By Brian Denitzio and Carline Kelly
An amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, recently proposed by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY), would limit testing for federal accountability purposes to three times in a student's K-12 education. While the amendment is perhaps a well-intentioned effort to streamline testing, it would in fact be a step away from true accountability, mask achievement gaps, and limit our ability to ensure equity for our students. Fear of over-testing is not a sound reason to undermine a valuable tool that, if used well, provides families and educators with important information about student progress and the health of our schools.
As Boston Public Schools teachers, we understand the challenges of bringing students who enter the classroom at considerable disadvantage up to grade level. Annual testing, using appropriate tests that provide the kind of information teachers need (and combined with other critical methods of assessment), is essential to helping us do our jobs and close gaps in our students' learning.
Eliminating annual testing would return us to a system in which standardized tests capture only a snapshot of students' proficiency in that particular year, rather than a picture of students' growth from year to year. As teachers in high-need schools, we know that students might not achieve proficiency during the year in which we have them, but it's important to make sure that we are setting them on a path toward success. Measuring growth year after year is the only way to do that. Brian's school, for example, took on a new strand of Cape Verdean English language learners in the past two years. The percentage of Brian's students scoring proficient--compared to his previous classes with fewer language barriers--fell sharply. But having back-to-back years' scores for these students allowed Brian to see that they had made significant progress toward proficiency, even though they were not there yet. Information on student progress is vital for all stakeholders--for Brian, for Brian's administrators, and for his students and their families.
Currently, federal law requires students to be tested six times in their K-12 education: annually between third and eighth grade, and once in high school. For teachers, these tests are a valuable lens through which to view the past year. Looking at students' test scores provides feedback on instruction and perhaps reveals gaps in curriculum.
Annual assessments are also helpful when looking ahead. Using the prior year's data for incoming students helps educators make decisions about what standards to emphasize in order to meet their needs. Standardized tests are one way of ensuring equity: that students across classrooms, districts and states get what they need.
To be sure, as teachers we are constantly assessing our students' learning through informal and formal, formative and summative assessments. Standardized tests are only one component of assessing student learning. But data from an annual standardized test is the only way we see our students' performance against a universal benchmark that lets us know how they compare to students in other schools and other districts.
Testing is not the enemy. Bad testing is. We need assessments that inform our instruction and that measure critical thinking skills across content areas. We need assessments that give us valuable information about student learning so that teachers and schools can adjust practice based on this information. To make sure we are assessing students in a way that is most valuable to students, teachers need to be involved in the process of developing next-generation assessments. These assessments must be created and implemented thoughtfully so that they are worthwhile and relevant.
Stepping back from accountability is not the solution to the testing problem. The solution is involving teachers in the process of developing worthwhile assessments and continually evaluating and revising those tests to ensure their efficacy. On a surface level, it might seem that decreasing the time spent testing would benefit students and teachers. But annual progress data is critical--and getting that data from better tests, designed and implemented with teacher voice, will benefit students, teachers and parents the most.
Brian Denitzio teaches sixth grade and leads the middle school English language arts team at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston. From 2010-2013, he was a Teacher Leader with the T3 Initiative at Orchard Gardens.
Carline Kelly is a National Board Certified teacher of English as a Second Language at Brighton High School in Boston. She is a current Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.