Syria’s ongoing civil war has displaced and disrupted the lives of millions of people, especially children. Save the Children and Pearson have joined forces to research and develop long-term solutions for the education issues facing Syria’s children. This is the first in a series of reports detailing work that will span the next several months.
Syria's Refugee Children
Walk into nearly any classroom in Jordan and you’ll see schools overflowing with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children displaced by war. Jordan’s schools are overwhelmed—and so are the children inside those classrooms.
It's an illustration of how Syria’s civil war has caused dramatic disruption in the education of an entire generation of children.
"Some classes have over 60 children," says Teodora Berkova, Director of Social Innovation at Pearson. "Syrian kids are used to different curriculums, there's bullying in class. Many of the kids are dealing with trauma from what they’ve lived through during the conflict in Syria."
Teodora has just returned from Jordan with her team after they conducted four weeks of field work.
"We wanted to take a deeper look at the problems," Teodora says, "to help improve the educational opportunities available to both the Syrian refugees and communities in Jordan."
Pearson brings learning research expertise and innovation to the partnership. Save the Children has been serving children in conflict zones for decades. Both organizations are combining their expertise to look for solutions in what appears to be a long-term disruption in the education of Syria’s young people. This collaboration began late last year with an on-the-ground research process to take an in-depth look at life for refugee children.
"We started by getting as much information as possible about what's happening every day in a refugee child’s life," Teodora says.
They spoke with close to 30 families from Syria, Jordan and Iraq, spending five to six hours, several times a week, with 16 of these families.
"We went on errands with them," Teodora says. "One family invited us to church. Another invited us over for dinner so we could cook together."
Teodora says the team was looking at academic, psychological, and emotional needs: "From a research perspective, having so much face to face time to get to such a level of dialogue and observation is pretty amazing."
"It's not just the whole child," Teodora says, "it's the whole child in their social ecology."
A Pilot Program
Teodora and a team of six other researchers are just starting to dig through and analyze their field notes. They'll gather in the next few weeks to iron out takeaways from their research.
"There's always the urge—for good reasons—to rush towards a quick solution in a project like this," Teodora says. "For us, though, we really wanted to spend enough time in the field to understand the refugee context fully, so that whatever we develop is effective and relevant for the unique needs of kids facing these circumstances.”
As the region's refugee crisis and its impact on child learning goes on, Teodora's team is hoping to start piloting new learning ideas for Syrian refugees in 2016. Solutions could include programs aimed at preventing kids who are in school from dropping out, to digital solutions that provide access to learning for those who are currently out of school.
This essay from Pearson's Dr. Kimberly O'Malley originally appeared as an opinion piece on Newsweek.com in November. Dr. O'Malley is Pearson's Senior Vice President for Research and Development.
As students across the United States start the second half of the school year, a springtime tradition has been challenged by the White House.
In a video posted to Facebook, President Barack Obama made a call for fewer, better tests, saying that current policies, including those from his own administration, have taken “the joy out of teaching and learning.” Many in the education world applauded his move.
As the world’s leading education company, many commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that Pearson would oppose this suggested shift in policy. But, I have a different message for educators, parents and students: We agree with the president.
21ST CENTURY SKILLS
It should not be surprising that we agree with the president. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of Pearson employees worked in schools. We are teachers, administrators, counselors and clinicians. I am a Texas public school teacher who taught for seven years, working with English learners and students in special and general education.
At Pearson, we embrace the approach to fewer, better assessments. We’ve been researching and developing better, more effective alternatives to traditional tests for years. We know that a No. 2 pencil and paper tests are not the only tools of today’s test takers. Tests that can measure if students are prepared to succeed in the global economy must be based on 21st- century skills and be founded on 21st-century research and innovation.
As states and districts move toward a modernized approach to teaching and learning, we need a modernized approach to feedback. New tests need to be more efficient and assessment can even be invisible, allowing us to reduce the amount of time students spend taking tests.
NEW ASSESSMENT TECHNOLOGY
According to a report from the Council of Great City Schools, students in the 66 largest urban school districts sat for tests more than 6,570 times in the 2014-15 school year. Even the most ardent test supporters have to acknowledge that this number is too high.
New assessment technology can enable better insights about student skills and knowledge, getting teachers, parents and students feedback more quickly. From digital games to authentic and engaging performance tasks, educators can gather information about student progress without disrupting the learning process.
And we don’t just have professional researchers and scientists working on the next breakthrough in assessments and learning tools. We work directly with students. At our first-of-its-kind, Kids CoLab, we create learning tools at a peer-to-peer level with students. They design with us and through this research-based process, we get their feedback, suggestions and ideas on what they want to see in the classroom.
