This week, thousands of students across Mecklenburg County are spending hours taking high-stakes standardized tests to round out their school year. The tests aim to measure what each student has learned in a particular subject and assign a single number indicating a result of passing or failing for the year. But do these assessments really yield the most useful and accurate information?
One problem with the current system is that the score of a single multiple-choice test is subject to a whole host of factors which can lead to an inaccurate measure of the student’s abilities. These factors can include test anxiety, unintentional cultural bias of testing items, lack of support at home, and health and rest of the student on the day of the test. I have seen my own students dissolve into tears after receiving low scores, believing that all of their hard work throughout nine months of school had been for nothing. Their motivation the following year is often undermined by a system which is simply not adequate for measuring all the complex ways they have grown.
Just as important as the potentially unreliable data the tests generate is the fact that standardized assessments do not resemble what we want students to be able to do in the real world. As educators, we want our students to be able to create, to solve problems, to refine their ideas, to communicate effectively and collaborate with others. Those are skills which are embedded in the state standards and which we as teachers spend a lot of time honing through engaging, creative learning experiences in the classroom. Our current assessment model does not measure those skills with any precision.
The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act gives states new latitude to determine how best to assess students. North Carolina can now make important changes that will enable schools to get a more accurate measure of what students have learned. Students would be better served by a system that allows them to demonstrate their knowledge in an authentic manner, rather than answering multiple-choice questions that do not require students to explain their reasoning.
A standardized test might have English students read a poem, then answer a series of multiple choice questions about it. A more effective approach could be to have students read the poem, compare and contrast it with other poems they have read, make inferences about the author’s intent, and offer personal connections to the poem’s theme.
Requiring students to demonstrate learning by completing a project or task in which they have to engage in a process would allow us to assess them at multiple points in time, to see how they meet challenges and evaluate the thought process they engage in to overcome them. This type of assessment would mirror best practices that many teachers already follow when assessing students. Students who are able to demonstrate critical thinking, effective communication and problem-solving skills would be prepared to be productive citizens in the 21st century.
Changing a flawed system that has been in place for decades will require a lot of hard work and open-mindedness. But the current one-dimensional approach to measuring student achievement is neither accurate nor authentic. Parents and educators alike need to carefully consider what is best for our students, then make their views known loud and clear to the State Board of Education. It’s time to take the first step in the right direction.
Parmenter is a 7th grade language arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy. He was the 2015-16 CMS Teacher of the Year for the South Learning Community.