MAP Thoughts

When the staff at Garfield High School refused to give the MAP test, I was one of many to jump for joy and send the news out in as many directions as possible, Tweeting blog postings, newspaper articles, posting on Facebook, and so on. Most of the commentary  I’ve read has been in support of the teachers, so when I read through a Facebook conversation that included a comment from a teacher who thought the MAP was indeed useful in some situations, I went off. I left a rant that I apologized for the next morning. I was surprised how strong my feelings still were.

What follows is my attempt to explain what the MAP test is about, how it affects kids, staff, parents, and schools.

I retired from teaching last June. For the last 29 years of my career, I taught third and fourth graders in SPS (Seattle Public Schools). So I have some experience with the MAP, and I thought I really ought to share what I know. In the conversations online since the Garfield Boycott, I’ve been surprised, and sometimes shocked, by the level of misunderstanding in the general public, and even with some educators, of just what the MAP is and how it is being used.

The MAP is given 2-3 times a year in SPS. The third session is supposedly optional, but many, if not most, schools opt to give it three times. That’s September, January, and April/May. SPS has said the fall assessment is optional – except for Kindergartners, who must take all three. I just recently read that in Chicago the middle of the year test is optional. Interesting.

Many of my colleagues tried to get the optional one in SPS changed to January, because it made so much more sense. Otherwise, you end up waiting eight months between MAP tests. But no, if you wanted to get that September test in, fine – but you still had to give the mid-year one. In my building, everyone gave the MAP three times a year, in all grade levels. I know that some schools have done as we did, and others have even been able to pull off some teachers giving it, and some not.

The really tricky part here is this: suppose one fourth grade teacher wants to give the fall MAP, but the other two fourth grade teachers do not. What do parents think about that? Are the teachers who do not test seen as non-believers, or just too lazy? Why does your kid get a MAP score and my kid does not? School staff have a real desire to be unified, to be collegial, to share. So basically, if one teacher in a building wants to give the MAP test in the fall, there is pressure that lands on all other staff to go along and give the test, too. This is fueled of course by parents’ increasing test score addiction. Sadly, this addiction is extending to the teaching corps as well, especially to the younger/newer teachers.

Back to the schedule. Each MAP assessment requires two tests, one in reading, and one in math. They are given to a classroom at different times, usually on different days. So a class of second graders could take the fall MAP reading test September 15th, and the math test September 22nd. Teaching staff have to schedule their times to share a computer lab (if their school is lucky enough to have one).

The exception to this is the schedule for Kindergartners  They take TWO reading assessments and TWO math assessments THREE TIMES A YEAR. That makes twelve MAP tests for every kindergarten student. Kindergarten is the only grade level where this is required.

The MAP is administered on a computer. Each assessment takes about an hour. At my school, teachers led their kids in silence to the computer lab, where a proctor had set up computers which displayed their names. They marched to their stations, where they were told to wait before beginning. The proctor then started small groups off one at a time, because the bandwidth burst of everyone starting together could bring our network node to a standstill.

Everyone gets different questions on the MAP. The students learn this the first time they take the test, as they look at the computer screen of the student sitting next to them. And they do look. The idea is that the test is geared to the student’s performance – that is, if a student is missing questions at grade level for instance, they would be given slightly easier questions, until they start getting some right. Then things level out for a bit, then they get harder, etc. The same for students getting everything right at first – their test questions would increase in complexity and difficulty – but not too fast, continually changing in difficulty based on whether the student was answering correctly or not.

I taught third grade. Many of my students caught on to this fairly quickly. The ones who got it first were those who hated taking the test and just wanted it to end, so they could read or draw, or do whatever I had said they could bring with them when they went to the computer lab.

In my 31 years as a public school teacher, I never encountered anything like this before – the constant shifting of difficulty, all the while being able to see what the student next door is working on. I saw some incredibly difficult questions being put to my gifted kids, where they had absolutely no idea about a correct answer. I had to wonder what they thought about why they were being given such difficult work. And why some other really “smart” kids in class finished half an hour before they did. I find this sort of messing with the student psyche simply reprehensible. I wonder if anyone is looking at what this is doing to our kids. I know. Nobody is.

The teachers at Garfield High School questioned whether their students were really motivated to do their best on the MAP. Now, those kids could understand the implications of a good or bad MAP score. I have certainly read of students in middle and high school gaming the high stakes test to get what they wanted. What about 5 and 6 year olds? How about 9 and 10 year olds? What exactly is their motivation – and just exactly what is the payoff for them?

Last question about the effect on students: are they learning anything in the hours they spend taking these tests? Yes, I think they are, but it is not knowledge – they are learning what the adults in their lives think is important. The test. The score. So sad.

