Monday, May 4, 2015

Standardized testing...why not just opt out?

Hashtags: #education #edchat #commoncore

Props to DP (@pakman) for including a segment on education.  I'll leave it to him to put a political slant on it all! :)

David Pakman (DP) - +David Pakman, of The David Pakman Show,  interviewed (at 27:42) Joel Westheimer (JW) for today's broadcast regarding what's wrong with standardized testing.  The answers were all over the place (incoherent), and basically neglected one key point. Let's review.

DP: What are you most concerned about when you look at education?

Point #1: JW begins by describing a shift to standardization stemming from a shift from tradition view of education as serving a public good to one that he labels a "job training institution"...? 

My response: Really?  I thought the shift to standardization came from periodic student outcome reports (tests) showing the US towards the bottom when compared to other countries.  I don't see how standardization came about from a focus on high school students getting jobs.  High schools are designed to prepare students for either the workforce or higher education, but never considered them job training institutions per se (unless we're including vocational high schools).   If one believes the intention of high schools is only to prepare students for employment, what types of jobs are high school graduates prepared to fill? And aren't standardized tests more about assessing academic knowledge than vocational?  If JW means that high schools are job training institutions because they both prepare students to further their education and indirectly prepares them for better employment, then isn't this also a "public good"?  I'm just note sure what JW is getting at.

Point #2: JW uses the term, so-called, as in "...obsession with so-called standards...", to make it sound as if the word standards is falsely termed, yet later in the interview says he has no problem with the term standards, but does have a problem with the term, standardization (more on this later).

Point #3: JW argues that standards only apply to math and literacy to the exclusion of other subjects that used to be part of a public education. 

My response: So, subjects that are not covered by Common Core aren't currently part of a public education?  I know what he means, and I agree that certain subjects are being neglected (and cut out entirely).  But try looking at it another way.  If the US can't even get standards set on a few subjects within a curriculum, how likely is it for them to extend those standards to other subjects? Baby steps...

DP: How do the problems in the US educational system compare with those in Canada?

Point #4: JW claims various things...
  • One similar issue among both countries is that there is a "growing obsession with standards and standardization".  Nobody is against standards, but the problem is that of standardization.  
    • My response: Here, JW makes a distinction I reference in Point #2 above. So, one moment JW is against the term standards, the next he is for it?  Or perhaps not against it and not for it?  And everyone agrees with this.  Can we have standards with not standardization?  And can we truthfully call them standards if only one person is doing them? This is like saying I'm respecting a community of practice (or I'm following "best practices") when I'm the only one doing (or practicing) them. Or another way of looking at it: it's fine if each teacher has individual standards, just don't force teachers to share these individual standards with others. I have to believe that "forcing" teachers to share what's working in the classroom (perhaps a standard, perhaps not) has to be part of the solution. Question: how many standards are required before standardization emerges? :)
  • He states that standardization is the "enemy of imagination".   
    • My response: So, standardized testing is standardizing the teaching practice? I don't think so...I'll explain this more in my conclusion below.
  • Standardization means that everyone must be the same - numberical numbers on very small amounts of the curriculum as represented on standardized tests.  
    • My response: Everyone meaning students?  Teachers?  Both?  Standardized testing does not mean that all students are learning in the same way.  It means that what students are expected to know and can do are uniform, but does not speak to how students can learn and develop such knowledge and skills.  And it does not speak to how teachers teach or the environment they create for students to thrive. 
  • When standardized tests are used, this takes away from teachers individual passions they bring to the classroom. 
    • My response: This is like saying Standardization means that everyone must be the same (see above).  I really get the feeling that everyone here includes the teachers.  This is not what standardization is all about.
  • Standardization is the cause of the high attribution rate in the US. 
    • My response: I'd be interested to know if standardization is the sole reason why teachers leave the profession.  This means that teacher pay, work conditions (which may not relate to standardization), advancement, etc. have nothing to do with it.
DP: What's the logic of the standardized test?  Why have standardized tests?  To find the strongest students?  The strongest teachers?  If standardized tests worked well, what would they help us to do?

