Thursday, 12 November 2015

Testing Dilemma Part II

SAT – Scholastic Aptitude Test
ACT – American College Test
PARCC – Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers

Remember when the SAT upgraded its 1600 point Math and ELA test to include a new 800 point essay portion?  This was in 2005.  The College Board felt that the bubble-answers did not sufficiently reflect a student’s “aptitude” for college success.  The other two sections were also modified, but it was the essay section that proved to be very expensive to conduct.  This, of course, is because humans had to read and score all these essays.

The SAT will now relaunch next March with the essay component being “optional”.  The new test will be three hours with three parts:  reading, writing and language, and math.  The math portion will include open-ended short answers, but the essay portion (50 min) will be optional and not included in the overall score.  Basically, the SAT will more closely resemble the ACT (developed in 1950 as a rival to SAT).

Both the SAT and ACT are now competing for state-funded contracts to offer these tests to public high school students.  In fact, the College Board has begun offering tests to 8th graders to help them “address weaknesses early”.   A third competitor is PARCC, designed as a for-profit organization to provide K-12 testing in alignment with Common Core.  All three companies are strategizing to offer tests that will help students along the way rather than being simply a college admissions test.

So, the test mania thrives because it is lucrative business, and in some cases appropriate and helpful.  But, I do not believe any of these test methods do justice to measuring how well a student will perform in college or in the work world.  The tests are missing the elements that portray the student as a whole person with creative ideas, possible solutions to world problems, passions and opinions.  Measuring these attributes requires a lot of human effort and resources.

Time Magazine (Oct. 12, 2015) described what Singapore does for its assessments.  “The government-run test for college-bound students requires them to complete a group project over several weeks that is meant to measure their ability to collaborate, apply knowledge, and communicate – all skills both educators and employers say are critical for the future economy.”Max McGee, who runs the Palo Alto school system, suggests that a better assessment would “… look like a portfolio students generate over time that reflects their passion, purpose in life, their sense of wonder, and that demonstrates their resilience and persistence and some intellectual rigor.”

In the meantime, it is important to note that top-ranked colleges are beginning to either eliminate or diminish the focus on SAT or ACT scores.  Harvard, for example, has found that the very high test scorers only do a little better than the lowest scorers.  College officials feel, in general, that it is high school transcripts that can reveal what a student will do.  A major test of 33 colleges found that high school GPA – even at poor schools with easy curriculums – was better at predicting success in college than any standardized test.  What does impress school officials is “rigor” and “curriculum”.  Getting good grades in tough courses in the field of your interest in high school will stand out as much as or more than a high entrance exam score in most colleges.

So, it may be worthwhile to start planning your portfolio and what you would like it to include that best represents who you are, what your interests are and some of the things you can envision for yourself in the future.  It can contain all sorts of things:  pictures, videos, reports, journal entries, volunteer activities, projects (for school or just for fun), ideas, perhaps graded papers or projects that show improvement, awards, honor role, and on and on.  I would also suggest starting this as soon as you want to.  Your parents can help in the beginning.   I will also be glad to offer help or ideas.  It can be fun and a good habit to start now.  You will always benefit from having a solid portfolio in this highly competitive world.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Testing Dilemma

Obama has made a statement that is rattling the test-makers, but undoubtedlygettingsighs of relief from teachers, students and parents who believe that the current testing mania in most schools, is not helping the learning process.  In fact, it may be a hindrance to good teachers who fail to deliver the scores and students who may be learning to take tests rather than important concepts.

Having worked extensively with test development including reliability and validity analysis – first for students at San Jose State, then later with employees at an insurance company – I can state with confidence that all these tests for students have not been validated.  This means that there are no studies that indicate a relationship between higher test scores and whatever criteria they are meant to predict.  Would it be better jobs?  More money?  Better quality of life?  How about college or even high school graduation?

A validity study requires first the definition of criteria.  Let’s say we want a test that will predict high school graduation – simple enough.  We then set up a hypothesis that says something like:  “Students scoring above a certain point on this test will have a significantly higher rate of high school graduation.”  Significant means higher probability than random, and how much higher is pre-established.

When we design such a study, we have to include our method of tracking these students for at least 4 or more years and then identifying them by their previous test scores, once we know if they did or did not graduate.  We may find a very significant relationship, or we may find little or no correlation, meaning the tests did not work for our purposes.  But, this is the ONLY way to validate the tests.

Since students are now taking new tests, there has not been a chance to track them and compare with future data.  With this, I feel it is important to consider these tests as data-gathering instruments and definitely not used as the basis for decision-making regarding student, teacher, school or district performance.  If researchers can have access to these scores and track the students, we may have good validity studies in a few years – and THEN decide how to use them (or discard them).

In the meantime, I feel testing is critical and useful for measuring learning for each student as long as the results are used for feedback to improve the learning program for that student.  We want to see growth and progress.  And, we want the opportunity to step in when it does not occur.  We may also want to compare aggregate scores between classes, schools, districts or countries to see if we can learn better ways of doing things, but the focus should be on improvements in scores, not whether they meet some external benchmark.

At Pinecone, we rely on results of the weekly tests in our booklets, along with homework and class performance.  Does the student need more practice?  An explanation of a particular concept? Or has the student mastered this concept and can comfortably move on.

