A Few Thoughts for Pre-Service Teachers on Standards and Standardized Tests

This week, a colleague invited me to share some brief thoughts about standards and standardized testing with her preservice teachers in a private discussion forum for her class. I composed this quickly, but I hope that it has something to say for those of us who are interested in teaching writing, authentic writing, and substantive and reflective ways.

Hello All,

Prof V. invited me to join in this conversation last week, and I apologize for getting here a bit late. You all certainly hit on a number of the major pros and cons related to standardized testing and I don’t have too much more to say about what you have already covered. I do, however, want to raise two important points about how standardized tests have come to be used and what the implications are for the PARCC and SMARTER Balanced assessments that will be coming out in the near future.

First, it is fairly well documented that standardized tests have little to do with student achievement and much more to with poverty levels, social class, and the ways in which our children are conditioned for school. One outspoken critic of standardized tests, Alfie Kohn, offers a variety of examples of how more privileged and, for the most part, white students perform much better on these tests than their minority counterparts. This allows politicians and corporate education reformers to keep pushing for “higher standards” and “market-based reforms.” Other critics, such as Diane Ravitch, have been able to clearly make the case for how such reforms are thinly veiled attempt to keep the status quo in place. In other words, standardized tests help perpetuate social inequality.

Second, in relation to the new writing standards that are in the common core and the computer adaptive testing that will be a part of PARCC and SMARTER Balanced, you need to understand that these tests are not about writing. Again, in their efforts to find a scientifically based way to judge students’ performance, writing ability will be measured by an elaborate grammar checker, otherwise known as “computerized scoring.” This is big business for both corporations and politicians, and will have detrimental effects on schools and, more importantly, on the students who are trying to learn how to write.

I was on a panel last fall where we talked about a number of issues related to corporate style reform, and I encourage you to check out our wiki to find more resources that can help you better understand the effects of standardized testing and how you might offer alternative types of assessments for your students. In fact, that’s the conversation I would encourage you to have now. What are our other options? How might we use assessment in thoughtful, productive ways to encourage our students to reflect on their work and set higher goals? How can we get out of the debate about standardized testing and move into a conversation about authentic assessment?

Dr. Troy Hicks

Central Michigan University

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What Have We Learned from Digital Learning Day

The tweets have slowed to a trickle.

The webcasts are all archived.

And the proclamations about the power of digital learning are a distant memory in our multi-tasked lives.

Digital Learning Day 2013 is in the books.

The post that follows is, really, in two distinct parts. First, I summarize my cynical vision of what DLDay was designed for as a front for the corporate education machine trying to sell software and computerized assessments.

Then, I summarize just a few of the thoughtful, engaging, and useful ideas from teachers. If you want to skip the sarcasm, then scroll down to “What Really Matters about DLDay.”

What Really Bothers Me about DLDay

Although, it’s important to note that Karen Cator — director of the Office of Educational Technology — would have us believe that “Every day should be Digital Learning Day.” In fact, ““Access to technology has become as important to learning as access to a library, yet teachers remain the critical link between students and the content.” (eSchool News, 2/8/13)


Any chance that teachers will remain the critical link, or — as I have posed before — is there another underlying agenda related to technology and its place in corporate education reform?

I am, at the very least, quite concerned about the implications of Digital Learning Day, because we are now left with Project 24, “an urgent call to action for systemic planning around the effective use of technology and digital learning to achieve the goal of “career and college readiness” for all students.” It’s terrible that no one has thought that technology could change education in powerful ways before, especially our government officials, in recent memory. Another unfunded initiative is bound to help.

And, if the call to action itself isn’t enough, there is now a law introduced to Congress to make sure that this happens. Thank goodness that H.R. 521: Transforming Education Through Technology Act will, among other things allow for:

  • purchasing hardware, software, or computer devices that improve learning
  • creating or upgrading to online assessments
  • improving technology readiness and online assessments

Ugh. I won’t elaborate much more here.

As a side note, how is it that George Miller funded his way into Congress? Mostly with the support of organized labor, including teachers unions whose members will likely have their jobs outsourced to automated curriculum and assessment “solutions.” Thanks for nothing.

All of this, sadly, simply reinforces the idea that corporate education reform is the new norm. Somehow, this is not very reassuring at all, especially knowing that students and teachers are more valuable as data points then they are as people. If this is the only lesson we take away from Digital Learning Day — and it certainly is one of the lessons — then it was a sad day to think about the future of digital learning.

What Really Matters about DLDay

On the other hand, there were truly innovative things that happened with and for teachers and students on DLDay. Teachers and students doing great work together, which we would believe that Karen Cator is all in favor of, right?

I’ve culled through many tweets, colleagues’ blogs, and other links that people have shared to come up with a list of alternatives to the corporate style of ed tech reform that has been proffered in the official news media. I don’t even pretend to believe that this list is complete, and anyone who has others to add to it would help me out a great deal by sharing them. I will keep updating this post as long as I need to.

So, here are a number of posts from and about teachers that demonstrate the true power of digital learning:

I’m sure that there are more out there, as this is what I came up with from scanning my own PLN and some basic searching on Twitter and Google. I wish I had more of these specific, creative ideas, but I need to call it a night. The individualized, creative, and contextual applications of technology in each of these above examples shows me the power and possibility of digital learning, each and every day.

Most of these examples were free, or at least very low cost. Few required massive infrastructure upgrades, integrated assessment systems, or other new software or hardware purchases. We have a great number of tools that we can use for digital writing and digital teaching. We simply need to respect the voices and professionalism of teachers so that they can use technology in these smart ways.