Point #5: Standardized tests have noble origins: helped address educational bias so that all students had an equal opportunity. It levels the playing field.  But here are the reasons why this didn't play out, according to JW:
  • Massive inequality that we're experiencing.
  • Test preparation favors the wealthy.
  • Bias build into the test regarding the materials the test cover.
  • Standardized tests to not measure what's important to teachers and parents.
  • Standardized tests do not measure critical thinking skills, creativity, healthy relationships, if students can give back to the community, develop convictions and stand up to those convictions., etc., .
  • DP interjects and suggests that tests also do not show the potential of the student, JW agrees.
  • Standardized tests only measure a vary narrow view of learning.
As a result, JW states that the US is scaling back subjects that are not part of the standardized tests.

My response: Is it possible to even create a completely unbiased exam at this level?  Isn´t it more important the constant measures are being used to improve the test? The rest of my response is included in the conclusion below.

DP: Goes on to mean the problem of funding for schools linked to test outcomes.  JW agrees and they discuss problems with teachers "teaching to the test".

DP: What could change this and how could we restructure this?

JW responses that schools, parents, teachers, etc. are opting out of Common Core.

My response: Teaching to the test is a problem, but this is a problem with teaching and not testing.  Different from teaching to the test, teachers should be preparing students for the knowledge and skills that test items (from the standardized test) are intended to assess. 


Pakman poses some important questions but the discussion really never got to the key point: The reason standardized testing isn't working is because educational stakeholders (i.e., teachers, administrators, parents, civic leaders, lawmakers, etc.) fail to use standardized testing as a means for improving public schools.  What would this look like?
  1. Standardized tests in conjunction with additional qualitative and quantitative data which are generated from both internal and external sources are used collectively to measure student outcomes.
  2. Research into the relationships between teacher practice and student outcomes need to complement comprehensive data points that holistically measure student outcomes.
  3. School funding is based on a comprehensive assessment of student outcomes, current literature into teacher practice and student outcome relationships, and the current educational context that covers everything beyond student outcomes. 
This simple, yet complex, solution turns comprehensive data into formative action.  When schools are struggling, this data provides a clearer vision as to the resources that are needed (mainly an external commitment) and types of changes that are needed using the resources that are newly available (mainly an internal commitment).  This is not a top-down directive, but rather a negotiation (investment) between all parties. High performing schools share their successes, providing a model for possible solutions for other, more lower performing schools. Hence, education becomes more transparent

In this scenario, evidence-based education provides the professional learning environment for teachers and subsequently for students to be creative, imaginative, etc... If teachers are being creative in the learning design, then it's realistic to think that students are being allowed to be creative (however one defines creativity).

Of course my vision is idealistic, some would say impossible.  But unless we change the narrative, then educational stakeholders are going to go on thinking that the "answer" to standardized testing is simply opting out; in other words, we're just spinning our wheels...

What do you think?  Am I off base?  What am I missing?  What's the problem and solution with standardized testing as you see it?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Article Review: Exploratory Practice

This article review looks at Hanks (2015) and the notion of exploratory practice.  The principles behind exploratory practice, as an answer to the too demanding action research model, include the following (Allwright, 2005):
  1. Put ¨quality of life" first.
  2. Work primarily to understand language classroom life.
  3. Involve everybody.
  4. Work to bring people together.
  5. Work also for mutual development.
  6. Make the work a continuous enterprise.
Two suggestions are also given...
  1. Minimize the extra effort of all sorts for all concerned.
  2. Integrate the "work for understanding" into the existing working life of the classroom (p. 360).
Hanks (2015) sets out to answer the following research questions:
  • What are the challenges faced by practitioners (teachers and learners) when they try to conduct exploratory practice (EP) in an English for academic purposes (EAP) context?
  • What is the relationship between principles and practices in EP? (p. 119).
The study took place in a year-long EAP course at a language center to prepare incoming English language learners (IELTS 6.0) to enter a university in the UK. Two out of six students were chosen to participate in this study, which also included two teachers.  Only the results from the two students are included in this article (results from the teachers pending).

The results of the study show how participants (two English language learners) "welcomed the responsibilities of setting the agenda (via their puzzles)" (p. 127).  The two students were asked to write out what puzzled them which was used as an alternative to solving problems.  The two "puzzles" were 1) Why can't I study in certain situations? and 2) Why do people learn bad words [swear words] more easily? In this research, students collected data to research what puzzled them. Hanks (2015) concludes that EP encourages practitioners (i.e., students) to set their own research agendas because it is integrated into the normal pedagogical practice.

