Trusting Test Scores

The results of the 2012-13 MCA’s were released today to much fanfare – -and excuses.

The passing scores dropped significantly. One source said that reading proficiency of white students went from 82% last year to 65% this year.

The excuses? That these are “harder” tests based on the Common Core standards.

“These are two completely different tests, kids are asked to do completely different types of tasks on this test, but it’s a much more challenging and difficult test.”

– Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota Education Commissioner

Basically, that means the definition of “proficiency in reading” changed from last year to this year. How is that fair to kids? Some kids will take a look at these scores and be really distressed. Other kids will seem indifferent — but do you really think they are? How could this possibly make kids want to work harder? The kids who are used to scoring in the top percentiles may or may not be impacted, but you can be sure that a kid who was always “Proficient” before and now isn’t is going to feel this and be demoralized.

It just confirms to me that these tests are ridiculous and a waste of time. Please, spend more time teaching my kids instead of testing them.

More Thoughts about Multiple Choice

After my rant about multiple choice tests, I’ve noticed a number of other blog posts about multiple choice tests.

  • “In Defense of Multiple Choice Tests” by Natalie Barlett on Edudemic talks about the need to make choices in all aspects of our lives. She addresses a study that shows that multiple choice is a good tool to help students remember new and old info. She outlines a number of ways that well written multiple choice questions can be used in classrooms. 

    I don’t disagree with this — what I don’t like about the current multiple choice assessments is that there is so much weight put on these assessments, and that they are almost the sole measure of a student’s learning.

  • In “The Real Problem with Multiple Choice Questions” by Terry Heick on TeachThought, the issue is that they create the illusion of right v. wrong. In a world changing at a rapid pace, Heick sees this as the true problem with these questions.

…when a multiple-choice question is given to a student in hopes of measuring how well he or she understands something, it manufacturers the illusion of right and wrong, a binary condition that ignores the endlessly fluid nature of information.



Just a link to this great blog post about maps that has been circulating on Facebook for the last few days: 40 Maps that will Help you Make Sense of the World

I particularly like this quote acknowledging visual learners:

If you’re a visual learner like myself, then you know maps, charts and infographics can really help bring data and information to life. Maps can make a point resonate with readers and this collection aims to do just that.


I read a fascinating discussion about standardized tests in an unexpected place — the Costco Connection. They asked the question, “Are Standardized Tests a Fair Measure of Student Achievement?”  (This issue also includes an article about Sal Khan and Khan Academy.)

Article from the August 2013 edition of Costco Connects

Article from the August 2013 edition of Costco Connection

The “expert” argument against the question was by a teacher and author, Karen Zittleman. I was particularly drawn to her argument that the pressure and reliance on the tests is unwarranted and is actually damaging.

She quotes Alfie Kohn, suggesting that parents question the level of standardized test by asking,

“What did you have to sacrifice about my child’s education to raise those scores?”

This is a perfect question. After hearing about three weeks being spent on test prep, computer labs restricted to testing and more, guess what I’ll be asking this year!!

Will Smartphones replace our Memory?

After my post about Google and multiple choice tests, I was pointed to this article by David Pogue in the Scientific American Magazine, “Smartphones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts.”

I’ve been challenged on the thought that I’ve said that kids don’t need to memorize facts. (I never actually said that — just said that memorizing facts shouldn’t be how we base assessment.) I do love this quote from Pogue,

As society marches ever forward, we leave obsolete skills in our wake. That’s just part of progress. Why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?

He also talks about the rise of calculators in math classrooms. I remember that paradigm shift distinctly. In junior high and high school, we were absolutely NOT allowed to have calculators. My dad had an early calculator (I believe it was a Texas Instruments and cost about $75) that I thought was awesome, so I’d use it at home — but never ever would’ve brought it to school. A couple of years ago, I had to buy my daughter a $100 graphing calculator. They never go to math class without it after about 7th grade. I will NOT be buying one for my son – he can get a $1.99 app for his iPad that does more than the $100 calculator.

