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After Standardized Testing--Then What?

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Now as spring approaches, the resistance resurfaces. There is another uprising mounting against the standardized testing required in order to receive federal and state funding.  In some communities, parents stand alongside teachers. Both are opposed to the amount of the time testing takes away from learning. A measure that can report on where a student stands compared to his or her peers across the country is a value when considering the effectiveness of our national public schools, isn't it?  UCLA Emeritus Professor W. James Popham wrote in a 1999 Educational Leadership article,

The folks who create standardized achievement tests are terrifically talented. What they are trying to do is to create assessment tools that permit someone to make a valid inference about the knowledge and/or skills that a given student possesses in a particular content area. More precisely, that inference is to be norm-referenced so that a student's relative knowledge and/or skills can be compared with those possessed by a national sample of students of the same age or grade level.

Aim for the Same Starting Line for All College Freshman
This is important. All educators, whether teaching 5 year olds or 15 year olds do two things that are similar. One is they teach to a standard determined for the student's grade level or subject and the other is to bring all students to meet or exceed that standard of performance. Since states adopt the standards and districts design curriculum, there remains a question about the comparison between a kindergarten class in North Dakota and one in Arkansas or a history class in Arizona compared to one in Maine. With that in mind, when entering college and beginning a physics major for example, how can we be sure that the students from different states are equally prepared to take these courses?

Experiencing similar learning experiences remains the national objective. Textbooks used to provide the anchor, guaranteeing that all students taking algebra, for example, were presented with the same content. But, as textbooks slide away from that unifying role and are replaced by technology and latitude, choices and styles vary greatly. The days of the McGuffy readers are long gone.

How can we be sure that all students are learning to similar content standards? The policy answer came from legislation that required testing at least once a year. In some states, it was twice a year. Well, we've heard about how that is working out. Objections have arisen to time away from learning, anxiety on the part of students and their teachers, and now parents as well.  This isn't working.

Measure What Matters
Teaching and learning have begun to look differently from the model past. So, what should we be measuring now? How often should we be measuring it? Should they be national or state measures? All are hotly debated policy issues. We have embraced technology as a learning and performance tool and the concepts of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking have become central to this century's teaching and learning; shouldn't we be measuring them too?  Isn't it true that attention is always given to what is measured?  So wouldn't it be helpful if some time was spent measuring those skills as well?  The dilemma rises of how to test those skills.

Teachers want to know where to place their attention when looking at the individual skills and abilities of each student. Even though some of the tests have been seriously questioned as they attempt to measure a different way of thinking for the children, they do not and cannot measure those other skills that have been established as central to successful achievement and college and career readiness. 

Standardized testing has a place in our system.  The reputation of a school or a community's identity can blur lines and blind some from a reality that standardized tests may reveal. If time is to be spent measuring something, let it be something that truly matters, in a time frame that makes sense.  And when that takes place, focusing on assessment development on the local level, designing measures for those things that are truly valued can begin to take the place of the system's hyper-focus on standardized academic achievement only. 

It is important to fight for the reduction of standardized testing required. At the same time educators need the time and energy to spend on developing ways to monitor how students are developing those other skills and capacities. If given a chance, we think more than some of you would agree that standardized testing scores may very well rise once attention is taken away from their burdensome administration and placed on what is also important. Developing young minds as thinkers and creators who can collaborate and communicate supported by information researched and developed is the future.

It is not only important to fight against the burden of standardized testing it is important to develop other ways of assessing the progress of the developing abilities of the future graduates. This is true for the entire k - 12 system. 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by Werner_LB courtesy of Pixabay

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