Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Assessment Winter Solstice

It somehow seemed fitting that on the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, I found myself in a meeting with a few principals and department facilitators answering inane questions from the PA Dept. of Ed. about how our school handles local assessments for students who do not meet proficiency on the state tests in math and reading. In lieu of a state graduation exam that has been approved but not funded, PDE is asking critical questions about local proficiency assessments, particularly in math and reading.

I say inane, not out of indifference to the students, but to the tests. These tests measure so little and yet the stakes are made higher with each passing year, amounting to narrowing of curricula, demoralizing learning communities, and stigmatizing administrators, teachers, and students alike. What's worse is that the students who are not demonstrating well on these tests have the most to lose from added efforts to teach to the test. The majority of these students are already maxed out in the schedule to get the minimum graduation requirements. To add required remediation classes to their schedules, squeezing out technology, art, business, or consumer economics or any core discipline elective, seems like insult to injury. For several such students, there are not enough periods in the day to teach to the test. Everyone in our meeting shrugs "what can we do?"
Students have no voice in this, let alone professional educators. Parents and the general community are led by the media to believe these test results matter more than teaching students authentic skills, practical knowledge, real application, creativity, problem-solving, innovation, fine arts and true science. Those of us who know the damage these tests do seem least equipped to appeal to those who promote them. Test lobbyists are much more organized and funded than test recipients. It seems there is no hope but for the hope that state and federal leaders drop standardized testing as a model.

Brrrrrr! It's cold out here in Western Pennsylvania.

Image Credit: Jon Young UK. "100_00626" (Sun and Silhouetted Trees) . 27 Dec. 2006 24 Dec. 2008.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Are You Driving the New Model?

The National Council of Teachers of English has an updated Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment that is a clarion call to English educators to embrace and develop skills in digital technology and media. Adroitly the NCTE points out that language changes as the way we communicate changes, and indeed to be a literate person in the coming century requires a new and plastic skill set.

Blurring? Yes. Whereas in medieval times one was literate who could read and write, tomorrow (if not today) one is literate who can read, evaluate, communicate, create messages, develop meaning, and build relationships in myriad, complex, and ever-changing technologically based means.

The NCTE's framework point to such literacy skills as that will allow a 21st Century readers and writers to :

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

The charge for English teachers comes in dozens of questions under each of the above elements. Such questions as:
  • Do students use technology as a tool for communication, research, and creation of new works
  • Do students work in groups to create new sources that can’t be created or solved by individuals?

  • Do students solve real problems and share results with real audiences?

  • Do students create new ideas using knowledge gained?

  • Do students evaluate multimedia sources for the effects of visuals, sounds, hyperlinks, and other features on the text’s meaning or emotional impact?

  • Do students practice the safe and legal use of technology?

I say these amount to a charge for English teachers, because the lessons that these questions point are still emerging and yet becoming germane to language arts study. What percentage of our curriculum and assessment is answering these questions in the affirmative? Surely, we always have held such lofty goals at times and perhaps those "creative" or "dramatic" or "soulful" among us have from time to time veered off the straight and narrow essay assignment track("why don't you submit that poem to a magazine" and "cite your sources" and "how about creating a collage on theme").

Today is a new day, and tomorrow newer still. Technology as a way to read, create, publish, and communicate is tuning-up the English classroom into an all-terrain vehicle--sans brakes! As teachers we must learn much that's new if are students are to learn from us. The NCTE's framework serves as a good table of contents for this new-fangled buggy's user's manual.


Image credit: ahisgett. "All Terrain Buggies." 22 Aug. 2007 Flickr. 2 Dec. 2008 <>. Courtesy of the photographer under Creative Commons License: BY.