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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/21/2010

English teacher: Data can drive us down wrong road

By Valerie Strauss

Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She teaches high-school English in Miami, Florida and is a National Board Certified Teacher. This first appeared on the website of the magazine Education Next.


By Roxanna Elden
While reviewing a practice passage called “The Night Hunters” for last year’s 9th-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), I had to peek at the teachers’ guide to check my answer to this question: Which of the owls’ names is the most misleading?

I was stuck between (F) the screech owl, because its call rarely approximates a screech, and (I) the long-eared owl, because its real ears are behind its eyes and covered by feathers.

The passage explains that owls hear through holes behind their eyes, so the term long-eared owl seemed misleading. Then again, a screech owl that rarely screeches? That is pretty misleading, too.

According to the FCAT creators, each question on the practice tests corresponds to a specific reading skill or benchmark. Teachers are supposed to discuss test results in after-school “data chats” and then review weak skills in class.

Here is a sample conversation from a data chat, as imagined by promoters of this idea:

First Teacher: Well, it looks like my students need some extra work on benchmark LA.910.6.2.2: The student will organize, synthesize, analyze, and evaluate the validity and reliability of information from multiple sources (including primary and secondary sources) to draw conclusions using a variety of techniques, and correctly use standardized citations.

Second Teacher: Mine, too! Now let’s work as a team to help students better understand this benchmark in time for next month’s assessment.

Third Teacher: I am glad we are having this “chat.”

Here is a conversation from an actual data chat:

First Teacher: My students’ lowest area was supposedly synthesizing information, but that benchmark was only tested by two questions. One was the last question on the test, and a lot of my students didn’t have time to finish. The other question was that one about the screech owl having the misleading name, and I thought it was kind of confusing.

Second Teacher: We read that question in class and most of my students didn’t know what approximates meant, so it really became more of a vocabulary question.

Third Teacher: Wait.... I thought the long-eared owl was the one with the misleading name.

At this point, data chats often turn into non-data-related gripe sessions.

When I interviewed teachers for See Me After Class, the unintended consequences of high-stakes tests came up most often among language arts teachers.

They know that answering comprehension questions correctly does not rest on just one benchmark. Separating complex skills into individual benchmarks may well work in math class. Symmetry and place value, for example, can be taught independently of one another, and benchmark-based data may indicate which of these skills needs work.

Reading is different. After students have mastered basics like decoding, reading cannot be taught through repeated practice of isolated skills. Students must understand enough of a passage to utilize all the intricately linked skills that together comprise comprehension.

The owl question, for example, tests skills not learned from isolated reading practice but from processing information on the varying characteristics of animal species. (The correct answer, by the way, is the screech owl.)

Unfortunately, strict adherence to data-driven instruction can lead schools to push aside science and social studies to drill students on isolated reading benchmarks.

Compare and contrast, for example, is covered year after year in creative lessons using Venn diagrams. The result is students who can produce Venn diagrams comparing cans of soda, and act out Venn diagrams with Hula–hoops, but are still lost a few paragraphs into a passage about owls. When they do poorly on reading assessments, we pull them again from subjects that give them content knowledge for more review of Venn diagrams. Many students learn to associate reading with failure and boredom.

It is difficult to teach kids to read well if they don’t learn to enjoy reading. It is impossible to teach kids to read well while denying them the knowledge they need to make sense of complex material. Following the data often forces teachers to do just that.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 21, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Learning, Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  compare and contrast, fcat, florida comprehensive assessment test, standardized tests, teachers, teaching, test questions  
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Comments

As a tenth grade English teacher in Maryland, the year our students take their high stakes English exam required for graduation, I can tell you that Ms. Elden is right on the money! Conversations about performance on individual "indicators," as they are called in my jurisdiction, often border on the absurd because most of us realize that reading skills are not something that can be separated out cleanly into discrete abilities. Although there is such a thing as discrete reading skills, test questions are usually so poorly written, and involve more than one skill, that analyzing them according to indicators just doesn't make sense. Yet, year after year, we are forced to analyze our data this way, even though, year after year, it is clear that the only real predictor of student performance on these tests is their reading grade level. Those who can read at or close to grade level pass, and those who can't, don't. Maybe one day we will move away from this "indicator" analysis model, or at least develop indicators that are broad enough to actually mean something at test time. Or, maybe the problem is our test obsession?

