By the Numbers

Recently, we prepared a PowerPoint to illustrate the positive difference the Inquiry Science Institute made in the science achievement of students in our schools. The slides looked at ISATs data in 4th and 7th (the only tested) grades. It was the most consistent data we had across all of our schools. Overall, we were pleased with the results. Compared with the aggregate of all CPS schools (which includes magnet schools, Level 1 schools, and schools in more advantaged communities than those we serve), the students in ISI schools showed greater gains in science from the 2010 baseline, particularly at the 4th grade.  Schools started working with us in the spring of 2010. 2011 showed better results than 2012, but that was true citywide in science.

ISI Performance on ISATs 2011 & 2012

ISI Performance on ISATs 2011 & 2012

With the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) on April 9, we enter a new era. New assessments will replace the ISATs, assessments that we believe will be more in line with what the Inquiry Science Institute promotes instructionally by following the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education upon which the NGSS is based and the NGSS itself. The new tests, if they are well constructed, should assess higher order skills than ISATs ever has, skills like the ability to frame thoughtful questions and solve complex problems.  But whatever they do, the tests will probably still come down to numbers … to winners and losers … unless they are used formatively and don’t become the sole arbiter of what schooling is all about. There is so much more! It’s just not easily quantified.

The kinds of things tests don’t measure include whether or not a student has developed a passion for something that could lead to a productive life, the kind of passion that provides the necessary motivation and incentive to work hard, to learn at a deep level, and to commit a significant part of one’s life to engagement with whatever the focus of that passion is.  And they don’t measure the teacher to student relationships that can shape character and inspire the course a life will take. They don’t measure the creative capacity of the individual or the potential contribution that young person could make to the world. They don’t measure the intensity of engagement in the satisfying work of learning. And they don’t measure the joy a student feels in mastering something new after trying very hard, taking a risk, failing, and yet keeping at it.  All of these things seem much more significant in creating a successful life than what our testing culture seems to value most.

The Intensity of Engagement in tthe Work of Learning

The Intensity of Engagement in the Work of Learning (Till Elementary)

And in the process of all this testing, we’ve created a crisis of conscience for teachers.  You remember them?  They are the professionals, the men and women (more often women) who dedicated themselves to educating children and helping them develop their talents, expand their knowledge, and find their way in the world. Let’s listen to some early childhood teachers as they describe what school has become for very young children and, as a result, what they as teachers have become party to against their own better judgment.

“NWEA (MAP) testing is done on a computer and my Kindergarten children have never seen a mouse before. For the most part they are clicking to be clicking … directions are being read to them and they are just learning, developing their skills, so I question the validity of the test because of the lack of experience of Kindergarten children with testing. I don’t think they would ever hit the back button if they realized something was wrong … they are babies … they just want to look at the pictures. They just pick anything. They are innocent; they’ll do whatever you tell them.  I just feel sorry for them. The test makers don’t know children this age. When do 5 year olds get to act like five year olds?”

“I wonder about the NWEA … who is it really for? I had one little girl who spent an hour on the test because every time she got something right the test got harder. Other kids just clicked through getting all wrong answers and were done in no time. These tests take away from good instruction because you teach to the test even though you may not intend to … fluency is about how fast you read … now I’m taking time to teach them how to read faster … it has nothing to do with comprehension.  If we really care about what children know, why are tests even timed?

“You create a climate where nothing matters but the test. If you have a climate like that what does it matter that I come to school and learn? We’re not teaching for transfer any longer … what you learn is no longer connected to life. Children sometimes are so good but fail the ISATs and have to go to summer school. Others don’t know anything but are good guessers. One of my students last year, he can’t read, but he passed his ISATs. Since they don’t look at our assessments, how do they balance that against the ISATs?  I have a student who can sit and read to me but as soon as you take out the iPad, he loses all of it.  You (the teacher) turn into someone you don’t like.”

“The testing turns us into bean counters.  We start looking at data; we stop looking at kids.  There’s danger in that. Kids are not cars.  It’s not even about individual kids anymore.  It’s about groups of kids.  There’s a danger in that.  You’re not addressing that child’s needs.  No group all needs the same things, not with such huge ranges of abilities in the classroom. If you want people actually looking at kids and what their strengths and weaknesses are, there’s a danger in how we are currently assessing. With everything we know about child development … testing at these grades (primary) is not developmentally appropriate.”

“I don’t think third graders should be tested.  It’s too much pressure at such a young age.  It’s counterintuitive to everything we know about what good practice is and everything we know about how kids learn. We need to help them develop the joy of learning before we thrust the test at them.  Why does a third grader need to have test taking skills?  They need to have reading skills. Instead, they lose 3 months of learning in K, 1, 2.  Individual tests, one on one with teacher, means the teacher is not instructing the other children, who are instead doing worksheets.  Assessment is certainly important to make instructional decisions for children.  But how can what somebody gets on an ISATs test mean more than the weekly, monthly work I do with that child?  It takes no account of where they came from, where they started.  What does it say about teachers and honoring their craft? There’s no respect for the practice of teachers and the professionalism there. We want people to be literate beings … thinkers.  Testing doesn’t get us there.”

“We are not teaching children social skills anymore.  They are not learning to use small motor skills, gross motor skills, conflict resolution, no cutting days (learning how to use scissors). Those things don’t happen any more. I’ve had to teach kids in second grade how to cut. We are stealing childhood from children.”

These teachers make excellent points and raise questions we would do well as a society to ponder.

So while, by the numbers, those looking at ISI schools’ results on the standardized tests measuring student achievement in science might expect us to be pleased and proud (which we are), we are elated every time a student of a teacher we’ve taught how to use inquiry instructional practices says, “I love science!” We are much more pleased when we are able to assist teachers to put more of the joy back into learning … and into teaching.  And we are prouder when our teachers activate and pursue the inquisitive nature of each child, because that’s how we define inquiry. It is that same spirit of inquiry, which continuously “makes new magic in this dusty world.”

The Joy of Science

The Joy of Science (Nightingale Elementary)

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here:


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