21 December 2012

a brief twitter conversation on our testing culture...

On a Thursday night a mathematics teacher from around Vancouver was looking for sympathy on Twitter...
She said: What do you do when a student skips a math test and the parent thinks YOU are unreasonable expecting them to have been there? #bced #mathed

I looked at this, and thought a few things. I thought about the entire idea of the classroom test. I thought about a teacher picking a fight with both students and parents in the week before Christmas. And I thought about the amazing amount of potential educational time "we" in schools waste on fighting battles over compliance which do absolutely nothing to help kids either learn a subject, a skill, or learn to be successful adults.
from, F in Exams by Richard Benson
So, I jumped in... and away we went...
Me: does the student know the maths in question? #bced #mathed
British Columbia Maths Teacher:  the formative assessment says they know some....
Me: then, is the test important? What will it show?
British Columbia Maths Teacher:  it is summative assessment. It will show what they can do.
Me: ok, but can't she do the same thing lots of ways? Is the test format of some special value?
British Columbia Maths Teacher: yes. It is their opportunity to show me what they can do.
Me: ok, I've just never understood either the classroom test or why it would need to happen at any specific moment... I think teachers have a million ways to gather information about where their students are. And should do it continuously
British Columbia Maths Teacher: [to another in the twitter conversation] the policy is a zero [My thought, a “Zero” as a student score is actually at “minus 65,” a cruel and bizarre rating for anyone to receive]. But this entitlement to my time is frustrating. We have two weeks of holiday. I don’t work tomorrow.
British Columbia Maths Teacher: ok you sound like the father. You aren’t helping, sorry.
Me: sorry, its what I tell all the teachers I work with, around the world
British Columbia Maths Teacher: I’m sure they love that message.
Me: we are pushing back against the testing culture at every level, which creates schools which are better for kids … so we say we don't rank either students or teachers by these test scores
British Columbia Maths Teacher: we spend hours creating fair assessment for this purpose. This one took me 4 hours.
Me: tests are never equitable assessments. They create big problems for some kids
British Columbia Maths Teacher: lol now I know you have no idea. Thanks, but you don’t get it.
Me: think of all the time and energy you wasted, making the test, giving it, now fighting about it. You could have been teaching
British Columbia Maths Teacher: have a great evening. You are right, my time is important. 

from, F in Exams by Richard Benson
Then, she blocked me

I did suggest: good night, sorry you're not open to doubting your practice. Maybe some day

Perhaps I was harsh, she went onto Twitter about this not to look for a solution, not for professional development purposes, but simply to whine and find people who would tell her she was right. I didn't do that, and neither did some others, and she got frustrated and angry. That's ok. That, perhaps, is the exact same reaction she is getting from at least one of her students - as this teacher blocked me to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about her skills, so this student might have skipped this "summative assessment" for the same reasons.

But, I do ask teachers all the time, "why?" Why is this form of assessment important? Why is this assignment, project, book, test, chair, schedule, good for this student, or what this student needs? And I also ask, "is this worth the time you are investing in it?" How much of your day do you want to devote to law enforcement, or conflict, or teaching a particular form of etiquette? Are their better ways for you, and your students, to use your time?

And I often think about something an Albemarle County (Virginia) middle school teacher said to me one night, as we left a bar during a conference in Williamsburg: "I don't know how you can do this job," he said, "unless you have angst every day about the job you are doing?"

Anyway, that abusive "testing culture" we complain about in the United States, in Britain, in Canada, in Australia, in Irish secondary schools... does it really start with government bureaucrats like Arne Duncan and Michael Gove or with corporate thieves like Pearson? Or does it start with the practices we too often allow to exist in our classrooms?

- Ira Socol


Lisa Cooley said...

Ira, thanks for being one of the folks willing to ask hard questions!

carol galic said...

As usual, you are totally on the money. Too bad the math teacher is too terrified to trust herself and her students that they are learning. It's hard to sustain a "tesst are meaningless" (as are most report cards) frame of mind, when most administrators are breathing down your neck about assessments and data. Thanks for the truth speaking.

Danielle said...

Oof. Certainly a fascinating discussion and an incredibly complex situation. While I'm in wholehearted amen choir agreement with the idea that our test-happy culture creates more problems than it solves, I feel for that teacher. I wonder, as carol galic up there notes, what kinds of administrative edicts shape the choice to test. Often the midterm/final exam is a mandate from on high. So the teacher's real fight is with a boss. Never an easy fight to pick, eh?

Evelyn Cortez-Ford said...

