Prevailing Winds in Education: How the SBAC Sets Us Back

I have been planning my spring unit in STREAM. Barring any monumental surprises, we will wrap up windmill designing and start our GPS unit.

I have a nice segue in mind. Provided IMG_0770with handheld anemometers and GPS devices, students will create a wind map of our campus. We’ll run latitude and longitude lines across a map of the school grounds and plot wind vectors on the grid. We’ll test under a  variety of conditions, analyze our findings, and decide where, if we were to put our three-foot inventions on the property, they would be most effective.

A student is waiting for his GPS to locate satellites.

A student is waiting for his GPS to locate satellites.

Now for the logistics. If students work in teams of five, we’ll have enough anemometers and only a few will have to share GPS units. We’re not going to walk the grounds as one big clump of humanity, so I’ll need three or four volunteer adults for the middle school classes. We’ll be able to collect data for the whole campus in a single block; groups will “own” the section they cover; and I’ll be able to hold them accountable. We’ll also need computers to upload our data in a 21st Century manner. We’ll use the Internet to see how our valley campus wind readings compare to the wind on the hilltops around us, the wind on the ridge that runs through the county, and the wind in larger world. Computers will be key as we progress in our GPS unit, and therein lies the problem.

This spring, when all teachers would be sharing the computers for meaningful projects that would represent the culmination of a year’s learning, we will be headed off at the pass by the SBAC. This new standardized test will appropriate all of our school computer resources so that every 8th and 11th grader can be subjected to more than eight hours of interrogation. For about two weeks, there will be a mad scramble for the few computers the SBAC hasn’t commandeered.

There is so much wrong with the SBAC it should be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, the name itself rolls out a red carpet. I ask you: if you were given the entire alphabet to create an acronym that tens—maybe hundreds—of millions of people were going to use on a regular basis, would you be able to come up with something better? Probably.

The very name of SBAC makes it a bitter pill to swallow. Imagine an organization contracted to come up with a new test to replace one that (almost) everyone despises. They take on this task in an era when forward thinking educators receive standing ovations as they call for innovation, quality teamwork, and strength-based education to carry greater significance in our schools. But after millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours, the group comes out with a product that is referred to as SBAC, pronounced “Essback.” Are these the folks that are going to usher education to meet the needs of the people in the new economy, with these calls for creativity and innovation? Was creativity modeled or engaged when they came up with the word Essback? God help us.


Our learning intention for the GPS unit. Standardized testing is all about data collection and analysis, and I get that, and understand its utility. But there are more creative ways to assess our students’ knowledge.

But there’s more. This acrid acronym stands for this: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (Maybe it was the best they could do, though I suspect if it was their best, it would have stood for Smartest Balanced Assessment Consortium.) The use of the comparative adjective “smarter” serves as a constant reminder of what came before. And the test that came before was deemed, by and large, to stink. So it is named SBAC, and each time we say it, we can remember that is a smarter than its predecessor, which stunk. Great: we can feel good about the SBAC as long as we’re looking backward. The S might as well have stood for Shortsighted. It feels SBACwards, not future-oriented. Hopefully it won’t be long before the people we voted into power realize this.

For now, I have this spring to figure out. There’s nothing wrong, really, with recording our DSC_0384field data the old-fashioned way, on paper, with pencil. It might even be good to help the students improve penmanship. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the wind will soon be blowing in a more promising direction.

Teams for Middle School STEM projects

In STREAM, students group in teams of three to four to solve problems. Often, especially at the beginning of a new term, I let these teams be self-selecting.

Here are the roles that team members may fill (often taking two or more):

  • Builder: The kid(s) who are going to put the project together. Often, other team mates may be called in to help.
  • Blogger: The chroniclers, journalists, editors. These kids tell the story of how the
    The team blogger, taking pictures of table testing.

    The team blogger, taking pictures of table testing.

    team solved the project. They are not to just give step-by-step directions. They are to tell of the hurdles encountered, and the solutions that the team thought up. These kids photograph the work as it progresses, and create a blog, Power point, or Keynote presentation for the project.

  • Skeptic / QA: The kid(s) who double-check that directions are followed and goals are being met. They are the kids with rulers, levels, squares, and so on.
  • Researcher: The kid(s) who look for ideas on the internet or through other resources such as the media center.
  • Machinist: The kids who like to work with power tools, hand tools, and can follow specifications. They generally aren’t bothered by noise, can cut a straight line, and have good fine motor skills.
  • Requisition: These are the kids who are resourceful. Our budget is not huge. These kids dumpster dive (we discuss safety & respect for property & privacy!). These kids go to other teachers with lists of needs. They know where the maintenance office is.

The prompt: We’ve talked about STREAM and how we’ll approach projects as teams. What are your strengths as a worker? What do you think you will bring to the table?

The first day of class, I explain the concept behind teams, using Apple Computers early years as an example. Pared down, Jobs was great at coming up with ideas for gadgets and caring about how they looked. Wozniak was a great engineer. They needed an adult to make them feel more official. Both Steves had a tendency to be socially precarious, so they needed a good schmoozer to help them get money to fund, etc. etc. I’m amazed at how many kids know a lot of the story, and want to discuss the finer points, but it’s important to keep the concepts to teams.

On that first day, I ask kids what they feel DSC_0751they bring to the table. This becomes a journal entry. I have a dream that some day, a kid who doesn’t like to work with tools will say “I need to work with someone who likes tools.” It hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure if it is because they see no connection between the strengths journal entry and the establishment of teams, or if it is just because this is middle school, and it’s simply more important to be with your friends.

It is always interesting to see the criteria by which students band together. It may be based on gender, maturity, socio-economics, or shared interests, like sports. Socio-economics usually trumps all, at least at the outset. Over the course of a term, though, teams morph: sometimes because I assign it; other times because students realize they need an expertise that they don’t have, and can’t do without. When a team change comes about as a result of the team recognizing a need, I count that as a great success.

I make a strong connection between the ability to focus and be productive, and future success in the workforce.

DSC_0755The habits and qualities of productivity, care, planning, respect, and so on, are not attached to a job or a project, they are attached to the person who has them. And so, if team members aren’t getting along, I sometimes refuse them a change.

The journal prompt: "There is a relationship between how you contribute to your team and how you will contribute to a job in the future. What habits do you think will carry over into your adulthood?

The journal prompt: “There is a relationship between how you contribute to your team and how you will contribute to a job in the future. What habits do you think will carry over into your adulthood?

Learning to work together is key. Such discussions about this are part of the STREAM DSC_0757class, and are often the subject of journal prompts. I think they have a strong effect, and I often sense relief when I make a team change. I think this is because at the middle school age, it is hard to branch off without implying friend-disloyalty.