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'Addicted to Progress' on Tests: A Turnaround Strategy

Writing about assessment is marked by that perpetual conundrum: How do we know that students are learning what we want them to know, especially when the tests we rely on are hobbled by a host of questions about their worth? A recent story out of Boston reflects that dilemma.

At least it reflects that dilemma for me. The story itself doesn't report anything even remotely dilemma-like. It describes two schools in Boston that are part of an intensive turnaround effort focusing on the district's most troubled schools. Part of the strategy is to monitor student progress at an incredibly intense level. This, the story tells us, is done through daily and weekly testing, and by getting the students "addicted to progress" on the tests. Fourth-graders, the story reports, are really into monitoring the fever chart of their progress.

One could argue that this focused goal can unify and invigorate a school community that saw little other option than failure; that keeping an eye on test scores can be the spark that reignites good, collaborative planning and teaching, and snaps a school to attention. It's not hard to imagine students and teachers getting excited as they watch the red line on the fever chart go up; but how valid the excitement is would depend on what's being tested, and what the results mean. Right?

If, on the one hand, you have finely-tuned formative and summative assessments that really reflect the broad, nuanced range of skills and knowledge in the curriculum, then progress truly is something to celebrate. That's when teaching to the test is actually a job well done. If, on the other hand, you're administering quick, multiple-choice quizzes daily and ladling on longer versions of those each week, and charting progress by those results, one might have to ask exactly what it is that students are making progress on.

Without all the pieces—great curriculum, great teaching, and tests intelligently designed to truly capture that content—questions like this one would have to hover over even the most focused turnaround effort: what, exactly, has been turned around?

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