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Reflection on high stakes testing

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

As a teacher and administrator at my school, I am directly involved in the creation, implementation, and administration of our school’s high stakes test. My school is an international school and the program in which I currently teach is called the Premier program. I am the Head of English and responsible for the development of the English Curriculum.

The English curriculum at this school is equally divided between the British National Curriculum objectives and the Shanghai English curriculum. The British National curriculum places emphasis on reading and writing skills (e.g. inferencing, finding facts and opinions, writing in paragraphs, using connectives etc.) whereas the Shanghai Curriculum mostly places emphasis on the correct or accurate use of grammar rules (e.g. past tense, present progressive etc.).

The rationale for this type of curricula organization is to enable students to be able to sit the Key Stage 2 Exam, which is a high stakes exam from the United Kingdom as well as the Shanghai English Exam, which has a grammatical emphasis. These two high stakes tests are taken at the end of grade 5.

The results of these tests are critical and used by all stakeholders in the teaching and learning process in several ways. The results are used by the administration to determine the level of teaching quality and results are used in the appraisal process when giving feedback to teachers about their performance. In addition, these results are used to determine what updates need to be made to the curriculum. The kind of reflection and revision involved in both of the aforementioned processes falls under my responsibility. The following is an updated assessment map based on students’ last year results on the Key Stage and Shanghai English exams:

Assessment System

Unlike previous years, students take progress tests every month to determine what additional help and support students might need. On the one hand, the use of this system does limit what teachers can teach during the month as progress tests are based specifically on unit content which subsequently scaffolds student learning and prepares them to take the high stakes exams in grade 5. On the other hand, this system allows us the opportunity to ensure that formative assessment is taking place. After each progress test, teachers use the attainment targets above to determine which students need  extra support. They are required to contact the parents of low achieving students and set up a plan to ensure that students can make improvements on the next progress test as well as during class.

The benefits of the high stakes exam not only support assessment but also how we teach in preparation for the assessment. The following chart shows how lessons are impacted by the high stakes exam for students from grades 3-5:

Curriculum Flow

This chart shows the process of of teaching and learning. As can be seen, it gives teachers a structure to work from when planning their lessons. Contrastingly, it is general enough that teachers have flexibility in terms of their interpretation of how to structure the unit aims and objectives into the system. In previous years, students took the progress test in week four.

One thing inherent in having two high stakes exams is that the school must hire British as well as Chinese teachers of English. The reason for this is that it is believed that teachers who have actually sat the exams above will be better able to help students prepare for them. In terms of workload, British and Chinese English teachers teach an equal number of classes and are equally involved in assessment. Students are exposed to both Eastern and Western styles of teaching and learning.

Despite the positive aspects of using these high stake examinations, there are also negative aspects. By utilizing the results of the previous high stakes exam, we determined that it was necessary for students to have an extra week to focus on test prep skills (i.e. reading for gist, inference, details and writing in complete sentences). These skills are useful for all students across the ability spectrum, particularly low ability students. One issues of concern with the aforementioned high stakes examinations is the amount of work the students need to do in order to be successful. They must, in fact, master two cultural testing systems and learning expectations in order to be successful in grade 5.

Finally, parents are often unsure about the expectations of the Western English teachers as the majority were taught in a Confucian traditional way of teaching and learning which emphasizes conformity and obedience as a form of respect. This ethic also emphasizes academic achievement in terms of scores on tests. Thus, for many parents, it is believed that teaching should primarily focus on test preparation, which is called a “hard skill” in Chinese as opposed to “soft skills” such as creativity and project work. Under the Confucian system of learning, students remain quiet throughout the lesson unless they are repeating after the teacher. The idea is that the teacher gives the students all of the information that they will need on the exam and then students try their best to memorize and utilize this knowledge on test day.

