Standardized Tests: NAEP, PIRLS, TIMSS, PARCC, PISA, ITBS, and CLT

Part 1: In Defense of Standardized Testing
Part 2: Alternatives to Standardized Testing

There are two types of standardized tests, criterion referenced and norm-referenced.
Criterion referenced tests are based on some standard (criteria). The current standards based movement would be a proponent of this approach, and, the tests you make in class likely qualify as criterion based too. It allows you to measure learning based on an external standard that is stable from year to year.
Norm-referenced tests are based on the norm for that particular year. In English, this means that students are compared with each other. So, a score in the 51% percentile, means that the student scored higher than 51% of the test takers for that particular year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 

According to Daniel Koontz, the NAEP is “widely considered to be a gold standard for evaluating educational trends” (The Testing Charade, Ch 5). One reason it is a gold standard is that its results are not particularly vulnerable to corruption because it is a low-stakes test. This means that students and teachers are not held accountable for the results, so there is little incentive to cheat or overly rely on test prep.

This is important because many state achievement tests are higher stakes for schools and  students and are vulnerable to the aforementioned corruption. So, the NAEP can be used almost as a way to audit the state tests. For example, if students show remarkable growth on the state test, you would also expect to see a level of growth on the NAEP. If there is little or no growth on the corresponding sections of the NAEP, then it is fair to question whether the state is gaming their own test in order to look good and score political points. 

One example of this is New York City. In 2007, Joel Klein was chancellor of the New York school system and, based on the results of the state achievement test, students made excellent progress. However, “when scores on the NAEP were released in 2007, they showed that New York City’s eight-graders had made no progress whatsoever in mathematics on that test over the previous two years, despite their huge gains on the state test” (Koretz, The Testing Charade, Ch. 5). 

A sample of nationally representative groups of grade 4, 8, and 12 students take the NAEP every four years. Each participating state selects 2,500 students per subject to take the test. The NAEP is a criterion-referenced test, so students are not directly compared with each other. Instead, students are compared with an external standard. The NAEP essentially has three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. 

The Proficient level is a bit misleading because it does not correspond with grade level performance, in order to reach Proficient on the NAEP, a student will need to perform higher than grade level. With this high standard, only about ⅓ of American students are considered to be proficient or better.

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

TIMSS is an international test put on by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) at Boston College and that is taken in over 60 countries. In America, it is taken by a nationally representative sampling of about 10,000 students in fourth grade and 10,000 in eighth grade (FAQ). As it is based on voluntary participation and sampling, this is a low stakes test for both schools and students.

TIMSS is a low-stakes criterion referenced exam, it uses the International Baccalaureate (IB) standard and divides achievement into four levels: Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Hooper, 2016). If you are interested in what each benchmark means, check out page 19 of this report. Based on my understanding, I’d say that intermediate should be the minimum acceptable level, meaning that we should essentially be aiming for 100% of students to be at this level or better.

The results of TIMSS paint a much more favorable picture of U.S. education than the NAEP. Though, we should expect better results, since the standard (criterion) of TIMSS is more aligned with grade-level expectations. In the past 20 years, Math, for both 4th and 8th grade, the U.S. has increased the percentage of students achieving at Intermediate or better by nearly 10%. This is good progress. However, we have seen less gains in science. We have essentially remained stagnant in 4th grade and seen moderate improvements in 8th grade.

When we compare the U.S. with other countries that took the TIMSS, we see that we are above average, but below the top tier.

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

Like TIMSS, PIRLS is put on by IEA at Boston College and is considered to be a low-stakes test that is criterion-referenced, with the same benchmarks of Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low. If you are interested in what each benchmark means, click here. Unlike TIMSS, PIRLS is given every 5 years instead of every 4. A sample of nationally representative fourth graders take the test. Students are assessed on an informational text and literary text. In 2016, there were 61 participating countries.

When compared with the NAEP, PIRLS was found to have readings that were easier by about one grade level (FAQ). So, we should expect better results and that is exactly what we find. 

While 35% of fourth grade students are deemed proficient by the NAEP, PIRLS found that 83% of students achieved at the Intermediate benchmark or better (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Hooper, 2017).

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA is a low-stakes, norm-referenced international test started by the OECD in 2000 and assesses a sampling of 15 year olds’ reading, math, and science literacy every three years. 600,000 students took the test in 2018, representing 79 countries or education systems. 

It has also been divided into various norm-referenced proficiency levels in an attempt to classify students. Being norm-referenced, these proficiency levels will differ slightly from year to year because the cohorts of students will be different, meaning that the average scores will be different.

The test makers note that, “There are no natural breaking points to mark borderlines between stages along this continuum. Dividing the continuum into levels, though useful for communication about students’ development, is essentially arbitrary. Like the definition of units on, for example, a scale of length, there is no fundamental difference between 1 metre and 1.5 metres – it is a matter of degree. It is useful, however, to define stages, or levels along the continua, because they enable us to communicate about the proficiency of students in terms other than continuous numbers. This is a rather common concept, an approach we all know from categorising shoes or shirts by size (S, M, L, XL, etc.).” 

When you look at America’s results, you see that they are more or less in line with the OECD average, while lagging a bit in math. One thing that makes the PISA useful, beyond comparing different education systems, is that it breaks the data down by the student’s socioeconomic status. This is important because it helps us see how well we are teaching different groups of students. The OECD’s report found that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in America is 11 points larger than the OECD average. It also breaks down performance based on gender. In 2018, girls performed 24 points better than boys in reading. This “gender gap” is better than the OECD average of 30 points. The performance gender gap in math favored boys by 9 points, larger than the OECD average of 5 points. In science, American boys and girls performed roughly the same.

