It's that lovely time again - test prep season, especially with PARCC right around the corner. Apparently the monthly iStation test, the three times a year NWEA/MAP test and the curriculum's unit tests are not enough to inform me as a teacher who in my class needs help. (Never mind the fact that as a teacher, I can tell you who is struggling with what simply by reading with them or working through a math problem with them.) Now, they need to prove their proficiency on the PARCC test. Whatever. I normally don't care. I don't like standardized tests, and I've written before about how the time we spend testing (and prepping) for standardized tests could be better spent elsewhere. But, I don't normally feel as resentful of the tests as I do with PARCC.
This is only my second year administering the PARCC, as I was homeschooling and teaching overseas when Common Core and PARCC came into fruition. (And let me say I'm actually a fan of the idea behind a common set of standards and a common test, I'm just not a fan of THIS test). This is also the first year I really looked deeply at the "proficiency report". I was astonished to realize, by using the NWEA to PARCC relationship scale, that the PARCC is set up so that students must be ahead of the pack in order to be considered "proficient".
The NWEA is a norm referenced test which allows us to compare our students to the thousands of other students who take the same test (My students at an international school in Morocco took the same test.) and see if they are doing better or worse than the average. PARCC is a standards based test which only tests if students can do exactly as they are asked, which as a side note wouldn't be a bad thing except that PARCC overtests certain standards (such as the ability to write an essay comparing and contrasting two texts or the ability to find one specific quote in a story that justifies your answer to a question) and undertests other standards (such as determining the point of view of the author or using text conventions).
Now, the word proficient means that someone is competent. It means they can do what we ask of them, but maybe not go above and beyond. It's equivalent to "average", but apparently not on the PARCC. According to the NWEA's website, in order for a student to be proficient on the PARCC, they have to be scoring in the 65th percentile or better in 2nd grade. By 8th grade, they have to be scoring in the 75th percentile. This means that only the top 1/3 to 1/4 of students will be considered "proficient". Let that sink in for a second, we are purposely telling the majority of our students that they are not proficient.
This means that the majority of students who score at the "average" score on NWEA/MAP will score "approaching proficiency" on PARCC. This, in my mind, changes "proficient" from meaning "average" to meaning "perfect" or at least "advanced". We are expecting perfection, or at least advanced skills, out of every students and then telling them that even if they achieve this, they're only average. How defeating is that? Additionally, this means that struggling students will never reach the "proficient" level. They will grow up their entire life feeling they aren't good enough.
Now I'm all for realistic goals and high expectations. I DO NOT believe in giving students gold stars just for showing up. I think that students need to be pushed to read harder and more challenging texts and to think critically in math. But I also believe in developmentally appropriate activities. The PARCC texts and questions are not developmentally appropriate. It's like asking a Kindergartener to read a chapter book. Just because a few Kindergarteners can read chapter books doesn't mean that everyone should be able to, or that they should be looked down on if they can't. And if our students don't score well on the PARCC, they will be told they aren't good enough. They aren't proficient.
And because I'm their teacher, if they aren't proficient, it's my fault. My evaluation will be linked to their scores. So we are expecting perfect students and perfect teachers. Gee, I wonder why morale is so low in our schools.
I'm not sure how to change the system without personally creating a more fair assessment, but I do feel if we all stand up and say this system makes no sense, then we can work towards a better future for our students. In the meantime, I have told my students that all I expect out of them is their personal best (especially since I won't see the scores for the test until they are no longer my student). I refuse to stress out my students (or myself) over a test that expects perfection out of 3rd graders.
Solving the great homework debate - is homework helpful or harmful? Use family homework projects as the perfect compromise.
For years now I have struggled with how to make homework more meaningful and less work for me. I've read the studies that ask the question "Is homework helpful or harmful?" and have found the results inconclusive. I still believe students need to be working on educational content outside of the classroom. We have them for such a limited number of hours. Students need to know that learning continues outside of the classroom. They need to make connections and not see it as an isolated event they have to get through.
However, as a parent I also ask myself regularly "How is homework affecting family time?" Sometimes the family discussions and after school activities ARE more valuable than time spent on homework. Sometimes these family led learning sessions provide all of the learning and connections students need. However, in some families these activities are not happening. So how do I guarantee all of my kiddos work on learning activities at home, but don't get stressed out?
