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After the Standardized Test Debate Is Won ... Then What?

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The surge in the use of standardized testing to measure efficacy of teachers, principals, and schools through student performance has been fueled by the requirement to report that students will be college and career ready. Opposition to the use of high stakes testing is growing, merging those who object to the singular nature of what gets measured and those who are concerned about the timing of the tests and the burden on students, teachers and leaders. Evidence of this is Resolution 1394, recently passed by the New York City Council. In it, the Council requests the NYS Education Department and the NYS Legislature reconsider the use of standardized tests and developing a system based upon multiple forms of assessments. It was approved by a vote of 49-0.  With the nation split on almost every decision, this is impressive agreement.

Across the country, states adopted RTTT and received the accompanying federal funds. What followed is a struggle to come to terms with the use of tests as a measure of teacher performance. Currently, in New York State, for most grades, the standardized test scores can count for 20% of the teachers' and principals' accountability. For another 20%, districts were permitted to choose between standardized or locally developed, school-wide or countywide assessments.  Some selected to use standardized tests for both components because of the looming implementation deadlines and because it seemed fairer to use a standardized measure. If that decision was made, students' work on standardized tests could be the basis of 40% of a teacher's, a principal's, and a school's accountability. Of course, using student tests scores to evaluate 40% of a teacher's performance amps up pressure on students to do well.  

The broad attention that this over-reliance on a standardized test has brought to our system is invigorating and the debate should be welcomed. With scores reported to be 'flat' over these past years, and the change in the population we are educating, the time for 'working harder' or 'tinkering' has come to an end.  The tipping point as been reached.  We need to learn about our new populations, structure classrooms and schools creatively, and lead and teach differently. The gap between achievement in schools with higher poverty neighborhoods and those in affluent neighborhoods has to be closed.  We are a publically funded system with responsibility to all the public. We know that the skills students need to learn in this century are different from in the last. Even basic attitudes like respect and empathy need attention. We know that accountability measures, thus far, have not caused our schools to improve in the ways hoped. We are sure that the over-reliance on standardized testing, which is an over-reliance on one measure of our students' growth, is not the answer either.

So, let's begin an anticipatory conversation.  What will happen when the groundswell of opposition to the overuse of standardized testing to measure schools' success affects change?  What is the plan we will present to improve our system and better address the poverty gap, achievement gap, language gap, financial gap, curriculum shifts, the use of digital resources for learning and communication, problems and challenges that our students face personally? We need to let go of the grip the past has on us to offer a better opportunity for students to be prepared for college and career. We need to design an alternative to Carnegie credits, another way to deliver support services that does not interrupt instruction, encourage integration of subjects without the diminishing the value of any, and evaluate learning seriously and wholistically. The list goes on. 

While in the meantime, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and iBeacons have hit the market. What are they? The use of Bluetooth has been expanded to  allow for our environments to respond to us and inform or exhange information in a new way. It can be used in healthcare, sports, location, navigation, retail, museums, etc.  The automatic exchange of information this technology provides will be all around us. And in some places, it already exists. iBeacons (better explained here) can tie digital content to the physical world, automatically sets up all of your gadgets, and change the way retail works.  It holds the promise of improving accessibility for the disabled.  New applications are already being developed.  This is the world our students live in right now.  Consider, for example, Carnegie credits to be the structure in which we educate children who will leave our buildings and simply pay for items without a card or currency, or learn about a product or work of art they are standing in front of...will they be ready?

It is a very good thing that communities are re-engaging in the democratic process with schools at the center.  It is important that we not allow this to dissolve into the state of current national politics. We must be prepared to lead the revival of the democratic principles from the bottom up in state and local debates about education. In and of themselves, standardized test are not bad, nor is accountability or modernizing a stale system, or changing to meet the demands of a new day. But now that we have everyone's attention, let's be ready. 

Our energy should not be exhausted in opposition.  Rather, as educators, we need some who are leaders at the ready, thinking beyond this debate into possibility.  So let's start thinking about envisioning  alternatives to the Carnegie credit, a schedule that enables students to receive special services outside of their educational day, an interdisciplinary curriculum that is relevant in the real world, and balanced assessment processes that reveal students' achievement in all ways.

College and career ready?  Students wanting to attend Bard College have the opportunity to use the traditional application or, they can bypass the current standardized tests and take an essay test that according to their website, engages:

applicants in a process that more closely mirrors actual college coursework. The examination is composed of essay questions in three categories: Social Science, History, and Philosophy; Arts and Literature; and Science and Mathematics. Applicants are required to complete four of 21 questions with 2,500-word essays.

Not all of our students are ready to take this leap, but certainly some are. The question is whether we are getting our students ready to be able to have similar choices. The democratic process has been ignited and communities are garnering support against the overuse of standardized tests. While such attention is being paid to education, now is the time to bring our best thinking forward. So whether we are paying attention to the changing world we live in, that now has BLE and iBeacons, and are getting students ready for that...or whether we are moved to consider what it would take to have a school filled with students ready to write their way in to a college like Bard, we have some planning to do. 

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