Do you attend Khan Academy?

As you may recall from his TedTalk, “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education” Salman Khan started Khan Academy after he got the idea from frequently Skyping with his cousins and subsequently creating videos on YouTube to help them with their math homework. The video lessons caught on and now Khan Academy has its own website and app.

What is Khan Academy?
According to their website, “Khan Academy offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom.”

What subjects does Khan Academy offer?

  • Math
  • Science
  • Economics & finance
  • Arts & humanities
  • Computing
  • Test Prep (SAT, MCAT, GMAT, IIT JEE, NCLEX-RN, CAHSEE, AP* Art History

As you can see, the subjects are focused on STEM. The “arts & humanities” sections are mostly art and some history; there is no English or writing at all. This is disappointing to an English teacher like myself, but I hope those modules are in development (or will be soon).

Who is Khan Academy for?
Everyone! Students, teachers, parents, and anyone else who wants to learn. Need to refresh a concept for a meeting? Khan Academy! Need to relearn elementary math to help your kid with homework? Khan Academy! Want to brush up on your history so you can sound knowledgeable on a date? Khan Academy! Want to study coding? Khan Academy! (Are you getting the pattern here? Good!)

Do I have to pay for Khan Academy?
No, it’s free! Forever. It’s a promise on their homepage. “For free. For everyone. Forever.”

Do I need a username/password to use Khan Academy?
Nope! You can log in to track progress, save content, etc., but it is not essential to log in to watch a video.

Are the videos hard to follow?
Some of the more advanced math may be difficult if you’re skipping around; however, in a general sense, no the videos are easy to understand and follow. There are two ways to learn in the video: visual and audio. The speaker walks the person through the topic with a drawing and audio information. Additionally, there is a transcript to follow if you want to skim through and find something specific.

Can you embed videos into your own website?
Yes! Click on a video and beneath it you’ll see a “Share” button. There is an option for embed. Paste the code into your site/blog and the result will have a heading and look like this…….

Adding fractions with like denominators: With like denominators, you’re basically just adding numerators. That’s not too bad, right? Can the resulting fraction be simplified?

Wave Interference:

M-STEP Press Release: “Pre-Test Technical Assistance and Simulation Look Promising”

Michigan has changed its standardized testing procedures. Now, the assessments have a new name and are online. I assume this has been quite an undertaking. However, on April 6, 2015, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) released a press release indicating all pilot programs showed favorable results.

Preliminary testing of the online assessment system, and technology readiness monitoring of school districts by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) are helping assure that the new M-STEP statewide assessment system will operate smoothly when the eight-week testing window opens April 13.

“Our teams of technology and assessment specialists have been working with local and regional school districts to do test runs of the new online system,” said State Superintendent Mike Flanagan.  “We want to make sure that we troubleshoot and smooth out any bumps before the system goes statewide next week.  We want schools to be ready.”

Newsflash: There will still be bumps. There always is with a new system.

For those who don’t know anything about the M-STEP, the press release included a brief synopsis.

These new assessments, called the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), will be given to students in grades 3-8 and 11 online and will measure current student knowledge and understanding of state standards for math, English language arts, science, and social studies.

Sounds easy enough. But standardized tests never are. The agony of which is the “BEST” answer in multiple choice questions will drive students nuts. Not to mention sitting in front of a computer screen for hours?? I suppose computer chairs may be slightly more comfortable than lunchroom seats or the hard plastic of a classroom chair, but boy…I sure got distracted by the fact that they could spin.

So where did all this money come from to supply every district with the technology to run these exams? The press release speaks again…

The state has invested $145 million, appropriated over the past three years in Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grants (TRIG) for education technology in Michigan.  School districts have used those grants to develop or improve their technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hardware and software, in preparation for the planned implementation of online assessments; and teaching and learning.

But you must be thinking…certainly not every district is ready. You are correct. In fact, about 20 % are not. But they only have through 2017 to put it off.

Eighty percent of Michigan school buildings, accounting for 83 percent of all students, are tech-ready for M-STEP, with the others using the optional paper-and-pencil option. The paper-and-pencil option will be available for schools through the Spring 2017 M-STEP administration.

I wonder what will happen if districts just say no? I meant, it’s good advice. They tell the students to say it all the time.

But I digress. The press release mentioned piloting these tests. It would make sense to pick a diverse selection of districts, you know, some wealthy, some in poverty, some rural, some suburban, some city, some large, some small…etc. It would make sense to create a pilot program representative of the whole state of Michigan. Let’s see…did they do that?

Overall, 200 school buildings and approximately 12,000 students participated in those pilot online assessments.

In an effort to help districts be as prepared as possible, MDE has been collaborating with online test delivery vendor, Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and staff from the TRIG team with an online technology readiness initiative.

An online technology readiness diagnostic took place at 12 sites within seven Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) across the state from March 2–10. These planned visits were designed to encompass a broad spectrum of locations, technical environments, and configurations, providing a representative sample that schools could follow to configure and prepare for the Spring 2015 online assessments.

Staff worked with each site to review software setup; network configuration; hardware and testing environment setup; specific device testing and load simulations; identify potential server utilization and capacity issues; and answer various test, configuration, best practices, and security questions.

