Few could deny the need for assessments in education. States use them for funding and accountability. Districts and parents use them for comparison. Administrators use them for evaluation. For teachers, though, student assessments give us critical information about how well our students are learning in our classrooms.
Which is why I care a lot about how good the assessments really are. I got an indication recently after my public high school students took our state’s junior year mathematics test, the Smarter Balanced assessment. Part of the test is computer-adaptive, meaning that the computer will provide challenges and then adjust the level and difficulty based on students’ answers. The other part is open-ended, requiring students to share their thought processes while tackling problems that require multiple steps.
The depth of the assessment is something I knew about because I and other State Teachers of the Year recently participated in two different research studies closely examining the Smarter Balanced tests. Both Still on the Right Trajectory (a comparative study of fifth-grade tests) and Beginning a Higher Trajectory (examining the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced test) were released this week.
What I didn’t know was how my students would react to the Smarter Balanced test. Would they see taking it as a waste of time? Did they feel they prepared? Was the test easy to “game,” allowing them to guess and get answers right that they didn’t really understand?
And what I really wanted to know was this: Do my students think the Smarter Balanced test is a valid assessment of what they know and can do?
Their answer was an unequivocal yes.
Unlike previous assessments used in Oregon that were based solely on a multiple-choice format, my students said they “had to really know the math” to perform well. The current Smarter Balanced test demanded that they use many higher-order and complex skills, including critical thinking, writing and reading.
One student told me she “wasn’t expecting to have to explain why I was making the choices I made.” Students said they had to do more than just remember the formulas. “We had to apply the math” to a wide variety of problems and justify their thinking.
My students’ feedback reminded me that teachers need to think deeply about how we teach math content standards. This isn’t about how to eliminate distractors and guess well. As the Smarter Balanced test continues to improve, we need to think about the importance of context and provide opportunities for our students to use math skills outside the math classroom.
Our career and technical education colleagues offer much to help inform this process. As mathematics teachers, we need to remember the larger context of educating critically-thinking students who can use mathematics in a wide variety of contexts.
It is so important to have teachers at the table in the development and use of the Smarter Balanced and other high-quality assessments. The work informs how we teach and helps others in the system to make improvements in the test itself as well as what we do with the scores.
Educators must continue to inform the process of content standards assessment, because it is we—not the tests—that prepare our students for the careers of the 21st century.