Like most everyone else, my school year last year “ended” due to COVID-19, and I was very sad that I wasn't able to see my students again and properly celebrate how successful they were. I still provided optional assignments during that time. I got a hundred emails a day asking for feedback or to answer questions. That was great and I was happy for the communication, whether it was school related or not (I had a student email me at midnight one night with a screenshot of a movie she was watching just to let me know the main character looked like me...I love middle school), but I never realized how much I missed the student to student and teacher to student communication in the classroom until the pandemic. It was very difficult to simulate that form of communication online.
While there was a lot I missed about being at school, the one thing that I didn’t miss was having my students take our state assessment, ISASP (or Iowa Assessments previously). Not taking the test may have actually been one of the greatest successes to come out of last year. This is what I generally think about once our testing is finished…except replace “today” with “this week.”
If you don’t know me very well, you may be saying to yourself that I don’t like my students taking the test because we do poorly, which may reflect negatively on me. Maybe some sour grapes towards the test? If that was your initial reaction, you would be wrong. My students always do well on state assessments, and it isn’t because we prep or prepare for the test, but because we do things in class like collaborate, revise, justify, and struggle in a productive manner. In fact, if you look at my previous article on our initial ISASP experience, my 7th and 8th grade students scored the highest in the state of Iowa.
So why would I prefer not to take the test if we do so well?
I design my class to be one big formative assessment. All of the work my students do in class helps me to make informed decisions about where each individual student should move next in his or her mathematical journey. It’s a process. I provide a task. The students experience the task. I give the students feedback along the way. Students use that feedback to improve and have a better understanding of the mathematics.
I benefit because I know exactly what my students know. I can hear their conversations. I can see their justifications. I can identify any misconceptions and intervene appropriately.
The students benefit because they have an opportunity to gather feedback and learn from the experience.
The problem with our current state test, any state tests that we have ever taken, and I assume any type of high stakes test that other states take, is that it is lacking any of these beneficial qualities.
I gain nothing from the results of these tests. I gain nothing from the experience of proctoring these tests. My students gain nothing from the results of these tests. My students gain nothing from experiencing these tests. It’s great to know that my students are “doing well.” I know I get many emails from parents congratulating us for “doing well.” I would rather be “doing well” than not, but what does “doing well” really mean? I have no idea because I don’t have the questions the students did on the test and I don't have their work and justifications from the test. Without these two items, I get the vaguest of vague feedback which is not helpful in the slightest to anyone.
I’ve heard of districts trying to analyze the data returned to them. What are they looking at? At best I can see a very general mathematical category and the number of questions my students got right or a percentile in that category. Not helpful. These categories reported are far too broad to pin down any real misconceptions. About the best I can do is peak my students’ interest and go to the Iowa School Performance Profile (https://www.iaschoolperformance.gov/ECP/Home/Index) and show them individually all the schools they “beat.” It’s awesome to be able to say that you did better than other schools, but is that really the goal? Doing this does nothing to inform my practice or help students improve.
Many districts then turn around and make arbitrary decisions based on these vague scores because using a score is simple, even if it doesn’t have a lot of meaning behind it. The MTSS process can suffer when students are placed in remedial time because of a score. Many of these students end up working on random skills and don’t make progress because you are using scores that have no substance other than a student is “good or bad” at math. What are the students to be working on? Fractions for example...that is too vague to effectively help a student improve.
This selection process based on scores goes much deeper than MTSS. For example, many years ago, we placed students into high school Algebra as 7th and 8th graders based on a single number (as I know many schools currently do). A single score. To this day I feel horrible for being a part of that decision. Sure, most of the students who were advanced did fine in high school Algebra, but I can only imagine the learning gaps that haunt them to this day that resulted from bypassing one or two full grades. If you haven’t checked the Iowa Core recently, there is a lot to process, and in hindsight, skipping that much material was an awful idea. I feel much better about the process today, as we do not look at test scores at all, but use a more standards based approach to make sure students that are advanced have shown a high level of proficiency in all mathematical standards that would be skipped.
High stakes testing has been around forever, but why does it continue? Just because we have always done it? As a method of accountability? As a way to compare schools? Maybe, although in my mind, none of those reasons has anything to do with helping students grow and prosper mathematically, which is what it should be about.
I am sure these tests aren’t going anywhere. I am not that naïve to think that something that runs so deep throughout education will go away just like that. If our students have to take the tests, could they be created to be useful and not just a time waster; something that is taken and never looked at again? Here are my recommendations:
1. Use the bare number of questions possible to feel like the standards were “covered.” The ISASP assessment had 50+ questions for math alone, and by the time my students justified everything to the best of their abilities, it took them almost three hours to complete.
2. Release the questions immediately after the test and let teachers hang on to student work. Teachers can go through the student work matched with each question to help make informed decisions, much like they would anyway in their own classrooms. Make new questions for the next year if you are worried about the questions floating around.
3. If the data that is typically collected on high stakes assessments to compare and judge is still necessary, you can still collect it regardless of the changes from items 1 and 2, although I still think this is counterproductive. Instead of pushing educators apart, work on teachers collaborating together on these assessment questions once the test is finished to better help their students improve. You can have a lot of great discussion when you have a math question and varying student work to accompany it.
If the powers that be keep mandating high stakes assessments as is, we will keep doing well. I am always proud of my students and what they are able to accomplish. Each of my students has enough personal pride and school pride to do well, even though they may not see the purpose of taking state assessments (I don’t either). Even though they will fight and claw to do the best they can, the point is they shouldn’t have to unless it will help them understand mathematics better in the long run.