Our schools: Data-driven or data-dzzy?

Educators, parents, politicians and pundits have begun to question the investment of billions of dollars over six decades in district, state, national, and international testing.
By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 11, 2016

Recently, educators, parents, politicians and pundits have begun to question the investment of billions of dollars over six decades in district, state, national, and international testing. Their skepticism is well deserved since there is scant evidence that these once-a-year standardized tests have increased student achievement or have provided the motivation to learn.

But that doesn’t mean standardized tests should be expelled from schools. There are things these tests do very well. As public institutions under contract with their communities to help students learn, schools should be required to present evidence that they are doing their job. Standardized tests can provide part of that evidence, so we should use them. Standardized tests help teachers, administrators and board members answer the questions at the end of the quarter or year: Did students master the skills taught? Did students master as many skills as students across the state or across the country?

These tests allow students’ progress to be measured over the years. For example, if a student scores in the 75th percentile in the sixth grade and in the 86th percentile in the seventh grade, you can see that the child is gaining ground relative to grade-level peers. Standardized tests are useful, but we need other, more frequent options that assess but don’t over-test. This requires striking the right balance for student assessments.

The Balancing Act for Assessments

Standardized tests do not represent the full power of assessment and we need to stop our tunnel-vision investment in them. Think of standardized tests as “the test at the end.” What if we shifted our assessment attention to “the tests at the beginning?” What if, in addition to standardized tests telling us what students don’t know, we had tests telling us why they don’t know it and what to do about it? What if we had a balanced assessment system, with standardized tests proving learning and shorter, more frequent classroom assessments improving learning?

The instructional decisions that have the greatest impact on student achievement are made by teachers not once a year when standardized test results roll in, but every few days. Well-designed assessments are an integral part of the classroom experience. When incorporated regularly into instructional repertoire, they can provide specific, personalized, and timely information about student misconceptions, student interests, and teacher misassumptions around specific skills. And this shouldn’t be a burden to implement. There are a variety of edtech tools available that allow teachers to frequently assess student mastery and quickly gauge student comprehension, such as Edmodo Snapshot. Some of these tools even up level the data to district administrators so they have a view into what’s happening in the classroom.

The most effective classroom assessments actually measure students’ skills and interests before instruction begins, which helps teachers design effective lessons by providing data around what students already know, what students don’t know, and what students want to know.

Teachers can use the information to determine whether some students require teaching of prerequisite skills or need additional degrees of challenge. For instance, a student who demonstrates mastery of the geometry skill about to be taught can have the opportunity to engage in an enrichment activity while the other students learn the grade level geometry skill.

True Collaboration and Accountability

Once-a-year standardized tests might provide a jolt of anxiety and angst, but that quickly fades as the school year progresses. Districts have an opportunity to transform the culture of their teacher-based meetings by focusing their efforts on frequent, short-cycle tests and plans to address the results that come out of these assessments. In this era when the efficacy of schools and educators is being called into question, it’s critical that we be able to show students are learning in the classroom. In order to truly establish the value schools and educators are bringing to the learning experience, short-cycle assessments are a convenient and effective way to determine both a starting point for students and what exactly students learned. Any differential between these two points is a useful indicator for teachers so they can remediate any learning gaps and help students achieve success.

We have the ability to blend standardized assessments and frequent, classroom assessments into a balanced system. Our standardized assessments are already in place. But the state of classroom assessment is weak. If we shift our focus to the design and implementation of effective classroom assessments, we will reclaim the central role of testing – to improve learning.

Mike White is president of Educational Consulting Services and a licensed pediatric psychologist who consults with school systems throughout the country on issues relating to standards-based instruction and assessment.