Sites included: Ingham ISD, Waverly Schools, Waterford School District, Waterford Mott High School, Detroit Public Schools, Oakland ISD, Macomb ISD, Dort Elementary School in Flint, Roseville Middle School, Charlevoix-Emmet ISD, Boyne City High School, and Boyne City Middle School.

Wait…did I miss…the WHOLE UPPER PENINSULA?? Actually, those places are the Greater Detroit Area, Lansing, and the Greater Charlevoix Area. Not such a good representation of the state there. Prediction: Problems will occur. Also, I’m sorry U.P., you seem to be a forgotten part of the state once again.

Also, I just barely caught it, but those sites were just for checking the technology readiness. Nope, they weren’t the pilot program! So then who was??

MDE also conducted an M-STEP test simulation at Birney K-8 School in Southfield with 126 students utilizing the state’s online practice test. Building-level infrastructure performance also was assessed, validating the schools ability to deliver the assessment online.  The simulation was carried out without any technical disruption.

Southfield. 126 students. Excuse me while I clean up the drink I just spit out.

Take some advice from major companies on the release day of much-anticipated video games: No matter how much beta testing you do…the servers always crash. The. Servers. Always. Crash.

So how much training will the schools and districts have? A reasonable amount. But there are still going to be teachers who will get asked a question by a student and have no answer. “Uhhhh, let me double-check with so-and-so on that.”.

Prior to the simulation, Birney school staff had familiarized students over a two-week period with the state’s Online Training Tools.  These training tools for students and teachers have been available to all schools since February 25, when the necessary testing software became available for schools to install.

Since last December, MDE has provided weekly information and updates on the 2015 M-STEP administration through its Spotlight on Student Assessment and Accountability electronic newsletter to every school district. Technology information, best practice tips, and reminders have been routinely included in that newsletter.

Schools and districts have been instructed to follow the Technology User Guide to setup their testing environments, validating the accuracy and usability of the guide.  Multiple online technology trainings and Question & Answer sessions for building and district technology staff also have been conducted by MDE.

And if a district really has a problem? There will be some support. But I bet their going to be so overwhelmed that it may not be as effective as they hope.

To assist schools and districts during the test administration window, the department has established statewide “Tiger Team” designed to quickly respond to, and support, schools and districts. The teams includes staff from: MDE, DRC, TRIG and select ISDs.  These teams will respond by phone or, depending on need, will be dispatched to school locations whenever possible throughout the state.

“Tiger Team”? Snicker Do they use the Geek Squad cars?

Okay, okay. I’m done. If you want to know when the “testing window” is, the press release ends with the following information.

To best suit school schedules and technology capabilities, districts are given the flexibility to administer grade 3-8 tests during a three-week window and grade 11 tests during the entire eight-week window.  Test windows are open from April 13 through June 5, 2015.

Michigan’s MI-Access alternate assessment can be administered on any instructional day over a seven-week period from April 13 – May 29, 2015.

# # #

Press Release: Online Michigan Student Test System Developed for Spring 2015

unnamedNews Release

Contact:    Martin Ackley, Director of Public and Governmental Affairs, (517) 241-4395

Bill DiSessa, Spokesperson, (517) 335-6649

Michigan Student Test System Developed for Spring 2015

November 13, 2014

LANSING – Michigan’s public schools can begin moving forward in their planning for the online statewide student assessment in the Spring of 2015. The Michigan Department of Education announced today its updated assessment system, called the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP).

“This is great news for our local school districts,” said State Superintendent Mike Flanagan. “They’ve been very anxious to hear what the new assessment will be, as we developed a new test to comply with legislatively-mandated changes.”

The new assessment was required by the state legislature for the Spring 2015 testing period. The legislature also required the Department of Education to re-bid its long-term assessment system that will begin in the Spring of 2016.

The new assessment meets all of the requirements put into law by the legislature; that it be: an online assessment, with a paper-and-pencil option; aligned to the state standards; expanding writing assessments to additional grades; providing an increased number of constructed response test questions so that pupils can demonstrate higher-order skills, such as problem solving and communicating reasoning; and pilot tested before statewide implementation.

M-STEP replaces the 44-year-old MEAP test, which was not online and measured the previous state standards. The Spring 2015 assessment will include Michigan-created content, as well as content developed by the multi-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Educators from Michigan public schools helped develop and write test content that will appear on M-STEP.

“The changes in law diverted what the department and local school districts had been developing and preparing for over the past three years,” Flanagan said. “It put schools in some unwelcomed limbo while our experts scrambled to find testing content that met the legislative requirements.”

The assessment for Spring 2015 is a one-year stopgap until the long-term assessment is awarded through the re-bidding process.

M-STEP includes the following assessments:

  • A Spring summative assessment for grades 3-8
  • A Michigan Merit Exam (MME) for grade 11, which includes a college entrance exam; a work skills component; and a summative component aligned to Michigan content standards

This will be the first time all statewide assessments will be administered online. To help prepare, nearly 1,900 Michigan schools have performed pilot online testing over the past three and a half years. The state Legislature has invested more than $100 million over the past two years to help get local districts technology-ready for the new assessments. To date, over 80 percent of schools meet the minimum technology requirement for the new assessment.

There still will be a paper-and-pencil option for schools if they believe they are not ready with the minimal technology requirements. Districts have until November 21 to request a waiver to administer the paper/pencil test. Due to the cost concerns of preparing the separate online and paper/pencil formats, and wanting to be the best stewards of public funds, MDE will not entertain change requests beyond that November 21 deadline date.

