Thursday, May 14, 2009

"On the Road" via the ethernet?

I think one of the hardest things about teaching in the new networked classrooms is finding (making? taking?) time to reflect on the changes that are happening around us and what they might mean. One of the things I appreciate most about my Teaching and Learning in a Networked Classroom course is that it's pushing me to make regular blog posts. The more posts I make, the more I find myself thinking in reflective ways about things both past and present.

The funny thing is that even with an assigned topic, I rarely start these posts with a specific plan in mind. Blogging as stream of consciousness, I guess. Jack Kerouac was definitely ahead of his time -- think what he could have done with this! For instance, this evening I was responding to a classmate's blogpost on the topic of computerized standardized testing in schools. Reading her post triggered a memory of an incident from a few years ago. As I wrote out my comment I realized I had much more than a comment to make -- so here I am with a new blogpost of my own.

My older son is 16 years old now and in 10th grade (my computer consultant from an earlier post). I remembered when he came home from a day of testing in sixth grade (or maybe seventh?). It was his second round of computer-adaptive tests where the tests are adjusted according to the ability of the test-taker -- the questions get harder as you make more correct responses or easier as you make incorrect responses. He told me he'd had the test on the math section that day (math being his really strong suit) and he said quite casually, "By the end of the test I had no idea what the questions were about, so I guess that meant I was doing pretty well!"

Now that comment really surprised me, since it went contrary to just about everything I had taken away from my own high school experience. I thought about how I would have felt if I'd been taking a standardized test in English (my own strong suit) and reached a point where I had no idea what the test questions were talking about. I'm pretty sure that I would have been a basket case by then, figuring that I was hopelessly over my head. It's likely that I would have just given up answering, under the assumption that I couldn't possibly get the answers right if I didn't understand the questions. Even if the adaptive part of the testing equation had been explained beforehand, I wonder if I'd have had the presence of mind to see it in his terms in the heat of the moment?

In my day (in my schools, at least, and they were legion since my father was in the Navy and we moved pretty much constantly) tests were intimidating instruments designed to winkle out our deficiencies in a subject, tools for judging inadequacies or gaps in our grasp of facts and specific information. This new generation of digital natives seems to have a more balanced view, seeing these tests as neutral tools for evaluating their ability to answer questions of differing levels of difficulty. Gauging perhaps their skills in knowing how to answer (with CAT), rather than what to answer (before CAT)?

The tricky bit now is for educators to find ways to capitalize on the new levels of information these tests make available -- to avoid pigeonholing them in the same ways we would have treated results from more traditional types of tests.

It's also important for us not to color today's students with our perceptions from an earlier time. I remember that when my boys were in elementary school a letter was sent home a week or so ahead of each set of testing. Each time the letter would exhort parents to remember the importance of a good breakfast, a good night's sleep, and a positive attitude toward trying hard on the tests. Now, it always seemed to me that these were all things that most parents try to instill in their children every day, not just on test day. Then the letter would go on to say that whatever else we did, we should be careful not to stress the kids out over the testing, something they seemed to be doing quite effectively already with their letters. Do most kids really approach testing with fear and trepidation? Or does this cautionary approach simply set up a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I do know one thing -- when I arrived at the GRE test center last year and found that I'd be taking a computer-adaptive test, I was very happy that I recalled that earlier conversation with my son. It certainly gave me a lot more confidence to carry on cheerfully as the questions became more and more inscrutable! And, as it turned out, I did do quite well on the verbal part of the test...he was very proud of me *grin*

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