The Power of Strong Assessments — The Danger of Bad Ones

Avoid sabotaging the Shifts with standardized testing

In a recent post, I described many ways high-quality instructional materials can help move mathematics instruction into the 21st Century. I also believe good standardized tests can help steer us toward our goals, but bad ones can sabotage all progress. Goals are set, and the assessment tells us if goals are met. Teachers who understand and value the goals know what to teach and find satisfaction in seeing the students meet those goals. Sometimes, though, tests are misaligned or teachers are misled, and the whole process becomes agonizing, if not damaging for the students caught in the middle.

Standardized tests often come with a “no peek” rule for teachers, but even under the most restrictive conditions, word gets out when something is amiss. A student may ask, “What is synthetic division?” or “What do you do when there is an inequality symbol with an absolute value?” The teacher explains and then asks, “Where did you see that?” The student replies, “It was on the test.” Caring teachers make a note to cover that topic next year. That seems innocuous, but if too many items divert attention from the standards, little time is left to dive into modeling. Students are left with mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum. That curriculum is unlikely to meet the demands for college readiness skills and is unlikely to motivate students to consider careers that involve much math.

Teachers may also feel resentment if they take the time to keep up with their profession only to find those at the test-making helm…did not. Teachers who use old materials unaligned to the new standards may provide their students with short-term advantages but, at the same time, long-term disadvantages. Students who are trying to score well on nationally normed tests for scholarships can be disadvantaged when taught outdated expectations from state or local tests.

If we are serious about creating tests that will help us guide students into critical thinking, then our test writers need to be experts in their standards. In states that are fairly well aligned with the CCSS, those experts should have extensive knowledge of the progressions documents that describe the expectations of each standard in detail. Questions need to assess each student’s ability to apply foundational skills in non-routine ways, beyond rote execution of algorithms.

There are at least two major benefits of using a testing consortia like Smarter Balanced or PARCC. First, the consortia members have access to content and standards experts. Secondly, and even more importantly, parents can know how their students compare with other states. When individual states write their own tests, they set their own proficiency bar, and parents have no way of knowing if their students are years behind those in the neighboring states.

The math course that arguably has the worst reputation for crowding extraneous topics into tests is Algebra. At a time when many teenagers are considering future occupations, many feel as though they are subjugated to the most boring, irrelevant, tedious work in their school experience. Hammering memorized, non-contextualized procedures creates a curriculum that very few enjoy. High school math teachers typically love what they teach and are very good at it. However, far too few students share that joy, and disaffection tends to build over time. It is difficult for administrators to identify extraneous material because they are usually not math content experts. For that reason, I have compiled a list of some of the more common unnecessary topics, with input from Chief Writer Bill McCallum.

Teacher leaders have the responsibility for making sure tests are fair and evaluate what is supposed to be evaluated. In order to do that, we need to grow in our knowledge of what our standards say and what they mean. Keeping up with a profession is what professionals do. We need to confront test writers when their tests are misaligned. When we keep informed as professionals, we are in a better position to push back on the pressure to include extraneous content in our instruction. We need to serve on committees where our knowledge and experience beyond our own classrooms carry weight.

Teacher leaders have tremendous potential to act in ways that impact students beyond their own classrooms. Pushing for quality assessments that are tightly aligned to their standards is one way to make a difference. Only then will our students will have plenty of time to explore rich tasks and develop strong problem solving skills that are useful in the 21st Century.

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About the Author: Lane Walker (@LaneWalker2) is a National Board Certified high school math teacher pursuing her doctorate in STEM curriculum at the University of Missouri. Her thesis, Common Core and STEM Opportunities, has been published in The Mathematics Enthusiast, a peer reviewed journal from the University of Montana. Lane was a 2013 Missouri State Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She served as a panelist for Common Core Controversies at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, describing the effects of Common Core State Standards in math classrooms and has presented at State and local conferences. She has assisted with mathematics curriculum development and is a reviewer for Ed Reports.