Testing as a Team Sport

Having the school declare a test score goal is a way to ensure students understand the emphasis on doing well on standardized tests.  Ideas like posting test results publicly and having students make and display “green” handprints and/or giving them out green colored t-shirts when they score proficient or better all reinforce the goal of raising test scores.  The high visibility of students who score proficient or better is great positive reinforcement and incentive.

However, all the students who are not proficient or better not only get left out but also are to some extent at risk of pressure or stigma.  This would be true normally, kids being the occasionally schoolyard meanies they can be.  But it might be particularly true when there is a stated school goal.  Kids who aren’t scoring proficient are, in one way of looking at it, pulling down the rest of the team.  I’m not saying it’s the right way, but the school I am involved with takes great care to treat as private individual results.  I do wonder at the difference in philosophies and which might be used to get students to learn more effectively and successfully. 

Clearly, posting results gives more urgency (and transparency) to success.  It also puts more demands on the school culture to support every child in their educational journey.  Also, it seems pretty logical that if a school was going this way (“green team,” et al), it might also set up study teams and remediation (perhaps students tutored by other students, as well as more conventional means) to support the effort.  Likewise, one could imagine the school being divided into teams (possibly multiage) to compete internally for best performance.  This would fit naturally and do more to achieve the goals than simply posting school goals.

I’d like to know more about the pros and cons of making results public but, in general, I like the idea of making test solid performance a school goal and supporting that goal with student-friendly learning solutions.

Standardized Tests

Standardized tests are blunt weapons, but not an ineffective ones. The three real issues with them are 1) we have to be prepared to sacrifice every bit of learning that isn’t on the test and 2) the tests need to reflect the standards perfectly and 3) the standards have to reflect all the essential knowledge that the students need to learn.

It really is that simple. If we’re prepared to accept that the kids will mostly only learn the standards and we trust the people who write the standards to write the right ones, then testing will steadily drive the results (and therefore the learning of the standards) in the right direction.

We can see that in California. Since NCLB came into effect, the aggregate test scores have steadily improved. From 2003 to 2009, 17% more students are testing proficient or better on Math and 15% more are testing proficient or better on English Language Arts (ELA) (California Department of Education, 2010).

Of course, the aggregate numbers are still horrible: only 57% are proficient or better in math and 50% test proficient or better in ELA, up from 41% and 35% respectively in 2003. Maybe that’s a good reason to accept the blunt weapon of standardized testing, the historical alternative was apparently far less effective.


California Department of Education. (2010). Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Results. Retrieved March 11, 2010, from http://star.cde.ca.gov/

Teaching to the Test, Part Two

I think bucking the standards/testing paradigm is not viable. I do think 1st grade is a more important time to build a broad base of knowledge and to learn that learning is fun than to ace some standardized test. But I don’t want to be the one trying to argue that point to parents and administrators.

It seems to me that most people think there are only two choices: ignore testing or build the year around testing. I don’t like either of those options. My idea is to embrace essentialism as surgically as possible and teach exactly to the test as a subset of the daily activity. Hopefully, by defining this part of the annual learning obligation so narrowly and deliberately, time is freed up in the day to do much of the ‘yummy stuff’ that might get pushed aside in a more classic, full time essentialist curriculum.

I’ve been trying to teach the kids that testing is like football or performing on stage, it’s a fun challenge and it’s something where practice improves outcomes. It’s something that can be embraced.

I hope and intend that this strategy ends up with great test results and kids who think education is more than the black and white of No. 2 pencils and answer sheets. I hope that they’ll do great on the tests, have a broad education, and believe that education is as joyful as life.

I can’t take credit for the idea, although it is exactly my style. I first encountered it in the books of Rafe Esquith. He’s pretty much my role model.


Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire: The methods and madness inside room 56. New York, NY: Viking.

Esquith, R. (2009). Lighting their fires: Raising extraordinary children in a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. New York, NY: Viking Adult.

Verifying Understanding

I have been thinking about verifying understanding frequently.  I have mentioned this before but, as a scuba instructor, I am very familiar with the techniques of mastery learning.  In this essentialist, assessment-based world we live in, mastery learning becomes very relevant.  Simply put, in mastery learning, you do not get to move on until you have mastered the material in front of you.  The clear implication of this is that each student will be tested until that mastery is fully demonstrated. In my class, my students will expect to be challenged daily.  They will understand that being challenged is like lifting weights, failure is precursor to success. 

Of course, one of the first things I will expect my students to master is the art of taking tests.  They will study test taking and they will practice it.  Multiple choice and composing essays on the fly are skills like any other. My tests will be as challenging and devious as any the standards boards can devise, more so because mine are teaching tools.  Challenges will not just be tests, they will come in many creative forms.  In addition to tests and quizzes, I will ask students to “teach back” what they have just learned.  Maybe that means giving a quick verbal description.  Maybe it means preparing a five-minute mock lesson.  Alternatively, maybe it means breaking up in groups to work together to achieve mastery, with individual success dependent on collective success. 

