Thursday, February 25, 2016

High-Stakes Testing: A Bad Way to Play Ball - and Evaluate Students and Teachers

Someone once said, "Baseball is an island of activity among a sea of statistics."
The same could also be said about education.
Think about it.  The classroom is the "field" where the "game" - or instruction and assessment - takes place.   The classroom is the "team" that's funded and supported by the school or district - or "organization.  The students are the "players" and the teacher is the "manager" who leads the team to have a successful "season" or year.  
However, unlike baseball - or any sport - the value or worth of a player or team is not defined or judged by their performance in one game during a long season.
There are 162 games in a baseball season.  For 161 games, that baseball player has hit the ball every time they have stepped up to the plate.  They either get on base, hit someone else home, belt the ball out of the park, or at least get a piece of the ball when it's thrown at them.
However, there's one game where the player encounters a pitcher whom he struggles to hit off, and when he does, he grounds out, pops out, or cannot hit his teammates home.  Should that player be labeled as "falling far below" based upon that one game?  Should the manager be labeled "unqualified" because that player could not get on base, knock it out of the park, or send one of his teammates home?  Should the team be labeled "underperforming" based upon the results of that one, single game?
He would be if the player was a student, the game was the standardized assessment he was taking, and the pitches were the questions asked on that one test given one out of the 180 days of the school year.  Everything rides on that one game!  That one game will truly mark and measure whether the coach and the players are skilled players.  It doesn't matter how you the teacher / coach or your class / team performed all season long.  This one day means EVERYTHING!!!
Isn't that ridiculous?
However, this is the reality of education.  It does not matter how our students have been performing or the growth they made over the course of the school year / season - at least, not to the organizations that rate our performance and give us that letter grade or performance designation.
So how can we counter these single-day high stake tests our students take quarterly or annually?
What if we turned the performance objectives of academic standards into good questions they can address and base the depth of their knowledge and understanding on how correctly, clearly, comprehensively, and even creatively they respond? 
What if instead of having the question, problem, or task present to the student drive and determine whether students know, understand, can use the concepts and procedures they are learning we use them as textual evidence and examples to support their responses?
Let me explain.
Typically, we instruct and assess student learning by presenting students with assignments and tests that look like this:
These questions, problems, and tasks and how well the students answer them serve as the criteria for whether students can know and understand place value.  If they can answer these questions correctly, then they must know their stuff, right?
If that's the case, then why isn't that knowledge and understanding transferring to the problems they are presented on their formative benchmark or summative assessments?  If they answered the question incorrectly, is that they do not truly know or understand the concept and procedures for determining place value or were they given a "bad question" that was possibly unclear or worded poorly?
We cannot rely on the questions, problems, and tasks provided by a textbook or a test to serve as the determinant for learning.  They are examples and evidence - or support - that proves students know, understand, can use, and think deeply about the content, concepts, and procedures they are learning.  However, the true measure of depth of knowledge and understanding is whether students can demonstrate AND communicate what they have learned.  Questions, problems, and tasks in a textbook or on a text serve as the context in which students can transfer and use what they have learned, and that varies as indicated by Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model.
So how can we truly prove our students know and understand what they are learning deeply?  We need to shift the focus from the questions, problems, and tasks they are assigned to the addressing and responding to a good question that has been rephrased from the performance objective.
Look at the sample worksheet in this blog.  The performance objectives want the students to solvefind the products, and explain how you decided the number of zeros for the products of (a), (b), and (c).  They want students to follow the Nike slogan and Just do it!  In fact, the true graphic representation of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy should look like this.
Out of all those performance objectives, only the cognitive action explain directs students to communicate their learning.  However, what about the other problems?  Why are they not being challenged not only demonstrate but also communicate how and why that they attained their answers?
What if we rephrased those performance objectives into good questions that ask students to demonstrate and communicate this:
 Look at how the instructional focus shifts from solving, finding the product, and explaining to demonstrating and communicating -- or showing and telling -- how the concepts of place value understanding explains the outcome of these problems.  The problems -- or context in which students will demonstrate their learning -- remain the same.  However, the complexity of the assignment deepens when the performance objectives become good questions that ask students to think deeply and express and share how, what impact, and even what would happen
That's the true mark and measure of deep learning - not just demonstrate whether they can answer questions correctly but also communicate how and why and consider what else can be done or how else can concepts and procedures be used.  That's also the transferrable knowledge we want students to develop so they can answer any question, address any problem, accomplish any task, or analyze any text or topic presented to them.
We can also use the responses to these questions to counter the results of assessments.  We can challenge the question and contest that question was a "bad question" and truly does not reflect or represent the student's learning.  We should look at the data reports that document how many students answered that question correctly.  We can also prove that student truly knows, understands, and can transfer and use the content, concept, or procedure by having them respond to the good question we rephrase from the performance objective and use different problems they solve correctly as textual evidence to support their responses.  That is authentic assessment - the ability to demonstrate and communicate knowledge, thinking, and how it can be transferred and used in different contexts!
So how can we create these good questions from performance objectives that will serve as authentic assessments?  We need to change the introductory statement from The student will ... to Show and tell ...  We then need to replace the cognitive action of the performance objective with a question them that prompts students to understand, analyze, and evaluate how; why; what is the cause and effect; what is the impact or influence; or  what is the reason, relationship, or result.  Then we paraphrase or transcribe the context in which the student must demonstrate and communicate their learning.  For example instead of saying, The student will recognize that in a multi-digit whole number, a digit in one place represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right.(CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.NBT.A.1), rephrase the objective to state, Show and tell how and why does a digit in one place in a multi-digit number represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 what it represents to its place to the left.  Take away the show and tell and you have this good question students will be challenged to address and respond:
How and why does a digit in one place in a multi-digit number represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 what it represents to its place to the left
That's the question students must address, and the problems presented to them will serve as the textual evidence to support their response.  We can even give them the answers to the problems and ask them to think strategically about why is that the answer.
When it comes to cognitive rigor, we want students to demonstrate higher order thinking and communicate depth of knowledge of what they are learning.  One question, problem, or task is not a true measure of higher and deeper thinking.  We need students to explain in detail, in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way how and why concepts and procedures can be applied to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, and analyze tasks.  We also want them to think critically and creatively about what else or how else they can transfer  and use what they are learning in different contexts.  
To go back to the baseball analogy, we want them to demonstrate and communicate how, why, and what else can they do to hit any pitch thrown to them.  That's the mark and measure or authentic learning and performance - be it on the field or in the classroom.
 Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! Questions for Cognitive Rigor will be published by ASCD in 2016.  For more information, please visit

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