STAAR, Meet Web 2.0

Parents, teachers, and legislators are in crisis mode: STAAR kicked off last week. One of the main complaints, that I’ve seen over and over in media stories, is that teachers haven’t seen enough practice questions and can’t prepare students for a test they don’t know.

Isn’t that called teaching? Just teaching, period. Not teaching to a test.

Plus, in theory we do know what’s on the new, harder exams: open-ended questions based on selected TEKS, rather than the old system of every TEKS on the books.

Now, I’m a realist. I know that once the first results come in, there will be much hand-wringing and high-fiving and teacher-workshopping and “How to Pass STAAR” manual-writing. The scores matter, because if high school students don’t pass all 12 of their EOC exams, they don’t graduate.

I also know that what works to get kids to pass in one class doesn’t work for kids across the street.

Since I don’t see teaching to the test going away, I have a proposal: Web 2.0 could help Texas teachers and students create rich networks of STAAR-specific resources. Google Docs allows users to create simple survey instruments that can be used to get a handle on the level of anxiety in a school or district or across the state; data could be collected from parents, teachers, and students themselves. Google Docs or a wiki site could be used to create STAARWiki, where teachers share their lessons–both the ones that worked and the ones that failed, because your failure could be tweaked into a superstar by someone else–linked and listed according to grade level, subject area, Reporting Category, Supporting Standards and Readiness Standards. How cool would that be, to go to one web site, search for “English I category 1 standard 9d” and to get back a list of approaches? To search for a topic that you’re about to cover in grade 3 science–volcanos, for example–and see what STAAR TEKS can be pulled into a lesson? Teachers may end up creating the deep, interdisciplinary activities that STAAR is all about.

Because STAAR is all about synthesis. It’s about critical thinking. It’s about HOW you use what you know, not just what you know.  “What do you think? Why?” are the two questions that are going to become even more pronounced in Texas classrooms, I would bet. The old TAKS exams primarily tested content, with a small amount of synthesis / critical analysis–putting ideas together thoughtfully. STAAR flips the balance almost perfectly; now students are looking at a little content and a whole lot of critical synthesis:

pie chart showing 20 percent content to 80 percent analysis

thanks to John Gardner, who explained this to me based on a presentation he attended in Austin

Web 2.0 can help students with critical analysis, too. A teacher can create a blog where different scenarios are described or articles are linked. Students then can be asked to combine ideas and offer their own take on the situation. Teachers can tweet practice questions that they have made up, based on their expertise and keen reading of the STAAR TEKS, or assign web assignments for students to practice key concepts. For example, one of the readiness standards for English II is “use a dictionary, a glossary, or a thesaurus (printed or electronic) to determine or confirm the meanings of words and phrases, including their connotations and denotations, and their etymology.” A blog post or wiki could include a list of 10-15 vocabulary words from the week’s reading. Pre-assigned groups of students (“draw a number out of this hat–that number is your week for blog/wiki vocab”) would look up the words, paste the definitions in a reply window, write a sentence demonstrating the denotation and then another for the connotation, etc. Everyone in the class would be able to see the results and benefit. The results would not waste any precious paper or photocopying quotas, and they would stay there, as a reference, for students to go back and check. In essence, they could create a class dictionary / thesaurus.

Creating is a pretty good place to be on Bloom’s Taxonomy, yes?

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