Let’s treat teachers like they’re professionals

May 28, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald

It’s not easy being a teacher. Teachers receive most of the blame when things go wrong, but they are powerless to make real changes in the system. That’s because they have little choice but to follow the directives of administrators who impose unproven fads on them.

Perhaps the most pervasive fad is that a teacher should be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.” In other words, teachers are encouraged to let students discover facts and concepts on their own and avoid direct instruction. This approach is known as constructivism. Though popular with school administrators, good evidence for the effectiveness of constructivism is severely lacking, as former Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall documented in her comprehensive book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom.

Despite the lack of evidence for constructivism, many teachers are under enormous pressure to use this ideology in their teaching. In fact, their professional evaluations often hinge on adopting student-centred methodologies. Thus, a teacher who delivers clear, tightly focused math lessons to her students may receive a worse evaluation than a teacher who encourages students to come up with their own ways of solving math problems — even if students learned better under the first teacher.

Unfortunately, the Alberta government is poised to take the coercion of teachers to the next level. Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence recently released a series of recommendations regarding teacher certification and evaluation. What stands out is the task force’s insistence that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

In other words, the task force wants teachers to adopt constructivist methodologies. It will do this by having principals evaluate teachers on the degree to which they conform to Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which is built on constructivist ideology. That is, ideological commitment will become more important than teaching effectiveness.

The coercion of teachers can also be seen in other areas. When grading students, teachers across the country are forced to follow the dictates of assessment gurus who advocate against awarding zeros for incomplete work, oppose reducing grades for lateness, and insist that all report card marks and comments reflect curricular outcomes and not student behaviour or other important criteria. As a sign of how seriously school administrators take these recommendations, Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval lost his job in 2012 for refusing to comply with his school’s no-zero policy.

In Nova Scotia, teachers must follow onerous guidelines when writing report card comments. Instead of letting teachers use their professional judgment, they are expected to identify, for each student, an area of strength, at least one required improvement, and a suggested next step. Teachers have to do this without commenting on the student’s behaviour. In order to ensure teacher compliance, principals spend time reviewing all report cards and making teachers rewrite comments that do not reflect the guidelines.

In a recent blog entry, Halifax teacher Grant Frost noted that these guidelines resulted in “an edu-jargon based report that, although satisfying the criteria, does almost nothing to tell parents how their kids are doing in schools.”

Frost is frustrated because teachers are no longer trusted to do something as simple as write their own report card comments. This frustration is understandable since teachers, particularly good teachers like Lynden Dorval and Grant Frost, deserve to be treated as professionals.

While provincial governments should hold teachers accountable, they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of micromanaging teachers and forcing them to teach the same way and write the same mundane comments on report cards, administrators should give teachers considerably more autonomy. In other words, let teachers teach in the way they think best — as long as they can prove that their students are learning.

This is where standardized testing, when designed properly and administered in a balanced way, plays a key role. Teachers should welcome standardized testing as a way to objectively demonstrate the effectiveness of their teaching. Give teachers a specific target that is based on their students’ past performances and let them use their professional judgment to determine the best way to get them up to that level.

The professional status of teachers would be greatly enhanced if administrators focused less on process and more on actual results. Instead of imposing burdensome regulations and dubious fads on teachers, administrators should set them free and let them teach.

Standardized testing is needed now

December 5, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a series of skills-based tests written by students from 65 OECD countries, has been published. The results aren’t good for Manitoba.

Compared with other provinces, our students rank near the bottom in mathematics, reading and science. To make matters worse, Manitoba’s decline continued a trend that began more than a decade ago.

In what looked like an obvious attempt at deflection, the Department of Education sent out a flurry of press releases trumpeting some of its education initiatives on the same day the PISA data were released.

Smaller class sizes, back-to-basics math instruction and new report cards all feature prominently.

Clearly, the government wants parents and taxpayers to believe that everything is under control in the public schools. Don’t worry about the declining performance of our students, look at all the good things that are happening.

Now some of these initiatives do have promise. Most notably, recent changes to the K-8 math curriculum requiring students to memorize math facts and use the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will, no doubt, improve the math skills of our students.