Posted by: bigjayray1 | October 21, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

I'll raise you one: as you progress to Algebra and beyond, comprehending the language becomes more critical. On standardized tests almost every question is a 'word problem' of some sort, which makes language even more important for scoring well on the tests. That 'owl question' sounded like a science question, not language arts! Argh.

Posted by: pdexiii | October 21, 2010 7:44 AM | Report abuse

One of the corporate wrecking balls brought down recently on America’s public schools is “data driven” education. The charade is a creation of the Business Roundtable and other forces that dream of a privatized school system that serves only their global profit making schemes.

Because their sinister intentions must be kept on the down low, data driven education is packaged and sold as economical but revolutionary pedagogy come to the classroom. Absurdity is the inevitable result. And so it is that our system of universal public education is now trapped in a scene from Woody Allen’s farce Bananas. The new leader has decreed that, “From this day on the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16-years-old are now…16-years-old!”

Promoting insanity in the classroom has proven to be quite an effective weapon of public school destruction. Teachers are being broken down and driven away at an unprecedented rate. One in five new teachers will not make it through their first year. Half of them will be gone inside of five years.

My fellow dutiful educators, its time to quit banging our heads against a word wall. Under layer upon layer of silly directives you work yourselves to a state of physical ruin and mental exhaustion termed “burnout” by observers. You do it desperately trying to prepare the young for a future our economic system does not intend to provide. The world you grew up in will not exist for these children.

Posted by: natturner | October 21, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

As a proofreader working on a standardized test, I once sat down and diagrammed a question to determine if what it actually asked supported the supposedly correct answer! (I think when I pointed out this fact, the question was reworded.)

Just a few days ago, I took a test in my college accounting class; the question specified "FOB shipping," which normally means the buyer is responsible for the freight, and then stated the seller prepaid the freight. Does the buyer (the test-taker) journalize the freight expense or not? I got an 84 on the test--but I suspect it measures the professor's writing ability more than my accounting ability.

I think people who make up standardized tests should either take each others' tests or sit down with a few students afterward and go over the tests, asking the students why they answered the way they did. I suspect that would put an end to standardized testing entirely, let along "data driven" policies.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 21, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

It is difficult to teach kids to read well if they don’t learn to enjoy reading.
.............................
Why does everyone know this and simply ignore this?

There is a problem with children learning to read and enjoy readings so of course the answer is standardized tests that require reading.

There is the pretense that students can demonstrate they can read if they can be coached on how to answer questions on standardized tests. If the horse can be coached to stomp the ground 4 times at 2+2 it has learned mathematics.

Instead of focusing on primary education in an attempt to help children to read and enjoy reading there is the absurdity that standardized testing will fix the problem.

One of the problems of primary schools that could be corrected is that these schools lack a large assortment of books that might aid children in learning to read and enjoy reading.

There is no program that recognizes that if children do not to learn read and enjoy reading by the 5th grade they will probably never do well in the public school system.

Meanwhile I am sure there is now work going on to produce standardized tests that do not require reading. When this is done there will be claims that the problems in public education are being addressed and the political leaders will not have to troubled with the fact that students can not read.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 21, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Standardized tests indicate large number of students that can not read.

Set up procedures in classes to coach students to pass standardized tests.

Of course now the tests will not measure whether they can read but whether they can be coached to pass the standardized test.

Standardized tests indicate that milk in the nation is not safe.

