Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Thing About Tomato Soup

I recently presented to a group of principals on the topic of OSSLT and Critical Thinking. One of the activities I asked them to do was to unpack an OSSLT question (2012 test) and reflect on the skill that students needed in order to answer the question correctly.

One question, in particular,asked students: "Which product matches the definition of “value-added” in paragraph 3?"

The choices were:
a whole fish
b leaf lettuce
c tomato soup
d green grapes

The question is obviously ambiguously worded. The answer, "tomato soup," isn't what we traditionally understand as "value added" and can be perceived as misleading. And so, the discussion very quickly led to the fallability of standardized tests, how much money is spent on them yearly, how our students with special needs can never pass such a test, etc...which are valid to some extent, but quite beside the point.

You see, every person in that room was able to answer the question correctly but had to take a few minutes to think through it.

What I find startling, after having spent many hours pouring over OSSLT data is that students really struggle with those questions that require thinking--if students can skim and scan to find the answer, then they do well. This observation was reaffirmed by Damian Cooper in a video series, About Assessment  published by MISA Barrie. He says that "EQAO data is screaming" at us that students need to be taught how to think. He also posits, "Do teachers in Ontario know that their fundamental job is to teach kids to think?"

Don't get me wrong; in an age where we know that differentiated assessment and instruction is key, I am not necessarily in favour of standardized tests to mark literacy achievement. What I do think, though, is that we can glean much information by looking at EQAO questions and trends.  This might lead us to look carefully at the kinds of things we are asking our students to do daily to determine if these tasks are pushing their thinking.

This is no small feat. How do we teach thinking? How can we change the questions we ask to promote further inquiry? What small changes can we make so that kids are solving problems and thinking through ideas rather than answering low-level questions?  

If we don't challenge students to think, not only will they continue to struggle on those kinds of questions on the OSSLT, but so too in life, when they are faced with complex situations that require problem solving.