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Testing Less but More Effectively

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In February 2014, Teach Plus published a report "The Student and the Stopwatch: How Much Time is Spent on Testing in American Schools." One of the report's major findings is that urban students spend an average of only 1.7 percent of the school year taking state and district-required tests. In this series, Teach Plus teachers comment on assessments and the impact they have on their students and teaching practice.


By Karen Levin

I teach high school math at a small charter school in Roxbury, an economically disadvantaged neighborhood of Boston. My classroom is a lively place where students discuss concepts and develop their own understanding of mathematical ideas. This stands in contrast to telling my students how to solve a particular type of problem and then practicing that skill, as they might if good test scores were our only goal. I believe strongly in the value of using data to improve my teaching practice and enhance learning opportunities for my students. But I also think testing takes precious time away from learning.

Here's what learning looks like in my classroom: Recently, I won a raffle for a motion detection device that connects to a TI-83 graphing calculator (yes, these are still the calculators used in schools!). The week of learning with the motion detectors was incredible. Students worked in small groups to use their motion detectors to draw specific graphs on distance versus time and rate versus time. Kevaughn, a normally quiet, disengaged student, led one of the groups. He would stop the group if they created a graph that wasn't correct and would talk with his classmates about how the next student should walk in order to make the graph perfect.

For the kids, math had never been more exciting. For me, the experience was teaching at its best: difficult, yet invigorating.

As a state, we are required to provide 180 days of learning for our students. However, those 180 days for grades 3-8 and grade 10 include up to seven days of state testing. This is a disservice to the students by cheating them out of seven days of the kind of learning they engaged in with the motion detectors. Seven days of testing are also a disservice to the taxpayers who believe that students learn for 180 days when, in reality, they are only learning for 173.

As a math teacher, I particularly appreciate the power of data to track students' growth, and to be clear, some assessments are crucial to my teaching. I consider the time spent administering seven unit exams and several quizzes in my Algebra II class very valuable teaching time. This is because, unlike the state test, interim assessments provide me with immediate feedback on how my students are learning.

Using these interim assessments, I track students' progress skill by skill. For example, I know that Rakeem has made incredible growth in my Algebra class, but still needs to work on solving with negatives. Shaina, however, is struggling overall and should stay after school to work intensely on the material.

However, because our state test is taken in the spring and scores returned in October, the data cannot influence my teaching the way interim assessments do. By the time I receive my students' scores, I can only adjust for next year.

Returning the data and questions within a week of students taking the exam would help inform my instruction for the students who are currently in my classroom. I could administer fewer tests and spend more time teaching if the data from the test provided useful information that was returned quickly. Another possible solution is to have testing happen outside of the 180 day school year. Proctors could be hired to administer the exam, keeping my role as teacher and not test administrator.

The stakes are too high for our students to lose so much learning time to tests that are not helping their teachers be more effective.

Karen Levin is the Lead Math Teacher at City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury, MA. She currently teaches 9th grade Pre-Algebra and 9th grade Algebra. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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