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To Improve Common-Core Implementation, Take the Tests Off My Plate

Nancy Gardner

Poorly designed standardized tests need to be removed from my plate. Then I can focus on teaching to the standards and assessing student growth effectively.

The Common Core State Standards are benchmarked skills focused on what students need to know and be able to do to be college- and career-ready. The standards do not tell teachers what to teach or how to teach; nor are they meant to tell schools or states how to assess. 

But here's what is actually happening. States are scrambling for standardized tests aligned to the standards since current policies and systems require them to have such assessments in place. And teachers—in keeping with the post-NCLB culture of test-based accountability—want to know what is on these tests (note: not necessarily what's in the standards) so they can plan instruction accordingly. The scores are then used to measure student growth as well as teacher effectiveness.

Education publishing companies are happy to come to the rescue—by churning out a host of assessment resources and new standardized tests. As usual, multiple choice rules the day. After all, actual performance-based assessments require rubrics—which are deemed too complicated and expensive. But when I look at the common standards in English/language arts for 11th-12th grade, I don't see how many of them can be measured with multiple-choice questions. And I certainly hope my students have learned more than what they can show on a 50-question multiple-choice test.

Consider writing.  A multiple-choice test directs the student's attention to an error, and then offers four choices of ways to fix the error. The trouble is, that's not how revision actually works. Revision requires rewriting, not just choosing among four predetermined options. 

And how about speaking? Or listening? Both are addressed by the  common standards in English/language, but neither can be easily included on a multiple-choice test. These skills are just left off the tests because they require performance assessments. So, a teacher might wonder, do I work on these? Students are not going to be college- and career- ready as long as "teaching to the test" is rewarded.  

All of this testing narrows curriculum and decreases the rigor of the standards themselves. It is past time for policymakers to trust the professionals in the classroom. If we respect teachers as masters of their craft, then we should trust them to create their own assessments to measure student learning and progress. Take the standardized multiple-choice tests off my plate, and let me get to work on the ingredients!

A renewed National Board-certified teacher, Nancy Gardner is an English teacher and English department chair at Mooresville High School in Mooresville, N.C


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