Sunday, July 12, 2020

If you love some science, set it free. Part 1 of 2 -- the problem

The purpose of this post is to discuss a huge glaring problem in education, especially in science -- the use of standardized content to grade students and teachers.

I'll do my summer best to address the issues associated with standardized content and why we should not use it (click to skip to that section), at least not for grades. Later, in a separate blog post (part 2) I will try to do what I always try to do when I bring a problem to people -- provide a solution. You'll have to wait for that for a bit. This post does not really address the ACT/SAT. That I'll save for a later blog post. Disclaimer: I am not currently bound to any content standards.

Standardized content 

What is it?

As teachers we often plan our pacing and classes based on a standardized list of content for our class. It's standardized in the sense that other people also use the same list. We tend to treat the content standards as a checklist of things that students are supposed to learn for our class. Anyone who stumbled on this blog probably has some exposure to more than one collection of standardized content. If not, I guess I found a larger audience then I intended. I hope you stick around for a bit. Find and read any AP course description for an example. Here is the AP Physics C: Mechanics one. An example of a single content standard for physics could be: Students will be able to predict the location of a mass experiencing a known constant unbalanced force over a given duration of time with known initial velocity. This would be one of many that would make up the content standards for a physics class.

Why do we use standardized content?

There are number of answers to this question, depending on who you ask. With content standards for learning in place, if using them actually worked, then educators would have some expectations of content knowledge for students coming out of the various levels of K-12 education. In theory, all K-12 educators could benefit from that. College and university professors might also be interested in that. 

I think most K-12 teachers would say they currently use them because they have to. Same with most admins and district level decision-makers. The answers given by the people who force us to use the standards will vary depending on what they believe will placate the one currently asking the question. I don't believe we often get their honest answers.

There are a number of people who believe that we can use content standards to build a population of educated citizens who have a foundation of knowledge and understanding of the world. These are the people will the best reasons why we need standards. They just haven't settled on the right foundation yet, in my opinion. They have worthy goals of preparing our youth to be informed and knowledgeable so they will value science as they go off into the world to make important decisions, like how to vote.  

Another good answer to why we use content standards is that they provide a guide for what is appropriate for a high school science learner. This is especially useful for new science teachers who have to develop their own curriculum. I have used content standards for the majority of my teaching career. I never really hated them or anything. Early in my career content standards seemed like a nice set of guidelines. For one of my teaching jobs it is pretty much all I had to work with when I started. They even provided a fun puzzle to work out with fellow teacher of physics. How do I fit these all in a school year? Standards as a guide is a great answer, depending on how we force teachers to use them, but it starts to fall apart when we start to test them.

Who creates these content standards?

The State is often the answer to that question, but that is changing. I don't actually know what the State of Michigan is currently demanding we teach in physics, because, thankfully, my school is not bound by that, so I don't have to know. Michigan was going to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and then we didn't, and now I don't know where we are with that. At some point some people in power wanted to add Michigan-themed content to the NGSS and that delayed adopting it, if I remember correctly. Sometimes states come up with their own content standards. Here is a Michigan content standards document I worked off of in the past when I had to. Sometimes states work together to craft them or they adopt more common content standards from bigger broader efforts, like the NGSS or Common Core. Last I checked, 20 states have adopted the NGSS. Sometimes they leave it up to districts or regions to write them, although that freedom seems to be rare these days. Independent schools are not bound by state standards, so they choose their own.

I wrote my own physics content standards a few years back when I tried out standards-based grading. I didn't want to adopt anyone else's, so I sat down at a blank Google doc and typed out and organized everything I thought I could possible want high school physics students to learn to do. This is the document I created that has them all together. For one of my classes, like the single semester Classical Mechanics intro class, I would select some of my standards from that list and focus on teaching those. A different class would use a different list from those standards. Physics Honors, the full year course, would cover almost all of them, except for the calculus applications, which were for 2nd year physics. It was a lot of work to write and organize them, I was pretty proud of them, and they might seem impressive to others. I wrote them as "I can __" statements with action verbs made them seem like they made sense, but at some point even my own content standards eventually became uninspiring as a source for what to evaluate students on. I still use them to plan.

There are many parties who demand to have a say as to what content should be taught and learned in what classes. It's a constant mess of a fight with different parties resisting standardizing, or wanting a bigger voice in standards at different levels for various reasons, or even trying to add pseudoscience or non-scientific content to science standards. The fact that we cannot agree on these things should really be a sign that content standards should not matter anywhere near as much as they currently do.

