Exam Mode on the Prizm CG50 Graphing Calculator

As my last post stated, it’s that time of year for standardized testing. As part of this, certain states require that students use calculators that have been set to exam mode. This means that certain features of the calculator have been ‘turned off’ or are inaccessible to students while the exam is going on.  I remember spending hours setting all my calculators to exam mode for students and then having to spend hours undoing that once exams were over – quite a pain.

The beautiful thing about the CG50 Prizm graphing calculator is that you never have to undo the exam mode – it will automatically turn off exam mode after 12 hours. Which means, you can set it, students can take their test, and then next day, the calculator is ready to go again with full functionality restored.  Another nice feature is that when the calculator is in exam mode, you can actually see it on the screen – there is a green highlighted border when in exam mode. This makes it easy to walk around and visually check that the calculators are indeed still in exam mode (or were set to exam mode to begin with, if you have your students do the process for you).

I made a quick video on how to put a CG50 Prizm into exam mode. I apologize for the lighting – very hard to film the actual calculator (vs. emulator) while holding my computer video camera…and those shadows?!!  But – hopefully you can get the gist of things!!

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Mastery NOT Test Scores

I like to browse the TED Talks site because there are so many interesting topics and speakers. Sometimes inspiring, sometimes funny, sometimes educational – always with something to learn or provide a new perspective. I tend to look for things on technology, math, education – topics that are of interest to me because of what I do in my daily life. I found this recently uploaded talk from Sal Kahn, the founder of Khan Academy. He’s done a couple Ted Talks I think, but I hadn’t seen this one before, and found the topic to be one that I have pondered myself. Shouldn’t our education system be built on helping students master concepts rather than focused on learning specific content in a specific order to pass tests? Our current system is designed to push a group of students  through a set curriculum at the same pace, where those who don’t quite make it accumulate gaps in learning, and therefore start the next set of curriculum behind.  And the gaps keep building, creating a group of students who are left behind, or don’t think they are capable of learning some things (like math, or science), when in fact, had they been allowed the time to master, they could have learned and gone beyond.

It’s an interesting idea – one that would be very difficult to incorporate into our current education system – a system that is very resistant to change. I do know there are schools and classrooms, often charter schools, that are focused on this idea of mastery over testing. I think the Common Core at its core is based on the idea of mastery – building and mastering basic content knowledge prior to moving on to the next steps/content. However, when placed in an educational system that compartmentalizes students by grade and by subject and assesses by testing, the focus will always end up being on passing the ‘test’, so we will always leave some students with gaps.

I am not sure what the answer is – personalized learning is a big ‘buzz’ word these days. With technology and the ability to differentiate classrooms for students, maybe ‘mastery’ is becoming a focus. So perhaps there are changes afoot. Maybe ESSA will de-emphasize the standardized testing frenzy our education system is currently suffering from and we can focus on helping students become masters of their own education. We want students to learn from their mistakes rather than hit a wall and stop learning or trying new challenges because they “can’t”. Let’s hope that change is afoot in education – as Sal Kahn says, it’s an imperative – I really think that this is all based on the idea that if we let people tap into their potential by mastering concepts, by being able to exercise agency over their learning, that they can get there.”

Watch the Ted Talk – it’ll make you think, and as an educator, maybe think about making a change.

Spring Is In The Air – The Sweet Smell of Testing….

Don’t you just love spring? The flowers blooming, trees bursting with new leaves, bees buzzing around, IMG_2650and the weather turning warmer.  Walking around town this morning looking at all the beautiful trees and flowers certainly reminded me how much I love the spring.  Then, as I walked past the local high school, I was reminded of what spring means to most students, (students who were probably staring out at the beautiful weather right that moment.).  Testing.  Spring doesn’t smell so sweet to them, I imagine.

I remember when I was teaching back in Virginia, where we test-prep-posterhad the Standards of Learning End-of-Course tests every April/May (the S.O.L.’s….appropriate acronym!)  (They still have these of course).  What I remember is how the whole month of April leading up to the tests was focused on test prep — review, review, practice test, practice test, pep rally to pump kids up, more review, etc.  By the time the actual tests rolled around, students were so tired of “practicing” that they probably didn’t even care about the tests. Then, those that had to take the AP tests as well still had those to look forward to.  As a teacher, I HATED this time of the year as much as the kids because it felt like learning was forced to stop so kids could “get ready for the test’.  I would much rather have kept on with teaching new and exciting things – applying the math by making bridges out of toothpicks or tetrahedron kites, using technology, etc.  I knew my students were ready because they’d been learning and applying all along – they didn’t need all this down-time for test prep. But ‘preparing for the test’ was a district/school/department mandate. I had no choice. The computer labs were taken over for testing, so no more Sketchpad. The days on the calendar had required test prep mandates and there were weekly department meetings to look at the practice test data and pick the review  materials for continued preparation.  The whole school was focused on getting kids excited about taking a test.  Students hated it.  Teachers hated it.  And we all forgot that it was spring. We were all too stressed about passing the test so that the school met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress from No Child Left Behind) and we stressed about getting at least 70% of our students to pass the test and students to get at least 70% ON the tests, so we would get good evaluations (teachers) or graduate (students).  Spring was a time of anxiety, not beauty.

