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Teaching New Teachers to Ignore (Some) Tests


Rebecca Schmidt

I teach 4th grade in a school that uses an innovative and effective residency model to train new teachers. I have a resident working in my classroom this year, on his way to becoming a skillful and knowledgeable D.C. Public Schools teacher in August. I do my best to teach him best teaching practices that I've learned over the past few years. Most of the time, these best practices have to do with pedagogy, or teaching strategies. But sometimes we tackle more macro topics.

Today we were planning our next math unit about measurement when he asked me a question about baseline testing. "Well, we haven't taught a measurement unit yet, so do we really need to give a pre-test? They probably don't know much, right?" he asked.

I paused before responding, "If we only care about what they know by the end of the unit, sure. We don't need to get a baseline. But I want to find out what they know about measurement right now, and I want to know for two reasons: one, so we don't waste time teaching things that the class already knows, and two, so we can see if our teaching actually works." He nodded in agreemen—he's heard this before—but then added, "but the DC-CAS [our standardized test]doesn't have a pre-test. Right?"

I stopped and thought—I actually sat down and paused in the middle of this conversation, and thought about this. I test my students regularly in both reading (using the DRA test) and math (using teacher-created Common-Core-aligned assessments) to find out what they can do at a particular moment (to help me plan) and how effective my teaching is. By doing this, I have a pretty decent sense of where my students are, where we need to go next, and, by the end of the units or the quarter, if we met those goals. I try to model this for my resident, and he is probably tired of hearing me talk about assessment.

In April, when my students take the DC-CAS for 8 days, the school district (and the rest of the country, thanks NCLB!) will use my students' test scores to determine if I did my job well this year, if my students learned to read and do math on a 4th grade level. And yet the DC-CAS doesn't have a baseline. The DC-CAS scores don't measure growth in individual students. The DC-CAS scores won't tell me if it was actually my teaching that helped my students improve, or if my students already knew these 4th grade skills and knowledge.

Even so, these test scores are used in teacher evaluations each year. The inconsistency and unfairness of this system is a tough lesson to teach my resident. I often remind him that DC-CAS is probably the most meaningless test for us this year—that he should focus on our DRA tests and our math unit assessments, to really judge teaching and learning. By the end of the school year, I hope he can confidently teach reading, math, writing, science, and social studies, and navigate the often complicated bureaucracy of the school system. I also hope he understands the unfairness of the DC-CAS, but holds onto the importance (and usefulness) of some standardized testing in his classroom.

The conversation about standardized testing is far from over—lthe comments and columns of this past week remind me that it is just the beginning. No one has all the answers to a quick fix for the system, but I look forward to seeing many of these ideas for reforms begin to take shape. Maybe my resident, in his teaching career, won't have to grapple with as many inconsistencies as we have—at least not in standardized testing.

Rebecca Schmidt teaches at a public charter school in Washington, D.C.

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