Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

July, 2009

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    On The Value Of Testing


    One of my former students contacted me via LinkedIn last night. Hearing from former students is one of the great joys in my life. I guess the first part of that is ego – I am thrilled to death that years after leaving high school they even remember me. Then to have them want to make some sort of contact and tell me what they are doing just feels great. Looking at this student’s resume I was struck by his success. Oh sure he was obviously a bright student but clearly he’s developed and grown since high school. He wasn’t the greatest test taker in the world though. In fact many of my best and brightest students were not great test takers.

    Well perhaps that is too general a statement. It depends on the nature of the test. For example when I look back on the students I have stayed in touch with (ok admittedly this is not a scientific sample/study) I see a lot of great success in the computer science field on the part of students who did not even pass the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam. The students who did get 4s and 5s on the exam have also done well. So what does the APCS exam tell me about my students future success? Nothing.

    I gave tests and quizzes and projects to all my students. My philosophy though was that the purposes of the tests and quizzes was to gauge how much of what I was teaching the students were learning. How well were we (the students and I) working together to get them the knowledge they needed. Projects were as much, no they were more, learning exercises than evaluative tools. Tests and quizzes take valuable learning time so for me they have to be directly useful. They have to be navigation instruments and help us to make course corrections to help us all reach the end goals. High stakes, standardized tests are fairly useless for this purpose unless teachers have enough detailed information about the results to change what they are doing. One does not get that from the APCS exam – or any AP exam for that matter.

    So what the AP exams do is sort of a pass/fail for those involved but it has no diagnostic value. I used to ask my students what was on the exam (in general terms since they are not allowed to share specific questions). I asked what did I cover too much or too little. The balance changed from year to year though so this was helpful but only minimally so. I don’t feel like I ever really taught the course the “right way” to make sure all the students earned their 4s and 5s. Though honestly that seemed to have bothered the guidance department more than it did my students. Those who went on to college and or careers in computer science seemed to do well. And I haven’t heard much back saying “you taught me poorly and I played catch up in college.” Now there may well be some students who feel that way but they haven’t come back and yelled at me. (Which they are certainly entitled to do if they feel that way.)

    I’ve talked to a number of teachers who would rather not teach an APCS course. They’d rather teach an advanced CS course their own way with their own priorities. I actually asked my headmaster about that when I was teaching and he told me “no” in no uncertain terms. The value of the AP exam to students is in college admissions and for a college prep high school to not offer as many AP courses as possible is pretty much a requirement.

    Now I completely buy the value of teaching a college level course to students who are ready for it. And aside from articulation agreements with local colleges the AP exam is the single most accepted way to show that one is doing that. There is value in AP curriculum in many subjects. But is the test itself useful? That’s less clear to me.

    I have many friends who have served on the AP CS test development committee over the years. I’ve met and got along well with the Chief Readers for the last 10+ years. Besides knowing many people who have helped grade the APCS exam I helped grade it myself. So I believe that the APCS exam is in many ways a great exam. It is graded as fairly and professionally as anything I have ever seen. I learned a lot from being an AP Reader (I need to teach a course like the AP course somewhere so I can get them to let me read again – it was that valuable to me.) But for the teachers who are not readers and for the teachers who worry about the multiple choice questions I’m not sure they get a lot of value from their students taking the exam. And there is that nagging problem of “teaching to the test” that gets to some of us.

    I’ll leave you with one more thought. Real life is an open book test. I strongly believe that. It is one of the great lessons I have learned in my life. Some people never do well on the “read and regurgitate” sort of test that makes up so much of standardized testing. It is just not the way their minds work. They learn well. They know how to find things out. They are willing to work hard to find a way. They’re just not test takers. On the other hand the kids who do well on standardized tests so what? If the real world is really an open book tests how do standardized closed book tests reflect how the test takers will do in real life?


    [Note: a related post by Doug Holton is at Problems with Test Prep, Related to "Disaggregating Education"? ]

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Summer Webcast Series for Interns and Recent Graduates



    July 22
    2:00-3:00pm EST


    Explore productivity and UI enhancements, easier home network file sharing with HomeGroup, new and improved security features, and 10 Great "Under the Radar" Features in Windows 7 RC.
    Gain useful tips to improve your presentation skills for the classroom and your career.



    July 29
    2:00-3:00pm EST


    Address current social network usage and integration benefits for education. Also, learn how to cultivate a student community and provide an overview of future trends in social networks.
    Have you searched for yourself? Hiring managers are. Uncover the best ways to professionalize your profile online.



    August 5
    2:00-3:00pm EST


    Ever lose your laptop and dread re-installing all your apps? Tired of install issues? Discover how you can stream applications on-demand, "install" hundreds of applications in mere seconds, and deploy them to multiple machines in a snap.
    Learn the dos and don'ts of interviewing from hiring managers recruiting in S2B.



    August 12
    2:00-3:00pm EST


    Microsoft XNA is a set of tools that allow students and hobbyists to build games for Microsoft gaming platforms. Get an overview of the XNA Framework and XNA Game Studio, and then learn how to build a game.
    Learn how to find the best mentor for your career plans and how to get the most out of the relationship.



    August 19
    2:00-3:00pm EST


    Explore Silverlight and learn how to securely and efficiently communicate with its services using Binary XML, debug services with improved Faults support, and implement server-to-client "push" using the new functionality.
    Emphasize your learnings and accomplishments to attract hiring managers.



  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Interesting Links Twittered July 20 2009



    Things are a little conversation focused lately on Twitter. It seems like a lot of the people I follow are teachers on summer break. So while there is a good bit of educational conversation going on there is also a lot of just people chatting. I think that is good though. I feel like I am getting to know people better. That doesn’t mean that useful and educational things didn’t come my way and get passed along though. Here now my picks of the week.

    Mr. Higgins has updated his list of math related links on his school webpage. If you teach math or know someone who does you will want to check that out.

    Matt MacLaurin (@mmaclaurin) announced the new Kodu blog. Speaking of Kodu:

    ACM Women's CIS Newsletter v02.01 - Celebrate, Inform & Support (PDF)

    RT @SpringboardBlog: New Blog Post: Technical Book Club: Code Complete - Selection of Major Construction Practices PM Jul 13th from TweetDeck

    The CSTA blog had an interesting post - A Computer Science Honor Society: Is it Worth the Work?? What do you think? Join the conversation on their blog.

    Are you interested in seeing what Office 2010 looks like?Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer) has posted a bunch of video demos of Office 2010.

    BTW one of the things I learned on vacation is that the Mayan calendar runs out in 2012. I think that means that Mayan Civilization may also be gone by then. :-) Seriously though maybe the Y2K problem didn’t start with the computer age. Something to think about.

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