Thoughts, reflections & comments from a motivated learner, educator and instructional leader!
Monday, April 23, 2012
Test? Assessment? Neither!
This past week the children in grades 3, 4 and 5 in our school participated in the New York State English Language Arts Tests. These tests spanned a three day period and lasted somewhere between 90 and 180 minutes each day depending on the individual child and their specific needs. The tests, which have been administered in some way, shape or form for over a decade in NY state (Grade 4 students have been taking these tests since the late '90s), are given to assess how our students are doing in the areas of reading and writing - or at least that is what the state tells us. The state also tells us that these tests can help us see how much our children are learning and how effectively our teachers are teaching. Unfortunately, after administering these tests to two students on different grade levels, and informally taking each part of the test myself, I don't agree with what the state is telling us.
A test is defined by Google as a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something, especially before it is taken into widespread use.
An assessment is defined by Google as the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.
Based on the definitions above, I don't think the New York State English Language Arts tests from this past week qualify as either a test or an assessment. In specifically looking at the definition of an assessment, I don't think the ELAs really tell us anything about the nature, quality or ability of our students or teachers (even though we are going to start connecting teacher evaluations to how the students perform here - don't get me started on that one). Furthermore, I don't think the NYS ELAs qualify as a test either because they don't accurately establish the quality, performance or reliability of instruction in the areas of reading and writing. From my vantage point, the product here is flawed and the only ones being impacted negatively are our children and their educational communities.
To think that a multiple choice test, which doesn't really give children an opportunity to show their skills as readers but instead tests their stamina and ability to answer tricky questions, is a meaningful reading and writing test is somewhat concerning. Basically, we are boiling it down to reading a short, sometimes out of context, piece and asking our students to find the best multiple choice answer based on other people's thinking (the people making up the test) -not the thinking of the children, which is what we are supposedly assessing. Over the years, I have watched some of the best readers and writers in our school perform in the average range on these assessments because they couldn't really show their thinking or skill set on this type of assessment.Where else do we assess reading or writing skills in this fashion? How can we claim that this type of test is the best one we can come up with to assess our students' abilities in the areas of reading and writing when we know there are better alternatives? In order to authentically assess children and teachers, I think its imperative that the state (and the powers that be) look at alternative types of assessment...
1. Possibly a writing continuum where children write across different genres for different purposes and audiences; (check out this link for some information about a narrative writing continuum - Teacher's College)
2. Possibly a portfolio that is amassed over the course of the year where children can track their thinking as readers based on the different texts they experience during the year. This type of portfolio would also avail itself to allowing the children to self-reflect; (check out this link for some information about portfolio assessments - TeacherVision)
3. Possibly a better constructed standardized assessment that challenges our children to use critical thinking and allows them to show off their literacy skills. (By the way, I do think the structure of the Day 2 & 3 portions of the ELAs have the potential to become this better standardized assessment as there are a reasonable amount of reading passages and the children are posed with some good open ended responses but work needs to be done)
Whatever the case, I think there are better options out there for our children and our schools in general. Options that will provide us with meaningful and accurate results. Options that will allow our children an opportunity to show what they have learned without becoming frustrated and exhausted. Options that will provide us with rich and useful data to guide future instruction!
Understand that I am not against testing (standardized or other) because I do think its important that we assess our children so we can gather more data to help guide our instruction and help our children continue to grow as learners. Unfortunately, I don't think the NYS ELA tests accomplished this goal because they will not provide us with this type of meaningful data in a reasonable amount of time so that instruction can be targeted to best meet the needs of individual students. Don't get me wrong - I think the NYS ELA tests accomplished a lot... they exhausted our children for about an average of ninety minutes a day; they made many teachers feel compelled to increase the amount of meaningless test preparation they did on a daily basis leading up to the test; they frustrated children and teachers with tricky questions that seemingly had multiple answers; they forced us to halt instruction for almost a week because after the tests were completed, the children weren't in the frame of mind to embrace new concepts or ideas; they deflated teachers and students who felt "mediocre" after completing the tests. So, did the NYS ELA accomplish a bunch of things? Yes, as you can see from the list above, but I don't think any of these were intended goals.
Call me quixotic but I like to believe that every educator in the state of New York is in the business of teaching and learning for the purposes of impacting children in a positive way. I know I became a teacher in a public school in NYC because I thought I could make a difference in the lives of children and I believed in the public school system. We send our son to a local NYC public school because we believe in the public school system and we know that he is in the hands of dedicated and knowledgeable educators. I am now the principal of a public school in a suburb of NYC because I believe in the public school system and on a daily basis, I witness how much a child can learn and grow as a result of working with a group of dedicated educators. In the end, I believe in public education in New York State and my hope is that by accessing the awesome amount of expertise that permeates many of the classrooms in our state, an authentic and amazing assessment/test can be developed that will accurately show us how much our children have grown as readers and writers. An assessment/test that will provide us with data to help enrich and support based on the individual child. And hopefully, an assessment/test that will fuel the children's love of reading and writing - not extinguish the flame!