How should we measure student learning?

Special to redefinED

Note: This is the fourth installment in our guest series on testing and choice. See previous contributions here. Coming Monday: Former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett.

by Jane Watt

As chairman of the board of Marco Island Academy in Collier County, Fla., I have had an opportunity to witness firsthand how standardized testing requirements affect students, teachers and administration at a public charter school.

testing and choiceAs a parent of three children in the public school system, I have personal experience with how testing has affected my own kids.  In both cases, I have seen an unnecessary amount of stress caused by an abundance of standardized testing.

At the state and federal level, legislators have expressed a greater desire to measure student learning through assessments. In an effort to ensure that all students succeed, the U.S. has inadvertently created test-taking factories in the public school system.

Schools must have high expectations and an effective way to measure student learning.  But at what point do we determine that additional testing is not the solution to a much more complex problem? Are the standardized tests aligned with the standards that are taught in class? Do the test results give teachers useful data to guide instruction? Based on my experience, the answer to these questions too often is no.

Last year, students at MIA spent approximately half their instructional days during second semester taking tests of some kind. Between the Florida Standards Assessments, mandatory end of course exams, and the advanced-curriculum AICE and Cambrige International exams, students in every class were tested, sometimes multiple times in the same course. In the pre-Cambridge Biology class, for example, students took a state-mandated Biology end-of-course exam and the pre-AICE test.

Administrators had to coordinate logistics. They had to establish seating charts prior to each test and submit them to our local district. Our small community charter school cannot afford a full-time IT team. Instead, we spent thousands of dollars to have an IT representative visit the school and set up all the computers prior to each test. Our guidance counselor doubled as a full-time test administrator. Teachers were pulled from their classrooms to proctor exams. We had to hire substitute teachers to take their place.

Valuable instructional time was replaced by what I like to refer to as the “testing marathon.” We survived. In fact, we administered all the tests successfully, and our students performed very well. But in retrospect, what exactly did we gain that we didn’t already know? In my opinion, not enough to justify the time our teachers and students lost in the classroom.

After researching countries at the top of list consistently according to international assessments, I realized they’ve embraced different approaches. For example, in Singapore, classroom instruction is uniform across all levels and subjects throughout the country. Teachers focus on a strict curriculum and prepare students for high-stakes end-of-year testing. Their model incorporates top-down teacher accountability based on student performance. While this type of structure has been effective in the past, Singapore’s government recognizes the need to evolve in order to maintain its position in the future. They are developing a new framework called “Teach Less, Learn More.” In addition, teachers are incorporating more and more technology into the classroom.

While Finland also ranked near the top of recent PISA scores, its educational model is completely different. Teachers actually develop the curriculum and design their own tests. There are no national tests, except for one administered at the end of high school. In the lower grade levels, less time is spent in the classroom and more time is spent playing, with virtually no emphasis placed on standardized testing.

Although it is unrealistic to think we can simply emulate another country’s education system and expect the same results, I think there are lessons we can learn from them. Testing isn’t the real problem. In fact, when used appropriately, assessments can be very useful in the education process. Teachers administer tests and quizzes regularly to gauge student learning. However, I believe the quantity and types of assessments we are currently using are an issue.

Standardized test administration is costly and requires hours of time. The results are not given to the teachers in a timely manner. Therefore they cannot be used to help guide individual students’ instruction.

In order to adequately measure student learning, we need to take a more comprehensive approach. Standardized tests should be used as one tool, a small piece to the puzzle, but not as the complete evaluation.

Students taking advanced courses such as AP, IB or AICE should be exempt from other testing. Students taking general classes should be required to take no more than one standardized test, for example a PSAT or similar test, once a year to measure growth. By using a nationally normed test, students can be compared to other students throughout the country. Teachers should be given the test results immediately so they can use the information.

In addition, teachers should be expected to keep a portfolio on every student. The portfolio should paint a fuller picture of the child’s academic achievement, including samples of work demonstrating where the child excels and where he or she needs more help. The portfolio should be used to support the individual student’s learning needs.

Some students who are creative artists, talented writers or  gifted musicians may struggle in math. Other students who are brilliant mathematicians struggle with verbal skills.

It makes me think of the line in the song “Seasons of Love.” How do you measure a year in the life?

Students’ individual talents and abilities cannot be all measured simply by administering standardized tests. Until we recognize this, we will not be able to fully measure student learning. Nor will we be able to give students’ the support they need to succeed in their future.

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