Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Little Datapoint That Could

I just think if we have to spend 10% of the school year on anything, 
it should be something a little more worthwhile [than standardized testing].
--Noa Rosenplotz

KSN&C recently learned that one Fayette County high school spends 24% of their school days on some form of testing.

Last year, Noa wrote a couple of letters to school officials in DC. When they failed to respond to her concerns, she decided to speak out a little louder.

This from Noa Rosinplotz, a Sixth Grader in the Washington DC schools:
The Little Datapoint and the Big Bad Test

Once upon a time, there was a little datapoint named Rosin Plotz, Noa. Her friends called her by her ID number, 9——, or 9 for short. She liked her job-most of the time. But 6 times a year, or 19 days in total, came the Big Bad Test. The Little Datapoint completed the test dutifully each time, mulling the possibilities of Paul Revere’s horse’s emotions and checking her work not once, but twice. She and the other Datapoints together formed a Chart, which was their Job. The Little Datapoint felt very proud at having been a part of such a great endeavor. Then one day, the Little Datapoint felt a different emotion. The Little Datapoint felt ANGRY. The Little Datapoint thought: Is this all I am good for? Providing data on tests? That can’t be all there is to life, can it? These questions are dumb, thought the Little Datapoint. I should not spend my life answering these questions. Paul Revere’s horse will never change the world, she said to herself. Paul Revere’s horse is dead. But I can still change the world. And I will never do that by answering these questions, day after day, year after year. And that Little Datapoint did not answer her questions. That Little Datapoint RIPPED UP HER TEST AND THREW IT INTO THE DEEP DARK RECESSES OF THE TRASH CAN TO FESTER AND EVENTUALLY DIE A SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH LASTING FOR ALL ETERNITY!!!!!!!!!” 
KSN&C first became aware of Noa from her father David Plotz's Political Gabfest at Slate Magazine. Her mother is also a writer/editor at Slate. But Noa wrote the piece herself (except that her mother, Hanna Rosen, read it to make sure she hadn't said anything "obnoxious"). Noa decided to write to Diane Ravitch to get the word out.
My name is Noa and I’m a sixth grader in DCPS. I got your name from my friend’s grandmother, Joan Leibovich. Joan sent you the story I wrote, “The Little Datapoint and the Big Bad Test”, along with the link to a protest Facebook page against standardized testing (I attached them both at the bottom, just in case.) She said you might post these on your website, which would be great.

I’m writing this e-mail just to explain my position better: I have spent 28 hours up to now filling in bubbles on the Paced Interim Assessment, or PIA, and I consider those hours parts of my life that were dumped down the drain. These particular tests are confusing and occasionally contradictory. We take them five times a year through most of elementary and middle school.

Entire school systems are judged just on one number-the percent of kids who made proficient on their standardized tests. That’s millions of dollars in funding, the education of thousands of children, and who knows what else depending on that number, which means nothing, since the tests are, for lack of a word that makes me sound less like the twelve-year-old I am, bad.

I have started to read your book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” I’m very interested by the concept of “seeing like a state,” which you mention in the first chapter. While I agree that this is necessary for most federal laws and problems, I think it’s exactly what we don’t need in our current education system. If education officials would descend those 20,000 feet and spend time examining and working with the 49.8 million children and 3.3 million teachers in US public elementary and high schools, they would better understand how actual students, schools, and teachers experience the tests they help to implement and create. We could learn so many things in the hours spent bubble-filling that would INCREASE our knowledge, not just show it. Maybe tests aren’t the best way of assessing schools. Actually, tests AREN’T the best way of assessing schools. So please, please, read on.

The PIAs (our current benchmark assessment in DC) are created by Intel-Assess and based on the Common Core Curriculum. Each testing window has one math test and one English language arts test. On top of that, DC has the DC CAS, which is administered between the 4th and 5th PIA and lasts five or six days, depending on the grade. The DC CAS bears no relation to the PIA at all and assesses a different range of skills. Grades 2-8 are all tested. As a result, about 10% of the year is spent on standardized tests, not counting all the preparation and practice for each test.

