Thursday, January 29, 2009

Regents Week Ruminations

It's Regents week and I've got a couple of things on my mind.

A couple of years ago, my school changed its policy on how to handle Session One of the English Regents exam. For those of you not familiar with the exam, I won't go over the whole thing here, but Session One starts with a listening passage which is the basis for the first task (Part A). Part B consists of a nonfiction article and infographic which are provided in the test booklet. What we did in the past, here and at all of my former schools, was instruct the students at the beginning of the exam to start working on Part B, then we would interrupt the exam about 45 minutes in to do the listening section. The purpose of this was to accommodate students who came in late, so they wouldn't miss the speech.

Two years ago, I convinced my then-AP to change this policy. For one thing, this created a great deal of confusion on the part of the test-takers, who not only would write their Part B essays in the space designated for Part A, but would get interrupted in the middle of their work on Part B, shift their focus to Part A, then have difficulty getting back to Part B whether they did it right away, saving Part A for later, or waited until after finishing Part A to get back to Part B. If this sounds confusing, it is. What is supposed to be a two-part test becomes, logistically, a three-part test. In some cases, students would blend together the material in parts A and B and put parts of each in both essays, write a single essay incorporating both sets of information, neglect to write one of the essays, or produce some other result different from what the test intends.

In addition, the "DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHERS" that come attached to every Regents exam clearly intend that the listening passage be done first. The text of and procedure for the speech are incorporated into the starting instructions.

It never made sense to me that, in order to accommodate the few irresponsible kids who could not be bothered to show up on time for an exam they must pass to graduate, we should not only alter the state-prescribed procedure for administering the exam, but in doing so make things significantly more complicated for everyone else. It took some doing, but I managed to convince my supervisor that the problems outweighed the benefits, particularly when the only real "benefit" is to reward negligence.

Of course, my preference would have been that if a student missed the speech, he missed the speech and would therefore be unable to write the essay, probably fail the exam, and have to re-take it six months hence. As I've pointed out repeatedly, it never seems to occur to anyone that if we continue to bend over backwards to accommodate kids who either refuse or neglect to do the right thing, they will continue to do the wrong thing and have no incentive to learn, change their behavior, or get their overall act together. There is, and should always be, a price to be paid for negligence. The dangers of sending kids who are accustomed to being accommodated out into a very un-accommodating world are real, are serious, and are lost on many educators and parents.

As a compromise, my supervisor and I came up with an idea to have a separate room for latecomers, where the listening section would be done later in the same fashion we used to employ for everyone. We have done that, and so far we've had few problems. This would obviously be more problemmatic in a larger school giving hundreds of exams at once, like the first high school where I taught from 1997-2001 (3300 students, in a building built for 2500). But even then, once the doors close and the exam begins, no one should be allowed into the exam room.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Testing, 1 - 2 - 3 . . .

I'm sure I've covered this ground before in one way or another, but I was thinking about something today. A lot of people, of all ages, like to complain about what they feel is an inappropriate and excessive emphasis on "testing" as a modus operandi in schools. No one likes the idea of using standardized tests to make consequential decisions about students, and certainly about teachers, and "teaching to the test" is one of the worst things a teacher or school could be doing. "Teaching to the test" could not possibly result in actual learning.

I think the value of standardized testing in general, and the New York English Regents exam in particular, is a topic for another day; I'm not talking about standardized testing. I'm talking about something more fundamental: the emphasis on testing to determine students' academic course grades.

I know I've discussed performance-based assessments before, so anyone reading this blog will know that I don't even use traditional testing to determine my students' grades. But for some reason it occurred to me today just how much opposition I've gotten over the years from supervisors and from other teachers, as well as kids, to the idea that students should have to actually produce work product, let alone that they should be required to do so on an everyday basis and be evaluated and graded just as much, if not more, on that everyday work than on some sort of cumulative "test."

Throughout my teaching career, I have based a significant portion of my students' grades on their everyday work. In one form or another, I have required students to write in a notebook every day, whether in class, at home, or both, and submit those notebooks periodically to be graded based on a performance rubric. The notebook is worth 40% of the grade; a student cannot pass the class without it.

Of course, high school students in most places are not accustomed to doing everyday work. They are only worried about passing the test at the end of the unit, and don't really bother to do the everyday work (classwork or homework) in the meantime, because they figure they can probably do the former without doing the latter and the former is the only thing that "really matters," and what's more, they usually turn out to be right. Even I managed to get by in school without doing the everyday work, for the same reason, even though I probably could have been a straight-A student if I had actually done the everyday work.

In fact, the only subject I consistently aced in secondary school was French, in 6th through 8th grades. My French teacher, Mrs. Dutacq-Benson, gave a graded written test/quiz/assignment in class every single day. Monday, vocabulary French-to-English; Tuesday, vocabulary English-to-French; Wednesday, dictation; Friday, sentence test (there was no French class on Thursdays). The next week, same thing. The cycle repeated itself as we worked our way through the textbook. The only homework was to prepare for these activities. There were no mid-terms or final exams to cram for, no papers or other long-term assignments, just everyday work. I never got such consistently high grades in any class in any subject on any secondary grade level.

While it is true that college and graduate school grades are based on one or two major assessments (mid-terms, final exams, papers), I really believe that high school kids should have their grades based primarily on everyday work. Testing has always been the easiest method of assessing accumulated knowledge and skills, but one cannot truly acquire knowledge and skills by cramming for a test the night before and then forgetting everything the next day. Neither can one acquire the study habits one needs for success in college, graduate school or professional (e.g., law and medical) school without becoming accustomed to doing everyday work, and engaging with large-scale tasks in small, incremental steps. In high school, kids are still very much learning how to learn. The end result is, I think, less important than one's engagement with the process.

