Monday, January 19, 2015

Teachers need tests...just not THOSE ones!
By:  Marla Kilfoyle and Melissa Tomlinson

Combined, we have over 41 years of experience teaching.   Marla is a National Board Certified Teacher with 29 years of teaching in Middle and High School.  Melissa has been in education for 12 years, mostly in special education classrooms.    We have used testing "data" for a variety of things throughout the years.   In the good old days, teachers used testing outcomes to help kids, in fact, many still do.  Let's take a simple 
spelling test that a teacher may give.   The teacher gives the words out for a child to study that may have a certain trend.  For example, kids may need to study words that have the "ph" (phone) sound. The teacher would give the kids a list of words to study that contain that sound.  When the child takes the spelling test and does well, this outcome tells the teacher that the child will be proficient when it comes to spelling words with the"ph" sound.  If a child does not do well on the test, the teacher will design some intervention strategy to help the child master that set of words.   The intervention strategy could be to have the child restudy just the words they missed and retake the test.  The teacher could have the child use the words in a writing piece or sit with the teacher in an extra help session to go over the words.  The great thing about the "good old days" is that the teacher got to decide the type of intervention strategy and tailor it to the child.  Those days are long gone!

Let's now examine how high stakes state tests are used by teachers.   In the state of New York, currently, students are required to take and pass two history Regents exams to graduate.  The two exams they must pass are the U.S. History Regents (Grade 11) and the Global History Regents (Grade 10).   Both of these tests are 50 multiple choice questions, a thematic essay, and a Document Based Essay.  The students have 3 hours to take the test.   In the good old days, before "accountability" in New York State, teachers scored all parts of the test, and the data from those tests was kept available, in the school, for  teachers  to use to help children.  By keeping the exams in school, teachers had access to them and could use them for remediation. One New York teacher shared, "I had a young man about five years ago who had failed the Global History Regents, and he was due to take it again in June. He needed to pass it to graduate from high school.   I was able to access his old Regents exam that he failed because we could keep the exams  in the school to access. I was able to analyze his weaknesses, and work on that with him so that he could pass the Regents in June and graduate with his class."  That teacher says today, "Teachers are not allowed to grade the multiple choice anymore.  We grade just the essays.  The multiple-choice portion of the exam is sent out, and we never get to see it again.  We cannot use the outcomes of the multiple-choice to analyze and help kids, especially the kids who didn't pass the exam and need to pass it to graduate. " 

In Melissa's classroom, she is constantly assessing how the kids are progressing towards their learning goals on a daily basis. During lessons, there is a discussion that is geared towards showing the students how to access previous knowledge about mathematical strategies and procedures for a new task. For example, a class discussion would ensue about a coordinate plane that has two plotted points on it, and the kids would be asked to determine the distance between the two points. After some guidance during the conversation, the students would be lead to realize that they could draw a right triangle and apply the Pythagorean Theorem to find the distance between the points as the hypotenuse of the triangle. From there, the distance formula would be created from the work that they had accomplished. Modeling of the formula would lead the students through the exact steps.  Then practice would follow on individual whiteboards or paper as Melissa walked around the room to check the students' work for understanding, as well, as help the students correct any errors that they were making in the process. Only after understanding from the group as a whole was evidenced, would the next part of the lesson be started. Summative assessments would be given periodically to check for development of understanding of the concept, with any tests and quizzes given back to the students for corrections with assistance from notes and the teacher.

Standardized tests in New Jersey had no format for such a diagnostic analysis of a child's understanding and mastery of a concept. The New Jersey ASK (replaced this year by the PARCC) was never sent back to the teachers and students.  There was no analysis of what type of problems were incorrect so that measures could be taken for re-teaching and intervention. The ASK scores themselves were never released until the month of August following the test. Some districts in New Jersey do not even share the scores with the teaching staff.  When a teacher is given these scores, we can see if a child was below proficient, proficient, or advanced proficient but no breakdown of math area is given, such as number sense or data, and statistics. As a parent, Melissa never received such information either from the ASK exams. The parent letter sent back to New Jersey parents stated:

Dear Parent/Guardian:
Your child's Individual Student Report for the 2014 New Jersey Assessment of Skills and
Knowledge (NJ ASK 3–8) is attached. The NJ ASK was administered over a four-day period
within a two-week window for grades 3–8 in May 2013. This report presents your child's
English Language Arts and Mathematics scores on this test. The NJ ASK English Language
Arts and Mathematics scores are reported as scale scores with a range of 100 to 300. Scores
at or above 250 indicate "Advanced Proficient" performance. Scores from 200 to 249
indicate "Proficient" performance. If your child is in the "Advanced Proficient" or
"Proficient" level, he/she has met the state standards for that content area. Scores below 200
indicate your child performed at the "Partially Proficient" level and has not met the state
minimum level of proficiency, based on this test administration and may need some type of
additional instructional support.
This report is available only to parents, guardians, and authorized school officials. If you
have any questions about the report, you should contact your child's teacher or principal.
They can help you interpret the information on the score report and can explain what the
instructional staff is doing—and what you can do—to help your child master the skills
measured on the test.

Without seeing what questions were answered incorrectly, it has been a futile game of inferring what a child did or did not know and where remediation needs to be directed. An answer could have been wrong due to a simple calculation error while the actual concept was well understood. Or a child could have guessed at an answer, got it correct, but never understood the concept at all. Without access to the tests themselves, too much is unknown, and a concrete plan for intervention cannot be formulated.  Equate it to a doctor giving you a test when you are sick but never getting the results back to make you better.

As we saw early this month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continued his push for testing to define the landscape of American public education.  Secretary Duncan continues to support testing that teachers do not get access to in order to help children.  He supports high stakes testing  that is being used to close schools and he supports testing results that that are being used to degrade great teachers  and punish children.  These same testing results make Pearson a ton of money but at the same time funnels money away from our children and their schools.   

The landscape of high stakes testing that has been fostered in our schools today is not about helping kids and it certainly is not going to solve the issue of equity in education.  We see this first hand as public school classroom teachers.  We see every year that high stakes testing discriminates between those who have and those who do not have.  As teachers we see that children who score the highest are the children who “have” while those who “do not have” score the lowest.  New York is a shining example of this when 97% of English language learners, 80% of children of color, and 95% of children with disabilities failed the Common Core testing.   We can say, with strong confidence, that the testing culture that has defined our education system since No Child Left Behind, is not good for education, is not creating equity in our schools, and it certainly is not helping children. 

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