With February just about in the rear-view mirror, we’re headed toward spring…and testing season. I’ve written about standardized testing from a parent perspective. Here’s a teacher’s perspective from Jim Furman (who blogs at elevatedteaching.com) on the debate over how the new Common Core-aligned tests influence what happens in the classroom.
By Jim Furman
As we approach the months of March and April (better known as testing season in many schools around the country), the battle over opting out is heating up once again. Lots of talk about accountability, equity, and test anxiety. And lots of discussion about the negative impact that testing has had on teaching and learning.
I think most parents, myself included, sometimes waiver in their opinions about standardized testing. They make any decision about opting out very thoughtfully and take the entire conversation very seriously. That is great news.
The bad news? The claim that testing has had a negative impact on teaching and learning bothers me. It’s one of the claims I hear most frequently. The basic argument is that standardized testing has altered the very nature of schooling and created an environment that just isn’t how schools should be.
I take this claim personally, even though I probably shouldn’t. The implication is that when Common Core and PARCC came along, I lost control and was no longer able to implement the kind of instruction that is best for students. I take it personally because I gave the PARCC test last year, my evaluation has been based in some part on student test scores, and yet I remain proud of my instruction. I used the Common Core standards; I taught with the test in mind; and I still gave students an experience of school the way I think it should be. Was it perfect? No. But was it mundane or devoid of creativity and opportunities for inquiry? Absolutely not.
Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt Out, asked teachers how their instruction would change if they knew most students would opt out. Below are some of the things they said, along with my responses. Essentially, there is a case being made that opting out will allow teachers to get back to the kind of teaching they believe in. But like many other teachers I know, I never abandoned that kind of teaching.
“I would re-engage my creative talents to tailor this year’s goals in the most appropriate manner for each of my students.”
I do this every year. Teaching is always a creative act. That’s one of the things that makes this profession so exciting. It is ever-evolving and changing, not only because there are different students in the room but also because I am ever-evolving and changing. The test did not eliminate my creativity or my humanity. It did not suddenly make me see all students as numbers.
“Listen longer to the children and let them tell their stories of life.”
As an English teacher, my students’ stories are foundational to my practice. Every year they have an opportunity to tell them. They write very personal narratives about grief and loss, hope and triumph. They make arguments that are grounded in their own experiences and beliefs. The test did not eliminate my desire to know them and their stories. It did not suddenly make me stop listening to them.
“Get back to creative teaching and allow my students to enjoy learning!”
Exactly a year ago, a month before the testing window, my students were engaged in one of the most creative and engaging units I’ve ever planned. There were no test prep books in sight. They were more engaged than I have ever seen my students. They debated with passion, took copious notes about the text we were studying, and had fun tracking the evidence they needed to make their final arguments. Two weeks later, they took the PARCC test. The test did not eliminate my ability or desire to design instruction that meets rigorous standards, connects to authentic experiences, and ignites some excitement. It did not suddenly make me create units that were boring and disconnected from the experiences of my students.
“I would teach higher-order thinking skills through exploration and hands-on activities that are memorable.”
I still did. And they still took the PARCC test. Yes, I spent some time going through practice tests and helping them understand how to navigate the new online test – just like I used to spend time talking about tips and strategies for paper/pencil tests. The test did not eliminate my ability to explore real-world problems or encourage critical thinking. It did not suddenly make me give my students meaningless worksheets everyday.
I know teachers who feel they are constrained. I do believe that testing has, in many cases, had a negative impact on the quality of teaching in our schools. I just don’t believe that it has to be that way.
I don’t believe that standardized testing is necessary for great teaching to occur. I also don’t believe that it prevents great teaching from occurring. Too often the argument about opting out is essentially framed as an either/or: If we continue to have high-stakes, standardized testing, we are sacrificing teacher agency and creating an environment that limits creative, engaged teaching. As a teacher, I exercised my agency and continued to do my best to create engaged learning environments, and my students took the PARCC test.
Opting in to testing does not mean that we are opting out of the schools we want to have. We should be fighting for more project-based learning, more joy and play, and instruction driven by student needs. I believe it is possible to do all of these things and still take the test to see how our students are doing and help improve instruction.
Maybe we can get smarter about both assessment and great teaching, instead of arguing as if doing one eliminates all hope of the other.