Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Testing Is Not Teaching" Reading Discussion

Our first reading discussion is scheduled for day one of the institute. As you read Testing Is Not Teaching, select a line (or two) that strikes a chord with you and/or deserves discussion. In a comment to this post, record the line(s) and a brief response. We will use these responses to frame our discussion on June 25.

Happy reading!


  1. First blog ever!

    I have always loved Donald Graves and the writing process. I remember the excitement of first discovering that someone actually wrote about teaching writing!

    I would like to discuss Linda Reif's method of having students evaluate their own writing. It struck a chord with me when she said she often felt like an editor, putting corrections/marks on piles of papers, thinking that was her job. I often sigh at the end of the year when I see that some of my 8th graders still haven't learned how to put a period in the right place, even after hours of correcting 'bloopers' (errors from student work). Reif has them rate, comment on and scale their work (pg 28), turning them into expert critics. I don't know if this would work for improving mechanics as well as other aspects of writing, but I would like to explore it in general and find out what approaches others use!

    I would also love to discuss fast/slow thinking and the effects of technology on the classroom, especially the writing classroom.

    Last thing- I loved Stephen's Kings Book on writing, and would love to create editing exercises based on his ideas....

    Can't wait to meet you all!

    Joanne Churchill

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I am also enjoying King's book.

  2. I found myself reading a chapter or two during my study hall over a couple weeks...really enjoyed this book.

    p 28

    ""The student is the most important evaluator"
    Aside from giving me some cool ideas for my class, I absolutely value this idea. Our job as teachers is to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses to help them be autonomous thinkers or at least be able to ask the right questions. He goes on to say, "No question, the teacher does have an evaluative role, but her primary role is to teach the students how to evaluate and how to read their work, and how to ask critical questions." It's a challenge to be both supporter and evaluator. I'm looking to find creative ways to shift to the student.

    p 69

    "How does this testing connect with your understanding of what constitutes learning? What do you think your think is the function of this test?" I might replace "test" with assignment or assessment in this quote because I don't give a lot of tests, but what this quote brought up for me was an essential question of what an assignment is for: to learn or to assess? I just did a film assignment and made a decision not to grade it, but evaluated the proposal and reflection instead. I got feedback both ways, but one student wrote about how she wished it had been graded because she worked hard and created a good product and so deserves a good grade for it which brings up a lot of questions...
    I think the quick answer is that everything should not be graded and that grades are not an authentic motivator...but sometimes they are. It's also about focusing on the process of writing and not the product, but in our culture students have a hard time doing that.

    1. I think always looking at our purpose for an assignment, assessment or test is excellent practice. You bring up a good question about grades being motivators. This should lead to some great discussion.

  3. It is so nice to read a book that affirms many of my own beliefs about teaching and learning, some that I have not been in touch with in a while.

    pg. 11 "What is there about writing that brings out the worst in us, that makes us concentrate on the accidents of discourse before reaching to the heart of what writers are trying to say."
    This quote serves as an excellent reminder to value the writer's message first, to validate what they are trying to say rather than pointing out its "flaws". I wish I could say that I always do this, but I can say that I try.

    I also really liked the idea of spending more time teaching students to evaluate their own writing. I would like to explore Linda Rief's process of teaching her students to evaluate writing as discussed on page 28 and Graves' method on page 30-31.

    1. Gigi,

      I, too, am guilty of noting flaws in students' writing all too often—and too soon, and I'm now questioning my whole approach to "constructive criticism."

  4. p. 90 "As important as the mind are the emotions. Emotions are the engine of the intellect. When we attend to a child's emotions, we are looking at what the child wants."

    Working with struggling, reluctant readers and writers, I have felt enormous pressure to raise the test scores of the bottom 25% of students. My program is rated by the number of students who meet the benchmarks. This quote gives me strength to keep following the path of high expectations based in reality of the emotions of the 5-10 year-olds that are in my program. Encouraging, coaxing, coaching focusing on what they can do and build on that, find a spark of interest in writing or reading and fueling it with a positive attitude and genuine caring of the students in front of me. Although only 44% of my first graders made the benchmarks, I know that at least 80% see themselves as readers. I sent in my summary data report and thought, "I wonder if I'm a good enough teacher."