In reading, 81% of American students were able to at least reach level 2 proficiency, compared with the OECD average of 77%. Essentially, this means that 81% of our students can “At a minimum, these students can identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, though sometimes complex criteria, and can reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly directed to do so.”

In math, 73% of our students reached level 2 proficiency or higher, slightly lower than the OECD average of 76%. Essentially, this means that 73% of our students can “interpret and recognise, without direct instructions, how a (simple) situation can be represented mathematically (e.g. comparing the total distance across two alternative routes, or converting prices into a different currency).”

In science, 81% of our students reached level 2 proficiency or higher, slightly better than the OECD average of 78%. Essentially, this means that 81% of our students can, “recognise the correct explanation for familiar scientific phenomena and can use such knowledge to identify, in simple cases, whether a conclusion is valid based on the data provided.”

Summary of International Standardized Tests

When we look over results from the international standardized tests, we can take a level of comfort. Even though America has substantial room for improvement, no matter which test you are looking at, we are roughly in line with other higher performing countries. We should recognize this. It is not only doom and gloom. 

But, we should also take a good hard look at the criterion referenced ones (NAEP, TIMSS, PIRLS). The NAEP is a very high standard, so there is not necessarily a need to fret about the low percentage of students who are measured proficient in that test. But both TIMSS and PIRLS are aligned to grade level standards and both show that we fail to get 20-30% of students to achieve at an acceptable level.

Iowa Assessments, formerly Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) 

While the Iowa Assessments started in Iowa, hence the “Iowa” in its name, it has a national reach. The Iowa Assessments are taken every year from kindergarten through eighth grade and they assess Language Arts, Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies. The test underwent a transformation between the 2011-2012 school year in order to be better aligned with the Common Core Standards and the Smarter Balanced Exam (other state standardized tests). To go along with the change in focus, the ITBS was renamed Iowa Assessments.

This is a norm-referenced test, meaning that students are compared with each other, not to an outside standard, which allows for comparisons between students by using a percentile score. Essentially, if your child receives a score in the 50th percentile, then he/she scored higher than 50% of the test takers in that year, if your child scored in the 86% percentile, then he/she scored higher than 86% of the test takers in that year. 

Given the norm-referenced format, the Iowa Assessments are not so easy to compare with each other over time, because each year involves a different set of students, and therefore, a different norm. They are best used to compare with students in the same year who took the same test. If you are looking at the test results over time, I would suggest taking them with a grain of salt.

The Iowa test is not high stakes, but it does have more of an impact on the students than the NAEP, TIMSS, PIRLS, or PISA. Schools will commonly use results from the Iowa Assessments as one factor to place students in talented and gifted programs. As this test has real-life impacts on students, it is particularly important that the test makers check for content bias.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)

The PARCC is given to a representative sample of students in grades 3-11 annually and assesses mathematics along with English/Language Arts and is in alignment with the Common Core Standards.

PARCC is a criterion referenced test (the Common Core is the criterion) and students are assigned performance levels between 1 and 5 with Level 3 and above considered to be passing.
Level 1: Did not yet meet expectations
Level 2: Partially met expectations
Level 3: Approached expectations
Level 4: Met expectations
Level 5: Exceeded expectations

If you want more information about what these performance levels actually mean, click here. If you want to really nerd out, check out this nearly 500 page technical report. Section 9.5, section 10 and section 11 are most relevant.

The PARCC results do not paint a particularly pretty picture of American education. For the 2015-2016 school year, the percent of students who met or exceeded expectations hovered around 40% at all grade levels for ELA and Math starts at 42.5% who at least meet expectations, but that lowly result plummets over time, finishing at 25.9% in 8th grade. Go ahead and look at the graphs. If you are interested in a breakdown by state or ethnicity, check out this pdf.

This is all the more concerning because the PARCC is aligned with the Common Core Standards, meaning that the tests are at grade level.

PARCC is a high-stakes test. Students may be held back if they do poorly. This makes concerns about bias extremely important.

The Classic Learning Test (CLT)

Meet CLT, the new kid on the block. It was started in 2015 with the intention of providing an alternative to the bigger, more famous standardized tests. It features, “passages selected from great works across a variety of disciplines, the CLT suite of assessments provide a highly accurate and rigorous measure of reasoning, aptitude, and academic formation for students from diverse educational backgrounds.”

The CLT is offered as an alternative to the SAT and ACT, so the CLT is high stakes. However, our focus will be on their other tests. The CLT8 and CLT10 are standardized tests for 8th and 10th graders. These tests are norm-referenced, with the norm being based on a nationally representative sample of the CLT10 population. 

Content wise, the CLT10 and CLT8 cover verbal reasoning (reading comprehension), grammar, writing, and quantitative reasoning (math). These exams are designed to be comparable to the PSAT, and the scores between the tests can be compared. If you are interested in comparing the scores, look at pages 29-33 of this link. If you are interested in how students performed based on income or race, look at Chapter 10 of the technical report. Unfortunately the scores for race are only broken down into two categories, white and non-white. I would guess that this is due to sample size issues and that future reports will offer more detailed breakdowns, sample allowing.

There Are No Better Options

The data we get from the NAEP, TIMSS, PIRLS, PISA, and PARCC leaves plenty of room for concern. Internationally, we are essentially average in education, nothing to brag about. But, when we look at how our students perform at grade level assessments, there is real cause for concern according to the PARCC exam, only around 40% of our students meet or exceed the standard from grades 3-8 in English Language Arts. In math, the story is much worse. Without these standardized tests we would only have a vague idea about these problems, so, until there is a better option, I am for standardized tests. It is important for us to know where educational inequalities and inefficiencies exist. Currently, if we were to replace standardized tests with any alternative, at best we would get fuzzier data.


