So which is it: “Tests are evil and the people who defend them are trying to hurt children and schools,” or “Tests are the only reliable information we have about student performance because you can’t trust anything else coming from schools”?
Once the extreme views and character assassinations are left at the door, hopefully there will be a genuine desire to get to the big question: What data do we need to improve teaching, leadership, and learning?
This year’s backlash over testing was well deserved. In too many schools there are too many standardized tests. We should not be surprised that test-based accountability and teacher evaluation systems built around standardized tests caused schools to increase testing. This past year we had Ohio Achievement Tests, Ohio Graduation Tests, the Iowa Assessments, Measures of Academic Performance (MAP), Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) end of quarter benchmark tests; end of course tests, college entrance tests, and all sorts of practice for the test tests.
How is all this testing impacting student achievement? Not much. High school seniors’ performance in mathematics and reading has stagnated since 2009, according to a new round of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The most recent achievement data from NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card,” shows that 12th graders’ average math score remained at 153, on a 300-point scale, when comparing the 2013 results with those from 2009. Just 26 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level in math—again the same as four years ago (Heitin, 2014).
In reading, the national average stayed flat at 288, on a 500-point scale, with 37 percent of students scoring at or above proficient, according to the new NAEP report. Scores in math and reading remain unchanged compared with four years ago and the national average for reading decreased by four points since the test’s first administration in 1992. In math, scores have increased by three points since 2005.
When viewed by gender and race/ethnicity, both the math and reading scores have also remained unchanged since 2009, indicating that achievement gaps have persisted. The black-white gap continues to be the largest one, with black students scoring about 30 points below their white peers on both tests in 2013. Further, the score gap in reading between black and white students has increased by five points since 1992.
These results suggest it is hard to teach reading and math when all your time is spent testing reading and math. But I am not going to demand that standardized tests be expelled from schools. As public institutions under contract with their communities to help students learn, schools should be required to present evidence that they are doing their job. Standardized tests can provide part of that evidence, so we should use them. And there are other things these tests do very well. Standardized tests help teachers, administrators, and board members answer the questions at the end of the quarter or year: “Did the students master the skills taught?” “Did our students master as many skills as students across the state or across the country?”
These tests allow students’ progress to be tracked over the years. For example, if a student scores in the 75th percentile in the sixth grade and the 86th percentile in the seventh grade, you can see that the child is gaining ground relative to grade-level peers. Big tests, like the Ohio Achievement Test or the Ohio Graduation Test, are also used by administrators to evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum, textbook, and teachers.
Data-Driven or Data-Dizzy?
I like standardized tests! I do not like anyone who buys or tries to sell the notion that these tests provide sufficient information to improve instruction and increase student learning. Standardized tests are important, but they do not represent the full power of assessment and we need to stop our tunnel-vision investment in them.
Standardized tests allow us to look backwards and help us determine whether or not learning occurred, but the information is typically too much, too late, and too vague to inform a teacher’s day-to-day instruction. Teachers end up data-dizzy rather than data-driven. They will say: “What am I supposed to do? How should I change to make sure my students succeed? This test data tells me my students from last year scored low in math, but it doesn’t give me anything specific to help me decide what and how to teach this group of students. The test reports showed that my students had trouble with fractions, but what specific skills are they missing? That is what I need to know. And all the work our district does with test binders, action plans, and data walls seems to be more public relations than practical application.”
Balanced Assessment: Classroom Tests
Think of standardized tests as “the test at the end” and “exit tickets.” What if we shifted our assessment attention to “the tests at the beginning” and “entry tickets.” What if in addition to standardized tests telling us what students don’t know, we had tests telling us why they don’t know it and what to do about it? What if we had a balanced assessment system, with standardized tests proving learning and smaller classroom assessments improving learning?
The instructional decisions that have the greatest impact on student achievement are made by teachers; not once a year when standardized test results roll in, but every few days. Well-designed classroom assessments could be an integral part of the assessment process. When incorporated into classroom practice, they could provide specific, personalized, and timely information about student misconceptions, student interests, and teacher misassumptions around specific skills.
The most effective classroom assessments measure students’ skills and interests before instruction begins. They help teachers design effective lessons by providing data regarding:
- What students already know
- What students don’t know
- What students want to know
Classroom assessments should not be painful to build, take, or score. They have only a handful of items and take about fifteen minutes to administer. Their purpose is to gather information about a student’s readiness to learn the skills/standards that are scheduled to be taught in next week’s lesson. Teachers use the information to determine grouping of students and to determine whether some students require teaching of prerequisite skills or need additional degrees of challenge. For example, a student who demonstrates mastery of the geometry skill about to be taught can have the opportunity to engage in an enrichment activity while the other students learn the grade-level geometry skill. Students scoring lower on the assessment would be provided skill-building activities to reach the necessary readiness level.
True Collaboration and Accountability
One of the most important benefits of small classroom assessments is that they pave the way for true teacher collaboration, as opposed to collaboration lite. The analysis of these tests can give teacher meetings a sense of urgency and a data-driven focus. Once-in-a-while standardized tests might provide anxiety and angst, but that quickly fades as the school year progresses. Districts can transform the culture of their collaborative meetings by focusing their efforts on timely, specific classroom tests and plans to address those results.
In this era of questioning the value and effectiveness of schools, it is also critical that we be able to show that students are learning in our classrooms. In order to truly establish what value you have added to your students, classroom assessments could be given to determine the starting point for students. Then, after the lesson, a classroom assessment could be given to determine what students actually learned. The difference between the two scores is the “value” that has been added by teachers.
We have the ability to blend standardized assessments and classroom assessments into a balanced system. Our standardized assessments are already in place. But the state of classroom assessment is weak. If we shift our focus to the design and implementation of effective classroom assessments we will reclaim the central role of testing—to improve learning.
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of the OSBA Journal. Copyright 2014 Ohio School Boards Association. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. White’s new book, Tap Dancing to Work: How a Small Group of Teachers Can Conquer the Common Core is now available on Amazon. Subscribe to his bi-monthly newsletter by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References: Heitin, L. (2014). No Change in 12th Grade Performance on NAEP Math, Reading, Education Week, May 7, 2014