The testing paradox
Unlike many aspects of the public school system, standardized tests have been a constant presence in the lives of American students in the 21st century. One of the idealized silver bullets of educational reformers, these tests have also been one of the main points of contention in often tumultuous discussions about teaching and learning.
The ubiquitous presence of standardized testing has changed many aspects of public education since the advent of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing culture in the early 2000s. Following this legislation, educational policy makers from both sides of the aisle invested energy into promoting these tests to parents, students, teachers, and the general public. Their message was simple: to best gauge learning and proficiency, students must be tested, and tested often.
I have a fair idea of how teachers feel about standardized testing based on my own experiences. As an early career teacher, I genuinely believed in the tests, and I preached their value to my students. Teaching English language arts, one of the two consistently tested subject areas, I felt the weight of student performance on the state test acutely. The Colorado Student Assessment Program carried so much weight that it had its own week of implementation in March, when students were excused from classes to focus exclusively on test-taking.
Now I live in a strange paradox. The current iteration of state tests in Colorado is much more aligned to the standards I teach, and it has a much better chance of providing authentic data about my students’ proficiency than past tests. However, I feel strange preaching the value of the new tests to my students. While the data gathered more accurately represents our classroom work, it is not delivered in a timely manner. The data I receive allows me to tailor my instruction to help future students do better on the test, but it doesn’t allow for reflective instruction in the moment.
Other teachers in my building feel similarly. When I asked about the value of the tests, multiple teachers cited the need for objective data and tools for determining student potential or competency. However, echoing my own experience, Ryan Hargraves, a social studies teacher in my school, said policymakers need to “learn what the tests are made for and use them appropriately.” Specifically, he cited norm-referenced tests, like the SAT or ACT, which compare student performance to a hypothetical average rather than reporting on specific student proficiency with concepts. These tests are meant to make accurate predictions of post-secondary success, but are currently being used to evaluate how teachers teach.
Perhaps even more than teachers, students have been impacted by the tests and offer a unique perspective about their purpose and impact. When I asked a group of my seniors about the tests, they offered candor and honesty. Almost all of them had taken an AP test, as well as the battery of tests required by the state of Colorado in grades three to eleven. In general, they ranked the value of the tests according to how well each evaluated something they had taken time to learn. The AP tests ranked highly, while most saw SAT and ACT tests as merely a hoop to jump through for college admission.
One student pointed to the stress testing causes for students who have an Individual education plan or whose native language isn’t English. Another student pointed out that as a middle-class kid in a suburban high school, he had a great deal of academic support and encouragement that allowed him to do well on tests like the ACT and SAT. He acknowledged that this support put him at an advantage over students who didn’t have the same access to test-prep materials or courses.
Most of my students saw norm-referenced tests as a method for evaluating a student’s ability to take a test, as opposed to a true test of competency. They also affirmed what I had been thinking about myself: that classroom-based assessment is always more valuable to students than anything else because of its immediacy and connection to their learning process.
Standardized testing is a reality that isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. This fact could leave us cynical and apathetic. But it could also motivate us to take action. Teachers and students have directly experienced the tests and their results. We have ideas about how they can be used better.
First we must ensure that the right tests are being used for the right reasons. Next, we must make sure the data from these tests is timely and authentic. Most importantly, though, policymakers need to engage those in the classroom to learn about these tests and their usefulness. Only together can we ensure that the tests are used in ways that benefit us all.
Jessica Keigan teaches English language arts and serves as an instructional coach at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colo. As a teacher leader and educational blogger with the Center for Teaching Quality, she is passionate about exploring, creating and promoting teacher leadership models to improve Colorado’s schools. She is also a member of Adams 12 Five Star School's District 12 Educator’s Association, which has allowed her to create curriculum and support teachers through various National Education Association partnerships with the BetterLesson Master Teacher Project.
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