Opinion: An odd truth about state testing
Free Press Opinion Columnist
On Nov. 6, the state-appointed 1202 Task Force came to town seeking input on state assessments for public schools. The community turned out in record numbers – thank you! We discussed many issues of state testing, but one rarely discussed truth about state tests did not come up. And, it’s essential to understanding the folly.
As children, we all remember taking quizzes, turning in homework, participating in class, and taking exams. A teacher would provide a week’s worth of instruction, homework, in-class discussion, and more homework. Then, we were quizzed to see how we retained that week’s worth of instruction. The teacher used the quiz results to determine if the content needed re-teaching before moving on to the next week’s material. After a few weeks of this process, we would take an exam that covered the topic from the first quiz to the last to see how we did on the overall content. Sound familiar?
The teacher tested us on what was taught to us. The test questions were designed by the teacher to measure our knowledge accurately.
As an adult and parent, I figured that my daughters were taking state assessments aligned to what teachers were teaching, just like my regular experience as a student taking tests. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is no alignment between the state tests and actual instruction.
Here’s how it works. Standards identify grade-level skills that students should learn. District curriculum teams interpret the standards, then develop a curriculum that they believe will give the students the defined skills. They schedule instruction along the school calendar. From there, teachers provide instruction and assess learning much like when we were in school.
Elsewhere, teams of testing experts at Pearson (an international media company), who may or may not have teaching experience, are also reviewing the standards. They then develop test questions based on how they interpret the standards. They determine what types of questions would indicate whether or not a test taker meets the standards.
There is no collaboration between test makers and teachers. The tests do not measure what teachers taught nor what students directly and specifically learned. Standards are the north star, but 178 districts chart unique paths to arrive at a destination kept secret by a group of for-profit test makers.
Do you see the disconnect? Schools talk a lot about “alignment.” The one thing they have to align blindly is instruction and state tests.
Let’s apply that to the “real world.” Your employer has a set of standards for you to meet over the course of the year. You then spend a year working hard on the daily demands of your career, assuming your work naturally aligns with the standards. In the third quarter of the year, your employer tests you to see how proficient you are in meeting the standards, as he understands them. Afterwards, you are told that you are only partially proficient. Despite performing your daily work well, you would not receive a raise and would have to work harder to meet the standards to keep your job. The boss denies your request for clarification of his understanding of the standards because such clarity would make it too easy for you meet the expectations. Read that last line again.
That’s the odd truth about state testing. Standards, interpreted by districts and test makers, serve as a nebulous intersection between teaching and testing. However, the test results have become high stakes. Individual results judge students. Student results judge teachers and districts. Legislators pass laws based on districts’ results. It’s silly.
Maybe it’s time for the community to judge the wisdom of unaligned tests created in a vacuum by test makers, whose companies, incidentally, sell the instructional resources needed to improve results.
Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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