As Tennessee continues to grapple with the failures of TNReady, this message from the former Superintendent of Camden, New Jersey Schools is especially relevant.
Essentially, he says the drawbacks of our current emphasis on testing outweigh the benefits. Here are some key points he makes:
We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized. We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education, because we’ve placed most of our eggs in two baskets. We are implicitly encouraging schools to serve fewer English language learners and students with an IEP. We are spending less time on actual instruction, because that’s the system we’ve created.
On what he heard while the system’s school report card including a heavy focus on math and ELA scores:
One of our very best eighth-grade math teachers tells me: “All I’m doing is collecting formative assessment data. Multiple times per month. I hardly have the time to analyze the data. Can we please just slow down the rapid assessment calendar?”
In just about every high school student roundtable we held – and this is a self-selected, highly motivated group – a student would ask: “Superintendent, I love a good test, but all we’re doing is taking these multiple choice tests! Half the building shuts down and I can’t use the laptops in the library because they’re all being used for testing.”
Questions I was asked by countless parents of middle and high school students: “How come there isn’t enough time in the day for Global Studies? Why don’t we offer a second foreign language? Or have year-round art and music?”
Unfortunately, much of this sounds very familiar to Tennessee teachers, students, and parents.
There are some proposes solutions, too:
First, high-stakes testing should be a dipstick to measure systems. Most of the rest of the developed world functions this way.
States could administer standardized tests like NAEP – meaning random samplings every two to three years. This would suffice. We would know the gaps. We could address inequities.
Third, we must build smarter tests. Tests, that, for example, address current challenges with race and class bias. In Louisiana, State Superintendent John White has piloted an innovative new state assessment that uses passages from books that students have already been exposed to in class, as opposed to something that’s brand new and just for the test.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tests should inform and guide our actions, and not compel them. This may sound like shades of grey, but it’s an important distinction. We need talented, thoughtful systems leaders who act with urgency, but don’t assume simple proficiency and growth scores in two subjects should immediately require structural change leading to seas of collateral damage and unintended consequences.
While the current administration has been heavily resistant to meaningful change, there’s a new Governor coming into office in January and he’ll be joined by a General Assembly with a slew of new members. This is a perfect opportunity to push for real change in our approach to testing. Not marginal change. REAL change.
Step one would be to ensure we have a Commissioner of Education committed to moving beyond the current status quo of failed testing. That means ditching Candice McQueen immediately.
Next, Tennessee should explore an ESSA waiver to move toward a new testing model.
Several school districts and the state’s PTA are asking for a range of options on tests. Bill Lee and his team should talk with them and with teachers and pave a path forward that takes us away from excessive testing.
The time to act is now. We’ve seen TNReady fail time and again. We know that even if it “worked,” the drawbacks to our test-focused school days far outweigh the benefits. We can have both real accountability and increased instruction time with a more balanced, student-centered approach to testing.
We have to ask: Do we care about what’s good for kids or do we want numbers and data to make us feel better? If we care about kids, we’ll move in a new direction as quickly as possible.
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