The entire Michigan Merit Exam for the Spring of 2015 will take longer for local schools to administer due to requirements in state law.

The high school test requires additional time because the college entrance and work skills tests that Michigan currently is contracted to use, do not measure the state’s standards for English language arts and mathematics. The move to more rigorous standards requires additional types of test questions not present on those assessments. As a result, the state is required to provide additional testing to ensure state and federal laws that require measurement of the state’s standards are met.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) has allowed a few states to get a federal flexibility waiver with afuture plan to use only a college-entrance exam like ACT. However, USED cannot waive the Michigan law that requires the state assessments be aligned to the state standards.

The majority of schools that are testing online will have greater flexibility and can configure testing, as desired, within the eight-week window the department has provided them. This provides ample opportunity for schools to plan their testing times. There will be eight partial days of testing for the paper/pencil option of the high school test in the spring. This option, which should be used only by those continuing to prepare their buildings for online testing, must continue to be spread in this fashion to assure adequate testing security.

School Accountability

MDE will be working with the USED to update Michigan’s school accountability model used in its flexibility waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. These updates would recognize the changes in statewide assessments and improvements in identifying student academic growth and learning.

In these discussions with USED, it will be the Michigan Department of Education’s intent to use the test data from this transitional year for a trial run of a revised accountability system. It is the intent of the Department that the results of the trial run of accountability would be shared with schools and districts for local decision making, but that no consequences would be applied.

The Department encourages local districts to use the data to inform classroom instruction; student and school improvement planning; and local programming decisions.

Educator and Administrator Evaluations

Schools will be provided student-level growth data for use in teacher and administrator evaluations. Because these educator evaluations are still determined by local school districts, how local districts choose to use the data in the evaluations is up to each district.

#   #   #

 For more information on M-STEP, log on to:

“14 Things that are obsolete in 21st century schools”

The following article was published by Ingvi Hrannar Ómarsson, an Icelandic elementary teacher & Entrepreneur, on his blog,

Complex Texts: Are Students Too Dumb?

Recently, the National Council of Teacher Educators (NCTE) posted an article to their Facebook page that was published by ASCD in 2011 with the attention-grabbing line that students were “too dumb for complex texts”.

Really? Students are too dumb for complex texts? The last time I checked, the human brain had not changed its mental capacity in the last 30 years in order to render it incapable of comprehending complex texts.

While I agree that complex texts are a struggle to teach in English classes, students being “to dumb” is not the cause. The most common reasons are: (a) lack of time due to the volume of content that must be studied, (b) the lengthy re-teaching of concepts that were not fully mastered in the prior course, (c) the frequent preparation for standardized testing, and (d) the numerous standardized testing dates. Add in some useless days before a break when everyone has cabin fever and other school functions (including several snow days in the cold states), there really is not much time to whittle away at the content in outdated books.

Intrigued by the author’s conclusion, I skimmed the ASCD article to figure out by what measure the author, Mark Bauerlein, used to establish “dumbness” for complex texts. One example that really jumped out at me was that of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, since I recently taught an excerpt from Walden shortly before the holiday break.

Bauerlein stated that students do not take enough time to thoroughly read texts, to digest them, and ponder sentences. In fact, he believes, “readers may need to sit down with them for several hours of concentration.”

Really? Hours of picking apart sentences…for what purpose?

While I do agree that his often-quoted lines should be examined, after all, that is why we still read Walden, I question Bauerlein’s conclusion of hours. What value is there in reading the entirety of a near stream-of-consciousness text written in the mid-1800s by a recluse who may have needed a little bit more human interaction?

Is there a better way to teach the meaning in classics without forcing students to sit and read through pages of old grammar structures, out-dated vocabulary, and fluff to find the 5 minute nugget of information that is still valuable?

Do we read Walden because we “should”? Because it has been deemed a “classic”? Or do we read it because it is applicable to students’ lives and will help them become productive members of society? After all, that is the end goal of public education…to invest in all youth so that every person has the ability to become a positive member of society.

There are too many students who are failing their English classes because they cannot recall facts or apply concepts from Pride & Prejudice to their current life, let alone their future. Students who legitimately want to be a productive member of society, but find that school is teaching them that if you can’t memorize the names of the major characters along with three facts about each one of them, well then, why bother with learning at all? You might as well be in a gang.

Why are students having so much difficulty comprehending difficult texts? Is it because they are “too dumb for complex texts”? Is it the fault of embracing technology? Or, as one commenter in the ASCD article pointed out, the fault of short passages in high-stakes testing? Bauerlein cites technology and skimming text to find essential meaning (just the bullet points) as the cause of “screenagers” being too dumb understand complex texts. However, I think it is not the method of transmission that is the problem, rather the problem is the content itself no longer has a value and purpose in the classroom.

I mean really, how often do you use the knowledge from studying classic literature in your everyday life (professors aside)? In other words, how well did reading complex, classic fiction (and a little non-fiction prose) prepare you to read and digest complex business contracts like lease agreements?

I bet your answer was “very little” or “not at all”.

“We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly”

On October 10, 2012, Slate ran an article about the writing portion of the SAT standardized test and its effects on high school and first-year college level writing.  While many facts and ideas mentioned are not new, it is the combination of them and the message of the article that is very striking.

