Assessment and Standards

Assessment and standards. Ugh. Do we really have to talk about standards and tests used to assess students’ progress on standards? I have to say I am exhausted by this topic. But I also know that it isn’t going away. It is only going to get more exhausting. While working with the next generation of teachers, I do not know if I see hope or despair on the horizon around this issue.

We had an interesting conversation in class the other day. I projected the US News and World Report ranking the top ten schools in Minnesota. I began with a question. “If you could choose any of these schools, which would you choose?” They looked dumbfounded. It was universal. The number 1 school of course. Then I asked them to collectively list the qualities they would look for if visiting a school under consideration for their child. They listed things like class size, the “feel” of the classroom, the enthusiasm of the teacher, the “sense of community,” and a litany of other qualitative measures. Test scores was not a criterion mentioned. Then we clicked on one of the schools on the list to examine the criteria used to rank the schools. There were four measures: College Readiness Index (AP test availability and scores), Math and Reading Proficiency (MCA test scores), and Student/Teacher Ratio. Digging in deeper we compared a top ten school with a non-ranked school. The non-ranked school had exactly the same MCA scores and a better student/teacher ratio. It was unranked because they did not offer AP exams. Therefore with N/A in the college readiness category they did not qualify for a ranking. Since when did the ability to take an AP test signify college readiness? How about the ability to research and write? Hope or despair. I can’t decide. These future teachers get it, but they do not have the information they need to make an informed decision.

The next day in class we were exploring assessment. I asked these college students to make a list of the type of assessments they felt were most effective at allowing them to show what they really knew and could do. The list is predictable: performance assessments, presentations, essay exams, etc. “What type of assessment doesn’t work?” Again the answer was predictable with a chorus of “multiple choice tests.” Hope or despair. Really, I can’t decide.

Lastly, the discussion was about the use of standards. When I began teaching at my first job, I was teaching 7th grade life science. I asked about the curriculum. I was handed a textbook. That was it. No other guidance. It was great, at least from the standpoint of academic freedom. Those learning to teach today have been through a different education system—one dominated by standards and testing. There is no consideration of another way for most of them. The reality of school is that individual classes are exercises in checking off standards. It’s a wonder why anyone who went through an education system like that would volunteer to spend the rest of their adult lives “going to school” in such an uninspiring system. But here they are saying things like “I have always wanted to be a teacher,” and “I can’t wait to teach.” To their credit, this crop of future teachers seems to understand that the standards are for the teacher, not the students. In a sense, the standards should stay hidden behind the scenes for the students, and that their job is to view the standards as the content to teach and that their academic freedom now is relegated to how to teach the content. God bless them. Hope, I guess.

Here’s the despair. These future teachers are all (hopefully) going to get a job soon. And in that job they will be surrounded by a variety of pressures. Other teachers focused on the test, using the efficient scantron multiple choice test because they have 185 tests to grade, merit pay based on students’ test scores, teachers and principals that don’t understand that the standards are NOT the curriculum, and that true learning happens when students conduct inquiry into interesting essential questions. Seriously…hope or despair?

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