By Amanda Litvinov
The national conversation about education has revolved around testing for at least a decade—and with states grappling to address parent and educator concerns about too many tests of too little value and on-again-off-again talk of reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
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A panel discussion on Capitol Hill on the state of assessments on Tuesday offered plenty for lawmakers to think about, from the practical to the philosophical.
Panelist and World History and Government teacher Lauren Ashley Villa had this bit of advice for determining the worth of any test: It is only worthwhile if it opens a dialogue between teacher and student about the student’s progress.
“That pretty much rules out all standardized tests,” said Villa, who teaches in Reston, Virginia.
She illustrated her point by comparing how and what students learn in two classes that she teaches: World History I, where the pace and content are dictated by state’s Standards of Learning and accompanying mandated tests, and Honors Government, which is not subject to state testing.
World History I teachers are issued a pacing guide meant to help them squeeze in all the content that will be covered on benchmark exams and the end-of-year test. “You have 30 minutes for the Ancient Egyptians and five minutes for the Phoenicians, so you really hope the fire alarm doesn’t go off during that class,” said Villa.
The testing timeframe demands that Villa and her co-teachers stay in lock-step with the prescribed path through the content, forcing them to abandon creative approaches that would require more time and denying students the opportunity to dive into the topics that interest them the most.
She estimates that educators spend about 60 percent of their time in classes like World History I on test prep and administration. Most frustrating of all, said Villa, is that the SOL tests provide no valuable data that educators can use to gauge student progress or the effectiveness of their instruction.
“These tests don’t facilitate the dialogue that makes an assessment valuable,” said Villa. “Students just receive a numeric score, so they don’t really know how they performed, and they certainly don’t learn why an answer was a good answer or should have been a different answer.”
Free of the standardized testing timeframe, her Government class is focused on critical thinking and lots of writing. While studying the legislative branch, for example, her students step into the role of a federal lawmaker to debate policy issues, such as how to make the food supply safer (a topic of the students’ choosing).
After dissecting recent developments, the FDA’s role and how legislators and lobbyists interact, the students wrote solution proposal letters, which they sent to President Obama. And they got a reply.
“We got a letter saying what a good job they did on their essays. I’m sure a staff member wrote it, but they included one of Barack Obama’s personally signed photographs, which meant the world to the students, that the President put a pen to that page. They will never forget my class or writing those letters, and what they learned about the legislative process.”
Fellow panelist Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, challenged lawmakers to think of it this way: You know you’re in trouble when doing well on the test becomes the definition of what it means to be educated.
That may never have been the intent of lawmakers searching for ways to measure student learning—but educators like Villa say the testing regime currently in place is pushing us in that direction.
“I didn’t become an educator to be a test administrator,” she said. “You can’t measure through a standardized test the worth of the educational experience of students in my Government class, you can’t collect data from it. But it’s not hard to see there’s some serious learning happening there.”