In the four (5?) years I proctored the MAP in SPS, I saw one thing that disturbed me more than any other. At the end of the MAP, a screen appears in front of the student, with a bunch of writing and a number, like 192. This is their RIT score, and kids have figured out it is important, because sometimes adults come around and write it down, and then log off their computer. The kids have no idea what their RIT score means, except they have figured out that higher means better. I have seen kids talk about their scores with each other. Last year I started seeing kids write down their scores for the first time. Third graders. The sad thing is, those numbers are not reliable indicators of learning, they are not indicators of intelligence, and they are not reliable indicators of how good their school or teacher is. Those numbers are none of those things.

Unfortunately, the kids, their parents, district administrators, principals, and even some teachers – believe those scores indicate all of those things.

The effect of giving the MAP test to a school is staggering. First of all, the computer lab is shut down – for three to four weeks for each session, depending on the size of the school and its computer resources. Remember, each student has to take two separate tests, two to three times a year, and Kindergarteners take twelve MAP tests. My school’s computer lab was shut down for nearly a third of the year for the MAP. This year, intermediate grades will be taking the MSP there, more closing time. When the Common Core Standards, and their accompanying tests kick in, the lab will cease to be a learning environment. It will be a Testing Center.

It already is headed in that direction. When the computer lab is open for learning  again, teachers are encouraged (and sometimes explicitly directed) to go to the computer lab and put their kids on computer programs to increase their standardized test scores. This happens in the classroom as well, in computer centers.

Not what I had in mind when I designed and built that computer lab – but that will be another post.

The second thing that happens in a school is that the scores become incredibly important. It is worth noting that SPS principals have been incentivized with a personal reward of up to $10,000 a year if their school improved test scores to a certain level. This has been going on for several years.

The scores are important to teachers, not because they are meaningful indicators of student learning, but because they are examined by principals and factored into teacher evaluations.

MAP scores for individual students are wildly unreliable. I taught third grade at this school for 21 years. Having given this test to my third graders for the past 4 years, knowing a thing or two about typical third grader capabilities, and looking at their past scores – I’ve concluded that MAP scores from any one test are neither indicative of their knowledge nor predictive of future learning. The line plots of RIT scores and “normed” percentages  are worthless and misleading.

Yet parents hang on to these meaningless data points as if they are gold. Teachers pass out this information to parents in hard copy because they are told to by principals. SPS has an online database where parents can log in and see all their kids’ scores – on the MAP and other high stakes assessments, like the MSP (grades 3 and up). Parents are data brainwashed – yet another post.

Teachers also look carefully at these scores – they can’t help it. Parents care, principals will use them in evaluations, and there is this competitive thing – which absolutely destroys collaboration. It’s hard not to be proud of a student’s, or a classroom’s increase in test scores. The double edged sword of course is the shame and embarrassment of a teacher looking at decreasing individual or classroom scores.

It’s important to think about the assignment of students to teachers. When a teacher’s  evaluation depends on the test score growth of his students, who wants extremely low functioning students – or who wants exceedingly high functioning (difficult to move from the 95th to the 96th percentile, for instance) students? Who gets the Spectrum (gifted) students? Who gets the sp. ed. kids? Who gets the ELL students? This sort of thing effectively ends collaboration and encourages competition. Not for money in this case, but for the right students in your classroom so that you will get a passing evaluation, so that you can keep your job, so that attentive parents will clamor to get their kids into your classroom next year…. ugh.

It is sick. It is because of the tests, and our students’ parents’ obsession with the scores of their kids. Too bad the scores are meaningless and misleading, but try making that case at a staff meeting, a PTA meeting,  or a parent conference.

Unable to change the system, I did what I could to mitigate the damage to my own third graders.  For the first three years of MAP, I gave the test in my classroom, because I had the computers to do it. I could put half the class on at the  start, tell everybody else to find something quiet to do, and then plug in students to computers as other students finished. I was happy not to overload our computer lab more than it was, and I could “mother hen” the kids into a less stressful situation – testing them on computers they used every day (for meaningful learning experiences), in an environment in which they were comfortable. However, last year I was so disgusted with the MAP and upset that I had been allowing my computers to be used in a harmful way, that I sent my kids to the computer lab for the MAP test. It broke my heart, but I decided that the computers in our classroom would only be used for creative and expressive purposes. That is why I worked so hard to get them there, in the first place. Just before retiring I filmed a short piece, to talk about a part of the promise technology holds for our kids, and I posted it on their blog.

There is tremendous pressure on the staff at Garfield High School to relent, or just give the MAP test and then “join in a conversation” with SPS about the MAP. There is also pressure on them to persevere, to lead the way, and maybe to sacrifice their jobs for the cause.

I do not know what I would do if I were in their shoes. I can only thank them from the bottom of my heart – for having the courage to stand up for the right thing – for our children.

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About Mark Ahlness

I am a retired teacher, with dreams of still making a difference.
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