Vail Daily column: Not much learned from tests
Last week (and at long last), the Colorado Department of Education released statewide results of the new English language arts and math tests students took this past spring. Individual student, school and district-level data will be made public in December.
The statewide results of the tests (known as PARCC, after the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) didn’t surprise many people who follow education policy. As expected, we saw a massive drop in the number of students deemed as meeting expectations, large (and widening) achievement gaps in all the familiar groups, and the expected large number of students who refused to take the exam was finally confirmed.
So, what did we learn from the PARCC tests? In sum, not much.
I’ve been critical of these exams for their length and number. In terms of these summative (end-of-year) standardized tests, we are testing much too long and too often. I’ve also criticized the flaws and glitches in the computer-based format (it was an ongoing frustration for students and educators).
I’ve also criticized the ridiculously slow turnaround timeline for these tests. Instructionally, a summative test can be useful in measuring system-wide performance and marking areas for growth and success. However, when the results arrive eight months after the students take the exam and four months after we have already started school,then their utility for this capacity is greatly diminished.
These tests should also be criticized for being duplicative, as they largely confirm the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given annually across the country to a sample of students in each state. Results on PARCC look very similar to results on NAEP. The obvious question then is, why on earth would we need them both?
Perhaps the biggest criticism I’d hang on PARCC is one of the main driving forces behind why they exist. Education reform groups, politicians (on both sides of the aisle) and civil rights groups are among the loudest proponents of our testing regimen. Their support rests on the belief that by having all of these tests and by publicly reporting the results, students will be guaranteed access to a quality education and performance will improve.
But, the results tell a different story than the theory. Nearly 15 years after the passage of No Child Left Behind, which ushered in this era of testing, big data and public shaming of so-called “low performing schools” (which overwhelmingly serve the most impoverished students), our national achievement gains have actually slowed and reversed. Perhaps more damning, achievement gaps remain as large as they ever were.
At a macro-level, the evidence just doesn’t seem to support the theory of testing our way to greatness.
In spite of all these criticisms (all of which are well deserved, at least in my professional opinion) I also see value in the PARCC test and what it is designed to do: measure performance against an internationally benchmarked set of expectations for students. This is very much in sync with the work in our school district to align our instruction and curricula to these international expectations and ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn in a high expectation environment.
The tests also ask students to complete complex and multi-step tasks, often with competing or confounding information. Students are asked to analyze, synthesize, critique, evaluate and infer before reaching a decision. These sorts of higher order processes are also consistent with our efforts at giving students literally thousands of opportunities to practice what we call “global-ready skills;” real-life and complex tasks that mirror the kinds of things our kids need to master in order to be successful and contributing citizens.
So, while there is much to criticize about the PARCC tests, we should acknowledge that there is merit in the rationale behind why they exist. Anchoring instruction against high (internationally benchmarked) expectations and creating real-world, engaging and challenging tasks for our students is critically important work.
Let’s just not forget that it’s the learning that’s important — not the test score and the label.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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