Standards and Testing

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Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Ever have one of those “mountaintop” experiences or events that at the time feel so important and life-changing that you wonder if you’ll be the same person on the other side of it? And then did you come down off the mountain and get back in your proverbial or literal car and return to your regular life? I think we’ve all been there a few times, perhaps at summer camp, a mission trip, or the tent revival at the local church.

For me, the latest such mountaintop experience was getting to attend and present at the national NSTA meeting in Chicago this past March. Seeing my name in the program just a few pages away from Neil Shubin and Bill Nye practically qualified me for rock-star status, at least on paper. The conference was amazing, as you’d expect, and I had a wonderful time giving my talk. The folks that came to see me (the mile walk!) were amazing and included a lot of great Twitter friends who stuck around to chat and make connections afterward.

I left NSTA15 feeling like I was on the right track. I’d presented at a national conference and didn’t make a fool of myself.  Many teachers seemed inspired by my ideas. Every talk I went to about the NGSS pointed towards needing new ways to assess student performances of science, which my portfolio-based assessment system clearly does. From all that I saw there, I was on the leading Edge of thinking about new ways to collect, analyze, and share meaningful data about what students know and can do.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen post-conference, but it basically didn’t play out as expected. I didn’t see the major leaders behind NGSS express any interest in portfolio assessments, nor did I hear any encouraging news on that front from Arne Duncan. My Twitter stream continued to be the flood of info that it used to be, but, aside from a few high quality interactions, it felt more stale and repetitive than usual. I was not really greeted as a local hero upon my return to my little town, save for a few close friends. In fact, I have yet to be invited to share my work with the district staff, most of whom know very little about what I do.

Now in all fairness, none of these things would ever realistically have happened. Much of the push for NGSS is linked to companies who want to sell us more tests, so change to new assessment types will be slow on that front. Twitter is a hot mess of the good, the bad, and the ugly even on a good day with amazing connections like I have. My local district was in the middle of incredible political turmoil with a witch hunt targeting the current (now former) superintendent, so a little side-show theater like mine would hardly draw an audience.

Bottom line, I came down off the mountain pretty hard. I did some consulting with a few folks who are trying out portfolios this coming school year (good luck y’all!) but mostly life went right back to normal. Or worse than normal, because I landed back in school during our post-Spring Break testing season, which felt even more onerous and depressing this year. It lasted forever and took instructional technologies out of the classroom for testing purposes. All the visions of classroom-based performance assessments died as I watched students suffer through lame computer-based tests for over a month of the school year. Ah, reality. Thou sucketh.

But as I turn my eyes to the new school year, I don’t plan on giving up on my ideas for replacing our current high-stakes tests, although large systems are hard to budge.  I’ve heard that being a pioneer is hard, lonely work, and there is some truth to that from what I’ve experienced. I can only hope that I’m scouting towards a future that benefits my students (and yours). Stay tuned and keep those ideas coming.

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What if the next generation of teacher accountability systems simply relied upon assessment of student performances?  You’re thinking: don’t we do that now? No, we don’t. In most cases, our current accountability systems of standardized tests are supposed to measure student learning, which is not the same as assessment.  Attempting to measure learning often leads to limiting ourselves to finding the best statistical models, crafting the best distractors, and determining cut-off scores. We should instead focus on finding ways to figure out what is happening in the classroom and how those learning activities engage students in performances of science and engineering. Isn’t that what taxpayers and parents really want to know: what’s going on in there?

I’m increasingly convinced that it is possible to assess and share a student’s performances of science and engineering without having to put a measurement (number/score/value) on that student’s work. Its pretty simple, and even excellent educational practice, to tell a student how to fix their mistakes rather than simply writing “72%” at the top of their assignment. This kind of assessment without measurement should be happening routinely in classrooms. Its also entirely possible to have this kind of assessment mindset when observing teachers for accountability purposes. Collections of student work, as in a portfolio, could be analyzed and areas of strengths and weaknesses identified and shared with the teacher and, perhaps, the public.