The research literature, however, is inconclusive on whether class-size caps and new report cards will make much difference in student academic achievement.

Instead of engaging in a snow job, the Department of Education should answer one fundamental question: How will it evaluate the effectiveness of these and other education initiatives?

Commonly used criteria such as high school graduation rates, attendance rates and student attitude surveys don’t really tell parents and taxpayers much about academic achievement.

Since the PISA tests are conducted only once every three years, we won’t get the next report until 2016. If we remain with the status quo, Manitoba will continue being at the bottom.

There is a better option. Manitoba could follow the lead of every other Canadian province and bring back standardized testing.

Under the previous government, Manitoba students wrote standardized tests in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

Since the NDP came into power in 1999, these tests have been systematically eliminated, with the exception of the Grade 12 tests.

Interestingly, the elimination of standardized testing closely coincides with the steady decline in students’ academic achievement on the PISA tests.

Annual standardized tests at a few grade levels would make it possible to measure the effectiveness of new education initiatives. Instead of waiting three years until the next PISA test, the department should create its own tests that are based on the provincial curriculum.

With information obtained from properly designed standardized tests, the government could react more quickly when problems are identified. Provincial tests could also identify areas of excellence.

One of the most common arguments against using standardized testing is that those countries that have them, such as the United States, have worse PISA results.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, the standardized tests used in Canadian provinces bear almost no resemblance to the American tests. The narrowly defined, high-stakes exams used in many American states are much different than the balanced, curriculum-based tests used in higher-performing provinces such as Alberta.

Second, most of the top-performing countries on PISA (such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea) have standardized testing in place. Overall, the results show well-designed standardized tests can benefit student academic performance.

Without standardized tests to keep schools focused on the fundamentals, schools often drift away from an academic focus.

From school division amalgamations to extra physical education credits to social justice initiatives, the Department of Education has, over the last decade, focused on everything except improving the academic achievement of our students. Receiving a wake-up call every three years from the PISA results isn’t enough to make the department change course.

In order to move up from the bottom of the pack, schools need a sharper focus on the academic basics.

This will only happen if parents and taxpayers force the department to measure academic results with standardized tests.

Without this accountability, our province will continue to drift aimlessly until the next PISA results arrive in three years.

Then it will be too late for the students who are in high school now.

CBE’s new report cards are a lesson in failure

June 15, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald

It is soon going to get a lot more difficult for Calgary parents to figure out how their kids are doing in school. Instead of standard letter or percentage grades, parents can look forward to finding out whether their kids are in the “exemplary,” “evident,” “emerging,” or “support required” categories.

As a part of a new pilot project in a number of its schools, the Calgary Board of Education is bringing in new report cards. Not only will there be no letter or percentage grades, teachers will no longer provide written comments. In addition, report cards will be sent home only two times each year instead of three or four times. Eventually, the board intends to implement the new report cards for all kindergarten to Grade 9 students.

Advocates of this new approach claim it will improve communication with parents. However, only someone immersed in edu-babble could seriously believe that replacing well-known and understood letter grades and percentage with vague descriptors makes it easier for parents to understand how their kids are doing. For most parents, the difference between traditional grades such as a B and a D is a lot more obvious than the difference between “evident” and “emerging.”

Unfortunately, parents had better work at deciphering the “evident” and “emerging” descriptors since they are likely to appear most frequently on report cards. This is because “exemplary” means a student is performing well above grade level, which usually includes only a small percentage of students in any class. After all, if most students in a grade consistently perform above grade level, then the skills being evaluated would likely be moved to a different grade level.

As for the “support required” descriptor, this is a new code word for failure. However, since we all know that failure is almost impossible at the elementary levels, it is reasonable to assume parents will rarely see “support required” on report cards. Consequently, it may lead to some interesting conversations at home when parents try to encourage their kids to try to be more “evident” in their two-digit multiplication skills.

