Education blogger Jay Mathews of The Washington Post wrote today about one of our Loudoun schools ("Schools miscommunicating with parents"), highlighting two issues constantly challenging schools and families everywhere – testing and homework. That Jay writes about River Bend Middle School is reason enough for checking it out; another is that I see teachers and students struggling with this day in and day out, neither of them very successfully.
Just a couple thoughts I had while reading it—
I'm curious as to the nature of the frequent "quick quizzes" the teachers use to assess achievement. One of the greatest concerns I have about using tests and quizzes to assess learning progress is that they generally don't represent accurate, real life knowledge and skills situations. In other words, is a multiple choice exam (which is by far the most common assessment format) truly representative of a student's understanding of and ability to apply the knowledge and skills obtained in class? I can't think of a vocation or avocation that makes you take a written test to measure your performance (the closest analog to school testing in real life might be civil service exams, and the PRAXIS-type tests we teachers must take, which probably says something about government jobs). Consequently, I never use multiple choice assessments and depend on formative assessments as much as possible.
Formative assessment requires the teacher to observe and assess during the classroom learning activities, as opposed to the commonly used summative testing tools. The formative assessment method allows me to understand better what the learner has mastered over dependence on fill-in-the-blank, matching, and multiple-guess formats. I have noticed this year a sharp increase in the frequency and standardization of department-wide assessments at the high school level – modeled on SOLs – similar to the subject of this article. I don't know if River Bend's teachers are using formative assessment as a key part of their grading, but it is a basic component of the Standards-based Grading River Bend has "embraced." If so, that is wonderful, but formative assessment is not an easy skill for a teacher to master; I hope River Bend has invested significant training and coaching to support it.
I do worry, though, that this may not be the case since recent research appears to show that it is teaching to the standardized test that best guarantees SOL test success over other, more formative assessment friendly activities. You see, River Bend is one of the only two LCPS middle schools that made AYP this year. If Principal Bennett and his staff have figured out how to consistently meet standardized test achievement goals while encompassing non-standardized-test learning activities, then we all need to understand their methods better. Definitely worth looking into.
Homework is the other thing we don't do well. I do not think homework has much value, especially the assignments most high school students do. Teachers are frustrated by very low completion rates (less than 50% in one teacher's class I visited today) and copying. The River Bend teachers' explanation for why they gave so little homework was that "students would not do it because it didn’t count on their report cards." My take on what I see in high school is similar: students don't perceive much value in their homework assignments so they don't see much reason for doing it; if they are interested in the "completion" grade, they go to the trouble of at least copying answers from one of the few who did the assignment in the first five minutes of class (that the assignment can be copied in that brief time says something about the teacher's homework expectations).
Homework is a very thorny, controversial issue, and I do not have the answer to it. I will not, however, assign homework just for "practice" and "building responsibility." For any of us who take work home with us, consider its nature; is it just rote work meant to make us a more responsible employee or are we doing it because it is needed the next day at work? I think kids are savvy enough to appreciate this point as well. I do understand, however, the loss of opportunity for engagement homework provides to the parent and child, and this is a valid concern in the River Bend situation; this is something I would consider seriously for the elementary and middle schools when formulating homework philosophy (maybe not so much for high school).
Just some thoughts.