Benchmark Madness

September 19, 2008

Today there were no students attending DPS schools.  It was a day set aside for teachers to score the Benchmark tests and (in the extra time, of course) to do other kinds of assessments.  I invested about 10 evening hours this past week scoring the Benchmark tests of my students so that I could use this day to administer the DRA reading assessment that had been mandated for all students who were not “proficient” on the CSAP tests last spring and/or those who did not test in the proficient zone on the Benchmark tests administered last week.  The only way to know who the latter students were was to score the Reading tests, which I did right away when I saw this studentless day as an opportunity to give the DRAs without interrupting normal instructional time in my classroom.

Yesterday at the end of the day, however, I received a memo saying that there would be a faculty meeting until mid-morning and then there would be “group scoring” until noon.  So, at 7:30 am I telephoned the families of the 15 students I had written a letter to inviting them to come take the DRA with me sometime during the day, and I left messages revising that request and explaining that I would not be available until noon.  (I thought that up, the telephoning, at 4:30 am.)

The topics of the morning’s faculty meeting were three:
First, the principal emphasized that we must, as a faculty, make a concerted effort to raise our test scores so that we can rank as a “distinguished” school in the district.  (A list of ten “distinguished” schools were announced just last week, with Denison in the next category of schools that “meet expectations,” but are not “distinguished.”)
In particular, our math scores are not improving; and we have not narrowed the gap between higher and lower achievers, many of whom are free and reduced lunch children.
Second, we watched a video production about the Shift in the world—about the high achievers in the most populous countries in the world that outnumber all of the US student population, about losing our competitive edge in cross-national rankings, about technological training for unknown futures, about the amazing information and technology explosion that will soon make a college freshman’s education obsolete by the time he is a senior.
That presentation ended with a quote from Dr. Montessori’s book To Educate the Human Potential.  The passage exhorts educators to give the elementary child “the whole of culture,” not to destroy this child’s keen interest in knowing the reasons for things with details to memorize, but rather broadcasting the maximum number of seeds in the child’s fertile imagination and thereby offering a vision of the amazing universe and each person’s role in its unfolding drama.
The third part of the meeting was an explanation of how teams of faculty members would score the writing samples of all the students in grades 3-6 who took the Writing section of the Benchmark Assessments.
It was difficult for me to integrate these three sections of the meeting.  It felt as though the two sides of my brain were refusing to work together, and I made a brief statement to that effect.  As a result, I was invited to share my concerns in a 15-minute meeting with the Principal and  other personnel who organize the school’s assessments program.  What follows is an attempt to prepare for “my 15 minutes.”

The Benchmark Tests, beginning with the Scoring of those tests instead of Teaching for a Day:

The only possible merit of the Benchmark tests—the time kids spend taking them and the time teachers spend scoring them—is the acquisition of data that informs the teacher about his students’ academic strengths and needs.

I am not convinced that this benefit justifies all that time nor the ways the tests compromise the internal processing and confidence of students.

That said and hopefully held tightly in the mind, here are several suggestions for ways to take advantage of Benchmark data:

First, give teachers real time to score and/or analyze the responses of their own students.  Having random faculty groups score writing tests is not a good idea. Teachers can learn important things about their students—not just their skills, but their personal strengths and struggles by reading essays they write under these conditions.  Example: Stella’s essay about being frightened by the boys shenanigans during line-up in the hallway, which convinces me that my class can no longer be allowed to go out into the hall for dismissal until I am there.  OR the several fourth grader’ essays about their nervousness on the first day of school—food for thought when planning for the next “first day of school.”

I read Stella’s essay by accident as I was recording the scores other teachers had given my students’ writing samples, and then I had this terrible sinking feeling about what I was missing.  However, I was on a deadline for recording scores, so I continued my scoring assignment for the day and then bundled up all the essays for reading later at home. If I had read them in the first place and scored them, this time would have been better spent.