The article, “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly” by is available to read on Slate’s website.  Additionally, I have copy and pasted the article below.  Links within article are original to the article.


This past Saturday, several hundred thousand prospective college students filed into schools across the United States and more than 170 other countries to take the SAT—$51 registration fees paid, No. 2 pencils sharpened, acceptable calculators at the ready. And as part of the three-hour-and-45–minute ritual, each person taking the 87-year-old test spent 25 minutes drafting a prompt-based essay for the exam’s writing section.

This essay, which was added to the SAT in 2005, counts for approximately 30 percent of a test-taker’s score on the writing section, or nearly one-ninth of one’s total score. That may not seem like much, but with competition for spots at top colleges and universities more fierce than ever, performance on a portion of the test worth around 11 percent of the total could be the difference between Stanford and the second tier. So it’s not surprising that students seek strategies and tips that will help them succeed on the writing exercise. Les Perelman, the recently retired former director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, has got a doozy.

To do well on the essay, he says, the best approach is to just make stuff up.

“It doesn’t matter if [what you write] is true or not,” says Perelman, who helped create MIT’s writing placement test and has consulted at other top universities on the subject of writing assessments. “In fact, trying to be true will hold you back.” So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”

This approach works, and is advisable, he suggests, because of how the SAT essay is structured and graded. Here’s a typical essay prompt taken from the College Board website. It follows a short, three-sentence passage noting that people hold different views on the subject to be discussed:

Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

After spending a few moments reading a prompt similar to that one, test takers have 25 minutes in which to draft a submission that will be scored on a 1-to-6 scale. (No scratch paper is provided for outlining or essay planning.) Most students choose to write what is referred to as “the standard five-paragraph essay”: introductory and concluding paragraphs bookending three paragraphs of support in between. Each essay is later independently graded by two readers in a manner that harkens to the famous I Love Lucy scene wherein Lucy and Ethel attempt to wrap chocolate candies traveling on an unrelenting conveyer belt.

Anne Ruggles Gere, a professor at the University of Michigan, serves as director of the Sweetland Center for Writing, which oversees first-year writing at the university. She speaks with SAT essay-graders often. “What they tell me is that they go through a very regimented scoring process, and the goal of that process is to produce so many units of work in a very short period of time,” she says. “So if they take more than about three minutes to read and score these essays, they are eliminated from the job of scoring.” According to Perelman, especially speedy graders are rewarded for their efforts. “They expect readers to read a minimum of 20 essays an hour,” he says. “But readers get a bonus if they read 30 essays an hour, which is two minutes per essay.”

Gere and Perelman aren’t the only ones who know about the demands placed upon SAT essay graders. Many students do, too. Those with a firm grasp of what time-pressured essay-readers care about—and, to be sure, what things they don’t care about—can increase their chances at a high score by resorting to all sorts of approaches that are, shall we say, less than ideal. For starters, facts don’t just take a back seat when it comes to describing personal experiences on the SAT essay; they don’t matter in general.

“There’s really no concern about factual accuracy,” says Gere. “In fact, the makers of the SAT have indicated that in scoring it really doesn’t matter if you say that the War of 1812 occurred in 1817. The complete lack of attention to any kind of accuracy of information conveys a very strange notion of what good writing might be.”

That’s one way of putting it. Perelman, who has trained SAT takers on approaches for achieving the highest possible essay score, has another.

“What they are actually testing,” he says, “is the ability to bullshit on demand. There is no other writing situation in the world where people have to write on a topic that they’ve never thought about, on demand, in 25 minutes. Lots of times we have to write on demand very quickly, but it’s about things we’ve thought about. What they are really measuring is the ability to spew forth as many words as possible in as short a time as possible. It seems like it is training students to become politicians.”

Graders don’t have time to look up facts, or to check if an especially uncommon word actually exists, or perhaps even to do anything more than skim an essay before making a grading determination. Score-savvy essay writers can figure out what might catch the eye of a skimmer.

“I tell students to always use quotations, because the exam readers love quotations,” Perelman says. “One of the other parts of the formula is use big words. Never use many, always use myriad or plethora. Never say bad, always use egregious.”

Of course, according the College Board website that millions of students have used to prepare for the exam, “there are no shortcuts to success on the SAT essay.” And the country’s largest test prep company, Kaplan, does not teach such approaches. (Disclosure: Kaplan is owned by the soon-to-be-renamed Washington Post Company, which also owns Slate.)

Kaplan’s director of SAT and ACT programs, Colin Gruenwald, tutors students, helps write the company’s curriculum, and trains Kaplan teachers. He says throwing around “big words” in an attempt to influence essay readers is an unnecessarily risky endeavor. He insists that the scoring model is a holistic one that focuses on the overall impression of one’s writing skills. “The point is to demonstrate that you have command of the language, that you are able, in a pressure environment, to sit down and formulate coherent and persuasive thoughts,” he says. Students need to include certain components, he notes. “But that’s not a trick. That’s not a gimmick. That’s just good education.”