Article Critique


The whole premise for implementing EP is because action research (the alternative) is too demanding and complicating for the English language educator (Allwright, 2005; Hanks, 2015).  Instead of focusing on a problem-solution, the hallmark of any action research approach, the goal for EP is to gain further understanding.  I would argue that it's impossible to pursue a problem of any kind and not gain some higher degree of understanding.  And another misconception of action research is that problems are to be solved.  Setting problems and the pursuit of a problem are sufficient to gain understandings, for both teacher and student.  An understanding is meant to include six facets: to explain, to interpret, to apply, to have empathy, to have perspective, and to have self-knowledge (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Also, by calling it exploratory practice, one might get the impression that all research is exploratory in nature.  However, research can also be explanatory, confirmatory, discursive, intuitive, etc.

Regarding EP as a framework, contrast Hanks's (2015) "seven principles" to Allwright's (2005) principles and suggestions above:

The 'what' issues
  • Focus on quality of life as the fundamental issue.
  • Work to understand it before thinking about solving problems.
The 'who' issues
  • Involve everybody as practitioners developing their own understandings.
  • Work to bring people together in a common enterprise.
  • Work cooperatively for mutual development.
The 'how' issues
  • Make it a continuous enterprise.
  • Minimize the burden by integrating the work for understanding into normal pedagogical practice (pp. 117-118).
The main issue here is the what of it. Quality of life is like no child left behind or teach the whole child, they are buzzwords that few would disagree with, yet few would actually agree on what each term meant and few would actually agree on how to best achieve such ideals.  Also, understanding the language classroom life and understanding first, before solving a problem both seem unnecessary.  Understandings gained through a process of solving (student or teacher-driven) problems does seem necessary however.  The rest of Hanks's (2015) list regarding who and how issues I could equally argue against as well.

Regarding the method, there are no direct (explicit) answers to the research questions, and since only the students are included in the findings, I wonder if presenting the teacher results first wouldn't provide the necessary perspective needed to better understand the findings from the students.  I'm more concerned about what challenges the teacher faces when conducting EP in an EAP context.  I'm more interested in any relationships between EP principles and the teaching practice.  The article neglects any mention of EP in the classroom itself.  Again, perhaps this will be discussed later (future publication?), but not knowing this makes it more difficult to make sound judgments on any possible implications being presented by the (student) participants.

Finally, two images are included in the article showing poster boards that participants made in this EP experiment (great idea!); however, one image is completely illegible while the second only half of the image is decipherable. Missed opportunity. 



Look through this article for possibilities for further study.  Instead of doing an intervention, take some of these ideas and apply it with your own group(s).  Problem setting and seeking are worthy causes as long as you systematically go about collecting and analyzing relevant data.  Also consider the role of assessment when doing this type of student or teacher-driven research.  How might teacher, student, and self-assessment evaluate the process and/or product that resulted from setting and pursuing a problem? As a mental exercise, take the six "puzzles" presented in this article and re-articulate them into problems.  As an example, let's say that I puzzle over why I can't learn Spanish while watching TV.  The problem I have might be 1) I am unable to allocate my time properly; 2) I have not looked at how I learn best; 3) I am unaware of learning opportunities that would help with my learning of Spanish; etc. See if you can do something similar with what's being shared in the article, then image how you, as the English language educator, could coach a student to research these problems for themselves.

If you agree with EP (for the sake of problem solving), still consider what I've mentioned above, but consider carefully how you plan to state a strong case in your literature review: initial argument, counterargument, and rebuttal.  Is there room for problem setting and solving within this phenomenon called "EP"?  Could another term be used instead?  Should problem-based learning be ignored because the rigor of collecting and analyzing data is too much for the English language educator?



    Allwright, D. (2005). Developing principles for practitioner research: The case of exploratory practice. The Modern Language Journal 89(3), 353-366.  Retrieved May 1, 2015 from 

    Hanks, J. (2015). "Education is not just teaching": Learner thoughts on exploratory practice. ELT Journal 69(2), 117-128. 

    Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    Photo attribution