Using Annual Assessments to Improve Schools, Not to Scold Students and Teachers

Without data, policymakers and practitioners in every field are working in the dark. As Congress considers a long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to replace No Child Left Behind, it’s time to bring stronger data-driven, research-based strategies to education practice and policy. And what’s the best way to gather data on student progress? Fair, objective and meaningful annual student assessments. And whose expertise should we seek to improve policy? The wisdom and experience of teachers. At VIVA, we asked hundreds of teachers across the country about student assessments in VIVA Idea Exchanges™, our online platform designed to gather, focus and amplify teacher voice. The feedback was clear: While a polarizing political debate on testing in general has hijacked the conversation on Capitol Hill, teachers are focused on developing better student assessments and using the results to improve the lives of our children. So let me be clear: The teachers we spoke with aren’t advocating for more tests. They aren’t advocating for federally developed tests. And they aren’t advocating for students’ standardized test scores to be a major factor in teacher evaluations. Better than anyone, teachers know that assessment implementation and preparation should never come at the expense of meaningful learning experiences. Excessive, time-wasting tests of no value to students or educators should be eliminated. But to measure progress and provide educators with meaningful, timely and actionable information to improve instruction, we do need annual, statewide assessments that are directly aligned with the high expectations of what students are expected to learn. Teachers want to ensure instructional time is not consumed by test preparation, and that assessments include performance tasks like writing, analyzing texts and showing thought processes, instead of just multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions. And most of all, they want transparent assessments with as much teacher input and feedback as possible. And despite misconceptions, teachers aren’t talking about federally mandated tests. Neither is Arne Duncan—his proposal to replace No Child Left Behind supports local efforts to develop better assessments through flexible funding, not a White House decree. Finally, no teacher or administrator should live in fear of the results of their students’ assessment scores. The teachers we spoke with agree: Student assessments should never be a major factor in teacher evaluations or used for high stakes decision making. Assessment results should be part of a comprehensive, multiple measure system. The goal of student assessment is to help schools improve through better-informed instruction and professional practices—not to punish anyone. Unfortunately, many states have overemphasized standardized test scores and tied them to teacher evaluations. In fact, standardized test scores count for as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in some states and districts, thereby creating legions of unnecessary opponents to annual assessments. By eliminating or even reducing the high-stakes emphasis on standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, we can get back to focusing on good instruction, teacher efficacy and improving learning outcomes for students. When I served as president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the MTA worked with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a large group of stakeholders to develop teacher evaluations based on professional standards that don’t emphasize test scores. Instead, our evaluation framework is comprehensive, objective, transparent and focused on the continuous improvement of all educators, teachers and administrators. Our system is based on multiple measures: educator self-assessment and reflection, classroom observations by trained evaluators and peers, meaningful student and parent feedback, and a review of teacher and student work. Student learning outcomes, such as test results and district-determined measures, are only considered after educators have already received an evaluation rating. Armed with those outcomes, teachers and their supervisors can then set more meaningful student achievement goals and more differentiated professional development strategies. Since the ESEA was signed into law in 1965, it’s been reauthorized and updated by Congress about once every seven years to keep up with the ever-evolving landscape of education in the United States. But the last reauthorization was over 13 years ago. It’s time to replace No Child Left Behind by working with teachers and states to create a new version of the ESEA that includes annual, statewide assessments that are based on high standards and comparable across the states, without creating high-stakes measures for teacher evaluation. NCLB was right in requiring annual, statewide assessments. It is time to update the law to support school improvement, not punish students and teachers.
Paul Toner is president of New Voice Strategies, a nonprofit seeking to dramatically increase classroom teachers’ participation in important policy decisions about public education, through the VIVA Project.
Paul Toner
Paul F. Toner, is the executive director of Teach Plus Massachusetts, where he works to engage and elevate the voices of teachers in local, state and national education policy. Toner has dedicated his career to seeking collaborative, innovative solutions to improving public education. Prior to working at Teach Plus, Toner, a middle school social studies teacher and lawyer, served as vice ...

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