The nature of the key stage examination does not lend itself to this mode of thinking as teachers are not allowed to prepare students to take the exam by memorizing sections of the exam or, for example, presenting the spelling words beforehand. As a result, parents are often confused as to the purpose of utilizing project work (i.e. make your own movie, recycling initiative etc.) although these activities do prepare students to take the key stage exam. For example, students might be asked to write a leaflet in support of a recycling initiative on the exam. Explaining the differences between the western and eastern high stakes exam systems as well as teaching and learning styles has been a challenge.

Another school not far from where I currently teach is solely based on the local Shanghai English exam that students have to pass in grade 5. The teaching and learning takes place through rote memorization of grammar rules. The structure of the curriculum is designed such that teachers are evaluated on their abilities to help students succeed on tests, particularly the grade 5 exam. Class work primarily consists of dictation, repetition, and grammar activities. There are high expectations for students to do well from parents, teachers, and administrators. Furthermore, teachers are primarily evaluated on their abilities to help students achieve high scores on these examinations. Teachers who fail to do so are summarily replaced. The reason for this is that for primary schools that mainly follow the local curriculum, their success or failure is measured in terms of their students’ ability to pass the high stake exams in grade 5. Schools where students score poorly, on average, are considered “bad” schools by parents. In a culture where face means everything, to get the aforementioned label would mean that the school would not fare well in the long run.

The similarities between both schools are apparent. Both schools, to certain degrees, follow the local English curriculum. At both schools, parents encourage students to do well on high stakes examinations and the curriculum at both schools have largely been shaped by the high stakes examinations. This leads to issues that are common as the result of basing a curriculum on a high stakes examination. The first is that there is pressure for students to perform well on the exams. Subsequently, schools are defined by student performance on these examinations as opposed to other indicators of success (e.g. communicative competence). Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that by having high stakes exams:

  1. teachers know what to teach.
  2. the school is held accountable for its actions.
  3. students (particularly in Shanghai) are motivated to do well on it.
  4. teachers can use the results to inform their teaching practice and, in addition, use the results to provide feedback to their students (Amrein & Berliner 2002, p. 1-5).
  5. parents (at least in my teaching context) support high stakes testing and have cultural norms that promote success on the test.

Despite differences between the schools, both benefit from the aforementioned advantages.

The difference between the two schools, of course, is that students at my school have to contend with doing well on two high stakes examinations instead of one. In addition, although I said that parents at my school are unsure about the rationale for the Western curriculum, it is also true that they have selected our school with the expectation that they would be able to choose between an Eastern or Western education as options for their students in secondary school.  Some students might choose to go overseas, in which case, results on the Key Stage exam will be important. Others might choose to remain in Shanghai and can get into good schools if they were able to do well on the local examination. What this means is that at my school students have to learn how to use and communicate in English in addition to passing the high stakes examination. However, in the case of the local school, the focus is on test preparation with little attention given to communicative competence.

My interpretation of this is that schools have to come up with a vision for their students in terms of learning outcomes. It’s important to think about what students should be able to do at the end of their study in addition to passing a high stakes examination. Administrators should consider the long term goals of parents and students and how the school can best help students to achieve those goals.

Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002). High-stakes testing & student learning. Education policy analysis archives, 10, 18.

 

 

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Reflection on a first grade writing lesson

December 5, 2015 Leave a comment

 

I thought the mini lesson was particularly effective at providing scaffolding by presenting a story and giving students information about what techniques the author used to make his or her writing effective. The teacher then followed up by providing a prompt and showing students a detailed example. She asked questions and checked comprehension throughout the lesson. She also encouraged the students to give her examples and help her build on a text and use their ideas to write a new story. Students then went and did some work in their writer’s notebook. After writing, students were given the opportunity to share their writing with the class. Overall, I liked this lesson as students were able to reflect on the writing process, they were enthusiastic and engaged and they were willing to share their ideas throughout the lesson. The teacher created an environment where students felt comfortable writing and expressing themselves and this contributed to the facilitation of the successful lesson.

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