I like to think of the school year like the baseball season; 162 games, each one as important as any other, and while even the best teams lose 1/3 of their games they approach each game as if they can and must win it. While one loss may not seem like a big deal at the time, in the scheme of the whole season, any single loss in April as well as September can be the difference between making the playoffs and not (just ask a Mets fan...) Very few people, kids or adults, think of a high school class as a course, in the truest sense of the word. One of the reasons kids don't learn is because they don't approach each and every assignment as if their grades depend on it. They view the everyday work as a nuisance, as just a means to an end (the end being the test), even, in some cases, as optional. They know that they can pass the test, and by extension the class, without doing the everyday work.

This is one reason why I don't give homework. As I've pointed out previously, I've always had about 1/3 of every class fail, sometimes more, rarely less, in part because I require kids to actually produce the everyday work and submit it for a grade, I set up the grading formula so that they can't pass without doing it, and about 1/3 of any random group of kids of any background in any place simply won't do the everyday work. Since I stopped giving homework, the failure percentage has declined.

The problem with homework is that it is essentially a Catch-22: If we make the homework so important, i.e., such a large percentage of the grade that the kids will fail if they don't do it, at least 1/3 of every class will fail. If we make it less important, i.e., a smaller percentage of the grade, then kids know they can pass the class without doing it and therefore won't bother to do it. Neither outcome is particularly desirable, and the possibility of failure has proven time and time again to be an inadequate motivator for students, especially when they know that the teacher, not they, will be blamed if they fail. In addition, very few teachers truly and properly scrutinize and assess each and every homework assignment, because not only do they not have the time but they don't consider it worth the effort.

Homework is therefore self-defeating; it either leads to widespread failure or becomes so insignificant to the final course grade that it can't be all that valuable to begin with as a learning tool. It only works for the kids who "get it;" the ones who truly want to learn and are already inclined to dedicate themselves to their studies. Yet we continue to give homework because for one thing, like so many other secondary-school conventions, we've always done it and long ago stopped asking why, and also because we like to give kids the benefit of the doubt, which as the two or three people who read this blog know, I don't think we should ever do. I think it is foolish and dangerous to assume that teenagers will be naturally inclined to do the right thing most of the time, especially in this day and age.

I suppose it was my experience on Long Island, and to a lesser degree at the phony, corrupt Queens "Arts" School of Narcissism and Dishonesty, that really drove this point home. These were the only places where supervisors openly and explicitly blamed me for the students' not doing their work. On Long Island, I was basically told that if more than one or two kids out of 150 failed, then I was surely doing something wrong. I wondered if it ever occurred to anyone that students have little, if any, incentive to learn or do their work if they know they can't fail. This was where the English chairwoman told me that the kids weren't doing their work because they "didn't get it," meaning I must not have explained it properly, if at all. She seemed mystified by the idea that kids would not "get it" and would not do their work if they knew they didn't have to, i.e., if they knew they would not be blamed, faulted or sanctioned for not doing it, or if they could be relieved of the obligation by simply claiming that they didn't know or understand what they were supposed to do.

It is a tremendous burden for a teacher to be responsible not only for planning and delivering his lessons and assessments, but for the individual decisionmaking processes of 150 teenagers over whom he has little or no direct control. Again, this woman was operating on the assumption that these kids were naturally inclined to do their work unless there was a serious and insurmountable impediment to their doing so. In other words, if a student did not submit an assignment then, res ipsa loquitur, he was unable to do the assignment. But what is a teacher to do when that non-performance becomes a choice? What is a teacher to do once students realize that all they need to do is claim they "don't get it" and they're off the hook?

Whether we give kids the benefit of the doubt or not, it is still unreasonable to assume that anyone will be automatically inclined to do anything if there is no meaningful consequence of not doing it. The fact that some people are so inclined does not change this basic logic. If we want everyone to do the right thing, we have to provide adequate incentives, even for those who don't need them. The only way to require anyone to do anything is to create an undesirable, and inescapable, consequence for not doing it. No teacher wants a significant number of students to fail, but we also don't want to teach kids that it's OK to decide not to do their assigned work. Yet a great many administrators and teachers continue to insist on disincentivizing work, whether by letting kids pass their classes without doing the everyday work, blaming teachers when kids choose not to do it, changing grading formulae to reflect what kids are willing or unwilling to do (as opposed to what they actually do or don't do), or some combination of these.

So much of the law, especially in the civil context, is about incentivizing behavior. We use the law to encourage people to make the right decisions, to act reasonably and allocate their resources efficiently, in order to encourage desirable behaviors and outcomes and discourage those which are harmful to society or to the individual. All this emphasis on "testing" in schools, whether we're talking about standardized tests or academic classes, has a highly undesirable side effect that I've never heard anyone mention: It causes kids to neglect their everyday work to the point where they become unwilling and/or unable to engage in any real learning process, and thus prevents any real learning from occurring.

A lot of teachers probably don't care whether or not kids do their everyday work. That's fine. But I do, and I will not apologize for it. I have five more months, one more semester, left in this profession, and I will continue to insist not only that students do their everyday work, and be evaluated on their performance in doing that everyday work, but also that one of the keys to improving education is to shift the emphasis away from testing, on both the state and school level, and toward an insistence that students take the time and effort to do their work and learn each and every day they are in school.