Four years ago I started using digital portfolios to assess student learning as a way to hold myself and my students accountable to a set of science performance standards that I knew my students were not achieving. It is not an amazing stretch of the imagination to picture a system in which such portfolios of student work are examined by the representatives of a state Department of Education to assess how I’m performing as a teacher. Unfortunately, the recent tragic history of accountability practices nationwide would suggest that, at least politically speaking, if an assessment system doesn’t generate numerical measurements of students, no one wants to touch it.

But why does the idea that we can measure  student learning burn so brightly in many Departments of Education?

To answer that, I think we have to look closely at what these so-called measurements of learning (state achievement tests) get us: they provide numbers that stand in for unquantifiable quantities, namely “knowledge” and “ability.” Some of the resulting numbers are bigger than others and thus provide a sense of easy comparisons between whatever the different numbers are attached to. Clearly, if I am buying a car, one that gets 40 mpg is superior to one that only gets 26 mpg. But is it fair or even appropriate to attach certain numbers to students, teachers, schools, school districts, or even states? What do numbers attached to a student even mean? Does a scale score of 400 on a state test mean that a student has learned less than one that earns 500?

Worse yet, what are those measurement comparisons used for? Lets examine my least-favorite use of educational measurement data: the real-estate market. We all know the real estate mantra: location, location, location.  When you look for a new house these days you can quite easily access information about the quality of the neighborhood in which the house is located.  Of course, school ratings are often thrust at potential buyers as a major indicator of the “right” neighborhood. Some of the newer realtor-oriented mobile apps sport new “schools” tabs that are clearly meant to add helpful data to your house-buying experience.

For science, let’s pretend to buy a home here in my town, La Junta, Colorado. In our case the community is composed of one neighborhood so all our school district data applies to the whole town. Here’s what we find out about my school district on some websites that you can easily find on your own (comments mine, but from a prospective buyer’s perspective):

School "rating"

Overall rating: 3 out of 10. Ouch. Better not buy a house here. These schools must suck.Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.50.56 AMWait a minute…this school district was a 3 out of 10. These ACT test scores are right near state average, so shouldn’t the district rating be near a 5 out of 10? Maybe there’s more to it.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.48.50 AM

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.46.53 AMHmmm, on second thought, maybe I don’t want to move here after all.  Maybe this educational environment deserves a 3 out of 10 if these are the kind of people my kid would go to school with. Why else would a realtor show me these numbers?

In reality, a combination of “educational environment” (whatever that means) and state testing scores (CSAP/TCAP) are what brings our magic number down to 3/10. Sure, the realtor sites add the caveat that we should check with the individual school districts to look at multiple measures of success, but as a simple, first look, a single measurement is sure easier to produce. And its misleading,  wrong, and easily manipulated.

And that’s just how numbers are used in the real estate business. The business of education sometimes uses those numbers in far more harmful ways. Look at any recent headline with the words “standardized test” and you’ll probably see some of the fallout from decades of so-called measurement of learning.

I don’t have the magic bullet to fix the national obsession with comparing apples and oranges, but if I did, it would look a lot like a portfolio-based collection of student work that could demonstrate not only students’ effort and learning but also the care and planning that teachers invested to help create an environment in which their students can thrive. That’s the kind of accountability system that I can get behind.

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sharing ideas

A strange hobby…

I’ve been tinkering around with the Next Generation Science Standards a lot lately, mostly out of a sense of curiosity about how they line up with my current practice. 15 years of teaching biology has made me rather opinionated about what’s important for students to learn, so its always a good reality check to see where my practice lands in comparison to the “latest research,” which in this case is the NGSS. This post will discuss what I’ve found so far (at least in HS biology), and what we as science teachers can do to make the NGSS useful to ourselves and our students.

First, a warning of sorts. I teach in Colorado, which doesn’t subscribe to the NGSS, at least not yet. The science gurus at the Colorado Department of Education are seemingly content to stick with their latest revision of their science standards, which is relatively new. They are currently busy snuggling up with Pearson to develop online science tests for next year’s senior class, so I doubt there’s much pressure to switch to the NGSS at this point in time. Unfortunately, this means I’ve got two masters to serve, assuming I pay any attention to the NGSS. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this proposal.

