Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Improving Standardized Test Scores Through Better Proctoring Methods

Improving standardized test scores is the bottom line in many schools. One of my connections in my Professional Learning Network is stressing out about the expectations that she'll have to meet in the coming year. In our discussions, I try to assure her that one should try to teach to the standards as best as possible and weave problem solving standards into every unit. This woman is so nervous, and rightfully so. Teachers get fired over not making the grade these days.

Needless to say, (or perhaps I do) I find this practice appalling. Yes, I think that schools should be accountable, but dismissing poor performing teachers and not providing them the necessary training and professional development to become better is self defeating as a nation and will guarantee a high turnover of educators. One person likened the US teaching profession as a species that "cannibalizes its young".

Rather than join the ranks of thousands who continue lamenting this practice and pray for the day when it will end, I hope to explore and share some ideas on how to improve test scores in a way that is constructive and helpful to others. I too have MAP testing in the fall and spring, but we're still collecting data on the practice. A few days ago, I called the good people at "Northwest Evaluation Association" NWEA to ask them a few questions that I had regarding test results for my class and populations as a whole. I had navigated the labyrinth of their website, read hundreds of pages on interpreting the results and could not find any information on negative growth.

I have always had a couple of kids that had showed negative growth from fall to spring and even more perplexing were that these students were good students. The two reasons that they had for negative growth were:
  1. Students were not spending enough time on the questions
  2. Students were not engaged with the questions
To alleviate these problems, it gave a few explanations but but was light on recommendations. I imagine because this it is a scientific measure, and it would naturally bias the data sample if some proctors went outside their mandate to give tips that were not included in the proctor dialogue box which is be read aloud to the students. Here's what they are:

Students not spending enough time on a question. They gave a general rule of thumb of spending at least 25 seconds on a question and 25 to 30 minutes on each test. It also said that "proctors should watch students to ensure that they're taking their time". Apparently, the longer time is spent on a test, the higher the score is.

Students not engaged with the questions. At our school, we tell this students that this assessment will measure growth and it will be reported to them, but their results are not included on their report cards. Although we do encourage them to do their best, could it be possible that they're rushing through it? NWEA states that generally, a student is engaged early on and their interest tapers off, affecting them negatively. A teacher promising a reward when the class if finished can also deflate scores and raise the level of apathy.

Other points. It was reccomended that if a student has a negative growth score of -11 or more, they should be considered for a retest. 

I don't want to unfairly bias an assessment, but it would seem to make these points forthcoming the day before an assessment would not violate the proctors mandate, and might just give their classes score a boost. In all our plans to improve curriculum an do test-prep, we may find a noticeable and significant change from these subtle and quick recommendations:
  1. Encourage students not to "rush" their tests. Yes, they will get tired and may have brain drain, but tell them to use their best critical thinking skills for as long as they can. 
  2. Don't have more than one test per day, it increases fatigue. 
  3. Ask students to have a good night sleep the night before and a healthy breakfast the morning of an assessment. 
  4. Lighten homework loads as a staff the week you're assessing to ensure that students are not staying up too late and having undue stress. 
  5. Give them positive encouragement to help them engage with the test. 
  6. Don't promise any rewards to early test finishers such as free computer game time. Also, make note of early finishers and see if there is a correlation between early finishers and lower scores.
Sources: Negative Growth NWEA,  http://www.nwea.org/support/article/554

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Using Homework Effectively

I don't grade homework. When I say "homework" I'm talking about formative assessments that are assigned to follow up with a lesson in class rather than culminating projects that may require some time outside of class to finish.

This created a firestorm of comments in an exchange with my professional learning network over Edmodo. Apparently, some school districts are mandated to grade homework with a 10% weighting and some of my own collegues said that if they "don't grade homework, the students won't do it." This was the resounding cry from many others.

The Problem With Assessing Homework
We must be careful about how we use and grade homework as educators. Formative homework assignments often give the illusion of understanding. Here's why:
  • They are early in the learning process and students have yet to fully grasp the material in depth. 
  • Students can get help on these assignments from parents and friends. 
When I started out as a teacher, I graded homework with a rubber stamp. In other words, if it was done and looked somewhat complete, I would usually give it credit on a three point rubric which looked like this:

3: Assignment complete, neat and easy to read, some minor mistakes
2: Assignment mostly complete, mostly legible, a number of mistakes
1: Assignment mostly incomplete, many parts unclear, a large number of mistakes

There were a number of constraints which added to the problem. Time was a big factor. I couldn't spend more than 5-10 minutes debriefing the homework assignment and how was I to accurately grade 25 students homework assignments, provide time to ask questions, and check their work with the time given before moving on to a new lesson? Also, math assignments tend to get harder as they progress so when students take home an assignment they're doing the most difficult parts which require more application, on their own.

A Quest for More Effective Practices
My metamorphosis and evolution from ineffective to more effective homework practices started when I started thinking about grading for the content knowledge rather than just threatening students with the grade book which was essentially grading them on completion, with no accounting for understanding. I learned that:
  • Homework needed to be meaningful and relevant.
  • There needed to be time to debrief the assignments.
  • Assignments needed to be varied, different and unique.
I wrote an article a while back on "Flipped Lessons"that gave some more flexibility to the above bullets and I'll provide some more examples of sample flipped assignments this year.

