Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Maybe We Should Do a Word Search

If you aren't excited about examining your students' work, you are giving the wrong types of assignments.” 
via @davidwees on Twitter

Our school district recently (finally!) received our results from our first-ever PARCC administration. Like almost every other educator I know, I am not overly excited about testing and it certainly had nothing to do with my decision to enter the noble field of education; I am much more passionate about children, teachers, and leaders, and how we all interact on a daily basis than I am about standardized testing. Still, as a public school teacher, principal, and, now, district office administrator, I have never wasted much energy complaining about these annual tests and I actually have no serious problem with them as an inevitable part of our job. In addition, although we spend little to no time “teaching to the test” in our district, we do take our results seriously and try to learn whatever we can from these each year as we move forward. Thankfully, we continue to get top-notch scores, on par with the best schools/districts in the entire state. Having said all this, however, my post today is not really about testing or test scores; instead, it is about the work we assign students and I was reflecting on this as I pored over our PARCC results earlier this month.

In a way, I felt like a student when it came to analyzing our test results this year. You see, we had never administered the PARCC tests before; this new assessment replaced the ISAT assessments, which had been the annual standardized accountability program norm in Illinois for many years. Over the years, I had become quite familiar with the ISAT and very adept at analyzing our data and sharing this with all stakeholders, including our Board of Education. This year was different: I had to learn an entirely new system with an entirely new way of assessing, scoring, and reporting student achievement scores. I had a lot to learn and the pressure was on; there had been plenty of negative press and reaction in neighboring communities about the PARCC. I really had to learn this stuff inside and out and was not sure where to begin. I’m not gonna lie; I was in panic mode. I turned to Marcie, a colleague whose opinion I respect a great deal. Unfortunately, she was equally dumbfounded. Determined, I pressed her for an answer. Finally, she said, “Well, I know my daughter has to do a word search every week. Her teacher says this helps her learn her spelling words.” Then, she paused and suggested, “Maybe we should do a word search.”

Eureka! This was the “Ah-ha!” moment I had been seeking; I needed to get up to speed on all things PARCC and the sooner, the better. I enlisted the help of Amy, yet another colleague; together, we brainstormed all possible words relating to the PARCC assessment. Next, we Googled, “Create a word search,” and came 

up with this:                                               

We immediately knew we were on to something big! I asked Marcie if we should complete the Word Search separately or together, thinking that, together, we would find the words more quickly. Alas, she informed me that her daughter was not allowed to do this and, in fact, was required to do the Word Search assignments for homework. Armed with this information, I printed three copies and we each took one home to complete. We arrived to work the following day giddy with joy: Marcie and Amy had each found all sixteen words (they are really smart!); meanwhile, I had found all but one (sadly, Amy, a mean-spirited stickler for rule-following, subtracted an additional point because I inadvertently highlighted an extra letter in the word "percentage"). We were feeling pretty good about our PARCC knowledge at this point and marched

into the superintendent’s office to share what we had learned and how this would inform our presentation to the Board. Imagine our surprise, then, when he did not share in our joy, but, instead, began firing off ridiculous questions, asking how we compared to the state average, how we compared to neighboring districts, how the PARCC scores compared to our previous ISAT results, how these data looked across schools, grade levels, and demographic subgroups, and to what extent we could discern whether our instruction was aligned to standards. Furious, he grabbed our worksheets, tore them to shreds, and told us to start conducting some legitimate research into all aspects of the overall assessment design as well as our own data. He demanded that we create a comprehensive--yet simple-to-understand--multimedia presentation. He further insisted we collaborate with neighboring districts to see what they had learned. Finally, he charged us with establishing a plan for communicating our results and findings with staff, students, parents, and the community. Our superintendent is, admittedly, a bit of a killjoy by nature. Still, we had to admit upon leaving his office that the work plan he suggested was likely to yield vastly superior results compared to the word search approach we originally favored.

So we spent the next few days digging into the project with zeal. Honestly, it was a laborious process as we toiled both alone and together to gather as much information as possible before synthesizing and evaluating it all. However, when we finally finished, we were proud of what we had accomplished and confident in our ability to present our findings clearly. The project was a challenging one to be sure, but it was important work and we were pleased with our performance.

Obviously, this is all intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet there are serious points to consider about the work we assign kids. In fact, I tend to agree with Phil Schlechty and others who suggest that engaging student experiences do not happen by chance; they are the result of teachers’ designing compelling work for the students they serve. 

To be fair, some students probably enjoy doing mindless activities like word search puzzles. I am convinced, however, that they are even more engaged, inspired, empowered, and--ultimately--joyful, when we challenge them with more authentic work that demands more of them. More important still, if we want our kids to gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed, we need to assign them work that requires them to create, collaborate, communicate, and think critically. Asking what it is our kids need to know and be able to do and then going about the hard work of intentionally designing quality assignments designed to equip them thusly is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!


  1. Jeff,

    You had me chuckling at several points in this post. I literally laughed out loud when I saw you lost a point for highlighting an extra letter : )

    I thought you said it best when you stated, "I am convinced, however, that they (students) are even more engaged, inspired, empowered, and--ultimately--joyful, when we challenge them with more authentic work that demands more of them."

    This is exactly it!

    I appreciate the post, because I also see time wasting in school. My frustration is, the same individuals that waste time, then complain about not enough time at years end.

    I will be diving into the new M-Step data, just as you rolled up your sleeves to look at PARCC data. I know the results are poor, but I hope that the data will push our instruction from recall to application.

    Thanks for the share.


    1. Ben,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I am thankful you found both the humor and the point, as both were intended. I share your frustration that we are still fighting the battle against time-wasting assignments in our schools when time is so precious and there are so many quality learning opportunities available to us. We are making progress but still have work to do, my friend. Thanks again; all the best in 2016!