Most of us breathed a sigh of relief last year when President Obama released a Testing Action Plan, calling on states to cut back on “unnecessary testing” that consumes “too much instructional time” and creates “undue stress for educators and students.”
While this initiative comes as a welcome change, what remains to be seen is what type of testing will be eliminated, who will decide what goes and how those decisions will affect our students. As these changes and reductions occur, we must remember that not all standardized testing is bad. In fact, good assessment data is vital to our students’ success in schools. It allows us a clear data point to show which students are meeting the benchmark and which students need additional assistance to experience academic achievement.
Too often, testing data has been used for negative and punitive purposes, such as school closures and rhetoric around “failing schools,” giving standardized assessments a bad rap. However, good assessments, ones that provide specific measurable data on students’ performance in particular areas, are imperative in showing where students are skill-deficient and need more assistance. These assessments ensure that the spotlight is on students’ needs and that they don’t slip through the cracks.
In a profession where the product is human capital, it is vital to have objective, standardized measurements. Consider how doctors measure data. Every time I take my baby to the doctor, they measure her height, her weight and the size of her head. The pediatrician then takes that information and shows me how those measurements compare, on average, to other children of the same age around the country. While weight is just one indicator of health and growth, it is one of the few clear data points that doctors have to be objective about my child’s wellness. This standardized assessment allows the doctor and myself to make decisions around my child’s physical health.
High-quality, fair and time-limited standardized assessments create the same type of benchmarks for parents as well as teachers. They give us one piece of data, a snapshot, of a student’s skill-set at a particular point. As educators, we can use that data to provide remediation and supports to those students who do not meet the benchmark, as well as to provide challenges and rigor to those students who exceed it. Data allows educators to personalize instructional materials and lessons in order to help all students meet proficiency.
Moving Away From Meaningless Tests
What we need to move away from in education are tests that do not give us usable data. One of the greatest examples of these types of tests are the midterms, quarterly exams and finals that are still given at the high school and junior high school levels. These tests were created when memorizing information was a vital part of being a successful college student. With the rise of the digital age, students no longer need to memorize information, they need to learn how to decode it and how to problem solve. Thus, the idea of a test that reviews all of the content learned in a semester has become obsolete.
Depending on the school system, students spend up to a week at least twice a year taking large cumulative exams. But to what purpose? What do the students or the teachers gain from the scores on these tests? In my career, I have yet to see a teacher review the areas of content missed on a final. Generally, the score is given as a factor in deciding whether or not a student has passed the class. The student then leaves for summer vacation.
Contrast this with good standardized test data, from say, a reading-level score. Such a score allows the teacher to see what skills the student understands, such as phonics, and what skills they may be deficient in, such as vocabulary. This knowledge allows the teacher to create a classroom that is more personalized and differentiated based on the student’s unique needs.
As the nation begins to reevaluate its use of testing with the new Every Student Succeeds Act, I hope for several changes. We must move past archaic structures and towards innovative new designs, such as restructuring our school year and collecting meaningful assessment data. As actionable data is essential to providing opportunities for the growth of our students, standardized means of fair assessment need to be created and the data from those assessments must be given to educators in a timely manner.
Let’s move away from too many meaningless tests and towards standardized assessments that will improve teacher practices and student outcomes.