Busy classrooms with engaged students don’t automatically equal high achievement scores. It’s our job to connect the two. This past week a colleague said to me: “A student who produced an unbelievable Animoto video in class last year failed our state test in reading.”

What? Huh?

I thought 21st century teaching and learning increased student achievement? I thought computers in classrooms could only help? Although one test score from one student from one year probably doesn’t correlate teaching practice to student achievement, it does raise some questions about 21st century teaching and learning in a standardized testing world.

Should we ask students to begin closing computer screens so they can all start to learn how to take tests again? I think not.

1:1 classrooms are a glorious thing, maybe even something you are currently enjoying or a place you’d like to be in some day as a teacher. I’ve been in those revved-up classrooms where some students in one corner of the room might be discussing the merits of a court case while students in another corner are skyping with a storm chaser while he is getting ready for a chase. It’s quite an experience. However, it’s a moot point to the leaders of the school district if test scores aren’t where they want or need them to be.

That’s the practical world we live in. My suggestion is to approach achievement tests the same way we should approach our lessons and units: with rigor.

Rigor and engagement

Barbara Blackburn defines rigor as creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, is given support, and demonstrates learning at those high levels. In one of her books, Rigor in Your School, she argues that rigor is complex: “It is more than a specific lesson or instructional strategy. It is deeper than what a student says or does in response to a lesson. True rigor is weaving together all elements of schooling to raise students to higher levels of learning.” It’s not about adding curriculum requirements or raising grading standards. I’d say, too, that we shouldn’t wait until the end of a unit to assess key standards.

Last week a few members of our faculty had a conversation with Barbara via Skype. To set up the conversation, I sent her an email through her publisher and we agreed on a time that would work for both of us. During our live session she made an interesting comment about how to recognize rigor in a classroom: “A rigorous classroom is one where each student is meeting high expectations…not 27 out of 30, but 30 out of 30.” A challenging goal.

Formative assessments throughout units of instruction (not just at the culmination) allow us to assess important concepts students may see on an achievement test. For example, middle school science teachers in my state are expected to teach students how to “identify an independent (manipulated) and dependent (responding) variable in an investigation.” I guess we could have students practice this skill, following a set of procedures we’ve written, and then have them identify  independent and dependent variables on a quiz we’ve made.

But I think this is a better idea: In our middle school we invite students to design an experiment on chewing gum. The point isn’t to have them practice by repeating a pre-determined gum experiment that works out perfectly each time. Instead, we want them to design an experiment with an uncertain outcome — an experiment that involves a question they’re curious about. A “great” investigation, which middle school students might define as “unique,” “simple” and “easy to understand.”

At the culmination of our gum challenge, students present their ideas as part of a mini science fair during a class period. Students move around the room to see what others have thought to investigate. “If I chew gum when I read, then will I read faster?” Or, “Does chewing gum stick better to something the more you chew it?”

At the culmination of the Gum Fair, students are given a lesson on how to identify an independent and dependent variable in their gum investigation. Not only are they asked to identify both types of variables in their own experiment, they have a competition to see who in the room can design a variables quiz that is fun to take. Students share their quiz designs with each other through a wiki or email. They then take over the class and debate the difference between good and great questions.

Can busy classrooms with engaged students equal learning at a higher level? I think so.

Photo: Stephen Cummings, Creative Commons

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Chris Preston

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