This year, my solution has been family homework projects. There is NO nightly homework turned in in my classroom. My students are still required to read for twenty minutes a night and practice their multiplication facts. They record this on a weekly log and turn it in on Fridays.
However, the bulk of our homework is monthly homework projects. I started out with book report projects for English or ELA and then started alternating these with math projects. For each project, the students are given a suggested timeline and all of the necessary pieces so that their parents don't NEED to buy anything, unless they want to. I check in with the kiddos once or twice during the month and then on the last day of the month the kids present their projects to the class. This system has worked wonderfully and here are just a few of the benefits I've seen:
1.) The projects are meaningful. Homework projects give students a chance to connect deeper to a topic or subject than they can through a worksheet or a list of questions. Through our book reports, I have watched my students dig deeper into a book than they ever would with a list of close read questions. They get involved with the characters and the plot. Through the math projects, the kids have made connections to real world math. During our holiday recipe project, the kids went out to the store with their parents and took pictures of store labels. They got in the kitchen and did real measuring, and figured out the reasoning behind elapsed time.
2.) The projects are easily differentiated. Because the book reports are genre based, they can be done with books on any level. This means that most of the time I can find a book on each child's level making it easier for them to complete the appropriate project. For the math projects, the students are in control of many aspects making them able to work at their own level. For example, during our holiday shopping project one student used a Sears catalog and simply tore pictures out while another shopped the internet using three different stores. The projects can be made simpler or more challenging depending on the needs of the students.
3.) The parents get involved. So often we worry about parents being under or over involved when it comes to homework. For underinvolved parents, I have found that projects draw parents in because they are more fun and because there is generally no "right way" to complete them. However, I have also found that the overinvolved parents aren't doing the projects for the students, but instead pushing them to add detail or find another way to make it better. And all in all parents involved in schoolwork means that parents know what the children are learning and what the children are capable of. Both of these are benefits in my book!
4.) The kids enjoy being an expert and presenting. The kids LOVE presenting their projects. It's their favorite day of the month. At the beginning of the year, a few were very nervous about getting up in front of the class, but now that they've done it four or five times, it's easy peasy. They are building their public speaking skills. They are building their confidence. And they are sharing their work, which is the most important part. The rest of the class is learning from their project, and they are learning about how to give good critiques as we share "glows and grows" after each presentation.
5.) There is very little grading. One day a month I grade homework. I sit with the kids' rubrics while they are presenting and put together 2 grades. One grade uses the project rubrics. I don't actually put this grade in my gradebook, but it gives the students feedback on their work. The second grade is a quick review of their public speaking. This one goes in my gradebook. Both grades are done while the kids are presenting, and I'm done! I love it!
6.) They use time efficiently. Last year we reviewed homework every single day. For at least 20 minutes. This year, I take one morning a month. It's easy and simple. Plus, most of these projects are things I was doing in class last year, so I don't have to spend additional classtime on projects either. Win-win!
7.) They help teach time management. From the first project, the kids learned that they could either wait to the last minute and have a hard time, or they could use Mrs. Raki's timeline and have it easier. For book reports, I have students read the book one week, complete the story map the second week(which gives slow readers this second week to finish the book if needed) and then spend two weeks on the project. The first week I suggest as a plan and gather supplies week and the second week as a creation week. In addition to helping the students, the parents like that if they have sports one night or piano another, they can skip the homework and do it when it works for their family. Many of the parents have had time management discussions with their children too, so it helps to have everyone on board.
8.) They are helping the kids learn about different presentation techniques. No matter how artsy you are, five posters in a row will wear you out. So one of our class agreements is that each project of a certain subject has to be presented differently. So, if you made a poster for your mystery book report, you shouldn't be making one for your information book report or your historical fiction book report. The same for dioramas, etc. Now I have allowed overlap between the book reports and the math projects, but a poster about a mystery book and a poster about a recipe you cooked are quite different beasts. As students watch each others' presentations, they have gotten bolder with their techniques. They have used new techniques because they saw someone else in class try that. For our mystery book report, I had one student try out Google Slides. For our holiday recipe project, half the class used it. Incidentally, the student who had started with Google Slides had moved on to using Powtoon!
If you haven't tried a homework project, I would suggest you do. The results are incredible. For a starting point, try out some of my math projects or book reports, the formats are simple and will help guide you and your kiddos through the projects.
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