Koretz, D. (2017). The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. University of Chicago Press.

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M. (2016). TIMSS 2015 International Results in Mathematics. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center website:

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M. (2017). PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center website:

Alternatives to Standardized Testing

Part 1: In Defense of Standardized Testing
Part 2: Alternatives to Standardized Testing
Part 3: Standardized Tests: NAEP, PIRLS, TIMSS, PARCC, PISA, ITBS, and CLT

Standardized testing comes with a sordid history of intentional discrimination, perverse incentives, suspicious discrepancies in scores, and outright cheating. What are the alternatives?

In my research for this blog series, a 2015 article by NPR about alternatives to standardized testing was referenced repeatedly. There were four main alternatives.
1. Sampling
Summary: This is essentially the same as standardized testing, but instead of testing all students, it would test a statistically representative group of students. This is what the NAEP and PISA do.
My Thoughts: I am not completely against this approach. It could be a decent compromise. But I would want my child to be assessed each year. I think it is valuable to see where my child stands in relation to children in the school, district, state, and nationally. This isn’t an attempt to boast about the score, it gives valuable information to parents because the tests give a reference point that is beyond the classroom grades and that is comparable with other locations. Does the test score roughly match my child’s grades? This ERIC Digest provides an excellent summary of how to use/interpret the results of a standardized test.
2. Stealth Assessment
Summary: This is basically gamification. Assessing students with their performance on a computer program.
My Thoughts: Technology can be amazing. But I don’t think this would be a wise direction to move towards. I have not seen any data on the validity of stealth assessment (I don’t think there is much research here yet). It would also bring up even more equity issues than the current set of standardized tests.
3. Multiple Measures
Summary: Instead of measuring based on one assessment (the test) it could use social and emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments (stealth assessment) and performance or portfolio-based assessments.
My Thoughts: There is important data here that would help parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers, and it would seem obvious to me that we should assess schools and teachers on multiple measures. But wouldn’t the same accusations of bias involved in standardized testing be there for the surveys as well? And, since they are about social and emotional skills/norms, wouldn’t that be even more controversial than standardized academic tests?
Portfolio assessments should not be considered as a replacement for standardized tests because, based on what they are, it is impossible to standardize them. They can be great tools at the teacher/school level though.
I’ll spend some space talking about performance assessments later. They are the most promising alternative.
4. Inspections
Summary: An inspector will come and assess a variety of factors in the school.
My Thoughts: Even with observations, we cannot reliably assess individual teachers because there are so many variables (Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning, Ch 2). Evaluating an entire school or school system in this manner would be exponentially more difficult.
Using inspections would give us good data (we should have some sort of inspection data as part of a multiple measures approach), but it would be much more expensive than standardized testing due to the required man hours and would be a very different type of data. It would not tell us much about what students are or are not learning.

The Most Promising Alternative

The specific alternative to standardized tests I find most promising is a type of performance based assessment. Though there are very significant challenges that performance assessments will have to hurdle before I would be willing to consider replacing standardized tests with performance assessments. 

The performance assessment would have to be externally imposed on schools in a similar way standardized tests currently are. The assessment would also have to be standardized. The purpose here is two-fold. Standardization allows for comparisons between different groups of students and it helps control the bias.

If the assessment is not standardized and given in a standardized manner, then the data generated will not be very useful for anything broader than the context the assessment was given in. There would be too many variables. The performance assessment should also be externally imposed because these assessments should function as a type of audit on the system. Is it working? Are all students being educated?

The last hurdle may be the largest. There is a paucity of research on performance assessments, and alternatives to standardized tests in general (Garcia & Pearson, 1994). I was not able to find anything more recent. It could be that I just don’t know the right search terms. If you are aware of more recent research on possible replacements for standardized tests, please send it my way either in the comments below or on Twitter (@Teacher_Fulton). We should not replace standardized tests with performance assessments until they have developed a track record at least as reliable as standardized tests.

The next post in this series will give an overview of several common standardized tests. (coming soon)

William, D. (2016). Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed. Learning Sciences International.

In Defense of Standardized Testing

This series of articles is primarily concerned with standardized tests in compulsory education (Iowa Test of Basic Skills, PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, NAEP). These tests differ from college entrance exams (ACT, SAT) in that, except for some state achievement tests, the tests tend to be low or no stakes for both the students and schools. 

Many educators have an aversion to standardized testing, and this is not without reason. Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time preparing their students for many of these tests and beyond that, these tests have led to a narrowing of the curriculum. This happens in the misguided attempt to focus on reading and math by reducing the time spent on science, social studies, art, etc (sometimes drastically!). This is misguided because, while it makes sense that you could increase these scores by spending more time on said subjects, doing so actually reduces background knowledge, which, after decoding, is the key to comprehension. 

But It Gets Worse

Standardized tests have been intentionally used by educators to exclude minorities. For one example, you can look into the case of Larry P, a black student in California who was wrongly sent into special education. You can also read this article from Time Magazine for an overview of the negatives.

