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:
- 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.
- 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.