Last Friday, Alfie Kohn spoke at the MCTE 2006 Conference. There were many points that he made about standards, assessments, and accountability, most of which I agreed with, some of which I would want to take issue. However, there were a few research studies that he mentioned (and that I would like to get full citations on, so I might check his website) that had interesting things to say about teaching and learning when under pressure for standardized assessment.
In the first example, two groups of teachers were given different instructions. The first was told that their students would be tested and that they would be held accountable for how well their students did on the test. The second were told that there students would be tested as well, but told to teach in order to maximize learning. Guess what group did better? No surprise, group two did better.
In the second example, he discussed how shallow thinking students and deeper thinking students (as measured by a test of cognitive ability) did on standardized tests. Interestingly, the deeper thinkers did worse, often because they could see how different multiple choice selections could all be viable, depending on interpretation. He made this point in the sense that if you see MEAP scores going up in a district, you should be worried about the quality of thinking that is going on in that district.
There were many other examples, but the final one that I will mention here is that those who design the tests try to make them so that some students, usually the deeper thinkers, will be tricked (no surprise there). What was surprising, though, was that the variation on any given test that any student takes can vary by significant degrees on any given day. Moreover, districts can have a natural drifting of scores from year-to-year (anywhere from 30 to 50%), and statisticians expect this to be natural. In other words, no one will ever reach 100% proficiency (the goal of NCLB).
One point that he made about standards in general and Michiganâ€™s standards in particular was bothersome. He said that the best standards are vague outlines of what teachers can do, yet then went on to criticize the Michigan Grade Level and High School Content Expectations. Maybe it is because I have worked on MEAP committees and I have tried to integrate these standards into the assessment in the best way I know how. Maybe it is because I know colleagues who fought to keep these expectations as vague as possible, resisting the notion of parsing them out by grade level in the high school. Or, maybe it is because I think that we do, at some level, have to have some direction about what and how to teach. Whatever the reason, I think that he was a bit harsh on the Michigan standards, but I think most of that criticism was aimed at Granholm and her insistence that we get accreditation from Achieve.org. He didnâ€™t have much to say about Dick â€œDeVoucherâ€ either, so it is tough to say exactly what is going on with all that.
At any rate, it was a provocative talk and I am glad that we have people like Kohn out on the edge pushing us on all these issues. Next year, Kathy Yancey comes to keynote the conference, so I am looking forward to that already.
Next upâ€¦ NCTE/NWP in Nashville in six short weeks.