A very informative article in the Dallas Morning News Sunday August 23, 2015 written by William McKenzie, an editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute.
All teachers hate standardized tests? FALSE
“William McKenzie Found Educators
Who Say Results Are A Valuable Road Map”
Today’s headlines are often full of voices that decry the tests in our schools, especially standardized tests. You might think there are virtually no teachers, principals or superintendents who see the value in using tests and the data they produce to improve classrooms.
But that’s not the case. There are educators who view annual, independent tests as something other than the agent of all evil. They believe information from those exams, plus results from classroom tests, can help students learn.
I have spent time the last few months talking with educators who see testing this way. Each one, independent of the others, has made the same point: Both students and teachers can benefit from testing.
One of those educators is Jessie Helms, a third-grade teacher in the Dallas Independent School District. “If you don’t know where they are, how do you get them where they need to be?” Helms asked as we sat in her classroom at Ascher Silberstein Elementary in southeast Dallas. “How can you help them be successful?”
Helms, now 27, came to Silberstein in 2012 as a rookie educator. She was skeptical of the emphasis on testing students, including standardized exams. “I came here not a big fan of testing,” she said.
That changed once she got her students’ first set of six weeks tests back. She realized she had not prepared them well enough in math. “I saw that I hadn’t given them the tools to think past third-grade math.” Soon, she came to realize the importance of testing and, as she says, “how it builds classrooms.”
For one thing, good, well-constructed tests create an incentive to “teach higher.” She gives her students difficult problems so they can learn to solve them long before they take any test. Together, they talk about the problems, and students work on showing they can perform functions such as addition, subtraction and multiplication in the same word problem.
Strategies such as “teaching higher” increase the chances that tests will not trip up a child. Instead, they allow students to demonstrate what they know, even if taking a test makes some of them nervous.
Helms’ attitude and approach reflect a generation of educators who actually believe in assessing students regularly and using the results, gleaned from pilloried standardized tests such as Texas’ STAAR exams, to guide their instruction and help students meet higher standards.
The attitude is common in high-performing charter school networks such as Uplift Education in Dallas, as well as in leading public schools. Educators don’t shun tests. They use them as tools to drive achievement.
That includes Silberstein, a school where almost 98 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged homes. The campus earned four of five distinctions on the state’s 2015 ranking system. Similarly, it earned five of six distinctions in Texas’ 2014 rankings. By anyone’s definition, that is a high-performing school, one that shows poverty need not limit achievement.
Since we first talked in the spring, Helms has changed schools. She starts the fall semester as a third-grade teacher at Annie Blanton Elementary School in Pleasant Grove. Blanton is one of seven underperforming campuses that former Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles put in a cluster with targeted resources to accelerate student achievement.
Laura Garza, Helms’ former principal at Silberstein, is now leading Blanton. She, too, believes in using testing data to help improve student achievement, and she plans to take the data-driven Silberstein approach to Blanton.
“Data speaks to your teaching,” she says.
In her previous role as a reading coach, Garza would use data as a tool to help her teachers develop. At Silberstein, she used assessments created by teachers, in addition to the district’s twice-yearly independent exams and STAAR tests, to get a better reading of the students’ strengths and weaknesses.
The school would get data in late December, immediately after the first installment of DISD’s own exams. The campus would break down the results to see where it needed to improve before STAAR exams in the spring and the second installment of district tests at the end of the year.
Silberstein didn’t hide the data, either. Garza and her team put it up on the walls. Data was broken down by classes and grade level. Teachers then could use the information to work on gaps and build up their strengths. Garza sees helping teachers learn how to use data as a big part of her job.
None of this could be done without testing kids. “If you don’t test, how do you know if your work is worth a grain of salt?” she asked. “Doing away with standardized tests could lead to mediocrity.”
Dionel Waters, the principal at Paul Dunbar Learning Center near Fair Park, takes a similar approach. One of the first things you see upon entering his school is a data wall that makes classroom performance immediately transparent.
Dunbar teachers also have access to a data room, where results from the district’s achievement tests and other exams are posted on the walls. The goal is to to help teachers draw from testing data as they shape their instruction. His school has not reached Silberstein’s level of academic achievement, but the data helps in securing resources.
Like Helms, Waters favors “teaching higher,” so state tests are not such a big deal. When he first started teaching at Uplift’s Hampton Prep, he didn’t look at old state tests. He focused on the state standards, which detail what the State Board of Education wants students to know. “If we teach standards to fidelity, tests will take care of themselves,” he said.
To be sure, Waters, Garza and Helms think testing can be overdone. They’re right.
Schools and districts can overdo “benchmark exams” that they give during a year to see if students are on track. Those exams might not be accurately aligned to the state’s standards, and they might be administered too frequently. A Center for American Progress study found one Kentucky district tested students 20 times a year, while the state required only four. Overloading students with too many benchmark exams is not an effective use of their time or school resources.
Still, educators like Helms, Garza and Waters see value in tests and the data they produce. And they are not alone.
The New York Times recently reported that “some school districts, taking a cue from the business world, are fully embracing metrics, recording and analyzing every scrap of information to improve school operations. Their goal is to help improve everything from school bus routes and classroom cleanliness to reading comprehension and knowledge of algebraic equations.”
What’s more, a recent poll conducted by the national Teach + Plus organization found that 80 percent of teachers agree “that part of the value of tests is to have objective, comparable data that allows them to see how their students are progressing toward state standards.”
And a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll revealed recently that Hispanic parents in California consider standardized tests important. Fifty-five percent of them believe such tests improve education, the most supportive of any group in the state.
Tests and the data they produce are no magic bullet. In fact, there are no magic bullets in education.
But there are strategies that can make a difference in students’ lives. Well-constructed exams, particularly independent ones, are among them. They provide a road map for educators and students alike.
In fact, those who know how to use testing data can worry less about exams, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. They don’t have to “teach to the test” or cram information in at the last minute. They use the data to prepare ahead of time, focusing their schools and classes on teaching and learning. Tests are only a tool of that teaching and learning.
Then, when the state’s annual tests roll around, students have a chance to show what they’ve learned. “When we use data effectively,” Helms concluded, “we prepare them. They are ready for the tests. I’m OK with testing because I’ve seen kids do well.”
You can reach William Mckenzie at email@example.com.
SBOE, District 12