The NGSS is an example of what happens when you get a lot of smart people together to try to write science standards to help guide the education of the previously mentioned desired population of educated citizens with a solid foundation of science knowledge. The result is a complex series of impressive documents that lay out a foundation of understanding for science and engineering for K-12 education. It's really just well detailed and connected standardized content with some important skills worked in. Dig down and choose any single random element of understanding from the documents and you will most likely find a description of some knowledge that the vast majority of citizens will never use or consider for the rest of their lives. Here is an example I just found in about 30 seconds of clicking. It's a high school physical science item.

HS-PS4-3.Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning behind the idea that electromagnetic radiation can be described either by a wave model or a particle model, and that for some situations one model is more useful than the other

I love the topic of the wave-particle duality of light. In fact, that's one of my favorites to explore in class. I try to work it into every class I can. But I would never dream of claiming that every citizen of our country needs an understanding of it to function in society. I like the NGSS for many reasons, but I don't think we need to design all of science education around it.

How are content standards used? 

Many teachers build their courses based on a list of standards. I believe this to be an example of bottom-up planning. You desire all of of the detailed outcomes for content and you then start to work up to the unit level to see where they fit in. That might not be how all teachers do it, but at some point the detailed standards start elbowing for space at the class period level and influence pacing. I have done plenty of this in the past, divvying up days here and there for this subtopic and that subtopic until it all looks like it makes sense.

Student are then graded, ranked, rewarded and sorted based on their ability to show they have "learned" that content. This is often done via answering questions on a handful of fleeting yet permanent formal assessments, but it is also often mixed in with with presentations, projects, labs, videos, writing, and other ways for students to show "content mastery." There have been recent efforts to make this assessment more fair and growth-focused, like standards-based grading, but in the end it still boils down to measuring the amount of learned standardized content.

The states usually contract out or purchase standardized test which schools then administer to measure success in content retention. The states often use the test results for evaluating schools, making decisions about funding and oversight based on them. They even force school administrators to evaluate individual teacher performance based on test scores, which can affect all kinds of things, including teaching assignment and employment status.

How is learning of content measured and graded?

State standardized test are the big ones -- the high stakes bubble tests which states make all students take and various levels of frequency.

Teachers use traditional exams, tests, quizzes, and homework. We also use journaling, student videos, presentations, discussion, posters, and a numbers of other less traditional methods of alternative assessment. Inevitably, most of what teachers assign and grade is part of a unit which is tied to content standards. Students get a grade(s) associated with those standards, whether it is directly, like with standards-based grading, or indirectly via unit assignment grades.

What ends up happening when we grade learning of content standards?

Testing happens, and then hate often happens, unfortunately. I have never met a student, educator or admin who truly loves the standardized tests that supposedly measure learning of content standards. The testing makes the content standards become a major source of stress for all parties. Being caught in the testing ringer of content standards often made me feel like some really crafty villains got together to create the most slow torture method of completely ruining education for all parties involved and then masterfully sold that snake oil to everyone as the solution to a problem which didn't exist, or if there was a problem then it was clearly explained by school population socioeconomic status and/or guardian involvement in education, not a lack of bubble tests.

The stress that comes from regular grading based on content standards and how we react to it can have some pretty awful consequences too. The whole endeavor ends up wasting tons of time and energy for both students and teachers, detracting from making education meaningful. It discourages risk-taking for students and teachers. Who wants to go out on a limb and try for that thing that might be slightly out of reach when it gets recorded as part of your grade for content evaluation, never changing, or if it might cut into learning some other content on which you will be tested? 

Students who can handle the stress of the system end up figuring out exactly how much they need to do to achieve a high score and then they are happy to wash their hands of that content as soon as they do. There is little satisfaction in doing just enough to get it right, but not quite enough to make it a real challenge. The students who can't handle the stress settle for mediocrity or find ways to cheat. Neither of those outcomes tend to make for a meaningful experience they are proud of.

As teachers, we are made to feel like we have to get through content and that we have to try to get every student to do well on every little item in the content list. The standards become a source of stress, when pacing inevitably derails, or when we are forced to make learning experience subpar just to get through something to maintain pace. We end up not taking risks and we avoid taking more time to dive deeper into something that might be worth exploring. We are not as flexible and are less likely to adapt when needed.

The powers that be have been trying to make us jump through those hoops for a while now. We are used to it. Ask yourself how many times you have been tempted to plow ahead through a concept that clearly needed more time just to get to another concept, because you couldn't stand the idea of not "covering it." Or how many times have you tried to save time by killing the active learning portion (the student exploration part) of a concept and instead just explained it, gave a few problems about it to try, and then assessed it like they actually learned something besides the temporary ability to replicate your process of solving similar problems with different numbers or slightly different setup? 

