Thursday, February 25, 2016

High-Stakes Testing: A Bad Way to Play Ball - and Evaluate Students and Teachers

Someone once said, "Baseball is an island of activity among a sea of statistics."
The same could also be said about education.
Think about it.  The classroom is the "field" where the "game" - or instruction and assessment - takes place.   The classroom is the "team" that's funded and supported by the school or district - or "organization.  The students are the "players" and the teacher is the "manager" who leads the team to have a successful "season" or year.  
However, unlike baseball - or any sport - the value or worth of a player or team is not defined or judged by their performance in one game during a long season.
There are 162 games in a baseball season.  For 161 games, that baseball player has hit the ball every time they have stepped up to the plate.  They either get on base, hit someone else home, belt the ball out of the park, or at least get a piece of the ball when it's thrown at them.
However, there's one game where the player encounters a pitcher whom he struggles to hit off, and when he does, he grounds out, pops out, or cannot hit his teammates home.  Should that player be labeled as "falling far below" based upon that one game?  Should the manager be labeled "unqualified" because that player could not get on base, knock it out of the park, or send one of his teammates home?  Should the team be labeled "underperforming" based upon the results of that one, single game?
He would be if the player was a student, the game was the standardized assessment he was taking, and the pitches were the questions asked on that one test given one out of the 180 days of the school year.  Everything rides on that one game!  That one game will truly mark and measure whether the coach and the players are skilled players.  It doesn't matter how you the teacher / coach or your class / team performed all season long.  This one day means EVERYTHING!!!
Isn't that ridiculous?
However, this is the reality of education.  It does not matter how our students have been performing or the growth they made over the course of the school year / season - at least, not to the organizations that rate our performance and give us that letter grade or performance designation.
So how can we counter these single-day high stake tests our students take quarterly or annually?
What if we turned the performance objectives of academic standards into good questions they can address and base the depth of their knowledge and understanding on how correctly, clearly, comprehensively, and even creatively they respond? 
What if instead of having the question, problem, or task present to the student drive and determine whether students know, understand, can use the concepts and procedures they are learning we use them as textual evidence and examples to support their responses?
Let me explain.
Typically, we instruct and assess student learning by presenting students with assignments and tests that look like this:
These questions, problems, and tasks and how well the students answer them serve as the criteria for whether students can know and understand place value.  If they can answer these questions correctly, then they must know their stuff, right?
If that's the case, then why isn't that knowledge and understanding transferring to the problems they are presented on their formative benchmark or summative assessments?  If they answered the question incorrectly, is that they do not truly know or understand the concept and procedures for determining place value or were they given a "bad question" that was possibly unclear or worded poorly?
We cannot rely on the questions, problems, and tasks provided by a textbook or a test to serve as the determinant for learning.  They are examples and evidence - or support - that proves students know, understand, can use, and think deeply about the content, concepts, and procedures they are learning.  However, the true measure of depth of knowledge and understanding is whether students can demonstrate AND communicate what they have learned.  Questions, problems, and tasks in a textbook or on a text serve as the context in which students can transfer and use what they have learned, and that varies as indicated by Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model.
So how can we truly prove our students know and understand what they are learning deeply?  We need to shift the focus from the questions, problems, and tasks they are assigned to the addressing and responding to a good question that has been rephrased from the performance objective.
Look at the sample worksheet in this blog.  The performance objectives want the students to solvefind the products, and explain how you decided the number of zeros for the products of (a), (b), and (c).  They want students to follow the Nike slogan and Just do it!  In fact, the true graphic representation of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy should look like this.
Out of all those performance objectives, only the cognitive action explain directs students to communicate their learning.  However, what about the other problems?  Why are they not being challenged not only demonstrate but also communicate how and why that they attained their answers?
