Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A test is only as good as its graders

A recent article in the New York Times raises yet another concern about the new Common Core tests: who exactly is grading them? This concern stems from the fact that these tests "put less stock in rote learning and memorization" and therefore require fewer multiple choice questions

and far more writing on topics like this one posed to elementary school students: Read a passage from a novel written in the first person, and a poem written in the third person, and describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.
The two big Common Core testing companies are Pearson and PARCC. For Pearson, according to the Times:
About three-quarters of the scorers work from home. Pearson recruited them through its own website, personal referrals, job fairs, Internet job search engines, local newspaper classified ads and even Craigslist and Facebook. About half of those who go through training do not ultimately get the job.
As for PARCC:
Parcc said that more than three-quarters of the scorers have at least one year of teaching experience, but that it does not have data on how many are currently working as classroom teachers. Some are retired teachers with extensive classroom experience, but one scorer in San Antonio, for example, had one year of teaching experience, 45 years ago.  
Compare this to the AP requirements:
For exams like the Advanced Placement tests given by the College Board, scorers must be current college professors or high school teachers who have at least three years of experience teaching the subject they are scoring.
Of course, much smaller numbers of students take the AP tests, thus fewer graders are needed, thus higher standards are possible.

But if the Common Core test questions really live up to claims about the high-level thought processes they measure, then surely we need measurably high-level thinkers grading them:
The new tests are much more complicated and nuanced than previous exams and require more from the scorers, said James W. Pellegrino, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago who serves on advisory boards for Parcc and Smarter Balanced. “You’re asking people still, even with the best of rubrics and evidence and training, to make judgments about complex forms of cognition,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “The more we go towards the kinds of interesting thinking and problems and situations that tend to be more about open-ended answers, the harder it is to get objective agreement in scoring.”
I've written earlier about the virtues of well-constructed multiple choice tests. This article highlights one of them.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why not teach Harry Potter?

It's not great literature, but it's better written, and surely more interesting, than the tedious realistic fiction that passes for literature in today's elementary schools.

On this, my latest round of education students have given me new insight.

First of all, it's taken as given that one key way to develop reading skills is by making personal connections. And, naturally, it's harder for students to make personal connections if the book takes place a long time ago, or far away, or in an imaginary or futuristic world.

More profoundly, it's taken as given that students aren't interested in books that they can't relate to their personal lives. Many of my students seem to deeply, deeply believe this.

They are willing to grant that realistic fiction is comparatively difficult for kids on the autistic spectrum: we discuss how such children often lack the necessary background knowledge to make sense of these stories, and how fantasy and science fiction level the playing field. But for all other "learners," they're certain, realistic fiction is not only best for learning, but what students prefer.

So what about Harry Potter, I ask. How can that be so popular?

Silence. Confusion. My students appeared never to have considered this question before.

Then one student finally said something about how they can't teach Harry Potter anyway because of concerns about schools endorsing witchcraft.

I looked that up and, as far as I can tell, only a few school districts have banned Harry Potter for that reason. Everywhere else, I'm guessing, it's all about real-life relevance. And the depressing notion that children are only interested in reading about slight variations on their own lives.

Another strike against fantasy and sci fi comes from the world of literary criticism, which prefers obscure, nonlinear, writerly prose to imagination and character-driven plots.

How many people, as a result are missing out on gems like this one--just published by my friend and colleague Stella Whiteman?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Math problems of the week: more Common Core-inspired 4th grade test questions

From the Smarter Balanced Assessments, a Common Core-inspired, standardized test consortium now consisting of about 12 states: the next three problems on the sample 4th grade practice test.

Extra Credit:

Discuss the 21st century challenges posed by these problems in terms of verbosity (problem 7), clarity (problem 8: the meaning of "gives each student 1 card"), and understanding the user interface as opposed to understanding addition with regrouping (problem 9).

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Social-emotional studies

From the U.S. history book American Vision, the text used in Philadelphia's public high schools:

Monday, July 20, 2015

A.P. update: what does it take to show your work?

We learned last week that J managed to get a 5 on his AP BC Calculus exam, defying expectations about whether he'd be able to step out of his shoes enough to show his work. None of his practice tests earned 5s, and so it's very satisfying to see this one, especially as it bodes well for his potential to show his work in college-level math classes this coming year.

On the other hand, he only got a 3 on the AP Computer Science exam, which presumably means there's more work to do in making sure his programs (which he dashes off quickly, and which get the job done, but are often quite lacking in clarity) conform to specifications. Apparently, this is even harder for him than showing his work in math.

Except that there's another possible explanation for J's superior performance on the BC Calculus exam--and for his uncharacteristic eagerness to find out his score. It turns out that his math teacher had promised the class to organize a lunch at Dave & Buster's if they all did well.

And Dave & Buster's--you guessed it--has lots and lots of ceiling fans.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Do American secondary school contribute to radicalization?

I've written frequently here and elsewhere about how America's K12 schools are particularly challenging for unsocial children. The uniquely American quantity of extra-curricular school-based activities--sports, clubs, student government, athletic events, dances--have transformed American junior high and high schools into institutions that are much more social in nature than their counterparts in other countries. American high schools are major centers of social gravity, with social hierarchies based more on athletic skills, extracurricular activities, and leadership than on academic interactions. Factor in the rise of mandatory group work inside and outside of American classrooms, and the social pressures are inescapable. From this, the quirky, unsocial introvert, in comparison with his counterparts in other countries, will find little refuge.

On top of this, there seems to be something particularly trying about American teenagers in particular. One Asperger dad I know sends his son to a Canadian summer camp because, as the son has observed, Canadian teenagers are nicer.

All this makes me wonder about the role played by American junior high and high schools in marginalizing, and thereby radicalizing, certain psychologically unstable and susceptible kids: the school shooters, the skin heads, and the ISIS recruits. Of course, there are plenty of other factors at play here, from the availability of guns here in America, to homegrown homophobic, White Supremacist ideologies, to the lure of the Caliphate in the Middle East. But it's worth appreciating what nasty settings those institutions that concentrate together large numbers of teenagers can potentially be--especially when child-centered ideologies empower kids to create and run the social hierarchies in settings where the adults should really be in charge.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Math problems of the week: more Common Core-inspired 4th grade test questions

From the Smarter Balanced Assessments, a Common Core-inspired, standardized test consortium now consisting of about 12 states: the next three problems on the sample 4th grade practice test.

Extra Credit

Discuss the relative roles played by language skills (knowledge of labels, careful reading) vs. math skills in these problems.