Other times, the blind spots of the test writers caused them to discriminate against girls as Garcia and Pearson (1994) note,

“When girls outscored boys on the 1916 version of the test designers, apparently operating under the assumption that girls could not be more intelligent than boys, concluded that the test had serious faults. When they revised the 1937 version, they eliminated those items on which girls outperformed boys. By contrast, they did not revise or eliminate items that favored urban over rural children or children of professional fathers over children day laborers (Mercer, 1989); these cultural differences apparently matched developers’ expectations of how intelligence and achievement ought to be distributed across groups (Kamin, 1974; Karier, 1973a, 1973b; Mercer, 1989).”

Whether these blind spots are willful or simply ignorant is irrelevant for our purposes. What is important is that we acknowledge that this type of discriminatory bias is still a possibility in standardized tests today. 

Content Bias

This is the type of bias that is most often pointed out in standardized tests. Content bias is simply when the content of the test favors one particular culture over another, typically favoring the majority culture. This, by default, disadvantages minorities and so it is important to be able to counter content bias if we want standardized tests to be meaningful.

Thankfully, modern standardized test creators take bias seriously.

They “have used a variety of techniques to create unbiased tests (Cole & Moss, 1989; Linn, 1983; Oakland & Matuszek, 1977). Among others, they have examined item selection procedures, examiner characteristics, and language used on the tests as possible sources of bias. One of the most common methods used to control for test bias is that of examining the concurrent or predictive validity of individual tests for different groups through correlational or regression analysis.” (Garcia and Pearson, 1994).

For more detail on what this looks like in practice, read this EdSurge article. Managing content bias will always be a challenge, even with knowledge of history, advanced statistical tools, and a good heart.

Perverse Incentives

Many standardized tests also suffer from the Cambell effect. This simply means that when tests are important (high-stakes) for students or teachers, then it is more likely for the results to be corrupted by any number of means. 

Think about it, when teachers and schools are assessed based on their students’ performance, they will do what they can to look good. And when your job is on the line, you may be driven to take certain….“shortcuts”.

This often leads to the aforementioned narrowing of the curriculum, which disproportionately affects students in impoverished areas. 

On top of this, there are numerous cases of outright illegal behavior. Schools engaged in the practice of scrubbing, unenrolling students or encouraging a temporary truancy. There have also been cases of students being held back in grade 9 and then, after repeating said year, they jump up to grade 11, conveniently skipping the standardized tests (Koretz, The Testing Charade, Ch 5).

And then there are the cases of traditional cheating. The most famous of which is the disaster in Atlanta where 11 educators were given felony convictions and 22 other teachers reached plea agreements. 

We know that cheating is unfortunately not an isolated problem, it has been estimated that, on the low end, at least 5% of these high-stakes standardized tests involve cheating in some fashion (Jacob & Levitt, 2003).

Discrepancies in Test Scores

Poor students tend to score lower than wealthy students. Minority students tend to score lower than white students. This certainly should raise some red flags because it shows that there are real problems somewhere, though not necessarily with the test itself. Once we work to reduce the variables and compare students of different ethnicities who share a similar socioeconomic status and language level, the achievement gap is greatly decreased, but still significant (Garcia & Pearson, 1994), showing that there is at least one other, but likely multiple significant problems, somewhere.

The challenge here is two-fold. Is the primary problem with the standardized tests themselves or with unequal schools, differing home situations, etc? Both?

The Importance of Standardization

In America, 80% of teachers are white (NCES, 2019). Even if you choose to assume the best, it is foolish to assume that the average teacher is knowledgeable about every culture and can adequately adjust for content bias.

Standardization allows for a level of control over the bias because you only need to provide oversight to one group, not millions of teachers. In addition the makers of standardized tests are specifically trained to create them and to analyze them for bias. This doesn’t mean they are perfect, but they are certainly better at making tests and adjusting for bias than the average teacher.

The main value provided by standardized tests is that they give data. Without this data, we would not be aware of the discrepancies in performance based on race or income mentioned above.

Now, we tend to use the data in order to make excuses. “These disparities exist because of economic inequality, we really need to fix that.” And, true enough. But economic inequality is not relevant for teachers to do their job. Our job is to teach students as they are. We need to get results with the students we have in the schools we’re at. If you use a student’s social situation to excuse their lack of learning, get out of education. Social situations provide context, not excuses. 

The data shows where teachers and schools are failing to educate their students. The data shows where problems are. We should use this to help schools help children. We should use this data as a tool to help us identify successful teaching methods. If we get rid of standardized assessments, we also get rid of this data. To do so is to choose to make ourselves blind, not a wise choice.

The scope of the problem is huge. Are there valid alternatives to standardized testing? (coming soon)

America fails too many of her students, but it isn’t all doom and gloom, though there is a fair share of it. Just take a look at how her students perform (coming soon).

Part 1: In Defense of Standardized Testing
Part 2: Alternatives to Standardized Testing
Part 3: Standardized Tests: NAEP, PIRLS, TIMSS, PARCC, PISA, ITBS, and CLT

García, G. E., & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Chapter 8: Assessment and Diversity. Review of Research in Education, 20(1), 337–391.
Jacob, Brian A. and Steven D. Levitt. “Rotten Apples: An Investigation Of The Prevalence And Predictors Of Teacher Cheating,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2003, v118(3,Aug), 843-878.
Koretz, D. (2017). The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. University of Chicago Press.

Science Labs in Primary School: Structure and Routine

Process and content knowledge are in the foreground because they are what students do or produce. But, both become possible only when structure and routine are operating in the background.

One of the primary ways teachers can shape the structure of their class is by how they manage it. How you choose to reinforce positive behavior and discipline negative behavior has a substantial effect on learning. There are many ways and approaches to this, but the best fall closely in line with the approach of authoritative parenting. Warm/Strict is a popular application of this method. For more, you can read about it here, here, and here.

