Teaching After The Test: An argument for a national school schedule

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First, a word about Nazis and Free Speech, and other matters: Catch up on the latest news about Repression of Nazis, and join the conversation about Free Speech and how sometimes it is better to shut up, over at the X Blog.

Today I am preparing a presentation and discussion for a course in AP Biology. Amanda and her colleague have been teaching AP Bio all year, and the test was just given, so there is nothing to live for any more as it were. I asked Amanda yesterday why the students even show up now that the test is over, and she looked at me funny and said “well, they’re required to.” … Oh right, high school.

Amanda’s students took the AP exam, and her other students took the Minnesota state exam, which is how we evaluate our schools and teachers, which meant pulling them out of class. From another teacher at a different school I heard a horror story about a bunch of students who, part way through the two day long state test, pressed the wrong button and are now locked out of finishing the rest of it having only done half. (One of those “Are you done, click continue to end test OK to continue test?: OK, Continue, Cancel” dialogs where “OK” means you are done and “Continue” you are … no wait, I have that backwards…)

The AP test is given once at the same time everywhere in the Universe, and the state test is given at once everywhere in the state, regardless of the schedule of the schools. This means disruption and idiotic scheduling quirks. I’m pretty sure that so far I’m the only person on the planet who has noticed this, so I just want to point it out. PEOPLE YOU ARE DOING IT RONG!!!

I propose the following rules:

1) Classroom days established in a given school are not available for testing of any kind other than that which is part of the curriculum and on the syllabus for a given course. Outside test taking agencies must negotiate with school districts or states to set aside test taking days.

2) If an outside agency such as the College Board or a State Education Department wants to provide a test, it must be provided at the END of the learning period. Not long after, not before the end. If tests can not be provided this way, they should not be bothered with.

If these rules were strictly enforced, there would eventually be a “National School Year” which would be a good thing.

This is where the “local rule is better” fetish/meme has ruined things. The belief is that decisions are usually better if made on the local level. An example of this would be how to spend park board money; do we need more bike trails or more playgrounds or more public gardens? Local people figure this out and decide and live with their decision. National level experts could be consultants. Perhaps it is known that the final decision is often shaped not by people’s needs and desires, bur rather, by who shows up at the meetings, and bikers and gardeners, being radical activists, thus get their way leaving the children playing in the street. So, local rule becomes stupid unless it refers to larger scale over-arching expertise. But if it does that, it works.

What about a strategy for putting up communications satellites? Locally, people use cell phones, right? So, shouldn’t they know better than the people at Goddard or NASA or ESA how, when, where, to up up which satellites?

Well, no. Because among the good people of Longville, Minnesota or Coxsackie, NY, there are hardly any satellite communications engineers or rocket scientists. Local rule is then bad.

Despite the fact that we can see that for some things local decision making is good, other things bad, when it comes to education it is often assumed, almost religiously, that local bodies can always make better decisions (with homeschooling being the One True Way according to some). But this is often stupid.

If learning time in classrooms (as a proxy for what happens in schools, regardless of even if they have classrooms) and the schedule of coverage of topics across time were sacred, then testing agencies would have to adapt. That adaptation would cause tests to become much more expensive because the first reaction would be to make multiple tests. But then there would be discounted tests given at ideal times, and when that ideal time is would be determined by negotiation and market forces. And eventually, the Free Hand would produce an outcome which is … well, the sucky one we have now, actually.

Alternatively, we could simply decide what to do using our brains rather than our … well, whatever other organ we were using … at the state, regional, or national level.

We could have a state wide or national schedule. That would not be hard and it would not really be oppressive as many people knee-jerkedly assume. Right now, it is oppressive that in most (maybe all) schools in Minnesota, AP courses run in schedule beyond the AP test, and administrators and teachers pretend this is normal, though in fact it makes zero sense. The state wide tests are held at seemingly random moments throughout the year and are not administered to students who have met certain requirements, but rather, to students who are of a certain age (and thus have probably, but not necessarily, met those requirements). If there was a state wide or national schedule, there could be “test periods” perhaps twice during the school year during which the tests have to be given, and anyone taking tests takes them.

The widespread belief that all testing is bad is significantly buttressed by the fact that the administration of testing is severely problematic and cumbersome. Testing is probably important and useful. But carrying out testing in the stoopidest way possible … i.e., doing the thing that checks if the students are ensmartening at the right pace in a way that is utterly moronic … merely sets up our young people to not have much trust in the system being well designed or the people who run it being thoughtful or even capable of thought.

