Who Assesses the Assessments?

Remember that catchy saying from Alan Moore’s the Watchmen?

Well, here is your chance to rate those old 20th century multiple choice high stakes  assessments! Time for teachers to do the assessing for a change. That’s right, even though most teachers sign ominously-worded affidavits prohibiting the discussion of most test items and language, we are still free to comment online and informally on the overall effectiveness of the CELDT, CST,   or any assessment. Thanks to a marvelous team of frustrated teachers,  as of August of  2011 we have…

Assessment Advisor  describes itself as follows:

Assessment Advisor is a website created by teachers that allows preK-12 teachers to review publicly available assessments that they use in their classrooms. It is a resource for educators who want effective means of measuring their students’ progress, and gives teachers a platform for voicing their thoughts on which assessments work, and which don’t.

Rate the CELDT exam

Anyone with any experience in matter can probably guess that most of the high-stakes exams currently available and widely administered are not exactly 5-star winners. In fact, the CELDT is rated at 1.57/5 stars, while the English Language Arts CST (California) can boast a higher rating of 2.29!

Granted, these ratings are not exactly quantitatively bullet-proof at this point, with most assessments relying on less than 20 ratings. Still, they provide a good starting point for further review, especially for test designers and state agencies  who are wrangling with the development of the next generation of assessments in this,  the post-NCLB age (is it too early to call it that?).  Will they listen to the teachers, or will the rely on the Arne Duncan, test-with-a-human-face market- based approach? Will these  experience-based numbers make into the Power Point presentations  of ed consultants who preach a data driven approach as the magic bullet for school reform?  Only time and more ratings will prove this to be true.

Please share and let’s get this project of the ground.

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Edudemic Magazine built for the iPad Educator

The editors at edudemic.com have released their Edudemic iPad magazine, exclusively dedicated to the world of iPad in education. So far, they have published two issues, with Vol. 2 featuring an article written by us!

Download the latest version and tell us what you think.

 

The article, which we can’t link here because you have to download the magazine into an iPad, is entitled: Toward Meaningful iPad integration and deals with issues of app proliferation, equal access, and the future of app development in the age of Common Core State Standards.

iBooks and English Language Learners

Apple’s recent announcement of a “gamechanger” in education arrived with much fanfare and generated mega decibels of buzz around the world because the Cupertino, CA tech giant was again attempting, to either  A) help revolutionize how we consume and create content, or B)  to gobble up yet another industry.

The past few days have produced many posts and tweets, many critical, many outraged, some cynical and  others truly awed and excited about the possibilites iBook Author offers. With all the questions regarding content ownership, portability, collusion with mega publishers aside, we at Zacatechista wanted to drop our own thought droppings on eTextbooks and iBook Author specifically.

 

Here is a screenshot of our current project–and the reason for this post:

We should disclose that we have been working for more than a year now on a set of English Language Development games and apps for the iPad called elDcoder, and while the project is still under construction, the prospects of being able to extend its boundaries  into the textbook realm offers new possibilities.

First, as content creators we look forward to adapting and extending the content of elDcoder,  which is currently much more geared to gaming and testing English listening, reading, writing skills, and porting some of that over onto a sequential textbook series that can accompany the app, or vice versa. And its clear after only one weekend of playing with iBook Author really makes this process easy. This should come as no surprise, coming from the same company that puts out Garage Band and iMovie, both of which were used to build the content for the first chapter of elDcoder’s (Beginner level).

Getting the hang of it was no problem. Knowing how to best take advantage of the features and to better streamline your job will require more tinkering. Discovering the versatility of working with Dashcode also contributed to the prolonged sense of tech-arousal inherent in these interactions. Now a textbook can be embedded with anything we can dream of, as long as it is not Flash.

As for what this means for English Language Learners? Well, anyone that teaches ELL students knows that ELD curriculum is not always the top priority of most schools or districts. The requirements are there, but ELD, at least as it is practiced in California is a reality often found on paper, but with so many curricular and other constraints, it often goes untaught or folded into the traditional English Language Arts, leaving many students with profound language gaps in both the forms and functions of English which prevent them from every reaching Fluent English Proficient Status, permanently relegating them to a secondary LEP  status, thereby  not graduating, or amounting to anything, and dying a cold and lonely death.

