To eliminate standardized testing — even as corrupted as it so often is — would fall squarely into the throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath water category. Because I work in a school where continuous improvement is crucial, I have by necessity become, if not a fan of testing, at least a best-practices end user.
What needs to be done has already been suggested repeatedly: Understand standardized testing and the educational landscape in which we function, and then use testing as the tool it is. What’s the best use of this tool? All together now, say it with me: “formative assessment!”
In an ideal world, we would take assessment out of the hands of the bureaucrats who use it to dole out and control taxpayer dollars and place it in the hands of the practitioners. But for now, all we can do -- and we must do it diligently, thoughtfully and proactively — is make sure the practitioners know how to use it to personalize each student's learning to fill whatever gaps the testing has identified. To accomplish that, we must make the time to do so effectively and never forget that the primary goal is student understanding.
In that same ideal world, we would also stop treating learning like a business and celebrate it as the art it is. I may be nave, but I believe we can subversively adapt standardized testing to work for good rather than evil. To actually improve both student performance and — what’s that goal again? — student understanding, we can treat this in a martial arts kind of way: Yield, then demonstrate mastery and control. Use whatever standards your state or nation mandates, if only because every teacher is not an artist. The artists will meet them.
This approach could look something like this:
Practice, practice, practice. At regular intervals, test the students using practice tests obtained from a number of sources. Or better yet, let teachers create them.
Use the results to personalize learning. Analyze each student’s responses and use them to create individualized tasks designed to fill in the learning gaps the practice tests have uncovered. This can be as simple as demonstrating in oral or written response why an answer they gave on the practice exam was erroneous.
Make all your other quizzes and tests formative too. Rather than failing your students with no recourse, let them relearn and then retake just the parts of the test they have yet to master.
Use every tool you can on high-stakes test day. I’m not just talking about number 2 pencils here. Set out servings of trail mix and juice to keep their blood sugar stable, and get them out of their seats to do side-straddle-hops to get the blood flowing to their brains before the timer starts.
Embrace the results. Receive your standardized testing scores thankfully. Then analyze them, just like you did with your other test scores, and use them to improve student understanding. Repeat the process, have a good summer break, and come back again next year to do it all again.
Finally, when it comes to basing teacher evaluation exclusively or primarily on student test results, I think the art metaphor still applies: Administrators at all levels should stop painting by the numbers, especially when the painting is so very important. Honor direct observation as well as the situation, and take the current cohort and the many parts that make up the art of teaching into consideration. Just as we shouldn’t hold students hostage to the tests, neither should we make their scores the sole measurement of a teacher’s success.
Scott Merrick is a virtual learning support specialist, v-lead teacher and academy coach at MNPS Virtual School in Nashville, Tennessee. He is president-elect of ISTE’s Online Learning Network and co-chair of the Virtual Environments Network. He was featured as T.H.E. Journal’s Education Innovator of the Month in July 2014. Read his blog, follow him on Twitter via @scottmerrick, find him on Facebook as Scott Gardner Merrick and Google him for more.