Thursday, March 12, 2015

Actual learning cannot be measured by a list or a log

PARCC testing. It's happening.

As I witness teachers and students working through the processes and the tests, I've reflected on this article by Heidi Stevens (@heidistevens13). Her words saddened and heartened me.

Teachers spending too much time assessing their students? Not possible. But I'm thinking about assessment in forms different from reading logs. I'm thinking of the dozens of formative assessments teachers do every single class period and the micro-decisions they make about instruction and classroom management as a result. Reading logs? Those are a different story. And prescriptive reading logs that document that a child "has engaged in at least 20 minutes of non-homework reading per day"? That gives me heartburn.

First, I don't know what "engaged in" means. I suppose the teacher means the child has actually read for 20 minutes, but what if the child read for 10 minutes and then had an online chat with a friend about that book for another 10 minutes? Is that engagement? In my opinion, yes, that's engagement (and not just because that kind of activity means students might demonstrate skills related to reading standards, but also to speaking and listening standards).

Second, what's the purpose of the 20-minute minimum? I'm guessing that's based on some form of research that suggests a minimum of 20 minutes of "engagement" makes some sort of difference in something. Yes, there is research that tells us that independent reading makes a difference in children's literacy development. There is no doubt about that. The more time they spend reading independently can matter, but it's the amount of time they spend reading. Period. (A study by the American Library Association (ALA) can be found here and another study in response to the National Reading Panel can be found here. Those are random selections; there are others.)

Third, distilling the possible adventures of reading to numbers of pages, minutes, and even stars seems a demoralizing and counterproductive effort. Yes, teachers need to encourage students to read and need to encourage parents to encourage their children to read, but a reading log tactic just makes everyone grumpy, including the teachers.

Heidi Stevens is a mom with a conscience, but also one who wants her children to enjoy reading. So sometimes she is forced to lie on the forms, but she makes up stories for and with her children. And sometimes, like many parents and older siblings and babysitters and aunts and other adults, her children read or has read-aloud the same book over and over and over (and over) again.

With confining and prescriptive forms to complete, reading becomes a chore rather than an opportunity for discovery, even learning.

I've seen a daunting eruption of checklists intended to measure, monitor, and otherwise quantify student learning. That started with rubrics, I think, which were intended to help students know how they needed to demonstrate their learning. Rubrics have become a performance checklist so that students might believe if they check off everything, they will get an A which is far more important than actually learning something.

I believe in good rubrics and I know how hard they can be to write. I can see the value of logs and checklists, as long as we don't try to become so efficient in how we measure, monitor, and otherwise quantify student work and progress that we overlook how messy and delightfully unpredictable learning can be.

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