Posts Tagged online testing

Unplugged Elementary Kids and Online Tests Don’t Mix

Published by — Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

Recently I was at a luncheon where a Mom and Grandma minded their two-year-old by plugging him into a propped-up iPad and putting food at his right hand.  He remained inert unless the iPad fell flat or snacks ran out.  But twice in the roughly two-plus hours his animal self erupted out of the e-prison.  Unexpressed energy thrashed his body until he could get out of the high chair to run, screaming at the top of his lungs, with the two women giving chase.  Both times his restlessness was sated after tearing around uncontrollably for a while, when he willingly returned to his addictions.  Guests shrugged it off because, after all, this is the new normal.

Only 20 years ago, teachers, me and others bemoaned the posture of children watching TV — passive, glazed-eyed, slumped.  Now we’re maddened by the behavior and the nano-second attention span of plugged-in children.  Doctors, among others, beg parents to limit “screen time.”  Children should have 2 or 3 hours of rough-and-tumble play every day, but they don’t get that.  Electronic sitters and sedatives are too convenient for the adults.

Increasingly, teachers and doctors see physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.  Heavy technology use is associated with epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as soaring rates of ADHD, autism, developmental, physical and speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory-processing and sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

The terrific Susan Linn calls the commercial world of electronics “mitigated reality.”  But young children need to download the software of real reality by getting out in it, falling down and going boom, discovering insects, making friends, mud pies and forts, exploring the neighborhood.  Currently a minority of families, usually well-educated, keeps their kids unplugged and learning the way biology built their brains to learn.

Don’t get me wrong:  Skype with Grandma is fine.  Assisted technologies for special-needs children and anything that gets squirmy children through a coast-to-coast flight are just fine.  But.

Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

By grade 5 or 6, children have had an actual childhood and are starting to bump up against puberty.  The pre-adolescent brain gains significantly increased capacity for abstraction and needs complex challenges.  Computer skills, including internet research and coding, can draw students back into the world of learning, just as young adolescents are asserting themselves and detaching from childhood ways.  There’s no downside to putting off computers, except the inconvenience to adults.

But elementary public schools have no choice but to plug kids in.  Third-graders must be ready to be successful on online standardized tests.  So little ones, kindergartners, prepare for computer-based tests from the moment the schools can get them started.  If schools don’t, the kids’ poor results will feed the naming-and-shaming frenzy that characterizes the education-industry’s punitive use of otherwise interesting data.

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, annual online testing has become the new norm.  Students in grades 3-8 — and one grade in high school — have been tested with computer-based assessments every year since.  Now the fast on-coming Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, will not just be online, but administered more often, with interim and so-called “formative” assessments.  While education leaders give lip service to “alternative assessments,” they don’t mean portfolios, writing samples, paper-pencil tests, or any way of assessing kids that doesn’t collect data via computer and score it electronically.

High-tech data collection made online testing seem essential.

Scoring the old paper-pencil, bubble-in tests was expensive, even with scanners and other machinery helping the process.  Prior to the 1990s, the norm was to give one basic-skills test in elementary, middle and high school.  Buzz generated by the release of the scores died down quickly and indifference set in.  Ultimately, the data weren’t very useful.  And without the data, the public had no idea how underserved certain kids were.  So no one, including me, wants to return to the days of zero information about the quality of the schools.  We want data, but not necessarily via kids on computers.

Families committed to keeping their elementary-age kids unplugged are forced to home-school or pay for private schools.  Not even charters offer an out because they have the same public-reporting accountability requirements as every other public school.

So who’s thinking this through?  If we don’t like the unteachable behavior of plugged in kids, what are we doing plugging kindergartners into online testing?  We can’t wag our fingers at parents and homes for delivering distracted, impulsive kids, and then plug them in at school for “educational” purposes.  The situation is a mess.

Technology is convenient.  Kids are not.  If we don’t slow down to pay attention to their needs, we’re going to raise a whole lot of young adults whom we don’t like and who aren’t good for much.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Common Core Snubs Literature, Loves ‘Informational Text’

Published by — Ah, the restorative powers of great art.

by Julia Steiny

Ah, the restorative powers of great art.

