Monday, January 16, 2017

I get what you want us not to do, but what should we do? Getting higher test scores.

Teacher question:
I truly want to help teachers strengthen their literacy instruction and students develop and strengthen their reading comprehension. I just viewed your online presentation on “How and How Not to Get Higher Test Scores” and I am intrigued. With only a few short months away from the testing frenzy as you can imagine administrators and teachers are in a panic

My goal is to get my 3rd grade students to navigate and comprehend texts more independently. Would you recommend that students analyze text features (titles, headings, and photograph with caption) to make a prediction about what they will be reading initially? Then have students engage in a partner reading of the text and then a silent reading of the text (build fluency) and then mark up the text with annotations (summarizing statements beside each subheading). I would then ask text-dependent questions such as, “what text structure does the author use to explain how caves are formed? How would you explain how the caves are formed? What is the difference between stalactites and stalagmites and how do the photograph and captions help us understand the differences between the two cave features? What point is the author trying to convey to his/her readers by including the ‘Spelunking Dangers” section and “Rules?” What evidence does the author include to support the ideas that spelunking is dangerous?

My problem is that I believe that I provide too much support to my students and it tends to enable them. I chunk texts up to promote self-monitoring and summarization but see that my students are having difficulties comprehending longer or multiple passages or texts.

Shanahan response:

Good question. If I were still teaching third grade, what would I do to get higher test scores this spring?

1.    First, I would make sure that my boys and girls were reading a lot—within instruction and, to the extent that I could, beyond the school day. Not only should kids be reading every day in their reading lessons, make sure they are reading in social studies, science, and even in math, too. It might help, for a while, to keep track of the numbers of minutes that is happening; it makes it easier to increase the reading time if you know how much actual reading is taking place—oral and silent. I’m talking about reading text, not talking about text, not listening to someone else read, and not the time kids may be off just reading on their own (but accountable reading). Shoot for at least an hour of school reading per day, and then see if you can stretch that out to more like two hours. That’s a lot of reading!

      And, encourage kids to read for enjoyment beyond the school day.         You won’t have control over that, of course, but many teachers are      effective in getting kids to read. Work with the kids and the          librarian to find texts the kids want to read. Enlist parents in           supporting this reading. Don’t hesitate to “reward” kids for this reading (that can be as simple as a bookworm that wends around       the room showing how many books are being read, to something           as complicated as a classroom pizza party once some large            numbers of books or pages are read).

2.    Make sure you are having kids read texts that are sufficiently difficult. Pay attention to the Lexile levels that your state has established for third-graders to read. Make sure kids are reading a wide range of texts every day and every week, including texts that are in the specified range. I would also have kids reading books easier and harder than that range (and when you go higher than grade level, be sure to provide plenty of support and make sure the kids know what you are up to).

3.    As you point out, teachers tend to over-support kids’ reading. We teacher educators tend to provide a lot of guidance and support for scaffolding—but we are less explicit about withdrawing this support. But, withdrawing support and just going cold turkey may not be the best bet.

            Reciprocal teaching is a good model of withdrawal of scaffolding,           so I wouldn’t hesitate to use that—even with other strategies.    Initially, the teacher guides the reading process, even        demonstrating to the boys and girls how to go about working             through a text. This modeling or demonstration is largely or         entirely done by the teacher: she implements the strategies—            previewing, predicting, reading a portion of the text, asking herself       questions, answering those questions, summarizing the text, and       then repeating with the next section. The teacher not only does             everything but explains why she is doing it and how it is suppose to            help.

            Then, the teacher starts to shift the responsibilities to the children,       and to withdraw support. Initially, the teacher does what you       describe, she makes all the decisions and the kids just carry them            out. “We need to preview this text. Let’s read the title and look at       the first two pictures.” She continues to explain the purposes of the various steps. When the kids can do that well, the teacher pull      back even more. Perhaps she has the kids take over explaining the         purposes. Or, they start to make the decisions. “I think we should        read the whole first section before talking about it.” And so on.   Eventually, the kids should be carrying out the entire process,             initially in the group and then individually. All of this—whether    guided by the teacher or done cooperatively in groups and pairs or      done individually—should be silent reading.

4.    I know the tests are done silently, but kids should be engaged in oral reading as well. Not the kind of round robin reading that many teachers use (there isn’t enough reading when done that way), but things like paired reading or reading while listening. Have kids do this with texts at their frustration level, practicing repeatedly two or three times. The idea is to start with text that you struggle a bit with, but practicing to the point of being able to read the text well. That oral reading improvement will transfer to the silent reading.

