Testing to the Core

A quick look at two issues with standardized testing and accountability systems: Aligning the Assessments & Who is Responsible?

With the dawn of No Child Left Behind, a new wave of testing entered the realm of education. The new movement forced states to create assessments that were designed to keep schools and teachers accountable. It also brought the achievement gaps to the forefront of the national consciousness when discussing education. Teachers had to focus on “improving education for all” in a way that allowed for greater assessment and measurement. With the next presidential administration, Race to the Top moved assessments to the next level. Created to improve conditions for innovation and reform within education, assessment redesign became a key piece of the puzzle as states applied for additional national funding.

Now, teachers are left with some confusing and conflicting issues when it comes to assessments. Two issues highlight the problems with how teachers are kept accountable for the learning in their classrooms. The first concern pertains to the alignment of skills-based standards with the current method of assessments.

Alignment of Standards & Assessments

The rise of Common Core has created a shift in focus from specific course content to 21st century skill based learning. Within my discipline of social studies, this shift has been more dramatic than in other subjects. While maintaining a focus on history, students are expected to learn and implement the writing process in ways that primarily sat in English classrooms down the hall. Other changes are coming with the C3 Framework (College, Career, and Civic Life). Students will be asked to develop questions, practice proper research techniques, use critical thinking, and generate action plans that will impact the community around them. This is very different from the era before; rote memorization of dates will disappear in favor of curricula of action and skills that apply to areas outside of social studies. As the teaching methods move in this direction, the classwork will change from worksheets and chapter review questions into action tasks and research design. The recent uprising of Project Based Learning (PBL) will become the most effective way of meeting the new standards as they arrive.

Lost in the shuffle are the tests that students will take to determine what they have learned and what standards they have mastered. In order to mass manage the accountability systems, states have signed on with a variety of testing companies or organizations to create a new set of standardized assessments.

If the primary method of assessing students throughout the year is on the effective use of their skills on projects, they may exceed the level of learning required to master the standards of the class, but perform poorly on the accountability multiple choice assessment.

Critical thinking and analysis skills are best assessed through projects, but that can lead to difficult grading systems for states to complete at a mass production level. A new system will need to be created that addresses these issues before true accountability can take place. Organizations such as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have collaborated with teachers across multiple states to create better assessments but the issue of multiple choice versus project based learning, and assessment types in-between still remains.

Who is responsible?

The second major issue revolves around who should be held accountable with state assessments. The schools are held to a high level of accountability from the state and district perspective. However, as the microscope moves closer and closer to the site of testing, it becomes clear that two primary groups bear the weight of responsibility: students and teachers. As a teacher, I realize that some bias plays into this analysis; what teacher wants to feel the weight of total responsibility for the student’s learning? Yet, it is a legitimate concern for teachers, especially young teachers with little job security. In many schools, test scores are the primary indicator of teaching success. However, in those same schools here in Kentucky, the students are left without much consequence, positive or negative, from the test results. An example of this includes Kentucky End of Course exams, where high school students are given a final exam score of 64% even if the student misses every single question. This divide also appears to be very wide and in need of replacing. What should positive or negative consequences be? One could only speculate, but the need to hold students to a standard and keep them legitimately accountable for their learning will provide more incentive for effort in the classroom.

The goal for assessments should be to help gauge student learning and improve teaching practice. Teachers need to step up and assist in addressing these issues as they see them in their own community and their own classrooms. I encourage you to meet these challenges head on, and give genuine thought to the problems that the current assessment systems possess.

Photo: Renato Ganoza, Taking a Test.

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