Saturday, February 11, 2012

Put Thinking to the Test - Revisited

“At one time, the purpose of the public schools, at least theoretically, 
was to educate children; now it is to produce higher FCAT scores, 
by whatever means necessary.  If school officials believed that ingesting 
lizard meat improved FCAT performance, the cafeterias would be serving gecko nuggets.” 
Dave Barry, Miami Herald, August 4, 2005

This is one of my favorite quotes from Put Thinking to the Test a book Lori L. Conrad, Missy Matthews, Cheryl Zimmerman and I wrote a few years back (Stenhouse, 2008).  Writing a book with three trusted friends and colleagues was one of the highlights of my teaching career.  Honestly, the four of us had a grand time writing the book. 
     As a team, we'd write... sometimes together and sometimes separately... and then gather to revise and "put the pieces together."  We'd laugh (a lot), cajole, debate, respond, question... all in the spirit of collaboration and friendship.  We'd share a glass of wine and a light snack.  We'd talk about our frustrations or share our quandaries about our own writing.  Our process was to put a chapter together then read it, out loud, listening to the rhythm and flow of the words.  We must have read the book ten or more times to one another... listening carefully as each friend took the prosodical role as reader for the day.  Taking the writing risk with three people whose opinion you value was such a blessing... and a truly humbling experience.  I wouldn't trade that time for anything (click here for a podcast).
     Our goal was simple:  to write a book that addressed high stakes testing through a thinking lens.  We weren't out to write a "test prep" book.  Instead we wanted to share the ways in which we infuse our work with the thinking behaviors.  We knew that all learners ask questions; create mental images; draw inferences; synthesis new learning and ideas; activate, utilize, and building background knowledge (schema); determine most important ideas and themes; and monitor for meaning and problem-solve when meaning breaks down.  We knew that, "Strategic, active, flexible thinking occurs as learners make specific decisions to understand--especially when they negotiate the particular demands imposed by high-stakes, standardized tests" (p. 4).  Put Thinking to the Test was and is about: 

  • Responding to the high-stakes testing environment in a professional, forward-thinking way;
  • Understanding the kind of thinking our students need to do well in any learning setting;
  • honoring our own professional inquiry and integrity.
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     It's that time of year again here in Colorado.  We're gearing up for the CTAP (formally the Colorado Student Assessment Program, now the Colorado Transitional Assessment Program) season and once again we're developing a hankering for gecko nuggets.  All across the state, I'm sure teachers are swallowing hard and saying, "What'll it be this year?" or "Transitioning into what?"  I'm sure it's the same in every state.  That's why I had to pick up our book this past week and reread it... to remind myself not to get consumed by fear (read Cheryl's brilliant essay "Education Fear Factor Style" on pages 5-6).  As I reread, I found myself being drawn back into the writing process with my friends and realizing that I had to bring thinking back to the forefront of my work during "hunting season."  What did I discover?  It's a wise and practical book.
     On pages 13-14, I shared a letter that was originally an exchange between my daughter, Anneke, when she was in fifth grade in her "Nothing Book," a back and forth journal between home and school, "ostensibly designed to extend the famous questions-and-answer exchange between parents and children everywhere: 'What did you do in school today; dear son/daughter?' 'Nothing, Mom/Dad.'"  
     I reread this letter and it reminded me about what's really important:

Dear Mom and Dad,
     How was your week?  Mine was good.  In math, we’re still doing CSAP practice; it’s giving me an aching headache!  Also we’re doing time tests every day.  In reading today [Friday], we had a Read-a-Thon to celebrate Read Across America.  In writing, we’re also doing CSAP practice, it seems like everywhere I turn, I hear, or see the horrible, haunting word CSAP.  Aaaaagh!  I’m in Mrs. McKee’s group for CSAP writing.
     In history we’re studying about colonies, and maps, and slavery.  On C-track we got a mailbox so now I can write letters to my friends.  I don’t have to deliver them, so they stay a surprise.  I’ve gotten four letters and written two. 