What if we rephrased those performance objectives into good questions that ask students to demonstrate and communicate this:
 Look at how the instructional focus shifts from solving, finding the product, and explaining to demonstrating and communicating -- or showing and telling -- how the concepts of place value understanding explains the outcome of these problems.  The problems -- or context in which students will demonstrate their learning -- remain the same.  However, the complexity of the assignment deepens when the performance objectives become good questions that ask students to think deeply and express and share how, what impact, and even what would happen
That's the true mark and measure of deep learning - not just demonstrate whether they can answer questions correctly but also communicate how and why and consider what else can be done or how else can concepts and procedures be used.  That's also the transferrable knowledge we want students to develop so they can answer any question, address any problem, accomplish any task, or analyze any text or topic presented to them.
We can also use the responses to these questions to counter the results of assessments.  We can challenge the question and contest that question was a "bad question" and truly does not reflect or represent the student's learning.  We should look at the data reports that document how many students answered that question correctly.  We can also prove that student truly knows, understands, and can transfer and use the content, concept, or procedure by having them respond to the good question we rephrase from the performance objective and use different problems they solve correctly as textual evidence to support their responses.  That is authentic assessment - the ability to demonstrate and communicate knowledge, thinking, and how it can be transferred and used in different contexts!
So how can we create these good questions from performance objectives that will serve as authentic assessments?  We need to change the introductory statement from The student will ... to Show and tell ...  We then need to replace the cognitive action of the performance objective with a question them that prompts students to understand, analyze, and evaluate how; why; what is the cause and effect; what is the impact or influence; or  what is the reason, relationship, or result.  Then we paraphrase or transcribe the context in which the student must demonstrate and communicate their learning.  For example instead of saying, The student will recognize that in a multi-digit whole number, a digit in one place represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right.(CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.NBT.A.1), rephrase the objective to state, Show and tell how and why does a digit in one place in a multi-digit number represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 what it represents to its place to the left.  Take away the show and tell and you have this good question students will be challenged to address and respond:
How and why does a digit in one place in a multi-digit number represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 what it represents to its place to the left
That's the question students must address, and the problems presented to them will serve as the textual evidence to support their response.  We can even give them the answers to the problems and ask them to think strategically about why is that the answer.
When it comes to cognitive rigor, we want students to demonstrate higher order thinking and communicate depth of knowledge of what they are learning.  One question, problem, or task is not a true measure of higher and deeper thinking.  We need students to explain in detail, in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way how and why concepts and procedures can be applied to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, and analyze tasks.  We also want them to think critically and creatively about what else or how else they can transfer  and use what they are learning in different contexts.  
To go back to the baseball analogy, we want them to demonstrate and communicate how, why, and what else can they do to hit any pitch thrown to them.  That's the mark and measure or authentic learning and performance - be it on the field or in the classroom.
 Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! Questions for Cognitive Rigor will be published by ASCD in 2016.  For more information, please visit

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The A's of Addressing and Responding to Good Questions

When I conduct my professional development on developing good questions that address the cognitive rigor of college and career readiness, I am always asked, "How should students answer these questions?"
My answer to this question is, "It depends on the question and the student."
Questions for assessing learning are meant to be answered, and they are generally evaluated as correct or incorrect based upon the accuracy of the response.  Questions that set the instructional focus of a lesson or unit are meant to be addressed, and how deeply and extensively the student responds depends upon not only the intent and purpose of the question but also the interest of the student.
Good questions that promote cognitive rigor are assessed and evaluated based upon the following criteria:
  • Accuracy: Is the response correct or incorrect (i.e. Does the student provide a response that is proven to be absolute, defensible, or irrefutable?).
  • Acceptability: Does the response meet certain or specific criteria for addressing the question (i. e. Does the student meet or exceed the expectations for addressing to the question or do they respond to the question incompletely or unacceptably)?  
  • Appropriateness: Does the response address the subject or topic in-depth and in detail (i.e.. Does the student support the response with examples, explanations, and evidence or does it just make a blanket statement or provide the result without explaining how or why)?
  • Authenticity: Does the response reflect and represent the depth and extent of the student's learning  (i.e. Does the student express and share the depth and extent of their knowledge and thinking insightfully and in their own unique way or do they simply repeat or restate the information they have acquired and gathered as it's presented or provided?)