Some Principles of Classroom Management

Essentially this means teachers should manage the class…

  • with clear, high expectations (behavioral and academic)
  • with support students to help them achieve expectations
  • with clear, fair rules enforced with fair consequences
  • with an understanding of extenuating circumstances
  • with everything done in genuine warmth towards the students

The bookends to the above list are the most important because when paired, they make the rest possible. High expectations without genuine warmth all too often leads to more authoritarian approaches. And, to say it simply, genuine warmth towards students without high expectations is flat out impossible. This is a false warmth. If you are treating students “warmly” but not demanding students work towards a high bar, you aren’t being kind or caring for them. Instead, you are actively working to reduce their potential.

Structure Puts Principles Action

Principles are not put into actions by pasting posters on the wall or even by telling students the rules and enforcing them. They are only put into action if you model the principles and support students as they strive towards them, providing discipline when needed.

One simple way to put the first three principles in action is with facial expressions and gestures. It may sound strange, but getting a variety of expressions and gestures down will make your life as a teacher better and will make handling disruptions smoother. These small routines provide structure that gives your students the support they need to reach the high expectations we must have.

When a student is off task, catch their eyes and give them the look. When they acknowledge you, nod and move on.
When a student isn’t writing and they should be, catch their eyes and pantomime writing with one hand holding a pen and the other being paper.

What is key here is that students understand what the signals mean. If students are guessing the purpose, it will not be effective. Introduce the signals and tell students what they mean. Take guesswork out of the equation. This allows you to redirect students quickly, directly, and subtly.
*Note: These work best for minor disruptions, you will need other tools to deal with more significant problems.

In addition, these signals make transitions easier. Something as simple as a 3, 2, 1 Stop! (slightly increased pitch on the “Stop”) accompanied with a hand countdown makes it very clear to students that they need to finish and look at you. Whatever you choose to use for transitions, be consistent and make sure students know what the signals mean.

These structures are supports. They allow students to put their efforts towards achieving academically because they provide focus. They allow students to reach that high behavior bar you set because they provide clear direction, making it easier for students to stay on task.

Structure in the Lab

We must bring these established structures and routines to the lab with our class. The strategies are versatile enough to survive the new and exciting environment. As you enter the lab, expect for your students to be excited and to need a bit more correcting and time to settle in/transition than normal.

Stick to your already established structures and routines. Your students will adjust. Labs are naturally a bit more chaotic than a normal class. This makes structure and routines all the more important. Settle your students down by using the countdown or some other method. Then give instructions (verbally and written). It will be best if you can pass out a small sheet of paper with the instructions. This gives students a reminder that stays right in front of them.

Make sure all eyes are on you as you model step one. Be explicit about your directions. Say something like, “You have 15 seconds to set up step one, Go!” Then bring attention back to you with whatever already established method you’ve chosen. Once everyone is refocused, go on to the next step, and so on.

Keep a snappy pace. This will keep faster students focused. And students who move more slowly will be able to follow along just fine because they will have your model for each step.

Transitioning into Less-Structured Activities

Follow a similar structure when you are moving from one part of the lab to another. Once the setup is done and the experiment is ready to begin, you will still want to have teacher led transitions. This reduces confusion. 

Chaos is more susceptible when students are making observations or inferences. There is only so much we can do here. I like to preface these activities by briefly reviewing whatever we have learned and having students reread their hypotheses. I find that this helps transition their minds go from setting up the lab to being ready to actually do it. Then I say, “You will have 2 minutes to make observations. You have to talk to your partners, but you must talk like you are in a library. Do you understand?” 

My students are familiar with this routine and know to respond with a whispered, “Yes, we understand.” I often have to repeat this part a second time because they respond at a normal or even excited volume. But, this makes my expectations explicit. There is no guesswork and, as a result, my students work quietly and are focused during observation time. Then I set them loose to make observations or inferences with a hand signal.

Long Term Goals

Remember, we have primary students, they are not experts in the lab. The lab is still relatively new and mysterious to them. The structure is there to help them succeed. As you do more labs, you can gradually give students more freedom. But make sure they can succeed with it. We don’t want free students that drown in freedom. We want them to swim in it. And the best way to do that is for them to internalize the high expectations, structures, and routines you choose to create.

So give your students freedom by ensuring they have the necessary process knowledge and content knowledge for the lab. Give your students freedom by providing structure and routines. When they are ready, let them swim.

Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourse

Part 1 of this series explains why having a worldview is inevitable and that this shapes your approach to teaching
Part 2 makes the case for deeply understanding your worldview and philosophy of education

There are numerous benefits that come along for the ride when you have a well thought out worldview and philosophy of education. For the teacher, most of the benefits are between you and your students. 

Clarity and Confidence

We should be relatively confident in applying our philosophy of education. If you are not, then you should search for a more robust one you are able to trust because teaching from a place of doubt isn’t enjoyable. It will also likely lead to inconsistencies in your methods causing confusion for your students and stress for you.

When we understand our philosophy of education, we can move forward with confidence because we have looked it over and found it to be consistent with our worldview, research, and practice. When we trust our philosophy, we are much more likely to consistently apply it. This consistency helps our students understand the rules and routines, which better allows for them to focus on learning.

However, there is one aspect in particular that affects other teachers.

A Clear Discourse

Too often people simply talk past one another and in doing so they each win the argument but everybody ends up being the loser. To improve the discourse, clarify what you believe.

When we have thought out our underlying worldview, we will be able to articulate it in an understandable way. Once we have applied its implications to our teaching, we should also be able to explain our philosophy of education in an accessible manner.

