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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  • ReneeMoore

    How to get there from here?


     As you rightly point out, rightly designed/rightly used assessments are valuable to our work as classroom teachers.Your experiences with assessment and your observations, seem to fit into a dialogue I see developing across the Collaboratory and the field about assessments and their uses.

    On his guest post at my blog, Scott Diamond reminds us how test data can and is being misused by trying to use results of large scale standardized tests designed to give big picture information about curriculum patterns to make determinations about individual student or teacher performance. I raised similar questions in an earlier piece and also reminded us about those ever-pesky equity issues. Our colleague, Noah Zeichner asked in an EdWeek Teaching Ahead piece, contrasted use of student testing in the U.S. to that in other countries and asked, “Can we overcome our testing addiction?”

    Would it matter if more of these large scale assessments were at least co-designed by teachers, as Ariel Sacks and others (including me) have suggested? After all, the ability to design and use assessments is a critical part of every professional teacher’s work.

    I’ve heard mixed reports, but mostly positive, about use of edTPA to determine candidates readiness to teach. However, its designers are learning what we at NBPTS have found out the hard way–doing truly authentic, performanced-based assessments on a large scale is a tremendously daunting, complex, and expensive proposition. Are we as a profession and a nation ready to make the type of political and fiscal committment it would take to make such assessments reality for teachers and students?

  • marsharatzel

    You’re in good company!

    It’s an older article. A blast from the 2006 past.

     It’s from Grant Wiggins, Healthier Testing Made Easy.  Check it out.

  • JohnHolland


    Marsha thanks for the link.

    Here is one my wife shared with me today. It just me makes me think we are on the right path.

    Renee you are right about organizing. I am having some visual thoughts bubble up. Maybe I can share them soon.


  • KipHottman

    Could these tests be teacher led

    Renee brings up a great question when she asks if we are ready to make performance assessments a reality.  The more that I read about the opinion of testing, it seems like many teachers are in favor of students “showing what they know”.  John makes a great point when he writes that better tests lead to better teaching.

    A family member of mine was a principal throught the 1980’s and 1990’s, and she recently told me that one year her students participated in a performance-based test for the state testing and the results were amazing.  It only lasted one year due to the budget, and the school immediately returned to the typical standardized testing.

    If this type of testing is so expensive, but many educators agree that it would be more beneficial for the students, I wonder if teachers could create and administer their own performance-based assessments.  Could the TLM bring teacher voice to the national level to create the necessary policy that would allow student testing to be teacher led and not a top down policy?