Testing’s part of education | VailDaily.com

Testing’s part of education

John Brendza

Schools and tests have been paired together for as long as classrooms have existed. But in 2005, the consequences tied to test taking are seen on a bigger stage than a single student’s report card. In some cases, the results of a particular test are used to evaluate the effectiveness of an entire school, an entire school district and indeed, all schools in Colorado.For decades, American students have participated in standardized testing. Today’s parents may remember filling in the “bubbles” for exams such as the California Achievement Test (CAT), the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), or the Sanford Achievement Test (SAT). But it wasn’t until 1983 – when a groundbreaking government report titled “A Nation at Risk” was published – that U.S. public schools took a sobering yet realistic look at themselves and achievement results. “A Nation at Risk” predicted vast economic consequences for the United States resulting from the failure of public education to adequately prepare children for the future. This report served as a wakeup call for America’s public schools, and it resulted in states developing independent testing programs. And, most significantly, the report initiated a subtle but seismic change in how data obtained through standardized testing is used.Historically, school districts used information gleaned from standardized tests diagnostically to fill gaps in curriculum and identify strengths. Today, however, standardized testing information is used to literally grade schools. In Colorado, School Accountability Reports are complied by the state each fall and sent directly to parents. These reports rate public schools as Excellent, High, Average, Poor or Failing based on the previous year’s Colorado Student Assessment Program test scores. Colorado is not unique in its current emphasis on standardized testing. Three years ago, a landmark piece of legislation called No Child Left Behind was passed. This new federal mandate requires schools to show test score progress or risk dire consequences, and it has effectively turned up the heat on schools around the country.So, is all this attention on standardized testing a bad thing? No, not necessarily. First, remember that the CSAP is a standards-based exam, so when we are accused of “teaching to the test” we can reply with all honesty that yes, we are. We are teaching to the Colorado state standards that are tested by the CSAP. That’s what we should be doing every day. In my opinion, prior to “A Nation at Risk” and No Child Left Behind, schools simply weren’t held accountable for student achievement. As I well know in my position as superintendent of Eagle County schools, the high-stakes atmosphere surrounding the CSAP has forced us to focus on student achievement. I welcome that focus – it’s why we are here in the first place. But even as I acknowledge the importance of scoring well on the CSAP, I urge parents to understand that the value of the exam extends far deeper than a single score.What is the single most important factor to ensure student achievement? Teacher quality. That’s why Eagle County schools’ most important goal is to put a well-trained and well-prepared teacher in front of every student, every day.Two vital elements of this effort include providing continuing education for teachers (addressed through our local Teacher Advancement Program) and real-world diagnostic information about students. For us, the CSAP isn’t a single testing effort that is administered, graded, announced and forgotten. It is a regular part of how teachers do their work. In Eagle County schools, all classroom teachers have access not only to how each student scored on the CSAP, but also detailed information about his or her relative strengths and weaknesses on the test. But the CSAP isn’t the district’s only data gold mine. Every September and May, all Eagle County students in grades 2-10 complete the Northwest Evaluation Association exam. This innovative testing instrument is administered on school computers and questions become progressively more difficult as students work their way through the test. As a result, the test hones in on a student’s abilities. From there NWEA calibrates a RIT score (see accompanying information). By testing in the fall and again in the spring, we can literally find out how much students have learned during the school year. Every year, we project a goal for student growth in the areas of math, reading and language usage for all grades based on NWEA scores. And unlike the CSAP – which releases scores months after the exam is administered – the NWEA results are immediately available, giving us the opportunity to chart growth as it occurs. This year, we saw phenomenal growth in NWEA scores. Every single grade level exceeded their student growth goal in the area of reading. In the area of language usage, every grade level except grade 9 exceeded their goal and in the area of math every grade level except 9 and 10 exceeded their goal. Too often standardized testing is viewed too simplistically. CSAP scores are not a definitive reflection of a school’s effectiveness nor should they be used as an instrument for punishing public education. They are, however, an effective means of measuring our students’ progress in meeting the achievement standards established by the state. Standardized testing is an effective tool to make sure that schools and teachers are doing their jobs. In Eagle County it is one of the most important resources we have in working toward our mission of Educating Every Student for Success.Tracking student achievementThe Rasch Unit, or RIT, scale is a measure of student achievement and student growth.A RIT score relates directly to the curriculum scale in each subject. It is an equal-interval scale, like feet and inches, so scores can be added together to calculate accurate class or school averages. RIT scores range from about 150 to 300, and students typically start at the 150 to 190 level in the third grade and progress to the 240-300 level by high school. Of course, many students start at a higher RIT level and many low achieving students never reach the upper ranges of the scale.RIT scores make it possible to follow a student’s educational growth from year to year. John Brendza is the superintendent of the Eagle County School District.Vail Colorado

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