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In this era of high-stakes testing something has gotten lost amidst all the noise, namely the value that quality assessments can provide when used as intended.
There is little doubt that the controversy surrounding summative testing that accompanies Race to the Top funding has led legions of teachers and administrators to view “T-E-S-T” as, well, just a four-letter word. It is unfortunate that the linking of test results to annual teacher evaluations (APPR) has overshadowed the usefulness of formative assessment, a continuous process viewed in the context of work kids are performing daily at school.
Tests in general are not the villain here. When used as intended to provide teachers and administrators with continuous feedback to guide their work on curriculum and instruction, they offer valuable information about teaching and learning. What do quality assessments look like and how might teachers use them to best advantage?
To begin with, a test should align with what is being taught. The adoption of Common Core standards across most states in the U.S. helps define what is most essential for our students to know and demonstrate. By the 2014-15 school year, state assessments will reflect those standards, and student achievement will be measured against them throughout the year. Therefore, teachers must begin the task of reviewing their curriculum and teaching to those standards; otherwise there may be a drastic disconnect between what is taught and what is tested, minimizing the value of the results. Which leads to the next essential element of a good test.
If a test is measuring what is actually being taught the results can provide helpful information to teachers as they adapt their teaching to meet student needs. Test results should not be viewed as stand-alone assessments of students’ work. They should complement rather than replace the work that students produce on all manner of work day-to-day. That body of work represents an important backdrop against which test results can be compared. If differences appear between the assessments and these other measures, those gaps need to be analyzed in an effort to determine the best response. Perhaps a topic was not yet covered at the time of testing; or maybe the test gave more emphasis to some topics than a teacher did when covering the curriculum. Some students may not have understood what was taught on first blush and can benefit from review or even re-teaching of some topics. Then again, it is possible a student simply had a bad day, was not feeling well, or an illness or other significant event was occurring in a family at the time of testing. These are just some possibilities that need to be explored, and parents can serve as valuable partners in uncovering answers to some of these questions. (Tip: Teachers and parents should note any unusual circumstances during testing time that may help explain unexpected outcomes when results appear weeks or months later.)
In other words, tests (the formative kind) provide another lens through which teachers and parents can view student achievement. A test simply tells us what happened on a given day, not why it happened. To discover the answer to the “why” question teachers need to do good old-fashioned investigation and inquiry. The analysis of results, often done in collaboration with colleagues and the students themselves, may shed light on areas within the curriculum where refinements are needed and can guide priorities in curriculum projects; or staff development may include mini-lessons in which teachers model successful approaches to teach particular topics or skills. Professional learning communities abound where teachers can exchange ideas about best practices in lesson design and delivery, and professional development should include them.
If a test is measuring worthwhile skills or tasks then its value should be apparent, and its use not vilified. The task at hand for teachers and administrators should be an examination of how close their curriculum aligns with what is being tested and how any gap between the two can be narrowed over time.
The increasing push to have summative test results included in the rating of teachers has, unfortunately, led to a lot of noise about all testing with little acknowledgement of what is good about it. That’s a tragedy brought about by the abuse of the purpose of testing, not the tests themselves.
The truth of the matter is much can be gleaned from assessments, including standardized test data; and that valuable information can be used to enhance what is taught and learned. Instead, teachers and administrators are focusing primarily on final scores when the real story about achievement lies within the information behind those scores. Time to start peeling the onion.