Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standardized tests: The good, the bad...

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's Dumbing Down America. One of his proposed solutions is to declare a 3-year moratorium on statewide standardized testing. This moratorium broadly overlaps with the switch to the Common Core, and certainly the early states that have switched to new tests based on the Common Core have seen pass rates plummet in a way that requires a strong stomach to deal with. Not all politicians have strong stomachs. There is a very real risk that efforts to raise standards will completely backfire.

On top of that, of course, there are the usual arguments against standardized testing. It wastes gifted kids' time. I know this personally; back in high school I had to lobby to be exempt from my 10th grade level test since it was given at the same time as my calculus class. I didn't think it behooved me to miss 4 days of actually learning something to be tested on something I'd learned 3 years before. People teach to the test, and so forth.

I know all this, yet I have mixed feelings about moving away from testing, since it is the most visible aspect of the school accountability revolution. Many of the NCLB tests were watered down. That is true. But in states that chose to make them difficult, passing rates truly do show something. Take Massachusetts, where the MCAS is pretty comparable to the various international benchmarks. Some charter schools (e.g. Excel) have made a point of getting pretty close to 100% pass rates, and publicizing their scores. Are teachers teaching to the test? Perhaps, but since it's high level material that kids should be learning -- and in many states are not -- there's nothing wrong with that.

In the absence of clear metrics, it's easy for people to judge schools on the wrong things. The teachers are nice, decorate their classrooms well, and care about the kids. That's all wonderful, but if the kids can't read and do quantitative analysis well enough to go on to college or well-paid careers, caring alone is insufficient.

I'm not sure that the answer to bad tests is to stop testing. It's to change the philosophy of assessment to something more frequent, with immediate feedback, and without ceilings (so it doesn't waste gifted kids' time). Tests that can show how individual students progress over a year are quite helpful for evaluating what kids are learning, and keep teachers from being penalized for winding up with a class of kids who don't come in as prepared as others. Given that most assessments are moving online, this certainly seems like it should be possible. If a moratorium would end with us getting there after 3 years, that would be a good thing. But it's important not to confuse the fact that accountability is often unpopular with what is actually good for kids (gifted and otherwise).

Friday, November 21, 2014

One way to help gifted learners

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's new book, Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds. I agree with much, and disagree with a few other things, and will be writing about various aspects over the next few weeks.

There is much broken in terms of America's schools, and particularly in how schools nurture kids who need more advanced work. We don't even need to use the loaded "g" word ("gifted") to recognize that. It's common sense that kids develop at different rates academically, and that there is a mean in any given classroom, and kids that deviate far from that mean are going to pose a challenge that effective teachers would do well to think about.

When thinking about how to address the problems in gifted education, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But there are a few practical places to start. One idea Delisle throws out there? Requiring all teacher candidates, as part of teacher preparation programs, to learn about the needs of gifted learners, and strategies for challenging them.

To be sure, many of us who support gifted education would love to see far more self-contained classes taught by teachers who've specialized in the field. However, "most gifted students spend the majority of their time in a regular classroom environment, and their teachers may know very little about who gifted kids are and what to do to challenge them," Delisle writes. "Only six states require that every teacher candidate receive such information, and even that is likely to be minimal."

He recommends the use of the Knowledge and Skills Standards in Gifted and Talented Education for all teachers developed by the NAGC and CEC-TAG. That's a reasonable idea. Though honestly, the more I have looked at teacher prep programs for other projects I've done, the more I wonder if even having the word "gifted" in a curriculum might be problematic. There is a strong political element in many programs, and it's not one that embraces the concept. But meeting the needs of all children sounds good. As a few programs do try to re-orient themselves around practical approaches to teaching, pushing states to require instructional strategies for advanced learners and struggling learners alike is not a bad idea.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The kids on the margins

Questions about gifted education often come down to who should qualify. If some people qualify, then some people don't, and given the way humanity often works, there may not be a huge difference between people just over the dividing line, and people just under. So what happens in those cases?

Jay Mathews, in a recent Washington Post column, addressed this issue. He talked with Jim Delisle (whose new book, Dumbing Down America, is on my desk, and which I will get to in another blog post soon!) Delisle argued that gifted education needs to be better funded and more available; Mathews argued that challenging classes should be available to anyone who wants them.

I don't necessarily think these opinions are completely at odds. We've worked ourselves into this world where in some schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. Everything else is so mediocre that the only way to get any challenge is to qualify. Likewise, in sinking districts, a GT program can be a way to keep people in.

But that doesn't mean anything is wrong with gifted education per se. It means that everything else has a big problem. Why can't we solve all these problems? Why do they have to be pitted against each other?

To me, the best world doesn't hinge on whether gifted classes exist or don't exist. It's whether we have an education system where every child is challenged to the extent of her abilities in an environment with her intellectual peers. A self-contained class is one way to do that. In some cases, people might be better off with acceleration. Independent online study could help kids who need lots of advanced work in one particular area. Technology is increasingly allowing individualization. There's no reason a group of 10 year olds have to be doing the same thing whether gifted education exists or not. The problem is that doing away with gifted education isn't generally coupled with making things more challenging for everyone, including gifted kids. It's coupled with...nothing.

I know a number of people who likely seem like they would have qualified for gifted programs but were never officially evaluated because it was never really needed. Perhaps they were in schools with a focus on individualization and challenge within that. As long as each teacher was committed to meeting those needs and given the resources to do so, it never became an issue. But that's rare, unfortunately. Which is why gifted education is often needed. And just because there are people who might just miss the cut off doesn't mean it should be denied to those who do make the cut off.