So, I’m preparing this presentation to give in AP class tomorrow … on human-plant interaction in the Ituri Forest among Efe (Pygmy) foragers … because the students have no work to do pertaining to the test they already took, and I want to give Amanda and her colleague a day off. Better than showing a movie!

(Depending on the movie.)

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30 thoughts on “Teaching After The Test: An argument for a national school schedule

  1. Greg, your suggested system is more-or-less how it works in the UK. Here in the UK students in the last two years of secondary school take A-level exams. These are roughly similar to AP exams, but cover more material and seem “harder” to me–that is based on my memory of AP exams from many years ago and my perusing of A-level syllabi and practice exams recently.

    Anyway, exams are in May but the school year ends in early July. In the first A-level year (“lower sixth”) students take “AS” exams which count as the first half (or so) of the final A-level score. After these exams they go back to class and keep studying for the final parts of each exam the following year (note they are pretty laid back about studying for the following May exams during June and early July just before the summer break.

    During the second A-level year (that’s “upper sixth” if you are counting) the final A-level exams are all in May (and sometimes into early June). After each exam classes in that subject end. Since every class is an A-level class this means that after each student finishes his or her last exam school ends for him or her.

    In general this is sensible, but few students are taking the exact same set of exams, and the exams are scheduled over a period of weeks, so this means that the “last day of school” is staggered over a 2-3 week period and there is no formal “last day of school”. This can be a bit disconcerting to kids who suddenly realize that their 13 or 14 years of school have ended.

  2. One issue which complicates your proposal in some respects but can be an argument for it in others is the issue of weather-related school cancellations.

    I get the impression (and I admit I don’t have data to back this up) that the incidence of school cancellations due to snow has been increasing among the districts in the area where I live. It is hard, even in a state as small as New Hampshire, to make a viable statewide call to curtail classes, because inevitably only some portion of the state will experience a heavy enough snowfall to justify curtailing operations (typically, some events will feature heavy snow in the south and light snow to flurries in the north, while others will feature heavy snow in the north and rain in the south). So if you leave it to somebody in Concord to decide whether to cancel school everywhere from Seabrook to Hinsdale to Pittsburg, he’s likely to make the wrong call for some or even most of the state. I would expect the analogous situation in Minnesota, to say nothing of Texas or California, to be even worse.

    However, one of the factors that would tend to drive higher rates of weather-related cancellation is a well-founded fear of liability lawsuits. The school district where I live had an incident a few years ago in which, on a snowy day when classes were not cancelled, a school bus with kids aboard went off the road as a result of swerving to avoid an oncoming car which had veered into the wrong lane. Luckily, nobody was hurt in that incident, but the school district became noticeably more gun-shy about making kids go to school in snow after that. If the change were structured sensibly, then the central person making the call would be able to make the call with more confidence. That would be better for the parents as well, because many businesses operate normally even when schools curtail operations (and some employers, such as the police or hospitals, obviously never curtail operations).

  3. Katie took her AP Bio exam on Monday during school hours. She did have to be there at 7:30 am. She is headed to England to study during June and July – I’m interested in hearing her thoughts on their education system.

  4. One issue which complicates your proposal in some respects but can be an argument for it in others is the issue of weather-related school cancellations.

    I would add to that regional issues regarding work schedules. Not sure if they still do this, but in parts of Maine, they used to start school a week earlier than “normal” then take a week off (in September?) so the kids could work the fields harvesting potatoes.

    This is why I stuck the “regional” thing in there … some level of variation may be good across regions.

    Certainly national or statewide cancellations are bad, but most schools have a number of days they can cancel and a period of extention if needed. A “reading period” before Exam Week would do that.

    Sondrah, Katie is, like, 8 years old, how does that work?

  5. LOL Greg. She is 15 and a freshman! Almost finished with her freshman year – last day is Friday. It is so hard for me to fathom that she’ll be an adult in 3 years. She is excited about England. She’ll also be traveling to Prague (she doesn’t know this) and Paris while she is over there. I am really excited for her to experience the culture, the history and to suddenly realize how much more there is than our little corner of the world. We don’t get her AP score until July I think. I’ll let you know how she does. She is a math and science geek for sure.