NGSS HS Biology overview

Regardless of my state’s stance on the NGSS, I’ve bought into them just enough to give them a good look-through to see what’s new, what’s the same, and what’s missing compared to what I do at the moment.

-New: The NGSS nicely integrates the Science and Engineering Practices into the teaching and learning of biology. If you’ve worked on upgrading your AP Biology curriculum to the latest version, you’re already pretty familiar with what the NGSS is aiming for in terms of science performances by your students. Also “new”: there are several places where “computer simulations” are mentioned along with the emphasis on modeling (the Colorado standards love computer simulations too). What these simulations are and who will sell them to me remains to be seen.

-Same: Most of the key content area knowledge domains are still there in the NGSS (with a few notable exceptions).

-Missing: Enzymes, cell structure, and membrane transport. I know that the writers of NGSS wanted to pare down the amount of stuff we have to teach in order to allow for deeper experiences, but wow, those are topics that have amazing labs that I think are perfect for the kind of science performances that the Practices are aiming at.

In short, the NGSS are a great step forward, but have some gaps that I think we can fill.

Who are the NGSS for?

Here’s the key question going forward with adopting any new set of standards like the NGSS: Who are the standards for? There’s been a lot of discussion of who wrote the NGSS and for what purpose, which are pretty darn good questions. Unlike the Colorado standards, the NGSS don’t appear to be written with specific test items in mind. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be used to develop tests, but the greater potential of the NGSS lies in how teachers will use them to focus more on the practice of science and less on the lame “testable” stuff. As in all thing education-related, its going to be how the NGSS change actual classroom practice that matters. So how will we make use of the NGSS in a valuable way as science educators? First, we need to know what they recommend that we should be teaching and how we should approach that material.

A crowdsourced NGSS biology curriculum

In the spirit of thumbing my nose at those companies that want to make money by selling us “NGSS-ready” materials, I propose that we crowdsource a freely-available collection of documents that are aligned to the NGSS and link to resources that we can use in our classrooms. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the niceties of curriculum design and generally hate being pigeonholed into someone else’s formatting, so the stuff I’m proposing as a starting point isn’t going to win any awards with your administrators. Adapt it as you see fit. Its just a beginning.

I had recently developed curriculum docs for the Colorado standards so I did some cross-walking to see where the NGSS matched up to my existing unit structure. This was the result (in public GoogleDocs):

Biology units aligned to NGSS and Colorado Standards

These docs include:

    • A checklist for the 8 Science and Engineering Practices for each unit. This could be improved and made more detailed, but for now the simple checklist is a survey of which practices will be demonstrated (often its all 8, but not always).
    • A list of NGSS and Colorado standards for each unit.
    • Essential Questions and Big Ideas for each unit, primarily based on the NAP Frameworks for disciplinary core ideas, but also drawing on my teaching experiences.
    • Activities for each unit, based on what I do now with students, which could certainly be expanded and improved upon.
    • A Correlation Matrix that shows roughly in which units the different standards are encountered, both for NGSS and Colorado standards.
    • A guide for adapting the NGSS practices and topic areas for standards-based learning in biology.

Next steps

Right now the whole folder of goodies is shared publicly so you can at least view what’s there. Feel free to copy anything into your Drive and adapt it as needed. It’d be more fun, of course, if you are willing to share activities and help edit the documents to make them more useful “NGSS-ready” tools for teachers. If you want to help edit the docs, leave a comment here or drop me a note on Twitter and I’ll set your google account as an editor. Or, if you prefer, you can send me links to good activities and labs and I’ll add them to the appropriate units. Thanks in advance for joining me in the strange hobby of curriculum writing!

 

Image credit: CoolTownStudios

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Introduction (or Why Should I Care About the NGSS?)

As you could guess, one of the major themes at the recent Denver Regional NSTA meeting was how to begin to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in our science teaching. I started off the conference by attending a talk by Brett Moulding, who is described as being the “writing team leader” for the NGSS, so he probably knows what the NGSS are about.

