a few of the questions required me to perform multiple steps, think beyond one strand in mathematics.  In reading, the questions often required me to pull multiple sources of information together.  In writing, I had to determine the form based on the prompt; I wasn’t necessarily told what to do.

In a conversation with one of our elementary consultants, she expressed surprise that our students, in writing did not score very well in organization.  She said, “But our teachers teach writing forms to death!”  What was happening?

We, as educators, train our students to learn in particular ways. It could be that the way we organize curriculum delivery actually trains students NOT to think.  So when they go to write the EQAO assessment, or end of term exams, and have to think, have to pull multiple sources of information together, make decisions, our students don’t do so well.  Not because they are incapable, and not because we didn’t teach them the stuff, but because they have not been given opportunities to practice making their own decisions.  Let’s look at two examples:

When students learn writing through units that have students write one form of writing (letters, reports, procedural writing, etc.) over and over for many weeks, teachers end up making all the decisions, not the student.  The student isn’t faced with the challenge of determining the form best suited to the audience and the purpose.  Instead, the teacher has taken control of the most important aspect of the writing process and the student only needs to comply by writing in that form on a particular topic, not think.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with organizing his or her thoughts on a topic during an assessment (or even in real life) the student may be at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

Problem-solving in mathematics classrooms is current practice but there are many misconceptions.  It is not problem-solving if the teacher guides the student through the problem.  It is not problem-solving if the student isn’t challenged.  It is not problem-solving if the student only works in groups and never independently. Students are assessed individually.  And, if every problem for the last 3 weeks has been about the same concept, it really isn’t problem solving.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with a year-end assessment or exam, many students are at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

We may give lip service to critical thinking and open-ended tasks.  But I urge us all to think about whether our classroom practice is really training our students to be independent thinkers, or whether we actually train them to rely on our guidance.  It’s hard to be a teacher and watch your students struggle.  It’s hard to find that ”just right” amount of struggle.  But, standardized tests, like EQAO, end of semester exams, and real life, all depend on students being able to make their own decisions about what needs to be done.  Let’s help them to do that by providing them with many, many opportunities to do so throughout the course of the year.

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Filed under assessment, growth mindset, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Changing the culture of implementation

Change is cultural.  We’d like to think that school change was about adding a new program, or providing new resources, or even hiring the “right” people.  But it’s not.  School change is about changing culture and that is hard-but not impossible. In fact, changing school culture results in increased motivation and enthusiasm.  Cultural change is energizing.

Let’s look at the mathematics crisis in Ontario.  It is not as if we have been giving teachers incorrect information over the last five years.  No, the information being rolled out to schools from boards of education and from the ministry is research-based, current pedagogy.  It is not as if we do not have the resources available in most schools, in most classrooms.  No, Ontario teachers have access to professional resources, professional development, additional qualification courses, math manipulatives.  It is not as if our Ontario math teachers are waking up every morning with an intention not to teach mathematics well.  No, most teachers that I meet are deeply committed to doing the best job they can.  It is not as if the demographic of students in Ontario has changed so radically that they are incapable to doing mathematics.

In order for there to be wide scale change, there needs to be a wide scale change in both beliefs and practices.  In order to have wide-scale change, there needs to be a change in both school and board culture with regards to the implementation of change.  Typically, in education, we focus efforts at the teacher level:  they go to professional learning, they get new resources, they are charged with change implementation.  eThere is a quick aside to the principal:  “Just be the instructional leader here and make sure it happens.”  And then, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

Unfortunately, change in teacher practice is messy and hard.  It never happens like the video would have you believe. It almost never works out the first time.  Teachers have to risk losing the well-oiled machine of classroom management when implementing a new pedagogical practice.  Students, too, will be wary of new approaches.  And, so, change happens in a very ad hoc manner, landing in some places but not others.  In the face of messy, many individual teachers will abandon new practices or, adopt only parts of new practices that they think they understand.

But what if the implementation of change was a joint effort between all levels of the organization, both at the board and school level.  And that effort meant taking a real interest in the change, not just managing one’s respective part in the process.  For example:

  • Principals take the same amount of interest in learning about the instructional change as their teachers do.  They are not merely present but active learners.  They don’t abandon the learning to deal with a small recess issue; they participate actively in classrooms instead of sitting back; they try teaching; they read the same resources; they engage in authentic discussions about teacher lessons.
  • Principals actively monitor the change, and can do so because they understand what the change really needs to look like.  This monitoring involves using both qualitative and quantitative data. The data helps them to know where to focus support.
  • Teachers have the freedom to try out changes without the fear of being evaluated immediately.  There is recognition of the messiness.  The change process is honored over compliance.
  • Superintendents have authentic and deep conversations with both principals and teachers about the work they are doing.  Superintendents  are also learning alongside teachers and principals.
  • Professional development and training is not attended only by teachers but also by principals, vice-principals, and superintendents.  It is visibly obvious that the change is of interest to all.
  • The change is not invitational.  Throughout the organization there is a recognition that the change is important.  However, there is also recognition that the change will be big, and messy, and require support.  The support is not provided only through training and resources, but also through authentic interest and learning by all levels of the organization.

We think that change is scary.  But, my experience is that change is exciting.  Change in practice that affects student learning energizes teachers more than anything else I know. But, change is cultural not procedural.  So, ask yourselves, does educational change in my school/board/system create high levels of anxiety or high levels of energy?  If it isn’t creating high levels of energy, then chances are, the implementation of the change is not affecting culture.  And, in the end, there will be limited change.  However, change the culture of implementation, and everyone will be excited to be learning-students, teachers, principals and superintendents.


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Filed under classroom environment, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized