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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

High Stakes Testing is ONLY 20% of an Evaluation

By Peter DeWitt — March 03, 2012 5 min read
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Teachers give tests to students all the time. It’s been a standard educational practice for decades, perhaps even centuries. In some educational circles there is a push to complete formative assessments with students to get a true measure of their progress in the classroom. Most educators follow the progress of students and change their teaching according to the results they receive from testing results.

Any teacher worth their weight in salt will adapt their lessons to student understanding. Whether they are doing observation, quizzes, progress monitoring or summative assessments, teachers are able to receive instant feedback on how their students are doing in class. Testing is a part of any educational institution. Standardized tests are supposed to be used in conjunction with teacher-made tests and more authentic assessments.

When it comes to testing, there are many students suffer from testing anxiety. The thought of taking a test and “showing what they know” is scary to students. They freeze, or have a bad day and sometimes get bad marks. Sure, it’s a fear they will have to learn how to get over because they will face many tests in their future. To make these students feel less anxious, many teachers who find other forms of assessment to get a better understanding of what those testing anxious students really do understand. Teachers want the full picture of student understanding and do not, or should not, focus on one measure.

Where is the Value?
Recently, the New York City Department of Education released the value-added ratings of teachers of Mathematics and English in grades 4-8 in the New York Post. Diane Ravitch did an outstanding job blogging about the issue in Bridging Differences. Sure there were 12,000 names printed in the paper and one name can easily get lost in the sea of other names. Sure, the New York Post has an interesting reputation but people still read the newspaper.

Parents most likely looked in the paper to see if their child’s teacher was named in the publication. Whether there was a story behind the grades that would provide a different and more positive picture of what was going on in the classroom no longer matters. The relationship the teacher had with their parents and students no longer matter either. Can there really be 12,000 unsuccessful teachers in one city? It doesn’t matter what the answer is to that question. The simple fact is that the damage is done.

The state education department and those in power in New York City have proven that they have the true power over education, regardless of whether they are correct or not. Value-Added Data may very well be correct. I will leave that up to the statisticians and data crunchers. However, high stakes testing does not give the full picture of what is going on in the classroom, and that is one of the primary issues that educators have been talking about. It’s a test. It should not be the only measure of good teaching.

  • How do we, as readers of the scores, know whether those very teachers asked for help with struggling learners in their classroom of 30 students and never received it?
  • How do we know whether some of those students started in the classroom a week before testing?
  • How do we know whether the teachers have the proper resources to educate students
  • How do we know that there weren’t countless students in schools around the city suffering from test anxiety right before the exam?

The simple answer is that we do not know the answer to those questions and yet those teachers, and therefore the students within the classrooms, will be judged by everyone who reads the paper.

20% of an Evaluation
For full disclosure, I am a principal of a low needs school, although with all the budget cuts rural schools are facing, we will be high needs soon enough. Many of our students come in with a variety of experiences and they are well-prepared to learn. We have an average number of students who struggle and we try to find diverse ways to educate them. Unfortunately, as the years have gone by we all worry about what high stakes testing will show. We are told not to worry because they will “only” count for 20% of an educator’s evaluation. However, for those who have their names published in the New York Post, that 20% might seem like a much larger number these days.

Over the years, high stakes testing has changed. It used to be that educators felt as though high stakes tests were a way to see if students were progressing from year to year. Unfortunately, it took months to get the results and by the time the teachers did receive those results, the students were in the next grade level or moved to new schools. Quite simply, high stakes testing became something schools had to get out of the way, so they could focus on better ways of assessing student learning.

Year after year the rules changed a bit and it became increasingly clear that the tests were not going to be used to help schools but were going to be used to sell real estate. The rules that came with the tests are now bordering on comical.

  • All students in grades 3 through 5 must take the test at the same time on the same days. This is not an easy task. For all intents and purposes schools will shut down and it will be “all hands on deck.” With students who have extended time, time and a half and double time, it will be very difficult to properly test these students. They will need a break at some point.
  • All tests that are 70 minutes can include a five minute break but students cannot talk. I guess my question is...why allow them a break at all? Have the writers behind the rules ever stepped foot into an elementary classroom and told kids not to talk? If you have a break, allow them to truly break by allowing them to get up and move.
  • Teachers cannot talk with one another about the test in conversation, e-mail or phone calls. This is a novel idea. If the tests are that important why not allow teachers to have professional conversations about the material? Most teachers are not going to give other teachers the answers. Considering that the tests all have to be given at the same time, why is it such a big deal if they talk?

This latest story about high stakes testing is one of the biggest reasons why educators are most concerned when policymakers, politicians and those in power in the state education departments say that high stakes testing only counts as 20% of a teacher and administrator’s evaluation. The other 80% did not get published in the paper.

I understand the use of standardized testing but there is a great deal of mistrust between educators and politicians. Relationships between politicians and textbook publishers who support them does not help the trust factor either. It just seems as though high stakes testing will tell the story that politicians want it to.

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On March 22nd Peter will be presenting at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Conference in Seattle and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference in Philadelphia on March 24th.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.