Mr. Moulding’s talk focused on the following ideas:

    1. No, not everyone has officially adopted the NGSS (Colorado has not, for example) but it does represent the latest research and teachers should always be aware of the latest research into how students learn science.
    2. There are three dimensions to the NGSS: Ideas, Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts.
    3. The past of science education was the “what,” the facts that could be easily assessed.
    4. The future of science education is getting kids to show that they understand the “how and why,” the mechanisms behind phenomena.
    5. “They are going to perform the science.” “Performance is HUGE.” The focus is on student science performances.
    6. This performance should be their assessment. Instruction and assessments should be similar.

It was really amazing to hear one of my favorite messages about science eduction being supported by someone so influential, namely that we should be moving away from focusing on only teaching science facts and instead focus on the doing of science. This was a great morale booster for my talk at the conference later that day about facts vs. skills and the ways that our assessments need to change to measure those skills.

At the end of his talk Mr. Moulding did field several questions about new assessments for NGSS and he pointed out the that National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) would soon be releasing their proposed guidelines for what the new assessments for NGSS would look like.

The NRC did indeed release new guidelines the week after the NSTA conference and they are summarized here if you are interested in reading them for yourself. All the quotes I’m going to use come from the prepublication download of the National Academies Press book Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards.

At first, the document reads as I expected, like a manual for those testing companies that are itching to get going on selling us the NGTT (Next Generation of Terrible Tests) with comments like

Designing specific assessment tasks and assembling them into tests will require a careful approach to assessment design. (pg Sum-3)

Nothing earth-shattering here. But then there are some glimmers of daylight that there might be something in this report for us non-test-developers:

…it will not be feasible to cover the full breadth and depth of the NGSS performance expectations for a given grade level with a single external assessment comprised solely or mostly of performance-based questions… (pg Sum-5)

which is pretty obvious if you think about the amazingly large array of tasks that students would have to complete if we are really assessing all the content and performance standards of the NGSS.

To get around this issue of tests not being able to truly measure all that NGSS demands of students, we find the real gold nugget of the document so far:

States or districts might require that students in certain grade levels assemble portfolios of work products that demonstrate their levels of proficiency. (pg Sum-5)

This is the first of several references to the use of portfolios in this report, some of which I’ll mention in a bit.

Without going line by line through the rest of the document, I’ll summarize it by saying that the NRC recommends that educators create an integrated “assessment system” that consists of three parts:

    1. Assessments for classroom instruction (mostly for teachers to see how well students are performing).
    2. Monitoring assessments (external assessments that can be used with large numbers of students).
    3. Indicators of opportunity to learn (measures of the quality and content of science instruction).

What follows is a discussion of why I think that using student digital portfolios can help teachers meet these three requirements listed in the NRC’s report. If you haven’t seen the kind of portfolios we use in my classes, you may want to have a look. The rest of this will make a lot more sense if you can picture the kinds of portfolios that I am talking about.

1. Student Portfolios are Classroom Assessments of the NGSS

From Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards:

Classroom instruction is the focus of the framework and the NGSS, and it is classroom assessment–which by definition is integral to instruction–that will be the most straightforward to align with NGSS goals (once classroom instruction is itself aligned with the NGSS). (pg 4-2)

By “aligned with the NGSS” they are referring to science courses that can demonstrate that classroom-based assessments measure the different content and skill requirements of the NGSS:

…students need to experience instruction in which they (1) use multiple practices in developing a particular core idea and (2) apply each practice in the context of multiple core ideas. (pg Sum-3)

which ties in nicely to Brett Moulding’s vision for the NGSS as moving away from isolated facts and towards student performances of science.

Can portfolios of student work be used by teachers to assess the core knowledge and skills addressed in the NGSS? Absolutely. I’ve taken some initial steps to do just that with my student portfolios this year. All that is required is that the portfolio be explicitly designed to collect evidence about a particular set of skill and content standards that matches the performance standards laid out in the NGSS. Students and teachers can use such a portfolio to examine and discuss how well students are able to provide evidence that they have met each standard. Of special note given the NRC recommendations, the kinds of portfolios that we use include both content knowledge and skill standards and can allow students to display evidence of applying core ideas and science practices.

