Reading & Literacy

English Teachers: Ask Us How to Assess Students

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 25, 2016 3 min read
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Should portfolios, projects, and presentations take the place of standardized tests in literacy and reading?

A new survey from the National Council of Teachers of English, or NCTE, finds that many English teachers are skeptical of the value of current standardized tests and are interested in finding ways to assess students that are more closely tied to the work that happens in classrooms and to schools and local communities.

Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor of English and a distinguished research professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, led the study. She said the main intention was to find out what kinds of assessments are actually happening in classrooms around the country and to find out how teachers thought assessments might be improved.

“To our knowledge, no one had actually asked teachers what was going on,” Yancey said. “We were also interested in the idea of equity and equitable assessment. We wanted to learn about what ideas they might have about what we might do that might be better.”

In the report, Yancey and her co-authors recommend that more teachers actively participate in the development of literacy assessments and that their perspectives be taken into account by policymakers.

“Because of the role teachers play in the classroom, they know something none of the rest of us do,” she said. “They’re helpful not only in terms of creating a portrait of what’s going on but in terms of helping us understand how that portrait could be changed.”

The NCTE put out the five-question, open-ended online survey last year. The results were released this week in a report called “The Assessment Story Project that synthesizes the submissions of some 530 teachers. The results were not statistically representative of teachers from around the country, but respondents reported being from a mix of grade levels, school types, and geographic regions, and respondents likely include both NCTE members and others.

Teachers were asked to describe classroom assessments that they found particularly useful, a time when standardized test results had either frustrated or aided their classroom practice, how families and community members might be included in conversations about assessment, and what kinds of standardized tests might ensure that all students are succeeding and offer useful information. (Here’s the full survey.)

The report organizes teachers’ responses into five themes:

  • Teachers were knowledgeable about assessment and use a variety of methods to assess students’ learning for both formative and summative purposes. (For more on formative assessment, check out this Education Week special report.)
  • Teachers valued assessment in reading and writing that is meaningful—that is, assessment that can inform or support teaching or learning.
  • Most teachers did not find standardized reading and writing tests to be meaningful. Some found that the tests had some potential benefits but thought they were administered too frequently.
  • Many teachers found high-stakes standardized assessments to be a distraction from more meaningful activities.
  • Teachers suggested that student presentations, portfolios of student work, “embedded” assessment, and real-world tasks could be more meaningful ways to assess students’ learning.

Teachers’ descriptions of their own day-to-day practices and their experiences with standardized tests are also included. These were among the responses:

The most useful assessment is day-to-day formative that guides the next step in instruction. I wish summative assessments were better designed to be more appropriate for small children. Those tests are too long and we put so much emphasis on them that students are intimidated.” Sharon, K-5, under-resourced, rural

“The data is valuable. The issue comes in devoting the time it takes to mine the data and analyze it. If school leadership does not have supports in place, then data is viewed as an extra step or an obstacle. In that sense, it undermines the power of the data.” Kelli, 9-12, under-resourced, urban

“At times, when I’ve had a student who turned in really poor work and/or wouldn’t participate in class, I’d check verbal scores on SATs to see if that number in any way related to the type of writing I was seeing.” Anonymous, college, rural

“Low-stakes writing works well for me. If my students realize from the beginning that I am looking for understanding, not just trying to ‘get’ them with grades, then the vast majority will be more willing to answer the formative question or questions.” Kathy, 9-12, under-resourced, low-performing, rural

Yancey said that none of the teachers reported being entirely satisfied with the current state of assessment in their schools. But, she said, the survey was voluntary and open-ended and specifically asked for suggestions about how assessments could be improved.

Yancey said that she was struck by teachers’ knowledge of different types and purposes of assessments, and the way that teachers reported tailoring their use of assessments to achieve different goals.

Of course, one purpose of standardized tests is for policymakers and the public to understand what’s happening across districts and schools. Yancey said that while many teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the frequency and style of current standardized tests, most were in favor of sharing what was happening in their classrooms with other educators and the broader community. “This isn’t the days of ‘I want to go into my classroom and shut the door,’” she said.

“That’s a different kind of risk,” she said. “It’s not so much that you can see a score on the test. People can see what your students are doing and draw their own conclusions.”

Image source: National Council of Teachers of English

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.