What Do Students Know?

In the PhysOrg.com article What Do Students Know? it basically underlines the fear that many have about the way that we are testing.  Granted, this is a niche area, (astrophysics) but we're teaching the names of planets and basic items, and yet students (and their teachers) have the following misconceptions:

  • They think there is no gravity in space.
  • They think that space telescopes are put in space to get them “closer.”
  • The don't know that the sun is a star.
  • They think that there are stars closer than Pluto besides the sun.

Other findings:

“The SAO researchers studied how these apparently seductive misconceptions could distract students away from choosing the correct answer in multiple-choice tests. They argue that such “distractors” should be included in evaluation tests but note that most often are not, and therefore that results from tests designed to measure student understanding are misleading, and that evaluation of the pedagogy is therefore inadequate. The team also found that teachers across the board overestimate their students' understanding of basic ideas, in part because of emphasizing detailed memorization over basic conceptual understanding as probed by misconceptions.”

I went down each of these misconceptions and asked my eighth grade daughter.  Whew! She passed. I find it in interesting that we only standardize test at our school ONCE A YEAR. That is right. The curriculum director keeps up with where everyone is and what they are learning. So many teachers say that the best time of the year for REALLY teaching is when standardized testing is over. 

“Then I can teach what is really important,” Said a friend to me lately.

Another friend was saddened by a boy that was dropping out on his sixteenth birthday.

“You can't teach me anything I need to know for the real world,” he told her.

And she agreed with me privately.  She said that she knew he said he was dropping out and since she did math, she wanted to teach him to balance his checkbook and things that would help him function – instead she had to focus on the test he had to take before he left and he sat in the chair in a faceoff refusing to write a thing.

I believe in academic rigor. I believe in excellence. But I also believe in doing right by the generation that is coming.  My heart ached as I read the biography of John Newton, former slave trader turned minister and writer and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Despite the fact that he had memorized pages of amazing literature and learning and could do incredible math in his head, when Newton's mother died and he was transferred to a boarding school, it was said:

“His first teacher there was a sadistic wielder of the cane. ‘His imprudent severity almost broke my spirit and my relish for books…. I forgot the first principles and rules of arithmetic which my mother taught me,' recalled Newton. However, his second teacher noticed that the boy had considerable ability. netwon came top of his class in Latin, which in that year's syllabus required studies of Virgil and Tully.” (Kindle 5811 John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace)

Sometimes classroom control is mistaken for a positive learning environment.  And sometimes chaos is misdiagnosed as a lax classroom. There are times my classroom looks like a complete and utter theater of the absurd. When we are shooting film, when we're doing group brainstorming, when we're having team meetings.  Often when Coach Ross comes into my room to observe, I feel like I have to apologize.  But, he knows me and he just listens in and can see what we're doing.  (As I tell my students, EVERYTHING has a purpose in my room, EVERYTHING.)

In the state of Georgia, they have found evidence to up to a 20% tamper rate on state standardized tests.  When the news came out, I was at the bank and overhead some people talking:

“We know that school is an awful school – the test scores don't line up with what we know.”

So, the question isn't just what do students know?  It is “What do you know?” When I read the book Freakonomics and the statistician proved the statistical likelihood that most teachers who have outstanding results CHEAT, I was disgusted.  

Testing has a value – but also observation.  A well written 3 page lesson plan is not proof that the teacher is doing ANYTHING. In fact, every scrap of paper generated by teachers should be analyzed to see how it is used. From my own experience, I had a headmaster who I had to write ornate, well documented lesson plans. I spent at least 2 hours a day on the lesson plans and they were beautiful! Too bad that it took a lot of time away from planning.  When my administration changed we were told — No formal lesson plans for us – but you should have your notes and your lesson plans FOR YOURSELF. Spend your time planning for TEACHING and we'll be in there to see what you're doing.  We'll be in there a lot. 

That, my friends was when I started using wikis with my students (Dec 2005) and the following year was when Flat Classroom was born. (Oct 2006) In fact, I could argue that if I had to continue writing lesson plans in that detail that you would never have heard of Cool Cat Teacher and Flat Classroom – they would have been buried in the useless practicum of writing a lesson plan that NO ONE EVER READ! 

I would actually hypothesize that there could be an inverse relationship between teaching excellence and the amount of paperwork required by teachers to document what they are doing.

I've been thinking back on the movie Avatar and the log files that they created.  You learn so much about the character by how he looks as he records those log files. If I were in administration, I'd much rather have a 2 minute video log where the teacher talked about what they are covering and their major issues and appended to the log a random clip from their classroom that day. I'd like to have a word cloud made out of discipline records and open ended teacher comments – that would show me my major discipline issues and contexts on one page and a lot about the problems a teacher is having in the classroom.  With only 20% of communications being verbal, requiring that feedback to the “front office” be in only written form, we're only getting 20% of the picture, I would think.  It is time for reflection and feedback and communications to evolve to the multiple modalities we are trying to put in the classroom. 

Additionally, I love how 8D world is one of the most popular educational sites in China for teaching kids to speak English and it uses a microphone and verbal speaking to allow advancement in levels.  This game isn't even being used in schools but has evolved online and parents pay for it.  (They are planning to go to Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian soon.)

This is an alternative method of feedback.  So, how do we “test” languages?  I can tell you that I can read Spanish very well but orally – I cannot speak it nor can I understand it.  What good did 2 years of Spanish do for me? My tests were all written. My assessment was all written.  You get what you measure.

Until we take a hard look at what we're measuring and if that is what we really want, we're going to continue to get students who don't know that the Sun is a star and think that there is no gravity in space.

If the test is broken, who fixes that?

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Julie February 16, 2010 - 4:28 am

You write about the best teaching happening each year after the standardized tests, and I chuckled as I read it; I told my husband, just today, “I can’t wait till the state tests are over so I can teach better.” I don’t claim to “teach to the test” and I haven’t typed up formal lesson plans in many years, but I think the pressure of those tests hanging over my head changes my style of teaching. I think I’m less likely to go with the flow and let the students lead the lesson where they need it to go because I feel a daily time crunch to hit the standards precisely. Yes, the test is broken, but I, too, don’t know who fixes it. (On another note, I’m excited to read more about Flat Classroom! This is the first I’ve heard of it and am looking forward to learning more.)

crazyteacher21 February 21, 2010 - 5:01 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more about state testing. Standardized testing is not only stressful for teachers and administrators, but for students as well. Just the mention of the term TCAP makes my students cringe. I try not to mention the testing very often during instruction. It poses as a catalyst to a shut down mode of the brain. My students seem to take in the content better when the material is presented using a variety of learning techniques without the word “testing” being mentioned.

The sad part of our testing is what it has come to and that is teaching to the test. I realize the movement in testing is taking quite a turn from memorization and recalling facts to application of knowledge, but are we laying the groundwork for such a change? This would be my question to fellow educators. Are we doing our students justice by the content we are teaching them? If so, does it reflect in our state scores? If it doesn’t reflect in our state scores, does that mean their acquired learning is inadequate or just not aligned with the test?

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