OK, hyperbole aside, It should also be noted that while explicit English Language Development is very important, not just for newcomers, but for those students with years in the system, there often is very little invested in terms of materials for its instructions, leaving many teachers to make up their own curriculum.  This is where iBooks author comes in. All of us who are in the trade of educating English Language Learners in all of their manifestations and who have been for years developing our own curriculum where there was none now can come together and start building the next generation of textbooks, as open and free in many cases, and under Apples restrictive ownership agreements in others.

The goal for us ESL teachers, authors and content providers  should not be whether can get rich making textbooks, as the mega-conglomerates are happy to do, but to offer schools the most authentic, constantly updated, classroom-tested textbooks at the lowest possible price in the name of education. If we must partner with the Giant Apple that is now doing the gobbling in order to do so, then we must deal with them with the best interest of our students constantly in our mind.

If you are interested in contacting us about possible collaborations or if you have further questions, please leave a comment below. We will be launching a more formal collaborative effort with the aims of producing a collaborative eTextbook series for English Language Learners in the coming months and asking other interested educators to share their lessons, materials and other resources for inclusion into the elDecoder series.

 

 

 

 

 

“…80 percent correlation between being two years behind in reading at the 4th grade mark and dropping out of high school later.”

Holy what are we going to do if we can’t read, Batman?!

Well, according to this alarming statistic, 17% of African-American, 14 % of Hispanic,  and 25% of affluent students will drop out of high school 8 out of 10 times.   Not only that, but most of us also know that “they” also use this same statistic, 4th grade reading, to project funding for prisons.  It doesn’t take a fourth grade teacher to point out those context clues and draw a conclusion.

Luckily,  The Digital Teachers Corps: Closing America’s Literacy Gap policy brief moves on to explain that to combat this impending doom we should create a super teacher work-force that utilizes all forms of technology at our disposal.  Research shows that technology, used strategically, certainly gives students the authentic opportunities needed to develop language, hence, thinking, proficiency.  This could be huge for English Language Learners as well as Academic English Language Learners.  Have a by-gone perusal of the brief (only a nice 7 pages).

I guess I can lay my head down to sleep and know that folks are creating solutions at the public policy level that don’t have to do with replacing me by RoboTeach.

Good Game!

eLearn Magazine, Education and Technology in Perspective published What Makes a Good Learning Game? Going Beyond Edutainment in February of this year.  The author,  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, outlines components in useful buzz words for non-techie educators and the sleek-edu-geeks alike to quickly evaluate the utility of the tons of “learning games” out there when looking for meaningful ways to integrate technology and curriculum.  The buzz words stay with you, and I can see them crossing my mind as I type ready to shoot them down with my semantic knowledge; ready, set, here we go.

1. Substantives – the signifiers and signified – the nouns that set-up the scene,

2. Verbs – the things learners have to do to meet the challenges and get the rewards,

3. Problem-solving – the challenges have to be interesting, and if I may add my two cents, culturally relevant,

4. Rewards – the rewards must definitely be culturally relevant,

5. Feedback – I remember an old mentor always used to say “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.”   So be weary of games that do not offer corrective feedback if the educator is not present., and

6. Alignment – while Egenfeldt-Nielsen doesn’t explicitly say to look for games that are tied to standards or even lesson objectives, I am.  If a game has all the first five components without this last one, you might as well just flush your professionalism down the toilet and admit you’re using gaming to baby-sit your class.

That said, Egenfeldt-Nielsen validates drill-and-practice games describing them as a “sound learning principle”.  I use drill-and-practice games aligned to standards and lesson objectives in order to pull small instructional groups for more support toward mastery. (Boy, o boy, a traveling tablet lab would be nice!)

Both drill-and-practice and mission-based games can be used to get that much closer to the Holy Grail of buzz words in education today individualized and differentiation.  So let the games begin!

Bilingual and Bicultural, the Immigrant Student’s Way To Success

New research done by the University of Missouri’s David Aguayo and published as  “Culture Predicts Mexican Americans’ College Self-Efficacy and College Performance,” in the journal Culture and College Outcomes finds that Mexican-American students who keep their native language and maintain close ties to their home culture earn higher GPAs than their English Only counterparts.

