Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Teacher Finds Good in Testing

A really thoughtful essay by a teacher who used to hate tests – because that's what her union told her – but then discovered that good tests helped her become a better teacher:

In college, I pumped my fist at a rally against standardized testing. I'd never seen the exam I was protesting, but stood in solidarity with educators and labor organizers who felt the testing movement was an attack on teachers, particularly those working in poor public schools. My opposition grew when I became a teacher in the South Bronx, one of America's poorest communities. I wanted to uplift my students and resented the weight of a looming high-stakes test.

Besides, I thought good teachers should be left to their own devices. And, I was certain that I was a good teacher. For the most part, my students were punctual, respectful, and engaged. It wasn't until my second year in the classroom that I began questioning this assumption.

…The state education department oversaw testing, ensuring questions were written and vetted to be "statistically and psychometrically sound," and published an online archive of exams, rubrics, and sample student essays. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I decided to learn from these tools. What I learned was surprising and empowering.

I discovered holes in my curriculum. I once dismissed standardized testing for its narrow focus on a discrete set of skills, but I learned that my self-made assignments were more problematic. It turned out they were skewed in my favor. I was better at teaching literary analysis than grammar and punctuation. When I started giving ongoing standardized assessments, I noticed that my students showed steady growth in literary analysis, but less growth in grammar and punctuation. I was teaching to my strengths instead of strengthening my weaknesses.

The test also compensated for the inherently subjective act of grading. I was designing the quizzes and projects used to evaluate my students and, by extension, my instruction. My intimate knowledge of students and the bonds we forged in the classroom influenced my perception of their performance. I knew Michael was a talented, but lazy, writer. I admired the dogged work ethic of Lian, a Chinese-born student, who struggled to master English. Naturally, I was emotionally invested in the success of my students—their grades were my grades.

The test provided me with fresh perspectives on my work. I was not allowed to assess my students' writing. Colleagues from my English department used detailed rubrics to grade each essay. These peers had emotional distance from the work and could scrutinize essays for evidence of achievement.

…The most powerful opposition comes from the teachers' unions. At a recent convention, the National Education Association insisted that it "will always be opposed to high-stakes, test-driven evaluations." This rhetoric is a distraction from the underlying problem. Standardized testing reflects the curricular priorities of a state's education agenda. Blaming the test for the shortcomings of that agenda is like blaming the barometer for the weather.

That's not to say there is no room for improvement. On the whole, testing must become more innovative, technologically advanced, and better at identifying skills essential for college and career readiness. But the same is true of our public school systems. We certainly wouldn't do away with America's noble, but deeply flawed, experiment with public education.

Sadly, the actual merits and shortcomings of standardized testing often get lost in this stalemated debate that positions the test as either a scourge on teachers or a panacea for reform. In truth, the test is nothing more than a tool. It will not singlehandedly turn around swaths of failing classrooms or be the death of public education.


A Teacher Finds Good in Testing

—Susan Sanford

By Ama Nyamekye

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