Let’s hope that we can bring more of these teachers — and their students — to the fore in our celebration of next year’s DLDay.

Update: February 9, 2013: Wording change for clarity.

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Open Letter to Educators: (Re)Defining Digital Learning Day

Dear Educator:

Tomorrow (well, technically today by the time I am done writing this) is the second annual Digital Learning Day.

Cool. I’m all for digital learning, as the title of my blog implies.

But, as we prepare for the onslaught of tweets, blog posts, videos, webinars, and other celebrations, it is worth exploring the definition of “digital learning” that the group is promoting, as well as the background of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s president, Bob Wise. Understanding a little more about each of these components for the day should, I hope, give you a better understand of why it is happening.

First, the definition, straight from their website:

Digital learning is any instructional practice that is effectively using technology to strengthen the student learning experience. Digital learning encompasses a wide spectrum of tools and practices, including online and formative assessments, increased focus and quality of teaching resources, reevaluating the use of time, online content and courses, applications of technology in classrooms and school buildings, adaptive software for students with special needs, learning platforms, participation in professional communities of practice, access to high-level and challenging content and instruction, and many other advancements technology provides to teaching and learning.

In this sense, I read the definition of “digital learning” to mean content that can be delivered to students at a low-cost and, presumably, without certified teachers in place to facilitate their learning. Or, as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder calls it, “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way Any Pace.” The fact that teaching is only mentioned twice (one of those times as an adjective) and “teacher” is never mentioned should be of concern.

And, as a number of educational historians, most notably Larry Cuban, have pointed out, when there is no teacher buy-in with technology or technology-based efforts at reform, very little if anything changes. This line of thinking is very much with the proposals that organizations like iNACOL (one of DLDay’s partners) through their federal policy frameworks have proposed to essentially eliminate teachers and fuel public education dollars into private, online corporations.

Also, there are number of buzzwords and phrases in this definition that should raise the eyebrows of anyone who follows educational reforms efforts. Phrases like “online and formative assessments” is certainly a nod to the impending PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, which will be relying on computer scoring of writing, rather than informed, teacher-led assessments. The phrase “learning platforms” also barely hides a thinly disguised approach to curriculum delivery that is, at best, a type of self-paced credit recovery option coming in the form of programs like e2020 and Read 180. Finally, the euphemism “communities of practice” is code for teacher groups that are formed under the guise of choice and interest, but usually are created to fulfill a school’s need for performance to meet AYP goals, not genuine inquiry through teacher research.

Lastly, it is worth noting that Bob Wise, who teamed with Jeb Bush for the first Digital Learning Day let year, remains the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, the main sponsor of DLDay. Despite his Democrat party affiliation, it is worth noting that Wise is an advocate for digital learning who has shared his views in conservative forums such as the Mackinac Center. Lastly, and perhaps most concerning, Bob Wise has close ties to ALEC and many other organizations tied to the corporate educational effort movement.

All of this hubbub about DLDay thus raised major concerns for me — as a teacher, teacher educator, author, consultant, and parent. As I look towards tomorrow and the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of educators that will participate in Digital Learning Day, I wonder what we are truly celebrating?



Real, authentic learning?

Contrast that paragraph full of edu-jargon quoted above and compare it with what happens when authentic assessment, student centered technology interfaces, and teacher driven inquiry guide digital learning that happens in places and spaces like NWP’s Digital Is and the DML Hub, through conferences like EdCamp and EduCon, or other affinity groups that coalesce through twitter or other social networks like Connected Learning. There is great digital learning going on out there, but not necessarily in the spaces or formats that DLDay actively promotes through their corporate partnerships and special interests.

So, what do you plan to do as you celebrate Digital Learning Day this year?

While I certainly encourage everyone to participate, I also strongly suggest that you think about the message you are sending in relation to digital learning: who has power and agency? Who has access? Who is accountable, and for what reasons? Are we talking about students, teachers, and parents working toward a common goal of universal literacy and civic engagement?

Or, is this just another corporate effort at “reforming” education into another line in their profit ledger?

However you celebrate DLDay, you have the power to show what digital learning is and can be, not just what corporations and politicians tell us it should be.

Use your power — and hashtags — wisely over the next 23 hours.

Update on February 7, 2013: Minor editing/typo changes. 

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Examining Digital Learning Day

As with all educational initiatives and fads, I strongly encourage everyone participating in the Digital Learning Day celebrations this week to do some homework about the history of the day itself, as well as some of its corporate, foundation, and “core” partners (which, for the record, include the two professional organizations I call home: NWP and NCTE).

So, this week I’m playing with Storify and trying to curate a “live textbook” about Digital Learning Day, but looking at it from a critical perspective. In other words, I am trying to follow the money. Thus, as Digital Learning Day enters its second year… I wonder what do we know about the day itself?

  • Who are the corporate partners? Who are the foundation partners? What about some of the “core” partners such as iNACOL, CCSSO, and Pearson?
  • What are the broader themes and messages that we should explore, based on the stated interests and goals of these partners? Who wins and who loses in these partnerships? Teachers? Students? Taxpayers?
  • Finally, what is the vision of digital learning that these corporations, foundations, and “core” partners represent?

I pose these not to extinguish the excitement that so many people have in Digital Learning Day. But, I do want to raise awareness and ask the unasked questions. I’ll be curious to find out what everyone else discovers and reports back this week.

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