In the study, Aguayo followed 408 Mexican American students and found a strong correlation between their grades in school and the degree to which they kept their cultural heritage close to them, including language.

This might seem counterintuitive to many who for years have clamored for the elimination of bilingual education and the establishment of English only requirements for schools, however those of us who had the fortune to grow up bilingual, despite the strong acculturating forces that tend to strip away home language and culture in this country while  achieving  high marks in school hardly find these results surprising.

  After all, brain research in recent years point to several  cognitive advantages held by bilingual brains over monolingual ones.  There is strong evidence to prove that bilingual brains have stronger executive functions and can handle multiple tasks better than those that only hold one language.

Researchers have also found that the bilingual brain also has a 5 year delay of the onset of dementia when compared with monolingual patients. Why then, would it not makes sense that students who have hard-wired their brains with double the power in the executive language centers would not have an advantage over those that only rely on one.

It’s our own Dual Processor!

A story that ran today on NPR pretty much outlines these findings.

As vindicating as these findings may be to proponents of bilingual education, we have to pause and ask a few questions:

1. What makes a student more likely to maintain their home language and culture? Could there be a cognitive advantage already pre-installed that allows some students to move through life without losing their native tongue and others to struggle to maintain it?

2. What correlation is there between the ability to remain bilingual and the desire to maintain and nurture cultural heritage? Does one precede the other?

3. What outside factors contribute to the maintenance of a home language? Distance from the border? Availability of Spanish media outlets? The chance to go to a bilingual school? Spanish-friendly public policy? It would be interesting to see how Aguayo’s findings vary across geography and income brackets as well.

4.  What do these findings tell us about the direction of public education given the fact that Latinos are one of the fastest growing demographics? Should we be promoting more bilingual schools, and as a consequence, fostering the resurgence of more bilingual models that have recently bitten the dust as a result of the No Child Left Behind schemes of the past 10 years?

5. Finally, what do we as educators of English Language Learners need to do to make sure we are not promoting English proficiency at the expense of a rich native literacy?

One small change I predict has to do with the the focus of this website. In the future zapaTECHISTA will definitely have to change   from a blog that only promotes the teaching of English to English Learners through technology to one that includes more digital resources to maintain the Spanish language and associated cultures.

This article, by the way, can be used as a reading comprehension lesson. I’ve adapted it and added some questions to the end. Feel free to pass it along.

News-David Aguayo

 

NY Times Not Sold on Digital Learning Outcomes

Perhaps some of you have had a chance to read the recent article published by the New York Times,

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores

written by Tech correspondent and novelist, Matt Ricthel. It is part of a series called “Grading the Digital School” which looks critically at how schools are drinking the technology Kool-Aid, buying all sorts of equipment, laptops, Smartboards, etc, without waiting for any proof that those things actually translate into higher achievement. I won’t summarize the article, as it should be read by anyone who purports themselves to be a tech-savvy educator, not because the article’s findings are a definitive answer to the question of whether technology can have a positive impact in learning, but because of some of the  issues it raise are quite provocative.

His main conclusion is that so far, technology cannot be considered much of a cure-all for the country’s educational woes, and that results are currently a far-cry from what proponents of digital learning hope for and promise. Some schools he featured in his piece actually recorded a decline after switching to a more tech-based system of learning.

So, how is a tech-savvy educator to respond to this piece? Should we pretend it doesn’t exist, or that the author is biased against technology, or not looking at the right schools? Is he ignoring some that have shown success while focusing on the ones that have shamed themselves after making costly investments that only seemed to have benefited the chip makers of the world? Is he going against the conventional wisdom to play devil’s advocate or to shine a light on a deeply held misconception?

To his credit, it should be noted that Richtel comes with some pretty impressive credentials. He has a Pulitzer Prize to wave around and has written extensively about technology and our culture. And in all honesty, his article makes a compelling case that very often schools and districts are going whole-hog buying gadgets and expensive upgrades without doing their homework first. It would be naive to assume that there did not exist a whole cabal of technology companies which salivate at the thought of  tech-based classrooms/markets blossoming around the country ready to stake it all on their digital wares.