When both parties have done this, there tends to be less talking past each other. Positions are made clear. More clarifying questions are asked. And, even if this only happens on one side, clarity is still gained.

One Sided Clarity

If one side relies upon fallacies or supports their philosophy with inconsistent logic, you still gain clarity by engaging them with your own philosophy. You now know where the other person stands. You have tested your approach against theirs and found theirs to be wanting. We must be humble when we are doing this though. If we lack humility we will only help them see our side as mean or whatever negative adjective they prefer to use.

In addition, we should be humble enough to see the grains of truth in approaches we consider to be wrong. We should use these grains to improve our own philosophy.

If your philosophy never changes you must think it is perfect. But why on Earth would that be a reasonable assumption?

Part 1: Worldview and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourse

Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education

In part 1 of this series I explained that having a worldview is inevitable and that your worldview will profoundly shape your teaching practice. However, while having one is inevitable, we are not guaranteed to have one that is well thought out. In fact, the default is to fall into an unthoughtful fuzzy genericism that works well enough to get us through the day, but would fall apart if we ever cared to inspect it.

Our approach to education, or our educational philosophy is rooted in our broader worldview. So, before we can effectively work out our own teaching philosophy we must work out our worldview.

Appropriated Worldviews Make Poor Anchors

When we don’t analyze what we believe, we lack a sound worldview, we lack an anchor, so we must appropriate one. The place we appropriate a worldview tends to be from whatever subculture we most identify with; whether that’s democrat, republican, religious, environmentalist, etc. Worldview appropriation always causes problems. 

Problems arise because we don’t “own” an appropriated worldview, this means we are not anchored to the ground, we are anchored to some larger ship and we will move with it. This causes us to have a fuzzy worldview, because we are simply relying on a larger group for our ethics. This leads to a blind or semi-blind following of the culture. Our morality shifts this way as well (blindly shifting morality is bad). Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. 

We can skate by with an appropriated worldview (I think most people live like this) but those with an appropriated worldview will likely struggle to produce thought out, internally consistent answers to the following questions.

Does anything objectively matter? Why/why not?
What is the purpose in life?
How do you justify your own morality?
Is human flourishing good? Why/why not?
Is suffering bad? Why/why not?
Why is “cultural hot topic” a step in the right/wrong direction?

Appropriated Philosophies of Education 

When we don’t think about our philosophy of education, we appropriate one from whatever educational subculture we happen to lean towards. This causes similar problems as an appropriated worldview. Our views and educational approaches will shift with the educational culture around us. We won’t really control the changes because our philosophy will remain vague and fuzzy to us. 

Before you can purposefully change and improve your philosophy of education, you must work to remove aspects that are vague and fuzzy by bringing them into focus and defining them because it is nearly impossible to change a vague problem. Think about it. How do you fix something that is bothering you when you don’t know what that something is, but you know you are bothered? You have to figure out what is bothering you first!

Owning Your Philosophy of Education

Work out your worldview so you can own it and be anchored to something more stable than culture. Work out your philosophy of education so you can own it and be anchored to something more stable than an educational subculture.

Make it specific so you can make purposeful changes as you learn more. This process happens through a lot of reading, thinking, and talking.

Here are some questions to think about as you define your philosophy of education.

What is the primary purpose of education? Why?
How do humans learn?

How do you encourage creativity? Why?
What are your views on having children of all ages memorize information?
How should you reinforce rules?
What is the best way to manage disruptive behavior?
What types of punishments are acceptable? Why?
What role should educational research play into your approach as a teacher? Why?

Part 1: Worldview and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourse

Science Labs in Primary School: Content Knowledge

This is part two in a three part series.

Part 1. Science Labs in Primary Schools: Process Knowledge

The Second Key: Content Knowledge

If you want your students to be able to succeed in the lab, they need to know the science. Do not have your students “discover” the main idea or key concepts in the lab. This will work for some students, but not for struggling students. Teaching with this type of discovery in mind widens the achievement gap. Instead, teach your students the key vocabulary words and concepts before the lab. 

Giving Content Knowledge Requires Structure

The best way to give your students knowledge and skills involves a structured approach to teaching (The Third Key). This structure need not create a stiff, cold environment. In fact, if your structure creates this type of environment, I’d argue that your structure is bad and that you need to adjust your approach to classroom management.

Essentially, this means being an authoritative teacher. Or, in the vernacular of Teach Like a Champion, it means being warm/strict. But more on this in post three.

Instruction and Content Knowledge

We must help our students become critical thinkers if we want them to have a chance in the lab, because a lab is essentially applying background knowledge through critical thinking in order to solve a problem. Luckily for us, the research here is relatively clear. Critical thinking happens with what we already know (Willingham, 2007). 

A tried and true method that helps students learn more is the I do, We do, You do model. In this, we essentially do what it says. The teacher explains and demonstrates, then there is some sort of group work, and after several checks for understanding and feedback, students are ready for independent work.

I am partial to the Explicit Instruction model, which is essentially a detailed version of I do, We do, You do. Here is an overview of Explicit Instruction.

Checks for Understanding: No-Stakes Quizzes

One way I like to check for understanding is by giving a few no-stakes quizzes in the week or two leading up to a lab. Click here to see how I go about using no-stakes quizzes. In our checks for understanding, regardless of the format this takes (quiz, groupwork, assignment, etc) we should mix in a  variety of factual recall and transfer (application) questions covering the same content in different contexts.

Factual Recall Examples:

What is a convection current?
What causes a convection current to form?
Why does change in temperature cause convection currents to form?

