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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation:
Think Globally, Assess Locally

Our Teacher Research: Past & Present

Helping all students achieve higher standards

Teacher preparation and new teacher induction   Ongoing teacher professional growth   Teacher networks
Teacher leadership in school change   Helping all students achieve higher standards      

Think Globally, Assess Locally

Janet Price, International High School at LaGuardia C.C.

Context
International is a public high school in Queens serving recent immigrants, all English language learners. As part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, International had permission to use a graduation portfolio in lieu of the state testing program. After the institution of the new Regents testing program, the State Education Commissioner denied the Consortium's request to continue that variance. Beginning with the class of 2005, our student body must pass five Regents exams in order to receive a high school diploma. In my seven years as a history teacher, I have followed the example of my peers emphasizing depth over breadth and focusing on language development, especially reading and writing and critical thinking skills over memorization of specific facts. For the first time this year I was faced with preparing students for a test that could cover anything and everything in global history from the Neanderthals through global warming. My dilemma was how to maintain the depth of coverage appropriate to meeting important state world history standards and yet prepare students for a test that is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Question
How do students respond to similar tasks in dissimilar contexts? How do different kinds of history writing provide different opportunities to demonstrate mastery?

Tools and Data
I compared student scores on the document-based essay section of the January global Regents to their work on a class assignment, a document based essay, using the actual test scoring instructions to assign a score to each class paper. Possible scores range from 0 to 5. Three students scored three points higher on the class essay. Four students scored two points higher. Five students scored one point higher. Three students scored the same. No students scored higher on the Regents exam.

Comparing student work on the two tasks, it is clear that students found it hard to work up enthusiasm for the rather dry Regents topic (comparing and contrasting the effect of geography on the political and economic development of Great Britain and Japan) whereas most students seemed to enjoy the classroom opportunity to compare the causes of the Iraq war to World War One or World War Two. Consider, for instance, student A's conclusion to his Regents essay which received a score of 1. He writes: "Japan and Great Britain are very wonderful place because there is water all over. Fishing Industries make a lot of money and trading is good too." The essay ends with a drawing of a guy sticking his tongue out.

In contrast, here is how student A ends his essay comparing the causes of World War II and the war in Iraq:

"Many people sacrifice their life for their country. Some are forced and some do it willingly. I salute all the people there are fighting to keep America safe. I don't like war but when there are bad, cruel, ruthless leaders in the world, war is the only way to stop them from going wild. I hope the communist government of China learns a big lesson after the U.S. and British army defeats and Liberates the Iraqi people from Shadam Hussein. May be one day hope I can see my country [Tibet] get freedom like the Iraqi people got from Shadam Hussein and Afghans from the Taliban, It would be the happiest day in my life. This lesson has taught me a lot about the wars that happened and the wars that are happening."

I also compared another classroom assignment to the state world history standards-- a diary that students wrote in the voice of a figure of their choice from the era of the French Revolution, I found that this assignment addressed several of the state standards and the recommended ways for showing student mastery of these standards. For example, the state standards say that students should "analyze historic events from around the world by examining accounts written from different perspectives" and that "this is evident, for example, when students analyze important events and developments in world history through the eyes and experiences of those who were there."

Unfortunately, this project did not seem to prepare students for the Regents exam as most students who took the test in January were not able to use the information they had gathered to respond to the thematic essay question on revolutions.

Analysis and Policy Implications
Why were my students able to show greater mastery of state standards on classroom assignments than on the exam? For one, the on-demand testing format simply is the wrong vehicle to assess many important state standards. Also, language barriers, time constraints and the stress of taking a high stakes test that determines whether a student will earn a high school diploma all played a role in interfering with student performance. This is a particularly serious issue for English-language learners especially since the literature conclusively finds that students who arrive here as adolescents will take six or seven years to catch up and even longer to learn the English skills associated with science, social studies and higher order mathematics. However, this is not only an issue for ELL's. National testing experts unanimously assert that no decision of serious consequence in a child's life should be made on the basis of a single test score.

Recommendations

  • End the practice of making any one test a determinant of who receives a high school diploma. If the global Regents is required, permit schools to use it as one piece of evidence in making high-stakes decisions.
  • Grant variances to schools that wish to use performance-assessments aligned to state standards in lieu of the Regents global exam.
  • Adjust the passing score for English Language Learners from 65 to 55 to partially compensate for the special difficulties the test poses for this population.

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