Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Does Preparing Students for Success on High-Stakes Assessments Interfere With Their Learning and Rob Teachers of the Opportunity to Be Creative and Innovative?

Current Reality: Teachers across the United States often express their concern that too much emphasis is being placed on state tests. In light of the sanctions being applied under NCLB on the basis of those tests, they raise a very valid point. I am not an apologist for state tests. As W. James Popham has pointed out, most state tests attempt to assess too many skills in too little time, with an assessment tool that is too limited. The result is that these tests do not provide teachers with the timely and specific information they need to adjust their instructional strategies and improve student learning.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge as a profession, that one of the reasons states have created assessments as an accountability tool is that schools were typically providing no evidence that all students were learning beyond teacher grades. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that in most schools, there is virtually no attempt made to guarantee the grades teachers assign to their students are based on consistent criteria and clear standards. Furthermore, these tests are here to stay, and teachers who are inattentive to them do their students a disservice.

The Question: Recently I received an email from a teacher who objected to the fact that he was being asked to work in a collaborative team whose members were expected to work together to improve student achievement on the end-of-course state test in his subject. He objected to this collaboration because the state test was a 100-item, multiple-choice assessment. The test had a significant impact on the students of his state, who were required to pass it to receive a diploma.

He objected to working on a collaborative team to help prepare students for what he felt was a bad test. He was convinced working on a team to help prepare students for success on a standardized test: 1) would not improve the quality of teaching and learning in the school; and 2) would make it impossible for teachers to be creative and innovative. As he wrote, "Please tell me I am all wrong."

My Response: OK, you are all wrong. You are creating not one, but two false dichotomies:

  1. Either I must prepare kids for success on a high stakes test or I can improve the quality of my teaching and learning for my students, but I could not possibly do both.
  2. Either I can prepare students for success on standardized tests, or I can be a creative and innovative teacher, but I could not possibly do both.

I taught U.S. history and never limited my assessment of student mastery of essential knowledge and skills to multiple choice tests. In fact, research from a variety of sources indicates that students who are called upon to compare and contrast, analyze, draw analogies, synthesize, and explain their thinking in short answers, essays, reports, and oral presentations not only learn at higher levels but outperform students without these experiences­-even when the assessment is a high-stakes multiple choice test. So I agree that a single test, or any single assessment strategy for that matter, should not be used to assess student learning. I am also very opposed to teacher effectiveness being judged on the basis of state assessments. But I urge you to reconsider the false dichotomies you have presented. They are not supported by fact.

The history teachers at Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, are the best, most creative, most innovative history teachers I have ever seen. They use their team process to support their innovation and their effectiveness. They have a passion for their subject and believe it serves a moral purpose. They want students to embrace their role as citizens and they engage them in a multitude of community service projects. Their students represent the largest block of election judges in their county and are very active in voter registration drives. These teachers also prepare more students for success on the Advanced Placements exams in social studies than any school in Illinois. They have an active history club and have won more state and national history fairs than any school in the Midwest. They conduct follow-up studies of their students one and five years after graduation to assess the extent to which students are involved as citizens of their communities. And, although they began to work collaboratively to strengthen their program, their teaching, and their collective capacity to help students learn long before there was a state test in Illinois, once the test was created they committed to helping their students achieve success on the state test. Incidentally, their aggregate achievement of their students on that test has always been among the top 1% of the schools in the state even though that state test relies heavily on multiple choice items.

The test in your state clearly has significant consequences for your students, and I would consider it negligent if you were unconcerned with their performance on that test. I would consider it equally negligent and short-sighted if you and your colleagues defined your sole purpose and priority as preparing students for success on that test. What are the essential outcomes you and your colleagues seek for all of your students? What is your process to ensure that your students have access to a guaranteed curriculum regardless of the teacher to whom they are assigned? What evidence is your team gathering to determine whether or not your students are acquiring the intended knowledge and skills? What process does the team and/or school have in place to intervene for students who are experiencing difficulty? What criteria does your team use when assessing the quality of student work? What evidence do you have that members apply the criteria consistently? What has the team done to ensure that when a student completes an essay, a research project, or a report his or her work will be scored consistently? How are using the evidence of learning gathered by your team to inform and improve your own teaching? These are the kinds of issues collaborative teams in a PLC address, and I believe they are exactly the issues teachers should resolve collaboratively and collectively. I hope that these are the very activities that your sense of professionalism and sense of equity would draw you and your colleagues to even if there were no state test. I certainly would support a district that asked you to engage in these activities during your regular contractual day and year, even at the risk of being charged with top-down mandates, because these are things teachers in every school should be doing.

I encourage you to present your administration, your community, and me with all the other evidence you are gathering as a team to monitor each student’s learning of the knowledge, skills, concepts, and dispositions you believe are most essential to their success. I submit, however, if your students have a deep and profound understanding of history they should be able to do just fine on a multiple choice test. And I hope you would include the success of your students on all high-stakes assessments (state tests, ACT exams, AP exams, etc.) as one of several areas of continuous improvement for you and your teammates.