These new tools are not just concepts and prototypes, waiting to be implemented down the road. For example, through the research of my dedicated colleagues like Dr. Kristen DiCerbo, we helped launch SimCityEdu, which uses a game to better understand middle schoolers’ motivations and their persistence in dealing with a simulated pollution problem. By understanding how students move through the game and overcome challenges, teachers can learn so much more than just a right/wrong final answer.
NEW APPROACHES TO TESTING
Pearson has dedicated significant resources to the research and development of new types of assessments because we know the value and importance of getting better feedback to students, teachers and learners. Assessment results provide insights about what students know and can do, but they certainly don’t have to look like yesterday’s test to do so.
While we work to make tests as efficient, effective and innovative as possible, we are already supporting states that are moving toward fewer tests. The PARCC consortium and the state of Virginia are two examples of Pearson partners who have announced they are reducing testing time. We are proud to help them implement that decision. Pearson has a long history serving states in how they choose to raise academic standards and better prepare our young people for college and careers in a global marketplace.
It is in this light that we are excited about new approaches to testing. The technology exists to improve testing. The technology exists to reduce the numbers of tests. And the technology exists to give feedback about whether our students are on track to succeed in a global workforce.
Pearson is ready to be a partner in this effort to improve learning. We are devoted to helping policy makers, educators and families create new opportunities for every stage of the learning journey. We are parents and community members too and we know that there is nothing better than the look on a child’s face when a new concept “clicks” or they master a new skill.
The president has challenged the education community to make teaching and learning more fun again. We are ready for the challenge.
Dr. Kimberly O’Malley is a public school teacher, a mother of two boys, and a Pearson researcher at the Pearson Research & Innovation Network. She specializes in ways to measure student growth and in finding new ways to interpret test scores so that they’re more meaningful.
Parents and caregivers usually receive and review several report cards throughout the school year.
They may also see the quizzes and read the papers that result in their kid’s average grades. But sometimes when standardized test reports go home, children’s scores don’t match the grades they’ve earned for their work in school. How can this be?
Grades and test scores do not always (or even often) agree; generally speaking, school grades usually reflect better performance and higher achievement than test scores.
For example, the Texas Education Agency administered the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) to all public school students from grade three to eleven between 2003 and 2011. During that time, the organization conducted studies comparing the rates at which students passed their courses and passed the state tests. In 2009, the study showed that 88 percent of the 200,000-plus students in Algebra I passed the course, yet only 56 percent passed the 10th grade TAKS exam. Most of the other study results showed similar outcomes, with more students passing courses than standardized assessments.
Let’s take a closer look at the specific differences between grades and scores.
Students earn grades based upon their performance on a range of assessments, activities, and behaviors: quizzes, attendance, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, discipline, homework, and in-class work. Some districts align grades mainly with quantitative measures of performance. For example, the New York City Department of Education website explains that a student’s grade at the end of a marking period “represents an average of tests, quizzes, oral and/or written reports, homework, and class work as determined by school policy and the teacher.”
Other districts weigh different factors in student marks. The Seattle public school system, for instance, allows teachers to include measures like attendance, tardiness, and class participation when calculating student grades.
Grading policies can vary district by district, school by school, and even teacher by teacher. These rules are complicated even further by policies like minimum grade rules, extra credit, make-up work, homework, and good behavior. The combination of grading policies sometimes results in wide grade ranges, even within the same school.
Take minimum grade rules as an example. In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schoolsenforce a policy that the minimum score for 6th-to-12th-grade assignments is 50, unless the student completes no work at all on a given assignment (in which case she gets a zero). Other districts, such as in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have also instituted a minimum grade of 50 percent. Similarly, Shaker Heights Middle School in Ohio uses 45 as a minimum score for a missed assignment. Many school districts lack minimum grade policies, leaving individual educators to create their own rules, which, in turn, contributes to the variation among student results.
Another major difference between these two means of evaluation is that students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. While they may receive some kind of explanation via a score report on a standardized assessment, these are usually not tailored to individual students.
In contrast to grades, standardized test scores are not assigned based on a very wide range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within a few academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.
Because these tests are uniform, there are no policies or practices that vary across districts, schools, or teachers for the same exam. The scores from standardized tests reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be compared. It may go without saying, but this regularity is the biggest difference between class-based grading and standardized test scoring.
