Assessment Opinion

Opting Out? Look at the Tests First

By Robert Rothman — March 20, 2015 4 min read
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Well, testing season seems to have gotten off to a smooth, quiet start, hasn’t it?

The news media are flooded with stories of parents “opting out” of statewide tests and state legislators considering bills that would affirm parents’ rights to do so. Many of these stories are overblown and focus on a vocal minority. However, they reflect the reality that many people are concerned about an over-emphasis on tests and what they are doing to classroom instruction.

As I noted in another forum, if these tests were like the ones most states had administered in the past decade, I might be more sympathetic to the opt-outers. Those tests tended to be primarily multiple-choice, measure low-level knowledge and skills, and provide limited information to teachers and parents. And because the tests were the primary--or sole--means of judging school performance in accountability systems, many schools devoted a considerable amount of classroom time to test-prep exercises that did little to enhance learning and practice or “benchmark” tests to see if students were on track to perform well on the ones that counted.

But the tests many students are taking this year are different, particularly the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC, which my daughter happened to take this week), and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. As Joan Herman wrote in a previous post on this blog, the designs of these tests suggest that they will be much more likely than previous tests to measure higher-level competencies, like reasoning and inference. And the performance tasks--which students are taking this month--are intended to measure extended planning and investigation, the highest level of Norman Webb’s “depth of knowledge” scale.

A glance at the sample tasks provided on the consortia’s websitesshows what she means. Here’s a sample seventh grade English language arts task, from PARCC:

You have read a website entry and an article, and viewed a video describing Amelia Earhart. All three include information that supports the claim that Earhart was a brave, courageous person. The three titles are:

• “The Biography of Amelia Earhart”

• “Earhart’s Final Resting Place Believed Found”

• “Amelia Earhart’s Life and Disappearance” (video)

Consider the argument each author uses to demonstrate Earhart’s bravery. Write an essay that analyzes the strength of the arguments related to Earhart’s bravery in at least two of the three supporting materials. Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas.

And here is a sample task from Smarter Balanced:

Oliver’s Big Splash

Oliver was a dog that lived in a small town near a lake. He loved to play outside. Oliver liked to play fetch, but his favorite thing to do was to chase leaves. He loved chasing leaves so much that his favorite time of year was fall when the leaves fell off the trees.

One beautiful fall day, Oliver and his owner, Jeff, went for a walk around the lake. They were enjoying the sunshine and the lake when suddenly a dragonfly flew past. For a moment, Oliver forgot where he and Jeff were and what they were doing. All of a sudden there was a big splash.

Write an ending for the story by adding details to tell what happens next.

Are these tests ideal measures of deeper learning? No. But as Herman points out, they represent “a big step forward.” And the alternative is likely to be the old, low-level tests.

And as schools, districts, and some pioneering states are showing, it is possible to supplement the new tests with additional measures that truly measure all of the competencies students should demonstrate and that support instruction for deeper learning. For example, Envision Schools, a network in the San Francisco Bay Area, has students complete a graduation portfolio to demonstrate that they can use what they have learned to complete complex tasks, and reflect on their learning. And New Hampshire has just won approval from the U.S. Department of Education for a pilot in four districts that would supplement Smarter Balanced assessments in periodic grades with locally-administered performance tasks and locally developed assessments in other grades and subject areas.

These assessments are not distractions from instruction and learning; they support it. And in the long run, states can help reduce the amount of unhelpful test-prep by auditing testing systems and getting rid of unnecessary ones and by revising accountability systems so that schools are not evaluated on test scores alone.

The current debate over testing has raised important questions about the role of assessment in schools. But the question is not just how often or when students are tested. It is also about what the tests measure and how they measure it. The new assessments are a step forward, and critics might do well to take a look at them.

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