Standardized testing: just the thought of these assessments strikes terror in the hearts of teachers. If only our students cared as much about how they score on state-mandated tests. Most of the educational literature reflects a negative view of standardized testing, but they serve an important purpose in American education: to indicate teacher effectiveness through student learning. They can be used to measure growth for both teachers and students, and if given the appropriate context and weight in the evaluation process, test scores can be used as a positive influence in education reform.
Some Personal Context
This year, I taught 7th grade US History and 8th grade US Civics and Economics in a northern Virginia School district. After the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, Virginia implemented a battery of standardized tests in 3rd and 8th grade, primarily in reading and math, but also in social studies and science. They go by the unfortunate acronym “SOLs” (Standards of Learning). Most high school courses also received standardized tests, which must be passed by students to receive what is called a “verified credit.” These are known as “end-of-year Standards of Learning tests (EOC SOLs).
In recent years, the 7th Grade US History SOL exam was eliminated and a series of performance tests were instituted in their place. Three times during the 7th-grade year, we must assess student learning through a Performance Assessment Test or PAT, which is essentially a project-based writing activity similar to the Advanced Placement Test’s Document-based question, or DBQ. Students must use a variety of primary documents while bringing into the discussion their own knowledge of the topic. The prompt to which students must respond is seen as a more “authentic” way of assessing student knowledge than a multiple choice test because it creates a situation where students must imagine the situation, create a response, and execute higher order thinking skills to perform at the highest levels as outlined by a rubric, which students can use to critique their own work.
The SOLs as Motivator
This year, I had the experience of teaching a SOL-based course and a PAT-based course concurrently. Knowing my 8th-grade students would be assessed at the end of the year with a standardized exam places additional pressure on me as the teacher to cover the prescribed curriculum effectively while ensuring students have gained the thinking- and test-taking skills to earn a passing score on the test. Students need to achieve a 60% to pass, called “pass proficient.” If they achieve an 80% or better, their score is identified as “pass advanced.” In turn, my own assessment of student performance is not just based on the pass-fail ratio. It is also based on the number of pass proficient vs. pass advanced scores my students are able to achieve. I also look at the number of students who achieved a 600, which is a perfect score.
There are a variety of factors, some of which I have control and others not, that determine student performance on this test. A student’s reading comprehension skill has a strong impact on a student’s success. This factor determines whether or not the student understands what the question is asking. The student’s academic performance in the course will also have a major role in their success. Did the student complete their assignments, pay attention in class, and process the contents of the course throughout the year? The socio-economic status of the student also has an impact on test performance. Students with enriched backgrounds and stable home environments will undoubtedly perform higher on standardized tests than those with challenges in their home and family lives. Also, students who have been raised to value learning, who have been raised to express a strong work ethic, and who grasp the impact of education on their future academic and professional careers will make a stronger effort to be successful on the test by studying and preparing for the test. The teacher can create an atmosphere that emphasizes these values in an effort to overcome deficits and help the student be successful on the test. We accept these factors as part of the job as educators.
Aren’t Grades Enough?
Academic grades can, in large part, predict student success on the test. And that’s the purpose of the test, isn’t it? The test is intended to reflect whether or not the student actually learned, understood, and can apply the course content. Some students faithfully did their homework and passed the unit tests, but if they cannot apply their understanding to this final assessment, then their academic performance was based more on effort and completion than it was on understanding and comprehension. The SOL test is designed to make this determination.
The 8th-grade Civics SOL test itself does not determine whether a student is promoted to 9th grade. It merely indicates to what extent the student mastered the course content in order to be successful on the test. In high school, the SOL test does determine whether or not the course credit is earned, so middle school students are gaining the experience of the SOL exam without suffering the consequences of failing. High school teachers can use to the student’s middle school reading, math, and subject-specific test scores to craft individualized and personalized education plans that can address student strengths and weaknesses.
Standardized Testing and Teacher Evaluations
In Virginia, standardized tests scores, along with student grades, can be used by administrators to make up 40% of teacher evaluations. Both teachers’ unions and administrators recognize that student performance on standardized tests and teacher performance may only be indirectly linked, so an additional element has been added in Virginia to act as a counterbalance to student test performance. Teachers must implement and document student growth through the development and implementation of SMART goals. “SMART” is an acronym for “Specific, Measurable, Appropriate, Realistic but Rigorous, and Time-bound.” Student growth is measured three times throughout the year with a realistic goal in place. For example, my SMART goal for the year was to have 80% of my 8th graders achieve a 60% on an assessment tool that reflected the essential elements of the Civics SOL exam. The goal took into account varying levels of student placement (Honors, Academic, or Inclusion), and was measured with a graphic organizer the students had to complete throughout the year. The assessment tool was also a useful activity for reviewing course content in preparation for the SOL test at the end of the year. The SMART goal provides additional data for administrators as they assemble their teacher evaluations rather than on a one-time snapshot provided by the end-of-year exam.
There has been some discussion about doing away with the Civics SOL test in favor of a performance-based test as we have seen in the 7th-grade middle school curriculum. While the SOLs can be stressful for teachers and students, they provide an important benchmark for all stakeholders in the educational community. I, for one, would not want to see them go away. If they are taken as one element of the teacher evaluation, and if students are not held back by their performance on the test, the SOL test is better in place than not. It also ensures that Civics Education will continue to receive the funding it deserves. At the high school level, teachers are under additional pressure to make student their students succeed, but students can be given “expedited retakes” to offer an additional chance at success. If students make the effort to be successful, then they probably have mastered the content and should be allowed to advance to the next course in the curriculum. Right now, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, there is a greater emphasis on the learning and teaching processes, and less on performance on tests. Less time should be allotted to preparing specifically for the exam, and teachers need to feel less pressure to “teach to the test, “a powerful element in what is now called “backward design.” Given the appropriate context, standardized testing still has a useful place in American education. Hopefully, it is a place that will improve the learning process, not detract from it.
“Do Standardized Tests Improve education,” https://www.theperspective.com/debates/living/standardized-tests-improve-education/ Available, 2018
Frequently Asked Questions on Local Alternative Assessments, http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/local_assessments/faq_local_alternative_assessments.pdf, Available, 2018.
Phelps, Richard, Defending Standardized Testing, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005.
Virginia Department of Education, Division of Teacher Education and Licensure. Student Achievement Goal Setting Guidebook, 2013.
Virginia SOL Test Prep: About Virginia’s Standardized Tests, https://www.time4learning.com/testprep/virginia-standardized-test-prep/ Available, 2018
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