  6. Greg, yes, suitably defined regions might eliminate the difficulty. Florida (where I grew up) organizes school systems by county, which is a reasonable size for the sorts of weather problems (hurricanes) they have, but in New England, where county boundaries are largely historical artifacts (for that matter, we have at least one school district that crosses a state line: Hanover, NH/Norwich, VT), organizing by county wouldn’t necessarily be the way to go. (Also, Florida’s counties tend to be larger than counties in most other states in the eastern half of the US.)

    I hadn’t heard about the Maine potato harvest bit, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Parts of that state, particularly Aroostook County in the far north, have a rather short growing season. I have long been of the opinion that one of the main reasons for our long summer breaks is a desire to have the kids help with crops in the summer, but there wouldn’t be much to harvest before early to mid September in northern Maine.

  7. It should be noted that Hawaii has a state wide school district, so things are arranged as described there. Of course the state is really rather small, and most of the population is on one Island.

  8. In Australia we have state wide education departments so school testing operates on a state wide basis.

    This works very well as the university intakes occur at specific time through a process that groups all the tertiary institution applications for the next year together. This means that the final high school tests which take place in year 12 vary from state to state but the testing takes place at approximately the same time to fit in with the university intakes.

    In addition the universities require that the final tests meet certain criteria so they can calculate a comparable rank for students across all the states. This doesn’t mean the tests for each state are the same but does force some constraints on how they are administered.

    We do have some national tests (NAPLAN) which are basic school year based, however the variation between school terms in Australia is generally only a week or so one way or the other (generally climate related) and so these tests are usually set for the middle of the second term each year.

    There has been a lot of agitating about a standard national curriculum and standard final year tests and this is still going back and forth to committees. The issues are basically around the need for kids who are moved from one state to another during a school year to experience consistent schooling. This happens more than you might think as movements between our biggest cities (eg: Sydney to Melbourne or Melbourne to Brisbane) means movement between states. The bulk of the population in any state resides in that state’s capital city.

    Into this mix has been thrown the increasing popularity of schools offering the IB (International Baccalaureate) as a final year high school qualification. The IB is considered a more portable qualification and it is possible that this may become a defacto national qualification in the absence of the national schooling committees actually producing anything anytime soon.

    The IB has a slightly different testing schedule as it is driven by an international committee and the timing is set on a worldwide basis. So it will be interesting to see how that changes the timing for test administration in Australia as it is offered by more and more high schools. It may be we will find our high schools at least, shifting to a new schedule driven by international educational considerations.

  9. The US system is of course a joke. 50 state standards with 50 boards, county and state boards and councils…Imagine one board with the same test. Imagine the money you would save on administration. This is the real reason local school boards oppose national standards, they would all be out of work.
    Yes I took A levels and didn’t open a bio book for the first two years of college in the US. You only take three A levels in the UK while in the US you take the usual assortment of 7 or 8 or 6 broad subjects. So the subject matter is covered far more intensely. This is why medical schools in the UK start straight out of high school.
    We can argue all we want about scheduling but we all know if there’s a will there’s a way and there’s no will for national standards. Certain topics (evolution Koffkoff) will be fought tooth and nail not to be included by certain states who will bring out the old canard about local control. What a load of nonsense and we know it. There’s no such thing as local SAT or AP standards, it’s the same for the whole country, so it’s already being done.
    I’m sorry to sound peeved Greg, but since I went through the UK system and have seen the standard to which entry level science students are taught here, I had to speak up loudly.

    So your point of national school schedules…I don’t much mind. I would prefer national standards and exams.

  10. Yep this all sounds so true. We have just completed our Year 6 SATs (and yes I do hate the nature of standardisation). This lovely week of exams apparently tells the government what our 11 year olds have attained in their school career; despite having 9 full weeks of schooling left to complete. It also apparently tells them what we teachers are capable of, based on the snapshot of 4 days of tests.

    Why? Because you can’t get league tables out in time if you put the exams in July, after all the children have had their full schooling for the year.

  11. Since they’ll be back next year, they will next year get their last few weeks you think have been ignored added on.

    Time is continuous, Charlotte. We break it up into convenient chunks for labelling.

    But it’s still one long stream.

  12. Prague? Someone said Prague? If I’m around, and I often am, I volunteer to provide useful hints regarding places to go, nice cafes and the generally less touristy stuff.

  13. @Liisa W. That would be wonderful. She’ll be there for four days! She is only 15, but I know will love the city.