While we do not have rigorous studies (because we do not have access to future grades and scores), we have plenty of anecdotal data that indicate the effectiveness of our programs in terms of several indicators of success:  higher grades, honor rolls, graduations, post-grad work, and even great careers.  You can check the testimonials on our website.

I would agree with Obama that we need to address the fanatic testing and misapplication of results.  Hopefully, the Smarter Balanced Testing will yield good information to help each teacher provide, and each student receive an enhanced education.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Handwriting Matters!

The Common Core standards call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.

But psychologists and neuroscientists are finding, with the help of advanced technologies such as MRI’s, that the act of writing (rather than typing) stimulates learning centers in the brain that are not affected with typing.

Specifically, MRI’s in children show that when a child draws a letter freehand, they exhibit increased activity in three areas of the brain (that are also activated in adults when they read and write):  the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

By contrast, children who type or trace letters or shapes show no such effect. The activation is significantly weaker.  (A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University)

Findings of recent studies indicate that children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said StanislasDehaene, a psychologist at the Coll├Ęge de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

Dr. James states “When a kid produces a messy letter,that might help him learn it.”

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.

And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

Digital is here to stay and typing skills will be an integral part of communication.  But, pencil and paper have an important place in the education arena whether for children or adults.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Importance of Vocabulary Development

Research shows that reading and writing are interconnected and interdependent, and that a child’s literacy development is dependent upon the integration of both. The Common Core State Standards further emphasize vocabulary knowledge, close reading, and text-based writing as ways to improve students’ reading comprehension and academic achievement.

Vocabulary – an essential component of reading success

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize the importance of vocabulary by making it one of the key components of the English Language Arts standards. A strong correlation exists between vocabulary development and one’s ability to read and write, and the National Reading Panel considers vocabulary one of the five essential skills in teaching children to read.
The problem is, the body cannot readily distinguish between a gorilla and a looming deadline or an upcoming test.  The Firehouse Effect is activated every time for every stress.  All defense measures are a go.

Reading – gaining deeper understanding of the text

The Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts require deep understanding of text, such as referring explicitly to text when answering questions. Rereading is an essential strategy and should be part of every student’s literacy practice. For example, when students begin to think about, learn, and apply the different genres of text and discipline-specific language, they are addressing the English Language Arts standards.

Writing – improves comprehension

Across all content areas, comprehension improves when students write about a text they are reading. Writing support such as graphic organizers, answering questions, and teaching specific text structures help to improve comprehension.

How do you integrate vocabulary, reading, and writing?

Pinecone Active Learning offers integrated reading comprehension, vocabulary development, English grammar, and writing for grades 1-8.

Pinecone Reading Comprehension

The Pinecone Reading program includes an extensive early comprehension series (READY READERS & ROCKET READERS) which are designed to promote reading for meaning. These beginning comprehension booklets provide a variety of exercises while developing new vocabulary.

The program continues with the nonfiction series (DISCOVERY READERS and STORY DETECTIVES) that contain great variety in subject matter and excellent thinking questions. Following the selections are questions that require students to find the main idea, identify sequence, and match vocabulary words to meanings.

Pinecone Vocabulary Development

The vocabulary section for first through fourth graders in our WORD WHIZ Series creates challenging activities to advance and strengthen basic language skills. Working with a list of twelve words and their definitions, the student engages in a variety of exercises, such as crossword puzzles, scrambled sentences, multiple choices, and matching. Sentence writing using these vocabulary words is also included. The WORD WHIZ booklets are interspersed with DISCOVERY READERS, STORY DETECTIVES and the TEST TAKERS Series (see below).

Our more advanced vocabulary series consists of carefully selected words taken from literature, textbooks, and SAT prep books. Each word list gives parts of speech and concise definitions as well as using the word in a sentence. The exercises allow the student to apply understanding of the meaning of the word and test comprehension. Research has shown that a strong vocabulary is essential for strong comprehension.

Pinecone Grammar

Pinecone believes in a direct approach to grammar beginning with first grade work. This early start will help to build a strong grammar foundation. Our program simplifies learning grammar concepts, such as punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, and verb tenses. Good sentence construction and sentence diagramming are also addressed.

Our Reading students are assigned brief daily grammar work in addition to the daily reading assignments. Each GRAMMAR series is roughly equivalent to its corresponding grade level and is comprised of 20 to 30 sequential booklets.

Pinecone Writing

The PINECONE WRITING PROGRAM I presents the basic elements and strategies of writing in a step-by-step sequential manner. Like the Pinecone Math and Reading Programs, the material is presented in manageable pieces, with lots of practice for the student to fully understand each concept. For example, basic sentence structure (subject/predicate) is covered first. Later, Choosing a Topic is preceded by first learning how to identify topics in various paragraphs. Students also learn to identify statements that do not fit in a paragraph.

In addition to topic, the concepts of sequence, characters, feelings, settings, problems, and conclusions are systematically presented and practiced. The refinement stage teaches students how to organize a paragraph, how to use details and how to avoid over-used words. They are asked to think about the five senses in their writing. More tools are presented including the Five W's of who, what, where, when, and why. They are given lots of examples of boring versus interesting sentences and paragraphs. The Synonyms Chart can be helpful here. Also, the Content Checklist will provide a review of concepts learned and serve as a guide for checking what has been written at this point.