Put testing (back) in its place

A thoughtful blog at S.M.A.R.T. Learning Community took issue with my recent piece on how testing can harm students that was picked up by Teacher Magazine.

The author, unfortunately, misconstrued my intent with the piece, so let me clarify a few points.

First, I am not arguing for the elimination of standardized testing. These types of tests are useful for measuring certain things in our schools, especially when used correctly and judiciously.

Many of these tests, however, are not effective measures of student learning. The ones my high school students took generated reports that were so generic and vague they were of very little use to the students or me in determining what they did know or needed to learn. Some standardized tests, especially those created for national marketing (despite test company claims that they have tailored their pool of questions for a specific state) still reflect test bias against various subgroups of students by ethnic, geographic, or socio-economic background. These inherent flaws make them a tool of limited value under the best of circumstances.

The schools and students most impacted by test results are usually not operating under the best of circumstances. Standardized tests can only provide some general indication of class and school performance, and very little reliable information on the perfomance of individual students and teachers.

To counter my example of a student harmed by improper use of testing, the blog author describes a student helped by her Texas school’s use of testing every six weeks to guide instruction and set goals. The point of the piece is “testing is not the problem” but rather how the testing is used. On this point we agree. There has been much misuse and abuse of students in the implementation of testing programs across the country, and not just in the urban high poverty schools upon which ed reform policy largely focuses.

Attaching the high-stakes to the testing and rushing to develop testing programs in order to meet federal grant guidelines has only contributed to such misuse.

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 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.

Recently, the Teachers Letters to Obama group sponsored an online teach-in to explore some of these questions and issues about testing with our guests Dr. Yong Zhao of Michigan State University, Monty Neill of the FairTest organization, and Doug Christensen former state school commissioner of Nebraska. Ideas from that session will be shared by teachers at our next online event a Roundtable: Assessment Done Right, Monday June 28th, 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Sign up for the free event here.

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