Why I Don’t Stress Out About Test Scores

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sterlic/

Photo Credit: Scott Akerman

Just a few days ago, the PISA test scores for 2012 were released. If you didn’t know what that test is, don’t worry – I didn’t either until just a few days ago. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment, and it’s an international test of student achievement that is given every three years. You know: one of those tests where Finland always outranks everybody and the U.S. receives mediocre scores, at best. This year was no different – Finland scored 4th in science, 7th in reading, and 15th in math. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the U.S. is below the worldwide average in all categories. (See the rankings here.) Many school reform advocates are quick to say that these low test scores show the need for broad changes in our public school system – and they are right. However, the kind of change they are thinking of is not the kind we need.

In a fascinating article on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the president of the National Education Association and the president of Finland’s Trade Union of Education explain some of the reasons that Finland’s education system is so great. Now, I have heard some bemoan Finland’s low poverty rates and largely homogenous society as reasons for their high test scores. This post mentions these factors, but it also mentions unique aspects of the education system in Finland that undoubtedly play a role, including that Finland’s teachers have master’s degrees, get as much societal respect as physicians do in the U.S., are paid very well, and can’t get their jobs through “non-traditional” or alternative licensing as their U.S. counterparts can.

However, in my opinion, the most interesting factor of Finnish education is the lack of reliance on standardized testing. The article states: “High-performing academic countries, like Finland, do not believe that multiple-choice, computer-scored standardized tests can properly measure higher-order thinking skills. Instead, they rely heavily on essay-type responses as a critical part of timed exams, while also factoring in graded pieces of work that could not possibly be produced in a timed evaluation. Finnish students do not take a standardized test until the end of high school.”

In my opinion, this is exactly the approach that should be taken toward standardized testing in the United States. Ask any educator, and he or she will tell you that standardized test scores cannot accurately convey every nuance of a child’s education. For example, a child’s love of learning, academic engagement, voracious independent reading, and respect and empathy for others are all factors that deeply affect a child’s learning and achievement but cannot be tested using multiple choice or even open response test items. Multiple choice questions, which generally make up the vast majority of standardized test questions because they are cheaper to score, inherently measure low levels of knowledge and understanding. Essentially, they can only be used to test a child’s basic understanding or memory of a concept.

Even the “next generation of testing” that is supposedly coming with the Common Core State Standards has severe limitations in trying to assess higher order thinking skills. For example, PARCC (one consortium founded to create “next generation” tests for the CCSS) recently released sample items from its new tests. Let’s examine one of the 8th grade literacy items, since that happens to be what I teach. The question, which can be found on page 6 of this document, asks students to “create” a summary of an excerpt from Brian’s Winter by dragging four statements from a list into another column. Never mind that the students are not actually “creating” or “writing” their own summary, as the Common Core standard that this item supposedly assesses states, but the list of possible statements in this question includes ones that are true statements about the excerpt, but that are not correct answers because they “do not belong in a summary.” Last time I checked, there were not hard and fast rules about what belonged in a summary and what did not – who died and left PARCC in charge of creating these rules? This test item purports to measure an 8th grader’s skill in writing a summary; instead, it measures an 8th grader’s skill in figuring out what the almighty test writers think a summary should include. Sure, this is one test item on one test (and a sample released item, at that), and it is not necessarily representative of all standardized tests. However, it does illustrate that standardized items generally test low-level thinking and are sometimes subject to the test creators’ own biases about what is “correct” and what is not.

I have written all of this to say that I do not place a lot of faith in standardized test scores. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about them or I ignore them – that would be impossible in our country’s current education culture of accountability and teacher evaluation based on test scores. However, I also don’t spend a whole lot of time teaching to the test. I refuse to drill my students on open response writing and basic grammar concepts. Last year, I spent about two weeks of test preparation before the Arkansas Benchmark exams, and this year I plan to spend even less time, if any at all. In my opinion, what I do every single day should prepare my students to be excellent readers, writers, and thinkers – and if they are readers, writers, and thinkers, they can expect to do reasonably well on any test that tests those skills.

At Arkansas edCamp in October of this year, a teacher educator introduced me to an amazing book – Hurray for Diffendoofer DayThe book, which was started by Dr. Seuss before his death and finished by others, is about a small school that teaches their students to be creative, to love learning, and to learn whatever they want. When the evil of standardized testing is sprung on this school, without any preparation, the students take the test and pass with flying colors. If you haven’t read this book, read it; I plan to read it to my students right before they take the Arkansas Benchmark exam this spring.

I could insert a long rant here about how students are over-tested and tests are over-analyzed, but I’ve already ranted too much. In the end, I can’t change the culture of testing in America by myself, but I can change how I react to it in my classroom and in my school. I know it’s just a sappy children’s book, but the message of Diffendoofer Day still rings true to me. I believe that if I teach my students what is worth learning, and if I teach it well, they will do just fine on the standardized test. And, if they don’t, then it probably wasn’t a good test in the first place.

