Since the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the culture around pre-K-12 education has moved from one in which testing policies and procedures had been a nagging frustration for educators to one in which teachers and students are under constant scrutiny. As a result, it has become commonplace for teachers to decry the ills of aggressive testing. Nationwide, students, educators, and administrators are confronted with an alphabet soup of national testing demands. Just consider this partial list: ITBS, NAEP, CogAT, SAT, ACT, and the common-core assessments—PARCC and SBAC. These tests are typically mandated without consideration of state and district assessments, schoolwide common assessments, and the formative and summative assessments that teachers regularly administer in class.
Educators are not happy that assessment demands are intruding on day-to-day teaching and learning, but there are a few practical and constructive strategies that can help them (and their students) cope with this new reality.
Based on our more than 35 cumulative years of classroom experience, we believe it is possible to manage this assessment juggernaut. (Sherah is a classroom teacher turned professor of education; Anaya is a classroom teacher who is regularly in the throes of assessment demands.)
Following are three of the biggest testing myths, and what we believe teachers can do about them.
Myth No. 1: “They’ve got to learn it all; it’s on the test!”
Reality: Both novice and veteran teachers alike are understandably overwhelmed by the huge task of helping students master the content necessary to succeed on standardized tests. In many cases, the format and content of the tests merely gauge students’ ability to recall facts, proofs, or theorems through abstractly constructed questions set in unrealistic situations.
With so much at stake, including salaries, professional-advancement opportunities, and even jobs themselves, it is understandable that teachers struggle to find efficient methods to economize student learning. All too often, it seems that what matters to administrators, parents, and legislators is those test scores. Thus, for teachers, it is a great risk to spend time helping students grasp deeper concepts or develop higher-order reasoning skills when there is no guarantee that this effort will pay off when it comes to the test.
The accountability waters are as choppy as ever, but teachers needn't drown in them."
Teachers can resolve this tension by sticking firmly to good pedagogy and effective practice. Showing kids how to connect the dots in smaller ways through concept mapping, an organization strategy that allows students to visualize how ideas are related to one another, can help. Another option would be to pair interdisciplinary content areas so that students understand how ideas work in the real world. For example, students are more likely to recall a grammar lesson on adjectives from an English/language arts class if the science teacher later encourages them to use adjectives to describe common features of organisms.
Myth No. 2: “You are what they score.”
Reality: When media outlets publish and scrutinize district test results, schools are often labeled with a ranking. This contributes to an atmosphere in which a teacher’s value is equal to the test results of the school. So teachers at low-performing schools are branded as problem educators. The importance of student demographics and the extent (or lack) of family and community support, however, are rarely considered.
If you think about the perceptual misunderstanding that surrounds test-score results and couple that with the pressure of internal teacher-evaluation systems, it is not hard to imagine how teachers might hang their worth on their students’ testing data. Teachers can easily be drawn into a culture of self-blame.
Instead, we suggest that teachers react to the data differently. They should let go of the test score and focus on student growth instead. In other words, they should ask themselves how their classroom instruction contributed to the students’ success (or lack thereof).
With this question comes the need to evaluate their practice honestly. Teachers should document what they feel they’ve done well, identify what areas in their practice need improvement, and explore the steps required for growth. With the explosion of electronic resources, teachers can easily connect to a vast array of support teams and online communities if they can’t find those resources close at hand. Teachers want to help (and enjoy helping) each other. There is no excuse for drowning when there are so many new and relevant professional reinforcements.
Myth No. 3: “I am powerless over the test.”
Reality: In addition to the enormous task of helping each child do well on assessments, the list of tasks that teachers face only grows longer. The job title of “teacher” insufficiently describes the universe of responsibilities foisted upon them beyond the walls of their classrooms. They must also be part-time bookkeepers, technology experts, data analysts, registrars, librarians, nurses, counselors, judges, defendants, and parental liaisons. Teaching is a profession of expectations. And few outside (and not even some inside) the profession truly comprehend the many hats that teachers must wear. This additional pressure can, indeed, feel like a lead weight, which is why we often hear teachers cry out, “All I want to do is teach.”
When it comes to assessments, teachers have to decide what aspects of the testing mandates they have the power to change. They must pick their battles. Acceptance of what they cannot control is empowering and can help them move on. Ultimately, what happens in the classroom must be about the students. Teachers must keep these young people in the forefront of their thinking. For example, in addition to carefully sequenced instructional plans that impart the required content, a teacher could spend time on themes of caring and collaboration in order to better prepare students for interacting in our multicultural society.
The accountability waters are as choppy as ever, but teachers needn’t drown in them. If their priorities are questioned, teachers must stand firm in the belief that their decisions are based on what they believe to be in the best interest of their students. They must concentrate on how their students learn, reflect on their practice, and seek the support they need to improve their instructional skills. By keeping the focus squarely on their professional raison d'être—their students—teachers can ride out the storm, protecting themselves from what threatens to damage their practice and, instead, build on what they know works.
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Debunking Three Assessment Myths