Give Teachers a Bullhorn in the Testing Conversation

Susan Volbrecht teaches at Rufino Tamayo Elementary in Chicago. She is in her ninth year of teaching, and is active with Teach Plus, Catalyst Chicago, and the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff.
One thousand teachers in five cities came together this fall to change standardized testing—and the teaching profession. The conferences, called “Testing the Test: Next Generation Assessments,” brought teacher voice to the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment. Teachers advocated for their students by giving feedback to test makers, and I was fortunate to be a site coordinator and presenter. Seeing teacher voice in the testing conversation proved to me that things will be different. I am neither an employee of PARCC nor did I set out to promote a particular curriculum, publisher or agenda. I am a current teacher who believes that practitioners are uniquely qualified to make decisions about testing—Teach Plus (who organized the conferences) agrees.

Before and After

When I started teaching in 2006, standardized testing went something like this: tests contained egregious errors, low-quality and low-interest passages and poorly worded questions, and some scores didn’t come back until the end of the year. Even with the highest-achieving students, it was hard to say what the outcomes would be. In short, testing windows were bad times to be a teacher, not to mention being a student. I remember questions aligned with the wrong grade levels and the look of terror on my students’ faces as they realized that they were being cheated. Though colleagues, administrators, students and families agreed, there was really nothing we could do. We had to grin and bear it and do our best to encourage our students. Those days seem to have finally passed—we are now part of the process, and we have a chance to make our mark on testing before it gets to our students.

Real Input from Real Teachers

Participants at the Testing the Test conferences used a critical eye and rigorous rubric to review PARCC. They looked for alignment with Common Core State Standards, the quality and variety of questions and texts, and they evaluated the practicalities associated with test administration. I’ll be honest: Not all the feedback was positive. But the point of these conferences was not to get a “thumbs up” from teachers on this test in its current form. Rather, it was an opportunity for policy makers and test writers to learn from those on the front lines. This was our chance to get that feedback to the right people. Given the history of testing in America, it’s easy for us to question whether our voices on these issues will be heard. I am optimistic. PARCC sent representatives to the conferences who did not sit in the back taking notes, but actually circulated among the teachers eliciting further feedback. At the second Chicago event, Mary O’Brian, the director of assessment at the Illinois State Board of Education, joined us. This sends a clear message to teachers: what you think matters. “It was an opportunity to be as close to educators as we possibly could be,” said PARCC representative Callie Riley. She went on to say that some of the items she was listening for included “operational” concerns, and “wording in particular questions.” This is a major shift for teachers. During the nine years I have spent in the classroom thus far, mistrust of educators has spread. Much of the bad press has been tied to issues of test scores or our perceived “failures.” It gives me hope to know that there are organizations that not only trust us when it comes to assessing our students, but value our opinions enough to bring us together, compile the data, and take it to the top. It gives me even more hope to see teachers at 9:29 p.m. on a school night (for many, this was the end of a 15-hour work day) writing down notes down to the last minute, making sure that they are doing the best they possibly can for their students. While finalized data from the events is not available yet, I saw the teachers’ written work and heard their discussions. There are improvements that can be made. The most important thing for me is that these improvements will be based largely on teachers’ expert opinions.
Susan Volbrecht
Susan Volbrecht teaches at Rufino Tamayo Elementary in Chicago. She is in her ninth year of teaching, and is active with Teach Plus, Catalyst Chicago, and the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff.

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