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Not All Teachers Keen on Periodic Tests

By Lynn Olson — November 29, 2005 3 min read
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John W. Hutcheson now teaches in a private Montessori school in Sammamish, Wash., after spending 25 years teaching in the Dallas school district. Looking back, he says the Texas district’s thrice-yearly benchmark assessments helped drive him out.

“The benchmarks themselves are a reflection of the standardized exams,” Mr. Hutcheson said, “which are only a small piece of learning. You progressively keep narrowing the curriculum down, so we end up preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist.”

Across the country, school districts are adopting benchmark assessments to help teachers modify instruction over the course of a school year. Yet many teachers remain wary. Like Mr. Hutcheson, they say their experience with such tests has been anything but positive.

Silas Bender, a 3rd graders at London Towne Elementary School in Centreville, Va., takes a benchmark test.

In Philadelphia, a social studies teacher who asked not to be named said he found the use of benchmark assessments there “incredibly restricting and unrealistic.”

As part of a core high school curriculum, the 214,000-student school system uses a program involving multiple-choice tests given every six weeks, with immediate feedback to teachers and schools via a Web-based system of data analysis and reporting. The district describes the new standardized, college-preparatory curriculum and the related system of assessments as a critical element of its plan to improve secondary education. (“For-Profit Writes Mandatory Courses for Phila. High Schools,” Feb. 9, 2005.)

“Students found them totally meaningless and very intrusive, because it was another interruption, in addition to all the other testing,” he said.

Mr. Hutcheson also complained of the time and stress associated with the tests used in Dallas. “We would spend entire afternoons analyzing benchmark results,” he said. “The district, every time the kids took the test, would print up a thorough record of how many answers they missed, the answers they put down, a list of subskills to be worked on, and a complete analysis of each test.”

Dallas school officials were unable to comment by press time.

Some districts have reported impressive results using similar methods.

When the Norfolk, Va., school district walked away with the $500,000 Broad Prize in Urban Education this year, it was largely on the strength of its gains in reading and math scores and its progress in closing racial and ethnic achievement gaps. Officials there pointed to the strong focus on data-driven instruction as one key to the district’s success.

The 36,700-student district requires quarterly benchmark assessments in all grades. Ninety percent of Norfolk’s schools also have developed common assessments that teachers give monthly. And teachers regularly meet in “data teams” to review the data, draw up common plans, and adjust instruction.

View a complete collection of stories in this Education Week special report, Testing Takes Off.

Over the past several years, the 12,000-student Santa Monica, Calif., school district has used a mix of teacher-designed tests and assessments linked to its adopted textbooks at the elementary school level. This year, secondary school teachers are meeting in departmental teams across sites to develop what the district is calling formative assessments in English, mathematics, science, and social studies that they’ll agree to give in common about three times a year.

“These are for teachers to really help guide their instruction,” said Maureen L. Bradford, the district’s director of educational services. “We feel like there probably isn’t something off the shelf that’s going to work for us; that teachers really need to come to one mind about what’s important to teach, and when to teach it and how to assess it appropriately. It’s a tremendous amount of work.”

Carol Jago, who chairs the English department at Santa Monica High School, praised the approach the school system is taking to developing the tests. “I hope we’re going to end up with essays or something that’s really authentic,” she said.

Still, Ms. Jago is worried.

“Inevitably, any time you try to institutionalize it, it becomes one more summative assessment that just happens before the state assessment,” she said, referring to a test given after teaching in the subject is completed. “So it’s right-headed, but I don’t think it’s something you can actually do properly because of the nature of the beast.”

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