Most standardized exams are built to a test blueprint, which is a rubric-like tool that defines what a given assessment should measure and how it should measure it. Educators and administrators build blueprints before they create tests. These serve as specifications for exams, and set guidelines for how many sections and questions they should include, what types of questions they should pose (e.g., multiple choice, short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or essay), and the ways in which different questions will be used to measure different skills. Blueprints and standardized tests can be a tremendous source of data, which is difficult to gather through grades (where there is considerable variability).
Many states — like Indiana, Tennessee, and Missouri — offer blueprints covering multiple subjects (mostly for students in third grade and up) to families online at no cost. If you’re interested in checking these out, look online for your state’s department of education website and enter words like “assessment blueprint” into its search field.
How can we better align test scores and grades?
Since grades and test scores measure different things, parents can go through the school year thinking that their child is on track both to passing grades and acing assessments. However, as you might now guess, this isn’t a given.
One growing practice that may bridge the gap between grades and test scores is personalized learning, also known as competency-based learning. The U.S. Department of Education provides a resource for families seeking additional information on personalized learning, though it stops short of endorsing the practice.
In a competency-based learning environment, students’ performance is directly tied to their mastery of a particular set of skills as opposed to the various assessments and behaviors outlined above. Thus, competency-based grading only reflects the acquisition of certain knowledge and skills. Depending upon the alignment (or lack thereof) between material being taught and material being tested, personalized learning has the potential to change the relationship between test scores and grades.
To risk being reductive, critics of competency-based learning point out that the practice can be applied to standardized assessments, which is often called “teaching to the test” — in which curricula are geared toward high scores on evaluations. On the other hand, personalized learning can be applied to any number of constructive and worthwhile pursuits that most standardized exams don’t yet cover, like speaking a foreign language, building a useful website, designing a piece of energy-efficient technology, or writing a compelling piece of fiction.
Are there alternatives to grades and scores in general?
While competency-based learning and grading are becoming popular across the United States (and should help parents to understand grade and test information better), they’re still quite rare.
For now, most parents can make better sense of the relationship between their child’s grades and test scores by figuring out exactly what each number — or letter — measures.
By asking questions about your school’s policies and the factors that make up each grade (extra credit, attendance, minimum grades for assignments, homework, make-up work), you can make better sense of report cards throughout the year. And by reviewing test blueprints, you may grasp more precisely what a test is meant to measure.
Putting these pieces together will give you a more holistic, and more accurate, picture both of your child’s achievement and of the areas in which she could use some extra help.
Somewhere between third and fourth grade, most students learn that area is calculated by multiplying length and width. It's a formula that's easy enough to memorize ... but it's also a formula that many students don't fully understand.
"Many students know the area formula length times width, but don't know that a square unit is the unit of measure for area," says Jennifer Kobrin, a senior research scientist at Pearson. "A full conceptual understanding of area involves knowledge that the area formula yields a count of the square units that cover a shape."
"Students gain this understanding by first learning to count individual units, then progressing to more sophisticated strategies that involve multiplication of rows and columns. Putting it all together requires moving through these stages one step at a time."
Jennifer and her colleagues are mapping out these steps of learning.
They're working to understand HOW children learn the concepts associated with complex topics like area, from basic concepts to more abstract concepts:
"These 'learning progressions' are based on research on student learning," Jennifer says. "They can be used to develop map that gives teachers new insight about how students think about problems."
Classroom Pilot Programs
More than a dozen classrooms around the U.S. and Australia participated in research about learning progressions. Teachers participated in professional development on the learning progressions and used progression-related classroom activities, performance tasks, and even a digital game called Alice in Arealand to gain a better understanding about the stages their students had mastered on the concept of area measurement—and the stages that still needed work.
"It's an integrated learning system," Jennifer says. "And the main takeaway is that we can assess students without explicitly testing them."
"Our thinking goes like this: if you have a learning system built around learning progressions," Jennifer says, "students will learn better."
"Traditional assessments show whether students know a standard," Jennifer says. "Teaching with learning progressions helps us understand and enrich what students are thinking."
Alice in Arealand
For nearly two years, Jennifer and her colleagues have been using a game to help understand students' thinking with regard to the learning progression on area measurement. It's part of an integrated learning system that involves classroom activities, performance tasks, and professional development.
The game is called 'Alice in Arealand'—and you can play it online here. Early levels challenge learners with basic concepts about area. Later levels get more difficult.
Kids love it. And teachers can know, in real time, what students are learning and where students need help.
"Teachers may not always know why a student is having a difficult time with a concept in class," Jennifer says. "This kind of approach gives teachers new clarity about what kids are thinking and how to help them get to the next stage in their learning."