Ramirez: Why Testing Matters (column)
September 19, 2018
I could ask ten people on the street what they think about standardized testing, and I imagine the majority of them would express some frustration with the amount of testing kids are subjected to, and/or the high stakes tied to test scores. As educators, we feel those same frustrations. I've heard it from my peers when I was a classroom teacher, from staff during my years as a principal, and from school leaders during my time in disctrict leadership.
The challenges around standardized testing, specifically in Colorado, have been many. First, the tests have been in a near constant state of flux – from CSAP to TCAP to PARCC to CMAS. The revisions were out of an effort to increase the difficulty of the exams to be in better alignment with international standards and modern times, but educators and parents have been frustrated by the perception of trying to hit a moving target.
The second issue has been the sheer volume of testing. Studies have been done to determine how much time students spend on standardized testing each year. We all recognize that it's too much, and recent efforts have been to reduce testing time and volume of testing.
The third big issue is around the effectiveness of the tests to inform the student learning experience. If we take third grade exams as an example, the students take the exams near the end of the school year and we receive the results the following year. By then, the students have moved on to fourth grade, so any adjustments we make in instruction are applied to a new set of students. We've missed our chance to adjust our pedagogical practices with that particular group of students.
There are plenty of other challenges. Moving from pencil, paper, and scantron to computerized testing with essay responses, for example, adds typing skills, navigation skills, and relies on network connects both locally and at the state. State standardized tests are in English, and a third of students are English Language Learners – misunderstanding one word in a math problem can make it impossible to solve. All of these issues impact school and district overall scores.
But despite the obstacles and challenges, I do believe testing matters.
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- Testing provides teachers, principals, and district leadership with valuable instructional feedback.
- Testing holds us all accountable to our students, giving us clear objectives and minimum standards to reach for.
- Testing holds us accountable to the state.
All instruction, no matter the school, student population, county, or state can be improved upon. Testing allows us to gain insight into what worked, what didn't, and what needs to be be looked at again or done differently. This instructional feedback allows us to analyze if our curriculum is carefully aligned with grade level expectations. We can drill down through the data to pinpoint where we need to make adjustments, how to help struggling students, and even how, when, and where to increase rigor.
Eagle County is wonderful, diverse community that strongly supports and values education. Testing tells us how we're doing with our students. For the last decade, we've seen affluent students achieve well and impoverished students struggle. This aligns with national and international trends. If we do nothing, our results will remain the same. But if we use testing as the tool it's meant to be, we can analyze, extrapolate, and raise the achievement of our neediest students while also challenging our highest acheivers. Education is the heartbeat of America – it is the way out of poverty and into the American Dream. Importantly, if we don't address the most challenged students and lift them toward success, then we have fewer adults prepared to join the global workforce. Testing helps us be accountable to all of our students.
Finally, the Colorado Department of Education uses standardized testing to accredit and compare schools across the state. Because we see this data, we can use it to better ourselves. How are we doing compared to another district with similar demographics and socioeconomics? How can we learn from this? What are other districts doing that we're not? Or what are we doing that is allowing us to outperform in that area? We have dedicated and compassionate educators, support staff, and principals here in Eagle County, all working diligently to help students succeed.
I believe we need to balance how we view testing. It is a single-point-in-time measurement. It is certainly not the only indicator. We track several data points, including social and emotional health indicators, as we teach to the whole child. So, let's take testing as a signpost. It is is one of many important indicators. We do need it, but like a Broadway performer, we have to be able to sing AND dance. We have to do well on tests AND develop the whole child. Fortunately, there is no better place on the planet to achieve just that than right here in Eagle County! #ecsrocks
Carlos Ramirez, Ed.D., is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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