Simply throwing iPads and other gadgets at students will never produce truly meaningful educational outcomes unless a series of factors are first put into play:

Too early to tell

First, we need more time. Many teachers don’t know what to do with technology and rely on the students to handle even as simple a task as printing a document. If there is going to be any sort of progress in the field, any measurable progress that is, we have to wait a few years. The current population of teachers is simply not ready to implement the newest educational technology advances at the mass level. It is amazing how many teachers still cling to the old technology out of sheer habit, even when the new stuff sits in their classrooms. Don’t assume for a minute that just because a school or a district has “gone digital” that the instruction that happens in a particular classroom reflects that reality.

New technology, new yardstick.

The obvious thing to say in this case would be that we need a new test. If it seems too obvious it is because it is. Everyone knows it, the testing regime carved into granite with NCLB  is from almost all of its angles, wholly inadequate in measuring a student’s learning. Standardized tests are a lead balloon handed to us by our political masters, who tacked on the most unreasonable goals and provisions to it hoping to have something to sing about back home.  It was baby kissing on a massive scale and after all these years people at the top are finally beginning to inch away from the law’s most unpopular components. The need to reform it is part of the regular education chatter coming from DC.

There are  currently plans to revamp large-scale, high-stakes student assessment at the national level.  The U.S. Department of Education is pumping money into new avenues of assessment, hoping to take advantage of computers and the internet to move away from the once a year, fill-in-the bubble monsters that plague our sleepless nights. The new tests are coming. Some states hope to give them several times a year, and get a more balanced average of a students score, while other states are going the adaptive route, letting the test change difficulty to match the tester’s skills. And they will both be on a computer.

Great things are coming, it seems, but the question remains about whether these tests will actually produce meaningful measures and whether those measures will be used for good aims. Will they measure writing skills in the same absurd way? How many wonderful writers fail when given an awkward sentence completion multiple-choice assessment? And how ridiculous is it anyway,  to try to assess a person’s writing skills with multiple choice? Until the Reading and Writing portions of the test  get a radical face lift, we will continue to get limited results, regardless if the test is delivered through pixels or pulp.

A new testing system needs to exist altogether. We need more carrots and less sticks that are keeping educators cramming standards into test items, when those standards could be approached on a whole variety of ways, including ones and zeros. They should be measured like rungs on a ladder, where a student moves through the grades gaining points, or levels, like the very video games they play. Students should be allowed to master them at their own speed and to focus on areas that they are better at. They would be encouraged to work collaboratively to solve problems and help each other reach common goals.

Computers (in all their incarnations) give us the option to bundle many standards together and package them as quests, games, or complex tasks that would force a student to rely on and develop a multitude of skills along the way. Their ability to move through these modules could be measured and the student could receive immediate feedback, and he or she could  receive up-to-the minute remediation both digitally or in person. The goal of the assessment would therefore not be to rank schools and to see if they were “making the grade,” nor to make decisions with high-stakes outcomes, like a teacher’s salary or the funding a district receives, but to actually help a student make progress in the areas most at need.

Training

Perhaps related more to the first point, the issue of teacher training is central to the success or failure of any educational revamping involving technology. For this to happen, clear goals have to be set by districts and schools as to the proper use of technology. Many schools and districts see it as a way to boast on their websites that they offer this or that technological enhancement, and gladly dish out the money, often at taxpayers expense, without the follow through.

If a teacher is handed some shiny new device and is told that the students will love it, she or he is more likely to use it if they get proper training. They have to see it at work and they have to become comfortable talking to other educators across broader networks, sharing ideas and getting feedback on lessons and strategies.

For technology to really make a lasting impact in the way students learn, the teachers have to be trained on how to best combine their  very interpersonal delivery of standards,  or the human connection, with the digital, screen-delivered,  multi-sensory experience offered by computers, which can correct your spelling, point out a sentence fragment,  count the words you’ve written, and even estimate the ‘grade level’ of  some piece of text, but they can’t judge a writer’s voice, nor the effectiveness of an opening line in a story, nor critique you for relying excessively on clichés. For that we will always need our teachers and peers.

We all look forward to the evolving discussion, and await a verdict on this issue which still remains unresolved.

-Francisco Nieto Salazar