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Virginia Carstens

© 2001

Action Research

High Stakes Testing and Performance Standards

As an Undergraduate, I took the PPST to be accepted into the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, an later, that same PPST test score helped me to gain my Minnesota State Teaching License. As a teacher, I have helped 8th graders and 10th graders prepare for and take the Minnesota Basic Skills test. If these students fail, they will not graduate from high school Sometimes I question whether the state is assessing my students to see what they know and what they can do, or is the state assessing the education my students have received from my class, my colleagues, and my school district? The state is assessing both. It all comes down to accountability. Keep[8 school sand students accountable.

I have been interested in high stakes standards since my student teaching experience. I student taught at the Vienna International School in Vienna, Austria. ITS has implemented the International Baccalaureate Program. It is a two year intensive study program that is similar to the American AP classes. Students must test to get accepted and must test to pass. A graduating student is evaluated by two methods: one external and one internal. The external examination is a much greater determining factor of whether a student passes. The internal evaluation, which is based loosely on la portfolio, an extended essay, and an oral examination, shows that the International Baccalaureate Organization is at least conscious of other viable methods of assessment.

Assessment has always been a hot topic in education. Accountability is also. According to the New Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accountable is an adjective that means answerable, responsible. Who is accountable to whom? Those who favor high stakes testing say the tests are a good way to assess student knowledge and keep them (and schools) accountable. Those opposed think the tests unfair because of anxiety levels in both teachers and students, tests often do not show what a student is capable of, there appears to be an unfair advantage in more affluent school districts.

This issue is so debated that it is easy to find a variety of vocal people speaking their opinions on it. Studies are also conflicting and plentiful. Although I will be starting my fourth year of teaching this fall, I do not believe I have enough firsthand experience in this issue to form an authentic opinion. To this point, I have been listening to colleagues, administrators, and legislators. I would like to start listening to students.

The question of my action research plan is simple an broad: Which assessment method is the most effective, testing or performance based learning standards? I am sure others will pop up as I go. I will have three classes of 9th grade students next year. They are similar in socio-economic class, ability level, and gender an race make-up. Not quite an equal playingfield, but close enough. For one unit in the semester, I will set up the classes in the following way: Class A will be assessed at the end of the unit with a comprehensive final test. It will be a mixture of multiple choice and short answer. Class B will be assessed through a performance standard,. Based on a predetermined and disclosed rubric, their scores will reflect how well they performed certain tasks. The third class will receive no cumulative assessment. They will be graded on the completion of assigned task, but no unit grade will be given.

I hope to gain more insight into effective assessment methods. I will keep an ongoing journal of observations, interviews, and surveys as I dig deeper into this issue. I'm interested to know what my students will say after they have tried it all three ways. I plan to involve them in my research more than just as my guinea pigs. I would like phlegm to think about what they are doing and what works best for them. Surveys and dialogs will be as valuable to me as the scores that they receive in the end. I believe they also need to know what I am doing, what I'm trying to accomplish, and why it is important to me. Most students whom I have worked with moan and groan about taking a test. At the same time, they are fanatic about what they scored on it. Students do want to know who much they know, and they want others to know.

For this to work, I have to have my students' cooperation and support. That means I have t make them believe in what I'm trying to do. This will be a challenge but not something I'm too worried about. It will take trust and respect, which I will have to establish with them right off the bat. I can't wait to try.

Resources Reviewed:
1. Barksdale-Ladd, Mary Alice, and Karen F. Thomas. "What's at Stake in High Stakes Testing." Journal of Teacher Education 51 (2000): 384-97
Barksdale and Thomas report their findings after interviewing 59 teachers and 20 parents in two states. This is a great quote: "Clearly, assessment is needed to begin the process of addressing student needs. On the political front, almost all governors are calling for accountability on the part of teachers and teacher educators through standards and assessment based on those standards" (Barksdale-Ladd 385). They then went on o share the frustrations of the teachers and parents because of the state imposed standards. A large majority of parents interviewed are in favor of benchmarks and testing. There are very low numbers of teachers interviewed who believe that test taking has any positive effects on children.

2. Hardy, Lawrence. "The Trouble with Standards." American School Board Journal 187 (2000): 22-26.
Hardy is suggesting that a backlash is building against state imposed standards and high stakes testing for a number of reasons. They include: undue pressure on staffs, introduced without accompanying curriculum, and encouraged "drill and practice" mentality that restricts curriculum. This article was encouraging because I agree with so many of his points. Plus, it's nice to know that there are some school board members acknowledging some of my frustrations and concerns.

