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.

What I Learned From Being Sick

Last month I was sick for over two weeks. It sounds silly, but my illness started with an ear infection that just exploded into a massive mess throughout my body. I ended up missing seven full days of school, and there were several other days that I was nowhere near top form.


While trying to get better, I was also trying to help my classroom continue running. A month has now passed and I’ve had some time to reflect on what I learned during this difficult time period.

1. If you know you’re getting sick, take the day off. – Sometimes we know the germs are coming and they’re coming fast. In the past, my principal has even told me that it’s better to call in sick for a day to recover rather than push through and then be sick for a week. I didn’t do this. And boy did I pay the price. On a Wednesday evening I felt it coming, but I “toughed it out” and went to school Thursday and Friday. By Saturday morning, I couldn’t even get out of bed.

2. Have a series of canned activities ready. – I had a full day of “just in case” plans ready with copies made, but after those were used up, I wished I had more. Putting copies of activities any substitute could use on any day on a shelf would have made writing lesson plans from home much easier and less stressful. These could have been activities about less-than-exciting standards anyone could teach, such as grammar, math review, or something from a textbook.

3. Video can help. – During the second week at home, I reached that point where I was feeling better but not well enough to go to school. Two of those days I made a video of the lesson for my students to watch. I launched a Google extension called Screencastify, filmed myself talking through the lesson presentation, and sent the link to my colleagues to give to the substitute. I later realized it would have been even easier to post the video on Google Classroom. I’m guessing the students enjoyed hearing my voice after so long…I hope!

4. Have an amazing team. – This one is just a shout out to my colleagues who helped me out immensely. I’ve been trying to repay the favor ever since.

5. When you return, it’s okay to take it easy. – I returned to school on a Thursday. School started at 8:40 and I was exhausted by 10:00. Did my individual reading conference happen that day? No. Guided reading groups? Na-uh. How about a math enrichment group? Not a chance, and that’s okay. If I had gone all out those first two days, I might have regressed in my recovery. I wasn’t going to risk it, and that was the right decision. The kids did more busy work than usual, but I made it up to them the next week.

I hope you never have an extended illness! However, it’s always good to be prepared, and maybe these tips will help you in a time a need.


{image via Wikipedia commons}



Solving the Problem of Grading Authentic Tasks

I try to make things real. I don’t succeed all the time, but I know from research, and because I’ve seen it, that kids put forth more effort and learn more when their assigned tasks are real. If the sense an actual audience or practical goal for their work, they work more diligently to meet and surpass expectations.

But these kinds of tasks take time. Lots of it. Which can cause difficulty in the gradebook.


If you are blessed with a non-traditional report card that allows you enough freedom to report to parents whatever is most necessary, I’m jealous. However, if your report card you issue still looks the same as the one you got when you were in elementary school, I have some ideas for you.

First of all, don’t compromise your activities. If you know pushing worksheets onto kids will help you get enough grades to meet a quota, resist the urge to do it. I’m not saying I don’t ever hand out a worksheet, but the goal of any task should never be “I can get a grade from this.” If you’re giving students a worksheet just so you can grade it, there’s a better way.

The secret? Create the authentic student tasks you know are best for students, but figure out a way to give multiple grades to each, maybe lots of grades. If you are going to spend two or three weeks on a writing project such as this one, where my students wrote persuasive letters and sent them out into the world, you can’t just take one grade, especially if you’re facing a grade quota or other scrutiny. Think about what you have taught during the unit. Did you teach lessons about supporting your opinions with evidence? That’s a grade for Ideas and Content. Did you discuss how to structure your piece? That’s a grade for Organization. For our persuasive letter project, the students received a rubric with six separate grades based on the lessons and expectations for their letter. I didn’t have to push a bunch of paper onto students just so I have worksheets I can grade.


You can do this with smaller tasks too. Each time I take a reading fluency assessment, I assign a grade for reading at the correct speed, one for phrasing, and one for expression. Not only does this complete my gradebook, it helps both myself and parents know how to best help students during the next few weeks until the next assessment. Again, I also don’t have to stand at the copier for an hour a week making endless reading worksheets to grade.

By assigning multiple grades to each task, you’ll find you have more time to allow kids to do meaningful work. Keep looking for those authentic assignments that challenge students, ones that have practical applications to their lives!

Connecting With Readers – Lunch Bunch Book Club

One of my driving philosophies when teaching reading is this: Teach kids to do things that real readers do.

In essence, this means I want students to develop the patterns, strategies, and behaviors lifelong readers – both children and adults – use in their everyday reading lives. After all, why spend time teaching something students don’t need and won’t use? Students are savvy; they know when something is useless and they stop paying attention.

As I honed and developed this method of thinking, I would run into the same roadblock every year – book clubs. I would read professional literature about how to facilitate amazing book clubs. I would listen to teachers describe the deep conversations students were having. I would read blog posts offering step-by-step instructions about how to organize the perfect classroom book club.

