Thursday, August 13, 2009

Let's talk about the Keystone Exams

I've not been able to stop thinking about the Keystone Exams that appear destined to become reality in PA schools very soon. These will be tests given to students across PA to determine if they can graduate. The reason, as I understand it, is that the number of kids who were graduating was larger than the number of kids who scored at Basic or above in the PSSA tests, prompting the concern that schools were passing almost anyone who would hang in there for their senior year.

OK. I can understand why one might question those numbers. But then, we all know that success in high school doesn't always mean success later. More importantly, failure in high school doesn't translate to failure later. Rarely do you find yourself in a job/career where memorization is the determining factor for success. Still, we must measure against something or we have no idea how well we're doing. Not measuring the effectiveness of what we do would be as irresponsible as measuring it incorrectly.

But there are other issues that are weighing in on this for me. Like the statement by one official person who said that it's better to test the kids at the end of each grade, "...before they forget it all." As if that's an acceptable solution. That's admitting up front that we KNOW that they aren't remembering what we're spending all year trying to teach them, but if we can at least catch them during that window when they still DO remember it, we've done our jobs. If we built bridges instead of teaching kids, it's like saying, "We know this bridge will collapse, so let's test it now before it does, and we're OK."

I worry that this test will become the only way we determine our effectiveness. And it will be so easy to then adjust our curriculum to teach to the test, won't it? Side businesses will crop up that will create practice exams that contain questions "like those on the Keystone Exams" and schools will pay big bucks to get them and arrange schedules so that the kids can take those practice tests. Then another optional feature (at an additional cost, of course) will be remedial material to help the student (and teacher) focus on the specific questions that the students are missing.

Meanwhile, the students still have no clue how to form an effective search on the Internet. (Internet? Some folks talk about it as if it's a passing fad.) It's a basic google search or nothing. They don't know a thing about how to find the most recent articles, or how to find information on a given website, or from a different country, or how to view the search in a timeline. They've never seen Wolfram Alpha and so they don't know the power of that tool. They can't find a primary source document or even know why that's a good thing to do. And, if they do find pertinent information online, they have no way to manage it. I once saw a class where the student would print out the sites that they found online, then use yellow highlighters to mark the important part of the page. Is that even CLOSE to anything relevant in this day of massive amounts of information? Is that acceptable to ANYONE?

They won't know about proper copyright etiquette or the Creative Commons. There will be little 'right-brain' activity going on, because we can't afford to take the time away from studying for the test - after which 'we can forget all this stuff.' Those teachers who do work to ensure that their students are using higher order thinking skills and are working on the upper level of the new Bloom's Digital Taxonomy and who are trying to ensure that the NETS-S are being addressed will soon find themselves having to eliminate some of that in favor of the test material. Do you see any way around that? Am I raising an alarm over nothing?

From the article:
"The proposal would require students to demonstrate their competency in English, math, science and social studies by passing a Keystone Exam, which are subject-specific and given at the end of a course; an international baccalaureate exam, an advanced placement test, or a local assessment independently validated to be aligned with state standards. Those who use the Keystone Exam would see its score counted toward a third of a student's final grade in a course and a "below basic" score would be counted as a zero on the test."

Yes, there are other options besides taking the Keystone exam. You could take that international baccalaureate exam, but that might mean a whole new curriculum, won't it? Or, you could take an AP test. Fine for those already doing that, but not an option for the majority of students. Or, you can take a test that your district makes up that is aligned to the state's standards. I'm not sure how that one differs from the Keystone except by who creates the test. It's still a "pass this or else" exam. But hey, no pressure.

I worry that we're moving in the wrong direction. Not that we shouldn't be trying to determine our effectiveness in the classrooms, but that we're willing end our discussion of that effectiveness if satisfactory test scores are shown - at the end of the course - before they forget.

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