Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What Kind of People Does High Stakes Testing Make Our Students Into?

I’ve just finished reading an excellent doctoral dissertation by Steven Van Zoost. Van Zoost is a secondary teacher in Nova Scotia and he is about to complete a doctoral program at the University of South Australia. The evidence from his dissertation is that Steven is a good and caring teacher who relies on authentic assessment to gauge student progress in his classroom. While he is committed to authentic assessment, his dissertation asks: what kind of people do authentic assessment practices make his students into?

This is a question we might well ask about the assessment practices that dominate in the United States. What kind of people do high stakes achievement tests make our students into? We might also wonder what kind of people these sorts of assessments make teachers into.

Arguably, testing practices in this country make students into winners and losers. No matter how well students learn, no matter how hard they work, some students will fail relative to their peers. NCLB may include the goal that all students pass state achievement tests by 2014 but this doesn’t mean that we expect all children to achieve at the same level. In the end, we identify the best students in terms of the failures of other students. If everyone was successful, we wouldn’t know who was “the best.” This is the real worry about grade inflation. There aren’t enough failures.

To the degree that high stakes tests lead to teach-to-test curriculum, these assessment practices construct students as empty vessels to be filled with skills and facts that will be on the test. Students may (or may not) do better on the tests, but they aren’t better readers and writers, for example.

The emphasis on skills and facts that will be on the test also turns students, even kindergarteners, into little workers who have no time for recess or frills like art and music. The push to full day kindergarten and extended school days are based on the assumption that too much unstructured free time diminishes learning. This affects not only the learning identities of individual children, but also the meaning of childhood.

High stakes testing is turning many teachers, particularly those working in underperforming schools, into highly stressed technicians who are pressured into putting test scores above meaningful student learning. Nichols and Berliner (2007) indicate the enormous pressure of high stakes testing is also turning at least some teachers (and administrators) into cheaters.

Resistance to the narrow range of teaching and learning identities made available in high stakes testing environments is turning many teachers into “former teachers” and many students into “dropouts.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Poor Boys

Today’s New York Times and Washington Post both feature articles summarizing a recent report commissioned by the American Association of University Women entitled, “Where the girls are.” According to the Post the authors of the report found that: the literacy gap between boys and girls is not new nor is it increasing; a gender gap still exists favoring boys in math; the percentages of students scoring at higher levels of proficiency on the NAEP are rising for both boys and girls; students from lower-income families are less likely to be proficient in math and reading but gender differences vary significantly by race and ethnicity; there is virtually no difference between boys and girls entering college immediately after high school. Further, to the degree that the academic performance of girls has improved over the last several decades (in math, for example), these gains have not been achieved at the expense of boys (“Where the girls are,” Executive Summary).

Whatever the facts, there is a widespread perception that there is a “boy crisis” in our schools. The Washington Post quotes incoming Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, Paul Reville who observes that “we just have a variety of indicators that should cause us to be alarmed and to recognize that there is a real gap, and quite possibly a growing gap, between boys and girls that is going to take some concerted effort.” To alleviate this “crisis” gender segregated schools and classrooms have been established in Boston and elsewhere in the nation. Presumably, all male classes will focus on pedagogical practices that are most effective with boys. It is further assumed that all male schools and classrooms can encourage boys by focusing on writing topics, for example, that are most interesting to boys.

The problem is, of course, that there are no pedagogical practices that are effective with all boys (or all girls). There are no interests shared only by boys – and not girls. Nor do all boys respond to stricter discipline or even male teachers. Whether or not there is a “boy crisis” in our schools, no educational reform can proceed on the assumption that there are essential gender differences between boys and girls. There are not. But there are significant individuals differences among boys and girls which suggest that all students are best served when we can structure schools and classrooms to better meet the needs of INDIVIDUAL students. Reading and Writing Workshops, for example, give teachers opportunities to work with students individually and in small groups based on careful, ongoing assessment of each student’s needs. Whole class instruction and one-size-fits-all curricula do not.

I have another worry about single-sex classrooms and schools. Public education isn’t just about educational achievement. In the ideal, public schools allow people from different backgrounds and different experiences to get to know each other. Segregated schooling of any kind (by gender, race, ethnicity, language, etc.) does little to promote understanding and respect for the differences that makes each of us interesting people, and, increasingly, separate us. Unfortunately, as Jonathon Kozol documents in his book, Shame of the Nation, racially and economically segregated schools are already a plague on American education and, more seriously, American democracy. Same-sex schools and classrooms may only make this situation worse.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Disheartening: Teaching Children What They Already Know

At Boston College students in our teacher education Masters program must complete an “inquiry project” in their practicum classrooms. To celebrate this achievement, each year Boston College hosts a “community of learners” mini-conference where students share their projects.