  14. This is an interesting conversation concerning school standards and national testing.

    The big 5 national standardized tests in America have been rated by a large university:

    Math Tests = +/- 35% Accuracy

    Reading Tests = +/- 45% Accuracy

    Policy makers are using these results to grade students, teachers, and schools.

    I have taught for several years at a public (US) school on a Native American reservation in New Mexico. At one point, I asked my class to act as a focus group and to tell me truthfully how they feel about state and national, standardized tests. The most interesting response came from one 11th grade boy: “These tests are just another way for the white man to make us look stupid.” Very perceptive thinking I’d say.

  15. Here in Dallas, we have about seven weeks of state testing, and another couple of weeks of district testing — nine weeks total.

    You read the correctly: Nine weeks of testing. That’s half a semester.

    Both the district, which proposes teachers teach longer with no more pay, and drop a prep period in favor of another class, and the state, which proposes we lengthen the school year two or three weeks, so far fail to get the message that wise testing schedules could add at least a month back into the curriculum — if we did nothing about the AP schedule.

    Need more time to educate? Kill a few tests.


  16. The most interesting response came from one 11th grade boy: “These tests are just another way for the white man to make us look stupid.” Very perceptive thinking I’d say.

    But they make everybody who takes them, and everybody who administers them, and every teacher who must deal with them, look stupid. Your student is very perceptive — more than most multi-degreed education professionals — but not radical enough in perceiving the problems.

  17. Having been educated in the British education system from elementary school to first degree, and then having taught in NYC as a public high school teacher for 17 years, I strongly advocate for a national school schedule, as well a national school syllabus across all subject areas.
    The British were able to do this across the ‘Empire’ so that if you moved from Australia to the West Indies you would not skip a beat as to picking up where you left off.
    I don’t understand in a country that could send men to the moon why they can’t coordinate their education system.

  18. “The most interesting response came from one 11th grade boy: “These tests are just another way for the white man to make us look stupid.” Very perceptive thinking I’d say.”

    Or was it just playing the victim card, so that failure is not THEIR fault, but “the man”.

    Ask that student how do you tell if they’ve managed to learn the subject without testing? Ask how an employer will know if you can do the job if you haven’t shown aptitude (and how can that aptitude be shown if not by showing test results)?

    It comes across more as blame avoidance than preceptive comment.

  19. That issue of exams over, and still have a month of school is every teachers headache. The students are in shut down mode and most times this is where behavior issues spike. Being a science educator, i had to find fun projects – strickly hands on labs to keep them engaged. I cannot say for other subject areas but that must be surely a challenge. The issue of time line to grade these exams poses a problem but if we go to computerized exams kids can be tested the last 2 weeks of school and scores can be generated even quicker. Grading essays will pose a challenge, so probably administering the exam in two sections by giving the written portion earlier might help with grading time lines, then doing the MC at the end of the year.

    I also often wonder why is it so difficult for this country to have a standardized holiday sytem for all states and school systems. We are one country but our eductaional system operates like 52 different countries. Thanks to the work behind common core, the curriculum is finally coming on stream to have all states focussing on the same content. Now we need to move to a nationwide exam with common core. Finally no longer will our transient student population have to miss key topics becuase the state they relocated from was teaching earth science and the state they moved to is teaching life science. Change is inevitable and realistically we all need to have common holidays for these students. Other nations do this and so can we.

  20. Great idea but probably wishful thinking. Public schools are the last bastion of local authority, control, etc. Although such are subject to state control regarding the duration of the school year, such periods were carefully picked centuries ago based on differing concerns; e.g., the growing season. However, if we could get the Feds to offer the states money to conform, there’s a possibly of a standardized system. Short of such, we’re going to see a “Nobody tells us what to do!” attitude.

  21. Why stop there ? Let’s propose a Global school schedule, that will level the playing field to ensure that no one takes advantage.

    Just listen to what people are saying here – to appease Washington DC and get money, we need to jenuflect at the altar of conformity – will that support creativity and innovation ? This is not ‘power to the people’, but the opposite, it is control, but for what purpose ? If we begin to treat children as a State asset, then this sort of control looks like a good idea. The opposite is happening however, in that distributed technology and social media will allow for innovative and unique solutions in learning – the revolution will be digitized.

  22. William, you are missing the point. Innovation and creativity is very important and the current system (and many alternatives) stifle that at the classroom level. But I’m pretty sure that if a thousand small groups of people had to reinvent the wheel independently we’d have a bunch of sucky wheels and we will have wasted a lot of time.