5.    You mention annotating texts. You can do that, but annotating doesn’t push kids’ thinking far enough. I would encourage the kids to write about the texts. Yes, you can ask questions and have the kids write answers to them—and your questions are good—but you also can have the children summarize and explain the text (summarizing in writing like that has a big impact on the reading comprehension of third graders). Perhaps the annotations could be used to guide the students to provide  


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Further Arguments about Too Much Testing

I hear you.

            Last week I posted a blog challenging the amount of testing and test preparation in American reading classes. I got smacked, metaphorically, by friend and foe alike. Some posted their concerns, many more sent them to me directly.

            The grumbles from past foes are the easiest to reply to. They often expressed—in passive aggressive tones—exasperation that I have “finally” woken up to the idea that testing companies are evil and that testing is a conspiracy against kids and teachers. They know because they follow Diane Ravitch’s “research.”

            The thing is—and I’m sure this is true since I’ve reread last week’s posting—I didn’t really come out against testing. Just against over-testing and test prep generally. The politicians have imposed some testing—and I think they have overdone it—but teachers and principals are also devoting too much time to testing, and that's on us.

            Dr. Ravitch seems to be quite upset about accountability testing, which she herself helped impose on educators overriding the critics who depended upon research in their arguments. (Ravitch is an educational historian, and quite a good one, but ignrores—then and now—psychological and educational research).

            I’m not even against accountability testing, as long as the amount of testing is commensurate with the information that one is collecting. To find out how well a school or district is doing, do we really need to test every year? Do they change that fast? Do we really need to test everyone? Anyone ever hear of random sampling? Come onnnnnn!

            If Dr. Ravitch’s minions spent more time in schools, they’d know the heaviest testing commitments are the ones the districts (and, sometimes, even individual principals and teachers) have taken on themselves. We may blame those misguided efforts on the accountability testing—we all want to look good for the picture—but, it is a bad choice, nevertheless. And, it is a choice.

            I do find the critics’ vexation with me a little surprising. For example, when I was director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools (15 years ago), I was ordered, by then Mayor Daley—to emphasize test prep in my teacher education efforts in the city. Unlike some of the critics who these days are so noisy about over-testing, I had skin in the game and I refused.

            It might be worth noting that my refusal led to two outcomes that matter: (1) the Chicago Public Schools engaged in the least test prep—before or since; and (2) Chicago kids made their biggest measured gains in reading. Not a research study, but a policy dispute affecting nearly a half million kids.

            Of course, those who appreciated my past candor were now chagrined at my remarks. They weren’t necessarily upset by what I had to say about accountability testing (many of them concur that it is over the top), but they were scared to death by my comments on the various screening, monitoring, and diagnostic tests that are so much of the daily lives of primary grade classrooms.

            Again, I think I was clear, despite the concerns. The typical complaint: “I understand you, but no one else will.” That is, they get that I am not opposed to all classroom assessment, but they are sure no one else will appreciate the subtlety of what they see as a complex position.

            For example, one dear friend, a grandmother, pointed out her appreciation that her grandkids are given annually a standardized test in reading and math. The reason? She doesn’t trust teachers or schools to actually tell how kids are doing.

            The fact is too often teachers don’t tell parents how their kids are doing. For all kinds of reasons: What if a child isn’t doing well and I don’t know what to tell the parent—why raise a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t think there is anything that can be done—it’s a minority child without economic resources whose family is a wreck? What if I only notice effort and not achievement? What if I just don’t want the argument (often parents don’t like to hear that junior isn’t succeeding)?

            An annual test isn’t perfect, but it doubles the amount of information that most parents have and that isn’t a bad thing. I’m not against that kind of testing.

            One reader thought I was smacking DIBELS, but I wasn’t. I was tough on the notion that tests like DIBELS can profitably be given to ANYBODY every week or two through a school year. But not because I was anti-DIBELS.

            Twice a year I go to my dentist. She takes x-rays every fourth visit. Why doesn’t she do it every time? For two reasons: first, dental health doesn’t change that fast, so they try not to test more than would help; and, second, because x-rays can cause damage, so the balance is best struck between help and hindrance, by testing once every four checkups instead of the seemingly more rigorous testing every time.

            DIBELS-like instruments won’t do physical damage, like x-rays, but they do reduce the amount of teaching and they might shape that teaching in bizarre ways. That is harmful.

            My advice:
1.     Reduce accountability testing to the minimum amounts required to accomplish the goal. Research is clear that we can test much less to find out how states, districts, and schools are doing. Without a loss of information.

2.     Test individual kids annually to ensure parents have alternative information to that provided by teachers.

3.     Limit diagnostic testing in reading to no more than 2-3 times per school year. Studies do not find that any more testing than that is beneficial, and no research supports reducing the amount of teaching to enable such over-testing.

