Recently, I wrote about the
value of the information parents receive when their kids take common—or standardized—assessments. But I know that leaves some parents wondering whether they are permitting their children to experience harm by taking those assessments. There’s certainly
a lot of rhetoric along those lines—that tests make kids anxious and nervous, lowers their self-confidence, wastes their time and, all in all, harms their well-being. I would argue that if students experience tests in those ways, it’s the fault of the adults around them. Kids like to pit themselves against a challenge. Witness, for example, a kid who works really hard to go from one level to another on a video game, despite being defeated many times.
One of the differences between standardized tests and video games, though, is that no one thinks that failure in video games is a final pronouncement on their worth. You’re not “stupid” if you fail—you simply haven’t mastered the information or skill required to succeed yet. The thrill of mastering that challenge is worth the frustration to get there. That can be true for tests as well. I have talked with many students who like pitting themselves against state tests. There are several keys to students having that attitude, though. One is that the adults who surround the students see tests—and help kids see tests—as interesting challenges. They are not indicators of academic worth but provide information about what additional knowledge and skills students need. Students and the adults around them should also think in terms of growth, not necessarily absolute achievement. This is particularly important for students who arrive at school behind—either because they had interrupted schooling, or are still learning English, or for whatever other reason. If adults can help students who are really not well prepared for a test one year see it as a baseline for the following year, this sets them up for future success and lessens the stigma of perceived failure in the present. But there are other things that the adults in the system need to take into account, and I was reminded of some of them last week, when I received an email from a fabulous principal of a high-performing high-poverty school in New York. She uses assessments to think through what more needs to be done within the school to better serve kids. But, she said, “You don’t need three days of testing to determine if they can read and understand what they are reading.” Point well taken. Standardized tests should not take up huge amounts of time, and New York seems to have gone a bit overboard. For example, fourth-graders take math and English tests that each are spread over three days. That is certainly part of why the opt-out movement is so popular there. Although the state education commissioner,
MaryEllen Elia, shortened the tests a bit, there might be more to do. Another key is that the tests provide students—and their parents and teachers—with good information about how students are doing. Right now, as new assessments are being rolled out around the country, the information being provided is still pretty sketchy. For example,
Smarter Balanced, which is being given in 15 states, does not provide analyses by item and classroom, so students and teachers can’t see exactly where any misunderstandings were. Unless states provide much more complete information, it will be hard to build popular support for these assessments.
A Look at Massachusetts
It might be useful to look at the experience of Massachusetts. When Massachusetts required that the high school class of 2003 pass its
MCAS exams before graduating, the state was in turmoil. Angry teachers, parents and students demonstrated and even burned the state education commissioner, David Driscoll, in effigy. He held firm, but every year he published the test in its entirety once students had taken it. That meant new questions had to be developed every year, which was expensive. But over the years, support for MCAS grew as students, parents, teachers and community members could see that it tested what most people thought a high school graduate should know and be able to do. And when students got their results back they were able to see where they went wrong and where they needed to improve. And, by the way, every once in a while they would find an error. When students convinced state testing officials that they could justify an answer that had been marked incorrect, the state went back and rescored that question for everyone. In that way, Massachusetts built confidence in the integrity of the system. And the information that teachers and schools received from these tests helped them think more about what else they needed to learn and do in order to help their students achieve. For these reasons, it is best when assessments are published after they are administered or, at the very least, very detailed information is given to students and teachers about the questions students got wrong. That is the way to provide the kind of accurate feedback that is the key to any kind of improvement. States that don’t provide it are missing a huge opportunity. The big point about standardized testing, however, is that it provides information that is common across classrooms, schools, districts, states and, now that several states are giving the same test, across multiple states. That information—even if it is incomplete—can help students, schools, districts and states to improve. And if parents and teachers don’t think of tests as the end of the world, students won’t either.