    Also, your argument is exactly the argument that creationists make in order to separate individual school districts from the heard and force their religion on the children. That is not acceptable.

  23. “Just listen to what people are saying here – to appease Washington DC”

    Nope, that’s what you’re hearing because, like any nutter, you’re running all sides of the conversation in your head.

    You’re merely rabidly afraid of Washington since you have been brainwashed into thinking its bad.

    “This is not ‘power to the people’,”

    Yes it is.

    ‘the people’ are a group. The federal government is the representative of that group (the fact that this is often not the case is because of your meddling in it for fundamentalist credo reasons).

    “it is control, but for what purpose ?”

    So that the whining predispositions of those who don’t like free thinking can enforce their ideals on their children, and even better, if it gets forced on other people’s children (so your own don’t get any funny ideas that don’t come from you).

    “If we begin to treat children as a State asset”

    You’ve been treating them as a corporation asset for decades. You haven’t complained about that yet. Why start now?

    Oh, because you’re afraid not that it will be “state asset” but stop being “corporate asset” or “parental asset” since you believe in the primacy of corporations.

    How, for the love of god, do you get from “state school curriculum’ to ‘state asset’???

    Truly there is no thought going on in that brain-pan. Just emotion.

  24. As the parent of a kid who took AP’s this year, I can testify that it was a HUGE waste of time for her to continue to attend those classes. It was busywork to meet the requirement that they attend.

    However, there is still something to be said for local schedules. I don’t want to have the same spring break as my brother in Texas–it’ll be spring there, but still the dead of winter here. Most New York schools still lack air conditioning. If we started school before Labor Day, as my relatives in California do, we’d be roasting in our classrooms. And another reader pointed out that snow days can significantly change the year end date. We lost a scheduled day off in May to make up for a snowstorm in early April.

    What I’d REALLY like to see is the ability to adopt a national schedule for classes that are nationally tested. If the kids are done with AP exams by May 10, then they should be done with class attendance then, too.

  25. Although this reply is not totally on topic it is on topic for your story Headline. My Headline would read, ?Teaching after ANY Test. By that I mean: 1. Test, 2. Review test thoroughly, 3. Then retest using different questions. In 2005-06 I taught 8th Grade Algebra-1 at Stephen M. White Middle School in the LA Unified School System. As a first year Algebra teacher CA education policy dictated that ALL my “A” and “B” 7th Grade tested students were distributed to the 3 other “Veteran” Algebra-1 teachers. With this situation I and all the math teachers were pressured by “No Child Left Behind” policies to create “A”, “B” and “C” students from “C”, “D”, and “F” tested 7th graders. At my first PTA meeting I was warned by my Veteran colleagues that I would be roasted but not to worry. The 3 teachers “knew” that almost all of their students would get mostly “D”s and “F”s and a few getting C’s. None were expected to get “B”s or “A”s. Why? Because they had poor 7th grade math skills and got “Social” rather than “Merit” Promotions. What to do? Well, a clever 7th grade counselor at S.M. White told me the “Secret of Algebra-1 survival”. Ready to hear it? Ok. “Re-test any student with a low test grade”. He said they would improve and it would reduce the crying from Jan to June of those who normally would get “D”s and “F”s but could earn “C”s and “B”s. Well, I took his advice because I was desperate to keep my new job. I thoroughly reviewed each test the day after I graded and gave them all out. Two days later I gave a retest to anyone who got a “D” or “F”. You know, the idea worked. By Christmas I had 9 “A”s and 29 “B”s from “Numerically Illiterate”(“Math Stupid” as others said) kids. The Spring semester was better – 19 “A”s and 34 “B”s. Although I was grading papers everywhere, all the time except maybe when I slept or took a shower but the results to where worth the effort. That’s it. Hope it helps. Good luck in September with “No Child Left Behind”.

  26. Greg, I completely agree with your two points about AP exam scheduling. I find the current system obtrusive and frustrating. The school at which I teach has a fair number of kids who feel compelled to overload on AP classes and for two weeks a large number of kids are absent from my classes. Our school year ends during the 3rd week of May so I get bombarded with kids seeking help with material they missed as the final exam approaches.

  27. Maybe those long weeks of summer vacation are a good time for standardized testing. It will leave the whole school year (in our state cut to about 180 days because of budget crises) for instruction and perhaps learning. It would also provide a few summer jobs for teachers who have lost 5-10 days of pay the past few years because of budget crises — they could administer the tests.

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