education, teachers, teaching

Tests. What Should We Do?

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about district standardized tests (i.e. quarterly exams, and/or midterms, and finals) and their growing popularity and prevalence.  There are many pros to having standardized quarterly exams in schools: they prepare students for formal testing situations, they offer valuable data to stakeholders, and they hold teachers accountable for keeping a fair pace in their instruction. But there are cons, too, and with the advent of the Common Core and PARCC it’s time to reexamine their presence and value in our schools.


“We are losing too much instructional time. We need to stop having all these tests. I say, get rid of the Q1 and the Q3 and just have a midterm and a final,” my colleague said.


I thought about this statement.  “I agree we are losing instructional time,” I said. “But what about having the Q1, Q2, and Q3 exams count as formative–or even non-graded–exams and the final exam count as the summative exam?”


Although he had some real reservations and concerns about my crazy idea, I think I got him on my side. Here was my thinking:


I agree that instructional time is being zapped by our incessant need to test our students, but I don’t think the tests are “bad” unless we make them that way. We need to find a way to maintain all the pros of having district standardized tests while also capitalizing on all they can offer to teachers and other stakeholders.


Since we now work within the capacity of the Common Core we teach students skills, not content, and we teach them these skills continuously throughout the year.  For example, we don’t teach students how to support claims with evidence once and then move on; we teach them how to support claims with evidence and then we have them apply these skills to new situations. Having a summative quarterly exam to test this (and other) particular standard(s) is not congruent to what we teach and how we teach it. If we revisit skills over and over again, having a summative assessment in the middle of the year is counterintuitive.


So let’s change that Quarterly Assessment to a Benchmark Assessment. With a simple change of jargon (wink, wink) it becomes formative.  Now the test’s results are used not just to measure whether or not a student has acquired a skill, but also to determine students’ level of mastery with certain skills. This data is important.  It answers a lot of questions: how are my students progressing with this standard or skill?  Where should I focus my instruction in order to help students master a particular standard? Which standards and skills can be touched upon rather than focused on? When we use quarterly exams to inform our instruction we are tailoring that instruction to the various needs of the students in our classes.


The best part about using these assessments as informative tools is that they allow the teachers to truly mold a unique group of individuals.  For instance, some classes may master Standard 1 before they master Standard 2, while other classes may master Standard 2, but need more practice with Standard 3. So, instruction then becomes about the students and the class instead of solely about the pacing guide.


With formative quarterly benchmarks, teachers can refine their instruction, change its focus, and manipulate it as needed.  When we make quarterly assessments summative we miss out on teaching opportunities that genuinely help students learn. We force them to acquire, practice, and become proficient with skills in short periods of time that take weeks and months to master. And then, even if students don’t master those skills, we still have a pacing guide that implores us to move on.


Making these assessments formative still maintains all the pros of having district standardized tests.  They still simulate formal testing situations, they still offer feedback and data, and they still hold teachers accountable for teaching the necessary material.


What they don’t do is truncate the learning.



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