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Response: Ways to Improve State-Standardized Tests

The new question-of-the-week is:

How are state standardized assessments working and how can they be made better?


I don't think I've ever met a teacher who has been satisfied with the the standardized tests they are required to give their students - no matter who has created them!

Today, Douglas Reeves, Jennifer Borgioli, Kristin DeJong, Chris Gareis, and Leslie Grant explore about how they can be improved.  Though this column doesn't have an accompanying podcast, you can still listen to past ones here.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books on education and leadership.  He blogs at CreativeLeadership.net and tweets from @DouglasReeves:

How to make state assessments better?  The easy answer would be to say, "eliminate them."  But there is a legitimate public interest in knowing how students are performing, especially in essential skills such as reading.

I have listened to teachers weep as they talk about students who simply put their heads down when faced with hour after hour of testing, or thanks to computer failures, have students lose hours of work and start over on state-mandated exams.  To bridge the gap between the "test them 'till they drop" crowd and the "never test" opponents, let me offer a few simple ideas to make standardized assessments more useful. 

First, make the tests shorter.  In their zeal for high reliability coefficients and adhering to content sampling requirements,  test designers have made tests unreasonably long.  After 30 or 40 minutes, we are testing endurance, not learning. 

Second, test throughout the year with locally designed and implemented assessments.  If we really want to measure growth, then the best way to do so is to compare the same student to the same student within the same year while working with the same teacher.  Three short 30-minute assessments in fall, winter and spring would reveal far more about student growth than a three-hour test at the end of the year over the course of three years by three different teachers. 

Finally, publish the full data sat - raw scores, individual items, and everything.  This would, of course, drive the multi-billion dollar testing industry - both for-profit and non-profit - mad, because they thrive on the secrecy of their items.  But if we expect testing to be a vehicle to improve teaching, learning, policy, and leadership, then we need an open book.  We need to know, for example, the difference between a test item that is difficult and one that is merely obscure.  The former is a challenge to teachers; the latter a challenge to test writers. 

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Response From Jennifer Borgioli

Jennifer Borgioli is a Senior Consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd. where she supports teachers, schools, and districts with designing assessments that capture evidence of student learning in ways that are meaningful for students and teachers. She also assists districts with auditing or reviewing their tests and assessments in order to better support balanced assessment systems. Her Twitter handle is @JennLCI:

For one delightful day this summer, August 21, Americans both young and old stopped what they were doing and looked up to the sky. Eye protection carefully in place and the repeated warnings to not look directly at sun ringing in our ears, we shared a moment of wonder at the natural world. The following day, August 22, New York State released the results of student performance on the 2017 state tests and us New Yorkers - educators, reporters, bloggers, and real estate agents stopped what we were doing to stare directly at them.

My hunch is that the most powerful answer to a question about how the state assessments are working and how they can be made better lies in shifting our eyes and avoiding the bright glare of the tests and looking at their edges. To be sure, policy and large-scale assessment design folks who best understand the test themselves have lots to offer around how the assessments are working and what can be done to improve them. I'm personally optimistic about the New Hampshire's PBA experiment, New York's Performance Consortium, and the rise of portfolio or Competency-Based schools in Pennsylvania, California and Illinois. If the tests are going to get dramatically better, I suspect the ESSA innovative assessment pilot will help make that problem. However, these solutions are long-term and outside the sphere of influence of building and classroom educators.

If we want to best understand how the tests are working, it's compelling to consider how they're working from the students' perspective. On one hand, tens of millions of children go to school a few days a year and take a state standardized test. They return the next day, seemingly no worse for the wear. On the other, pieces like this one by Kristina Rizga tells us clearly that there are students who feel they're not working. Most importantly, the students interviewed stress it's not just the one (or two of three) state standardized tests; it's the cumulative effect of how districts respond to them.

