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Test: It’s just a four-letter word for measuring skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitude.

In public education lately, test has become another kind of four-letter word: one associated with stressed out students, angry parents and teachers fearful of losing their jobs.

Testing has such a negative connotation that in New York City alone this year, nearly 2,000 families formally opted their children out of standardized tests.

Standardized testing debate
Sydney Morris and Evan Stone

If left to fester, this trend of anxiety and frustration will strip our schools and educators of one their most efficient tools. When done well, tests provide essential feedback about student performance and ability, helping educators focus their instruction and reflect on their practice.

In our own classrooms as public elementary school teachers, we strived to create a culture where tests were an opportunity to exhibit mastery, identify concepts that needed more instruction, and understand which students needed additional support.  We also saw them as an assessment of how well we were doing as teachers.

As educators, we believed in creating a culture of shared accountability — our students’ success was our success.

“By ‘taking a deep breath’ as Duncan has done and using the next year to improve the quality of the assessments, we can make ‘test’ just another four-letter word again.”

Unfortunately, the current testing climate has created outright fear and panic. Our organization has hosted conversations with thousands of educators around the country who share this sentiment and tell us it is caused not by a fundamental opposition to the use of tests, but by a confluence of numerous educational shifts at the same time.

Educators are beginning to teach to the new, more challenging Common Core State Standards. Students are being measured on new tests aligned to these standards, and for the first time, teachers’ evaluations now include their students’ growth from these new tests. Many educators feel this shift has generated too much change too fast, and as a result they have called for a slower, more thoughtful process.

This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan showed that he has heard these calls from educators by allowing states to unlink test results from teacher evaluations for at least one year without penalty. In return, these states must continue to collect this data, calculate student growth scores and share the results with teachers and administrators. Access to this information will allow teachers to reflect on their practice and student performance while giving a little breathing room as we adjust to significant changes happening in schools across the country.

While some will call this decision a retreat from reform, we see it as a necessary pause. Without it, the ongoing, potentially lethal debate could eliminate the opportunity for better tests and feedback for teachers and students – and the chance to create transformational change in teaching and learning.

Even supporters of testing, the majority of our members among them, express frustration that they’ll teach a whole year’s worth of curriculum only to find it doesn’t align with the tests they must administer. This recently compelled a group of 14 Educators 4 Excellence teachers to issue recommendations for improving the quality of and culture around assessments.

A few of their ideas include cutting down the time spent on test preparation, eliminating unnecessary tests, timely release of results to shape future instruction, and switching from “bubble tests” to more individualized computer-adaptive assessments that account for critical thinking and problem solving. These shifts are possible and the aim of fewer, better tests is within our reach.

But even the most perfect test will fail if stakeholders don’t get behind the effort. The teacher’s unions, superintendents, advocates and other education leaders have a responsibility to tone down the rhetoric and correct misinformation.

Let’s not forget testing is as old as schooling itself. But for too long now we’ve allowed fear and political agendas to twist the conversation into something nefarious and even evil. By “taking a deep breath” as Duncan has done and using the next year to improve the quality of the assessments, we can make “test” just another four-letter word again. And we can provide teachers and parents with a helpful tool in preparing children for a lifetime of success.

Morris and Stone are former elementary school teachers and co-founders of Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher led organization that works to elevate the voices of educators in education policymaking.

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