But, you may argue, what if teachers “inflate” their students’ scores?  What if they do?  This is only a reasonable possibility if teachers were scoring a Benchmark test at the end of an instructional year where the child’s scores might be construed as an indication of the teacher’s success.  Particularly if that success were to be tied to a monetary bonus of some kind.  This leads us down the path of issues related to “Pay for Performance” and the integrity of teachers in general, a place we don’t want to go in this argument.  However, even given that possibility, it is unlikely to outweigh the benefits of most teachers learning more about their students by reading and scoring their own students’ tests.

Second, immediate feedback on students’ test performance might assist a teacher in planning appropriate instruction.  When I returned on Monday with lessons about the math problems that had challenged students the most on the Benchmark math tests they took on Friday, they were keen to dissect the problems and think about the solutions.  It took me about 6 hours over the weekend to do an item analysis for each grade level together with a scatter plot of individuals’ errors by item.  To me this suggests either providing more time immediately after the tests for teachers to analyze the data or a better, faster data analysis at the school or district level that doesn’t just yield a score, but gives teachers item and/or categorical feedback.  Example: Questions 2, 6, 8, and 12 on the 4th grade test measure student knowledge of fractions.  Composite median score for 4th graders in Room 203: 1.5 rate of success on those four items.  That tells me that I should be teaching the fourth graders about fractions.

Presently the Teacher’s Manual for each Benchmark Test lists all of the Standards that are measured to some degree by each item.  The excessive language that describes each Standard makes it almost impossible to create useful categories when an individual teacher tries to collect items for the purpose of informing instruction.  However, if time and money is going to be spent by the institutions who sponsor the creation of these tests and believe that the results are useful, this might be a useful place to spend the next million dollars.  Until that happens, giving teachers time to score their students’ tests and time to make sense of the results to inform their teaching seems an important step that our school could take.

What seems of utmost importance to me is that we remember how narrow and limited these measurements are that we get from the Benchmark tests are.  Maybe there is less harm than I think in testing students repeatedly on concepts that are still developing in the internal processes of their minds.  Maybe it’s only a small percentage whose confidence drops precipitously.  Maybe the damage is less that I think.

Nevertheless, it seems important that we remember how far short these tests fall of measuring the target outcomes of our Montessori program—the planting of the seeds of culture, the development of cosmic awareness, the students’ vision of themselves as potential creators of their own destiny and peacemakers for the world.  These tests are, at the very least, a dangerous distraction from those goals.

WE MUST DO SOME HIGHER LEVEL THINKING.  We MUST remember that the Shift in the way the world works, this J-curve of information and technology that is swooping upwards on every front, will carry our students into a future we cannot imagine; and the ONLY way to get them ready for it is to do what we, as Montessori educators, know how to do: give students the BIG picture by telling the Great Stories, help students develop a VISION of a peaceful world by creating peaceful communities, foster the ability to THINK; and by doing these things,  create an insatiable desire to be part of the SOLUTION instead of the PROBLEMS that our students will face in their future.

We HAVE TO remember that walking barefoot in the garden is closer to a true educational experience for the future than memorizing the multiplication tables—TRULY.  AND WE HAVE TO remember that Good Questions have Many Answers, not just one.  In that regard, the Benchmark Tests are actually quite small in the big picture!

In our Montessori philosophy of schooling, the goal is to educate the human potential of every child.  At Denison, how can we do that?  How will anyone know there is another way if we adopt good test scores as our goal instead?   What kind of school will we be?   Where must we draw the line and say, “Here we are doing something different?”   How can we hold fast to that which we know is right and true? Can we be a beacon of common sense and sensibility that shows the way towards higher goals that truly serve children’s needs?  Why waste all of our training and energy and shared inspiration to succeed on someone else’s standards?  On coaching children to score well on a math test that is based directly on the the Everyday Math curriculum instead of what we teach?
Are we just simply afraid that we will lose our jobs?  Our accreditation?  If so, we need to examine our fears and find out whether they are justified?  Doubtless there is some risk involved, but aren’t there risks worth taking?  Can we start having a conversation about the real consequences of being true to the philosophical premises of Montessori education and its practice?  Can we think critically about the costs associated with Benchmark tests?  Can we have it both ways?

I don’t think so.  I think we might have to be just an average school that “meets expectations” with an extraordinary kind of education.

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