Rather than focusing on making the tests better, which is a long-term proposition, we can immediately make the conditions around the tests better. We can eliminate redundant tests and take careful stock of just how often students are asked questions with one best answer. Teachers, parents, and administrators can consider the language, tone, and vocabulary they use. Do we speak of the tests in terms that communicate they are a routine part of school or are we unconsciously telling students they're the most important thing that will happen to them that year? Do we focus on increasing scores or decreasing stress? Do we lift the burdens students carry around the tests or do we add to them? It's entirely possible to prepare students for standardized tests in a way that maximizes what we know about learning sciences, metacognition, and stereotype threat, but this requires quality professional development and district-based guidance around what that looks like inside a standards-based, high quality, learner-centered curriculum.

For 15 years, states have been working towards better standardized tests. And in that time, educators have been facing down the tests themselves, trying to figure out the right combination of bubbles and lines to capture student learning. My hunch is that unless we look away and concentrate on what happens around the tests, it won't matter how good the tests end up, they still won't work well for all.

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Response From Kristin DeJong

Kristin L. DeJong, M.Ed., is a Learning Sciences International staff developer.  DeJong has taught high school and middle school classes at public, private, and charter schools, serving in a wide array of capacities, including new teacher mentor, Department Chairperson, PLC team leader, Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction, and Literacy Instructional Coach:

"I Choose C" Is Not the Answer: Moving Beyond Old-World Testing

Ask any dedicated teacher how the plethora of current standardized tests are working and the answer you'll most often hear is simple: "They're not."

The joy of teaching and the fun of learning are disappearing because the world of education has turned into test preparation. Gone are the days when the P-SAT, SAT or ACT were the only standardized tests administered with college admission as the goal. Year after year, educators from all grade levels face an unavoidable issue--they'll need to prepare themselves and their students for a myriad of state standardized tests.

Many feel that their students are over tested. Students themselves feel stressed by the notion that high-stakes tests will dictate their future. In some states, a third grader cannot move to fourth grade without passing a reading and math test. Parents are overwhelmed during "testing" season as they worry and question if their child is prepared, both academically and socially, to perform well. This is not healthy for our society or our educational system.

Restructuring Assessment to Support a "New World Economy" Classroom

Let's be clear: teaching to standards is not the issue. Having common standards across the nation is not a bad thing. When moving from one state to another, it's quite comforting to know that students are being instructed with similar standards, developing similar skillsets.

Testing is the issue. Quite simply, there's too much testing, and the formats of these tests are outdated. From district progress-monitoring tests, end-of-course exams, and high-stakes comprehensive year-end exams, our students become overwhelmed by testing throughout the year, and far too many "check out" of their learning.

Standardized testing also goes against all the work we're doing to shift our educational strategies to address the need for collaboration, creativity and problem-solving skills in the classroom. In an age where forward-thinking, progressive educators are trying to "ignite" a passion for creating a "new world economy" classroom, tests continue to be formatted for an "old world economy" classroom.

Rethinking the Multiple Choice Testing Format

"I choose C" is a joke many educators understand. Multiple choice, one-size-fits-all, "standardized" testing, defeats all the ideas aimed at creating active learners, not passive absorbers of information, in a new-age educational environment. Our students are anything but "standardized." They're diverse, with varied interests and learning styles. Not all learners perform well on a timed, multiple-choice, computer-based test; yet, that's often the only option to demonstrate their learning.

How can we improve the system and ensure that students are prepared--that they become masters of the common standards? Short of eliminating standardized tests, there are some specific and deliberate steps we can take to simultaneously reduce testing and improve results.

Changing Our Mental Model of Rigorous Teaching, Learning, and Assessment

First, we need to prepare teachers to understand the value of consistent monitoring of learning targets and success criteria multiple times within a lesson. We need to help them become skilled at tracking learning toward standards-based targets, examining student evidence, and using formative assessments that align with the taxonomy of the standards.

If we find out at the end of the year or marking period that a student hasn't been meeting learning goals, it's too late to do anything about it. Progress monitoring must take place every day, throughout every lesson, so teachers can identify and address learning gaps on the spot.