2. Student Portfolios are Monitoring Assessments for the NGSS

The NRC report highlights some of the problems with current standardized tests in terms of measuring performance on the NGSS:

The science tests that are currently used for monitoring purposes are not suitable to evaluate progress in meeting the performance expectations in the NGSS, for two reasons. First, the NGSS have only recently been published, so the current tests are not aligned with them in terms of content and the focus on practices. Second, the current monitoring tests do not use the types of tasks that will be needed to assess three-dimensional science learning. (pg 5-3)

In most cases, the items assess factual knowledge rather than application of core ideas or aspects of inquiry that are largely decoupled from core ideas. They do not use the types of multicomponent tasks that examine students’ performance of scientific and engineering practices in the context of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts nor do they use tasks that reflect the connected use of different scientific practices in the context of interconnected disciplinary ideas and crosscutting concepts. (pg 5-3)

One of the proposed solutions to the issues that surround standardized tests in science is to encourage the development of classroom-embedded assessments such as a

Portfolio of Work Samples and Projects

A third option for classroom-embedded assessments would be for a state or district to provide criteria and specifications for a set of performance tasks to be completed and assembled as work samples at set times during the year. The tasks might include assignments completed during a school day or homework assignments or both. The state or local school system would determine the scoring rubric and criteria for the work samples. Classroom teachers could be trained to score the samples, or the portfolios could be submitted to the district or state and scored centrally. (pg 5-18)

The report goes on to state that portfolios can and have been used for standardizing or auditing across classrooms:

One example is Kentucky’s portfolio program for writing, in which the portfolios are used to provide documentation for the state’s program review. In Wyoming, starting officially in 2003, a “body of evidence system” was used in place of a more typical end-of-school exit exam. (pg 5-19)

Since I developed my portfolio system based on standards not only from the NGSS, but also from a variety of sources such as AP Biology and Colorado Community College Common Course guidelines, the NRC’s discussion of “teacher moderation methods” struck a particular chord and also speaks to the utility of student portfolios to allow for comparison of students from multiple locations:

Moderation is a set of processes designed to ensure that assessment results (for the courses that are required for graduation or any other high-stakes decision) match the requirements of the syllabus. The aim of moderation is to ensure comparability; that is, that students who take the same subject in different schools or with different teachers and who attain the same standards through assessment programs on a common syllabus will be recognized at the same level of achievement. This approach does not imply that two students who are recognized as at the same level of achievement have had the exactly same collection of experiences or have achieved equally in any one aspect of the course: rather, it means that they have on balance reached the same broad standards. (pg 5-19)

Furthermore, the NRC report goes on to explore examples of successful “school-based assessments” such as that found in Queensland where:

Assessment is determined in the classroom. School assessment programs include opportunities to determine the nature of students’ learning and then provide appropriate feedback or intervention. This is referred to as “authentic pedagogy.” In this practice, teachers do not teach and then hand over the assessment that “counts” to external experts to judge what the students have learned: rather, authentic pedagogy occurs when the act of teaching involves placing high-stakes judgments in the hands of the teachers.
Samples of student work (are) annotated to explain how they represent different standards (pg 5-20)

I love this section because it describes perfectly how my students and I use portfolios. I provide the framework of standards for the portfolio and students fill the portfolio with evidence of learning and they have to explain how their artifacts meet each standard.