One problem. It never worked for me. EVER. No matter how much I read or how motivating the books were, it simply didn’t work. Some students would be finished with the book when we were only supposed to discuss chapter two. Others would start the book and have great success, but when they had to wait for the meeting, they would lose interest and move on to other books. A few students would secretly try to sneak in some reading of a book they loved instead of their book club book.

I was fighting the wrong battles. And I was losing.

The reason I was losing was because what I was asking didn’t make sense. What adult book club decides to read only the first three chapters in a fiction book, have everyone stop reading, and then discuss? Nobody. Especially not in a fiction book. (Nonfiction might be different.) Why was I demanding that students put aside the book in which they were deeply engaged just so they could be ready for our next meeting?

My solution? I scrapped the whole system. There would be no more sludging through a book you didn’t want to read in my room. Everyone was happier. However, I did miss some of the discussions we sometimes had. Occasionally, a student would discover a favorite book through a book club, and even though they were a struggle, I did enjoy exposing kids to books they might not have picked up otherwise.

Finally, I found a middle ground – Lunch Bunch Book Club. It’s amazing. It’s also amazingly simple. At the beginning of each month, I do a book talk about a book I enjoy. I announce the date we will hold the discussion, and  I leave a bunch of copies of the book on a table. Students who are interested can read it; those who aren’t, don’t. Throughout the month, when a student finishes the book, they let me know. At the end of the month, anyone who reads the book comes and eats lunch in the room as we talk about the book. It’s wonderful!


The reason it works is because it is real. When adult readers meet at a book club, they have all finished the book and there is food. It works for kids too! It creates a memorable experience and help you connect with your readers. I hope you give it a try!

See Part 1 and Part 2 of my Connecting With Readers series for more great ideas to use in your classroom!

Test Prep Can Be Counterproductive

I got caught in a trap last week.

I was lucky to be able to attend a half-day staff inservice by a wonderful presenter who came to visit our school. The topic was standardized test writing, and I was interested in what she had to say.

Two hours later, my head was crammed so full it was about to explode. I was completely overwhelmed.

We discussed and learned about so many different kinds of open-response test questions that my mind was struggling to keep up. After introducing each type, she said, “Okay, turn-and-talk with your partner and tell them what you have done to prepare students for this type of question.” Often, I could say very little. I felt like I must have been cheating my students out of something they should have been getting.

Now, a few days have passed, and I’ve been able to calm down and reflect. I’ve thought about whether we should have been repeatedly practicing these open-response questions my students are likely to see on standardized tests this spring. Am I failing them?

The short answer I came up with: No.

The long answer: If I had spent endless hours practicing test responses, my students would perform worse on the standardized tests. How is this possible? Consider the hours and hours which would have to be spent to prepare students for every conceivable type of test question. Instead, I choose to devote that time to self-selected reading, real reading that develops life-long readers who enjoy books. I choose to devote that time to minilessons that teach skills and strategies real readers will use for their entire lives, how to infer big ideas, how to notice and note important events, how to monitor understanding and fix it if needed. I choose to devote that time to conferences with individuals and groups, getting to know them as readers and finding the ways to help them grow.


If I spent all that time doing test-prep activities, my students would not be advancing as readers. And readers who can’t read the reading passages on the test won’t be able to answer the questions regardless of the number of times they practiced! Students who can read, write, and think effectively will do just fine on any test, standardized or not.

Now, we will spend some time looking at the formats of some of these questions in the upcoming weeks. Students need to know how to play the standardized testing game. However, we will continue to sink the majority of our time into authentic reading and writing tasks because they are what matter. When my students look back on their fourth-grade year, they are not going to remember the right way to answer a constructed response question, but they will remember the amazing book series they read, the persuasive letter they sent out into the world, and blog comments they received from across the country.

Again, seeing the format of a standardized test can be helpful. But spending excessive amounts of time preparing for every test possibility steals valuable minutes students could be using to blossom as readers and writers.

Connecting with Readers at Community Circle

In the world of education, we are always looking for more time. How can I get ten minutes more for this subject? What about five minutes more for that one? Even if our days were ten hours long, we would still have every moment filled to the brim.

These time pressures lead us to make many decisions, usually trimming activities that are not directly related to academic content. Despite these pressures, there has always been one non-academic routine I refuse to cut. I won’t remove it, won’t shorten it, and won’t slide it to another time of day. It is our daily community circle.

This is Part 2 of my series on connecting with readers. (Part 1 – Reading Response Letters) Community circle is a huge part of building my relationships with my readers.

Each morning, after completing the day’s morning tasks, I ring my chimes, signaling the students to stop working and arrive at community circle. As with other routines, we had to practice this multiple times at the beginning of the year, and now the procedure is automatic. Students sit in the same place each day near their teammates.

I begin by welcoming the group and review the day’s agenda and any announcements or news. Sometimes, we celebrate an accomplishment by another student. Then, most days there will be a question or prompt for students to address.

  • Monday – Catch-Up Time – Tell us about something you did since we saw you last week.
  • Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – These topics vary. Sometimes, we’ll share something we’re working on in another class. Others times, I’ll use the Kids’ Book of Questions to come up with a fun topic. We’ll also discuss lifeskills or important events.
  • Friday – Free Share – Tell us anything you want!


