Better Tests Lead to Better Teaching for Students and their Teachers

Since I first stepped foot in the classroom, I have experienced and thought about the role assessment and accountability plays in what teachers actually do with students.

Since I first stepped foot in the classroom, I have experienced and thought about the role assessment and accountability plays in what teachers actually do with students.

When I entered the classroom in 1997, I found that my primary form of accountability was the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS). It is an assessment designed to assist teachers in making instructional decisions about literacy interventions for children in Pre-K through 3rd grade. I participated in a survey on the PALS and realized that what my supervisors and the test wanted was for me to teach to the test. I decided that the test was reasonable and in the long run would help my students be successful as they learned how to read. I got very good at teaching to this test. My students made up songs, danced, learned their letters through rapping, and acted out letter forms with their bodies.

Fast forward to 2009 when I left the classroom just as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) was being implemented by Head Start as measure of classroom quality. This assessment shifted the focus from emergent literacy to teacher-child interactions. The CLASS was developed by the same research group that develop the PALS at University of Virginia. While we still had the PALS as an accountability measure for our local school system Head Start was putting its money on the CLASS and using it as a high stakes tool to force re-competition for Head Start grants among its programs.

Another shift has taken place. The focus of the CLASS is on language development not just phonological awareness. As a child development specialist I began to coach my teachers using digital video to increase feedback loops, raise vocabulary development, and design lessons that build concept understanding in students. This shift has made me a better teacher. I am better able to teach to the whole child and build student knowledge and understanding that will erase the fadeout effect in Head Start students.

This experience taught me to view assessment as the most powerful leverage tool in education for creating reform at the classroom level. Teachers teach to the test. As a public servant it is a mandate that we effectively teach and that effectiveness is decided not by us, or our students, or our parents, but by our tests. However, beyond early childhood education, the tests teachers are accountable to are not true representations of student learning.

Bad tests lead to bad teaching. When the test is multiple choice teachers begin to push memorization and regurgitated responses instead of analysis and synthesis.

But, what if the tests were actually based on helping students demonstrate what they know and are able to do? What if performance assessments that demanded students think, create, collaborate, research, problem-solve, and understand? What would happen to teacher practice then? I can tell you.

Better tests lead to better teaching.

Now, think about the role of assessment in how teachers enter the field. What are teachers accountable for? When I graduated it was four 20 minute observations of my teaching by an advisor who hadn’t taught in twenty years and a passing score on the Praxis. It was not enough. But what if the gateway was an assessment of a two week unit in which I video taped lessons, analyzed my practice, and used assessment to inform instructional decisions that was evaluated by NBCTs and professors of eduction like the edTPA? What kind of teacher would I have been in 1997? I can tell you. A better one.

Image: Student measuring my big head.

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