Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Overcoming the Obstacles to STEM Learning in an Urban School


Christopher Emdin identifies five reasons why kids won't be scientists in his revealing entry for the Huffington Post. Even more convicting is his straightforward indictment of most science (and math) classrooms:

"...much research in urban science education has proven that youth are more disengaged than ever in STEM-focused classes. Students are bored, don't find the topics being discussed as engaging, and opt for majors and interests in other disciplines. For those who are engaged in science classes, and are doing well in them, the nature of the instruction and the assessments often reflect more of an ability to memorize facts and sit attentively than truly actually engage in science. For these students, when they are faced with "true science" further along in their academic careers, they are underprepared for the creativity, analytical skills, and curiosity necessary to truly engage and be successful."

Student engagement, connection with the curriculum goals, contribution to the class, and ownership of the learning are precisely what our classroom observations have focused on this fall and nowhere is that more critical than in the STEM courses from the earliest grades to graduation. Urban students have a right to an education that will lead them through pathways to exciting, challenging careers in the sciences, engineering, technology and math, just as much as our more affluent neighbors.

During a discussion earlier this week, we talked about how just the traditional system of grading sends a message, "You suck at science (or math)!" Too often, students come to each new STEM class with some reluctance but anticipating that perhaps this will be a better experience and the worst is behind me. It starts out "good" but maybe with a little apprehension. Then two weeks into the class, the first graded quiz or test sends the message once again, "You still suck at __________!" From then on, its purely survival and do what I need to do to pass this class and move on. Retaking tests and staying after school everyday just to scrimp enough points to pass the class will not instill a desire to be a scientist.

What we've seen this fall in our secondary science classrooms at Lee Middle & High School is a great start and we want to continue building on the quality teaching and learning experiences that stimulate student interest. In the end, if students elect not to pursue STEM in higher education or their careers, let it be based on their decision not something we've done to them.

Here's a quick list of Emdin's five reasons and I encourage you to read his explanation of each:

1) We have instilled the phrase "I'm not good at math or science" into a new generation.

2) Science is taught in a way that is opposite to what it truly is.

3) Science has lost the "cool factor" and kids have no "science heroes."

4) We don't focus on current issues in the discipline.

5) Good grades in science will not make you a scientist.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When testing only ACTs like it's measuring student achievement


During last week's AuthorSpeak 2011 sponsored by Solution Tree, one of the lunch panel sessions included Dr. Thomas Guskey, renowned guru on educational assessment. I've attended sessions in the past that featured Dr. Guskey but I guess I never really heard him make a case against using the ACT (and SAT) in NCLB-forced high school assessments. As he claims, the assessments used by states such as Michigan are designed to measure academic achievement against state-adopted curriculum standards, however, the ACT and other tests like it are intended solely to compare and select potential college applicants. These two purposes are at odds with each other according to Dr. Guskey.

In the current issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership, Dr. Guskey summarizes his main objection to using college entrance exams as academic achievement measures:

Assessments used for selection purposes, such as college entrance examinations like the ACT and SAT, are designed to be instructionally insensitive (Popham, 2007). That is, if a particular concept is taught well and, as a result, most students answer an assessment item related to that concept correctly, it no longer discriminates among students and is therefore eliminated from the assessment. These type of assessments maximize differences among students, thus facilitating the selection process.

Guskey, Thomas R. Five Obstacles to Grading Reform, Educational Leadership. ASCD Nov 2011 pp. 17-21 

Naturally, I was more than curious to learn what else Dr. Guskey might have to say about college entrance exams as the basis for state testing. In a web search, I came across an interview for the Lexington Herald-Leader presented on March 16, 2008:

...College entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT help colleges and universities decide whom to admit [but they] do not reflect any particular level of knowledge... rather where each student ranks in relation to others. Ranking makes the selection process easier.

Problems arise when a test designed for one purpose is used for another. ... tests like the ACT and SAT are labeled "instructionally insensitive." If instruction helps most students answer a question correctly, then that question is removed from the test, for it no longer serves its purpose. Even if the question asks about a vitally important concept, it no longer differentiates students and is eliminated.

This is why scores on selection tests are more strongly related to social and economic factors than are scores on competence tests. Aspects other than those influenced by instruction often account for the differences among students. It is also why it makes little sense to use a selection test like the ACT or SAT as a measure of the quality of instructional programs. Doing so would be analogous to using a ruler to measure a person's weight.

Having all students take a selection test such as the ACT or SAT may help some realize that they rank high enough to get into a college or university. That would be a good thing, especially for non-traditional students and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But to use the results of an "instructionally insensitive" selection test to assess the quality of instructional programs is educational sacrilege. No testing expert would agree to it -- and neither should any legislator or policy-maker.

So I guess my question is rather obvious: Given the argument presented by one of America's most noted researchers on educational assessments, why have states such as Michigan simply ignored the fact that using the ACT as a significant factor in ranking schools and students in academic achievement is akin to assessment malpractice?

Or does it even matter what makes sense when political agendas take over the reins of public education?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Do We Need Traditional Local Media Anymore?


This post is only intended to generate reflection and critical analysis. 

Just a half dozen years ago, our local print media (The Grand Rapids Press) contained a wealth of local news with a complete section each week dedicated to regional areas. This weekly pullout was always loaded with school news, most of it positive. The Press made a business decision to eliminate the community news section and also to reduce its daily number of pages to basically advertising, distilled national and international news, and few sprinkling of articles covering local news. As you might suspect, the reduction in local news reporting (most of the beat and contract reporters were let go) led to an era of devoting most space to controversial issues in schools and local government. At that point, I cancelled my 30+ year-old subscription and went to relying on the internet for news.

I'm back as a paid subscriber due to the e-edition of The Grand Rapids Press, but I don't really know why except perhaps for the novelty of it. Had I not purchased an iPad, I probably wouldn't have bought the subscription. I can read through the daily edition in about ten minutes because that's the extent of anything really newsworthy that I haven't already read online from free resources. Sunday's edition takes a little longer because I have to wade through the endless advertisements and pullout sections.

The Grand Rapids Press just announced it will be reducing its print editions to three days per week and beefing up its online presence. My question is why even bother printing at all? Will it mean that the Press will return to the days of reporting more on local news and expanding its reach through positive school and local community reporting? Not likely. That kind of reporting requires, well, reporters and the Press has pretty much laid them off or forced them into retirement. There is no reporting. I see or hear from our school district beat reporter about once every two months, unless a controversial issue rears its ugly head. I even link to him through social media but he's stretched so thin, there's no reasonable way to expect that he can cover it all. There is no reporting.

In this era of free or cheap, readily-available online blogging and social media, do we really need one or two corporations controlling our news coverage anymore? The Press argues its in the business of providing expanded coverage of what might be incomplete reporting by TV and radio outlets or online sources. I doubt that's accurate since many of the national and international articles I read in the Press are vastly reduced from the original source, which I already read online anyway.

Perhaps its time for school districts to band together to provide their own media outlet and online news service since most of our parents, students and communities have access in some manner to online or email-delivered news. Maybe local communities can do the same so that we can once again report on what's really happening in our local areas in a more balance approach instead of only the sensational stuff. There is no valid reason anymore to continue paying money to a single organization for the "privilege" of having select, edited, delayed content sent our way. Once we open up our thinking to multiple media outlets - local, state, national and international - we'll no longer be subject solely to what the editors want us to know. We can think for ourselves in a much more balanced way.