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Avoiding assessment agita

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Voice of the Educator

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I’m a tremendous fan of alliteration. I also use Yiddish words or sayings as often as I can (you can blame my grandmother). “Agita” is a word often used to represent anxiety, irritation or indigestion (let it be know that I also like relating everything to food). Along with the connection the word brings to emotions that have become synonymous with testing, it also connects to the misdirection and unfounded principles that testing, predominantly at the state level, also brings. Because, though “agita” is often used in connection with Yiddish, it isn’t a Yiddish word. It’s Italian.

Why do I bring this up? Simply because, as has been the case at least in New York, what we think we know about assessment doesn’t always wind up on the tests and assessments our learners take. When this happens, there are mounds and mounds of anxiety for everyone.

So, what can we do to avoid the assessment agita? After struggling with backlash stemming from what some viewed as unfair and misdirected assessments, New York has made a few big changes to assessment policy moving forward. While my opinion is that it is still too early to tell whether these changes will alleviate the agita, these four modifications are at least steps in some direction. We tend to accomplish more when we move than when we are idle.

Step 1: Un-link student assessment results (some anyway) from educator evaluations. Much of the irritation that was an outcome of the New York state testing program in recent years has been due to the linking of student assessment results to teacher and principal evaluations. The frustration felt by educators that their “level of effectiveness” was tied to a measure of growth that could not be easily explained, and in some cases, seemed counter to what seemed to make sense, was added to the anger that parents felt about assessments their students were subjected to that had little impact on their own children’s learning. So, in an effort to stop and “take the temperature” of the assessment process, the state education department made the decision to unlink many of the measures (though not all) from teacher evaluation; for the next four years (at least), while the state determines how to best measure student growth, different assessment measures will be utilized for teacher evaluation purposes.

Step 2: Change testing vendors. Both the New York State Education Department and its testing provider received negative press for the design of many aspects of the testing program (pineapple story, anyone?) To further separate the past from the present and future, the state has moved vendors, and move to a provider with a slightly different vision and process. This spring will mark the first test forms under this new direction, so more will be soon known as to how student- and educator-friendly this new partnership can be.

Step 3: Remove time (and some questions). Want to reduce anxiety? Try to reduce some constraints. With the new testing forms, some questions will be removed, lowering the total number of questions students are asked to respond to. In addition, students will be able to work productively on assessments for as long as they need; no time limit will be enforced, letting students consider questions without having to consider how much time is left.

Step 4: Let educators play a role (a bigger one, anyway). We know that the best way to build buy-in for any initiative is give people voice. The benefit is that with voice, people always feel more involved and/or invested in an idea or topic. The risk? Well, the risk is that with voice, people might be less inclined to say good things about the initiative, and this might lead to the initiative being dismissed, rather than carried (which is why more fearful, top-down, or risk-averse leaders or organizations might reduce opportunities for sharing voice). The pushback from the most recent assessment program has led the state, and its new vendor, to go to great lengths to more closely involve teachers in the assessment process, eventually leading up to teachers being the writers of testing items in a few years.

It is still way too early to determine whether these four steps will reduce agita, increase it, or simply swap one person’s agita for another person’s angst. But, like all initiatives, once they begin, there is a finite timeline to making a call on their achievement (or lack thereof). Soon we’ll have a better understanding of how New York state’s changes have paid off, and whether the ones collecting the dividends are students, teachers, policymakers or test vendors (or, possibly a combination).

Here’s to hoping that we can alleviate the agita for all, and that the steps we’re taking are steps towards solving, and not simply misdirecting.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at, Edutopia and ASCD EDge. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD.

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