Teachers Aren’t Opposed to Tests; We’re Against the Stakes Attached to Them

I can’t conceive of a teacher who would be opposed to testing her students. Testing serves a critical utility in a classroom — it allows the teacher to get a more objective sense of where her students are currently functioning, so that she can set goals for her class and align her curriculum to their needs. This is the natural diagnostic, “formative” purpose of testing. A formative test is then followed after the teaching of content to assess whether students have gained the knowledge the teacher was seeking to impart. This “summative” test provides important feedback to the teacher — did my students get it? What are they still struggling with? Note that this summative test must align explicitly with what the teacher actually taught — their curriculum. (Please note that I’m simplifying the testing spectrum here: we could get deeper into the distinctions between screening, diagnostic, formative, and summative, but I’ll spare you those boring details.)

There seems to be an entrenched notion that when teachers advocate against standardized testing, they are whiners, they don’t want to be accountable, they are union shills pushing back against any and all movements to professionalize the teaching profession. This is an incredibly unjust painting of a very real concern with current application of value-added models.

So let me say this clearly (at the risk of sounding like I would profess to speak for all teachers; I am aware I don’t): teachers are not opposed to testing, nor are most of us opposed to being held accountable for our teaching. What many are opposed to are the high stakes attached to these measurements.

When Will and I wrote our first post presenting our model of schools as ecosystems, we noted that our reform efforts have been narrowly focused on students as products. This high stakes pressure to gain a high yield on standardized test scores from students has resulted in a collective and frenzied tunnel vision at the ground level of schools, detracting attention from the very targets that would have the greatest positive impact on student achievement. The targets I am referring to are the content and contexts of schools. If we shift our perspective to view schools as ecosystems, we can rightly recognize that the most efficient and effective manner to increase student achievement is to focus on the content we teach, and the environment in which we teach it.

Attach the high stakes to those two targets, and remove it from the current value-added focus, and I can guarantee am highly confident that we will see a positive increase in student test scores. Until we can do this decisively and systematically, we will continue to remain mired in the low achievement and widespread persistence of achievement gaps, as our actions will be fragmented and unfocused, avoiding the deeper flaw in our current approach.

A recent post on Shanker Blog makes the case for value-added measurements only to be considered in low-stakes contexts, and Di Carlo is precisely on point. He notes that value-added has great value in giving us information that we should consider in improving our instruction. But that “such information still requires strong professional judgement.”

Value-added data has a function and a purpose. But that function and purpose is diagnostic, not punitive.

If we wish to professionalize teaching and to raise student achievement, we must focus on the targets that will truly achieve this: a strong, positive school community teaching a coherent and rich curriculum.

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