Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The trouble with testing.....(or testing woes)

Last week and this week, our district is administering our first benchmark assessment of the year in reading and math, and for 5th grade, science also. That means 12+ hours of instruction both weeks is lost to testing!

As a teacher who works with ELLs, I am more cognizant than most about the cultural lens needed to succeed on the test. Some of the reading tests had stories about smoothies or baseball- things that my students may not be familiar with because they are not part of the culture that my kids have grown up with or were born into.

Today, as I was administering the math portion of the test, the students kept stumbling on the names used in the word problems. For one thing, they couldn't read them. They also couldn't recognize them as names, rather than part of the problem that they were to solve. Names like "Althea" and "Justine" simply aren't common to these kids.

In another instance, one money problem had a pile of pennies. Some were face up, some were tails up. The students couldn't distinguish that the tails-up pennies were still pennies. Another money problem only showed part of a $1 bill, and the students couldn't identify those as still being $1 bills. I was a little amazed, but then I realized: 90% of students at my school are on free or reduced lunch. Some of them might never have had their own coins or bills, or actually used cash to pay for something. Many parents don't carry cash now and simply use the debit card. It would really not surprise me if some of these children had not actually held real cash.

Are these tests accurately assessing the students' ability to use the skills we're teaching? It doesn't really seem like a valid measure to me if the students have to have a certain cultural perspective to succeed on the test. And the problem doesn't just stop with my ESOL students, it extends to many mainstream students as well, especially those of lower socioeconomic status (SES).

In the school that I currently teach in, we are a Title 1 school with a very high percentage of free and reduced lunch students. These students do not come from families where education is a priority. Many students must take care of younger siblings instead of doing homework because the parents are working in the evening. Many parents do not spend money on books for their children, so the children do not have books to read at home. Their parents cannot take them to the library in the evening because they are working. These students do not have the same opportunities to go out into the world on a regular basis and do things that students of higher SES get to do- even things that we take for granted like going to the grocery store, out to eat, or to see a movie.

These real-world experiences help shape our culture, our schema, and our world view. Understanding a story about baseball, or knowing that pennies have two sides that look different, or each bill we use as currency has a different president on it, are all things that come best from real-world experiences, like playing baseball or buying something- not classroom learning.

So where am I going with this? How can we get valid assessments that test our students' abilities rather than their cultural perspective? How can we bridge the culture and SES gap to help students become successful? As a teacher, it has to start in the classroom. I believe that we need to provide more authentic, real-world opportunities for students to practice the skills they are learning. I know that with all the other demands and paperwork, you're probably thinking "Yeah, let me hop right to adding something ELSE to do to my already long list,".

Real world connections don't have to be big- just relevant or engaging for students. I was one of those kids that always thought, "How am I going to use this in the real world?" Unless we can show students how these skill are valuable, they have no motivation to learn and internalize them. If students are learning about elapsed time, have them write a schedule for their day (or their day in the profession of their choice) following set instructions. If students are learning about money, get some realistic looking money and create an activity that puts the money into context- like Christmas shopping with catalogs and sticking to a budget.

It is easy to get discouraged because we can't stop the testing tide- and in some districts, teachers' salaries and jobs depend heavily on their students' test scores. But, we can change how we do things in our own classrooms to help our students bridge these gaps. Consider having a once or twice monthly lab day where students have the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they've learned to real-world situations. 

Have you noticed a cultural or SES bias in state or district tests? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Using Technology to Increase Student Achievement

I find using technology in my classroom to be a great way to engage my English language learners. Really, the truth is that almost any student is engaged when technology is involved. In my last district, I was lucky enough that the Title III department found technology to be important and provided me with a laptop cart with 15 laptops, a projector, and a document camera.

Now, I don't have the luxury of a class set of laptops, but I do still have the document camera and the projector, which make instruction easier. I also like to try to move beyond those traditional things and allow students the opportunity to use the technology themselves. I want to share with you some of the ways that I have done that (without the aid of a smartboard!).

Glogster is a great educational tool where students can create an interactive "poster" about any topic that they are studying. My fourth graders are working on the water cycle in their science class, so we are working in the computer lab to create our interactive posters. Here's an example of a glog that a past student created:

This can be a great way for students to extend and demonstrate their understanding of any topic in any grade level!!

Wordle and Tagxedo
A great way to make a boring summary activity exciting is by turning it into a word cloud! These word clouds also make great classroom decorations to remind students of the important vocabulary related to the topic they are studying. I often have students individually write a 1 or 2 paragraph summary.  Then, I have them pair up with someone. Each pair types in their summaries, with each student getting a turn to type, and then they create a word cloud. I like tagxedo because it has more choices and shapes, and the kids  have more fun with it. Here's an example of a water cycle word cloud one of my pairs created:

When I did still have a classroom with its own set of laptops, I used Moodle class management system. If you're interested in using it in your classroom, you can get free moodle hosting from www.e-socrates.org The system can take some time to learn, but once you figure it out, it is great. Your students all have their own secure account, and you can set up separate "courses" for each class that you teach. If you want students in different classes who are studying the same subject (ie- you have two classes who are Spanish I) then you can add all the students to the same course. Moodle has forums, where you can pose questions for students to discuss, a have a quiz function where you can quiz students and so much more. For our daily warm-up and journaling, I would put in a prompt, students would type in their answers, and then I could check them and respond from home. Moodle even has a gradebook so that you can keep track of all the grades students receive for Moodle work, and then average that into your other grades. Below is a screen shot of another teacher's Moodle course:

I hope that you can use these ideas to help incorporate technology into your classroom and increase student achievement!!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Strategy of the Week

Strategy of the Week-
Chain of Events

This strategy can be used with both fictional texts and non-fiction texts,  as well as any set of steps or events (like the phases of the moon). Give students a story or article to read.

1.     After reading, have students write down 4-8 important events from the story or article. I suggest you set the number for students based on the article or story.
2.     Give students several strips of construction paper. Have them write their events on the strips of paper, one event per strip. They can also add a picture of the event if they want.
3.     Students should glue or tape the ends of the first strip together to create a loop.
4.     Students should loop the first strip through the second strip and tape the ends. Repeat to create an interlocking chain of events.

To use with fiction texts:

  • Have students identify and sequence the important events in the story
To use with non-fiction texts:
  • Have students identify & sequence important historical events
  • Have students identify & sequence events in a Bigoraphy or an Autobiography
  • Have students identify & sequence steps in a how-to essay or before creating their own how-to essay
My students always enjoy this activity, and it is a nice way to decorate your room with educational work!