 These are the criteria for how responses to good questions should be assessed and evaluated -- qualitatively rather than quantitatively.  How good a response is depends upon how deeply or how extensively a student addresses the subject or topic of a question.   Consider the following scenario in which students are expected to determine how the novel The Outsiders and its characters address the theme of stereotyping.
You are teaching a book study on The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  Your students will demonstrate and communicate the following:
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2)
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3)
  • Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5)
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8)
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2)
Your students will address and respond to the following good question:
How do each of the characters in The Outsiders reflect, reject, and respond to the social stereotypes of their community and culture?
This is the topical essential question of this book study that sets the instructional focus and serves as the formative and summative assessment.  That one question is so rigorous -- or good -- that it addresses all the performance objectives of these college and career ready standards.  It also not only engages but also encourages students to delve deeper into the central ideas and themes of this novel.  How good a student's response to this question depends on the following: 
  • Did the students respond to the question accurately by defining what is a social stereotype, distinguishing between the different social stereotypes in The Outsiders, and describing how the different characters reflected, rejected, and responded to these social stereotypes?
  • Did the students respond to the question acceptably by providing specific examples from the text and explaining how and why these examples serve as evidentiary support for their response?
  • Did the students respond appropriately by demonstrating and communicating how The Outsiders and its characters address the social stereotypes of their community and culture clearly and comprehensively as well as correctly?
  • Did the students respond authentically by expressing and sharing their own ideas, opinions, and perspectives on how the novel The Outsiders and the characters reflect, reject, and respond to the social stereotypes of their community and culture insightfully and in their own unique way?
These guiding questions assess and evaluate students' responses based upon its quality. It’s also not a simple question students can answer with a yes or no or even one or two sentences. Good students expect students to express themselves in-depth, in detail, and insightfully. They also require students to address and respond using some form of oral, written, creative, or technical expression.
With mathematics, the quality of the response is based not only on whether they can solve the problem correctly but explain how and why they used the concepts and procedures they are learning clearly, comprehensively, and even creatively.  Consider the following scenario in which students are learning about equivalent fractions.
You are teaching a unit on fraction equivalence and ordering.  Your students are expected to demonstrate and communicate the following:
  • Explain why a fraction a/b is equivalent to a fraction (n × a)/(n × b) by using visual fraction models, with attention to how the number and size of the parts differ even though the two fractions themselves are the same size. Use this principle to recognize and generate equivalent fractions. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.NF.A.1)
  • Compare two fractions with different numerators and different denominators, e.g., by creating common denominators or numerators, or by comparing to a benchmark fraction such as 1/2. Recognize that comparisons are valid only when the two fractions refer to the same whole. Record the results of comparisons with symbols >, =, or <, and justify the conclusions, e.g., by using a visual fraction model. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.NF.A.2)
Your students will address and respond to the following good question:
How can you recognize, generate, and explain why fractions are equivalent?
The quality of the student's response to this question depends on the following: 
  • Does the student respond to the question accurately by defining what is an equivalent fraction and applying the concept and procedures to make and match the fractions presented to them be equivalent?
  • Does the student respond to the question acceptably by completing all the problems and showing their work?
  • Does the student respond appropriately by providing the answer and explaining why each of the fractions they make and match are equivalent and how they determined they were equivalent?
  • Does the student respond authentically by showing and telling how they personally recognized and generated the equivalent fractions verbally in their own words or visually using fraction models?
The key to promoting cognitive rigor through classroom questioning is communication. Knowing what is the correct answer and showing how can the answer be attained correctly is half the battle. Students should also be expected to tell why this is the answer and think deeply about how could share their knowledge and understanding in detail, in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way.
Here are some ways to encourage students to address and respond to good questions:
  1. Show and tell. Set the expectations right from the beginning that students will be required to demonstrate and communicate -- or show and tell -- what they are learning. Let them know that knowing what is the answer and showing how can concepts and procedures be used is half the battle. Students must also be able to tell why is this the answer and think deeply about how else can concepts and procedures be used. That’s what will be expected of them and also how their learning will be assessed and evaluated.
