Monday, May 21, 2012

Extreme Testing

My older daughter came home last week, after taking a New York State ELA (English Language Arts) statewide exam.  Normally after she takes a test, she mentions whether the test was easy or hard and what, if any, were the areas that give her difficulty.  This time it was different.  She complained about a reading passage concerning a race between a pineapple (that did not move) and a hare.  She indicated that the passage made little sense and that the questions/answers made even less sense.  I actually thought she was overreacting until I saw a copy of the passage and the questions in the newspapers and on the internet. The paragraph was inane and the questions had no logical answers.  Ultimately New York State agreed, and will not count this question in the scoring of the exam.

My younger daughter’s elementary school New York State ELA took place over three days with a ninety minute exam each day.  The exam also started the day the spring vacation ended.  Not even a school day in between for the kids to adjust to being back in school.  Why does an exam like this need three days and a ninety minute exam time each day?  There was also a question on the math assessment for 4th graders that had two correct answers as well as an 8th grade math assessment question that had no correct answers.  Not good on any count.

Exams are necessary.  Evaluating students is necessary. We need to be able to measure a student’s learning on a regular basis and use the results to continuously enhance the education that is provided. But there are very substantial costs if the exam is nonsensical in part or if the exam is overly stress inducing.  The first and most obvious cost is the loss of confidence by both parents and educators in the government entity that oversees the exam process. Can bad questions really measure learning? Can questions without correct answers or with multiple correct answers really measure learning? Or instead, when a student is told to select the correct answer, will this just serve to confuse the student?  And will three days of testing of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders measure learning or, even more, seriously stress out the students?  How many of us, when we were in third grade, would have the sitting power, patience and perseverance to handle an exam that long for that many days?

But the real cost is a potential loss of the love for learning on the part of our kids.  What we all want from education is not only a knowledge base but also a respect for the importance of lifetime learning. If the questions and answers make little sense, if the exam stresses out young kids, and if the end result is a dislike for school and for education we have done a huge disservice.  This is a time for corrective action.  We need to rethink some of our exams and even more importantly some of our exam philosophies.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Lessons Learned

On the same day a few weeks ago, I happened to be looking at a Hofstra Alumni newsletter and an article that I had clipped from The New York Times.  To digress for a moment, “clipped” is the right expression since I was reading the actual newspaper, not the online version.  I only read the paper version on weekends.  During the week, I read my paper online and am very efficient in reading only those articles that I identify as of great interest.  On the weekends, and at a more leisurely pace, I look through the entire paper and just by skimming find additional interesting articles to read.  There is clearly a role for both, though it will be interesting to see if the economics of printing a paper, in an online world, is viable. 

In his alumni update, the Dean of our Honors College notes the criticism of higher education, most specifically the allegation in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that some students in some colleges finish their education with minimal learning taking place.  The Dean does this as a prelude to talking about how a liberal arts education supports “genuine learning,” because students spend “a significant amount of time studying exemplary works in literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, music, drama and the rest of the natural and social sciences, … [and thereby] come to see shadings and complexities in a world that previously seemed black and white.”  I am in total agreement with this position and the concomitant position that writing across the college curriculum also enhances the learning that is taking place.

The New York Times article on “Trying to Find a Measure of How Well Colleges Do,” takes the question of learning or not learning and couples it with outcomes assessment measures of value added.  More testing as the article notes already permeates k-12 education, and now “Pieces of such a system may be taking shape, however, with several kinds of national assessments—including, most controversially, standardized tests….”  We should be able to demonstrate that learning is taking place and we should be able to document value added.  But nevertheless there are serious concerns that must be taken into consideration.

On the k-12 level, the curriculum is becoming more standardized with the “Common Core,” which stresses revising existing educational norms by including for example, more nonfiction reading and more practical math.  But is this really the only viable road to be followed to strengthen the k-12 educational experience?  Enhanced student testing will then have to be in place to measure the value added.  This testing will in turn impact the evaluation of many teachers.  Schools in response, to ensure that their students test as well as possible (as early as third grade), may well shed some of the diversity and richness of the curriculum to stay focused on the test materials. 

As higher education gathers evidence of student learning (which we are all more and more required to do) and  strives to place that evidence in a context of other students in the same college and other students in colleges across the country, standardized test will provide a convenient yardstick for what we are trying to measure.  I understand the value of a yardstick but I also recognize the tremendous expertise that faculty bring and have brought to the design and implementation of the curriculum.  Rather than see us move to a Common Core college curriculum, we need to involve our faculty in the development of overall degree assessment instruments that effectively measure that learning/value added is taking place but preserve our right to design a curriculum that best serves the learning goals of our students.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Experiential Learning

It is clearer and clearer that incorporating active learning and incorporating experiential learning enhances the learning experience.  And I believe that any robust assessment program will underscore the importance of more such learning opportunities.  It is also clear to me that experiential or active learning shouldn’t take place only in higher education.  It should in fact be built into as much of the k-12 learning experience as possible. And of course, experiential learning isn’t just the province of the schools.  It should also be fostered in the home environment, though I recognize that in this era of two parents working or a single parent household (and a weak economy), these opportunities may be more limited or even severely limited.

Resources in support of experiential learning are all around, especially when you are near a major metropolitan area or a major college or university.  For example, and this is one of hundreds of different examples I could give when focusing on the New York area, the American Museum of Natural History is a fabulous resource.  Now I admit I am partial to the AMNH.  When growing up in Manhattan and being able to ride the subways alone with my friends at an early age, I often gravitated to Natural History.  I was fascinated by dinosaurs and there they were—not a picture in a textbook, not a small scale model but the actual skeletons.  No Hollywood special effects.  No Godzilla. No Barney.  Just the real thing in an outline form.  And I was also fascinated by the Hayden Planetarium and the look it gave us to the world outside of our world. 

If anything the Museum is even better today than it was then.  The exhibits and the programs provide an even more vivid involvement.  For example, the current show, Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, highlights those organisms that generate their own light. I took my kids and their friends to the exhibit a week after it opened and they were fascinated by what they saw and what they experienced. Me too.

This blog is not designed to just praise one special resource. Resources that are worth experiencing are all around us.  Schools should do more to build in these resources on a regular basis, and schools and the media should do more to make all of us aware of the resources that are in or near our home neighborhoods.  I know, in this era of scarce resources for education and a decided emphasis (or overemphasis) on testing, that these experiences may be a casualty of our environment.  Serious mistake.  The world becomes more alive through experiences; we become more educated through experiences; and we become more passionate about education through these experiences. 

For us and our kids not to be dinosaurs, we need to keep the experiences alive.