Whether verifiably true facts, or an argument that supports a position one actually believes in, are among those necessary components is unclear. What if, for instance, a student comes across an essay prompt that she has a strong opinion about, but can think of better arguments for the opposing position? “The positive side to writing what you believe is that you are more likely to be enthusiastic and passionate,” Gruenwald says. “The ideas may come more smoothly. You may be able to make a very compelling argument. But if you find that there is the side you agree with, but then there is the side that you can come up with a list of really good points for, take the side that you can come up with the list of really good points for. That’s just good demonstration. Because what you are trying to do is demonstrate that you have the writing competency to succeed at the college level. That’s not really dependent upon your opinion of the subject.” And, he admits, “It’s not even related to your grasp of the facts, necessarily.”

For university educators like Perelman and Gere, such realities become part of a trickle-down-type problem. Because of the great importance students, parents, and college admissions officers place on the SAT—as well as the large sums of money that many families spend on outside test prep—high school writing instructors are placed in a bind. “Teachers are under a huge amount of pressure from parents to teach to the test and to get their kids high scores,” Perelman says. They sometimes have to make a choice, he adds, between teaching writing methods that are rewarded by SAT essay-readers—thereby sending worse writers out into the world—or training pupils to write well generally, at the risk of parent complaints about their kids not being sufficiently prepared for the SAT. “And sometimes when they get that pushback, that means they don’t get a promotion, or get a lower raise. So it actually costs them to be principled. You’re putting in negative incentives to be good teachers.”

Gere says the end result of that dynamic shows up when students arrive at college. “I think it’s a very large problem, one that I’m concerned about, and one that we deal with a lot here,” she adds. “What happens is in first-year writing, the typical pattern is that students come in pretty well equipped to write the five-paragraph essay, and much of first-year writing is a process of undoing that.”

College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging. “The SAT does [students] no favors,” Gere says, “because it gives them a diminished view of what writing is by treating it as something that can be done once, quickly, and that it doesn’t require any basis in fact.”

The result: lots of B.S.

“In our placement tests, you see this all the time, where people continue the B.S., because they just assume that’s what works,” says Perelman. “I think [the SAT essay] creates damage, that it’s harmful.”

College Board President David Coleman just might agree. In September, Coleman seemed to concede that something is amiss with the essay. He raised the possibility of an essay revamp as part of a 2015 SAT overhaul that would focus the writing exercise more on students’ ability to critically analyze a piece of text and craft an essay that draws on the information provided.

That sort of change may seem like a good place to start. (Would it be too much to ask for some scratch paper, too?) But Gere says we should watch what we wish for with respect to changes to the essay format. She notes that as rushed and crazy-seeming as the SAT essay-scoring process is, the fact that real-live humans are reading and grading the essays is a positive. Computerized scoring is now used to grade writing submitted as part of the GMAT and TOEFL exams, among others. And that method of essay-scoring has come under fire from the National Council of Teachers of English and others for an array of alleged deficiencies—including an overemphasis on word lengths and other measurables, inaccurate error recognition, and a failure to reward creativity.

An SAT essay based on a longer passage with more detail and a constrained set of acceptable response options would likely result in written works that are much more amenable to machine scoring than the current essays. The forthcoming attempt to “fix” the SAT essay may be less about using a model that better lends itself to more valid assessments of students’ writing skills, or turning out better writers, and more about saving money and time by eventually replacing human essay graders with machines.

“It seems to me pretty clear that’s where the SAT is headed,” Gere says. “So it goes from bad to worse, actually.”

And although other standardized tests—such as the LSAT and certain Advanced Placement exams—include essay components that differ from the SAT in terms of what skills are being tested and how writing submissions are scored, those alternative methods are not without their critics. So there would appear to be no standardized-test-essay panacea.

Kaplan’s Gruenwald notes that there have been rumblings about making the SAT essay optional. And some, he says, have suggested doing away with it altogether. Perelman would have no problem with that option. He notes that there’s one thing he tells every student working to achieve a high score on the SAT essay. “Use this [approach] on the exam,” he says, “but never write like this again.”


Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

“Inquiry Learning vs. Standardized Content: Can They Coexist?”

On my lunch break today, which was sandwiched somewhere in between covering for various teachers who were attending Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, I read an article through my Flipboard on MindShift by Thom Markham titled, “Inquiry Learning vs. Standardized Content: Can They Coexist?”

The short answer to the headlining question? Yes.  My only question?  Why is this even being debated?

Ok..stay with me, here…Let me explain why I don’t see a reason for debate.  My complete sentence answer is, “They not only can they coexist, but they must coexist.”  And I really think most teachers and parents would agree with the statement if we set the record straight on some terminology.

First, the words “standards” and ” formulaic” are NOT interchangeable.  I frequently here “standards” and Common Core being described as formulaic restrictions that will suffocate learning.  Standards are not prescriptive.  They do not tell the teacher to teach commas on Monday and prepositions on Tuesday.  They are the common foundation in which a teacher can build anything upon.  Standards are “the basics”.

Why do we need standards?  There needs to be a common foundation for teachers, other students, parents, and students to know what is minimally expected for them to know.  There should be some content standards.  For instance, by the end of the 1st grade a student in America should know the significance of the year 1776 to the United States of America.  Another reason: certain facts do not need to be cited in a paper because they are considered to be “common knowledge”.  This “common knowledge” should be defined somewhere.

There are various reasons basic content standards should be outlined.  It gives parents, educators, and tutors who teach privately (“homeschool”) to ensure the same common knowledge is being learned so that if in 5 years a switch must occur, from one district to another, from private to public education, etc., the new educator does not need to spend time “remaking” the common foundation.  This ensures that students who change education styles do not feel like they need to skip grades or be put in remedial classes because they are ahead or behind “grade-level”.

