A comment from Steve Shann on my last post:

I strongly agree with what you say about the link between real learning and standards. And scores too? Would that depend on whether the scores were really linked to the standards? Is there any research about this that you know about? (I’ve just come from a teacher meeting that was all about scores and not at all about learning and standards. Ugh.) Can you say some more about “Perhaps it’s when we emphasize “stuff” of any kind over process and skills, we end up burning out and losing kids along the way.”

Sometimes, it’s easy to abandon the quest for authentic, passion-driven learning when we view standards, curricula, instructional strategies, and assessment as “stuff” that we need to fit in rather than tools that are there to support us in that quest.

I have always been an advocate for constructivist approaches to learning. As a young teacher, I refined my use of reading and writing workshop over time, fell in love with differentiation instruction because it worked for my kids, thrived within a true coteaching relationship, and completed action research that guided my work with at-risk readers. I gained expertise in the use of cooperative learning and my understanding of the relationship between attending to learning styles and individual student performance served my students well. As time moved on, opportunities increased. I was invited to attend more training relevant to instructional strategies. We began curriculum mapping. We learned about reading and writing across the curriculum. We integrated units of instruction. And then there were standards. And then there were tests. And then there were scores. And then everything began to change a little.

Over a decade ago, when my own state began testing, I began scaling back my performance-based assessments. Writing workshop happened two days a week instead of three, and reading workshop happened on fridays. I assumed that this was what my administrators expected from me because I assumed they thought that scores were everything. Perhaps they did and perhaps they were, but I don’t think so. In retrospect, I know that everyone was doing the best job that they could with the information and skill set that they had, and the fact remains that educators receive little training in the realm of curriculum design, assessment practices, or data analysis even though they are expected to make expert decisions in each of these domains on a daily basis.

As I began stripping some of the more authentic and engaging learning experiences out of my curricula to make room for all of the other “stuff” that I thought I needed to “cover”, I realized that there was no compensation for what was lost in the way of improved scores. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this approach wasn’t serving anyone well, and I began teaching and assessing differently as a result.

State assessments are a yearly read of how well kids perform against a standard. They are one measure of performance, but they are not the only measure, and I’m thinking our state education departments never intended them to be. Sometimes, I find this data is valued more than it should be simply because it is the only data that schools and teachers are capturing and responding to. Right now, our region is in the midst of defining what formative assessment processes should look like and what kind of data they can produce. I support the definition articulated in this document, which was shared at the December meeting of our regional Staff and Curriculum Development Network. It’s a bit different than what some schools are doing locally, and that’s a good thing. In my own limited experience with this approach, it works. Teachers are feeling increasingly valued, informed and energized and kids are feeling increasingly confident as learners. I’m not the only one who believes that this is what good assessment can accomplish.

When teachers consider the findings from longitudinal state assessment data as indications of where students might struggle, they can go about the process of learning more about through formative assessment, as it is defined in the document above. In this way, standards are not simply checklists that summarize what needs to be covered. They provide direction that can help teachers come to know much more about their students. All standards are not equal in my experience, and scores don’t necessarily improve when we remove authentic and passion-driven learning opportunities from the classroom.

It isn’t a matter of doing “more stuff” so we can cover all of our bases and claim that “we’re doing that” when administrators, colleagues, or parents ask about our use of the standards, our response to scores, or our inclusion of supposed best practices and engaging tools. It’s about helping our students define the passions that are unique to them, uncovering where they struggle as learners, and allowing their interests and the right practices and tools to meet their needs. The right practices and tools are selected with informed intention. We can’t do it all, and when we do, I think we not only lose sight of who we are as educators, we lose our kids along the way as well.


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