Why I give my students time to read

Photo Credit: nSeika

Photo Credit: nSeika

Since last year, I have set aside the first ten minutes of every class I teach as silent reading time. During these ten minutes, students may choose any book they like to read. If a student forgets a book one day or if a student simply wants a new book to read, he or she may choose a book from the nearly 1,000 options on my classroom shelves.  Then everyone reads for ten minutes, after which we start the lesson. To my students and I, these ten minutes have become sacred: I discourage library trips and bathroom visits, and silence does mean silence – no mouthed conversations or noisy interruptions.

I started this practice halfway through last school year after I read Penny Kittle’s newest book, Book Love (Kittle, 2012), over Christmas break. The book details how Penny sets aside time in her class for students to read and process books. She shares practical tips for conferencing and assessment, as well as success stories from her students who have become life-long readers. I have tried implementing some of her tips in my class, including her  individualized goals for reading based on the number of pages read and her conferences with students about their reading.

I immediately started to see improvements in both my students’ attitudes about reading and their reading skills after simply asking them to read for ten minutes per day. Multiple teenagers who had never read a chapter book on their own (Teenagers! Who have never read a book on their own! How much are we failing as teachers if this is happening?) told me that they had read their first book, and asked where they could find more like it. Many others who enjoyed reading told me they loved having time to read in class, because they couldn’t find time at home with sports, church, homework, and everything else. I also began to see a gradual improvement in my students’ writing and mechanics- nothing life shattering, but there was improvement.

Usually, when I mention how I have fallen in love with sustained silent reading to other teachers, I get a few standard reactions. Some teachers roll their eyes and seem to say, “Oh, but you’re a middle school teacher. I haven’t time for such frivolous pursuits in my AP Language classes.”  Other teachers say something like, “I really respect you for caring about reading so much, but in my classes, with x, y, and z to cover this year and all these standards to meet, I don’t really have time to set aside for that.” Unfortunately until now, I haven’t had much ammo in my arsenal to support this practice besides anecdotal proof that it cultivates a love of reading among my students and a gut-level feeling that it is the right thing to do.

However, I recently read an amazing article in English Journal that summarizes the research around silent reading, and the research is astounding. The article, by Stephen Krashen, is titled “Access to Books and Time to Read Versus the Common Core State Standards and Tests” (Krashen, 2013). In the article, Krashen explains that “Students in language […] classes that include time set aside for self-selected reading consistently outperform those in similar classes that do not include self-selected reading time on tests of reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.” Also, he points out that in an international study of reading and literacy, while socioeconomic status was the strongest predictor of literacy achievement, independent reading time and school library size both related positively to literacy achievement. In contrast, time spent in direct instruction actually had a negative (although not quite statistically significant) impact on literacy – likely implying that direct instruction is needed up to a point, but it cannot possibly account for everything students learn in reading and literacy. Krashen explains (and cites a mountain of research) that shows that the time students spend reading accounts for most of their vocabulary mastery, grammar prowess, and even phonics acquisition, and not direct instruction. Mastery of literacy and academic language, he says, happens when students are allowed to read what they want, and when they read a lot. I’ve done a poor job of summarizing his entire article here, but it is an amazing read and not a long one. Go read it and it just might change your outlook on sustained silent reading.

Now, Krashen uses all of this research to make a valid point about the questionable legitimacy of the Common Core State Standards and the instruction that necessarily goes along with them. However, even if you love the standards, there must come a moment when you realize the obvious – students learn to read and to read more complex texts by reading. They do not learn to read by talking about reading, although discussions about texts can help them process their reading. They do not learn to read by being read to, although read alouds can spark a love of books and capture their interest. They do not learn to read by a teacher standing in front of them and telling them what the words mean. They do not learn to read by being assigned reading. Students learn how to read by reading. And, in order to succeed in building a habit of life-long reading, they have to love to read. How else are students going to learn to love reading unless they are given time to read and the permission to read whatever they want? Sure, there is a place for assigned whole-class texts, teacher encouragement and modeling, and direct instruction. But, this does not discount the fact that students need to read, and they likely aren’t going to do it on their own if they imagine reading as slogging through boring books the teacher picks.

Please, make time for your students to read. Sure, it’s not going to work wonders all the time with every student. But by letting my students read for just ten minutes of my class every day, I’ve let go of some of my control in the classroom and given it back to my students. It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.

Works Cited:
Kittle, P. (2012). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Heinemann.
Krashen, S. (2013). Access to books and time to read versus the common core state standards and tests. English Journal103(2), 21-29.

Welcome to a World of Common Sense!

I’m so glad you decided to read this blog! I don’t expect thousands, or even hundreds of readers here (heck, I’d be satisfied with tens of readers). Instead, I intend this blog as sort of quiet rant. If no one reads, at least I have worked out some of my frustration by writing it down and hopefully pushed myself to find the good that still exists in my profession. If a few people read and agree, hopefully they will be inspired to speak out in their own, as I have.

I hope that this blog will remain positive and constructive, both in my own posts and in the discussion that follows, if there is any. When I do criticize what I see as problems in education, I intend to do so in a respectful, educated way and hope that those who comment here will do the same. My intent is not to throw more negativity into the discourse, but to inject a healthy dose of common sense.

Happy reading,