Monday, March 3, 2014

Fighting Back at Standardized Tests: A Teacher’s Guide

              A guide for teachers who want to strike back at the over use of standardized tests

At the end of its first conference in Austin, Texas yesterday, the Network for Public Education and Board Member Diane Ravitch held a press conference to announce a call for a Congressional investigation into the “over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.” Read the NPE’s letter to Congress here. As this was going on, teachers in two schools in Chicago were refusing to administer the ISAT, an Illinois state test that the teachers claim is a waste of time. Meanwhile testing OPT OUT movements are growing across the country and especially in New York State in response to the clumsy rollout of the Common Core and allied standardized tests by the NYDOE.

Most teachers are rightly concerned about the impact of standardized testing on students, on curriculum, and now on their own job security. Most also know that boycotting the proctoring of the test is not a viable option for them. How should a classroom teacher, tenured or untenured, respond to the overuse and misuse of standardized tests while maintaining a professional stance?

I suggest three steps for teachers to take.
1.    Get well informed about the legitimate uses and rampant abuses of standardized tests.
2.    Proactively demonstrate to parents, administrators and colleagues in your building that your in-class, daily assessment of your students is far superior to the information provided by standardized tests.
3.    Get active outside of school hours with groups that will support efforts to bring the message of standardized test abuse to the political powers and the general public.

Getting Informed

This will be by far the easiest step. The misuse of standardized tests has been well documented for many years, going back to before No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB and Race to the Top (RTTT) have exacerbated the problems by ramping up the stakes involved in student performance on these tests.
Here is a summary of the issues related to standardized testing. To learn more, I suggest you consult the fact sheet put out by Fair Test that you can find here.

·         Standardized tests can be one part of a comprehensive assessment system. However, they offer just a small piece of the picture. Better methods of evaluating student needs and progress already exist. Careful observation and documentation of student work and behaviors by trained teachers is more helpful than a one-time test. Assessment based on student performance on real learning tasks is more useful and accurate for measuring achievement -- and provides more information for teaching -- than multiple-choice achievement tests (Fair Test 2012).
·         Standardized tests are not good enough to provide the primary source of information on student achievement.
·         Standardized tests are not good enough to provide the primary information on the achievement gap.
·         Standardized tests are not good enough to provide the primary information on school quality.
·         Standardized tests are not nearly good enough nor were they ever intended to provide the primary information on teacher effectiveness.
·         When standardized tests are used as a primary measure of student performance, students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds, English language learners, and students with disabilities, are more likely to be denied diplomas, retained in grade, placed in a lower track, or unnecessarily put in remedial education programs (Fair Test 2012).
·         The U.S. is the only economically advanced nation to rely heavily on multiple-choice tests. Other nations use performance-based assessment to evaluate students on the basis of real work such as essays, projects and activities (Fair Test 2012).
·         An emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests tends to narrow the curriculum to a focus on those things that will be tested.
·         An emphasis on multiple choice testing is not supportive of the development of more complex reading, writing and critical thinking abilities.
·         Standardized, fill in the bubble tests are wildly inappropriate for very young children.
·         The proliferation of standardized tests steals instructional time from teachers and learning time from children.
·         Standardized tests are generally not helpful for diagnostic purposes because the score reports come in long after the student takes the test and often without any item analysis of types of questions students had difficulty with.

Providing a Better Alternative
As classroom teachers we assess student learning daily in a much richer way than can be captured on a standardized test. We need to make our students and their parents aware of the rich assessment protocol that we follow and how that helps us get to know each student as a learner.

Formative Assessment  - As teachers we are constantly watching and interacting with our students to assess their understanding and to determine if they have achieved the objectives of a lesson. This formative assessment helps us adjust our lessons mid-stream and provides invaluable information for side conferences and small group instructional interventions that we might need to get all students to achieve the learning goals.

While much of this assessment happens quickly and informally while instruction is taking place, it is important that teachers document their observations for future reflection, planning and reporting. I have found that these “anecdotal notes” help me get a clear picture of the learner and provide me, not only with data to reframe instruction, but also with a knowledge of the individual child as a learner that I can then articulate to parents, administrators and to the student him or herself.

Summative Assessment – Occasional, well crafted, teacher created quizzes and tests that are based on the material taught in class are also part of the teacher’s toolbox in diagnosing learning and adjusting instruction. Occasional summative assessments have the added benefit of focusing student learning on the key ideas that they must grasp.

We can group both of these types of assessment as “authentic.” Formative assessment is authentic because it is tied to the actual student performance of learning tasks under the watchful eye of the teacher. Summative tests are authentic in the sense that they are tied to the actual material taught in the classroom.

Combining these two types of assessment allows the teacher to truly know each child as a learner. This knowledge is powerful in conversations with parents, administrators and colleagues. Nothing convinces parents that their child is in good hands better than a teacher who can look them in the eye and say, "This is what I see about Johnny as a learner and here is why I think so." Parents who get this type of information about a child will see that this kind of rich knowledge is not available from standardized tests.

Taking Action
Social media has made it possible for people of common interest to join together in concerted action as never before. Numerous parent and teacher groups have been formed around Facebook and other platforms to provide moral support, share information and create events. It is the responsibility of the concerned professional to find a way to support these groups, provide information and get involved in ani-test abuse actions. The groups out there right now include Opt Out of State Tests, Children are More than Test Scores, and Lace to the Top. Join these groups on Facebook and lend your voice to the cause.

The teaching profession has been taking unjustified hits for many years now. The corporate education reformers have stolen the narrative about public education, so that now the public thinks of “failure factories” and “bad teachers” and “school choice” and “accountability” as the story of American public education.  These corporate reformers are well-financed and they are on a mission. All of us must find a way to raise our voices to defend public education and represent the profession by taking action and by providing our clients, the parents and children, with the kind of high quality assessment data that only the professional educator in the classroom with the child every day can provide.