  2. Discourage one-word or one-sentence responses. Identifying what is the Earth as a planet or who is Edgar Allan Poe as an author who wrote Gothic tales during the 1800s should not be considered acceptable or appropriate responses. Yes, these responses are accurate, but going into details and depth would be more acceptable and appropriate expressions of deep knowledge.  Encourage students to describe and explain further. Have them use examples from the text as explanations and evidentiary support.    
  3. Ask, “What do you mean?” Every time a student gives an answer in the form of a simple statement, ask them, “What do you mean?” This prompts them to explain why is this the answer and elaborate upon how was the answer attained. It also challenges them to defend and justify their responses and even question their own thinking and reasoning. For example, if you ask what is the relationship between fractions and division and the student responds, A fraction is a way to divide numbers, asking what do you mean prompts the student not only to explain their response but also think about how they can phrase their response clearly, correctly, and comprehensively.   You can also ask how do you know to prompt students to justify their knowledge.
  4. Paraphrase or transcribe information. Students should also not be permitted to recite, repeat, or restate information explicitly as presented by the text or teacher. They should paraphrase or transcribe the information and cite or credit the source from where they obtained the information. For example, students should define what is volume or describe where and when did World War II take place in their own words instead of just simply copying what the text says.   Having students explain in their own words “encourages a deeper processing of ideas, which can lead to a better understanding of the material” -- especially if the students write the information longhand (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).
  5. Teach like an expert. Teachers generally teach students what is the answer by presenting the question or problem and showing and telling students how to use concepts and procedures to answer the question correctly. Experts, however, pose the question, present their answer, explain how and why they achieved their outcome or result, and show how it can be applied in different contexts. That’s the deep knowledge students need to learn -- how to transfer and use knowledge and thinking. To do this, present students the question or problem with its answer or solution and ask them to examine how and why. You can even show them visually the procedures and prompt them to explain how is the concept and procedure used. Then, once they provide an explanation that is accurate, acceptable, appropriate, and authentic, challenge them to investigate and inquire how else can the concept and procedure be used in a different context.
  6. Have students choose their grade. Unfortunately, some students may not go into the detail and depth they should with the responses. They might also feel as if answering the question correctly or the information they provide is “good enough”.   While we want our students to go deeper with their responses, we also don’t want to discourage them or make them feel defensive about their responses. Here’s a dialogue I use with students to encourage them to provide more depth and detail in their responses:
Mr. Francis: Is this your answer?
Student: Yes.
Mr. Francis: Is this your final answer?
Student: Yes.
Mr. Francis: Is that your A answer?
Student: I think it is.
Mr. Francis: Okay. Do you want an A?
Student: Yes (Hopefully, they’ll say yes.)
Mr. Francis: If you want an A, why don’t you look into this and tell me a little more about how you came to this response. However, that’s up to you. What you have here is accurate. However, your grade is based upon whether the response is acceptable, appropriate, and authentic.   So if you want that A, why don’t you look into this or tell me how you came to this response. However, it’s up to you.
Notice what’s happening in this exchange. Instead of telling the student their response is not “good enough”, they are being ask to consider and reflect upon the quality of their response by asking them what they think and what their perception is. You’re validating their response as accurate but challenging and encouraging them to go further so it meets all the criteria for responding to good questions. You’re also suggesting to them what exactly they should examine and investigate further in order to improve their response. However -- and this is key -- you’re allowing the student to choose whether they want to expand upon their answer and earn that higher grade.   Not only are you teaching them how to delve deeper but you’re also teaching them a life lesson about making good choices and the importance of producing quality work (and if they choose not to go further, then they need to accept the grade they earn).
Keep in mind cognitive rigor is qualitative, not quantitative. Promoting cognitive rigor through classroom questioning involves asking good questions that prompt students to think deeply about how they can transfer and use what they are learning. The quality of their responses should be evaluated not only based upon whether they are accurate but also whether they truly express and share the depth of students’ learning in an acceptable, appropriate, and authentic manner.
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! Questions for Cognitive Rigor will be published by ASCD in 2016.  For more information, please visit