4.     Give most test prep a pass. It doesn’t really help and it reduces the amount of essential instruction that kids should be getting. One practice test given once one or two weeks ahead so kids will feel comfortable with the testing should be plenty.




Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Welcome 2017: Let’s Teach, Not Test

             I believe in being upfront with my readers, so let me start with a confession:  I don’t hate testing.

            I know it is a horrible thing for a so-called “educator” to admit. It’s sort of a social disease.

            Perhaps someone has a 12-step program that could help me… Assessment Anonymous. Perhaps.

            When I was a practicing teacher working on my Master’s degree, I loved collecting tests in a big notebook. Sight word lists, multiple-choice phonics quizzes, informal reading inventories, motivation questionnaires. 3-holes punched in their left margins. Organized by purpose. I loved them all.

            In one of my jobs I even did school entry testing, putting prospective kindergartners through their paces.

            Then, later, as my habit worsened, I started working on tests… the ACT, the SAT, the National Assessment, eventually even co-authoring a state test in Illinois.

            You probably know how this story comes out… everyone hooked on testing eventually hits bottom, the dark night of the soul when you know you have to change or it will be all over. I reached my nadir when I found myself writing a positive review of DIBELS for the Buros Mental Measurements Yearbook.

            Okay, now that I have that off my chest, let’s get real.

            Over the past 15 years or so, we have so overdone the testing thing. Not just the tests that educators usually don’t like—the high stakes accountability tests—but even the instructionally relevant ones that we believe can be beneficial… the running records, informal reading inventories, DIBELS-style screeners and monitors, and a slew of acronym-titled diagnostic measures. All of them. Too much. Too damn much.

Accountability Testing
            Accountability testing was not a bad idea… it just hasn’t worked the way its proponents thought it would. Nothing wrong with that: You have an idea; you try it out on millions of kids without any empirical evidence that it will work; then after a couple of decades of doing that with few victories… you keep doing it?

            The basic idea was this: schools should be run more like businesses. Business figured out how to improve quality by measuring quality. By carefully monitoring their products and services—by testing them, they could ensure higher quality. It’s why your car starts in morning, every morning.  

            By analogy, the idea was that if we tested kids, we’d see which districts, schools, and teachers weren’t getting the job done, then resources and efforts would be focused and kids’ learning would improve. That movement started back in the 1970s, but really got going full-bore in the 1990s… more than 20 years ago. Needless to say, we are still waiting with baited-breath for the uptick.

            I still like the idea of the public knowing how well schools are doing, even if that has no direct impact on kids’ learning. However, we don’t need to test as much as we do to find out how schools are doing. Such tests need to be as brief as possible, and they only should be administered to samples of children, not all children (the National Assessment does a very good job of this on a national basis, testing fewer than 100,000 kids every two years).

            But whether or not we adopt an accountability-testing plan that makes sense, there is NO excuse for teachers to spend inordinate amounts of time getting kids ready for these exams. So-called “test prep” should be banned if it goes more than a couple of hours a year; like having kids take a practice test the week before testing. Almost all of the time currently devoted to prepping kids for the PARCC, SBAC, STAAR, Aspire, and the other state tests should be devoted to…wait for it… teaching! That time could be profitably spent teaching reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and the rest of the curriculum.

            Why would I recommend such a crazy thing? Because the surest way to raise reading achievement is not through test prep, but through teaching kids to read.

Instructional Testing
            But the testing glut is not just due to the politicians and their accountability schemes. A good deal of the over-testing we have brought on ourselves. Again, the theory has seemed reasonable.

            If we know which kids are lagging in which skills, then we can be sure to teach those skills to the right kids, and voila, higher reading achievement. This idea is especially prevalent among those responsible for kids with learning problems; often it is proposed that those children be tested weekly! The claim is that such testing represents a more rigorous effort on behalf of the strugglers.

            But that claim has no basis in research at least as far as reading achievement goes. I’m not arguing against occasionally testing certain skills to see what kind of progress is being made, and if anyone is falling through the cracks… but that can be accomplished well by testing 2-3 times per school year. I’m also not talking about the teachers who observe kids’ performance within daily instruction and who look carefully at kids’ written work (in fact, they’re my heroes).

            But interrupting instruction frequently to have kids take tests—even tests aimed at focusing instruction—is a big time waster. There is no evidence that such testing regimens actually improve learning, but there is plenty of evidence supporting the teaching of reading. Our New Year’s resolution should be, “Let’s teach, not test!” Let’s devote our instructional time to teaching kids to read—not to preparing them for tests, not for administering tests.