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How Did We Get Here?

Posted by: Mary Ann Snider on 8/12/2014
You’ll find little argument that there is too much testing going on in schools.  What is less clear is how this happened.  Testing isn’t a new phenomenon.  Grandparents can recount stories of their encounters with difficult tests when they were in school.  You, I’m sure, can conjure up memories of holding your own number 2 pencil while filling in circles to answer questions on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or practicing writing your list of spelling words before the weekly test. We can agree that testing, whether informing a teacher’s grade book or letting a community know if its investment in education is yielding good results is necessary.  But why is there so much testing?

Educators have learned a lot during the past twenty years or so about student learning and assessment practices.  Research has confirmed a few notable practices. One is that student learning improves when teachers check in frequently with students about whether they understand what has just been taught and adjust their teaching accordingly.  This type of testing is often referred to as formative assessment.  A formative assessment is not really a test, but rather it is a teaching tool or a classroom activity to help teachers make sure their students understand what they believe they’ve just taught. Other times, teachers use classroom assessments to gather information to grade students. Classroom assessments, when done well, are connected to the curriculum and sometimes ask students to demonstrate that they’ve mastered basic skills (e.g., fluently know multiplication facts) and other times ask students to use all those foundational skills along with problem-solving, creativity, and persistence to engage in complicated work (e.g., design a new playground for the school, calculate costs, and write a proposal to the school committee).  Both of these assessments are aligned to standards and offer different perspectives on what students have learned.

Makes sense, right?  Teachers want to know that students have a solid grasp on foundational pieces so they can reteach the whole class, smaller groups of students, or individual students if necessary before moving to the next section of the curriculum.  These assessments make sure that students are followed closely and provided with support when they need it.  The results of these assessments lead to the second practice - differentiated instruction.  

Differentiated instruction advises teachers to meet students where they are in their learning.  Great teachers are constantly grouping and regrouping students to provide small-group instruction so that students receive a just a “just right” level of instruction.  This process can get quite complicated.  Only rarely does a whole classroom of students work at the same level all the time.  Schools use different approaches to make sure that their students are making progress. Some schools use interim assessments to gauge where students who are struggling are in their learning.  These assessments are more standardized and are administered on a regular schedule (e.g., quarterly, every six weeks) to ensure that students are moving along at a healthy pace.  Administrators sometimes use this information to understand where curriculum needs to be adjusted, where professional development is needed, and which students might need more assistance. 

Finally, there are state assessments.  These assessments are required at the federal and state levels.  Their intent, at the core, is to ensure that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal brings about real and lasting improvements in public education.  State assessments provide an important set of information to reconcile the difference between our aspirations for all children and their actual achievement.  When the difference is wide, it’s our collective responsibility to take action. In Rhode Island, we take action when schools have extraordinarily low levels of achievement over multiple years.  The state testing information doesn’t tell the school’s whole story, but it’s an important indicator that there is a problem and that we need to take a closer look so that we can provide support.  Parents also find state testing data helpful to confirm that the grades their child receives are consistent with other measures.  When there are differences, it’s important to understand why.  Finally, there is an economic concern.  Our state invests in education, and Rhode Islanders expect that investment to manifest itself in many ways - state testing results being one of them.  

Unfortunately, complex assessment systems take time to develop and it takes more time to ensure that every teacher and administrator is a good consumer of the assessments.  As we work toward building assessment systems, sometimes pieces are misused while others are not used at all:

  • Many interim tests measure only basic skills and are given to all students regardless of their overall classroom performance.  Students who are doing well don’t need to be tested so frequently, especially on basic skills that they have mastered.  
  • We also hear that teachers may be apprehensive about asking students to engage in complex and rigorous project-based assessments because some teachers believe they need to “teach to a test.”  We need to build the expertise and trust to know that great project-based instruction and assessments can address learning standards while gathering information about both foundational skills and applied learning.  
  • School districts must focus on creating curriculum-embedded assessments aligned to standards. Absent these, there may not be confidence that the grades given on a report card actually indicate that students are well prepared.  When assessments are not aligned with standards, more standardized tests could be required throughout the school year. 
Our vision is not to define the school day by testing requirements.  Rather, we are working toward building an assessment system that uses testing judiciously – oftentimes with students not even being aware that they are “taking a test.” Teachers use the information they gather to inform their instructional decisions and communicate with students and families.  Students are aware of their learning progress and know what they need to do to improve.  When these different types of assessments are used thoughtfully, students aren’t over-tested.  They are being followed, supported, and challenged.  

Mary Ann Snider is the Chief of Educator Excellence and Instructional Effectiveness at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

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Michelle Michelle
I am in favor of high-stakes testing because I believe that these are meant to drive low-performing disadvantaged students to work harder. While an ideal education system would cycle all students through as educated graduates, not all students have the mental capacity and personal motivation to fulfill the requirements set forth by the education system.