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In my second year of teaching in the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), my principal organized monthly “data meetings.” The stated purpose of these meetings was to reflect on our classroom instruction and student progress in light of students’ latest results on district-created standardized tests. I’d always start these meetings with the same comment: “We can’t talk about what these data show if the test isn’t valid.”

I know this sounds like something that a teacher who doesn’t believe in testing would say, but I’m not that teacher. I enter this conversation as a teacher who believes deeply in data. Through my work as a graduate student in teaching and a Teach For America corps member, I was trained to see critical analysis of student data as essential to my practice.

standardized testing pros and cons
Christina Lear teaches English at Herron High School, a charter school in Indianapolis. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

Now in my third year in the classroom, I continue to rely on testing as one form of assessment, providing vital information about what my students are, and aren’t, learning. Although standardized testing has limitations, it needs to be part of a multifaceted picture of student learning.

That said, I believe in testing only when the tests align with our state standards—the skills that we have collectively agreed are important. I believe in testing only when the data it produces can be reliably linked to my students’ learning.

I believe that many of the teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle feel the same way I do.

This group of Seattle high-school teachers recently chose to boycott a standardized assessment called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). Bloggers and anti-testing advocates seem eager to paint this boycott as the boiling point of a nation frustrated with standardized testing as a whole. However, I believe that what seems like a concern about testing in general is actually a much more nuanced question of test quality and of teacher voice.

The Seattle teachers state that the MAP does not transparently align with their state standards, that the information they get back from it is unclear, and that there are concerns about whether the margin of error makes it reliable at the high-school level.

In a letter they released, the Garfield teachers acknowledge their willingness to use assessments to evaluate student progress. They’re not asking for freedom from accountability. They’re not asking for a test-free world. They take issue not with all tests generally, but with the MAP specifically.

Like the teachers at Garfield High, my colleagues and I had serious concerns about the validity of a particular test we were required by our district to administer. During my first two years of teaching, I was puzzled by a strange discrepancy in my students’ test results. I had been recognized as one of the most highly effective English teachers in IPS due to my students’ success and growth on our end-of-year state test. However, my 10th-graders consistently performed poorly on “scrimmages,” district-created assessments given once a month. I would have been deeply concerned by these results if it hadn’t been unclear to me what they were measuring. These tests were so unreliable that our English faculty couldn’t even agree on the correct answers. Sometimes we were also uncertain whether the questions actually aligned with the standards they were supposed to assess.

Although my students and I gained no valuable information from these scrimmages, we had to halt classroom instruction for one or two days a month to administer and review the tests. I had to tell my students that they’d done poorly when it wasn’t their fault. I had to be told I was a failing teacher even though teaching my state standards well would have no impact on my students’ scrimmage outcomes.

I desperately wanted objective data to add credibility to informal observations of my students and my own assessments. I wanted data that would allow me to compare my students to students in other classrooms across the district. Such data are critical not only to teachers’ practice, but also to students, parents and principals—but only if they’re meaningful and accurate, reflective of our daily teaching and learning. The scrimmages weren’t able to give us those kinds of data.

Along with the other frustrated English teachers at my school, I voiced my concerns about the assessments. We were told to submit our feedback to the district instructional coaches, which we did. Teachers put in many hours drafting recommended improvements, and yet the scrimmages kept coming, largely unaltered. At the time, I felt powerless to change the situation, so I just kept giving the flawed tests, meeting my district requirement—yet wasting our time.

Like me, the Garfield teachers tried to voice concerns to their administration, but their professional expertise was ignored. Unlike me, they were confident enough to make a statement about the suppression of their voices—but it’s critical that our voices are heard for what we are really saying: yes, measure student progress, but know that not all assessments are created equal. Quality isn’t a given.

While I have hope that the new Common Core assessments will provide us more reliable data on our students’ learning, particularly on higher-level cognitive skills, I also know that we teachers must be critical of the assessments to which we devote precious instructional time. It is our professional responsibility to know what mastering the state standards looks like and to speak up when tests do not accurately measure those skills.

I hope there will be a space for our voices to be heard on the topic of testing—and on other issues of teaching, learning and school improvement. I know there have to be better ways to involve teachers. If teachers can be seen as trusted parties in professional decisions, it doesn’t have to come to boycotts for us to do what’s best for kids.

Christina Lear teaches English at Herron High School, a charter school in Indianapolis. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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4 Letters

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  1. Without disagreeing with your main point, I wonder if you’ve considered how limited even the valid tests might be, and whether or not you really need them. Were I to assume the best regarding the standardized tests we have in California, they still only test one of four main language arts skill sets in our standards (reading, but not writing, listening, or speaking). And even then, the tests can’t cover all of the reading standards, so we’re dealing with a really small fraction of what would demonstrate language arts proficiency, and even then, we can’t assume that student performance is a strictly a result of my teaching. And finally, I don’t think it takes a standardized test to tell me what I can observe about my students through my own assessments – which are more frequent and useful (and included in the cost of my salary!). I’m not sure TFA did you a great favor in training you to focus that much on other people’s inferior assessments (but then, their rationale for existing and growing depends in part on your students’ test scores). So, if standardized tests are valid but hardly cover what we teach, and serve little if any diagnostic or evaluative purpose, I don’t much care that they’re valid. If they’re valid.

    And if you’re dealing with multiple choice, there are ways to answer many of the questions accurately without really “reading” as much as deducing, so how valid is that?

  2. Well done! In CPS, we have the same problem–too many tests that do not yield useful data and waste too much class time! I hope that PARCC will eliminate some of the inconsistencies caused by MAPS, as it is non-adaptive.

  3. Christina, I wish your arguments would have been more front and center in that news story. Unfortunately the media and other anti-reformers twisted your agenda and turned it into something it wasn’t. I believe your comments are extremely responsible, because you acknowledge (and ask for) relevant data, but do not believe that MAP data are relevant to your classroom practice. Your comments resonate with me personally, as I’ve also experienced a lack of reliability and validity with MAP related to classroom instruction, but still strongly believe in data.

    Sadly, the public discourse about assessment in education has focused exclusively on accountability and state tests, with no consideration for the vast number of beneficial assessment tools out there. This hyper-focus on only the negative elements of assessment has led folks to dismissing the entire concept of assessment that isn’t teacher-constructed, which is both unfounded and unethical. For example, a prominent educational leader recently wrote a public letter to the school board asking for his children to be exempted from all assessment, and specifically included DIBELS in the letter. To me, this suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of assessment as a construct, and an overgeneralization of assessment as “bad” based on one specific misuse (state tests to measure teacher performance).

    Hopefully folks like you will start to have a louder voice in this discussion, as I believe the current “anti-reformers” aren’t going to make progress as they don’t appeal to most reasonable educators who truly understand the balanced needs of a classroom.

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