Set up procedures to coach the producers of milk to pass the standardized test. The milk is still unsafe but the producers pass the standardized tests.

There is a problem of a large number of students in this nation that can not read, but there is also a problem of Americans that can not think when such obvious false ideas are accepted in regard to public education.

A. Milk is not safe.
B. Americans can not think.
C. Coaching is helpful.
D. Standardized tests can solve all problems.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 21, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Compare and contrast

Venn diagrams
...................
Thank god my daughter learned to read and enjoy reading before entering the public school system.

I pity any child that does not read and enjoy reading before entering public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 21, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

As a school board director (my own opinion folows). I find it interesting that every one blames the state tests but continue to give them. It is interesting that everyone is against DATA. Why do we continue to invent the wheel instead of looking at programs that work and Data that is proven?
No one has mentioned ACT which can be started in elementary (proven test). No one mentions PSAT, SAT, ACT, PLAN, EXPLORER! These are all proven tests that if one is intelligent enough to use could improve education.
We have a middle school in the Federal Way Washington that is number 1 in the state and even our district has not looked at what they are doing!
Until the leadership (local school boards) take responsibility for education quality we will continue to fail. Our nations schools performed well after SPUTNIK and put us on the moon, Now unions and thirst by politicians for power took over and education has failed. It is time to take back local control.

Posted by: ronmorehouse | October 21, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: bm4711 | October 21, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Now unions and thirst by politicians for power took over and education has failed. It is time to take back local control.

Posted by: ronmorehouse
.....................
No, instead it is time to deal with reality.

Where are the ideas for primary schools to have children learn to love reading?

Where is the recognition of reality that if a child does not read and love to read by the 5th grade that child will not do well in public education?

In 1995 I helped my daughter to learn how to read when she was 3 years olds.

I used the Winnie the Pooh and Pocahontas Animated Storybooks by Disney on a computer.

I am amazed that public schools still are not using computers with hundreds of children books to help children to learn how to read and how to love reading.

The federal government has the resources to turn this into a reality in less than a year. Most children books have pictures and these can be included with the text. These electronic books allows a child to use a mouse and hear a word pronounced.

The cost of this would be far less than what will be spent on standardized testing.

I am so tired of teachers and educators that are unaware of the capabilities that have been available for over 15 years. I can understand the politicians that really do not care about public education but I expect better from teachers and educators.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 21, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree about taking control back to the local level. Arne Duncan, Congress, and much of the media has no interest in improving education, only test scores.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 21, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Thank you! In this post, Ms. Eden articulates many of the concerns I've had bouncing around in my head for the past few years with regard to the shortcomings of data. Knowing that my students are weakest in Literary Response and Analysis (one of 5 clusters "assessed" by multiple-choice on our state's HS exit exam) is not particularly helpful in light of the fact that there are 12 theoretically distinct standards at that level, and each one can be broken down into several *more* interdependent concepts. Another problem is that, like the example in the column, many of the questions are far too open to interpretation and/or opinion to give any reliable information about student ability. If an argument can be made for the validity of more than one answer (as in the owl example), it's not a fair question. I'm seeing more and more of those kinds of nebulous items on tests.

Posted by: Coachmere | October 21, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

I need to see students' performances, projects and portfolios.

Test scores are abstractions, incomplete and inferior to the above three.

Give me reality.

Posted by: neaguy | October 21, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Separating complex skills into individual benchmarks actually doesn't work so well in math class either, if you want students to understand mathematics deeply enough not only to execute procedures on test questions but apply these concepts and skills to other fields (whether physics and chemistry, economics and finance, or computer science and engineering).

We need assessment. But let's have assessment that allows (and demands) that students authentically demonstrate authentic knowledge of the field. Multiple-choice items have their place (and can expose some conceptual misunderstandings surprisingly well, if they're well-written). But let's not try to apply these tools naively or without intention.

Posted by: leonardo1729 | October 22, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

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