Beyond Standardized Assessments

geography bee

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend in elementary schools across the nation.  A growing emphasis has been placed on controversial high-stakes standardized assessments.  Too many, this isn’t really a surprise.  Most, not all, state standardized assessments at the elementary level focus in on the subjects of reading and math.  Don’t get me wrong … both of these subjects are extremely important and school scheduling often revolves around them.  Since I teach mostly math throughout the day I am grateful for the time that is dedicated to the subject. Math and reading can be foundational for other content areas to flourish.

The test taking emphasis with reading and math sometimes crowds out some of the time dedicated to other subject areas.  Some of the subject areas that might be reduced because of that emphasis may include social studies, history, geography, art, science, etc.   If the subject area isn’t part of the standardized assessment schedule it might not get priority instruction time.  This doesn’t happen in all circumstances, but it does happen.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with talented elementary teachers that have a passion for their social studies and science content areas.  These teachers bring a contagious energy to their subject and make social studies and science a priority in the classroom.  I appreciate these teachers and the effort they put into their craft.  One of the teachers organized our school’s first ever Geography Bee this year.

I was given the opportunity to serve as a cohost for this event.  Being primarily a math teacher, I was looking forward to helping out with our school’s first Geography Bee and thought that many of my math students would be part of the bee.  Many of my students expressed interest in participating.

To start preparing for the event, about 40 students started attending weekly geography study sessions after school or during their recess times.  These sessions occurred approximately one month before the bee was scheduled to start.  Students that were interested started using iPad apps, websites and geography study materials to review locations all over the world.  As the event came closer more practice sessions were attended by the students.  Teachers volunteered to host the practice sessions in their classrooms during this time.

The culmination of all the practice ended when the Geography Bee began yesterday.  Parents of the community were asked to attend and cheer on their child and other contestants.  It was great to see the community support each other and our school.  Approximately 30 students participated in the event that was hosted by eight teacher volunteers.  The preliminary, final and championship round came and went.  Overall, it was a worthwhile experience and I feel like it helped build the community and school partnership.

It was great to see students receive recognition for an accomplishment that wasn’t tied to the staple reading and math curriculum or mandated on a standardized assessment.  Exposing students to a variety of concepts and curriculum opportunities can help students discover their own passions.  I can think of genius hour and the hour of code as two examples that can lend itself for students to start developing interests that may eventually become passions.  Creating a classroom/school environment that fosters an appreciation for learning is important and shouldn’t be lost.

photo credit: ribarnica via photopin cc

Student Data and Balance

Data and Balance
Data and Balance

Teachers in K-12 often use student data on a regular basis.  Student achievement data can be used to qualify students for reading, gifted, remedial, enrichment, acceleration, differentiation, and a variety of other services.  Recently, standardized testing data has been the forefront of educational trends and in the news.  Implementing a  balanced approach when looking at student data can keep stakeholders (educators and administrators) grounded in an understanding that the numbers behind the tests may give light to areas of strengths/needs.

Data isn’t evil

Assessing a student’s understanding of a specific concept isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate and utilize student achievement data more and more.  Whether the data is from a standardized test or not, the data can be helpful if used correctly. Moving data beyond just a number can benefit teachers and students.  Data can help teachers ask better questions and provide opportunities to reflect on how students learn best. Involving students in analyzing their own data can encourage student goal setting and ownership.

Having conversations with students about their data is powerful.

Have the conversation


I’m definitely not an advocate for having additional standardized tests, although some seem more useful than others.  I find that assessments that give detailed feedback (e.g. areas that need strengthening, %ile compared to the norm, strength areas, next instructional steps, etc.) are more frequently used by teachers, compared to assessments the give little feedback.  Obviously, there isn’t a perfect test available for school purchase.  The assessments that a school uses should give detailed feedback that can be immediately used.

Do you hear a lot of negative talk in regard to standardized assessments?  Having a conversation about an assessment’s effectiveness in informing instruction may be needed. Instead of trash talking the assessments in general, educators and administrators should find assessments that work for them.  PLC teams should emphasize the importance of using formative assessments regularly.  I’ve found that teacher created formative assessments are some of the best ways to find areas that need strengthening and to identify differentiation opportunities.  The purpose of giving the assessments should be communicated to all stakeholders.  When teachers understand why the tests are given, (not just for VAM reasons), they may start to value the benefits of assessing students using a variety of tools (such as Common Core performance assessments).

Balance is needed

With teaching and in life, balance is needed.  Teaching is a profession that can be stressfull.  It has many teachers thinking right now, how many days till Spring Break??   Balancing assessments with instruction takes skill and patience.  Standardized tests are often at the forefront of school administrator’s minds.  One test shouldn’t be used to determine if success, or enough growth has been made to call that school year/class/school successful. Take a breath and look at assessments from a macro lens. A combination of formative, informal, formal, review checkpoints, activators, performance  (insert your assessment here), and even standardized assessments have their place in a school and can be beneficial to a certain extent.  The value of the data often depends on how it’s utilized.

Picture Credit: DigitalArt

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Isaac Asimov

Overemphasizing Standardized Test Data and Possible Solutions

Standardized Tests and Formative Assessments
Assessment Data

Assessment Data …. If you’re within listening distance of a classroom you’ve probably heard the words.  The words can hold positive as well as negative connotations. Two different types of data are often used in the classroom – summative and formative.  I think this picture helps show the difference between the two.  If used appropriately, formative assessment data (exit card, common assessment, observation, journal, data binder, etc.) can be used to improve student learning.  Many teachers that I’ve met through Twitter utilize formative or local assessments to maximize student learning. I believe that it’s possible to use student achievement data to identify specific strengths/concerns as well as assist teachers in developing interventions (remediation/enrichment) for students.

At times the word is also associated with standardized test scores and accountability. Those words combined might make a few teachers cringe and organizers protest. A school district’s standardized test scores may make news headlines and influence school improvement plans.  The emphasis on standardized testing has caused teachers to allocate more time for test prep.  Some districts begin the test prep process in January, or before, when the test actually occurs in March. That test prep time takes away time from many non-test related subject areas.

I’ve been told that the Common Core will change the standardized testing landscape. I can’t predict the future, but I believe standardized test scores will continue to dominate local and national headlines. It’s been well documented that there’s an overemphasis on standardized test scores in public schools in America.  The emphasis on test scores impacts teacher instruction and will soon influence teacher evaluations.  Is this a good thing?

I’m not advocating for or against standardized assessments, but I believe formative assessments should drive academic differentiation decisions in the classroom. Even though the overemphasis on standardized test scores seems to be the norm, I’m optimistic. Why?  Many influential education leaders are starting to notice the impact of standardized testing on students, teachers, communities, and administrators.  The leaders below are speaking out on the impacts of standardized testing.  Feel free to follow the courageous people below.

  • Joshua Star @mcpssuper is the superintendent of MCPS, a large, diverse, and high performing district in Maryland. He has concerns over the validity of standardized tests and has asked for a moratorium on standardized testing.
  • Diane Ravitch @dianeravitch, is Research Professor of Education at New York University, wrote a blog post about the inequalities of standardized testing here.
  • Larry Ferlazzo @larryferlazzo, an ESL teacher in California, wrote a blog post comparing the difference between being data-informed and data-driven.

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