Testing

I can’t think of anyone who likes to take tests. The mere mention of acronyms like ACT and SAT conjure up cold sweats and bad memories of hours sitting in auditoriums or school cafeterias feverishly coloring in bubbles in a state of nervous anxiety. Yet, these experiences have become such a foundational element of the American education system that they are almost a ritualistic rite of passage, or perhaps a form of systemic hazing.

While there aren’t many people who like tests, I also can’t think of an educator worth their salt who doesn’t place high value on valid, reliable, and timely assessment data.

A quality educator uses testing data, tightly aligned to the curriculum, to see how students are progressing in their mastery of course content and skills. The quality educator then adapts the instructional technique (differentiation), or lines up additional supports (specialists or assistive technology), to help each student reach the goal.

FORMATIVE AND SUMMATIVE TESTING

Testing for the purpose of adapting instruction and providing support is known as formative assessment. It is a hallmark of all high performing education systems.

Paradoxically, most of the tests mandated through state or federal laws (like No Child Left Behind), are not formative in nature and have almost no instructional value. These tests are summative – they occur at the end of instruction to measure what the learner retained.

These summative tests are given to students in subjects including reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and English Language proficiency. They happen near the end of the school year, and it takes months before we get the results. This makes summative tests akin to an autopsy – they give us great information about what happened, but are woefully late to do anything to assist the patient.

ASSESSMENT IN THE UNITED STATES & IN HIGH PERFORMING SYSTEMS

Interestingly, there is only one system in the world where every student is tested at the end of every year using a machine-scored, multiple choice format: the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, high performing global systems (including Finland) do have tests, but these tests are formative in nature and are used to direct instructional decisions and provide learning support.

When high performing systems do give end of year summative tests, they are very different than the machine scored, bubble-sheet forms we see in Colorado.

Instead of testing every student every year, high performing systems test at key “gateway” points in a student’s progression. These assessments are given at the transition from elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and on exit from high school.

High performing systems also tend to use tests which require students to demonstrate skills like writing, formulating and defending a position, synthesizing complex information, problem solving, and critical thinking. Classroom teachers (instead of machines) frequently score these tests, so that feedback on how instruction might be improved immediately gets to where it can do the most good.

TESTING FOR ACCOUNTABILITY VS. TESTING FOR INSTRUCTION

In Colorado, we test every student every year from grades 3 through high school in a variety of subjects.  One driver behind this approach is so that we can amass data to identify, shame, punish, and occasionally reward schools and teachers who get high test scores.

No high performing system in the world uses such an approach as a strategy for quality.

Instead, high performing education systems are judicious about their use of testing and insist on clear and immediate connections to teaching and learning.

THE PATH AHEAD FOR TESTING IN COLORADO

Colorado is in the process of redesigning its system of assessments to move away from those scanned bubble sheets covered with #2 pencil lead. It is replacing those tests with computer-based tests, which are intended to measure higher-order thinking skills instead of multiple choice test accuracy.

The tests in English language arts and math are called PARCC (Partnership of Assessment for Readiness in College and Careers). They are aligned to the internationally benchmarked high expectations embedded in Colorado’s Academic Standards and the Common Core.

These efforts to improve the assessments and to align to high expectations are the right work. However, the PARCC test is still a summative grade-by-grade, every student every year test that is then hitched to the state’s blame and shame system of accountability for schools and teachers.

We should applaud efforts to improve the state’s assessment system – but we should know by now that the era of hyper-testing and punishment ushered in under the federal No Child Left Behind Law isn’t working for our kids, schools, or communities.

THE LOCAL CONNECTION

Our schools are obligated by law to participate in these big data state-testing schemes. However, we are putting our focus on formative assessments that link closely to our curriculum and serve to improve instruction.

While we have to take part in the big government solutions imposed on us by Washington D.C. and our own state legislature, we can choose to put our energies into formative measures that will actually be of value to our students. The by-product of which is improved student

Note – this article originally appeared in the Vail Daily