Ask any teacher or administrator working today, and they will have lots to say on the subject of testing. In Florida, where I currently live and work, this year marks the first year of high-stakes testing under the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) curriculum. What do the changes mean for us? It means everyone is in a panic over what to expect in terms of the type of test, as well as what those results mean for teachers and students. To put it bluntly, it’s a hot mess.
For one thing, we aren’t really sure what the test is going to look like. Well, we have some idea. The people the Florida DOE have contracted for creating the tests are the same people that developed the tests used in Utah this past year. In case you hadn’t heard, an overwhelming number of students scored below proficiency on the tests that were administered earlier this year. Only 41% of fourth graders were proficient in language arts last year, compared with 78% the previous year, according to this article in the Orlando Sentinel. This number is alarming for a few reasons; among them the fact that student proficiency scores help determine school grades and are used in calculated the VAM scores that link directly to teacher evaluations. If our students are performing that poorly across the board, then we really need to have a close look at the validity of the assessment tools we use, the curriculum we teach, and our methods of instruction. Giving more tests is not the answer.
What happens when you have a new test coming down the road? A test that has so much riding on it? Well, what it means is lots and lots of test prep. And since we don’t exactly know what this test will look like, we scramble to come up with lots of ways to prep kids. My previous school district decided they would create their own monthly writing assessment to help “get the students ready for the demands of the new timed writing tests.” That translated to a monthly writing prompt that would take me three class periods to administer, valuable instructional time lost, and countless hours spent grading. Combine that with additional test prep in reading and math, common monthly assessments, FAIR testing, and benchmark tests, and you’ve got a generation of kids who do nothing but test.
Florida and Utah aren’t alone in this. New York started implementing these tests two years ago, and things are just as bad there. In New York City, only 26% of students in grades 3-8 showed proficiency in reading, and only 30% were proficient in math, according to the 2013 testing results. Not exactly good news. Tons of man-hours devoted to prepping students for these assessments did little to help when it came down to taking these tests.
So where do we go from here? Obviously, something is fundamentally wrong with what we are currently doing, as we are no closer to bridging the achievement gap. For many people, the accountability movement has begun to resemble the hydra of Greek mythology: every time a test is eliminated, it feels like two more appear in its place. It’s time we got off the high-stakes testing roller coaster and started looking at what and how our students learn, as well as how other factors play a role in student learning outcomes.