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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

Kids Take On “The Test”

Instructional Strategies
Why is an article about a state's standardized testing program in a theme issue about authentic student performance? Why have students co authored this article? The answers to both questions stem from problem based learning.
When Virginia Lake School in Palatine, Illinois, decided to improve scores on the Illinois Goal Assessment Program (IGAP), Paula Bullis's 6th grade class seized the opportunity. Some Illinois students, upon hearing someone say "IGAPs," think "Oh, no, a test!" But the students in Paula's class faced the exam without fear because they had been using problem based learning for about two months prior to the exam.
Before Paula's class focused on the IGAPs, they worked out a simple learning problem with the assistance of Emily Alford, an educational consultant. The 6th graders had to find a way to keep a hamburger warm for a certain period of time. In preparation, they formulated a problem statement generated ideas, listed facts they knew and questions they had, and made an action plan. In 45 minutes they were able to generate several solutions.
After the class successfully completed their first problem, Emily, Paula, and I showed the students a newspaper article about test scores and discussed the school's accreditation. We also showed them some of the school's past IGAP scores, which were less than impressive. The class then chose to use problem based learning to improve their own IGAP scores and preserve their school's accreditation in a way that would (1) keep scores improving each year, (2) set a good example for their school, and (3) make preparing for the IGAP more fun.
Now I'll let the students in Paula Bullis's class share their experiences with problem based learning in their own words.

In the Students' Words

The IGAP problem was different from the hamburger problem, because we knew it would take a long time. But the IGAP problem was important to us because:
Javier: It was a real problem that some adults can't solve.
Katie: As you get older, the IGAPs get more and more boring. We wanted to make it fun. It was more like a working together kind of thing.
Travis: I've been in this school since I was in kindergarten, and I just wanted to leave a good reputation for our school.
The first thing we worked on was a chart (see fig. 1). We referred back to the chart whenever we wanted to see what needed to be done. We had to make sure that we answered all our questions and did everything that was in our action plan.

Figure 1. Problem Analysis Chart

Problem: How can we improve our performance on the IGAP test in such a way that we (1) keep improving each year, (2) set a good example for our school, (3) make preparing for IGAP more fun?