We know we need to teach skills.  We know we need to use a project-based learning environment.  We need to keep the individual accountable yet learn to work effectively in collaboration.  However, without this foundation, the content-based standards, we cannot reach the higher-order thinking required for project-based learning.

How can one create a new type of solar cell without a good grasp of mathematics or knowledge of what the suns rays are composed of?  How will student be able to solve problems if they don’t have the background knowledge to identify what the problem even is?  How will that person submit a research paper for publication in a journal or write a grant to produce a prototype if he can’t write a proper sentence?

Let’s look at standards in another way.  If we don’t have standards to minimally define the objectives of high school, then why do we even have high school altogether?  Think about the educational goals and objectives of high school.  How are they different from middle school or even elementary school? If we cannot even define the objectives we want students to accomplish in high school, there is a much larger problem than curriculum/methods of presentation.  How much of compulsory learning is actually “essential” to being a productive member of society and what is superfluous?

There are quite a few rhetorical questions in that last paragraph.  However, we really need to think about why we need standards versus what the standards should be.

Last analogy: if I asked you (in the USA) to go to McDonald’s and get me a medium Diet Coke (please), would you know what size glass I’m asking you to get?  Now let’s exchange McDonald’s for Burger King.  If they both have a Diet Coke machine and I asked for a medium Diet, would I get essentially the same thing?  Most likely, unless they recently changed cup sizes on me.  I remember a number of years ago some of the fast food restaurants changed their glasses sizes and suddenly a medium at Burger King was previously the large and I was charged more.  Standardization is what allows you to expect cups to usually come in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, 20oz, and 32oz.  Once in awhile you may find a 10oz.  You don’t expect to find a 13oz cup at McDonald’s.  And how did the graphic designer know what would fit on the cup?  Standardization.  All McDonald’s restaurants have the same size cups.

Education standards function the same way as the cup.  Teachers are the graphic designers.  We make the difference between the look of the cup, but it’s foundation is still a cup.

Project-based learning must coexist with content standards.  Neither will thrive without the other.  It is a symbiotic relationship (a term learned in science class, yet here it is in another “subject”).

Standards-Based Education Reform

How many people skipped grades on their pursuit of a high school diploma?  A few I knew of in my elementary school, but it was not the norm.  And those I knew were never ostracized from their peers for being a year younger.  I knew one guy who by the 9th (10th maybe) had exhausted all the districts math courses.  He works for Microsoft now, I think.  I also know a few kids who have flunked grades and were forced to repeat them.  At a young age the repeaters typically had a developmental disability that hindered their progress with kids of their own age.  So what do these stories of excellers and repeaters mean?  It means there is just cause to examine not what subject matter should be taught at what grade, but to reexamine the entire education system on a fundamental level.

Standards-based Education reform rejects the traditional system of grade levels.  Abandoning labels of 3rd grade or 6th grade and allowing students to advance based on a set standard (a test passed, for example) rather than advancing to the next grade simply because there was not enough reason to hold the child back but the kid really isn’t ready for 4th grade math and reading.  Students can be at a 4th grade reading level in the 1st grade but be at a 2nd grade level in history or math.  Mastery of subjects entitles them to move on.  A detailed explanation of standards-based education reform is available on Wikipedia.

Although there have been many failures in implementing this system in a large school district, John Covington, the superintendent of the Kansas City School District, has a plan for the 2010-2011 school year he thinks will work.  Four or five schools in the district will implement a pilot program at the start of the school year, with the intention of taking it districtwide.  Covington has seen the reform’s success in a 1,700 student district in Alaksa.  The Bering Strait School District implemented the reform eight-years ago and do not plan to go back, according to an article on

Standards-based education reform sounds great on paper and has worked well in small districts, but will it work for the larger districts?  Standards-based requires a large commitment from teachers to help students at different ages understand the material.  Add into the mix all the different ways students learn, the cost of reform may simply be a numbers issue.  Smaller classrooms with more individualized attention means more teachers per school and larger commitment from teachers would require a pay raise.  Additional classrooms for the smaller class sizes would mean renovation costs.  However, if you create and plan a new district from the start with a standard-based eduction, I believe it could succeed.  In the US, our 9 month school year was optimized for allowing students to work in the fields.  But I’ve been abroad, and in South Africa, year round school makes more sense.  Every January a new school year begins.  There are 3 trimesters and in between each is a month off of school.  The teachers and students I know prefer this schedule to the one here in the US.

Coupled with standards-based education is a standardized test required to obtain a diploma.  With high school diplomas given to a warm body who shows up only half the time and fails most of the classes, a high school completion exam testing on basic skills such as math, reading, science, history, etc should be extremely easy to pass for advanced students but may be more of a challenge for others.  It would give a high school diploma more of its strength back as bachelor’s degrees are now becoming a dime a dozen.  It feels special to the recipient, but in the workplace, nearly everyone has a bachelor’s degree, now a master’s degree helps you stand out from the crowd.

