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March 2010: Tests' value is in student learning

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Two of the most fearsome words I ever heard in school were “pop quiz.” When the teacher made the surprise announcement, we cleared our desks, wrote down our answers and hoped for the best.

Pop quizzes always left an impression. The teacher had a snapshot of what we had learned. If we had been keeping up with our lessons, quizzes only helped our final grades. Worst case scenario, our parents found out and they left their own impression. Either way, we understood that, as students, there was something in it for us.

That is the difference between testing yesterday and today.

While there is still plenty of testing for students to worry about—though probably no more of it than in generations past—most of the focus is on the highest-stakes test of all:  the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment. Though it varies widely from state to state, educators agree that these tests cause more stress for teachers, schools and districts than anything else. That’s because, according to No Child Left Behind, schools and districts are labeled as “failing” if they don’t meet Adequate Yearly Progress.

Some teachers may feel like they’re testing all the time because there’s so much focus on this single assessment, and count down the days until the testing window (March 30-April 24 this year in New Mexico). The truth is, Albuquerque Public Schools students take 18-20 hours to complete the SBA. While that’s a lot of hours on one project, keep in mind there are 1,080 hours in a school year. Add in six hours for the handful of other assessments the district gives, and you’ve got roughly 26 hours’ worth of tests, or about 2.4 percent of the year’s instructional time.

Students probably feel the same way about how much testing they do. The more important issue is what’s in it for them? There’s plenty of incentive to do well on classroom tests or on the ACT because kids know their scores reflect on them and can have an impact on their future.

The SBA places accountability—or proclaims failure—on schools and teachers. Kids can’t figure out why it has any value for themselves. It doesn’t affect their grades, their chances of graduating or their college plans. If we’re failing the kids, maybe it’s because we’ve shifted the emphasis to a high-stakes test and away from the meaningful process of assessment.

Tests are as old as the hills. In my day, we had the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the California Achievement Test that school districts gave students to see what they needed to work on, rather than see if they could hit an arbitrary target.

The flaw in the SBA, and NCLB in my opinion, is that we aim for absolute, 100 percent proficiency—a mathematically unreachable goal. It’s pretty discouraging for schools that still have a long way to go.

I like the Obama Administration’s approach. Let’s give schools credit for yearly improvement, not just because it makes them feel good, but because it’s a closer reflection of the reality of life.

Seven grades take the SBA each year. We set targets for each in reading and math, a total of 14 targets. Last year, 10 of those were reached by APS. This year, we’ll try again, setting targets a little bit higher because we expect students to show improvement.

Now, let me go back to that snapshot. I do believe that there is a point to formative testing, the kind of test given periodically to measure what a student knows right now. Its value lies in how it shows current strengths and weaknesses, and gives teachers a sense of what they need to review in class. It’s a measure of where they are at a given moment, and is most effective when we use a series of snapshots to measure whether there’s improvement.

Without tests, there would be no data to refer to on how kids are doing. Data plays an enormous role in how standards are set at each grade level. It gives educators a road map in setting curriculum; it’s a data-driven process now. In short, teachers use classroom time more efficiently because data has tightened up the way we teach.

A test measures what students know and don’t know, and a good score means they learned, simple as that. Students will take the SBA at the end of this month and we’ll see what they learned in August.

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