One of my colleagues, a math teacher, suggested that better measure of math skills than a standardized test could be a long-term project which requires a variety of real-life math skills.
At the very least,students should be able to manage their personal finances.
And as for language arts, what we really want is simple:
–Students should be able to read intelligently.
–and they should be able to write clearly.
Nothing to it, right?
Just ask my husband who teaches music at a small local college. When he asks his students, freshmen and sophomores, to write a simple paper, he is astonished that many of them can’t write a coherent sentence. They can’t frame a good logical sequence of thoughts and (surprise!) many of them plagiarize (copy, paste) with impunity.
How can you really help kids to read well and write well?
How can you help them really understand mathematics, well enough to actually use what they learn?
Well, back to my colleague, Jeff, who says that complex, real-life projects (a la Common Core, hurrah!) will demonstrate whether students actually understand the math.
As for the reading, in my mind, there are a couple of strategies that actually work.
Every day, we sit together in a circle and read aloud. We take turns.
If someone struggles, no problem. We just enjoy the process. And the teacher stops us frequently to explain vocabulary, culture, and background. It’s a social experience. It’s not graded. It’s pleasurable.
The other thing that works is that kids get a chance to read every day. I know that SSR (silent sustained reading) has been a failure in many schools, and I am not quite sure how to make it work in every circumstance. I do know, though, that when students find just the right book, it can open the door.
As for writing, I’ve been teaching kids of all ages to write, for many years. Here’s what always works:
1. Assign topics that are open-ended enough to elicit genuine material from students. Many of the typical assignments (school uniforms blah) create rather bland results. Today, for example, I asked for a personal narrative, stories from your life that have deep and lasting impact on you, about any age in your life. I got some wonderful results.
2. Have the students type the papers and print out a draft in double space.
3. Then you, the teacher, pencil in corrections that they have to input.
4. After you print out clean copy, everybody has to read aloud. For very large classes, you can read aloud in cycles, so we take turns with various assignments.
5. The class gives feedback, but only in a certain way. I say, “Please give one specific example in this paper of something that worked well.” This keeps everybody focused and keeps it positive.
What do all these strategies have in common?
They require superb teachers. It’s so much easier just to give a multiple-choice test. It’s so much easier to say, well, that’s a good teacher: look at his or her test results.
But we are seeing everywhere that the tests results don’t reveal much about what students really know, about what they can do.
Real-life projects and real-time reading and writing do create results. The obvious answer?
Get rid of the tests and get free to do superior teaching.