But can you really define knowledge based on a test?  SAT, ACT, AP and other standardized tests really just measure how much information you can memorize and regurgitate during the exam time.  Education and knowledge is difficult to quantify and educators do their best to create a test to quantify qualitative  subjects.  There is a need for a baseline, a minimum to meet, but how do you factor in special needs?  Exceptions can be made of course, but there comes a point when the type of assistance given to one person affects those who are not given special treatment.

Traditional education standards, access to advanced knowledge and assistance to those who need it, must be revisited every few years.  But education reform does not have to start with a drastic, district wide, “overnight” change.  Teachers should reform their classrooms, influence the lives of the students in front of them and like throwing a handful of seeds, see where the seeds fall and what grows from them.  The student you affect this year, in 10 years may build upon the lessons learned from you to make a bigger impact.

1895 8th Grade Exam: True or False?

**Update** For updated links and more information, see the post Update: 1895 8th Grade Exam: True or False.

**Update** Answers to the 1895 8th Grade Exam can be found on the post Answers to the 1895 8th Grade Exam.

I received an email today forwarded from a friend about the 1895 8th grade exam.  I thought it ironic I should receive it this week as my basic skills test is on Saturday.  I wanted to share my opinion of it, but first like any good teacher – I researched its validity (for anyone who has not read the 1885 8th grade exam, I have copied it at the end of this post).  I found many claims of it being false or being true.  I found the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society’s website with a simple page with the exam information on it.  However, the plainness of the website, coupled with the “home” link invalid, lead me to believe this may be a false website. Check it out for yourself.

A little more digging led me to a creditable domain: .gov.  The Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve ( details the history behind Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse in Kansas.  The 1895 8th grade exam is on their website with the attribution of it being copied by the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and reprinted in the Salina Journal.  It confirms verbatim what is on the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society’s website.  Unable to find a picture of the actual exam means the exam contents cannot be confirmed, but with the existence of the information on a government website, I acknowledge some truth in the exam.  So as the Mythbusters say when they cannot confirm or bust a myth, it’s plausible.

The information on the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve is quite interesting about education in 1895 in Kansas.  There is a virtual tour with photos from the 1880s as well as modern day photos of the restoration of the schoolhouse to its time period.  There is a long list of the names of the teachers who taught there and their salaries.  In 1884, the first year the school opened, Dora Peer was paid $35 per month.  One heartfelt picture is of two elderly women who attended the school in the 1920s.  “Ann and Josephine remember most about their school days was the strict discipline. There was no giggling, whispering, or talking out loud unless the teacher spoke to you.”

According to NPS’s records:

* Marry or engage in other unseemly conduct during their contract.
* Keep company with men.
* Be away from their domicile between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.
* Loiter in town ice cream stores.
* Dye their hair.
* Wear face powder, mascara, or lip paint.
* Wear bright colored dresses more than two inches above the ankle.


* Frequent pool halls, public halls, saloons, or taverns.
* Get shaved in a barber shop.
* Take more than one evening per week for courting (unless attending church regularly – in which case two evenings may be used).
Failure to abide by these rules will give reason to suspect one’s worth, intention, honesty, integrity. Faithful performances will result in an increase of twenty-five cents per period providing the board of trustees approves.

Male teachers were allowed to date and females could not? Ouch.  But I do not understand how loitering in the town’s ice cream stores affects one’s intention, honesty, or integrity.  Could have been in that time and place it was suspect to loiter near ice cream.  NPS also has sketched the layout of the schoolroom, of course the girls and boys had their own entrances.

Even more interesting in my research was the comments made in forums – many people believed, based upon this exam, the current education system has been “dumbed down”.  To a point I agree and to another I disagree.  In 1885 there were few (if any) regulations on education as the country was beginning to see a need to set standards.  Teachers taught what they knew and students learned what was necessary for their farming and everyday life.  A basic education was just that: basic.  But one cannot use this 8th grade exam as proof that our education system has been dumbed down.  Many people do not know the answers to the questions as the questions are outdated and people have not recently studied the material.  The brain only retains what it needs to, many memorized facts from high school and college are forgotten in favor of newer knowledge.  The same principle applies to my need to review mathematics for my MTTC exam – I haven’t used some of it in 7 years.  Additionally, some people used the example of the McGuffey readers to show our learning pace has slowed.  The readers are levels, not indicative of grades but rather where the student is in his or her education.  Grade levels were important, but children began and ended their schooling based upon their maturity level and comprehension level, not simply because they reached a certain age.  Diplomas should be awarded on merit not simply passing with 60% or to avoid any notice by the state.  Too many people graduate high school in urban communities and are unable to read their diploma.  Too many students graduate knowing calculus, physics, every detail of American history, but have no idea how to write a check or bake a cake.  High school education has pushed basic life skills aside in favor of a stricter math, physics, and ap courses, which is a shame.  Education should be well rounded and that is what I plan to do – not simply teach To Kill a Mockingbird or Shakespeare, but to see and apply the lessons in the stories to everyday life and to the future.  Break the cycle of history repeating itself.

My grandmother gave me a McGuffey reader, when I have time I’ll read through it and give my review on it.


Smokey Valley Genealogical Society. 13 April, 2010. Web.

Tallgrass National Prairie Reserve. 13 April, 2010.