Kids Take On “The Test” - table

Our Ideas

Facts We Know

Our Questions

Our Action Plan

Pay attention in classTest on reading, writing, and mathWhen is IGAP?Ask principal, teacher, tutor
Hold fundraiser to get books and computer programYou get better when you practiceHow long is test?Ask person who made test
Look at actual IGAP book formatYou might read questions wrongHow long should we practice?Work with teacher to set up schedule
Practice: use computer gamesFill in circlesWhat should we practice (math, reading, writing)?Look for resources for practice
Get someone who knows how to coach IGAP: teacher, parent, friend, brother/sisterWriting is scored by time, spelling, sentence structureHow many problems?Ask parent and principal to help
Tackle one subject at a timeHow is test scored (math, reading, writing)?
Find out who wants to knowHow much time is given for math, reading, writing?
How did I do on the last IGAP test?
After we decided what the problem was, we split into five groups to help make the work easier. One group figured out what time of the day and week we could practice the subjects for the IGAPs. Two groups looked for resources, by talking to our librarian and finding math and reading test resource books. Another group made up questions to ask Mrs. Ewy about the IGAPs, because she knows the people who make the tests. That same group interviewed our principal, who explained how the scores decide who "meets," "does not meet," and "exceeds" state standards. The last group helped set up a tutoring program. The tutoring program helped us to understand more about the test subjects and get a better feel about what the IGAPs were going to be like.
Practicing took up most of our time. To make the reading test easier, our librarian reviewed test taking tips, such as to look back into the story, and never read between the lines. After we reviewed the tips, the whole class read and finished some stories together. During math class, our teacher went through the math test resource book with us. We also watched a teacher video that taught how to score the writing exam.
On the day of the test, we were glad that we had used problem based learning. Taking the test was kind of hard and kind of easy. It was kind of hard because sometimes we didn't have enough time to finish. It was kind of easy because we had used problem based learning. Here are some feelings we had about taking the IGAP tests:
Travis: I went in there, sat down, looked at it and thought, "This is easy. I know how to do this stuff." I could go in there and not even feel nervous at all.
Kelly: If we hadn't had PBL or practiced, we wouldn't have felt so sure of ourselves.
Kevin: It felt like we were taking the IGAPs together because we shared it.
Katie: Yes, like everybody's ideas were on your paper.
Travis: Like ESP and you could say, "Hey, Mike, what's the answer to this problem?"
We were pretty happy about everything except one part of the test. After we had taken the writing test, a lot of us were confused and upset. Everyone agreed with Ryan when he said, "I got angry because, through all of our writing in school, we've always been told that expository writing uses facts; we shouldn't use I,' me' or my.' Well, the prompt on the test said to think of a famous person and tell why you would like to be like that person. There was no way you couldn't use I,' me' or my' to do that." Our class decided to speak with someone from the State Board of Education about this.
We were very excited when Dr. Carmen Chapman, who helped create the IGAPs and teaches people how to score it, agreed to talk to our class. It was the first time she had ever come to a class to talk about the IGAPs. When we told her why we were upset, she told us not to worry about it and that it wouldn't hurt our IGAP scores. She also answered other questions we had.
After that nine of us got to do a presentation to some teachers. We taught them the steps of problem based learning. It was exciting when we got to teach teachers, instead of them teaching us.
In the end, we think we solved all three parts of the IGAP problem. We think scores went up. We set a good example for our school by taking this in our own hands. Before PBL we didn't all get along, and we had our enemies. During the problem solving, we forgot about our differences and just worked to solve the problem. We also liked having some power while at school:
Travis: I didn't realize when we first started how much power we had. We got to do anything we wanted not like jump all around and trash the room, but we got to go out of the classroom and didn't have to ask permission. We got to gather information and go ask other people how they felt, and I just thought it was really good.
Kelly: Mrs. Bullis gave us her plan book and she would plan around us.
Katie: I liked it because it was hands on, more like a learning experience, instead of the teacher telling us what to do. We got to make our own decisions on what we wanted to do.
To all the teachers out there, here are some suggestions we have for you:
Ryan: You should at least try problem based learning in your classes, because most kids don't like to take out social studies books and read and outline and all that. They like to move around and pick up their information the way they would like to do it, and this is a way they can do that. They have the power to gather information the way they want to.
Leatrice: If you do it, you should give the students a lot of advantages to do things they want, so like make it fun for them and you'll have fun, too.
Javier: There's a saying, "Every grown up has a little kid in them." Well, you would actually have fun with this. You'll really enjoy PBL because you're not just going "back to work."
Travis: I encourage you all to do this because I had a lot of fun. It took my worries off my mind, and I felt successful.

A Professional Perspective

Emily Alford and I spent three, two hour class meetings introducing problem based learning and helping the 6th graders set up the IGAP problem. I also provided classroom support every 10 days on average, as well as ongoing outside support and resources to Paula, who was the primary implementer of this problem based learning. Paula and her class devoted approximately 45 minutes, four times per week to this endeavor. In the end, the students met or exceeded state reading, math, and writing goals, and their average 6th grade IGAP scores surpassed their 3rd grade scores. Of course, the scores reflect instruction and experience beyond the two month experience with problem based learning.
As the work progressed, however, Paula also noticed changes in her instruction and in the maturity of her students.This experience was challenging for me and the kids. It gave me a whole new way of viewing teaching and children that altered my teaching. I now listen, look, and really hear students. I'll ask for their opinion and they know I'll act with respect and in a non judgmental way. I answered for myself the question, "Do I have to have control all the time?"The students matured in communicating their needs and goals to me and to one another. I saw less goofing around, more accountability, and more ethical behavior. They appropriately used the authority that they had, and they transferred their confidence to other areas.
Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, believes that students who are preoccupied with how they're doing tend to lose interest in what they're doing. But the 6th graders' concern with how they and their school were doing on statewide tests never deterred them from their goal taking ownership for their experiences and performances. Their high interest was exemplified by two students who gave each other a high five upon finishing part of the exam, and by the students who voluntarily spent five days of their summer vacation to write the bulk of this article.
Kohn warns in his book that when preoccupied with performance, "after a while, students are inclined to take assessment as an indication of how smart or dumb they are." Not this class. After having taken the IGAPs, when faced with a math placement test for junior high, they asked their teacher how they would be evaluated, the possible range of scores, and the cutoff points. They no longer allowed assessment to be a mystery.
As proactive learners and performers, these students not only studied math, but also used it to learn all about the standardized tests. Their reading and writing surpassed routine academic use as they researched their problem, generated and used wall charts, and wrote articles for the school newsletter. Paula Bullis and her students proved that authentic student performance can occur even when the content seems dictated by people other than the students and the teacher, such as a mandated set of standardized tests.
End Notes

1 A. Kohn, (1993), Punished by Rewards, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company).

Christine Ewy has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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