This year I sat at a table with seven students who shared their projects with me and with each other. I must say, it was a pretty disheartening experience. Our program at BC emphasizes teaching reading in the context of rich, challenging literature; yet all these students shared projects that focused on decontextualized phonics and sight word instruction. We may stress holistic approaches to reading at BC, but in their classrooms the emphasis was on skills, skills, and more skills. It was particularly discouraging to hear a student named Anne (who had been in one of my classes) rave about a new phonics program her (suburban) school had adopted. All students in grades K-2 now spend 30 minutes a day on phonics and, according to Anne, next year the program will be extended to 3rd grade.

Research indicates that lots of kids enter first grade with strong phonics skills and many of these children already read independently. This may be particularly true in affluent, suburban schools like Anne’s. Putting aside my objection to decontextualized phonics instruction, why are the teachers in Anne’s school – and in other schools across the country – teaching so many children what they already know? Why would we force potentially hundreds of hours of phonics instruction (in Anne’s school children will have had over 350 hours of phonics instruction by the time they complete 3rd grade) on children who already read independently? The only answer I can come up with is this. Many schools have stopped asking how well children read and instead ask: “How do they do on DIBELS?”

No wonder David Pearson has warned that “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flashcards” (p. v).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Trouble with DIBELS

I’ve been grading my students’ research papers the last few days and I’ve been surprised how many students made some reference to the use of DIBELS in their schools. What particularly surprised me was the fact that some of these students taught in affluent, high-achieving schools. I had assumed that DIBELS was mainly used in underachieving, Reading First schools. It seems that I was wrong.

In the forward to Ken Goodman’s book, The Truth About DIBELS: What It Is - What It Does, David Pearson warns that “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flashcards” (p. v). Pearson takes this strong stance because, in his opinion, “DIBELS shapes instruction in ways that are bad for students” and “bad for teachers.” Pearson believes that DIBELS is bad for students because it shapes instruction in ways that do not promote students’ development as readers and bad for teaches because it requires that teachers shape instruction “based on criteria that are not consistent with our best knowledge about the nature of reading development” (p. v).

Perhaps the most widely used – and troubling – DIBELS measure is Oral Reading Fluency which produces a measure of students’ reading speed and accuracy (number of words read correctly per minute). What’s troubling is the behavioral theory of reading that underpins this measure. DIBELS is informed by a developmental model of reading that assumes learning to read is a matter of learning to sound out letters and words to a level of “automaticity” and, once children read with sufficient fluency (speed and accuracy), they will be able to comprehend what they’ve read.

The theory of reading underpinning DIBELS predicts that fluent readers should be good comprehenders and, conversely, students who are not fluent (do not read with sufficient speed and accuracy) should be poor comprehenders. In their book, Rereading Fluency: Process, Practice, and Policy, Bess Altwerger, Nancy Jordan, and Nancy Rankie Shelton report a study they conducted that, among other things, examines the relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension. What they found was that some of the best comprehenders read slowly. Similarly, some of the most fluent readers (those who read the most words correctly in one minute) were among the poorest comprehenders.

Altwerger, Jordan, and Shelton’s research challenges the basic theoretical assumptions underlying DIBELS. Their research also reinforces the argument that “scientifically-based research” isn’t just about sound methods. It is also about sound theory and the theory of reading on which DIBELS is based is fundamentally flawed.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reading First called "Ineffective"

I’ve been trying to post every Tuesday morning, but this was too good to wait four days. Today’s New York Times reports that “President Bush’s $1 billion a year [Reading First] initiative to teach reading to low-income children has not helped improve their reading comprehension, according to a Department of Education report released on Thursday.” The Times’ article goes on: “Reading First did not improve students’ reading comprehension . . . The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two or three whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level.”

This isn’t the good part. The poor performance of low-income children is a crisis in American education. I welcome federal dollars to support reading in low-income schools. The problem with Reading First is that it is has been plagued by serious conflicts of interest and a very narrow, behavioral view of reading.

Here’s the good part. The Times also reported that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had “no comment” on the report. However, Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant secretary of education, defended Reading First saying “that one of the consistent messages Ms. Spellings has heard from educators, principals and state administrators “is about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools.”

The No Child Left Behind Act mentions “scientifically-based reading instruction” over 100 times. Education officials in the Bush administration have repeatedly challenged teachers to embrace reading practices that have been scientifically proven. Schools of Education have been severely criticized for not teaching future teachers “the science of reading.” Reading First itself claims to focus on “putting [scientifically-proven] proven methods of early reading instruction in classrooms.” Yet, an administration official contradicts a large “scientific” study that concludes that Reading First is ineffective by citing all the people who have told Margaret Spellings that the program is working. This is delicious.

I think this episode makes it very clear that “scientifically-based research” is valued by education officials in the Bush administration only when it supports their preferred instructional practices. From the administration’s point of view, only research that supports an exclusive emphasis on phonics in early reading instruction has merit. I guess when you just know that it’s true you don’t really need research.