Hopefully, if not this year, by next year, all this will change. With the passage of the Every Student imagesSucceeds Act (ESSA) there may be a spring again. Yes, there will still be testing.  Assessment is important obviously, to determine where changes need to be made in instruction, to ensure students are learning and meeting standards, to ensure that teachers and schools are educating students.  But testing is going to change and it won’t be this punitive system (I hope) that NCLB created.  And hopefully, it won’t be a constant thing where months of a school year are taken up with test prep and test taking. That’s a good thing. School should be about learning, not just testing, which is what it often feels like, especially this time of year.

ESSA obviously is new and it will take time for changes to be implemented.  Though even as early as this year, there are states who have changed their testing or eliminated testing this year.  The ESSA (from 5 ways ESSA Impacts Standardized Testing, by Anne O’Brien):

  • Allows districts to use a locally determined, nationally recognized test like the ACT or SAT instead of the state test in high schools, which could have huge implications for classroom practice
  • Allows states to institute a cap limiting the amount of time that students spend taking tests, which could reduce that time (and the time educators spend administering them)
  • Funds states in auditing and streamlining assessment systems, eliminating unnecessary and duplicative assessments
  • Establishes a pilot program in up to seven states (or consortia of states) that allows for the complete revamping of their assessment system, meaning that it’s possible that summative state tests as we know them will be eliminated, replaced by competency-based assessments, performance-based assessments, interim assessments, or something else entirely
  • Allows for the use of computer-adaptive testing in state and local assessments (NCLB did not), a process that could allow for much more accurate data on student performance

IMG_2649I think one of my most favorite things about ESSA is that it requires states to use more than academic factors (i.e. standardized test scores) as indicators of accountability and school/student success. A test score is no longer the be-all and end-all, allowing education to focus on learning, not test prep and testing.

Maybe now both teachers and students can start enjoying spring again.

Dip in National Math Scores SHOULD Be Expected

I have been seeing quite a few articles recently regarding the “unexpected” low performance of students on recent standardized tests, such as the Nation Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the new Common Core Consortium Tests from PARCC and SBAL. There are the fear-invoking headlines such as “Nationonwide Test Shows Dip In Students’ Math Abilities” or “First Release of PARCC Scores Shows Fewer Students Make the Grade”. What I find ridiculous, in light of the fact that: a)  a majority of states have not fully implemented or have just fully implemented, the Common Core State Standards or a hybrid version of these standards in conjunction with individual state standards and b) the PARCC and SBAL assessments are NEW, is that people are surprised at these results.  Really?

Any time there is change, there is going to be EXPECTED setbacks.  That is the nature of change. As quoted in the New York Times article: “It’s not unusual when you see lots of different things happening in classrooms to first see a slight decline before you see improvement”. From those setbacks, you learn and improve. Testing results after new standards are implemented are expected to fall – it’s called the implementation dip. Michael Fullen, Author of “Leading in a Culture of Change” (2001) defines the implementation dip as “the inevitble bumpiness and difficulties encountered as people learn new behaviors and beliefs”. In this case, as schools, teachers, and students learn new standards, new instructional strategies, new resources and new expectations. It is expected, amidst all these new changes/expectations, that test scores, set to measure student proficiency, will be lower because teachers & students are in the midst of change. They are experiencing awkwardness with these new skills/standards, are confused, overwhelmed and cautious. And the tests themselves are new or may not be testing skills that students, with new standards, have learned yet. Only after everyone has more time to work with these standards, will these expected dips in student proficiency change.

Here’s the rub for me: because no one is allowing for the expected dip in scores, there is this immediate call for dropping the standards, and changing to new standards and new policies. (Hello election 2016!!) Guess what – if you change to something new, then the dip in scores will continue, if not worsen, because we NEVER allow for implementation to finish, rather we start the change process all over again. We want immediate results in a time-frame that is unrealistic.

Time, persistence, learning from the data and addressing areas of concern, and allowing progress to happen at the slower pace it needs rather than the unrealistic pace we expect now is what we need to be doing and allowing. Not shouting doomsday headlines and bleak outlooks. Quoting Randi Weindgarten (from the Times article again), who linked the drop in test scores to recent educational policies as well as the economic downturn and it’s aftermath: “…they should give pause to anyone who still wishes to double down on austerity and make competition, scapegoating teachers, closing rather than fixing schools, driving fear, and testing and sanctioning the dominant education strategies”.

Let us teach, let us implement the standards, let us have time and change will happen, and scores will improve.