Dear Anneke, 
     CSAP, CSAP, CSAP . . . as Aunt Randi would say, “Oy Vey!”  I agree that it’s haunting—isn’t that just terrific!  Wouldn’t you rather be haunted by the sound of beautifully written text, the thrill of closing a novel with a tear rolling down your cheek, or learning about how Cynthia Rylant or Jonathan London or Eve Bunting use writer’s tools in their work.
     What’s better than sitting in a group talking about A Taste of Blackberries, On My Honor, or Prairie SongsWhat’s more important—learning to question text, to create sensory images, to infer—than learning about how readers comprehend?  What’s better than filling a notebook with dreams, and wonders, and memories?  What’s better than hearing a beautifully written poem, a laughing poem, and a poem that touches your soul?  What’s better than exploring your passions, your life topics, or just something you’re interested in?  What’s better than “real” writing?  I can’t think of anything!
     Anni, I honestly despise what we’re doing to learning in the name of CSAP.  Is accountability important—certainly?!  Should we measure growth—certainly?!  But what are we doing to you—the learner?
     Poor teachers—we’re under such pressure and we’re throwing out research and the orthodoxies we hold dear with “the baby’s bathwater!”  And so, we see the joy of learning turned into hours of “stuff” just to “raise” scores.  Sad.  I guess I need to speak up as a parent—write to our fearless leaders and say, “Enough is enough!”
     As a teacher, I feel nervous and jittery and nauseous at this time of year . . . and I know your teacher must be feeling the same way.  As a parent, all I can say is “Do your best!”  “Eat a good breakfast,” and “Show what you know!”  Mostly, I want to tell you I’m sorry!

     In a few weeks it’ll be over—until next year.  Then you can get back to the real joys of learning, of being a child.  It goes by so quickly, childhood.  I want you to read, to write, to learn... and to enjoy being eleven.  ‘Cause someday you’ll turn 42 and feel the same tug in your heart that I am feeling writing this note to you... I just hope it’s without the word CSAP haunting you!
     I love you!  If you score a partially proficient or advanced, you’ll score what you're meant to score.  Frankly, your score is not what matters to me.   In the meantime, read a poem, sing a song, share a great story with a friend—let those be the things that haunt your childhood.  We’ll stand up and handle the rest!
      Well, that was written ten years ago.  Anneke is now a senior in college majoring in Applied Physiology and plans to become an optometrist.  She's grown into a fine young woman... independent, wise, thoughtful, charming.  Sadly, her childhood is over (heavy sigh), but she's got lots of fabulous adventures ahead of her.  And, though she still takes a test periodically, my hopes and wishes for her remain the same... to read a poem, sing a song, share a story with a friend (she's actually spending time this evening with several of her good friends from high school sharing a bit of laughter I'm sure).  Oh... and I can barely remember what her fifth grade CSAP scores were... and to think there was such pressure on her at the time!
     So, as you begin testing season, perhaps you'll pick up your copy of Put Thinking to the Test and reread it.  I did.  And, I think I'm all the better for it.
Just a note:  On pages 159-60, we ended the book with a brilliant essay, "Passing the Tests That Matter," by Dr. Carol Wilcox of Carol's Corner.


  1. I love this communication between you and your daughter. Such wise words from a very smart dad. Those feelings are starting to build up back here in Ohio also. As you said, it's time to crack open my book, to reinforce what I know is good and right for kids!

  2. Loved your post. What a beautiful message to your daughter. I am entering my first year in a testing grade and I bought your book this summer after reading Conferring. I'm taking this off my to read pile (after my interims are done!) and reading.

    Thanks to you our class continues to look for themes of endurance and persistence in books after our beginning of the year book discussions. We've found these themes are in so many books. It's been inspiring us as learners to continue on even when things are hard:) Thank you for your great ideas and wise words.

  3. Patrick,
    Thanks for sharing your post. It is a reminder of what's really important. My youngest daughter, now a sophomore in high school, was on the track to be our most tested child in the house. She was "lucky" to be on the calendar for each year's implementation of another test. I'll never forget when she came home from school with a science workbook to prepare for our testing titled, "Achieving Competency." I was shocked as I've always dreamed of much more than competency for our children. As a parent, I have watched countless hours spent practicing for a test when in reality reading a book, figuring out a process for solving math equations, or trying to test hypotheses would have been more beneficial to her as a learner.

    Last week I walked into her high school to find a sign hanging on the library, "Library closed for MAP testing." A heavy sigh came from within, somehow it seems if the library were always open for reading the rest would take care of itself.

    If I were in charge of the world....