Accountability, Yes. Teaching to the Test, No.
- By Patricia Deubel
Since the 1950s, standardized test scores have been used to compare and rank schools, districts, states, and now nations, according to Rick Stiggins (2007), founder of the Educational Testing Service's Assessment Training Institute. In a commentary on assessment myths, he posed a question that has probably been discussed since standardized testing was chosen as the large-scale measure of effectiveness of schools: "Are we helping students and teachers with our assessment practices, or contributing to their problems?" (p. 28).
The public wants an accountability system that works the way it should so that key stakeholders will know whether state academic content standards have been met. When assessments are properly designed, how can we not defend the things we identify that are important for students to know and be able to do? But, which assessments are we referring to? The single once-per-year standardized test? I cringe when I hear teachers say they find themselves teaching to their state test, when instruction should to be focused on the standards.
The controversy surrounds what critics say is a system that is not working the way it should. In answering the above question, there is little doubt in educators' minds that the current system mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has contributed to problems. Students are caught in the middle. In some cases, teachers voice fears about losing their jobs, if their students don't perform well on those standardized tests. Unfortunately, such testing has become synonymous with NCLB. The consequence: What gets left behind in key decision making are the "day-to-day classroom assessments, which represent 99.9 percent of the assessments in a student's school life" (Stiggins, 2007, p. 28).
Old System Flawed
I can understand the granular focus on standards in the current movement. One might say that school districts themselves have historically contributed to problems encountered with learning, although it is shocking to even say that. This certainly has not been their intent. It came as no surprise when Stiggins (2007) noted that for decades teachers typically have not been thoroughly trained during their pre-service preparation or while teaching to assess accurately and use assessment productively. Having taught for over 30 years in more than one state and in several school districts, I've seen many instances of poor teaching practices, inconsistencies in what is taught, and great differences in classroom grading procedures. I have heard teachers say, "Just let me alone in my classroom to do my own thing. I know what is important for these kids to learn." Collaboration among teachers was minimal, and even if they wanted to, the teaching day was scheduled in such a way as to make this nearly impossible to do. Thus, two teachers of the same subject might differ considerably on what they deemed important, resulting in assessments that also varied in content and difficulty.
The end result: Administrators and parents would not have clear indicators of what students knew, as letter grades dominated discussions. We all know that letter grades don't tell all.
In spite of school systems developing scope and sequence guides for what should be taught and when, teachers were pretty much left on their own to use those guides or not. Sometimes those guides were put in the filing cabinet, or only reappeared if some administrator asked to see your copy. If a teacher's own conceptual understanding of a particular topic was weak, they'd skip it or minimally address it. Who would know? Typically, I'd see teachers skip probability and statistics chapters in a math text. They'd rationalize that those were not needed for courses in the next year. If they didn't like teaching word problems, many of those were skipped too. In other words, free reign up to a point was often the case, with the textbook serving as the curriculum.
Before the NCLB accountability movement, I saw a different attitude toward standardized testing. I recall several years in spring when students in one grade took a well known standardized test of basic skills. Teachers would say, "Just do your best and keep in mind that the test does not count for anything." And, it didn't. Consequently, some students just filled in bubbles on the answer sheets without even reading the test questions. There was no reliable link from test results to student knowledge; nor were there focused efforts within the classroom to do anything with results. At best students got a printout of their results, if it arrived by the end of the school year. Data were collected, and echoing Stiggins (2007) words, the assessment results informed the grownups who ran the system (p. 29). The district's nuts and bolts were not necessarily in place to ensure that tests measured what had been taught anyway.
The above scenario illustrates a system that was not working the way it should. It was more teacher-centered than learner-centered. Introducing a different slant on accountability was an idea whose time had come. So, what commonality could we come up with to measure what students know? The state mandated standardized test linked to academic content standards, of course. But this time, raise the stakes--link passage to graduation requirements or retaining students in a grade. Again, borrowing from Stiggins (2007), this would change "our 60-year assessment legacy" in which nowhere "do we find reference to students as assessment users and instructional decision makers" (p. 29). They and their teachers surely would be assessment users now.
Whether or not you agree with standardized testing, there are positive outcomes from the current accountability movement. School districts and teachers are taking a closer look at curriculum and are developing vertical and horizontal curriculum maps. When properly done, these ensure that what is taught aligns to state standards. This is a good thing to not just cover topics, but to see how well and to what degree those deemed important appear appropriately in each grade level or subject strand. You can't teach all of the standards; I agree there are too many. A good curriculum committee will know which standards have been tested at each grade level. They will incorporate those among others of highest priority within essential questions for their mapping efforts. This is putting the nuts and bolts in place. It's not setting up the idea of teaching to the test, rather identifying standards that are achievable within a reasonable time period. Plus, it is not limiting what is taught to what is tested, which is an unethical practice anyway. With this comes greater emphasis on principles of universal design for learning and using a variety of curricular materials beyond the textbook, so that students don't become confused when they see problems on standardized tests not expressed exactly as they've seen them in their textbook. Overcoming that confusion is one of the teacher concerns for teaching to the test.