Transfer (Application) Examples:

Describe how a convection current forms in our atmosphere.
How does a convection current form in the geosphere?
Explain how convection currents affect the ocean.
Why does your soup have convection currents?

This mix of questions helps to make knowledge flexible, meaning that students will be more likely to successfully apply what they have learned both in the lab and in their daily lives. This is the goal right?

Knowledge in the Lab

So, after we have taught in a way to ensure our students know about the content, they are ready to test and apply it in the lab. By having background knowledge, we are changing the type of questions our students will ask and therefore, we are changing their hypotheses.

For example, if we take a more discovery based approach to labs, we may have our students investigate the following question, “What happens when a heater is placed under a glass of water with dye at the bottom?” 

Whereas if we use a more explicit approach, our students will not ask this question, because they will already know what will happen and why it will happen.

Instead, students with greater background knowledge can ask more involved questions such as, “Will a larger temperature difference change the size or speed of the convection current?” “How will obstacles affect convection currents?” and many more.

This type of question is worth spending a lab on. The first question, “What happens when a heater…” is not worth a lab. It is worth a teacher demonstration. 

Help your students think critically, redeem labs by teaching knowledge. Give your students knowledge so that they may apply it.

Science Labs in Primary School: Process Knowledge

Doing a science lab with younger children can be stressful even to think about. I have made the choice to avoid labs before because I couldn’t figure out  a way to do it without wanting to rip my hair out.

But as my own hair is starting to fall out of its own accord, I have learned how to make labs with primary students relatively painless and certainly useful.

As I see it, there are three key parts of a successful lab with any age of students, but these components are even more important for young learners: process knowledge, content knowledge, structure and routine. 

The First Key: Process Knowledge

Students must understand the process of science before they can reasonably perform a lab. This will look a bit different depending on the level you teach. But the overall ideas remain the same. Our students should be familiar with an appropriate version of the scientific method.

By appropriate, I mean that we can adjust it to our students. A seven year old doesn’t necessarily need to memorize every step in the scientific method. But the seven year old should understand the scientific method to be something along the lines of, “I use what I know to make a hypothesis. Then I test it. I write what happens. I test it again and write it down again. Finally I say why my hypothesis was right or wrong.”

Content Light On Purpose

When I am introducing the scientific method, I want my students to focus on the scientific method, not the “science content”. I go about this by doing what I call a “content light” lab. This is on a topic I am certain my students have good knowledge on. This allows them to better focus on following the steps of the scientific method without being distracted by complex procedures the experiment’s outcomes.

For example, I would not teach the scientific method with a chemical reactions lab. Mixing acids and bases is great fun, but it would not lead to a focus on the scientific method. Students would likely be distracted by the complex procedures and or the novelty of the experience.

Content Light Labs

For a content light lab, we take notes on one step of the scientific method and then we immediately apply it in short steps. One of my go to’s for this is a lab on gravity. My students already have background knowledge (Second Key), the testing procedure is simple, and it is fast. All of this works together to allow students to focus on the scientific method.


1a. Define background knowledge: what you already know about a topic
1b. What do you know about gravity? Jot down this info as a class below the definition

2a. Define hypothesis: Using what you know to to explain what you think will happen in a testable and repeatable way
(This takes longer as you have to explain testable and repeatable)
2b. If I drop ‘Object A’ and ‘Object B’ at the same height, then “Object A/B’ will fall to the ground at a faster/slower/same rate.
(Feel free to adjust how you require students to form their hypotheses. But I do recommend always writing them in the same format. This makes it easier for students to focus on the science, not the writing.)

3a. Define procedure: steps to perform the experiment
3b. Grab two objects (not a single piece of paper) and drop them from the same height, then record the results.

4a. Define test: Doing the experiment
4b. Perform the procedure

5a. And so on…

The most challenging part here is step 4b. This is where the lesson is most likely to crash and burn. The way you can avoid this is with the third key, structure and routine. I will write about this more in a future post, but in brief here is my advice.

Have students perform step 4b in unison by following your direction.
Ex: “Ok, grab the two objects you decided to test. Everybody ready? Ok, good. Now hold them up, make sure they are the same height. Now, when I say go, drop them. Ready? 3, 2, 1 Go!”

The Second Key: Content Knowledge
The Third Key: Structure and Routine

Worldviews and Teachers

Just like we all have a worldview, as teachers, we all have a philosophy of education; it is unavoidable. So, my thoughts are, if having one is a logical necessity, we might as well try to have one that is well thought out, meaning that it is grounded in our worldview, research, and practice. 


No one’s philosophy of education is fundamental, for our beliefs about education flow out of our beliefs about values. Our beliefs about values flow from beliefs or lack of beliefs in higher powers or purposes and then from our cultural context. These beliefs form the foundation of our worldview.

Merriam-Webster defines worldview as, “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world, especially from a specific standpoint.”

Worldview Shapes Your Approach To Education

Many books have been written about how worldview affects education. If you are curious, just Google a worldview + philosophy of education. The traditional approaches to education can be classified as Idealist, Realist, Pragmatic, Existentialist, and Scholastic. For a more modern twist on how worldview shapes education, just take a glance at how many educators are advocating for other teachers to read and teach the principles taught in anti-racism or climate change books. The view that one should be an anti-racist or a “______” educator stems from something more foundational than one’s philosophy of education. These moral positions do not originate with your teaching philosophy, ultimately, they stem from your worldview. 