Too bad classical art is so hard to enjoy without understanding the historical context and culture of the time.  It’s difficult just to imagine people who knew nothing of TV and cell phones.

Trinity Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear was a stunner.  The old king howled his wrath when his truly devoted daughter refused to fawn over him in public, as his ego demanded.  In a drenching, on-stage rainstorm storm, distraught characters reacted passionately, with famous lines of poetry, to what we could all see in front of us.  Blood spurted from Gloucester’s eyes during the on-stage blinding.  And when the king realized what he’d done, his grief was massive.  Three jaw-dropping hours flew by.

But Lear is a tough play for an advertising-saturated audience hundreds of years away from the original production.  It was written for people with patience, people who pictured scenes in their heads as they listened, instead of seeing each cinematic detail.

Now, instant gratification dulls our taste for a long view.  Entertainment is king, and courses in Art Appreciation have gone the way of Home Economics.  Ever fewer people –  well, I can only speak for Americans — can appreciate how thrilling great classical art can be.

The beauty of the classics is not so much in the eyes of the beholder as in the eyes of the educated.

Which is one of the reasons that the new national curriculum standards, called the Common Core, are so upsetting.

The Core’s English Language Arts standards shift much of the focus from literature to non-fiction, or what they call, “informational text.”  The very phrase makes my skin crawl.  And yet, the Core’s defenders are correct when they argue that far too few students know how to extract facts out of history and science books — never mind the contracts and fine print they’ll encounter as adults.

The Core’s publicists emphasize that the attention given to informational text is only a starting point, a base from which educators can build.  Their goal, in their words, is “to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.”  Presumably, once kids have mastered mining facts, their teachers can then build up students’ backgrounds so they can enjoy the rich language of Charles Dickens or George Eliot.  Not that teachers assign much of that sort of work any more.

The new Common Core will lead to a huge battery of new tests — a controversy in its own right, but for another day.  The tests will be online, which will be a relief to educators who want results right away.  The faster the results, the faster teachers can adjust their lessons to improve the next round of results.  Students will read and analyze several documents to write extended answers. or mini-essays.  But computer-scored tests make it all the more important to get the facts, grammar and punctuation right, according to a computer’s understanding.  Currently forty-five states have signed on to the project.

Curiously, among them is Massachusetts.  Pundits and researchers ask why on earth that that state would bother with the Common Core when its own standards are by all accounts far superior, very successful and steeped in literature.

Many of us think that teaching great literature well — not drearily — will produce the intellectual curiosity and broad background that will also, oh by the way, improve the over-valued test scores.

As it happens, I was a professor of theater arts in a prior life.  So at Lear the other night, while settling into our seats, my companion asked me to give her the “Cliff Notes” on the play.  Okay.  Both the main plot, about Lear, and the sub-plot, about his friend the Earl of Gloucester, are stories about parents who misjudge their children.

A fun trick with Shakespeare and his contemporaries is to peel back the characters’ names to find allegorical clues to the theme and structure of the play.  When I taught college, I loved telling students that Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril, was named after a venereal disease.  Regan is just an echo of her sister.  And at the center of the play is the ideal heart, Cordelia — coeur is French for heart, and “delia” is a favorite Shakespearean anagram for “ideal.”

Then I’d ask my female students:  When you walk past a construction site, what do the male workers do?  They’d answer that they whistle, hoot, and make rude noises.  But inevitably, the student trying to figure out where the teacher lady was going would exclaim “leer.”  Bingo.  They leer.

Ah, so the play is about sight — insight, clear versus rain-pelted vision, blindness.  Excruciatingly, Lear finally sees that he’s rejected the true love of his adoring daughter.

Just because we reviewed a bit of cultural background, both my friend and I clearly heard every word of the dialogue that exalted the virtues of clear sightedness.  Especially seeing love clearly.  That life lesson can not be rendered into informational text.

This new focus on non-fiction is about improving the quality of workers for the economy.

But I’m betting that our money-skewed vision is blinding us to what it means to be truly educated, with a culturally big and historically rich background.

So beware the Common Core.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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