Unfortunately, some of the curriculum maps I've seen are still works in progress, as are their implementations. Short-term maps might lack performance tasks among assessments, for example, which link content to real-world activities and provide the contextual and investigative aspects important for learning. This then affects how a subject is taught and learned.
The accountability movement has led teachers to rethink their methodologies for teaching, pulling some out of their comfort zone. For example, NCTM standards include processes such as reasoning, problem solving, using multiple representations, communication, and making connections, which are embedded in math questions on standardized tests. A teacher-centered behaviorist approach to instruction with its popular lecture method limits development of those skills. Those who use differentiated instructional practices, now at the forefront of education, are more learner-centered, and have philosophical perspectives leaning toward constructivism and perhaps connectivism. There's more obvious attention to responsiveness to intervention and progress monitoring strategies, such as interim diagnostic testing and formative assessments. The accountability movement, in turn, has forced students to take greater responsibility for their learning--they are assessment-users. Some parents have become more involved with helping their children to learn.
Current System Flawed
All is not rosy with the current system either, as critics point out. We hear that by focusing on THE TEST, we are denying our young people valuable experiences they need in the 21st century. The NCLB standardized test frenzy should not limit our ability to provide those, but apparently it has. We hear of districts narrowing the curriculum to better focus on subjects tested. After all, repercussions involving funding are involved. This is unfortunate, as the narrowing affects our ability to teach the whole child, which should be the mission of our public schools. We hear of increased teacher stress as they work with students to prepare them for those tests and their frustrations when students fail again. Yet, those same students might have made great strides with their teacher when you make the comparison to what students knew at the beginning of their courses. There are statements on other ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned, such as project-based learning and using portfolios. I agree that both are valuable and might be considerations, but at present the process for evaluating those alternatives, the man-power to do so with rubrics applied fairly, and the additional cost to do so are not in place.
So, we are left with an imperfect system for measuring outcomes of learning for public accountability. We use the most efficient, cost-effective form with the multiple choice format, free response, and essays in writing. Questions are field tested so that the final test is valid and reliable. Some of those tests might not yet be good, and it is probably true that when too many students start to get a particular question right, the question is replaced. We have misused and abused standardized tests to a point where we've lost site of the purpose of testing. Standardized tests can't possibly measure all that we value for students to know and be able to do. But, if you can set aside NCLB for a moment, there is a valuable place for them. If results inform instruction and tell the teacher that a student does not have basic skills in some area deemed essential, isn't that important to know for intervention to be provided? The era of "passing the buck" is gone.
Douglas Reeves (2004, cited in Deubel, 2007) provided good advice: "Even if the state test is dominated by lower-level thinking skills and questions are posed in a multiple-choice format, the best preparation for such tests is not mindless testing drills, but extensive student writing, accompanied by thinking, analysis, and reasoning." My guess is that test prep strategies used by many run contrary to his statement. This is not to say we should omit teaching test taking strategies, and taking practice tests. Students should know what to expect. The key is proper balance and remaining ethical in our test prep strategies (e.g., see Mehrens, 1989; Washington Educational Research Association, 2001).
I doubt readers oppose accountability--proof that students have met standards. Objections lie in how we are going about gathering the proof and the current emphasis on outcomes from single tests, rather than using a spectrum of possibilities. The problem is not standardized tests per se, but the inappropriate uses we've made of results. There is some good news on the horizon, however. To fix the current problem, Reeves (2008) notes that growth models are being piloted in states to add flexibility in determining school success. The combination of growth and achievement might lead to a more complete accountability system. I still want to know if the student learned this, that, and the other. But I also want to know that students are developing other skills and exercising creativity valued for 21st century literacy. I want a system that works the way it should, one that does not ever cause students to lose faith in their ability to succeed.
Deubel, P. (2007, Sept. 27). Test prep and math realities. THE Journal SmartClassroom. Available: http://www.thejournal.com/articles/21329
Mehrens, W. A. (1989). Preparing students to take standardized achievement tests. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 1(11). Available: http://PAREonline.net/getvn.asp?v=1&n=11
Reeves, D. B. (2008). Waiting for NCLB. Educational Leadership, 65(6), 89-90.
Stiggins, R. (2007, Oct. 17). Five assessment myths and their consequences. Education Week, 27(8), 28-29. Available: http://www.edweek.org/go/commentary
Washington Educational Research Association (2001). Ethical standards in testing: Test preparation and administration. Available: http://www.wera-web.org/pages/publications/WERA_Test_Ethics.pdf
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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.
Proposals for articles, news tips, ideas for topics, and questions and comments about this publication should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at email@example.com.
Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.