3. Kohn, Alfie. No Contest: The Case Against Competition. 2nd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.
I've just started to read No Contest, and so far it's kept me awake. I opened the front cover with a bad attitude because I don't mind competition, and I expected preaching an cooperative salvation. There is a fair amount of preaching, but he redeems himself and his work by sharing some very illuminating studies. His examples of cooperative learning strategies are excellent.

4. Smith, Mary Lee, and Patricia Fey. "Validity and Accountability in High Stakes Testing." Journal of Teacher Education 51 (2000): 334-97
This was an interesting article because Smith and Fey said that in order to understand and implement high stakes testing, accountability and validity need to be understood as equally important. One person is accountable to another by virtue of certain actions or accomplishments. The term has come to mean the responsibility of a school to parents, taxpayers, and governments to produce high achievement test scores. Accountability is politically motivated. Validity is "the quality of an instrument to yield truthful inferences about the trait it measures" (Smith 336). They go on to point out that these two terms are rarely used together. Their argument was insightful and well supported.

Future Sources:
Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.
Stacey Kadrmas recommended this book to me. For the past two years, she has worked with Minnesota's Children, Family and Learning as a member of the Improvement Support Team. She traveled to different Minnesota schools to visit with teachers about implementing the MN Graduation Standards. Understanding by Design offers a lot of the the philosophy behind these standards.


Creative Writing

Samantha Josephine Washburn

My name is Samantha Josephine Washburn. I have at least eight letters in every one of my names. That's what happens when you're named after two Grandmothers who have old fashioned names. Why couldn't people in the 1900s name their kids names like Amy or Monica. Anyway, everyone calls me Sammy. Unless you are my Great Aunt Hazel. She calls me by my full name except she says it like this, "sam-an-THA." Like I did something wrong or something. I get goose-flesh every time I draw her attention.

I don't know why my name always got me into trouble, it just did. When I was a little kid, recess became an occasional boxing ring. Boys, it was ALWAYS boys, would tease me and call em names like 'Spam-an-tha' and 'Sam Sandwich.' My small hands would form into pint sized fists that carried more impact than punch. I think I set a new record at Rockview Elementary School for number of trips to the Principal's office. My dad helped me to realize my error in reasoning when he dragged me into one of his "Chats" after a particularly gruesome fight: Tommy Torkleson's nose suffered slight, and I repeat SLIGHT, swelling from one of bony knuckle jabs. These "chats" were never really what I would describe as a conversation. I usually stared at him in what would appear to be a respectful listening posture while he stood, arms crossed, face stern, to deliver some greater wisdom.

"Sammy," he began. "Let's have a chat."

"About what? I didn't do anything," I said, knowing full well what was coming.

"Your mother got a call from Principal Legg today. He told us about the fight."

"Dad," I bemoaned. "It wasn't my fault. Tommy deserved it. Plus, I can't help it if he's fat and slow and couldn't dodge my fist."

Groaning, he leaned down a little closer to me. "Honey, you cannot solve your problems this way. You gotta stop fighting, it is no way for a young lady to act."

"I hate my name. If you would let me change it, I wouldn't fight any more."

"Sam, look at the bigger picture here. Usually people don't make fun of other people because of a name. They make fun of others because they are jealous." That's when he crossed his arms and leaned back on his heels, a sure sign that he was settling into the lecture.

"Why would Tommy be jealous of me?" I whined. I was beginning to wonder if my dad had ever been 11 years old and have to defend himself against mean playground bullies.

"Last summer, you beat Tommy in the 100 meters Breast stroke. This fall, suddenly you shot up like a weed, and now you get to stand in the back row during pictures. He's probably a little jealous because he can't keep up with you."

"That's stupid, he's stupid."

"Well, if anything, think of it as an honor to be made fun of. It means that you've made an impact." Then his vice went dangerously soft, "No, stop fighting. I don't want to have this conversation with you again."

