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Fix the Fixation on Testing

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By Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, Assistant to the President for Educational Issues, American Federation of Teachers

There's growing evidence many American public school teachers, parents and students seem to agree with T.S. Eliot's poetic assertion that April is the cruelest month. April is the month each year when millions of students — and their teachers and families — experience standardized testing. And the current generation of large-scale assessments, administered under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, are too often low-quality and high-stakes at considerable cost to taxpayers. More importantly, they're not having the desired effect on student and school outcomes. Instead, several recent studies show test-based rewards and sanctions are having the opposite effect and slowing the nation's progress in closing the achievement gap.

During testing season 2012 there has been a growing — and quite diverse — chorus of concern and apprehension about what has become a national fixation on testing. A large group of Texas school boards (some 360 as of late April) passed a resolution decrying the negative impact of high stakes testing. FairTest joined forces with the Advancement Project, the Asian American and NAACP Legal Defense Funds and several other national and local educational, faith-based and advocacy organizations, along with prominent citizens, in a resolution drawing on the Texas model. The resolution, which has received significant attention nationally, states the over-emphasis on testing "has caused considerable collateral damage in too many schools, including narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning, pushing students out of schools, driving effective teachers out of the profession, and undermining school climate."

At the American Federation of Teachers, we agree things have to change. Last week, our Executive Council passed a resolution whose title sums up its intent: "Testing Should Inform, Not Impede, Teaching and Learning." The resolution, which calls for America's public school accountability system to be "re-examined and re-built," will be recommended to the full convention of AFT delegates meeting in Detroit in July. It commits AFT to working with all who share our commitment to restoring balance to public education by prioritizing high-quality instruction informed by appropriate and useful assessments. In other words, helping to design the alternative.

A number of AFT state and local affiliates are taking immediate stands on the topic. Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), summed up his members' vision of effective assessment: "Students and teachers deserve tests that are fair, valid and reliable, and are appropriate measures of what is happening in classrooms in every corner of the state." Announcing NYSUT's passage at its April convention of a resolution that calls for an overhaul of the state's current testing system because of harm to students and hindrance to learning, Iannuzzi noted, "Enough is enough."

The problem lies neither with the existence of testing nor the idea of accountability. Rather, it's the kind of tests our system prioritizes, the scale at which they are used, and the narrow definition of accountability dictated by current public policy. The most useful tests for enhancing student learning and academic success are diagnostic assessments used to ascertain each student's strengths and weaknesses, and adjust curricula and instruction to meet student needs; and formative, or classroom-based, assessments that are directly connected to instruction — allowing for immediate feedback and instructional adaptation. In other words, tests that help teachers teach and students learn.

That's what systems with top education results internationally do. They focus much more on integrating testing with teaching and learning at the local level, on measuring deeper subject matter knowledge and the skills to use it rather than on large-scale, high-stakes standardized testing of all students.

Further, systems with the strongest educational results, from Ontario to Japan, are characterized by a strong sense of shared accountability for learning where teachers, families, students, school administrators and government all have a role to play. In the U.S., too many self-appointed "reformers" use international test score comparisons to denigrate American schools, but advocate for testing and accountability practices antithetical to the successful strategies employed in high-achieving countries.

There is much to do to fix broken public school accountability, but the nation's students need us to make the collective effort. For those committed (as we are) to the implementation of Common Core State Standards, one early, concrete step is to ensure the voices of teachers are included in the assessment development work currently underway with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced consortia.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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