Jul 8, 2011

Standardized Testing In Our Schools [Or, My Justification For Using Test Scores To Assess Teachers]

Michael Loeb just completed his third year as a teacher. He teaches middle school students with special needs in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, NY. Prior to teaching in New York he assistant taught and mentored in Washington, D.C.’s public schools.

A standardized testing debate currently rages in America. I have heard some people harshly criticize any use of standardized tests as a means of assessing student growth, and in turn, teacher effectiveness. I disagree with that view, because there are two aspects of this debate that I maintain to be true: one - our students need to perform at proficient levels on tests and a variety of other assessments now and in the future. Two - curricula that are aligned to a test don't have to eliminate teacher creativity or critical thinking in students.

Our students are growing up in a society that emphasizes testing way beyond K-12 public education. To enter college, our students must be able to demonstrate their abilities in a multitude of ways, including through a test. The same applies for many of our students that attend graduate school. And many of the professional fields that they may choose to undertake require them to pass a standardized exam, such as law, nursing, and, of course, teaching.

While standardized tests are currently imperfect, they are improving and already provide us with important information on student progress. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have partnered to incorporate the internationally benchmarked Common Core State Standards into their tests. CCSS-aligned tests will better prepare students to enter college in America and maintain a career in a competitive global economy. Additionally, the learning expectations for all public school children in the partnering CCSS states will be uniformly rigorous.

A March 2008 Economist magazine article explains why consistent high national standards are so important: "In Mississippi 90 percent of fourth-graders were labeled "proficient" or better in the state reading test in 2006-07. Only 19 percent reached that level in a national test." Standardized tests can help ensure that where a child lives will not negatively impact his or her learning expectations.

I am a teacher whose career was directly impacted by standardized tests. Last month, I finished my third year of teaching students with special needs in the Bronx, NY. In May, I submitted a 200-page application to my school district's superintendent in support of my tenure candidacy. The application contained lesson plans, unit plans, student work, reports on student progress, the agendas of workshops I led, and my students' standardized testing data. I learned a few weeks afterward that while much of my application was strong, I did not earn tenure because my students, on average, did not grow enough academically, according to their standardized English and mathematics tests. While personally disappointing, I philosophically agree with the decision made by my superintendent.

No, testing is not the sole means of measuring learning, but it is one important measure of many. As an education system, we must measure our students' proficiency through a litany of mediums -- essays, long-term projects, lab reports, discussions, presentations, homework and, yes, tests. It was refreshing to hear New York City's teachers union president Michael Mulgrew acknowledge to me and other educators at a January education policy panel that, in fact, "tests are part of what we do as teachers."

When I plan units of study to help prepare my students to meet testable standards, I spend the majority of my time crafting projects and assignments that will represent a range of ways students can demonstrate their learning. This year I was able to guide my students through creating and delivering PowerPoint presentations, writing historical informative essays supported with primary sources, and debating the persuasion techniques used in the film An Inconvenient Truth. Teaching students to perform on a standardized test and teaching students to perform on a host of different engaging assignments are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

I tell my students: yes, you must meet the state and national standards, but you also must meet my standards. That's not up for debate.

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