I came across this blog as an attempt to find out some more information and get involved with some discussion about different topics going on in education as part of an assignment for a grad school class. I am happy that I came across this site because my school is currently in the process of beginning PLCs. At first I saw them as just another meeting that would be required for us to attend. Another meeting that would take up more time and take away from the thousands of other things I need to do as a teacher. However, based on what I read here as well as other research and assignments for my grad school class, I have come to the realization that there are many benefits for having PLCs and am now open to the new idea that is taking place at my schol. I think high stakes testing puts a tremendous amount of pressure not only on the teachers but on the students as well. There is an unbelieveable amount of information and content to teach and just not enough time to do it all in. I don't necessarily like high stakes testing because I don't believe that it is the best way to see if kids are performing well. Some children do very well in every area but are not good test takers and there should not be as much emphasis on the tests at the state puts on it. There should be other factors that are taken into consideration for a student other than just whether or not they pass a test at the end of the school year.

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You bring a lot of great points from both sides of the issue of high-stakes testing. As much as I hate the fact that schools and teachers are being held accountable for the students' success based on one test, there was something needed to show that every student was learning and not just being passed along by the teacher's individual grades. The issue that I do not agree with is how the scores of students in year 10-11 are going to be compared to the student scores of 11-12; they are two completely different groups of kids! Then these results get reported in newspapers and on the news, but they are not accurately reported as to what it really means and it definitely does not show that most of the students have improved and grown over the course of one academic school year. I hope that like a bad math curriculum, even though I believe it will get worse before it gets better, that high-stakes testing gets a major remodel and takes the stress off the teachers and students.
5th grade teacher, Washington State.

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The pressure for students to do well on standardized state tests is enormous in our district. We have been told that "students MUST do well next year - better than this past year". Yet we are looking at two different sets of students when comparing the gains and losses from year to year. I understand that we as teachers are accountable for students doing well each year. However, I do feel that some of the responsibilities must fall on parents who send students to school with little or no sleep the night before, no supplies and no encouragement. I believe that we are sometimes striving against the wind to help our students succeed. Education is a collaborative effort between home and school. Teachers cannot carry the whole burden.

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Our district PLC of lead PLC teachers and coaches met recently to complete the Critical Issues for Team Consideration worksheet. The top three areas of concern were around identification, assessment, and assistant strategies for prerequisite skills (we are concentrating on standards here and not literacy skills). Do you have suggested resources for this area of need?

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I understand the need for a nationally normed assessment. It is, however, just one tool in assessing student growth. I rely on formative assessments to gauge how my students are progressing as well as to see how well I am doing. Formative and summative assessment along with observation and diagnostic evaluation all drive my instruction. I truly believe that we place too much emphsis on high-stakes assessments but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

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Collaboration at Flory Academy has been such a success! Besides being able to work together to further our students progress, we have become very close in our own personal relationships. It is wonderful to know that I can trust all of my colleagues with their wisdom and advice. We truly believe that we are each responsible for all of the students at Flory.

I too was asked to look at blogs as part of my master's program and have found such wonderful insite on PLC. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts.

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As part of my master's program, I was investigating blogs. I was so pleased to find this site because my school is initiating PLC's in the Fall. At first I felt it was another push by administration to have us "buy into" some new fad in education. I really didn't go into it with a positive frame of mind. However, after further investigation I see the benefits for students and teachers. I have totally changed my thinking and attitude. I look forward to participating in PLC's this school year and I thank my administration for making an effort to coordinate our schedule so PLC's can happen during the school day. Thank you for establishing this website/blog to help novice teachers investigate new areas. L. Dean, 3rd/4th Muti-age Teacher

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Rick and Becky DuFour

Kathy, thanks for sharing your insights and for all you're doing on behalf of your students and our profession!
Becky & Rick DuFour

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Dear Rick: A delegation from our small school in Michigan just returned from a visit to Adlai Stevenson; I went a couple of years ago; someone from our school has visited each year. Visits have been prompted by our immersion in PLCs both because of our association with TBAISD in Traverse City and because we (Alba Public School) is an affirmed member of the Coalition of Essential Schools which fostered our development better than 6 years ago of "critical friends" groups collaborating for student success. When I consider the teacher that you are responding to in this post, I reflect on how some of us used to think in the face of stringent state assessment processes and the subsequent pressure we educators felt trying to prepare students partly because we knew the "public" would be measuring the quality of our school based to some extent on how well we "scored," and partly because we felt personally evaluated as educators by how well our students did on state assessments. That was then. Now, we in our PLCs come to grips with the reality of state assessments and make lemonade out of lemons so to speak. We take the vehicle of collaboration and travel to locations in professional development that both promote creativity and responsive teaching practice. Data comes from all points on the vast field of achievement/performance indicators. We know what really matters at the end of the day is did we facilitate and coach student learning, or cram and shove GLCE's down the throats of our students; did we assess not only what and how students are learning, but also our own practice through the lens of our PLC's. Thanks for all you do. Kathy Larkin, 6th Grade Teacher

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