And finally, the fact that our portfolios are online meets one of the major recommendations of the report:

New technology and platforms that support further upgrades make it much easier than in the past to accumulate, share, store, and transmit information. Such possibilities will make it easier to work with evidence collected in systems of assessment that are composed of multiple elements. (pg 5-22)

3. Student Portfolios are Indicators of the Opportunity to Learn Using the NGSS

“Indicators of Opportunity” is mostly a fancy way of saying “accountability.” Are teachers using the NGSS to the greatest possible extent to support student learning of science? There are many possible measures for such a system, listed here by the NRC:

The report includes a number of indicators that we think are key elements of a science accountability system: program inspections, student and teacher surveys, monitoring of teachers’ professional development, and documentation of classroom assignments of students’ work. (pg 6-9)

Therefore, a portfolio-based assessment system can serve the additional purpose of holding a classroom teacher like myself accountable for which types of activities I provide for my students to carry out:

Documentation of curriculum assignments or students’ work might include portfolios of assignments and student work that could also provide information about the opportunity to learn (and might also be scored to provide direct information about student science achievement). (pg 6-10)

See what they did there? The NRC itself mentions the possibility that portfolios will be used for multiple aspects of this new assessment system. Not only will this portfolio my students produce hold them accountable for learning the different standards for a given course, it will also hold me accountable for providing them plenty of opportunities to meet each content and skill standard.

Conclusions

Like it or not, the NGSS are probably not going away any time soon and at the very least represent the latest and greatest thing to come along in science education. Educators can either sit back and let the big testing companies have their say about how to assess for the NGSS or we can dig in and create our own ways of showing that we are helping our students perform to the level that the NGSS demands. Its pretty clear that everyone knows that technology will be involved. What remains to be decided is whether we as teachers will be content with our students doing “science simulations” in online assessments or whether we’ll have them do the real thing in class and create ways for students to document their learning for all to see. I’m going with door number 2 on that one. How about you?

 

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I’ve been reasonably(?) skeptical of the Next Generation Science Standards: how they were developed, the kind of people writing them, the kind of students they are targeted to, and how they will be used in the future. I decided to get over (around?) all my NGSS angst and just dive in to see if they are useful for how I structure my Standards for my science classes.

keep-calm-and-get-over-it

Like most lists of standards, the NGSS are too bloated with content knowledge factoids for my taste, so I focused instead on the list of Science and Engineering Practices, which turns out to be a list of practices that I think a lot of science educators can get behind. In fact, they already have. There are a lot of parallels between the NGSS Practices and the AP Biology Process Skills from the recent course revision. There is even a lot of overlap with the list of 9 major Skill Standards (based on Colorado Community College Course Student Learning Outcomes) that my students have been working on for the last few years.

Long story short, since there was so much overlap between NGSS, AP Biology, and my standards, I thought that a mashup of all three (or four, if you count ISTE NETS, or five with ACT thrown in) was in order. This ended up generating the Standards that we’ll use this year for my students’ portfolios in Anatomy, Biology, and Chemistry:

 

1. Learn and Understand Content-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models. (Varies by Content Area)

2. Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations: Ask scientific questions and define problems, implement data collection strategies, and demonstrate laboratory skills appropriate to a particular scientific question.

3. Analyze and Interpret Experimental Data: Manipulate and interpret data in a variety of formats, such as tables, charts, and graphs, to analyze results, construct explanations, and defend conclusions.

4. Use Technology to Explore, Learn, Analyze, and Communicate Information: Demonstrate the ability to select and apply contemporary forms of technology to compile information, solve problems, and communicate with a global audience.

5. Engage in Argument from Evidence: Justify claims with evidence and evaluate alternative scientific explanations.

6. Demonstrate Self-Analysis/Metacognition: Demonstrate the ability to evaluate your own learning, recognizing areas of strength and weakness, and be able to describe the next steps for improvement.

7. Contribute to the Learning Community: Demonstrate the ability to contribute to the learning environment of the community through effective participation in group work, modeling of good work habits, putting forth your best effort, and helping others learn.

 

In the process of this mashup, my list of Skill Standards dropped down from 9 to 7, which suits my increasingly minimalist approach to standards pretty well. I think the standards are tighter now, having combined several and mashed others. Only one brand new one makes an appearance (#5), and it really needed to be there since every reputable set of standards (NGSS, AP/College Board, and ACT) recognizes the need to intentionally train kids to argue from evidence. In other words, critical thinking, or scientific thinking, if you prefer, now gets its rightful place in my list of standards.

