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Testing, By Any Other Name…

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

While neighborhood citizens were registering their votes in the basement of my school last week, my colleagues and I were in the library participating in the School District’s professional development, in which new plans for becoming “data wise” in the 2009-1010 school year were unveiled. I wish I believed those two words – data and wise – were congruous.

By themselves, I have no qualms with those two terms. After all, as a teacher, data and wisdom are two things I happen to be very concerned with. However, certain phrases like “data-driven instruction” and “standardization” and even “results” have begun to lose their meaning in this assessment obsessed, No Child Left Behind environment. It’s not that I don’t believe in the importance of assessment in education, or even argue against standardization in all cases (for example, I believe that there should be a national standard by which we measure and assess our high school graduates’ readiness for college). It’s just that, as I have seen them in practice, tests have not always yielded the best – or most accurate – results for schools, especially low-income schools.

For example, a common test in the District is the Benchmark. Currently, Benchmarks are given four times a year and are meant to assess students’ understanding of the objectives and standards covered in the Planning and Scheduling Timeline and Core Curriculum. In theory. In practice, the questions are often not aligned with the Planning and Scheduling Timeline and have no relation to the content students have learned. Students take a two-hour Benchmark in each of their four core classes (Social Studies is not tested) and are often fatigued by the end of the two-day testing period. For this and a number of other reasons, students frequently have a negative attitude toward the test, despite a teacher or school’s best efforts, and do not always perform to their potential.

Students are so disillusioned with these particular tests, a former colleague of mine once formed an experiment in which she typed up the exact passages and questions of the Benchmark test but in the format and style of her own tests. The simple change of not seeing the School District emblazoned header was enough for students to take the test without protest and perform markedly better.

In addition to general test anxiety, for many students, testing raises issues of school climate. Some students have noted that they do not feel respected by their school, which does not have many activities that involve or recognize them. However, when the time comes for standardized testing, the pressure is put largely on them to improve test results. If we are interested in improved test scores by students, perhaps we could start by listening to them. If students felt safe, respected and comfortable in their learning environments, taking tests would not be a big deal. Rather, with each passing year, they seem to become a bigger deal.

So it was with cautious optimism that I listened to and participated in the professional development presentation about how we, as a district, would become “data wise”. The most distressing part of the plan was the announcement of increased testing for students – which I honestly did not know was possible. Now, in addition to the PSSA 12th grade retest, the ACCESS test, the PSSA Writing, Reading/Mathematics and Science tests, quarterly Benchmark exams, and (new this year) weekly standards-based assessments, students will be required to take an end-of-year assessment and additional Benchmark. Some of these assessments are only being implemented in the comprehensive high schools, which raises other questions as well.

However, there were other aspects of the presentation that made me hopeful. For one, we read an article from Educational Leadership entitled “The Collaborative Advantage” by Jennifer L. Steele and Kathryn Parker Boudett. In it, the benefits of collaboration among teachers and examining data are touted, but data is expanded to mean student work, not just standardized test scores, which I found refreshing. The article also suggested that teachers form collaborative groups in which to look at student work and together, as critical friends, identify solutions and next steps. Now this is the type of data-driven instruction I can get behind. Having time to collaborate with colleagues and receive feedback on critical questions about one’s practice would be meaningful and productive, not only for teachers, but for students as well. Framing data as student work and results as solution-oriented teams of teachers provides a powerful context for teaching and learning that standardized tests do not.

While I do not claim to have all of the answers to the dilemma of testing in public schools, I am more concerned with how, and to what extent, our teaching practices are impacted by the ever-increasing presence of tests. I am hopeful that teachers and schools are given the time and space to examine student data thoughtfully and to develop assessments that will impact their students positively. I do not believe it is an either-or proposition. As E.D. Hirsch said in an op ed piece to the New York Times, “We do not need to abandon either the principle of accountability or the fill-in-the-bubble format. Rather we need to move from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to”.

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