“But I thought this was a post about reading?” you are now likely asking. The information I gather from students during this time period helps me understand each and every student. I learn what they like to do in their free time. I learn about teams and clubs they belong too. I learn what they love and what they can’t stand. Their successes and difficulties shared at our community circle help me know them as people.

If I truly know my students, only then can I make meaningful book recommendations. I know the book to place in front of my student who loves horses (Riding Freedom), the one who wants to be a scientist (The Hive Detectives), and one who is always talking about her annoying sibling (Sisters). If I didn’t know my students, I’d just be guessing. Now, uninformed book recommendations are better than none at all, but community circle allows me to connect with my students in an unparalleled way. This connection helps me guide them to be the amazing readers I know they can be.


So You Went to a Great Conference…Now What?

I had a wonderful opportunity to attend the IAG (Indiana Association for the Gifted) conference for the past two days, and my brain is stuffed. You’ve probably had the same sensation after a conference as well. You are filled with inspiration and ideas, but now what? What do you do when you return to school the next day? Here are some thoughts.

Try one thing now. – You heard a lot of ideas, and for some of these ideas, your energy will never be higher. As soon as you get back to class, try it! Even if your colleagues don’t understand your thinking and even if you don’t fully understanding your thinking, give it a go. If you can’t do it that day, put it in your plans for the next week. If you don’t, there’s a chance you might never regain the energy to try it again.


Give yourself permission to let things go. – Again, you heard a lot of ideas, and right now, you have this idyllic visualization of doing every single thing you learned about. This redesign of your entire room and curriculum would be amazing. This is great in theory, but it’s simply not realistic. We have to allow ourselves to say, “That’s cool, but I’m not ready for it now. Maybe one day.” This allows you to rejoin your classroom and not feel like a failure later in the week.

Check out the websites. – Chance are that at your conference you heard about numerous websites others love. Even though you can’t incorporate everything you saw into your classroom, spend twenty minutes clicking through each one. Join the free ones. Watch the video tutorials and think about how they might be useful later on. If you do this now, it will be part of your website repertoire you can call upon in a few weeks, months, or years when you are looking for that perfect site to improve one of your units.

Connect with one person you met. – Maybe it was a presenter, maybe it was another attendee, or maybe it was someone you just heard about. Either way, reach out to them. Finding them on Twitter is easiest, but do whatever is necessary to build a relationship. Even if you don’t need this person’s expertise immediately, you might in the future. Beginning this relationship now will make it more likely this person will respond when you really need it.

I hope you had a great conference!


Knowing Your Students Through Reading Response Letters

It’s the most time-consuming thing I do, but it’s value is immeasurable. I spend large chunks of time writing responses to students’ letters about their own reading. It takes forever and sometimes looms over my Saturday morning, but I cannot overstate the importance of this communication.

This is Part 1 of a series focusing on connecting with readers. We know teacher’s relationship with his/her students is of supreme importance. However, a major piece of this relationship is knowing kids as readers. I’ll be offering easy ways to construct and grow connections with your readers.

Every other Friday morning, I have students write a letter to me about the reading they have done in class this week. I carve out a twenty-minute block for them to all do this at the same time. Some experts suggest staggering these throughout the week and having students complete them during the independent reading time. I never had success with this. I enjoy the opportunity to address the group and then send them to write.


So, what do they write about? Most of the time, I leave it open to them. Our first two sentences always are structured the same: one with the title and one telling what part they are on. But after that, the students are free to explore their own thinking about what they have read. As I tell the students, this isn’t a retelling of the story; it’s about what you have been thinking about while you have been reading. I do give them a page of Thinking Sentence Starters (here’s a copy) they can use if they are stuck.

Sometimes I will give them a topic or format to use in their letter. For example, during last week’s writing workshop, we were working with persuasive writing, so in their reading letter, students had to convince me to read or not read their book, supporting their idea with opinions and examples. It was the perfect opportunity to connect our reading and writing content.

As I mentioned, responding to all these letters is a tall order, but I learn so much about my students as readers through their letters. I learn who is and is not understanding what they are reading. I learn how they are feeling about reading. I learn who needs help moving beyond retelling, and I learn who is exploring complex themes. All of this informs the decisions I make about how to best help kids.


Want to try it? Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t do it every week. Responding to these takes awhile, so take it slow.
  • Don’t feel like you have to respond with a full page. Pick one thing to reinforce or share in your respond.
  • Do respond! And make it personal…not just “Great letter.”
  • Model, model, model. Write a letter to the class about your reading as they watch. Think aloud about what you are doing.
  • Teach kids how to develop their own ideas, not always being dependent on a prompt.
  • Grade these with a basic rubric. Here’s mine! Count each grade as a separate entry in the grade book. If you’re spending a lot of time grading an assignment, it should be worth multiple grades. I create a weighted category in my grade book for these responses.

Don’t worry if it crashes and burns the first time. Just stick with it! You’ll be pleased with what you are able to learn about your students as readers.