Transcript: Live Chat on Testing and Education Reform
On May 17, 2012, The Nation hosted a live chat on testing and education reform, our first using the platform CoveritLive. The discussion attracted over two-hundred readers, many of them educators themselves. Below is an edited transcript of the chat, which featured Nation writer Dana Goldstein, teacher and Schools as Ecosystems contributor Mark Anderson and teacher and Educators4Excellence member Tara Brancato. You can read a replay of the chat here.
Sarah Arnold: Hello everyone! This is Sarah, your moderator. Readers, you should begin submitting your questions and comments. In the meantime, I’m going to ask Dana, Mark and Tara to each introduce themselves and to say a word or two about what brings them to this conversation.
Mark Anderson: Hello all. Glad to be here. My name is Mark Anderson, and I am a 5th grade special education teacher in an elementary school in the Bronx. I am also a VIVA Teacher Leader and have worked with the VIVA Project to make policy recommendations for implementing teacher evaluations in New York State.
Dana Goldstein: Hey there! I am an education reporter based here in New York. I write for The Nation and Slate, and I'm working on a book about the history of public school teaching.
Tara Brancato: Good afternoon! My name is Tara Brancato, and I am a teacher at an Educators4Excellence School Captain and a teacher fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It's a pleasure to be here!
Sarah Arnold: Thanks, everyone. I'm going to start with a question: Dana, from your experience reporting on education and Mark and Tara, from your teaching and other work, what changes regarding the use of standardized testing have you noticed during the last few years?
Dana Goldstein: The biggest change underway right now is the adoption of the Common Core curriculum standards by 45 states. The states have formed two consortia to create more sophisticated exams in English and math. But simultaneously, states want to use student achievement data to evaluate teachers. So districts are creating a lot more tests in every subject, including science, social studies, even art and music. And these are subjects that haven't usually been traditionally "tested" in the past.
Mark Anderson: What I've noticed is that it appears that the tests are attempting to move to "higher order" thinking questions, most likely to attempt to move closer to the Common Core. Problem is, higher order questions don't square with multiple-choice assessments. By nature, multiple-choice questions are shallower. Also, it has become quite clear that the primary purpose of testing is to evaluate teachers, not simply to diagnose children's abilities.
Tara Brancato: One recent trend in my own school is a change in the way we're using our testing data. Our testing practices themselves have changed very little since our inception as a school, but we've begun to use the data in a more meaningful way, restructuring our grade teams to become inquiry teams focused on the growth of students across all subject areas. We've also begun making a 'horizontal map' of our Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) goals and performance tasks across departments.
Tara Brancato: I teach Music and a humanities elective called Human Rights Studies, and we've tried to make all subject areas, even those not traditionally assessed by standardized tests, a part of the data and inquiry process.
Dana Goldstein: Tara, before we move on, can you tell us how your school is assessing music and human rights? That is really interesting to me.
Tara Brancato: As an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, we actually have a much larger, cross-curricular form of standardized assessment. This includes subject areas in the Arts, and in fact treats them as equals to traditionally assessed subject areas. My Human Rights class, on the other hand, supports critical thinking skills and both Regents and IB standards in History.
Comment from Shamekka: I agree with your statements about teachers and schools and their vulnerability to these standardize test. Especially in my experience of seeing the pressure to "teach to the test" and the many high school graduates who graduate from school but can't read or do basic math. My question: how do we assess the students’ academic abilities and progress without penalizing schools and teachers and without the pressure of standardized tests?
Mark Anderson: Great question. I would say that we are measuring the wrong things. We should be measuring the learning environments of schools via direct observation, and assessing the content that schools are delivering to students. Right now, we are acting like students are products of individual teachers.
In regards to the pressure to "teach to the test," the conundrum of tests is that they determine what is taught yet we pretend that they are isolated from curriculum.
Tara Brancato: I love this question! Actually, adopting the Internationally Baccalaureate program and incorporating the IB learner profile across all of our grades has really helped us to get out of the mindset of “teaching to the test.” We find that if we set the bar as high as we can, across the board, our scholars are able to reach Regents standards. Of course, it's not a perfect system, and it requires more than just test prep, but even in an unscreened school we find that it's possible to incorporate the tests in a way that works for our kids.
Dana Goldstein: I agree with Mark that most of the political discussion on teacher evaluation tends to focus on testing, but we should also be talking about much better classroom observation of teachers. I work with the New America Foundation, a think tank in DC, and they have a good report on best practices in classroom observation.
Mark Anderson: Dana, yes, that also goes along with my point about direct observation of learning environments. It's the practices, routines, and content that teachers deliver that determines student outcomes. We can only assess that by going into classrooms.
Tara Brancato: I agree that observation is a really huge component of effective teaching and student growth. It's impossible to effectively use testing data in isolation, without taking into account the need for feedback and development of teachers.
Comment from Kris: I agree with Mark. A Milwaukee teacher very committed to social justice teaching recently told me that even she is having a hard time finding the time and space to incorporate meaningful and critical lessons into her teaching because so much of the time is spent on test prep.
Mark Anderson: Kris, you are right. Test prep consumes a huge portion of time. And it is a huge disservice to the kids that are most in need of access to enriching literature.
Comment from Tom Humphreys: I think part of the problem is in "grading" the tests. To save time and subjective interpretation, multiple choice or True/False questions are almost always the mechanism. Is there a way around this?
Mark Anderson: Tom brings up a good point. To assess higher order thinking, like Tara's IB tests, tests will become less "efficient." Either we have a unified curriculum (efficient but politically unviable), or we utilize local assessments based on local curriculum (highly inefficient).
Dana Goldstein: Tom is also correct that not enough states are asking students to do writing on standardized tests, in part because writing is harder to grade. That's why the Common Core reformers are interested in computer assessment of writing, which I recently reported on. But the tech will need to improve, in my opinion, before we roll it out.
Comment from Alex: Mark, but direct observation of learning environments requires resources, which we know are in short supply as states are cutting back on education. Is this a place where the federal government can step in?
Mark Anderson: Alex, I would suggest that we put testing onto a randomized basis and put some of that money towards direct observation by district leaders.
Tara Brancato: One of the things that I like best about the Common Core Learning Standards movement is that it provides a unified framework that supports higher order thinking and, to Alex's point, is federally backed. It also provides teachers with a common language to use.
Comment from David Ginsburg: Shamekka hit on a key word: PRESSURE to teach to the test. I've worked in urban schools for 20 years as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator—and have consistently seen test scores take care of themselves when schools provide rich curriculum AND provide teachers the support they need to implement it. In other words, focus on teaching rather than testing. The problem is that many school leaders think this is a leap of faith and continue to respond to test score pressure by having teachers teach the test.
Mark Anderson: David, thanks for bringing up that point. I've read statements that real teachers are doing good teaching, not test prep, which is disingenuous. These are teachers who either 1) have enlightened administrators or 2) have tenure and are willing to shut their doors and do the right thing despite what they are instructed to do.
Tara Brancato: David, I agree that investing in your teachers is really key! And that's part of what a lot of teachers are currently thinking, especially those involved with Educators4Excellence. The focus should be on improving our teaching, for the benefit of our students, not just prepping in a pressured environment.