    Related to the above quote is another one found on p. 37: "Good teachers know that methods must be based on the needs of the particular student and that choosing a method is an art based on professional experience and a knowledge of the child's interests abilities and desires. The objective and procedure exist for the child."

    1. Stephanie,

      I loved these two quotes also. I also liked how you revealed the honest teacher feelings you had around sending in your data. I have often felt this way when assessing students. Well said and very validating! Hooray! Your students see themselves as readers! Sounds like you're a strong teacher.



  5. I love that line from page 37 and had it underlined in my copy. I know and feel this is true, good teachers have talent for choosing methods to reach a child, but what discourages me is time. Just coming out of ETEP, I have not yet had my own classroom. How am I to allow room for my own mistakes, establish working routines and still have the time to work with each child individually using trial and error? I do believe I have a talent for reaching children and incorporating their interests and abilities, but I am lacking the "professional experience" Graves speaks of.

  6. From the chapter "What Writing Does": p. 59:
    "Until her writing reaches the paper, Jennifer doesn't really know what she thinks....Writing allows Jennifer to freeze an image or an idea, ponder it on the page, then build thought upon thought." When one of my high school students hands me a test paper with a blank on a question, I always tell the student to "Write something: you may write yourself into an answer or the process of writing may prompt your thinking. It is so obvious to me, but some students still refuse to write - are afraid of getting the wrong answer, even when I assure the student that she has no chance of getting any points from a blank, but she has a shot at getting a point or more by writing something.

  7. "Teachers are buried in an avalanche or expectations: standards, testing, and expanded curricula. The expectations come from every level of government and administration as well as from parents and the community. They are rarely part of a long-term plan carefully developed in conjunction with the teachers…My greatest concern is that teachers will look up to the “wisdom” of power and authority instead of down to the children who are the source of what needs to be taught.” (50-1)

    Many essays in this book inspired me. Many also productively discouraged me because, as with the above quote, I agree with Graves but don’t know how to start a new educational pendulum swing. I have worked in a few different schools. All schools assess the students based upon common standards and all schools do very little with the tests. My favorite response from a principal when asked what to do with the testing results was to file it in a cabinet as proof that I did it but throw it away in two years when the government decides the kids need another type of test. He was clearly asking his staff to administer the tests to make sure we could say we were fashion forward but also didn’t put any weight on them making it difficult to sell the kids on assessments if there is little regard for the results. Teaching becomes more about impressing the ‘wise power and authority’ and much less about the individual needs of students. I am anxiously awaiting my opportunity to turn again back to the student centered classroom. As Mr. Graves put it so expertly, “I suspect that teacher standards are more ambitious than those developed by the officials higher up in the hierarchical chain simply because teachers know best what students are capable of doing.”(52) I put my faith into this type of thought and wait for the pendulum to swing.

  8. Reading Response: Testing is Not Teaching

    “The standards movement began in the late eighties, soon followed by an emphasis on testing in the nineties, with high stakes testing the war cry of the twenty first century. I predict that a standardization of text and methodology will follow. …In our quest for certainty, we have eliminated the freedom factor. The more we pursue certainty, the more suspicious we will be of teachers and educators who are responsive to their students.” -page 7

    It seems that Graves has hit the nail on the head: The more we standardize learning, the smaller the learning process becomes. His prediction was right when he wrote this book because we are now facing the politics of The Common Core State Standards and districts are requiring that teachers use curriculum that is packaged by textbook companies in order to comply to these standards. Standardized learning and assessment cheats out exceptional learners (including students receiving special services or students on the list to being evaluated to receive services) and is also limiting to students from lower social-economic areas. Not to mention, it puts teaching practices under microscopes and the freedom to invent curriculum in the moment that suits the needs of the class is taken away. Inquiry is lost for the students and also for the teacher.

    I enjoyed the historical perspective Graves gives us in the beginning chapters. I agree that the US operated out of fear for the last 30 years that we would not become global competitors if our students weren’t assessed and taught “properly”. The ‘freedom factor” of student-led learning that he speaks of has indeed been lost with the Common Core. Yet, I still remain hopeful that small groups of administrators, teachers, parents, and students could advocate for a systems change back to student-led learning in this post-911 world.