To make matters even more confusing, the new report cards will not contain any personalized comments from teachers. While the school board says these comments are unnecessary because teachers will communicate more regularly with parents, the fact remains that written comments on the report card are a prime opportunity for teachers to provide important information to parents — particularly those with younger children. The removal of personalized comments from report cards may lighten the workload of teachers, but it won’t benefit students or parents.

Advocates of these kinds of reporting systems frequently claim they have research evidence on their side. This claim is patently false. There is no body of research showing that the removal of percentage or letter grades in public schools leads to improved student achievement. While it is true that some students and parents prefer nebulous or non-existent grades, it is equally true that many students and parents prefer a rigorous grading system that enables them to track their academic progress.

What research does show is that timely and understandable feedback from teachers to students and their parents is extremely important. In his seminal 2009 book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, education professor John Hattie classifies feedback as “among the most powerful influences on achievement.” While traditional letter and percentage grades are far from perfect, they are a long-standing and important form of feedback to students and their parents. The traditional grades should not be abandoned without very good reasons, and so far, the reasons are not evident.

In a letter that recently appeared on the Calgary Board of Education’s website, chief superintendent Naomi Johnson expressed her wish “for additional communication between teachers and parents . . . ” She added that, “The goal of this work is more frequent communication overall.” If increased communication between parents and teachers actually is the goal, it is odd that report cards will go home only twice per year. Fewer report cards usually means less information is being provided to both students and parents.

If Johnson wishes to improve communication with parents, she can begin by listening to the concerns already being expressed about the new reporting system. There is no need to completely remove traditional grades or personalized comments from report cards.

Calgary Board of Education’s report cards deserve a grade of F, or “support required” in their new grading scheme.


Scrapping achievement tests is a big mistake

May 14, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald.

In a giant leap backward, Education Minister Jeff Johnson recently announced his plans to scrap the provincial achievement tests currently written by grades 3, 6 and 9 students. They will be replaced in the near future by more “student-friendly” assessments to be written at the beginning of the year.

It isn’t difficult to see the likely outcome from similarly wrong-headed decisions. Manitoba went down the same route in 1999 and the results have not been good. Before its current government, Manitoba had a full system of standards tests administered to grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 students, similar to what currently exists in Alberta. Over a decade, Manitoba eliminated its grades 3, 6 and 9 tests and replaced them with performance checklists given at the beginning of the school year.

During the same time period, Manitoba students went from the middle of the pack among Canadian provinces in their math and reading skills to second last. Only Prince Edward Island students turned in worse results. Interestingly, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island also happened to be the two provinces with the least amount of standardized testing. However, Prince Edward Island recently started implementing standards tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students, leaving Manitoba as the only province without any standards tests before Grade 12.

Now the Alberta government plans to follow Manitoba’s example and join it in a race to the bottom. This is a disappointing development, especially since Alberta has long been the top performing province in the country.

To make matters worse, none of the reasons the government gives for eliminating the provincial achievement tests makes much sense. For example, Johnson claimed the current tests are too stressful for students and need to be replaced by more “student-friendly” assessments. However, other than anecdotal stories offered up by testing opponents, no one has been able to demonstrate why the tests are too stressful for students. Students have written these tests successfully for more than 30 years and there is no reason why they should now be considered too stressful.

Apparently, the education minister thinks that writing the provincial achievement tests on a single day adds to the stress of these exams. So he plans to replace them with assessments written over several days. However, there is no reason to conclude that stretching out the time over which a test is written makes it any less stressful. But it does increase the likelihood more students will miss at least part of the test if they are absent on any of the test days.

Ironically, these new tests may take up even more time than the provincial achievement tests. It has certainly been the experience of Manitoba teachers, particularly at the Grade 3 level, as Ben Levin, former deputy minister of education for Manitoba, acknowledged in his book, Governing Education. They are therefore unlikely to accomplish the goal of freeing up more class time for instruction.

Another argument for replacing the PATs with an assessment at the beginning of the year is that the data will help teachers target their instruction to the needs of their students. This is a weak argument, since one of the main reasons teachers’ unions give for their opposition to standardized testing is that teachers already know where their students are at. In other words, teachers shouldn’t need the data from a provincial assessment to provide good instruction.

