How Do You Measure Student Learning?

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As the Chairman of the Board of Marco Island Academy (“MIA”), a public charter high school for the past 5 years, I have had an opportunity to witness firsthand how the current standardized testing strategies affects students, teachers and administration at the school. As a parent of three children in the public school system, I have personal experience with how the testing has affected my own kids. In both cases, there is an unnecessary amount of stress caused by the abundance of standardized testing in schools today.

During the past few years, legislators have expressed a greater desire to measure student learning through assessments. In an effort to ensure that all students succeed, the U.S. has inadvertently created a test-taking factories in the public school system. I don’t think a standardized test or a myriad of standardized tests can measure the true ability of our nation’s students. Schools must have high expectations and an effective way to measure student learning. But at what point do we determine that additional testing is not the solution to a much more complex problem? Are the standardized tests aligned with the standards that are taught in class? Do the test results give teachers useful data to guide instruction? Based on my experience, the answer to the majority of these questions is no.

Last year, students at MIA spent approximately half the instructional days during second semester taking tests. Between the mandatory standardized tests, FSA’s, End of Course exams, and the advanced curriculum AICE and IGCSE exams, students in every class were tested. In some cases, students were tested multiple times in the same course. For example, in the pre-AICE (IGCSE) Biology class, students took a state mandated Biology EOC exam and the pre-AICE (IGCSE) test. The amount of time spent on coordinating the logistics to administer the tests are incomprehensible. The school’s administration established seating charts prior to each test and submitted them to the district. Since, MIA is a small school, we cannot afford a full time IT team. Instead, we spent thousands of dollars to have our IT representative visit the school and set up all the schools’ computers prior to each test. The guidance counselor at MIA doubled as a full-time test administrator. Teachers were pulled from the classroom to proctor exams. Substitute teachers took their place in the classroom. Valuable instructional time was replaced by what I like to refer to as the “testing marathon.” We survived. In fact, we administered all the tests successfully, and our students performed very well. But in retrospect, what exactly did we gain that we didn’t already know? In my opinion, not enough to justify the time that our teachers and students lost in the classroom.

Our current data driven assessment system reduces the amount of time that teachers spend on instruction. More testing is not necessarily better. After researching countries at the top of list consistently according to NAEP, I realized there are different methodologies to teaching. For example in Singapore, classroom instruction is uniform across al levels and subjects throughout the country. Teachers focus on a strict curriculum and prepare students for the high stakes end of year testing. Their model incorporates top-down forms of teacher accountability based on student performance. While this type of structure has been effective in the past, Singapore’s government recognizes the need to evolve in order to maintain its position in the future. They are working towards a new type of framework called “Teach Less, Learn More” that pushes teachers to focus on the quality of learning vs. the quantity of test prep. In addition, teachers are incorporating more and more technology into the classroom.

While Finland is also ranked at the top of the NAEP scores, its educational model is completely different. Teachers actually develop the curriculum in Finland and design their own tests.There are no national tests, except for one that is administered at the end of high school. In the lower grade levels, less time is spent in the classroom and more time is spent playing. There is virtually no emphasis placed on standardized testing.

What can the U.S. learn from the countries who consistently rank as the top performing education systems in the world? Although it is unrealistic to think we can simply emulate another country’s education system and expect the same results, I think there are lessons we can learn from them. Testing isn’t the real problem. In fact, when used appropriately, assessments can be very useful in the education process. Teachers administer tests and quizzes regularly to gage student learning. However, I believe the quantity and types of assessments we are currently using are an issue. Standardized test administration is costly and requires hours of time. The results are not given to the teachers in a timely manner. Therefore they cannot be used to help guide individual student’s instruction.

In order to adequately measure student learning, we need to take a more comprehensive approach. Standardized tests should be used as a tool, a small piece to the puzzle, but not as the complete evaluation. Students who are taking advanced courses such as AP, IB or AICE should be exempt from all other testing. Students who are taking general classes should take no more than one standardized test, for example a PSAT or similar test once a year to measure growth. By using a nationally normed test, students can be compared to other students throughout the country. Teachers should be given the test results immediately so they can use the information to guide instruction. In addition, teachers should be expected to keep a portfolio on every student. The portfolio should incorporate various aspects of the child including samples of work demonstrating where the child excels as well as examples of where he or she needs more help. The portfolio should be used to support the individual student’s learning needs. Some students who are creative artists, talented writers, or gifted musicians, struggle in math. Other students who are brilliant mathematicians struggle with verbal skills. The only way to truly measure student learning is to recognize the many variables that encompass each individual student. It makes me think of the line in the song “Seasons of Love”, “525,600 minutes. How do you measure a year in the life? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, and cups of coffee? In Inches, in miles, in laughter, and strife? How do you measure a year in life?” Students exhibit individual talents and abilities that cannot be measured by simply administering standardized tests. Until we recognize this fact, we will not be able to accurately measure student learning. Nor will we be able to give students’ the support they need to succeed in their future.

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