Guest commentary: Reframing the testing conversation
With state testing season underway, it is a good time for us to revisit the purpose and intent of all of our assessments and the many ways that we measure what students know and are able to do. It is time for us to reframe the conversation: We need to talk about what kinds of assessments are happening in our schools on a day-to-day basis and how we can help students, staff and parents see what value assessment can bring as well as what creative-forms assessment can take to help us monitor student performance and guide instructional decision-making.
Today’s educational environment is characterized by a desire for mass customization. We know that we need to move from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to one that is customized for each individual student. While this is a tall order, it definitely is the right thing to do for our students and it’s also a large step forward in ensuring that all of our students receive the skills they need to be college and/or career ready in the future.
But it is impossible to customize education for our students without understanding what key skills a student may have and what key skills they still need to acquire. A “body of evidence” is needed to understand clearly what a student’s needs are and what is the best course of action to meet those needs.
There are multiple types of assessments used within a regular school year. Summative assessments are measurements of learning that occur at the end of the unit, end of the semester or the end of the year. Formative assessments are assessment for learning, and can be in the form of a performance task, journaling, questions and answers, daily classroom activities and common-formative assessments. These types of assessments, embedded into regular classroom instruction, are designed to inform teaching strategies and practices and ensure that the needs of each student are met. They also build student confidence in their own knowledge and help them track their own progress over time.
Is too much time spent on assessment? This is a fair question and the answer may surprise you. When we analyze the time taken for all state-, district- and curriculum-related assessments, it is less than 3 percent of our instructional time over the course of the school year. People also express concerns about whether or not the preparation for testing is too time consuming. High quality instruction, occurring daily in our classrooms is all the preparation that is needed. Any student who has strong reading, writing and mathematics skills will do well on any exam, regardless of its intent or purpose.
Naturally, most parents just want to know how their child is doing. What are their strengths, what are their needs? But they also want to know how their child’s school is doing in relation to other students and schools across the state and country.
We know that accountability has its place. First, we want to be accountable to our students and parents. We want students to be able to track their own progress and set goals about their learning. We want parents to clearly understand how their children are doing and how their schools are doing. We also recognize that we must be accountable to our taxpayers and our communities. People deserve to know what the effects are of the efforts and dollars that are going into our education systems daily.
Teaching today is more complicated than ever. We must use all available tools and measures to address the many needs and create all possible opportunities for our students. It is a very different world today that takes many more strategies, tools and measures to help our students gain those skills we want them to have to be well prepared for their future and the ability to measure and monitor their own progress.
Dr. Diana Sirko is superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.