Within the next few weeks, standardized test season will be in full swing at schools across the nation. As students in grades 3 and above prepare to take content area tests, you might be wondering why all the stress?
Most states assessments are criterion-referenced tests, meaning they are designed to measure student performance based upon a specific set of criteria (e.g., state standards). It is not possible for every state standard at a grade level to be tested, so they are prioritized. A one-time, multiple-choice test is not the only way students can show mastery of a standard. Work samples and performance projects are other avenues for students to display their knowledge. However, due to costs and uniformity in administration states opt for the test. Prima facie criterion-referenced tests seem like a viable option to determine if a student is learning what is required of the grade level and on course for graduation. So, why all of negativity?
A criterion-referenced test does not tell the story of a student; it only tells about the performance during one day of his/her life. When evaluating the progress of a student, I prefer a growth model. Unfortunately, we do not give students a standardized test on the first day of school and then the same test on the last day of school to determine how much they have learned. Many states do calculate growth based upon a comparison of scale scores from year to year. Most schools administer universal screeners (a brief test given to all students at a grade level) at the beginning, middle, and end of the year to determine students’ progress over the course of a school year. The screener is like the doctor taking your blood pressure each time you visit to monitor your health changes. It’s not in-depth, just a way to ensure your heart is on the right track.
If we have universal screeners to chart progress and criterion-referenced tests to determine final outcomes, what’s the big deal? Students’ individual growth and success are not represented in the numbers. For example, Valorie is a third grade student reading at a first grade level at the beginning of the school year. Through intensive instruction and practice at home, at the end of third grade Valorie reads at the expected level for a middle of the year second grade student. She has made 1.5 years of growth in just one year, which is fabulous. However, she does not pass her state test and she is still considered below level according to her universal screener. The tests have made her feel like a failure despite the great strides she made. Not the positive message regarding hard work we would like to send our students. Working at the same intensity in fourth and fifth grades, Valorie will probably make enough growth to end fifth grade on level. Not an easy concept to explain to a nine-year-old.
A student’s education goal should not be to pass a test. We need students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers who can work collaboratively with others. Additionally, communication skills are a must as technology advancements have shrunken the size of the globe. When I was a student, I had a pen-pal in Spain and it would take at least three weeks to complete a correspondence cycle. Today, students can login to a video chat or messaging program to become instantly connected to someone across the world. With these ideals in mind, we need to re-think how we define success for student achievement.