Sometimes the best path is the crooked one.  Maybe the test will be writing a poem about algebra.  Or maybe it will be “draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies.”  Maybe the students will make a probability matrix for the American Revolution.  The best way to learn something is to take it apart completely and re-assemble it.  The other best way is practice, practice, practice. 

One final note: key concepts and facts will appear on quizzes long after the unit is done.  Anything worth learning is worth still knowing at the end of the school year.

Success in the Classroom

For me, my success in the classroom will be in two parts.

First, I would like to leave every student with a love of education and a solid grasp of how learning and life interconnect. I would like to teach some of the timeless literature to illustrate the human condition; its choices and challenges. I’d like to teach the arts to give texture and color and sound and rhythm and rhyme to their understanding of being human. I would like to give them a sense of history and how we have come to this place. I would particularly like to leave them literate and fluent in math and science. We are living in a hard science world and to know the gentle parts of life and that hard science is a powerful combination.

At the same time, I am determined to leave my students competent in the standards and capable of demonstrating this in assessments. To do this, my intent is to out ‘essentialist’ the essentialists. If competence is defined as answering questions correctly on an exam then, by golly, that’s exactly, precisely what I will teach them to do. Teach the standard, assess, teach what’s not retained, repeat. No doubt, this will take more time than I have, especially folded on top of top of the progressive/perennial education described above. I think education is important enough to be generous with my time before and after school and to expect students in need of extra help to be generous with their own time as well. With luck, sacrifice and cooperation, we’ll fit it all in and leave the students more than ready for the next step of their life.

IQ and Tiering Classes

Intelligence quotient (IQ) tests produce highly variable results. Do you think it is reasonable to base the placement of children in special classes, such as for the gifted, on the single score? Support your opinion.

Almost without exception, I do not support differentiating people based on any single measure. Human beings are simply too complex and measures of human attributes too unreliable to make such single factor decision making prudent. 

Having said that, there are definitely areas where IQ scores could reasonably be used as a significant factor in decision-making. To the extent that tiering students by ability in school is a goal (ignoring the question of whether such tiering is itself a good idea), IQ is most likely a useful tool. In the first place, it was designed to predict academic success and studies indicate that it does this reasonably well. As Bee & Boyd (2007) say, “Children with high IQ scores are more likely than their peers with average and low scores to be among the high achievers in school” (p. 191). Therefore, it should be clear that for this purpose, IQ scores are “valid.” Further, if IQ scores were to be used in this fashion, they would need to be “reliable,” which is to say that individuals’ results must be stable over time. According to Bee & Boyd, “IQ scores are, in fact, very stable” (p. 189). Finally, I would have ethical qualms if IQ were somehow misrepresenting predictive outcomes across social or ethnic groups. Not so, say Bee & Boyd: “These predictive relationships hold within each social class and ethnic group in the United States” (p. 192). Therefore, to the extent that faculty is attempting to differentiate students by likely educational performance, IQ can morally and practically be reasonably used as one consideration.

However, it is important to understand what IQ scores are not. They are not the sole determinant of likely success. Many factors influence educational outcomes, from culture to heredity to birth order to early childhood environment. As Bee & Boyd (2007) say, “Some children with high IQ scores don’t shine in school while some children with lower scores do” (p. 191). A much strong tool to use in placing students in gifted class would be actual prior educational outcomes, particularly those in the subject in question. IQ tests are also predictors of very specific measures of performance, academic performance. So depending on the type of class, IQ could be very misleading. For example, it would be unwise to use them to populate varsity sports team or the honors drama classes.

Finally, there are troubling correlations between IQ scores, ethnicity, and social class, among others. It is true that these factors correlate across the entire gamut of student achievement. However, given this, I would much prefer direct measures of capability (i.e. grades in prior similar classes) to be the main determinant in tiering classes.


Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Mastery Learning and Assessment

I believe that each child has the right and capability to learn the course material. My instincts are to incorporate principles of mastery learning into the classroom. Mastery learning says each student doesn’t move forward until they’ve demonstrated mastery of the current material. Since much of the curriculum is additive (dependent on prior learning), this has the added advantage of making sure the student is adequately prepared for each section of curriculum as it arrives.

Mastery learning requires frequent assessment. But in mastery learning, the relationship between teacher and pupil is subtly different. Because the goal is mastery, the student (and teacher) must commit to truly learning a body of knowledge, not simply being present while it is taught. To the extent that this is true, assessment changes from an onerous task to a useful measure of progress towards a goal. Teacher and student are eager to understand how complete comprehension and retention have been.

In addition to protecting the student’s right to learn, frequent assessment is efficient. All too often, teachers move forward in the mistake belief that as subject has been taught. This confusion between presenting the subject and it being absorbed leads to much surprise and frustration. But not so with frequent assessment. Likewise, assessment is a kind of teaching, a kind of drilling. Like flash cards, frequent assessment develops the habit of learn, test, repeat. This drives the knowledge home at the same time as it assures that comprehensive comprehension is achieved.