Amidst all the noise in American education, something interesting is happening across the country: students from grades three to eleven are taking new assessments aligned to higher standards and it’s going well. That’s not to say the work is complete. It's not easy to implement new assessments and there is still a tremendous amount we can learn and improve upon as we move through the school year.
The shift to higher standards sets higher aspirations for all students involved. It demands new ways to determine whether our students are learning. These changes include digital testing methods that score tests faster and more accurately, and at lower costs to schools, along with multi-step questions that measure critical thinking, reasoning and the ability to apply skills and knowledge in reading, writing and mathematics. Students now write responses based on texts – fiction and non-fiction - and multimedia components to support their point of view.
They are also solving complex math problems that require reasoning and address real-world situations. These skills are critically important for students in college and in the workplace. Because of these new kinds of questions, students will receive a better indication of their progress with detailed analysis of their answers to each test question.
Teachers will have data specific to each student that is useful and timely, as the assessment is built with them in mind. For example, Joanie Funderburk, a math teacher for 25 years, was deeply involved in developing the assessment, helping ensure that students would be given appropriate feedback. Funderburk, with 25 other Colorado educators, met twice a year together with other teachers to ask questions, give input, and provide feedback to shape what was important to each state. She noted, “PARCC* is built upon an evidence-based design: starting with the standards, identifying the specific skills and knowledge the standards require, then designing tests and items that align to those knowledge and skills.”
Parents are also able to be more involved, in supporting their children and their local teachers. They can access more information about their child and have an accurate gauge on progress. And employers benefit from a workforce ready for the jobs of a dynamically different economy.
Parents are however rightfully concerned about the pressures on children. We need fewer, better tests. And these richer assessments that capture student performance and produce more and better feedback, should reduce the need for benchmark, or “drill” style tests, that have exploded in use over the last decade. These tests should also be replaced by new platforms that enable teachers to observe more naturally and effectively how their students are doing. These platforms allow teachers to make small, incremental adjustments based on the individual needs of each student through the school year rather than waiting until the end of the year, when it is much harder to recover lost ground. Parents should also be reassured that, implemented properly, it means less rote style “teaching to the test”. The best way to prepare students to perform well on these new assessments is for teachers to focus completely on the rich, deeper curriculum demanded by these new, higher standards.
Teachers should also be given time to adapt the curriculum for students, and their own teaching style. It’s one thing if you start in third grade, with a new class and a new way of teaching math. But if you’re in eighth or ninth grade, it’s understandably harder for teachers, and students, to adapt. Just as each student is different, so is each school district, and the pace of change will vary from state to state. It is vital that teachers are given the time, space and encouragement to work with, and learn from, each other through what would be a big change in practice for any profession.
Some specific issues color perceptions and hamper progress. In New Jersey this week, for example, a student posted on Twitter details of a test question he had just taken but that other students had yet to take. It is only one question, but it is still unfair to students and jeopardizes the integrity of the test. Pearson found the tweet through a monitoring service that is part of our contractual obligation to make sure test information doesn’t leak. It looks for keywords, directly relevant to the test, not the individuals taking it. We immediately alerted our customer, the New Jersey Department of Education, who contacted the student to remove the tweet.
While this is a standard procedure and aligns with high stakes testing best practice, parents were understandably concerned about their children’s privacy. Pearson does not monitor individual students and never views information that is not public. But as a parent, I would never want my child to compete against other students who had an unfair advantage due to leaked information.
As close as I am to the issues, I’m learning more every day. What’s important is to focus our attention on issues that really impact students – like ensuring students are prepared for college and take fewer, fairer, smarter tests. Creating smarter tests that better serve students will require the active cooperation of everyone who has a stake in our shared future.
*PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure the progress of students towards college and career readiness.