Memorizing? Yes, we do need to have some basic facts in our brains. No argument. But should all our assessment be based on this? Should kids be taught to analyze and find facts, rather than recall? Can you learn facts (relevant facts) better by solving problems and creating projects than random, out-of-context multiple choice tests? You can answer for yourself.

Vacation Learning

We’re recently back from a 10-day, 2000 mile road trip. Officially, it was a vacation, including visiting with family, picking up my daughter from camp and staying with friends. We had a lovely, relaxing time – even if the weather wasn’t always fully cooperative!

As I think about all we did over the 10 days, there was a tremendous amount of learning along with the fun. And guess what — the learning was FUN!

  • Geography We drove from Minnesota to Michigan and back, taking different routes there and back. We had the 13-year old do some of the navigating. He kept the maps (yes, real paper, fold-out maps) in the back with him and kept an eye on where we were going and what we were passing. He also used our iPhones to help find routes and restaurants. One afternoon, we saw three Great Lakes within a couple of hours.
  • History Since I am a historian, I talked about what I knew about the history of the areas we drove through. (I just can’t help it.) Not that I knew specifics about the area, but I knew general concepts about the fur trade, the reservation system, etc. We visited a couple of local museums that certainly helped put the details in the right place.
  • Science SandcastleWe walked through sand dunes, forests and beaches,looking at trees, rocks and critters. The weather was a significant factor in our adventures, meaning the kids had to be observant and think ahead. We built sand castles, exploring the powers of sand, water and gravity.
  • Art I learned long ago to bring a camera on hikes and activities. It can often engage a reluctant teen. Fortunately, I didn’t have a reluctant teen, but the camera was put to good use throughout the trip. We also built cairns of rocks, made sand castles and drew pictures with sticks on the beach.
  • Language Arts With hours in the car, we listened to two different books. One book had themes that were similar to another book, so we spent time discussing the similarities and differences, and the motivations of the authors. I wish I had gotten the kids to blog about the trip, but alas, that didn’t happen.
  • Music Music happens anywhere my kids go, and this trip was no exception. I had asked my 13-year old to make some good playlists for the drive, and we discussed why he had picked certain songs. My daughter was returning from a musical theater camp, so we discussed things learned.
  • Phy Ed Lots of hiking, swimming, and games!

Certainly not all our learning fell into these neat subject categories! You can’t learn about the geography of the Great Lakes without learning about history and science. Sand castles are as much art as science, as well as phy ed.

Exhibit label at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Exhibit label at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

We took a special trip to learn about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. We saw objects, videos, photos. We were on the edge of the U.S., close enough to see Canada. We spent time in the car tracking the Arthur M. Anderson, the last ship to see the Edmund Fitzgerald. It just happened to pass the museum while we were out watching. It also happened to get into port in Superior shortly before we got there. (Freaky!) We tracked the ship’s path, learned about knots and UTC (shipping time.)

What else? Lots of free exploring and inter-generational experiences. The kids were creative. They got “bored” and had to find something to do. They were active, cooperative and collaborative.

While I won’t tell the kids, it seems to me that this vacation was as much about learning as it was about relaxing and having a great time. What a great way to learn!

If they can Google it, why do they need you?

I was so excited to see this post from HistoryTech. First, it is interesting to read about his state’s new social studies standards, as we have also just gone through the implementation of new standards.

Second, I am absolutely thrilled to read about the “un-Googleable” questions! Selfishly, it’s wonderful to have another voice in this conversation. As a parent, this helps me back up my requests. As a content developer, this gives me strength to write these types of questions into the content we deliver. Thank you, Glenn!

History Tech

I’ve spent the last couple of months working with teachers as they unpack the new Kansas state history / government standards. And I’m still loving it. What better way to spend a summer than hanging out with other history geeks, discussing and, yes . . . sometimes, arguing about history stuff.

I will admit, I may not be enjoying it so much two months from now but today? Yup, it’s still a good time.

Much of the discussion and arguing as been about the balance between content and process. If you’ve followed the epic tale of how the new standards were created, you are well aware that the document encourages the importance of the historical thinking process. The old standards paid lip service to the idea of process –

compares contrasting descriptions of the same event in United States history to understand how people differ in their interpretations of historical…

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