Each ELA test has 30 or so questions, give or take a few. The questions are related to several passages presented in the test booklet, which can include poems, nonfiction texts written exclusively for the test, and fictional stories. There are usually two written response questions on each test. Sometimes the questions are fine. More often than not, they don’t make sense in context or have multiple or no right answers. For example, question 11 on the first test this school year was as follows:

If “Nasser of the Shaduf had been written in the third person, the reader would probably have learned less about which of the following?

a) Nasser’s childhood
b) Nasser’s sisters
c) how Nasser felt about working the shaduf
d) how his father felt about Nasser

I think they’re all a little bit wrong.

Another, which I don’t have word for word, has a picture of the general store where the main character works. On the storefront is a list of items sold by the store. The question asked why the author included a picture with the passage. One option was “to show where Joey [the main character] works.” Another was “to show what is sold at the general store.” The question appeared on the first 5th grade PIA this year. If you can answer this, I will be extremely impressed.

Here’s a different one, on the second-to-last 5th grade PIA last year. It’s about the sinking of the Lusitania and the start of WWI.

Which is the best support from “Tragedy at Sea” for the argument that the U.S. should NOT go to war with Germany over this incident?

a) Many people in the U.S. were hoping to remain out of a war with Europe.
b) The Lusitania was a British ship and not an American ship.
c) The Germans had warned British ships to stay out of these waters.
d) The American military was not fully prepared for a war with Germany.

Aren’t these all correct?

The math PIAs are less obviously flawed, but flawed all the same. The first test in the 2012-2013 school year had lots of questions asking the 6th graders to count the shaded squares inside a rectangle. The second often asked us to use the distributive property, which we hadn’t yet learned. When I posted one question from test #2 on the protest Facebook page (I included the link at the bottom), several adults debated the answer for a while. If the first test has counting, which is easy for a kindergartener, and the second is appropriate for a grown adult, that’s not going to show progress correctly. I never thought I’d complain that a standardized test needed to be more standardized, but here I am doing it. Our scores might plummet on test two, but only because it was disproportionately harder than test one. I have no problem with challenging questions, they just need to be more reasonable.

Another question, which appears often, in many different forms and using many different math skills, on the PIA goes something like this:“Martin used the distributive property to write this equation: 10(x-y)+5(x-7y)=15x-45y. Explain Martin’s reasonableness and the steps he took to arrive at his answer.” This isn’t word for word, but that equation was the hard one I talked about in a problem asking for the reasoning (not “reasonableness”) of the person who completed the problem (correctly.) We get lots of questions asking us to explain the steps taken to arrive at an answer, which is fine. They just are worded terribly. The way I explained it asks the question SO much better. Mostly the math questions are multiple choice, but ones like my example are written response.

There is an awful countrywide disregard for special circumstances regarding ESL students. I’m not sure if this is very prominent in DC, although I know it’s definitely an issue in other places.

According to NCLB, ESL students are given three years to take the test in their native language, and occasionally an extra two, but only under some conditions. Only 10 states follow this rule. In the other 40, a kid can arrive in September speaking as much English as his #2 pencil, and be expected to score proficient on the test in October. So schools with high ESL populations have almost no chance of making AYP on any standardized test whatsoever. A study in California and Illinois showed that schools that made AYP were comprised of 40% minority students or less, while the schools that didn’t were made up of 75-85% minority students. Most of this is due to the kids not being tested in their native languages when needed.

