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Alma Intermediate School February Letter to Parents

Click to open the newsletter or read my short, personal history of testing below.

News Alma Intermediate 0215

From the Principal: A short history of testing….

Looking at testing and accountability is like seeing a long arc across a number of years. I remember taking standardized tests as an elementary school student.  We never received any results from these tests and usually didn’t even know they were going to occur.

When I was a teacher, the Minimum Performance Tests (MPT) were given.  I was offended that my students could only show minimum levels of learning on this test. We found that results from the MPT didn’t mean much since most students could do all of the tasks.  Some teachers prepared for these tests by teaching everyone at minimum levels. Not good.

In my early days as a principal, we gave  the Iowa , and later the Standford tests. These were challenging and gave us good information about the learning of our students. These tests also gave us national comparisons of our students’ learning.  Very good!

About sixteen years ago the state began to administer the Benchmark Exam. This test was very challenging but gave us good information about our students’ learning.  We used the results of these tests in our student-led conferences, and our students had a good understanding of their past performance on this assessment.  They also had a good understanding of their goal for the future on this test.

During the first few years of Benchmark testing, students scored low because of the new format and showing learning in ways that were more challenging than in the past.  The Benchmark required students in grades 3-8 to give written responses to high-level questions and prompts in reading and math. We made adjustments in our teaching and some adjustments were made in how the Benchmark was administered. The Benchmark Exam became a good assessment over time.

We are now at the point of another change in how we test students. Students are being prepared to take the tests on a computer over content that is at a higher level of difficulty than ever in the past.

With change comes stress. As adults, we’ve felt stress due to change, but our challenge is to assist our students in dealing with change while managing the stress they might feel. Teachers have attempted to prepare students for the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) while continuing to provide a well-rounded learning experience for students. Taking this set of assessments will be a learning experience for students, parents, and teachers.

This test will probably change in the future, but high-stakes testing will not go away. When I read the learning standards of our state, these are things that I want my children to be able to do.  But, I want them tested fairly and equitably. Testing that is beneficial for students will require change and improvement over time as we saw with the Benchmark Exam.  Also required will be changes in how we as teachers and parents prepare our students.

Our governor is putting together a task force to study our state’s curriculum and how we test our students. This is a good idea and I’ll share input based on what we learn while watching our students test this year.

My hope is that we will see improvements in how we test our students while holding to standards of learning that we all want our children to achieve. Let’s give our children encouragement and let them know that we’re proud of their work. Regardless of how our children are tested, we want them to do their best and be able to show their learning.

Performance Assessment

Practice pad that gave my parents some relief from the loud drumming.

Practice pad that gave my parents some relief from the loud drumming.

“Let’s try it again with a little lower left hand position prior to the double bounce of the paradiddle.” This is typical of the comments that could be heard during my drum lessons in the 10th grade. Little did I know that I was actually experiencing authentic performance assessment.  My teacher, Bob Adams, wanted me to qualify for membership in the National Association of Rudimental Drummers. The requirements included performing the 13 essential drum rudiments to a high level of proficiency, far beyond what I thought I could achieve.

Over a period of several months I played these rudiments during lessons. Mr. Adams demonstrated how to improve my performance and then invited me to try again after more practice. His demonstrations were just short of miraculous to this young drummer, but I did my best to imitate his technique.

For many evenings I practiced these rhythmic patterns with funny names like paradiddle, flamacue, long roll, and ruff. My non-drummer friends didn’t understand what I was doing or why. My parents endured strange rhythmic patterns incessantly tapping from slow to fast and back to slow again. Only my teacher truly understood and his expectations were clear. Finally, after months of work, Mr. Adams congratulated me on performing the requirements up to standard.  I still feel pride in this accomplishment.

NARD certificate

Mr. Adams never said, “I’ll hear you play and give you a percentage grade.” He never said, “If you want to settle for a C, we’ll stop working on this and go to something else.” Statements like this would have sounded absurd to me even though this was the approach in many of my other classes at the time. Cover the material, test over the material, and move on regardless of mastery.

Music was different! It was a process of building knowledge, increasing skills, and real life performance. Tremendous learning and improvement occurred. No grades were assigned other than occasional ratings based on a performance rubric. Even these were not viewed as final. A Third Division rating meant there was much work to be done. The goal was a First Division. Fourth or Fifth Division ratings were completely unacceptable. Expectations for performance were clear.

Thank goodness other academic areas are coming around to “performance assessment” learning.  We’re seeing more use of standards-based assessment and formative assessment even though percentage grades seem permanently entrenched in the United States. If we want our children to experience deep learning that is retained and used, we’ll need to limit our dependence on grades as final events and view assessment as an on-going process toward higher levels of achievement using tasks that are authentic and meaningful.

Drum Rudiments

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