Thursday, November 27, 2014

What are We Doing to Our Kids?

For several years now, we've been waiting for  SBAC and PARCC to complete their assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. We heard that SBAC would be good for Hawaii, that we would see how our students compared to schools in other districts or states across the nation.  We would be comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges. Because of our school's highly transient population with students who have attended different schools before enrolling at ours, I looked forward to having something other than NAEP to share with parents when they expressed concern that their child would be behind when they returned to the mainland.

Last year, our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers volunteered to pilot the SBAC. At that time, they shared that the assessment was difficult, that students did not have sufficient time to complete the performance task, and that it was challenging to navigate the assessment on the computer.  They were honest and provided feedback about their concerns. We hoped there would be changes because we knew that this year, student assessments would be graded and scores shared publicly.

Yesterday, our school assessment team had an opportunity to review the SBAC requirements as well as the practice tests and performance tasks. As I realized the amount of time that will be expended to prepare for the assessment, I became increasingly concerned. It isn't just preparing to take the SBAC that concerns me. It's the amount of testing time needed to ensure that our students can be successful; it's the labor required to ensure the fidelity of the devices so technology doesn't impede our students while they're taking the assessment; it's preparing each student's individual account to check off the appropriate accommodations for each student; it's the test items themselves and whether it is realistic to expect students as young as third grade to have the computer skills to successfully complete the assessment tasks.

Click on the SBAC practice test link and choose a grade and the performance task for math or English Language Arts.  I did, and it immediately raised concerns for me. I consider myself pretty competent in navigating between on-line documents, but expecting that of 8-year-olds is unrealistic. (In fact, I personally still prefer to have paper copies of the readings so I can compare them side-by-side.) Students can highlight or take notes on what they read, but they won't know what to take notes on if they don't know what the task is that they will be asked to complete. (That's a strategy we teach our students - read the question or know what is expected at the end so there is a purpose for reading.) When students finish one section, they cannot go back to it, even if they want to clarify their answer. (How many times do we, as adults, save our document so we can go back to revise it?) Asking students to sit for long periods of time is unrealistic, yet that is what is expected.  (As an adult taking the practice test, I had difficulty getting through the instructions, the articles, and the constructed responses.)

Our classroom teachers encourage higher level thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity; we allow multiple ways for students to share what they have learned including the use of technology or Web 2.0 tools.  SBAC expects only one way for students to show what they've learned - through writing - and this could be a challenge, especially for those who struggle with reading or writing.  My concern is that any high-stakes assessment will not favor the out-of-the-box thinker or the person who may learn in a different way.

The truth is that millions of dollars have already gone into the creation of these assessments and millions more will be paid by states or districts as implementation begins this school year. While I understand that communities deserve to know how their school measures up against others, I fear that a focus on high test scores could come at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum where the individuality of each student is nurtured and appreciated. Is this what we want for our kids?

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