Creating a Classroom Where Homework Is Valued, but Not Graded
Philosophies of education look great, but what do they look like in practice? Some things that I've found are very useful are the following:
  1. If you're "flipping a lesson" and designating class time only to working on problems, have the answers posted in class. 
  2. Have students self assess their productivity. I have a poster of the above rubric and students tell me what they've accomplished in their time. I report this number, but give it a 0% weighting. 
  3. Provide time in small groups or large group settings to debrief and discuss homework and allow a number of open ended responses. Since there are many ways to find a right answer in math, we must allow time for these different avenues to be valued. 
  4. Create a living document with bullet points of what "was learned" as a result of doing homework. This creates ownership of the learning process and can be posted in class for reference. 
Taking time to discuss homework assignments and clear up an misconceptions if vital before moving on to new material. Since learning is so foundational, we must provide this time for students to discuss, and ask questions.

What are your best educational practices regarding use of homework? Feel free to comment!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Professional Goal Setting

As we're in the midst of our summer, I've been reflecting on changes and new endeavors that I plan to do during the next school year. Every year, I seem to reinvent myself as a teacher as I get better and better and want to incorporate those changes accordingly. When I was in high school, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Kahl, had a three ring binder of the curriculum that he had been teaching to for the better of twenty years. Apparently, he thought that is was satisfactory. No wonder that the students found it dry and boring and that I didn't go into Chemistry as my chosen profession.

We should sell ourselves short though. Every year, new research comes out on how students learn and new innovations in teaching and learning. Before setting out on determining some good goals, I think that's it's good to reflect on what was accomplished last year and appreciate the successes of what was done. For me it was:
  1. Designing some high quality assessments for both math and science including summative labs for science. Although some of the assessments might require a little "tinkering" they're all very solid and concise and target the learning benchmarks well. I have some practices to view here but will refine these more next year. I hope to include some of the project rubrics and descriptions next year as well.
  2. Creating online study guides that correlate learning assignments to learning benchmarks. These were so time consuming but now that they're done, they're done. For a list, click here.
  3.  Improving Math MAP test scores. The mean was up to 5.5 up from 4. Although the quality of our assessment to foster higher order thinking skills was a key part, I felt that some instructional practices needed some improvement. 
When making goals, they should be realistic and attainable. I recoil at how many teachers are mandated to meet certain data points or risk losing their jobs. It's education, not a factory production line. Some ideas that you might consider to work on for next year:
  • Developing a professional learning network (PLN) of educators through edmodo or twitter.
  • Incorporating new ideas for tech integration or web 2.0 interfaces.
  • Improving lesson plans, projects, or assessments.
  • Entering your class in an international competition. 
 I feel that many of my resources are in place, so I can devote some of my time to a number of new endeavors. They are:
  1. Creating a series of instructional videos for math teachers.  I've dubbed them "Rock Star Math Productions" and they'll start by outlining the learning objective and then debriefing homework and documenting some of the rich learning tasks that dig into deeper understanding. Most videos on the web seem to be a teacher lecturing into a camera on how to "go through the motions". I want to present how I'm debriefing flipped lessons as homework assignments, creating opportunities for students to practice problem solving skills, and how to be playful and creative. Although the primary audience will be for educators, I think parents would enjoy them to see how learning happens in my classroom. Finally, I want to show students doing them in action. I'll post them to this blog as I churn them out.
  2. Entering my class in a number of international competitions. Most educational competitions focus on high school students, but I've found some pertaining to middle school students. These ccompetitions do not merely divide up the "winners" and "losers" but celebrate innovation and creativity. Furthermore, they give some more name recognition to the participating schools. It's good to look around during the summer than try to slap them together mid year. For example, I'm hoping to enter my class in a robotics competition (for my after school club) that is a year in length. To understand the requirements has given me a handle on logistics and how to manage my time during the year.
  3. New student grouping strategies. I had read about a grouping called "shoulder buddies" that is a three person group that goes all year or all semester long. The thinking is that a three person group is more dynamic and less intimdating but also more accountable than a 4 or 5 person groups. The length of time encourages a more supportive network. I hope to experiment with this in both math and science. Also, for math, I'm going to try two work stations with roughly 10 students at each. At one station, students can work independently (or with their shoulders buddies) and at the other station work with me on rich task. I will undoubtedly heterogeneously mix up groups for projects and other activities but I hope these two grouping strategies prove a good foundation to cooperative learning. 
  4. Integrating more language arts into math and science. It's not in my mandate to assess language arts, but I think that for students to become better readers and writers, we need to reinforce these skills in other disciplines. In the past, I felt that I gave them "lip service" but I hope to make them more systematic this year. I have a document on my computer desktop with a number of reading and writing traits which I will date and check off when I have incorporated these into a lesson of mine. In team meetings, I will remind the language arts teachers to keep me informed of the skills that they are teaching so I know that if they're working on "summarizing" I can do some summarizing skills in science class. I hope to document these with instructional videos.
  5. Creating timeless lesson plans. I have (what I think are) some really great learning activities that I do year after year. I hope to create some lessons that I document well and don't feel the need to rewrite every year. I want them to be interesting, engaging, tech integrated and meaningful.
To set new goals as educators shows that we too are learners. Whether your school mandates them or not, they're a great opportunity to put in practice new ideas you've learned in order to make learning fun!