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Very Creative Writing, Lost in Translation, and Podcasting Kids to Sleep

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, March 16-March 22.

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When was the last time you heard teachers—English teachers, no less—criticize a standardized test for allowing kids to be too creative? That's the situation in Washington state, where education officials have announced that students can make stuff up on the nonfiction essay portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. "Statistics in a WASL paper can be made up by you, the writer!" proclaims a PowerPoint presentation for students created by the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The young scribblers are also encouraged to "invent an important expert and have that person say something to bolster your opinion." Such creative license may help students develop their arguments, but some teachers are dismayed by the message it sends. "It's just a slippery slope," said language arts teacher Kit McCormick. "I don't even see why we need to go there—to say, just for this, go ahead and do something we've told you is wrong."

An educator in Colorado thinks there's something wrong with the way English-language learners are tested in his state. Sam Esmiol, a Spanish teacher at Aspen Middle School, was suspended without pay for refusing to act as a translator during a recent round of standardized testing. The first-year teacher is opposed to Colorado's policy of giving tests to foreign-language students through oral translations. He believes they depend too heavily upon the translator's skills (or lack thereof) and thus put ELL students at a disadvantage. State officials contend that the tests, translated or not, are an essential diagnostic tool—even while acknowledging that the translations are not subject to extensive quality control. "We do not have specifically stated guidelines [for translators]," said Beth Celva, director of the state's assessment unit. "We have no way of knowing who would be translating or not translating. Translating is a skill."

The Bush administration, hoping to help schools hone their substance-abuse-detection skills, is looking to step up random drug-testing of students who participate in extracurricular activities. Bolstered by a 2002 Supreme Court decision that legalized such tests, the White House wants to provide $15 million in grants for school drug-testing programs next year. Administration officials contend that the tests give peer-pressured kids one more reason to just say no. But others fear the emphasis on detection may detract from education and undermine students' trust. "It just seems to be very intrusive," said a parent in Roanoke County, Virginia, which rejected a mandatory drug-testing program in 2004. "Just because they say you can do something doesn't mean it's good policy."

Questions about policy are also swirling in the racially mixed Evanston-Skokie school district outside of Chicago, where school board members have voted in favor of implementing an African-centered curriculum in an elementary school where roughly half the students are black. Supporters of the alternative curriculum, which was originally planned for two schools, maintain it will help raise the self-esteem and performance of black students by emphasizing the intellectual contributions of Africans and African Americans. But others worry that the plan will essentially impose segregation on the students. "It will likely result in single-race classrooms in a city that has a long history of integration," one school board member said before the vote.

An 8th grade teacher in Missouri is at the forefront of a trend to take curriculum—or at least bits and pieces thereof—outside the classroom entirely. Eric Langhorst, who teaches American history in Liberty, Missouri, is among a small but growing number of teachers who create podcasts to supplement their classroom lessons. Langhorst's students, for example, can download review lessons and interviews with civic leaders from his Web site. "I listen to [his podcast] before I go to sleep," said one appreciative student. "I think it makes social studies easier than my other classes." Experts in educational technology suggest that using podcasts should be de rigeur for teachers. "You can create audio files, have collaborative texts with videos, and share work with a large audience," said Will Richardson, author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. "At some point," he added, "I think we're going to have to wake up and think about the implications for schools." Langhorst notes, however, that technology can't replace face-to-face interaction.

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