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Can We Test Better?

Editor Fawn Johnson, at the National Journal.com Education Insiders blog has given us another set of great questions to debate this week, and as usual,  I want to share the questions and my response with the readers of TeachMoore.

The topic is the debate around testing that will accompany the Common Core Standards in states across the country. Johnson’s specific questions included:

1) Will we ever be able to test how our kids are doing?  2) How can tests be crafted such that are more like Advanced Placement exams rather than fill-in-the-bubble tests?  3) Should parents have the right to yank their kids from these tests?

I’ll start with the last question first.  Absolutely yes, parents should always have the right to refuse to subject their children to standardized testing. That decision may, of course, carry certain consequences, but if enough parents holdout, it will force policymakers to consider better options for how we determine what our students know and can do.

Which brings me to questions 1 and 2.  Is there a “best” way to test every student in every school across the nation? Are more AP-like tests a better way to go?

I’m going to give relatively short answers to these very complex issues, not because I don’t think they are worthy of addressing more fully, but because I’m in the middle of doing some real assessment of student learning.  I’ve got close to 100 student essays to finish grading, by tomorrow.  This essay assignment is just one of several writing tasks my students will do this semester. Others include: producing a collaborative writing project with online partners; writing and posting public editorials and blogs; and developing grant proposals, letters to college administrators, and other writings for “real” audiences.  No student in my class will touch a Scantron sheet or take a multiple choice exam as part of my evaluation of their skills in this course.  Furthermore, after following several groups of freshman through the writing program at our community college,  my colleagues and I found that scores on the English section of the ACT College Entrance Test are poor predictors of students’ actual  readiness for college-level writing.

However, as I’ve stated before, I’m not totally opposed to the use of standardized testing in education.

What I do favor is putting testing back into its proper place. Timely, appropriate, comprehensive evaluation of student learning is an essential responsibility of a fully trained, accomplished  classroom teacher or a team of such teachers. The ability to use standardized test results as one part of a much larger picture of student performance, measured primarily at the classroom level, over [an extended period of]time,  and through a variety of formats is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher. That aspect of our work has been distorted, and in some places, completely removed from teachers' jurisdiction. I'm arguing for not just a restoration, but an elevation of teacher effectiveness and professionalism in the area of assessment. To accomplish this, we may have to place a moratorium on the current testing frenzy in order to assess better and more deeply.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has long established that the ability to assess student learning is one of the critical skills teachers must demonstrate in order to qualify for National Board Certification.

Advanced Placement tests are often held up as examples of “better” tests we could use in education.  Pay close attention, however, to a recent interview at CNN Schools of Thought blog with Kevin McDonald, a high school AP English teacher, about his experiences as a scorer of the essay portion of the AP exam.  What I found most significant about that interview was that evaluating the quality of student writing (an actual performance by students of using their learning) still requires the expertise of teachers, in this case, teachers who have been specially trained and given dedicated time and space for the purpose of evaluating student performance.

Well, how much better off would our children and our educational system be if we re-designed our schools and the teaching profession itself so that every classroom teacher could assess students in this way?  It would certainly be more economical than the massive testing structures we are currently building, and it is possible to do and sustain on a national scale.  For proof of that, look at the high-performing education system of Finland, as the authors of the Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave did:

…Finnish teachers are instrumental in creating evidence of their effectiveness, drawing on assessments that they develop (but that are all tied to the national curriculum)….Finland does not use any standardized test of students for teacher accountability…instead of focusing on measuring teachers on the basis of student test scores, the Finns invest in preparing classroom experts who are [well] trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. (168-170).

The authors go into greater detail about how the Finnish invested in a systematic strategy to prepare and support teachers so they are able to teach effectively, and that includes the ability to develop  and analyze a variety of assessments for their students. Ironically, much of what Finland has done, it learned from the educational research of the United States that we have lacked the political will and common sense to implement.

Can we test better? Should we?

Cross-posted at National Journal.com Education Insiders

3 Comments

Kris Giere commented on September 27, 2013 at 10:13pm:

Testing vs. Assessment

Renee, thank you for sharing your insights as always.  The topic of testing is a tough one.  One of the thoughts that I couldn't help but think about while reading is the two concepts of testing and assessment.  To many people, testing is assessment, and assessment is testing.  I know that they can be.  In our country right now though, are they one in the same?

Renee Moore Renee Moore commented on September 27, 2013 at 11:09pm:

Clarification of Terms

Technically, testing is one form of assessment. Right now, the term testing has serious and negative social connotations; and the practice of testing has been co-opted by forces outside the classroom. Assessment is a term that may resonate with educators, but tends to confuse the general public who think it is edubabble. In a recent piece in National Review, Diane Ravitch makes a strong point that we [teachers] should reclaim tests--the practice and the word--and put it back in its proper place in the classrooms, developed and analyzed by teachers to guide our work with students.

Kris Giere commented on September 27, 2013 at 11:32pm:

Indeed

I agree wholeheartedly.  Testing has a terrible connotation among my students, their family and friends, many of my family and friends, and the media.  I work daily to help my students overcome the preconceived notions of testing.  And yes, assessment is often perceived as jargon.  I like the idea of taking back testing in both ways you mention.  How we get there will take a movement, a movement takes leaders, but it can be done.  I appreciate your take on this and other topics you blog about.  Thanks again.

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