We are all guilty of those things, I'm sure. Maybe you have moved away from doing them. Maybe you have strategies to avoid them. But with a long list of content and high stakes testing associated it can be tempting to go against our real caring instincts and give into the hoop-jumping checklist for content coverage.

The most tragic big systemic result of using content standards and retention testing of them is that education ends up be molded to the tests. The standards and their tests become a purpose and focus for schools. I have a hard time dreaming up more awful possible purpose that is not also criminal. Time and energy which could be used to make educational inspiring and meaningful is used to prepare students to perform on the tests. Teachers spend a ridiculous amount of time on professional development analyzing data and dreaming up solutions for getting their students to perform better on the tests. It's a nightmare of hoop jumping, and it suffocates schools.

Testing content standards and basing grades on the results kills meaning for students. It's pretty hard to convince students that it makes sense to spend the majority of their waking hours jumping through education hoops because someone they don't know made a list of things they won't need to know later in life, and that they need to do a great job learning that list, because the adults who are trying to get them to learn it have a lot riding on whether or not they do. The only way we can sell such a crap system with horrible purpose to students is by constantly giving them high stakes one-off performance assessments that will be recorded and will limit their access to opportunity later in life.

Kids absolutely abhor the idea that their value as a learner will be partially determined by the bubbles they fill in on some test. They also cannot be convinced that a list of content standards should really be important to them. Parents hate that their kids hate the tests and they also claim to hate the tests, while at the same time many of them use the test score reports to help them choose schools for their kids. Teachers and administrators, or at least the ones who actually care about kids, hate the tests because they realize how little they tell about a student. The rest of them probably hate them because who wants to be judged by the tests scores of your students? You don't get to choose your students. You aren't raising them. You can't make them do anything besides whatever you can get them to do in the classroom.

Testing content standards magnifies inequities. This might be the biggest reason to move away from it. Students with all of the extra time, the tutors, the parents and siblings with degrees, the laptop, and the supportive home environments do better. Those without do worse.

We should abandon basing grades on content standards

Nothing about grading based on standards is relevant.

Learning and testing standardized content is a problem because it is an absolute worthless model for students. There are no jobs outside of teaching that require you to retain and regularly regurgitate massive amounts of content knowledge, which can be instantly looked up on the internet, in a timed setting without the access to ample time, research and/or a team of collaborators. I don't necessarily think education should look like jobs, but what are we preparing them for here? We know they won't remember most of that stuff beyond the test, and there is no reason they need to.

And as far as my content goes, I can't think of a job, besides physics teacher, where you need to be able to solve projectiles problems, investigate an RLC circuit, technically communicate a result of a diffraction pattern lab, reflect on how well your waves test went, and then collaborate on engineering an airbag toy. All of the skills associated with doing those things might be important to many jobs, but then why isn't it the skills which get graded? We will get into that in blog post part 2. The point here is that no one has to know all of that content after physics class. It's silly, so why is that what we measure and grade? And why do we let those grades stick around?

We evaluate a students ability to the know science subtopics as if it's the subtopics that are important, but they are all mostly worthless to most people in the long run. Why do we insist on testing them, grading them, and using that to determine how schools run? Why do we use the results to decide who gets to teach what class, or who gets to go to what college?

Testing and grading based on content standards is unfair.

Life is not fair. Yes, I understand that. We need to prepare our students for the real world and college and all of the cut throat stuff that come with being an adult in a competitive capitalist society. I get that. But kids are not adults. They are not mature enough for all of that yet. Just because it is the way things are done in college does not make it appropriate for high school or lower. Also, most colleges and universities are currently prioritizing revenue, not student well-being, so using their policies and practices for minors is not only developmentally inappropriate, but also arguably unethical. Preparing a child for adulthood does not mean mimicking the adulthood experience. Just because adulthood is not fair does not mean we should make our kids who are preparing for it suffer accordingly. They aren't ready for it.

Testing kids and then using those records to determine what they can and cannot do in the future is not fair to the kid. As teachers we often roll our eyes at situations like this -- a kid emails us freaking out about their grade on the recent physics test, going on about how it will affect their college acceptance. But the kid is right. Right after we roll our eyes we enter that permanent D+ into a grade book and go on our merry way. Meanwhile that D+ sits there haunting the kid and actually might become the reason she doesn't get into a college.

