Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why An Assessment Tool Is Crucial in Blended Learning- MAP TESTING

I've often heard students remark, I don't test well.  This is a common refrain from many of our top students who whiz through classes, but then perform less than stellar on key standardized exams like the SAT.   It might be true.  In fact, I guarantee you there are kids that can perform excellently in class and fail a standardized exam or underperform.  I'd also bet there is a ton of grade inflation out there and that some of these students probably should not be getting the high grades they are receiving.  Why?  Well, sometimes a teacher uses "class participation" percentage to up the grades of compliant students who do not deserve the grade they would normally receive.

Other times, a teacher knowingly or not, manipulates the grades of well behaved likably students who try hard simply because they put in the effort.  I am not debating here how much effort and behavior should be taken into consideration in a grade (although I will state that I never actually allowed that to be a percent in my grading).  It is unequivocal that this occurs.

Now you might say, no I still have kids that perform awesome in my class and deserve the A and then don't perform so great on a standardized exam because of test anxiety or a learning issue or some other factor.  This, I believe as well.  Yet, it doesn't mean we should entire disregard all standardized exams as having a place in educational evaluating processes.  It means we just need to see more factors in evaluating students.

Why might standardized tests have some validity?  Why do we continue to use them?  Well for one, since we know grade inflation exists and grades at one school do not necessarily equal grades at another, it is an effective attempt at comparing students of the same grade in different schools in the same subject matter.  In terms of college admissions, it's often the only way to differentiate between two students with similar GPA's and extracurricular activities from similar places.  It's also a fast way to do so.  Much faster than a portfolio which is why I doubt it will ever fully be given up among our nations most competitive universities.
This past year our school implemented a pilot program for blended learning in several classrooms.  While we have had certain obstacles, teachers are beginning to feel more secure in how to implement this approach and students are becoming more accustomed to the methods it entails.  However, there remain a lingering question, how will be we know if it is really effective?  If it is better than the traditional method of teaching, if it produces better results.

So, why am I actually advocating using standardized assessment tools?  I am advocate using them as one tool in helping to customize the curriculum for students in secondary schools.  Why? Because they give us a snapshot of areas of strength and weakness (combined with other forms of evaluations) to help the teacher direct learning to the student in areas needed most.  One key element of blended learning is the customization process.  Students are able to learn at their own pace and in a modality that perhaps suits them best.  Hypothetically, if done right, blended learning can encourage more independent learners who drive their own learning and fuel further exploration than usual in a traditional classroom.  In a high school environment blended learning has the task of juggling the requirements of an intense academic preparatory class with the rigid time restrict of a given period or block.  Hence, the need for real customization in the learning so as not to waste any time.  The teacher must rather maximizing in class time in the most meaningful way possible.

Hence, I propose that the digital content provider's pre assessments each unit are not enough.  They are not skill based and often they are not full pre-assessments.  They do not determine the success or failure of a given student on everything yet to be achieved that year.  A test like the NWEA MAP test does.  Administering a MAP exam enables (an adaptive exam that immediately provides administers and teaches with data on strengths and weaknesses) can help fine tune a curriculum for the year and then recheck areas of further focus mid year.

At the end of the year, it can even show growth or lack there of.  An exam like the MAP is designed to be taken at any grade and simply states what level the students who took it is on.  Hence, it provides us with a real good picture where our average students are weak at and where they are strong.  It provides us information about extremes as well.

It can help drive instruction in all common core based areas.  I would actually have students prep for it and handle it like a trice annual exam period complete with an attached grade of some kind to ensure students try their hardest.  Perhaps counting the verbal and grammar section as an English test and the math section as a math test.  If the student reached where they were suppose to be (wherever the school projected the student in that grade on that level should be) they could receive a passing score.  It could be adjusted accordingly.  This will help grades be more linked definitively to common core skills.  It would also ensure that teachers and administrators had properly grouped students and were challenging them in effective and meaningful ways.  It would simply be another tool in their arsenal.

Now you ask, what about the kid who tests poorly?  I agree more factors then this will be taken into account in placement and grading for the year.  I also think that the more a student is exposed to standardized testing, the better they will be at it.  There is a skill in taking an online adaptive test.  A skill in taking a standardized test in general.  Both skills are 21st century skills we need our kids to practice.

In addition, it would help schools implementing blended learning differentiate between non-blended and blended courses successes and create a real metrics to evaluate a pilot blended learning program.  So, yes, I will be asking for this in the near future.  I am definitely putting it on the table as an essential tool in implementing an effective blended learning program.  It is an additional tool that should be purchased alongside any digital content providers.