Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Is the Purpose of Testing?

With the recent STAAR testing debacle behind us (and amid the ongoing debate about what happened, who’s to blame, what can be done to prevent this from occurring again, and so on), this seems like a good time to step back and really consider the true purpose of testing. For an extensive discussion on testing and its merits, I encourage you to read Diane Ravitch’s blog post entitled Texas: The State Obsessed with Testing.  Diane’s post itself addresses her concerns but what I found even more interesting were the comments that follow the blog.  

I recently came across the following infographic published by Central Ohio Friends of Public Educators.

This may be the very best summary I have seen of what tests should and should not be about.  When I think back to my days as a student in Colorado public schools, I recall that we put great emphasis on grades in evaluating student performance and needs, not on punishing students, campuses and districts as current testing and accountability systems do.  We were very focused on grades primarily because an overall GPA was one of the critical elements in being admitted to the college of our choice.  And testing was an integral part, actually the only part, in determining a grade for a course.

Where did we go so very wrong?  By all accounts, much of the focus on expanded testing found its roots in Texas.  Over time, a series of standardized tests was created to measure student performance, to the point that there were at one time 15 required end-of-course exams.  With advocacy from several organizations, including Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), the legislature reduced that number to 5.  But are we achieving what we hope to accomplish with testing?  Are the winners the students or those who have been paid handsomely to administer the tests?

The above infographic captures the essence of testing and where we should focus testing outcomes.  To me, the most important of the four items under the “should” column is to measure student progress.  Of course, these four are closely intertwined; one cannot be achieved without a reliance on each of the others.    As far as the “should not’s”, we should not be using tests to decide how to rank schools.  This is a topic of prior blogs that I have posted, challenging the validity of the A-F rating system to be imposed on public education in the 2017-2018 school year.

This is not to suggest that there should be no testing in our public schools.  To the contrary, we must focus on testing as a resource to help guide students, teachers, and staff toward achieving the goals of a quality education for all students.  If we use testing in a more positive manner, i.e., as an evaluative and development resource, we can once again return to the days where the focus was on teaching and evaluation of learning, not using testing as a way to punish schools or to create a platform for those who promote a shift in public funding to other resources.  Used properly, testing is a valuable resource in the efforts to Make Education a Priority.

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