Oh, you offer make-up tests? What's that? You provide alternative forms of assessment? What if that student never quite figures out how to solve projectiles problems, and the whole class is deep into the next unit? They have tried and tried, and it just isn't clicking. Do you let them keep trying while you have moved on to other topics. How are they supposed to focus on the new material and learn the old stuff at the same time? What about their other classes? Do the students they have to work with in lab groups deserve to suffer because their partner is still focused on the last test instead of what's going on now? At some point do you expect them to just give up and take the failing grade for that content and let everyone be okay with it, even though solving projectiles problems is a worthless skill for most people? Why is it so important that they know how to do that?

Assessing content standards, even with SBG, does not promote true growth for learners.

Focusing on assessing content does not effectively promote a growth mindset with students. I learned this when I tried standard-based grading. As much of an improvement as it is from a more traditional grading system with one-off unit tests, subtopic quizzes, labs, homework, etc, standards-based grading is really just a way of offering make-up opportunities for content items. The focus is still on stuff that doesn't really matter.

Why would we want students to obsess about their growth on a specific science standard that really means nothing to them? And if there are 25, or 40 or 50 content standard items for a class, how can you really get them thinking about growth over time when all you have really have given them is a checklist of stuff to learn, along with knowledge that if they struggle with them then they can keep trying, but it will just pile up.

With content standards, at some point the student and/or teacher has to make the choice to just move on. And that is really just giving up, not growth. 

If you have unit tests, quizzes, assignment grades, project grades, and the like in your grade book that get entered and never change and figure into a final grade, then you are doing it wrong. That does not promote and reward growth. Getting better at "taking tests" is not growth. That's hoop jumping. And you still keep all of the test grades. Getting better at doing reporting on labs might be considered growth, but then why do you keep their earlier lab report grades?

If you have content standards in your grade book that read like subtopic abilities for your content, you are doing it wrong, just less wrong than traditional grading systems. SBG still does not truly promote and reward useful growth. Growth happens over time, not over over subtopics. Getting better at evaluating resistors in parallel might be considered growth, but if it takes over their life, then at what expense, and what did they really get out of it? 

Why are we in the business of punishing students for where they were, rather than promoting growth and rewarding them for where they end up? You can't do the latter unless you only keep their last grade in each of those grade categories, and with a traditional grade categories or points system that doesn't really make sense. You can't reward growth when you ask them to grow into dozens of science subtopics. That's unreasonable, and it measures and focuses on growth of mostly worthless skills over short periods of time.

Kill the use of content standards in assessment, but not for planning

First of all, I don't think we need to delete or burn all content standards. They have their use, but we should not be testing and grading students based on their learning of them. Second, not all content standards are created equal. Some are a bigger problem than others. There has been a recent push to make some standards read more like more broadly applicable skills, which are actually useful to students outside of science class. These are more aligned with my proposed solution in part 2 of this blog series. Unfortunately, these more skill-like standards will often carry equal weight in the list with the more content-specific standards, and the broader skill-based standards often do not get much special treatment. They tend to be things we all already do an inquiry classroom anyway, like designing a lab investigation or analyzing and reporting results, so it's easy to ignore then or take them for granted. They don't generally provide anything useful to focus on that wasn't already there and obviously necessary. It is nice to have their importance acknowledged, but what about all of the other skills necessary to do science? 

Also, some standards are not as overwhelming as others and are designed to provide some freedom of approach and content modification. The NGSS, s crazy complex as it is, is really just a fairly short list of standards that most schools should not have too hard a time "covering" and adding their own content to it. The complexity comes from their attempt at connecting everything via skill sets. The fact that they narrowed the list of content down so much but then had to make such a crazy complex document to fully connect and explain everything should have been a sign that it was the connections and skills which are important, not the content item.

Would anyone actually miss testing content standards?

The people who make money on them or use them for power and control love the standards. The politicians who decided they are a good idea love them because they use them to control funding and school policy. The organizations that write them, and create the tests, and the test preparation businesses. They all love the standards. It's their source of income. Their main motive does not generally appear to be student well-being. 

You can find some seemingly sadistic or brainwashed administrators who appear to relish how easy it is to evaluate teachers based on test scores. Or sometimes they are obsessed with their school scores because their job depends on it. They don't actually have to do real evaluations of teachers, systems and curricula when they can just use data. Using statistics allows them to make things less personal, and feel less guilt about their decisions. It makes their job easier as long as they don’t actually care about students and teachers.

In summary

Content standards are sometimes crafted and used with good intentions, but they come with some awful baggage, including standardized testing, grading based on content standards, and all of the fallout from those. If we truly value promoting healthy growth in education for our youth we would not grade them based on their ability to learn useless things.

So what do we do instead? That's coming next post. I think I have bored and/or offended you enough where I'll let you stew on some of this before I attempt to provide a fix. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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