There you have it, the 7 standards that become the 7 entries per student in my gradebook: no more, no less. BlueHarvest will still do the heavy lifting of formative assessment for me and I’ll still be using assessment portfolios with students, but they might just have an easier time of it with fewer portfolio pages to update.

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TCAPStopSignHave you ever witnessed students doing amazing things? If you’ve been in a classroom, I suspect you have, but I doubt that you associate amazing things with those soul-sucking days devoted to giving standardized tests.

I’ve been inflicting our state’s standardized test on my students this week. If you aren’t from Colorado, its helpful to know that our current state-mandated test is called the TCAP, where T is for Transitional. Transitional as in “we don’t really have a good idea about what the next test will look like but we know that the old test, the CSAP, has expired.”  I could go on about how useless it is to give a “transitional” test, knowing that it tests a set of standards and skills that the state disposed of a while ago, but I won’t.

What I’ll share instead is the story of one young lady, whom I had never met before she walked into my classroom the day of the first testing session.

Different schools do testing differently, but at our school we block out (wipe out) four days of instructional time to administer the TCAP to students.  We do three test sessions during the course of a day, with a few breaks thrown in so students can snack and take care of bodily functions before they get back to testing. Throw in some extra testing time just in case students run over the allowed time for testing, lets say a half-hour per test, and now you are asking students to come to school from 7:45 to 1:35, call it 6 hours a day, for 4 days, for a total of 24 hours.

The students are, perhaps sadly, used to this chunk of their lives being thrown away. They file in to my room on the first day of testing with resignation written on their faces. They sit in their proper places with their number two pencils at the ready and wait for test booklets to appear. Appear they do, and, after some standardized directions read by yours truly, they dive into their tests and whatever mysterious tasks await them.

Except one doesn’t. This young lady was right with me during the directions and the slightly useless “sample” problems but now she has closed her test booklet and is sitting quietly staring at its cover. I’m not allowed to “interact with the students in any way” so I don’t say anything, and, as it turns out, neither does she. She just sits there for an hour as the rest of the tested go about their mysterious tasks.

At first I think to myself that perhaps she is not fond of writing. That would explain why she skips the essay part of the reading and writing test. But then she proceeds to do the same exact thing for the math test, then the science test, and so on. She is an equal opportunity non-test-taker, apparently. Hour after hour, day after day goes by with the same pattern repeating itself: I read the directions, she smiles, and then she calmly closes her test book without completing a single test item.

For 24 hours. Twenty-four-hours of sitting quietly while others around her scribble away at mysterious tasks. When was the last time you spent 24 hours in silence? This is a 10th grader we’re talking about. A teenager. The age group where self-control is thrown out the window by hormones and disconnected frontal lobes. To sit quietly while the world goes about its tasks is something a lot of us wanna-be adults struggle to pull off. She must have a pretty good reason for choosing to behave this way.

But why? What drives a student to such outlandish behavior? I wish I knew. Is she sticking it to the man by refusing to test? Was she inspired by the recent Denver student protests and is following their example? Or is she so low ability that she feels that she will fail the test anyway so why even try? Does she hate all of her teachers so much that she wants to nail them with poor test scores so they look bad and get fired? All these reasons are possible and valid.

Why did she come to school at all? There happens to be an interesting bit of state legislation (C.R.S. 22-7-409) that “requires every student enrolled in a public school to take the assessments in the grade level in which the student is enrolled.” Various people (usually school administrators and TCAP testing coordinators) have made it clear that this statement means that state law says that you have to take TCAP. I’m not here to argue the legality of opting out of TCAP, the Coalition for Better Education and the United Opt Out National Movement do a much better job of that, but I am here to say that the message is broadcast to students and parents that refusing to show up for TCAP testing is illegal. I suspect that’s why this student came to school for her 24 hour marathon of non-compliance.

As I watch this student sit (or nap) through these “legally required” tests I wonder, regardless of their motivation, what would happen if more students followed her example?  Could enough passive resistance like this change how we do testing to students? What would happen if all of our students smile, nod, and close their test booklets without completing a single item on our standardized tests?

That would definitely be an interesting 24 hours.

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