Why Do We Test Students? (Hint: Newton’s First Law of Motion) Maybe, Just Maybe, Aligned Curriculum and Instruction and School Leadership Are More Effective Approaches.

Newton‘s first law of motion – (sometimes referred to as the law of inertia). An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction.

Q: Why do we test students?

A: Because we’ve always tested students.

We’ve been testing students since at least the 1880’s when New York State started requiring the regents examinations. As part of the first era of school reform New York City created a Board Examiners that created civil service tests to determine entrance into the teaching corps: rigorous paper and pencil tests and interviews resulting in a rank order list. Back in the 30’s and 40’s the highest scorers on regents exams received state regents scholarships; in the 50’s the state gave state regents examinations and scholarships.

Students took district or citywide or state tests for as long as I can remember.

The New York Times published test results;  I believe in grades four and eight, by score within district with an accompanying story – a school located on a bucolic tree-lined street in Queens with lovely homes and manicured lawns at the top of the list and a school deep in Soundview, the poorest section of the Bronx,  surrounded by auto repair shops in the daytime and open air drug markets and prostitution after dark, at the bottom of the list.

We have lived with examinations for prospective teachers, for promotions, for high school graduations, for scholarships and for the ranking and shaming of schools.

We moved from using tests to “measure” schools to using test results to measure teachers.

In 2010 schools districts, using a dense algorism created by an obscure Tennessee statistician, William Sanders,  began to compare teacher to teacher using student test scores,

How good is one teacher compared with another?

A growing number of school districts have adopted a system called value-added modeling to answer that question, provoking battles from Washington to Los Angeles — with some saying it is an effective method for increasing teacher accountability, and others arguing that it can give an inaccurate picture of teachers’ work.

Value-added modeling VAM) became more an more popular, the feds and states began to require new VAM-based teacher accountability systems with teachers increasingly pushing back.  As teachers, and, in New York State some members of the Board of Regents criticized the increasing reliance on student test results to assess teacher competence the Regents convened a Learning Summit, leading researchers supported and opposed the new metrics. (Watch a U-Tube of the “experts” debating the use of VAM here).

Thomas Kane, at Harvard, one of the leading researchers in the nation, and the lead author of the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Study, spent three years collecting and analyzing data,

The project has demonstrated that it is possible to identify great teaching by combining three types of measures: classroom observations, student surveys, and student achievement gains. The findings will be useful to school districts working to implement new development and evaluation systems for teachers. Such systems should not only identify great teaching, but also provide the feedback teachers need to improve their practice and serve as the basis for more targeted professional development.

The MET Study changing nothing. Teachers and parents were antagonistic and a couple of years later the enthusiasm for testing, the enthusiasm for VAM waned. One in five kids in New York State opted out of state tests for the third year, the new ESSA law delegates far more authority to the states and a realization that testing is not a policy, it’s a habit.

We test because we’ve always tested,

Family income and family level of education correlates almost perfectly with test scores as do poverty risk load factors.

Slowly, the reflex action to test is beginning to fade away. No Child Left Behind created a testing plutocracy, and not only hasn’t  NCLB moved test scores upward the testing craze probably eroded instruction at the classroom level.

Ironically we’re learned from the opt out parents, current testing tells what we already know: the results are tied to what the Center for NYC Affairs reports in A Better Picture of Poverty calls poverty risk load factors, factors that determine education outcomes; teachers do make a difference, a significant difference; however,  a reliance on testing punishes kids and teachers and only reinforces: wealth or the lack thereof matters.

Check out this fascinating data set – poverty risk load for all schools: https://public.tableau.com/profile/nicole.mader#!/vizhome/RiskLoadforNYCSchools82016/Dashboard2

Teachers have always given tests, remember the Friday spelling test? Teachers use tests to determine the effectiveness of our teaching and helps us with that teaching-learning linkage.

I sat with a group of teachers after the administration of the first Common Core Algebra Regents exam. They had created an error matrix, the most common incorrect answers and were reviewing their own lesson plans for those particular  lessons: they were taking ownership of their practice.

Mike Smoker, in Focus, tells teachers that the key to effective instruction are frequent checks for understanding during each and every lesson.

Tests, whether written or project-based help us get better, help us to assess our own practice.

Statewide so-called standardized tests tell us very little and are not helpful to teachers. Tests are tools to assess the effectiveness of instruction and to guide future instruction.

Tom Kane, to his credit, has moved past VAM to a concentration on curriculum.

We have ignored the lessons we should have learned form the Massachusetts Education Miracle; after twenty-five years, finally, another state, Louisiana, has learned the lesson.

When we align standards to curriculum to professional development to classroom instruction to testing, whether pencil and paper or projects, our children will make progress. If we assess growth, if teachers adjust their own practice to the results of fully aligned assessments, just perhaps, our system will show better results.

Charles Sahm, at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, writes,

One of the odd features of education policy is that while a plethora of research exists on the effects of systemic reforms (e.g., class size, charter schools, teacher and school accountability mechanisms), on student achievement there is very little data on whether curriculum – what kids are actually being taught – makes a difference….the notion that curriculum counts is beginning to gain traction.

David Steiner, at a John Hopkins University hosted a forum, “High Quality Curricula and Student Success.” (watch the forum here, an excellent presentation)  Kane, Matt Chingos and the deputy commissioner in Louisiana promote why curricula should be at the core of our nationals education agenda.

There is an odd window, the US Department of Education under Betsy DeVos, is focused on vouchers and draconian cuts in federal funding. I suspect they have little interest in the ESSA-required state accountability plans, and with a very sparse staff and have no interest in the Obama-Duncan agenda. Under the leadership of Chancellor Rosa and Commissioner Elia everyone and anyone who seeks input into the state ESSA plan has an opportunity. At this point the plan combines growth, are kids making progress, and proficiency, the actual scores. The plan will move to the governor in July and be voted on by the Board in September. At the same time Congress will be cobbling together a budget. probably better than the Trump budget; however, still with cuts.

Will New York State seize the opportunity to move away from a reliance on testing?  Will the feds, focused on their own agenda, allow states latitude?  Perhaps moving away from annual testing, perhaps alternatives to testing, perhaps learn from the Massachusetts and Louisiana models and creating a rigorous curricula.  Perhaps align standards to curricula to professional development to instruction to student assessment will become the norm.

Crisis provides opportunities.


One response to “Why Do We Test Students? (Hint: Newton’s First Law of Motion) Maybe, Just Maybe, Aligned Curriculum and Instruction and School Leadership Are More Effective Approaches.

  1. Ken Karcinell

    We test students, because its what life is all about. Its one big test, every day. On a less philisophical note, its because Harvard and Stanford and most all of our higher institutions of learning test students. Its what the norm requires. Wanna be a doctor, pass the test. Wanna be a lawyer, pass the test. Wanna be a world class Chef, pass the test.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s