In addition, writing the PATs at the end of the school year makes perfect sense. The PATs are an objective measurement tool that, when combined with the data provided by teachers from their own assessments, gives a more complete picture of overall student achievement for that year. Giving tests at the beginning of the year removes accountability since it is easy to blame poor performance on summer learning loss or on last year’s teachers.

Finally, since students are often most ready to learn in September, teachers will end up wasting valuable instructional time at the beginning of the school year. In contrast, virtually all teachers know that June is the worst time for students to try to learn new concepts. So if we are going to make the most efficient use of instructional time, it makes sense to have students write standardized tests at the end of the year rather than at the beginning.

Scrapping the provincial achievement tests makes no sense. The Alberta government should reverse its giant leap backward and keep the PATs in their current form.


Percentages belong on report cards

April 24, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Province

Suppose you have two grade 8 students in the same science class. We’ll call them Ken and Damian. Ken received a mark of 85 per cent on his report card while Damian got 96 per cent. Who did better in science?

For most people, this question is easy to answer. While both students did well, Damian’s higher mark indicates that he outperformed Ken. Damian probably received slightly better marks on his tests, submitted higher quality assignments, and demonstrated a superior understanding of the subject matter. In other words, there is a real and measurable difference between a good student like Ken and an excellent student like Damian.

However, some school division officials apparently think Ken and Damian deserve the same mark. As a case in point, Battle River School Division, based in Camrose, Alberta, requires its teachers to grade student work at one of four levels – beginning, developing, achieving, or excelling. Since the “excelling” level includes a range of 84 to 100, both Ken and Damian would receive the same mark under this system.

Unsurprisingly, the new grading system is not going over well with parents or students in Battle River. A recent rally at the school division’s office attracted more than 150 students and parents while about 2,800 parents and 300 students have signed a petition opposing the new grading system. Despite the opposition, the school division has given no indication that it plans to change course.

The philosophy underpinning the new approach is known as outcomes-based assessment. Essentially, it states that students should be evaluated based on how well they master specific learning targets known as outcomes. For example, an outcome for a grade 5 math course might be “use two digit multiplication to solve real-life math problems.” The teacher would then give a mark based on how well students learned that particular outcome.

So far there is nothing particularly objectionable about this approach. After all, it makes sense to specify what skills students need to master in each subject. It also is reasonable for teachers to use a four-point scale to evaluate some types of student work based on these learning outcomes. Problems arise when school administrators toss aside common sense and impose rigid assessment policies that lead to unnecessary conflicts with parents and students. Sometimes policies that sound good in theory do not translate well into the real classroom setting.

The no-zero policy at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton that led to the firing if physics teacher Lynden Dorval is a case in point. Ross Sheppard’s then-principal followed outcomes-based assessment to the letter when he instructed teachers not to give zeros for missing work. This was based on the conviction that all grades must only reflect achievement of learning-outcomes. Of course, Ross Sheppard teachers found out very quickly that many students do not submit their work on time if there is no academic penalty for lateness. No-zero policies may sound good to ivory tower academics but they don’t work in real classrooms.

The removal of percentage grades from report cards is another example of this disconnect between assessment theory and classroom reality. While it may make sense to grade some assignments on a four-point scale, there is no need TO extend this to every assignment. Some assignments are more complex than others and have many possible proficiency levels. Percentage grades make it possible to differentiate between good work and excellent work in a way that simply cannot be done when teachers are limited to four achievement levels.

In addition, most students still write unit tests where even more levels of proficiency are possible. A student who answers all 50 math questions correctly on a test should receive a higher grade than another student who answered 44 questions correctly. Conversely, it is much worse to get only three questions correct than to answer 24 questions correctly. And yet, both these students would receive the same “beginning” grade under the Battle River system.

