Our Top Priority

As the seasons shift from winter to spring, many of us are headed into “testing season” in our schools. Several states are implementing new assessments this year, and these changes have resulted in teachers feeling increased stress and pressure. What should teachers focus on right now? 

For the past four weeks, my school district has been involved in a series of tests. Students from third grade up have been involved in everything from my state’s AIR assessments in science and social studies to the PARCC assessments in ELA and math to our state’s graduation test. I’ve heard much about test anxiety, technology challenges, and frequently, “What we need to do next year?” Already, teachers are thinking about what to do in preparation for next year’s tests.

Teachers don’t object to tests as one educational tool. We use all kinds of tasks to assess what our students know and what they need to learn. Standardized tests can be a useful part of the tools we use. For decades they were simply one more tool, one checkpoint in the educational toolbox that helped teachers identify student strengths and needs, and that’s all they should be. Testing isn’t going to “cure” what’s wrong in education. The weight placed on standardized tests today is the challenge. In many places, the standardized tests have become the one and only priority, dictating far more than they should in education, even taking the individual teacher’s classroom decisions out of his or her hands.

Standardized testing isn’t the magical solution to all the issues and problems in education.

A group of us at my school are working through a book study of The Best Teacher in Me, and one element seems consistent across all the different teachers featured in the book: these teachers didn’t teach to the test. They taught students. And in doing so, their testing scores have consistently been high. In fact, the book refers to them as HETs: highly-effective teachers. Each teacher profiled, from primary grades to high school, reflects on different aspects of his or her practice. In every case, the teacher has focused on the students, their needs, and helping them learn and move forward. They care about their students deeply, beyond their performances in the classroom. They care about their students as people. Simply put, they continually strive to improve their teaching and show their students that they care, and that students matter.

That’s it. The one thing we need to do. We need to teach students. It’s great to know the standards, and be familiar with the kinds of tasks and expectations of the assessments. But ultimately, what matters is teaching students. And we shouldn’t do it because some book somewhere said that’s the way to get good evaluation scores. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, the reason we got into teaching in the first place.

I get the pressures. Really, I do. With the formula my state has created for teacher evaluations, I am in the group of teachers stuck between a rock and a hard place. Those of us who teach the “diverse” populations (special education, gifted, ELL) have smaller numbers, which creates a statistical challenge for us to do well with the value-add portion of the evaluation. I think many of us with these smaller, more specific and specialized populations find ourselves looking at our value-add reports every fall and sighing, “Maybe someday, I’ll be average . . .” General education teachers feel the pressure, too. Although statistically it’s easier to get higher value-add scores with higher numbers of students, that’s not the only factor. Students still need to do well on the assessments. The pressures are intense, and it’s tempting to cave to the test-prep pressure.

But at what cost to my students?

Yeah, we can wail and moan about the tests. We can be fans of the new tests or not. We can hope the tests change or go away, or not. Whatever happens with testing, and whatever our state legislators ultimately decide to do with testing and teacher evaluations, the reality doesn’t change.

We still teach students.

How do we change this atmosphere, this drive for data-data-data? We need to talk about what works, and what doesn’t. If we don’t have to follow a lock-step test preparation plan mandated by our districts, we need to take a deep breath and step back from that approach, even if our own fears and worries about how student performance could impact our evaluations are nagging at us to return to that security blanket of test prep. If we are still required to follow a test prep plan, we need to talk to those who are making those decisions. We need to find districts and classes similar to ours who are doing it differently, and find out what seems to be working there. We need to support each other, too, as we continue our work.

Our top priority, at the end of the day, should be what it was at the beginning: our students.

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  • Tricia Whenham

    Good points!

    I remember when I was a student. We only took standardized tests every few years or so. They weren't used to decide our futures or our teacher's career paths, and the results weren't publicized. It seems like the powers that be understood that tests are just one measure, pretty much useless when looking at small sample sizes. What a difference to how things are now!

    The Best Teacher in Me sounds like a good read – thanks for sharing.