Read the 1895 8th Grade Exam:   Curious as to its answers?  I have them right here. Continue reading

Wisc. Distric Attorney Warns Teachers – Teach Sex Ed, Get Arrested

You read that right – a district attorney in Wisconsin told teachers in Juneau county that if they proceeded with teaching state mandated sexual education courses to anyone under the age of 16, they will be arrested and prosecuted with encouraging the delinquency of a minor.  The state law does give school districts and parents the ability to opt out, but Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth has overstepped the law to further his own agenda.  He has no legal grounds or authority to prosecute teachers as they are a conduit of which state and federal education requirements flow through in order to get to students.

Yes, legally people under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex, but they are surrounded by it in high school, in the media, and in stores.  You want to curb that interest before it starts by teaching sex ed.  Show them what syphilis looks like, describe the pain of AIDS, and have teen parents come in to speak about their experiences.  Schools should not be a place where one person’s ethics determine the education of another.  They should encourage people to make informed, mature decisions.  Would you rather a raging hormonal 14 year old learn about sexually transmitted diseases, learn correct ways of putting on a condom, and the responsibilities of becoming a parent or would you rather him/her turn 16 with even stronger raging hormones, sleep around, and get (a girl) pregnant?  The emotions, costs, reputations, fiscal responsibilities, and more are more costly than a few unhappy people who think talking about sex encourages it.  If taught correctly, sex education will actually deter teenagers from having sexual relations until they are mature enough to accept the responsibilities and consequences of sex.

DA Southworth threatened 3 school districts in writing.  He should have know not to put that stupid of a threat in writing.  Read the full favorite line is “he or she only need be aware that his or her instruction is ‘practically certain‘ to cause the child to to engage in the illegal act.” (emphasis is mine).  If he turned this letter in to me for a grade, his unsupported arguments alone would warrant a failing grade.  Another excerpt from his letter,” Forcing our schools to instruct children on how to utilize contraceptives encourages our children to engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender.  It is akin to teaching children about alcohol use, then instructing them on how to make mixed alcoholic drinks.”

Beyond the fact that DA Southworth doesn’t understand cause and effect vs. correlation, I do not see the problem with preparing kids with knowledge of alcoholic drinks.  Parents are not doing their jobs of teaching their children about real life.  Teaching students about gin, rum, beer, and many others will give them an education to know which drinks not to mix that can cause blackouts, lead to delinquent behavior, or kill them (star football player Matt James,17, who died on spring break after falling off a balcony drunk).  They need to know how many calories are in a rum and coke, how quickly you can get drunk, and how to help a hangover.  Myths and gossip get people nowhere – teach them to make good decisions with knowledge, not create a desire to know about something that is forbidden.

Getting back to the article – DA Southworth doesn’t actually want to prosecute teachers, he said, “I have enough work to do.”  So he really just wants to scare people into doing what he wants.  That’s called bullying.  And as recently headlines of Phoebe Prince’s suicide, acts committed as a bully are punishable by law.  He should be disbarred for threatening teachers with prosecution for following state mandated education laws.  He does not get to decided which laws his county follows.

For those who say the teaching of sex, contraceptives, alcohol, and illegal drugs should be done at home by parents – I do not disagree.  The problem is too many parents are not doing their jobs as parents.  They forbid knowledge, skirt around the subject, and leave students feeling lost without answers.  Instead of having them turn to their peers who may not have had a good education at home, wouldn’t you rather have it taught in school?  Students are reinforced with the knowledge twice, at home and at school (same principle of homework) and it catches students who are not learning at home.  It also helps students learn that their parent(s) may have an abuse problem and give them an opportunity to speak up.

An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summed up DA Southworth’s fears of ripple effects if teachers proceed with teaching students about contraceptives,

Southworth’s letter says the law undermines parental authority and requires schools to condone controversial sexual behavior because they have to teach students about gender stereotypes. That likely would require schools to teach students about homosexuality and transgender and transsexual people, he said.

He said the law prevents teachers from telling students “that sexual promiscuity is even wrong” and would conflict with most students’ and teachers’ religious beliefs.

He said the law also opened the door to having sex eduction taught by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, which provides contraception and abortions and lobbied for the changes.

Teaching people about homosexuality, about transgender and transexual people is wrong!  Instill bigoted prejudices instead! Leave you religious beliefs at the door of your place of work, including a school.  Objective learning – must have both sides of the argument to get an A on that debate paper, Mister!

Teaching students about the world around them must be scary DA Southworth – better stick with teaching World War I & II year after year after year.  We’ll never get to the Vietnam War – too recent for “history” classes.  And forget any American history prior to the arrival of the Mayflower, those savages just needed to by tamed by our purposely distributed blankets infested with smallpox.  Also, why waste time teaching students how to create and stay on a budget, write checks, and how to cook basic meals – focus on math and science instead!  And TEST SCORES!  Don’t forget about the TEST SCORES!  Teach them to earn high test scores but learn nothing.

Schools and parents should not forbid knowledge – it only increases a student’s desire to learn what they are not allowed to know.  And that, DA Southworth, leads to the delinquency of minors.

As Aldous Huxley said, An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex.”  He also reminds us, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Marley, P. “Juneau County DA warns districts on sex ed law” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Web. 06 April 2010. Read the full article.

St. Xavier Football Star Dies On Spring Break.” Web. 03 April 2010.  Read the full article.

Winter. M. “Wis. prosecutor: Teachers risk arrest over new sex-ed classes.” USA Today. Web. 07 April 2010. Read the full article.