This conversation speaks volumes about the lack of understanding that occurs among professionals who seem unable to learn from one another. I think, Ira, you missed an opportunity to help this teacher learn from you and you learn from her.
It seems like you really didn’t come to the conversation with the intent of helping her. You wrote that she was not interested in professional development or any kind of solution, but that she just wanted to whine and find support for her view. I disagree with your assessment of this teacher. I think her question was authentic, and she really wanted to learn strategies for dealing with the parent.
Perhaps because you made this judgment on this teacher, you didn’t come from a place of learning. When you entered the conversation, your mind was already made up, and it didn’t seem to matter what she had to offer. Your questions were not really about understanding her view or her professional dilemma. Instead, your questions were poised to put her on the defensive and to make your case.
You accused the teacher for tweeting about this so she could whine and find people who agree with her. Would it be fair for me to make the same assessment about you? Is that why you wrote this blog: to whine about teachers who test students and to find people who agree with you? Are you willing to look at your skills, doubt your practice, and learn from others as you accused this teacher of not doing?
I think you could have made a greater impact on this teacher’s practice, attitude, and skills if you had honored her as a learner and as a professional and not characterized her as a whiner who is unable to doubt her practice.
Lessons abound from this conversation, Ira –for her and for you.

irasocol said...


Yes. It was surely not a successful teaching moment, and I absolutely agree, when teaching moments fail (or students "fail") we must first look at the teaching practice. I did not walk away from that conversation feeling, in any way, a success.

The one thing I will challenge is your view of how I entered the conversation. I began, as I always do, with questions.

Me: does the student know the maths in question? #bced #mathed
Me: then, is the test important? What will it show?
Me: ok, but can't she do the same thing lots of ways? Is the test format of some special value?

I don't see these as disrespectful questions in any way. Recently, at a conference in Virginia, a first grade teacher asked me about kids who were "spinning off from the group" while she was reading to the kids. I asked:

"Are they disrupting other kids?"
Teacher: "Not really"
Me: "Is the content of the story particularly important?"
Teacher: "Not really"

Questions about assumptions made - often - because of the terrible way schools of education prepare teachers. And questions about assumptions which allow a teacher who is open to learning to begin to doubt their own practice.

That didn't work in this Twitter exchange, because the teacher in question "played" me the way I used to play teachers. She became, when doubted, sullen and angry, because, yes, she was not asking about her teaching, she "really wanted to learn strategies for dealing with the parent." So she was looking for the equivalent of "getting out of doing an assignment," and I was trying to teach philosophy. A terrible mismatch. Much like, Student: "What the easiest way to get this done?" Teacher: "I really want you to think deeply and do something original."

My mistake was not shifting to where she was first, in order to move her from her "authentic" - but unimportant - question ("How do I get this father to stop questioning my teaching methods?") to an authentic but meaningful question ("How can I change what I am doing so that this child, and every child, can succeed?").

And I let the conversation crash into her saying that I knew nothing, and, me saying she was wasting her time. Though I do know some things, and I do think she is wasting huge amounts of her time, that's not where this needed to go.

In the end, she was whining. And while that isn't good, people do whine in schools every day. And we need to learn to switch that energy into learning.

Thanks for calling me on this.

- Ira Socol

Evelyn Cortez-Ford said...

Thanks for your response, Ira. Below are some lessons I learned from the exchange you had with this teacher. They are meant as reminders for me, but perhaps they'll help you too.

1. Meet people where they are. You mentioned this in your response, and I think you’re right on about this. I wonder where the conversation could have gone had you helped her to work through the issue with the parent, which leads me to the second lesson.

2. Adult learners are concerned with the practical. Helping adults to learn begins with helping them with their day-to-day dilemmas. To “teach philosophy” to adults, helping them ask and understand important and meaningful questions, requires a pragmatic focus. I’ve learned this from my work helping teachers become leaders. It’s all very deep and meaningful, but in the end teachers want/need to know what to do on Monday morning at 9:00am. I help them work through those questions, helping them situate their learning into a meaningful context of teacher leadership.

3. Establish equitable relationships based on respect. Respect for others’ knowledge, professionalism, and experience is so important when helping teachers learn, especially when asking them to change their practice. Personally, I don’t think it helps to call the teacher a whiner. In this way, you don’t seem to respect her. I think bbbthis attitude is why the conversation “crashed.”

4. Let go of specific outcomes. When we want people to come to our way of thinking, meaningful learning stops. It is true that you asked questions, and none of them were disrespectful, but they were questions that were set up to support your point of view. In that way, they weren't authentic and only served to put her on the defensive.

In the end, I admire your passion, and I agree with you on many points. I wish you well as you continue to work with teachers on the issue of testing and student learning.


Ed Darrell said...

Teachers have a million ways to gather information on student performance, and to give feedback. District allows only two. One due now. District officials look at grade in computer -- want it to be "fair" in test given in classroom.

Sure, in a perfect world, Aristotle at one end of the log, Alexander at the other, grades are way secondary to learning, if not wholly irrelevant. None of my kids have a king for a father. District doesn't provide logs, nor do they think I'm Aristotle, and they won't cut any slack for letting the specially gifted kid do a different test.

Sure teacher can fight it. And more teachers would fight, if more teachers were independently wealthy.

Will said...

Love the thoughts here about assessment...something I've been struggling with for a while.Traditional assessment are not working. So then how do we assess our students in authentic ways to make sure they are getting the info and retaining it? I would love to hear some ideas on this.