October 2, 2013
I am very frustrated as a superintendent and as a parent with the amount of testing being done to our children. First, let me say that I absolutely believe in accountability for student growth and achievement. There is no question that students, parents, teachers, and leaders should understand the growth and achievement of each and every student on the most important outcomes we teach. Great teachers believe this too. They value data that informs their instruction – that helps them teach students differently depending on their abilities. They also value data that shows whether students are learning what we believe we are teaching. Our great teachers care very deeply about the progress of our students.
However, great teachers, leaders, and I agree that accountability gone wrong is bad for our students. In fact, I would argue that bad accountability is worse than no accountability. What is accountability gone wrong? It is over-testing students with assessments that do not authentically measure the most important outcomes we teach. Here is why this is bad.
- Overuse of assessments that measure low-level skills instead of higher-order thinking skills/information are not in the best interests of our students. It sends a signal to our teachers and our students that these low level items are the most important things they need to learn. Teachers react focusing on the skills that are tested instead of the higher-level skills (because they are not measured). These low-level knowledge/skills can become the default curriculum in our classrooms, and this is bad for our kids!
- Not all students learn or test the same way. Tests that overuse multiple choice and rely more on memorization than reasoning and problem-solving produce limited data about the full picture of a student’s performance. This data can end up being used inappropriately to judge and sort the students. Whether we realize it or not, our children understand very well when they have been sorted into the bad spelling group or the low vocabulary group, and this can become part of their self-image. When it does, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Have you ever heard your child say, I’m one of the dumb kids? If you have, that is a problem. If you hear this, always take a minute to tell your children that one test on one day does not define who they are or that at which they are good. As you know, believing you can is a very important component of success.
- Overuse of tests that measure in one way can send teachers and parents down the wrong path. Imagine a bad medical test that sends your doctor down the wrong course of treatment. This is no different. Great teachers want all children to be successful and they use whatever resources they have available to help them make the right decisions regarding a child’s academic experience. Sometimes assessments given to young children, in particular, are wrong. They are wrong because the real issue might have been the child’s inability to use a computer mouse correctly rather than the child’s skill and knowledge about the learning. Vocabulary tests measure words you don’t know, not the words you do know. Writing tests have chronically had scoring issues. Math tests often depend on the sequence of course your child has taken and where he/she happens to be in that sequence.
I would recommend Alfie Kohn’s book, The Case against Standardized Testing, Raising the Bar and Ruining the Schools if you would like to read more about the consequences of “bad” tests.
I would also recommend Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators and Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners. I think both of these help parents and educators alike understand the education their students need to be successful in the 21st century.
You’re probably wondering why we don’t just use assessments that measure high level skills. Well, that is our goal! However, recent legislation like READ Act, SB191, SB212, and SB163 and their associated rules set by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) require us to overuse assessments focused on low level skills because, in some cases, they are the only ones on the “approved” lists. This is particularly true with the newly approved (last year) version of the READ act. Then, we have our own GOOD assessments that we believe measure the most important things we teach and they measure them the right way. So here are our choices:
A) Give only the state required tests that if used in the best interest of students are mostly useless.
B) Give the state required tests AND the assessments that measure the most important learning, but that means we are spending way too much time on testing in our schools.
We believe there should be an option C — to give only good tests that not only meet the spirit of these laws, but to exceed them by giving and using quality, performance assessments that don’t feel like tests to our students — tests that are developmentally appropriate for our students. Our teachers need the flexibility to create and use quality assessments aligned to our high-level outcomes that are appropriate for their students instead of being forced to give these other assessments.
Right now, most schools are choosing option B because it is the least of the two evils, but we are not satisfied with that option. We are prepared to demonstrate how our balanced assessment system using quality formative, interim, and summative performance assessments (created/selected by teachers and schools who know their students best), should be the accountability 2.0 system for Douglas County School District. Please let us know if you would like to help.