Tuesday, April 30, 2013

High (and Low) Stakes Testing


This will not become a rant. This will not become a rant. This will not become a rant.


Okay, I’ve got this.

I got into a conversation on Twitter this morning with John Stevens and Katie Regan (if you’re not following them you should be - they both Know Things and like to share). The conversation centered around state testing. Then, I got a folder of district-mandated common assessments for my ninth grade world history students this afternoon. Based on these two things, I wanted to get a few thoughts out.

It is high stakes testing season across the US right now. In California, STAR testing rules the day at most schools. Seven weeks before the school year is over students are tested on bloated state standards. Multiple choice tests. #FoDayz as the kids like to say.

Let’s look at the stakes of these tests. For my school and district, STAR tests are high stakes. They determine our AYP and all those other acronyms I often get confused about. Imagine being a math or English teacher in California: the way our state formula works, math and English are disproportionately represented in in a school and district’s AYP. I’m lucky - I teach world history (only 14% of a school’s AYP), which is only tested in tenth grade. That means no STAR tests for my ninth graders this year. Which is, you know, nice.

For my students, the STAR tests are low stakes. The tests mean nothing to them. Their future doesn’t depend on it. There is no audience, authentic or otherwise, for STAR tests. These tests literally mean NOTHING to my students - no impact on their grades, graduation, or future.

Result: STAR tests are the lowest of low stakes for my students and, given the ass-backwards, myopic and incomplete way we are currently choosing to measure education in America, the highest of high stakes for my school and district. This juxtaposition of stakes is not lost on me.

Fast forward to this afternoon. Waiting in my mailbox were the multiple choice answer forms for my district’s ninth grade common assessment. This is a test I am required (maybe? I’m working on that) to give. I didn’t help write the test. In my six years in my district, I have yet to actually see the results of this test. If I’ve never seen the results of the test, you can guess whether or not my students have ever seen their results...

Again, to the stakes of this common assessment. For my students, the stakes for this test are low: it means nothing to them at all. No audience, authentic or inauthentic. No impact on their future. For me the stakes are low: it means nothing to me at all. As I said, I’ve never even seen the results this common assessment. And yet. And yet. I’m asked/required to give up a day of my class so my students can complete this test. Result: this test is huge waste of my time face to face time with my students.

I’m left with several thoughts. First, both tests rob me of the ability to allow my classroom to be student interest-driven. If it weren’t for bloated state standards and high stakes testing, I could teach some world history. Real world history, not the ‘world’ history that the California content standards ask me to teach, which is essentially European history. And I would teach some world history. But there would be some awesome 40% time (no, not 20% time - 40% time) for students to learn about what they wanted to learn about. Yes, all students should be exposed to some world history. But all students should have the right to come to school and be excited about learning and creating things they are passionate about. Without overbearing standards and poorly conceived standardized tests, my students would have this 40% time to explore their passions.

A second thought I had was which test was a bigger waste of time. Neither test means anything to my students; the stakes are only high on STAR tests for my district and school. Because of the dramatic difference in the stakes of STAR tests, does that make them a bigger or smaller waste of time? Or is it the test I’m mandated to give by my district but have never looked at the results of that is a bigger waste of time? I’m not sure what the right answer is here. I am sure, though, that neither answer is right.


I’m not a super jaded, job-hating teacher. Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve got a PLN that pushes my thinking on just about everything on a daily basis. I’m taking a hammer to my classroom and trying to figure out what a world history class can really be. I’m excited about the changes I’ve made this year in my classroom. I’m more excited about the changes I want to make next year (PBL? 20% time that is really 20% of the time my students are in my class?).  I love my job. I love my students. But high stakes testing, how we measure what students know and learn, and how we evaluate schools (and teachers if value added metrics become part of teacher evaluation) frustrate me.

There is a way forward. A collective schoolwide vision about what is most important for our students is a start. Yes, this vision needs to be a cornerstone of your planning and classtime, not just a thing that people pay lip service to. Department wide vision on what a history class can be and what should be emphasized in it. A portfolio system that focuses on subject mastery, growth, creation, and authentic assessment is another part of the answer. Emphasizing soft skills in the classroom over content memorization will help. Innovation Day/genius hour/20% time - ways to base more of a student’s time at school around their passions - will also help.

But man, high stakes testing just has to go. It is ruining education.