Time to Rethink Tennessee Testing

“Pray for me. You’re going to have to pray for me this morning.” said one of the second grade teachers. I knew exactly what she meant. It was the third day of the SAT 10 assessment and we had just finished the reading portions of the test and were moving on to the math sections. Taking up the majority of their mornings for the better part of the week, these second graders were burnt out near the end. I tried to break up our hours of assessment with games of I Spy, Simon Says, and the like, but even so, the students’ frustration was readily apparent. Bordering on an elementary revolt, more than once I heard comments like, “I hate this,” “I want to go outside,” “I’m tired,” and “Why do we have to do this?” To this last question, I honestly had no reasonable answer.

As a third year English as a Second Language teacher, I’ve given more federally mandated tests than most have given in a 25-year career. I’ve administered several grade-level versions of the TCAP and read aloud its English Language Simplified Assessments (ELSA). I’ve also proctored special education’s Modified Academic Achievement Standards (MAAS). At this point it’s easier to say which versions I haven’t seen than those I have.  And from all that experience I can honestly say there is little defense for yearly standardized testing, especially when it comes to special needs students. Instead, my experience tells me that we need to go back to the drawing board and rethink the way we assess learning in schools.

Standardized Testing Doesn’t Aide Instruction

Within all the rancor against testing, we often forget that there are two important reasons for assessments in education: (1) to gauge student’s learning and their level of ability, and (2) to guide instruction and inform future teaching. Current high stakes testing succeeds at the first intention but fails at the second. TCAP, PARCC, and other forms of standardized testing are given too late and too infrequently to effectively guide instructional practices. They are useless to educators other than to facilitate teaching to the test at the school level and direct carrot-and-stick measures at the district, state, and federal level.

Standardized Testing Doesn’t Address the Different Needs of Students

Some argue that we use standardized tests to more reliably measure the performance of all students as they level the playing field by holding everyone to the same standard. However, this is both inaccurate and disingenuous for two reasons. The first is that the standard of measurement for improved performance, the value-added model, has proven to be rather unstable and unreliable from year to year. The second is the long overlooked need for differentiated assessment.

The need for differentiated assessments is exemplified by the needs of students in English as a Second Language (ESL) and Special Education (SPED), who make up about 18% of students in Tennessee. There is a wide array of needs with students in both ESL and SPED, ranging from those who need a great deal of support to those who need very little. In ESL you may have newcomer English Language Learners (ELLS) with no English language abilities (or prior schooling, for that matter) or students who require monitoring and testing accommodations. For SPED, with which I am admittedly less familiar, the range is much more vast and spans from severe developmental disabilities to those who are intellectually gifted. To assess all students in the same way would be inappropriate, yet this is essentially what is being done.

Against all that we understand about language acquisition, ELLs are expected to perform on mandated assessments after their first academic year in the United States. In other words, a student can arrive in April of one year and be expected to achieve on the TCAP or EOC the following school year. To make matters worse, the modified assessments provide a poor alternative. If you compare TCAP’s ELSA to its non-modified counterpart, they are practically identical. The ELSA, like TCAP, is a one-size-fits-all assessment despite the fact that students develop at different speeds and in different ways, particularly for ELLs. For SPED, the modifications and accommodations for standardized tests depend on the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Some may take the MAAS, a heavily modified test, with extra time. Some may take the TCAP with or without extra time. The intellectually gifted simply take the TCAP with their peers. This may not technically be a “one-size-fits-all” assessment, but it’s not far from it. The system is simply not built for students with special needs and doesn’t fully acknowledge the very real differences each student possesses.

In short, the TCAP is an extremely poor assessment for those who require a more individualized approach.

The Need for a Whole New Model of Assessment

Pearson, the largest testing corporation, has a long and troubled history with standardized assessment. It holds a $150 million multi-year contract with Tennessee for TCAP and End of Course (EOC) exams. Yet in the last decade Pearson has made numerous errors administering mandated assessments in several states across the country.  Despite its troubles, Pearson won the contract for the new set of assessments aligned to Common Core, for which there were no other bidders.

Can we fix this all with new tests? That’s the current debate: whether Common Core’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is an appropriate replacement. The answer is quite simple: it is too soon to tell. PARCC has only recently been field-tested (and I haven’t heard of any posted results). There are no examples of modified assessments for ESL or SPED beyond an accommodations manual. So I don’t think it’s fair to say PARCC or any other CCSS assessment is better or worse. We don’t know. But the lack of evidence either for or against these new assessments is incredibly worrisome.

I think that the issue of standardized tests is systemic. It’s not something we can overcome with a little tweak like PARCC.  Kevin Huffman, the state’s Commissioner of Education, has argued that we need to replace poor assessments, but I contend that this is not a drastic enough change in policy.

It’s time we move toward more student-centered and differentiated assessments. Where assessments are tailored to some degree by learning plans that are informed by but not limited to language needs and IEPS. I personally don’t think Pearson or any other testing corporation is up to the task or, even if they are, ought to be trusted with such responsibility. Therefore, I believe education should move toward a portfolio model of assessment. Achievement in the portfolio model is defined by rubrics, individualized to the student and their needs, and completed throughout the year by the student with the aide of the teacher. A contracted company, at best, may be necessary to monitor the completion and scoring of these portfolios against the rubric.

An Alternative Middle Ground

The movement to oppose standardized testing is growing, yet unless there is a major sea change in Congress and the federal Department of Education then standardized assessment will remain. So for those who strongly defend standardized testing, a good middle ground would be to modify the way in which education systems use formative assessments. Currently, most schools in Tennessee as well as many other states make use of the Discovery Education as formative assessments, which are standards-based and are administered periodically throughout the year. These assessments can be aligned to a number of standards, including the Common Core State Standards.

While Discovery ED is certainly not perfect, particularly with concern to modifications for ELLs and SPED students, it illustrates the strengths of formative assessments alignment to standards.  As they are, formative assessments would fit right into a portfolio model. In fact, they are used to continuously evaluate the performance of schools with School Improvement Grants (SIG), such as those within the Achievement School District and I-Zone. As such, a stronger focus on improving formative assessments could facilitate a transition to a portfolio-based model of assessment.

While there is some room for compromise between a standardized model and an individualized model, I ultimately think the power of assessment needs to be put back in the hands of the teachers. Yes, consistency in assessments is necessary. But that is the point of academic standards. As I’ve illustrated, a one-size-fits-all assessment is blatantly biased and inappropriate for the myriad of students with special needs. Educators should strive to meet our students at their level, not only with instruction but with assessments as well. Our current system of standardized assessment, whether it’s with TCAP and the proposed PARCC, is failing to do this. For these reasons, yearly-standardized tests need to be set aside and give room for a new comprehensive system of assessment.

By Ezra Howard

Follow Bluff City Education on Twitter @bluffcityed and look for the hashtag #iteachiam and #TNedu to find more of our stories.  Please also like our page on facebook. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent those of any affiliated organizations.

2 comments for “Time to Rethink Tennessee Testing

  1. June 1, 2014 at 1:44 am

    Reblogged this on TN BATs BlOG.

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