    Looking forward to meeting you all and to our discussion.


  9. The structure of this book interested me and after reading the essays, I was curious to look back at how Graves laid down the thematic underpinnings early on.

    I love the way Graves' third essay offers a trip into another temporal dimension as a reminder of what can't be measured and what is diminished by our current obsession with measuring. It's that early chapter when he shares the story of his friend Maura Sullivan, a Latin and Greek scholar, who is finding ways to communicate with her father after he has had a stroke. In the end, it is time, love, and attention that work for Maura and her dad. When I read the phrase, "the person is more important than the message" it reminds me that typically the data we collect about student performance does not deepen our knowledge of that person and the time wasted chasing that data is a distraction from that sacred opportunity we have as teachers to get to know that person and to help him or her develop.

    When Maura finally is able to understand her father, it is because she "moved into a different temporal dimension." He closes the essay with a meditation on the difference between the two Greek words for time--kronos and kairos. While kronos must be measured to be understood, kairos ("the fullness of time") has to be intuited. Getting better at measuring when it is the right time for something to happen (kairos) involves being more attentive and tuning in to the person. Paradoxically, the student data chase leads us further and further from the students themselves. "Good teachers, like Maura, know when to suspend kronos and enter the teachable moment...... Schools and the world beyond them are inexorably attached to the metronome of kronos, which wastes the best that is human within us." As teachers, we are asked to brush past the question 'would you rather waste time or waste your opportunity to experience the best of our humanity?'

    I love the daring behind dropping such esoteric but intriguing thoughts right at the start of the book! I loved all the classroom snapshots and useful details (how to have students organize their portfolios in particular!) that followed....but I found myself returning to the altered perspective he advocates in the third essay.

    I enjoyed reading all of your comments, and I'm looking forward to our discussion,

  10. pg. 33 “Students in many...districts prepare for months, taking test after practice test in order to become testwise and do well for the sake of the school and district. Enormous amounts of time that should be spent in teaching are stolen by these preparation efforts, which unfortunately entail handling short-answer questions, reading short paragraphs, and filling in bubbles with the correct answer.”

    My principal often refers to a pyramid of assessment, where standardized, high-stakes testing is at the top, intended to have “high” importance but take up only a small amount of time, supported by district-level assessments, school-wide assessments, grade-level assessments and down to daily formative assessments. These make up the base of the pyramid, taking up the most space and supporting all the other levels of assessment. Our administrators remind us how small that triangle at the top really is, and yet we still spend far more time preparing our students for, administering, and working with the data from these tests. What can be done to bolster the accuracy/ease/accountability surrounding smaller day-to-day assessments? I ask this because I do believe that, done well, formative assessment is a critical part of teaching.

    On the other hand, as Graves points out on the next page, “Unfortunately, our quick-scoring computers can’t handle responses that demand written thought or discern which students can initiate and pursue a long-term project or even read books.” (pg. 34)

    As much as I support richer, more comprehensive assessments (“testing”) at all levels, I was part of a committee of ELA and Content teachers involved in creating and scoring benchmark writing assessments for grades 6-8. There were excellent conversations had about the teaching of writing, the assessment of writing, and our students’ learning. We were able to administer several rounds of writing prompts, but the process eventually fizzled out, overwhelmed by the amount of time it took to plan, read and score the prompts. How do we reconcile the need for deeper assessments with the time and resources that they require? I’m not saying that it can’t or shouldn't be done, but I’m wondering how it would work in practice.

  11. I'm not normally a pessimistic person. I see openings and possibilities in most every problem. But I have found my optimism about the future of education eroding in recent years. I worry about a country in which greed replaces outrage over injustice. We preach freedom to other countries, forgetting that the growing imbalance between rich and poor at home gives our voice a decidedly tinny ring on the international scene." p. 39

    I also am a natural optimist. But when it comes to the things we, as teachers are up against, I really struggle. How can we get our society as a whole to limit television, gaming, social media? Many parents in my school are parents who limit and encourage their children to read, so I am lucky. What about the rest of Maine? What about the rest of the United States? I am so pessimistic!