It is also important to recognize that percentage grades are a form of communication that virtually all parents understand. Even if strict adherence to the principles of outcomes-based assessment was technically correct, school divisions need to weigh this against the need to work together with parents and provide them with understandable information about student achievement. Administrators who wish to overhaul grading practices need to ask themselves whether the change they seek is so important that it necessitates alienating a large number of parents and students.

In this latest clash between theory and reality in public education, let’s hope reality wins for a change. Percentages belong in classrooms and on report cards.

Saskatchewan students will benefit from more tests

March 3, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Saskatchewan students should get ready to write a lot more tests. By 2016, all students in grades 4 to 12 will write yearly standardized tests in reading, writing, math, and science. This is good news for public education and, if implemented properly, should lead to improved academic achievement for Saskatchewan students.

While the province currently administers some standardized tests to Saskatchewan students, it does so only every other year. In addition, students write each test in only two or three grades. So while the current testing system provides a sample of student achievement, it is too limited in scope to have much of an impact.

A more comprehensive approach to standardized testing will benefit students in a number of ways. One is that these tests will provide the provincial government with a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. With this information, the province will be able to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.

As for the concern that schools in rich neighbourhoods will automatically outperform schools in poor neighbourhoods, yearly standardized testing can do far more than simply provide raw scores. Rather, the province will be able to track improvement from year to year. So a school in a poor neighbourhood that shows consistent achievement gains would actually be considered more successful than a school in a rich neighbourhood that remains stagnant. This type of measurement can only be done if the tests are carried out on an annual basis in all grades, as the government has proposed.

Another benefit is that standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the key concepts thoroughly. Without standardized tests in place, it is almost impossible to be sure if teachers have actually taught the complete curriculum.

Opposition to the standardized testing announcement came from predictable sources. In an interview with 650 CKOM, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation President Colin Keess said that additional standardized tests will not help teachers identify the strengths and weaknesses of their students. According to Keess, this is because “standardized assessments are not as useful for informing the daily practices of the teachers.” This is a common sentiment among teachers’ unions across the country.

However, this objection reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose for regularly-administered standardized tests. Nothing in the government’s announcement states that standardized testing is expected to take the place of the professional judgment of teachers in their classrooms. Rather, such testing helps provide a more complete picture of student achievement across the province.

In fact, both teacher-created assessment and standardized testing are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing introduces systematic balance with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met.

Another objection was raised by Patrick Lewis, an associate professor in the University of Regina’s education faculty. According to the Regina Leader Post, Lewis argued that standardized testing provides only a snapshot of student performance and not a complete picture of overall achievement. He also expressed concern that teachers would simply teach to the test.

However, this concern can be addressed by making sure the tests are properly correlated with the provincial curriculum. It makes sense to ensure the tests are broad in scope and go beyond an assessment of basic skills. One way to do this is to have the tests also measure content knowledge in the various subject areas. This should reduce the temptation for schools to sacrifice important subjects such as science and social studies when preparing for these tests.

As part of the announcement, Education Minister Russ Marchuk explained that 13 teachers from across the province will be responsible for designing these tests. While it makes sense to give local teachers significant input into the design of these tests, hopefully Marchuk also plans to include measurement experts in the design process. For example, Alberta has the most advanced standardized testing system in the country and officials in its education department could give valuable input about the proper design of these tests.

If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing should result in a better education for the students of Saskatchewan.

There’s zero support for schools’ no-zero policies

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, August 28, 2012 Original Link

High School physics teacher Lynden Dorval probably never expected to become a celebrity. But with his decision to defy his principal’s no-zeros edict, he ignited a nation-wide debate about grading practices in schools. Under no-zero grading policies, teachers are forbidden from assigning grades of zero to students for assignments they do not submit.

Public response on this issue has been overwhelmingly on Mr. Dorval’s side. Students rallied to his defense, teachers spoke out in support of his position, and newspaper pages were filled with letters attacking the no-zero policy. Even an online poll conducted by the Edmonton Journal reported that more than 97 per cent of the 12,486 respondents opposed the no-zero policy.

Largely in response to public pressure, Edmonton Public School Board trustees voted at their June meeting to conduct an extensive review of their assessment practices. The review is scheduled to commence in September.