Worldview Shapes Your Pedagogy

Worldview does more than affect how you deal with cultural issues. It also plays a significant role in your teaching pedagogy. What does good classroom management look like? Is the ideal teacher more of a sage on the stage, a guide on the side, a bit of both? Is knowledge foundational, or are skills? What knowledge, what skills should be taught?

*Note: Your worldview and philosophy of education should be capable of explaining the “why.” If it cannot explain the why, why believe it?

Worldview Shapes Your Values

The reason worldview shapes your approach to education and pedagogy is that worldview shapes your values. That worldview affects values should be obvious to you, but what is often less obvious is that many seemingly neutral things are value laden. Knowledge can appear to be neutral, but knowing is moral. For a clear example, look at reading. Hopefully we all agree that it would be immoral to withhold the knowledge of how to read. The content and skills you choose to teach are not neutral because when we include something, we are by default excluding other things because of time limitations. These are value based and therefore moral decisions. We value what we include more than what we exclude.

Teaching Is Rooted In Morality

When we make these choices, we are making a decision based on our values, so it is a decision rooted in our morality.

The reason people are so passionate about politics is that politics are moral and have real effects. Education is the same. We must make decisions based on our morality and those decisions have real effects. Because of this, there is something about teaching that has intrinsic moral value. This is why debates within education can get so heated, just like political debates. Teachers are not simply disagreeing on methods. Teachers have moral disagreements on what qualifies as good. Even if the stated goals (critical thinkers, life-long learners, etc) are the same, the methods are incompatibly different. 

To have a well developed philosophy of education requires a thought out worldview. This implies having a thought out morality, knowing what you believe is good and why. So, before you work on your philosophy of education, you need to answer this question. Where is your morality rooted?

Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourse

Reading in Science Class

I have experimented with incorporating more reading into my 5th and 6th grade science classes. This started with a desire to have my students see how the science we were learning was connected to their everyday lives. So, I would find popular science articles for them to read and take notes on.

Class 1: The Trainwreck

However, during this first lesson, I found out that I cannot just give them an article, even when I have already taught the vocabulary and background knowledge. I did not realize that notetaking was such a complicated skill and as a direct result of my ignorance, this lesson failed. So, after trying to salvage the trainwreck of a lesson I went back to the drawing board. 

Class 2: Prepping for Reading

My new, more thought out approach was to print out a shorter article and go over how to read and take notes on it in a very teacher led fashion. I started by teaching a simplified MLA citation. I explained that you can normally find the author at the top or bottom of an article. Then we looked at the article and students raised their hands when they found the author. The students followed my lead as I wrote the author’s last name and first name on the board. We quickly wrote the title of the article. Finally, I showed them how to identify the website name. Annotation 2020-06-30 140658

With that we were finally ready to start our notes. Just kidding. I still needed to teach them how to take notes from a longer text first, because this is where it really fell apart in the first lesson. I had wrongly assumed that since we take notes each day, my students would know how to create their own. This assumption was far from reality. 

My approach to this involved pulling up some of my own powerpoints and having students open their books to the corresponding page in their textbooks. I asked whether they would prefer to write the paragraph in the book or the phrase on my powerpoint. Then we talked about how to summarize and take notes from a longer piece of writing, and I gave them two simple rules.

  1. No sentences allowed
  2. Do not just write down a word, you must explain it

After going over this and practicing a bit in our textbooks with familiar material, the class was over.

Class 3: Moderate Success

As the next class began, we reviewed the two notetaking rules from the previous class and I gave my students a warm up where they took notes on a paragraph. We reviewed what they wrote and then I passed out the article from last class. We were finally ready to take notes. As students were looking over the article, I drew attention to some text features (headings, links, underlined/highlighted words) and mentioned that they were very similar to the text features in their textbooks. 

I read the first two paragraphs out loud and we had a class discussion about what to write down. I wrote on the board and my students wrote on their summary sheet. After this, I allowed my students to work in pairs. The quality of this first, reading and notetaking activity was disappointingly low.

I still had about half of my students focusing on minor details or on only the interesting parts of the article, neglecting the important parts. Others continued to copy complete sentences from the article because paraphrasing is much more difficult than simply copying what you read. But I still consider this lesson a success because it was the first time my students have had to do anything like this, in any subject. I should expect it to be a bit rough in the beginning.

Feedback and Progress

I decided that this was worth trying again because I want my students to read challenging content in my subject area (Their textbooks are not so challenging). So, I gave feedback and a few weeks later, we tried it again. This time the results were much better. Students were generally following the instructions (no sentences, and giving explanations) and while some were still getting lost in the weeds, I was happy with their overall progress.

I noticed that many of my students needed more guidance on formatting their notes, just telling them to copy my format was not enough instruction. This led to another mini-lesson where I taught how to use bullet points and indentations in their notes, and to link each section of notes with a heading in the article. (This is a work in progress.)

As time went on, my students were able to complete their notes faster and with greater depth. This encouraged me to continue with it. I ended up making a Google Site in order to give my students a limited range of choice and to save paper. Ultimately, we read and summarize an average of two articles per chapter.

My Own Reflection

In science I am fairly skilled at breaking down concepts or skills into bite-sized chunks. Unfortunately this did not really transfer over when I tried to teach reading and notetaking skills because I overlooked how complicated they were. I am a science teacher and I was simply viewing the skills as a vehicle for learning my content.

Once I took the time to properly break down the skills and pre-teach each step, my students were able to find success. But, my pre-teaching in this area tends to be a bit rough as I am still learning how to teach the more technical parts of notetaking while balancing the need to cover material. Teaching is tricky stuff, but I’ll get there.