Opinion
Assessment Commentary

An Opportunity to Talk About Testing

By Celine Coggins — February 13, 2013 5 min read

The teacher-led boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress assessment at Seattle’s Garfield High School advances a critical dialogue about testing in our schools, but it also risks further marginalizing teachers as education leaders. The protest offers us an opportunity to have a more robust debate about how the right assessment can better help teachers improve practice and foster student learning. Unfortunately, the current polarized climate in education serves to obscure a complicated issue and reduce it to an all-or-nothing, pro-test vs. anti-test showdown.

The teachers at Garfield have made it clear that they are not against testing in general, but are resistant to using the map assessment specifically. (“Teachers in Spotlight Over Testing Boycott,” Feb. 6, 2013.) They believe it does not measure what they are expected to teach. And they are forcing a necessary national conversation, not only about the quality of assessments, but also about their alignment to curriculum and the Common Core State Standards.

The protest offers us an opportunity to have a more robust debate about how the right assessment can better help teachers improve practice and foster student learning."

Their protest, however, has captured the imagination and spin of anti-testing advocates across the country. The Chicago Teachers Union has launched a “Pencils Down!” campaign, while United Teachers Los Angeles asked teachers to participate in a day of solidarity. But the character of these newer protests departs from the intent of the teachers in Seattle. The anti-testing advocates have co-opted the important message that not all assessments are created equal, and that access to better ways of measuring student progress is critical, turning it into the significantly less nuanced position that all assessments are bad, and, therefore, we should halt testing in American schools.

This argument is ultimately a loser, both for kids and for teachers. It is a political nonstarter, as it should be. That is, despite the myriad imperfections of our current fragmented testing system, assessment data has allowed us, over the past decade, to gain a clear-eyed view of the staggering size of the achievement gaps between low-income African-American and Latino students and their more advantaged peers. It has trained our focus and resources on the students who need them most. It is the starting point in ensuring that the highest-need students are assigned effective, experienced teachers. Examining the data and acting to address inequity is a moral imperative.

Both sides of the bitter testing debate do, however, make valid points. Those who advocate testing are right: We need to be able to measure student progress objectively, and we need the tools to do this on a massive scale. However, the anti-testing folks are also correct: The assessments we have now aren’t good enough and are often excessive. But acknowledging that both these positions have legitimacy doesn’t take us very far toward solving the problem.

The reality is that testing will and must endure in schools. And right now, we have a narrow window of opportunity to shape what they will look like as states and districts wrestle to find, develop, and adopt new assessments aligned to the common core. But it is our teachers who should define what is useful and needed in helping them improve their practice. Psychometricians and policymakers can only do so much.

One of the key tenets of professionalism is to own problems of practice. This is the moment for teachers to be problem-solvers, but this cannot happen if we misdiagnose the issue fundamentally. To reach a healthy solution, the central question we be should asking is not: How can we turn back the clock to the pre-standardized-test era and stop trying to figure out whether and to what degree students are learning? But rather: How do we ensure that assessments are aligned to the standards teachers are expected to teach with useful, timely information to improve their practice? This is the problem today. This is the problem teachers need to be at the table to help solve.

Teachers affiliated with my organization, Teach Plus, have developed a way for their peers across the nation to take action and raise their voices for better assessments. In my conversations with teachers from Memphis, Tenn., to Boston, a similar theme has emerged. While most teachers only administered a state test, a handful had access to formative assessments, aligned to their curricula, giving them real-time data and suggestions for changing practice to better serve students. The former group saw little value in state assessments that the state and district leaders were asking them to give, while the latter group saw the formative assessments as indispensable. What’s more, those who had access only to state tests wanted a way to advocate the formative-assessment systems, which they saw as more meaningful, but were available to the limited few.

These teachers developed and launched a website called Assessment Advisor. Modeled on the rating sites Trip Advisor and Yelp, Assessment Advisor allows teachers to rate the tests they have used in their classrooms, add pros and cons about the tests’ alignment to student instruction, and grade their usefulness in terms of their potential to improve teacher practice. The result is a tool that every district and state leader should use. It could also inform the two common-standards assessment groups—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—as they design the new tests.

The teachers at Garfield High have opened the door for a constructive discussion in the debate over standardized testing. This middle path moves beyond whether testing is good or bad and, instead, acknowledges the reality that assessment quality varies. While there is a clear place for testing in our education system, we must strive to ensure that those tests are the most effective assessments possible, that they measure the skills we want our children to acquire in school, and that they give teachers useful information to help them do their jobs well. If we want to turn this moment into a big win for kids, teachers are the ones who should lead that conversation. The rest of us must listen to what they’re saying.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as An Opportunity to Talk About Testing

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