Giving Students Opportunities to Demonstrate Authentic Mastery of Skills

Second, the most forward-thinking way to assess the true abilities of all students is through capstone projects that allow for greater student autonomy. Completing a research project (for which the student chooses the topic of interest) over the course of one or two years would truly demonstrate higher-order thinking skills.

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Response From Chris Gareis & Leslie Grant

Chris Gareis ([email protected]) is a former teacher and principal.  He is a currently a professor in the School of Education at the College of William and Mary.  He regularly works with schools, districts, states, and abroad in classroom assessment, performance-based assessment, curriculum development, program evaluation, and teacher mentoring.  His most recent book, co-authored with Leslie Grant, is Teacher-Made Assessments: How to Connect Curriculum, Instruction, and Student Learning (Routledge, 2015).

Leslie Grant ([email protected]) is an associate dean and associate professor in the School of Education at the College of William and Mary. She works with teachers and educational leaders at the local, state, and international levels in the areas of classroom assessment and using data to improve teaching and learning. She is a member of ASCD's board of directors and currently serves as its President:

The advent of standards-based state curricula and high-stakes accountability testing in the late '90s and early '00s was a tectonic shift in the educational landscape.  As a principal and teacher, respectively, during those years, we each experienced that shift at the ground level.  

In the 15-plus years since No Child Left Behind codified state standardized tests as the coin of the realm, our roles have professional roles have changed but our collaboration with teachers, school leaders, and state officials across the United States in helping to meet accountability demands has only intensified.  Our approach has been to leverage teachers' classroom assessment practices for genuine student learning, which in turn leads to stronger, more stable outcomes on state assessments. This approach is described in our book Teacher-Made Assessments: How to Connect Curriculum, Instruction, and Student Learning (Routledge, 2015), which is now in its second edition. Good educational practice--whether in the classroom or in state policy--is always about intentionality and alignment among curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

With this in mind, we offer a few observations on how state standardized assessments are working--for better and for worse--and then offer what we see as the next important step for teachers and policymakers, alike, to take.

To begin on a positive note, state standardized assessments have improved educational equity within and among many states by leveling the curricular playing field for students. In the not-too-distant past, students in one classroom could be exposed to a robust curriculum while students in another classroom could be exposed to a lesser curriculum.  When states began testing all students in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading and science at different points, school districts and teachers began to organize their curricula by aligning more intentionally to state standards. The advent of state tests laid the groundwork for greater equity in opportunities to learn.

Of course, there have been unintended consequences of these accountability assessments.  As we identified 10 years ago in the first edition of Teacher-Made Assessments, state tests have resulted in a narrowing of the taught curriculum;  a prevalence of drill-and-kill instructional practices;  a proliferation of ineffectual benchmark assessment systems that significantly reduce instructional time; and an incessant mimicking of multiple-choice item format on classroom assessments. In the medical field, these would be called side effects.  We think these side effects are serious enough that the prescription of state standardized tests in their current form must be changed.  Specifically, we believe it is high-time for the integration of performance-based assessment into state accountability systems.  

Performance-based assessments (PBAs) are the family of assessment formats that include constructed-response items, written responses, processes, product creation, complex projects, and myriad other forms that prompt students to engage in extended, higher-order thinking that is reflective of subject-specific processes (e.g., the scientific method) and of real-world scenarios beyond the classroom. PBAs should not replace all conventional state assessments; rather, PBAs should replace some of the current state assessments and thereby complement the remaining conventional assessments.  This is balanced assessment:  The use of complementary means of assessment to provide a more complete picture of the student learning outcomes that we intend.  

And how will this mitigate the current side effects we have experienced from state standardized tests?  The inclusion of high-quality PBAs in both state accountability systems and in teachers' classroom practices will allow for (1) teaching and assessing important, complex intended learning outcomes, (2) assessment practices becoming more integral to instruction rather than disruptive of it, and (3) assessment practices that are themselves engaging and meaningful experiences for students.  In short, PBAs are assessments worth teaching to.  That's worth a change.

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Thanks to Doug, Jennifer, Kristin, Chris and Leslie for their contributions!

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