Special education students make up 14% of the country’s public school students, but only 3% of state scores are based on tests modified for the abilities of kids who are disabled in any way. In Maryland and DC the Alt-MSA (Maryland) or DC CAS-Alt (DC), an alternate, individually altered or simplified version of the state test, is given to only 1% of students. According to the Washington Post article by Daniel de Vise, “Trying Times for Special Ed”, Maryland teachers were allowed to guide students’ hands to the correct answers when necessary. The article was written in 2005. In DC, students with extreme cognitive disabilities are allowed to take an alternate exam, and “officials” say they have not heard any complaints from teachers. These modified exams can take hours, even days longer than the standard tests, and if teachers can guide students to the right answer, then that is a supreme waste of time. Children with IEP or 504 plans have their scores counted exactly like everyone else’s. Because improvement does not impact whether a school makes AYP or not, a severely disabled 8th grader can go from not knowing the first letter of their own name to reading proficiently on a 1st or 2nd grade level, but fail the tests because they weren’t up to 8th grade standards.

This is important for very obvious reasons. We can’t afford to waste so much time, money, and brainpower on completely useless tests. We hold the graphs and charts and other “information” we get from tests in bafflingly high regard. Just because it’s printed on expensive paper doesn’t mean it’s good information. If the students guess on a quarter of the questions, and there are three wrong answers and only one right one to each question, that’s a considerable number of the questions gone completely to waste (at least 3-5 a test).

My mission isn’t to abolish standardized tests entirely; schools need some way of judging academic performance and I’m not about to suggest something better. I just think if we have to spend 10% of the school year on anything, it should be something a little more worthwhile. Maybe we could have a three-year moratorium, like Joshua Starr (MCPS superintendent of schools) suggests, to focus on improving our assessment system. The only good tests are ones created by teachers who know their students and know what they’re teaching. We could be assessed in ways testing our creativity and knowledge, not only our capacity for making small-minded inferences by looking at short, meaningless passages. If the school system spent more time planning the tests, using information from schools and the people in them, and thinking about the many, many cons of shutting kids in classrooms for 20 hours a year to fill in bubbles on answer sheets, then maybe, just maybe, we could get some valid information from those very answer sheets. Maybe students could learn things FROM TESTS. Maybe we could all spend time thinking about the answers, not because they make absolutely no sense, but because they require our brains to think. And maybe our #2 pencils will grow wings and fly to Montreal.

Thank you for reading this.


A datapoint

What’s a way to get it to Arne Duncan that he won’t ignore it? I’m sure any listed emails for him will be for work, and he probably gets bombarded with emails he never looks at. It’s worth a try, though.

Noa, I think your post on this blog might make it to Arne Duncan’s desk. Just a sneaking suspicion.
You could always tweet it to him.


Anonymous said...

Though I suspect there was a little more influence, dare I say authorship, by adults in this correspondence which comes from a sixth graders, it does seem quite sad that a middle school student can identfiy the flaws in both the instruments, process and values but we have adults in positions of power who seem either too arogant, indifferent, stubborn or uncreative (or all the above) to admit that the pendelum has swung too far toward assessment dragging with it the resources of funding and instructional time. (Please forgive the run on sentence)

Anonymous said...

I aways find it disappointing that we trumpet wanting to make our kids creative and critical thinkers and then present them with questions on standardized tests which ask for the "best" response. It would seem that critical and creative thinkers could justify "best" well beyond the limited mindset of the assessment creator(s). It appears to me that the entire concept of standardized assessment (ie standardized thought) runs completely counter to creative and critical thinking skills. I am certainly not saying that folks should not possess a depth of common knowledge from which to draw, but we should not try to make these testing instruments attempt to measure something which they aren't capable of doing - specifically determing if the students thinks logically/creatively. The 6th grader's Lusitania question is a perfect example. As someone with advanced degrees in history, I agree that any of these could be the "best" response depending upon your argument and the perspective of the individual responding.

Anonymous said...

Lots of people look themselves up on Google for fun. I, Noa, am one of those people and have stumbled upon this blog post. Whoever posted it, thank you, and whoever left the first comment, no thank you. The arrogant and outdated assumption that children cannot write as well as adults or have their own ideas should have been gone long ago. I wrote that letter by myself and I took the tests, too.