By Guy Hill
Assessments. Local Assessments. State Assessments. Federal Assessments. Administrators, teachers, and students can neither escape testing, nor its effects on how we structure education. High stakes testing comes in many forms, and all three of the aforementioned parties are affected greatly by assessments on every level.
For starters educators and students are both evaluated based on how we perform on these assessments. In North Carolina, teachers are evaluated by a program called Educator Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS). Principals are also evaluated, and bonuses are granted, based on this system, which is connected to student achievement. Of course, teachers use these assessments to evaluate our students and make all manner of decisions about what classes they should take, whether or not they are ready for the next grade level, and myriad other decisions of which I may not be readily aware. As a high school English teacher, I frequently use informal assessments when I teach (often referred to as “formative assessments”) to check my students’ understanding of our texts and the concepts of the curriculum I teach.
Also, in North Carolina, as in many states, every school has a Report Card which states how “effective” we are in many academic areas, based heavily on how our students perform on state assessments. Therefore, it is not a stretch to say that the perception of our school, and in many ways, our very profession, depends on how we navigate the complex, complicated, and time-consuming world of assessment.
Testing, testing, testing. One, two, three. . . testing.
Many of us complain ad nauseum, about testing, and this voice of resistance has grown louder and louder in recent years. But, what are we going to do about testing? We have all heard the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.” In a manner of speaking, this is partially the solution to our concerns about the prevalence and consequences of testing. What we must do as educators is to embrace assessment and learn as much as possible about the tests by which we are measured, so we can in turn, adequately prepare our students for optimum performance on their End of Grade, End of Course, or whatever test they must take.
Many states, including North Carolina, heavily involve teachers in various stages of the test development process, from item-writing to item-review, to scoring Constructed Response Questions. We, as teachers, must involve ourselves more in this process. I have reviewed test items, written test items, and scored test items in my home state. Being involved in these phases has helped me understand and respect the test development process more, and this understanding has helped me better prepare my students to do well on their assessments.
We must also familiarize ourselves more with our curriculum, to which the tests are inextricably linked. In many states like North Carolina, every test question directly connects to a Curriculum Goal, therefore, if we intimately understand our curriculum, and the goals therein, we should be able to mitigate the anxiety surrounding our tests. We must also embrace focused high-level questioning that addresses those curriculum goals and will prepare our students to perform their best on these assessments. For example, simply identifying the repetition in a poem is not sufficient. Understanding how the repetition functions in the poem, understanding its purpose in the poem and why the author uses repetition is what we need our students to understand.
It takes all of us
Teachers are not the only people who bear the burden of helping to slay the testing beast. Administrators and parents also have roles to play. Administrators need to be more supportive of innovative techniques that teachers may want to employ in preparation for these rigorous assessments. Administrators, both at the county and school level, can also be more supportive of teachers attending quality professional development that may help them be better teachers.
At home, parents and guardians need to make sure students stay organized, have a quiet place to do homework, and get adequate amounts of sleep (away from a tablet or cell phone). Sometimes we as teachers may need to educate our own administration and/or the public at large, including the parents of our students, about how to adequately prepare young people for high-stakes assessment.
We must all work together to navigate the oft-times choppy waters of assessments and testing. Teachers must accept that testing, on some level, will probably always be an aspect of public education. We must choose to embrace the challenge of assessments and work diligently to teach the curriculum and adequately prepare our students. What we also must accept is that we are not guinea pigs waiting to be experimented upon. We must be chameleons who constantly adapt to the ever-challenging, ever-changing testing environment.
If we are able to do this effectively, as a school community, and support each other’s endeavors, we will not only prepare our students for the assessments, we will build in them critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will prepare them to deal with the struggles and obstacles of life well beyond school. It is this challenge, this obligation, this charge, that keeps me focused on the solutions and opportunities assessment provides.
Guy Hill is a high school English Teacher in Harnett County, North Carolina. Having served as a North Carolina Teacher Voice Fellow with Hope Street Group from 2015 through 2017, he currently represents his state on the national Teacher Advisory Council. Follow him via Twitter @RealHillBx.