Monthly Archives: April 2016

Institutional Bias in Standardized Testing

Institutional bias – it’s a term we all probably heard once in college and then didn’t think about much. Today, I’d like to dust it off because it is becoming more and more applicable to the world of standardized testing.

A quick definition of institutional bias is any system which has procedures and practices that cause that system to favor some social groups while disadvantaging others (Oxford Reference). A system has an institutional bias if it causes some to succeed and others to fail without a real reason.

Standardized testing has long had this problem. When I was a kid, my mother was teaching fifth grade and had to give whatever standardized test was en vogue at the time. She told me about a question that included the word “silo.” Well, if you are a city kid, like all of her students, you have never seen a silo in your life, making it much harder for you to get the question correct. The institutional bias in this question favored rural students, at the expense of urban students.

However, with the increasing use of technology for standardized testing, the institutional bias is now much more prevalent, and the victims are poor kids. Standardized testing now requires students to complete more drag-and-drop, sorting, and other interactive activities. They also have to manipulate rulers, protractors, and other math tools online. Who would have the advantage: the poor kid who rarely sees a computer outside of school or the rich kid who has his own iPad, iPod, and Chromebook? This technology experience gives affluent students an advantage before they even begin the test.


The choice in reading selections on a standardized test can often create an institutional bias against poor students as well. Tests often choose nonfiction topics for which some students have significant background knowledge while others have none. I recognize this is not something the test developers can control, but we must understand it exists. Imagine two students equal in all academic ways who are presented a standardized reading passage about dolphins. Again, who would have the advantage: the poor kid who has never left the city in which he lives or the rich kid who has been on vacation to see, and maybe interact, with dolphins? Live experiences provide advantages.

Finally, the resources of the school itself can affect the outcome of standardized tests. In a school not far from where I live, the classroom teacher proctors the standardized testing sessions to the general education students. Upon completion, the support staff is brought in to supervise those students while the teacher proctors the same sessions to the special education or English Learner students. The classroom teacher, with whom the students feel most comfortable, can administer the test to everyone. In my own school, this is  impossible. We simply don’t have the personnel to make this happen. Our school faces a disadvantage, and I’m sure many others do as well, based on the structure of the test and how it is organized.

There are no easy solutions here. However, we need to be aware and make others aware of the institutional bias in standardized testing. With so many judgments made using student test scores, decision-makers must know and understand the variety of factors that affect these scores.


3 Takeaways from the GAFE Summit

Bad professional development can suck your energy dry, give you a headache, and leave you watching the second-hand on the clock. Good professional development, however, revs you up and has you itching to get back to school to try out what you learned.

The 2016 GAFE Summit in Franklin, Indiana was clearly the latter.

I could write pages and pages about what I learned at this GAFE (Google Apps For Education) event, but I’d like to focus on three major takeaways lingering in my brain a week later.

1. Google Sites is not user-friendly, but there is a key to open the lock. – I’ve never done anything with Google Sites with my fourth graders. This is mainly because every time I try out Sites on my own I end up angry. Google, despite being known for many amazingly easy-to-use products, has not yet developed sites into an intuitive resource to create websites.

However, after a session at the GAFE Summit, I feel like I learned a trick to make Google Sites a platform my students could realistically use to curate content. It’s a Table of Contents. Once you’re editing a page in Sites, click Insert and Find Table of Contents.

sites image

Then, when you’re ready to add content (text, videos, maps, etc.), type a heading and highlight it. Then, click Format and turn the text into a heading. It will automatically be added to your Table of Contents. This will help your young writers organize their site.

sites 2


2. There are an infinite number of uses for Google Forms. – This takeaway will be the one that most positively affects my classroom. Before I attended the Summit, I hadn’t considered the possibilities of Google Forms. I just saw them as an easy way to collect survey data from parents or students…nothing too heavy. Now, I see much more.

One day after the summit, I used Google Forms to collect a reading goal from each student, and then I pulled up their reading goal on my Chromebook as I was conferring with them that week. In Math, I created a generic form I titled “Help!” Then, when students were working with a partner, they could enter the question number that was confusing them. Instead of raising their hand and waiting, students could move on to the next problem while they waited. I carried my device around as I circulated the room and answered questions as needed, sometimes saving myself time by pulling two or three groups together to talk about the same question. Efficient!


3. Technology PD sessions need to focus on either being inspiring or giving how-to instructions. – This was the biggest difference between the GAFE Summit and any other conference I’ve ever been to. Each presenter seemed to have decided beforehand whether they wanted to inspire their audience or give them the nuts-and-bolts of a technology tool. The inspirational session leaders spoke about huge ideas, trying to expand our thinking and question our practices as teachers. Others really dissected one or more tools, teaching steps sequentially. I loved how this allowed attendees of the conference to find sessions that fit their mood and needs.

Bonus Takeaway : It was awesome. – They had flashing lights and loud music. Mind blown.



Counterproductive Things Teachers Do

At my house, we had a sink which had a problem with the drain overflow, requiring it to be replaced. I decided, despite having absolutely no handyman skills, that I was going to do some research and replace it myself. I read on websites, watched YouTube video, and bought the supplies I needed.

One year later, after many attempts at fixing my mistakes, we finally had to call a plumber to rip the whole thing out and replace it, costing us a significant chunk of money. Here it is, in all its glory:


My actions made the problem worse. And it has happened in the classroom too. I made some mistakes in the past and realized those mistakes just made the problem worse. Here are the first three that come to mind:

Saying, “This is your warning.” – Luckily I learned the problem with this one quite early in my teaching career. If you tell a child who is not following your expectations “This is your warning,” they learn that it is okay to break the rules once, just not twice. This is a recipe for chaos. If a student clearly understands the expectation (which will only happen if a teacher models and has students practice) but does not follow it, there has to be a consequence. It doesn’t have to be a huge one or even a formal one, but the poor choice must be corrected.

Giving a Daily Chart to Track Home Reading – I am ashamed to admit that this one lingered in my room for six or seven years. My thinking was this: I’m not assigning reading worksheets because I know they’re worthless, but I have to have something to hold kids accountable for their reading at home. This was flawed reasoning. The daily reading chart turned into something everybody hated. The students in my room hated it because let’s face it, who wants to fill out a chart when you’re done reading? Adults don’t do that. The parents probably hated it because they had to sign it too many times, and I hated it because I had to give a consequence for students who didn’t get it signed. Therefore, I’m sure there was plenty of times kids wrote down their reading time when they didn’t read and just as many times parents signed it without knowing whether or not their child was actually reading. Reading each night is still part of my expectations for students. I hope they are completing it. They might not be, but the chart wasn’t helping this.

Marking Up a Finished Product for Grammar Errors – Imagine that, as an adult, you decide to learn a new skill. You get some help from an expert, a little help each day. Then, you begin a project and work tirelessly on it for three weeks. Then, you show your expert and that person proceed to write all over it. How’s it feel? Probably not too good. Yet, this what many  teachers still do to published student work. I did this as a beginning teacher but learned the negative effects it has on students when they begin working on the next writing piece. Suddenly, their effort wanes and we’re surprised. We shouldn’t be. There’s a place in the writing process for grammar and editing – plenty of places, but marking up the final copy of a student’s hard work isn’t one of them.

As teachers, we’re constantly trying to solve problems – it’s what we do. However, sometimes our solutions cause the problem we are trying to solve to get worse. Reflecting on our own decisions can help us to identify these counterproductive solutions. It can also help us remember to call the plumber for our leaky sink.