"O,K." I mumbled. When his voice went down like that, and you have to strain to hear him, you know you're in trouble. And I was. Because of Tommy and his lousy jealousy, I ended up with dish night every night for two weeks. But the worse thing was my mother making me call Tommy to apologize. That stabbed my pride and made me hate Tommy even more. I was a little surprised that Tommy didn't make my apology public knowledge. He just wanted to let it go. It wasn't until later that I realized I hurt more than Tommy's nose. Egos can bruise easily, especially male ones when girls get the better of them. Tommy still pestered me, but it wasn't like before.

Actually, back then, Sammy isn't nearly as bad as Samantha. Going around with a name like that will end in only one thing: dresses and combed hair. Most people would not categorize me a a real girlie girl. Dresses always get wrinkled, knees are scraped a good majority of the time, and my hair is never in place.

So because of my name, the first day of school was always what Dad called a practice in patience. Teachers can be clueless. I mean, if I were a teacher, I would be very sensitive to unwanted names. Every year, for the first role-call, my teach would call out, "Samantha Washburn?" And every year I would reply, "Mmm. . . It's Sammy." I couldn't understand it; it's not like I'm new to the teachers. They've known of my existence, if not from reputation, then at least from my older sister.

There was one year when the print out must have lost some ink. To make matters worse, there was also a new teacher, Miss Jenkins. She was young and my 6th grade class smelled her nervousness like bloodhounds picking up the scent of fresh game. Tommy Torkelson thought it would be real funny to play a around a little. So, when she called Matt Cambell, Tommy replied. Miss Jenkins didn't even miss a beat. She was so caught up in pronouncing each name correctly, she didn't notice the snickers coming from Tommy and his gang. When she reached Natalie Vandermay, the muffled giggles of the class finally penetrated her consciousness.

Miss Jenkins' first fatal mistake was to not laugh it off or play it up, but to stop and lecture on the importance of trust. What sixth grader do you know who hasn't heard this one before?

"It's the only thing that really matters. You will find as you grow older that without trust, nothing will ever move forward." Blah, blah, blah. . .

Our wide eyes gazed up at her like we weren't really thinking about what's for lunch, who was wearing a bra, or how the kickball teams would be divided up at lunch. The room was silent as she wrapped it up. I guess she took that as a good sign because she ended with, "Good, I'm glad that we could come to that understanding on the first day. You show me respect and I will show it to you in return."

Then she came to the S's. And the first W is always me.

"Sam Washburn?"

"Ah, man," I thought.

"Sam Washburn?"

There was a great pause before I slowly raised my hand. At first, she glanced at me and then away. She continued to ignore me. I continued to hold up my hand. Trying to think of what to say and do next, I cleared my throat. However, it sounded like I was trying to start a lawn mower with my tonsils.

Her eyes snapped right back to me while a pink flushed spilled into her face. At this point, I knew I was done for. So did the rest of the class. No one spoke or even attempted to come to my defense. We were all too scared of what she would do. Jay Matthews, Tommy's best friend, let out a little laugh, which he fruitlessly tried to cover in a cough. Jenkins' eyes pinned him wit the laser beam.

"I don't appreciate this. What kind of class will this be, if we don't get along?"

"Miss, it really is my name. I --"

"Did you not hear a word of what I just said?"

"I did. I was listening. It's just that now you're not listening to me."

"Don't use that tone of voice with me."

"I really am sorry, but that's my name. I've wanted to change it, but I can't because it was my grandmother's."

"You're telling me this is a family name?"

"Yes, it is. I swear."

"Do you mind if I check this out?"

"Go ahead. I don't care."

Ii was getting angry. Why wouldn't she believe me? I mean, why would any girl pretend her name was a boy's name? My best friend Sally, realizing that my smart-mouth was guiding me into deeper trouble, stepped in for me. She gently raised her hand.

"Miss Jenkins, that really is her name. Well, I mean, her name is Samantha. We've always called her Sammy. I guess that's her nickname."

Around the room, other heads nodded in agreement. I sat, stiffly staring at Miss Jenkins. Why is it that adults almost automatically distrust kids? I did nothing to bring this on, but because Tommy was such a jerk, I get in the hot seat. Sally's logic must have made sense to her because Miss Jenkins turned to me and said, "Samantha, why didn't you just tell me that was your name?"

For the rest of 6th grade, Miss Jenkins and I did our best to ignore each other. So, I wasn't all that surprised when on the first day of the most important year in a young girl's life, my name caused what was to be the start of the longest year of my life. You see, I have reached a very pivotal stage in life, High School. I have been looking forward to this and dreading it since I learned about puberty.