Hopefully trustees take the time to carefully review the research evidence on no-zero policies. If they do, they’ll find that the evidence does not support the overblown claims made by no-zero supporters.

One of the best-known no-zero advocates is Ken O’Connor, an assessment consultant in Ontario. In his book How to Grade for Learning, O’Connor claims that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning. However, the only source he cites to back up this claim is an article in the NASSP Bulletin by Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky.

Guskey does make the statement attributed to him by O’Connor but cites only one research study to support this claim – a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy. In it, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in mainstream classrooms. These six students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks.

It should be obvious that it is absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the rest of the student population. And yet this article is regularly cited by Guskey when he makes the claim that grades of zero have a negative impact on students. Even a more recent article by Guskey that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership contains the same claim, with Selby and Murphy’s article again providing the only research support.

Clearly, the claim that research evidence strongly supports no-zero policies is flawed. No-zero proponents cannot hide behind the research argument since the evidence for their position is quite weak.

In addition, there are many reasons why school administrators should avoid no-zero policies. One is that they inevitably bring controversy with them, something acknowledged by even their strongest proponents. If a school chooses to use a no-zero policy, it can expect that controversy will likely overshadow other more important initiatives. School administrators need to ask themselves whether a no-zero policy is worth the opposition they are certain to face.

No-zero policies also unreasonably interfere with the professional discretion of teachers to determine grades. Teachers know their students and realize that it is unrealistic to expect the same strategies to work with every student. All a no-zero policy does is take away one of the consequences teachers can use for students who fail to submit their work.

Students who submit their work on time could actually end up receiving worse grades than those who submit only some assignments. Since no-zero policies prohibit teachers from giving a zero for incomplete work, a student who hands in an assignment and receives a mark of 30 per cent would actually have been better off not to submit it. In fact, students will figure out that it is in their best interest to pick and choose the assignments they submit.

Finally, no-zero policies fail to prepare students for life after high school. Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing and universities don’t grant credit to students who choose not to hand in their assignments. A pilot who never flies a plane, an electrician who never wires a house, and a journalist who never hands in a story can all expect to get paid nothing. Employers aren’t going to accommodate employees who can’t be bothered to submit their work. Teachers need to prepare their students for this reality.

Let’s hope trustees in Edmonton and elsewhere across Canada recognize the folly of no-zero policies and stay away from them.

Sometimes students deserve to get a zero

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, June 10, 2012 Original Link

How much should a pilot get paid if she never flies a plane? How about a doctor who never treats a patient? Or a car salesman who fails to sell a single car?

If you answered zero, you live in the real world.

Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing. It’s common sense.

However, many schools seem to have a different perspective. For example, many school administrators have introduced a grading-for-learning approach, part of which prohibits teachers from giving a mark of zero to students with incomplete assignments. Instead of a zero, teachers must assess students only on the work they actually submit.

In other words, students who don’t hand in many assignments can still pass their courses if they do well on the few assignments they do submit.

Lynden Dorval teaches high school physics at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School. With 35 years of experience, he recently refused to comply with the absurd grading policy that prohibited teachers from assigning zeros for incomplete work. He went on giving zeros despite several warnings from his principal. Eventually, he was suspended and could very well lose his job.

From a legalistic perspective, the school board has every right to discipline Dorval. According to Alberta’s School Act, school boards may suspend teachers who fail to follow a lawful directive from the board. While the assessment policy in question may be misguided, teachers are required to follow lawful directives from their employer.

Schools could not function if teachers disregarded any policy they disagreed with.

That being said, most people recognize there is something intuitively wrong with an assessment policy that prohibits teachers from assigning zeros for work that has not been done. The fact that many of Dorval’s colleagues and students are rallying behind him should also be a clear sign that something is seriously amiss. The superintendent and principal are defending a policy that may be lawful, but which most members of the public consider illegitimate and indefensible.

On June 1, Edmonton superintendent Edgar Schmidt published an open letter to defend the indefensible. In that letter, he defends the current policy of not giving zeros and tries to present it as a superior way of holding students accountable.

“Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable,” Schmidt said.

The explanation fails to address the fact that some high school students simply choose not to do their work. Dorval didn’t automatically assign zeros to students the moment an assignment didn’t come in. Rather, he worked with students and reminded them regularly of the importance of submitting their work. When that fails, however, there needs to be a tangible consequence for those students who choose not to submit assignments. The new assessment policy naively ignores the realities of human nature.

Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton is by no means the first to experiment with this failed approach. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario had provincial assessment policies that prohibited or strongly discouraged teachers from deducting marks from late assignments or assigning a mark of zero for incomplete work. However, strong opposition from the public in both instances led the governments to retreat from this policy.

It never had to be this way. Many aspects of the socalled grading-for-learning approach are positive and would likely have broad-based public support. For example, grading-for-learning encourages teachers to drop the common practice of basing individual student assessment on group assignments. It also makes a clearer distinction between assignments given for the purpose of preliminary feedback (formative assessment) and final marks (summative assessment). These are sensible reforms, but they have been overshadowed by the no-zeros policy.

School administrators have a choice. They can focus on common sense assessment reforms that would have broad-based public support, or they can stand behind a foolish no-zeros policy supported by a handful of education consultants.

Let’s hope common sense prevails. Teachers should be able to give zeros to students who choose not to submit their assignments.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher. He is co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

Purdue University study confronts edu-babble

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, February 8, 2011. Original Link

It is wrong to force students to memorize information simply because it’s going to be on a test. Research shows that rote learning is largely out-of-date in the 21st century. Instead of telling students what they need to learn, teachers should encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world around them. The progressive approach to education is far more useful to students than the mindless regurgitation of mere facts.”

Anyone involved in education knows these types of edu-babble statements are often heard in teacher-training institutions. Education professors continually push teachers to move away from traditional methods of instruction.

A friend of mine who graduated several years ago with his bachelor of education degree told me the main question on one of his final exams: “Explain why testing is a poor way to authentically assess student learning.” The irony of testing students on their understanding of why testing is bad never seemed to sink in for that professor.

Unfortunately, this anti-testing mantra affects more than just educational theory in Canada. Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.

However, a new research study published in the Jan. 21 edition of the journal Science presents a significant challenge to the reigning educational ideology. Researchers from Purdue University had 200 college students read several paragraphs about a scientific topic, such as how the digestive system works. Students were then divided into several groups, with each group using a different study technique. The study found that students who took a test in which they wrote out the key concepts by memory significantly outperformed students who did not take a test.

A week later the same groups of students were given a short-answer test about the material in question. Once again, students who had studied for a test one week earlier substantially outperformed everyone else. Even the students themselves were surprised at the difference studying for a test made to their long-term retention of the subject matter. These results certainly challenge the assumption that students who study for tests simply forget the material immediately afterwards.

The lead researcher on this study, psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke, noted that these results confirm the importance of actively committing concepts to memory. “But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy,” stated Karpicke.

In other words, learning, particularly in the lower grades, has more to do with acquiring existing knowledge than constructing completely new knowledge. There is a core base of knowledge and skills that all students need to acquire, and schools are responsible for ensuring that this happens.

The Purdue University study lends considerable weight to the position that teachers should require their students to write tests on a regular basis. Although this does not necessitate the complete abandonment of other assessment methods, it does mean that professional development for teachers should recognize the value of traditional teaching methods.

One of the arguments commonly used against this approach is that it encourages rote learning instead of critical thinking.

The problem with this argument is it creates a false dichotomy, since critical thinking can only take place if students possess the necessary knowledge base about a subject matter. For example, students who memorize their basic math facts are far better positioned to master complex mathematical concepts than those who never learn them.

In addition, if we want to help students retain the knowledge they acquire in school, it makes sense for schools to require students to write final exams in core subject areas. It is not difficult to see how the process of studying for final exams helps students retain key concepts from their courses. None of this means that teachers should rely exclusively on making students memorize information for tests. However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.