Eliminating Annual Tests Would Hurt Teachers

Eliminating Annual Tests Would Hurt Teachers
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In this Thursday, March 12, 2015 photo, teacher Debbie Cruger-Hansen assists fourth graders using Google docs to complete an exercise at Mira Vista School in Richmond, Calif. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived this month with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

RCEd Commentary

The latest onslaught of testing opt-outs and outcry against standardized exams almost makes it seem like America is ready to scrap testing in schools altogether.

But on the other side, many have made the case that abandoning the annual tests required for reading and math in third through eighth grade by No Child Left Behind would be bad for students.

They’ve pointed out that under a new approach where students are tested only once in every “grade span” (elementary, middle, and high school), we wouldn’t be able to measure individual student growth from year to year. Data for historically underserved subgroups of students would become impossible to collect, and test preparation would foreseeably get out of control during those years tested because the stakes would be even higher.

These unintended consequences of abandoning annual tests are real. Yet there has been little discussion of another inevitable result of moving to grade span testing: making life harder for teachers.  

The unspoken backdrop behind all of the debates around testing is teacher evaluations. Whether you like it or not, most states now use student scores from state standardized tests as at least one factor to determine the effectiveness of their teachers. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states now require student achievement data to be a preponderant or significant part of teacher evaluations.

If tests are taken annually, they can be used to measure student growth, meaning how far a student has come from where they were when they entered that classroom. But under a grade span approach, it would be impossible to measure growth year to year, leaving absolute proficiency as the only measure. That means a teacher who helped a struggling student starting significantly behind progress several grade levels in one year would not be recognized for that achievement if that student was not yet proficient in the grade assessed.

Undoubtedly, the consequence of losing growth data would be to punish those teachers who work with the highest-need students.

Secondly, while eliminating annual testing might allow some teachers in currently tested grades to avoid being measured by test scores, it would also make those tests even higher stakes for the teachers who remain in tested grades. This runs the risk of creating animosity between teachers in tested grades and those who aren’t.

Imagine being an eighth grade teacher under a grade span system in one of the 35 states that already considers student test scores in their teacher evaluations. Each year, it’s up to you to ensure that your students, who would not have been assessed since the end of fourth grade, are proficient in eighth grade math and reading, no matter their starting point. So while many of your peers would be relieved from the stress and pressure associated with high-stakes testing, you would bear the burden for the entire school of getting those students up to speed. And in fact, your job could depend on it.

Finally, since there are more students per grade in middle and high schools than elementary schools, teachers in the lower grades would be relieved from worrying about categories of students slipping through the cracks, while middle and high school teachers would alone shoulder the Herculean task of catching them up. This is because every state sets a minimum size for reporting on data in order to protect student privacy, and throwing out annual tests in favor of a grade span system would reduce the size of most categories of students well below that line, at least in early grades.

Colorado schools, for example, use a privacy limit of 16 students. So if there are 16 special education students in grades three through five in an elementary school, that school currently must report on how those students are doing. However, if only fourth grade were tested, that same school would not be able to report on that group since there would only be an average of 6 special education students in the tested grade.

When you look at the data for how the numbers would actually work out in most states, it would leave high school and some middle school teachers responsible for historically marginalized subgroups of students while completely eliminating accountability for those groups among elementary school teachers -- creating yet another opportunity to pit teachers against one another and cause divisiveness within districts.

It’s clear that the unintended effects of grade span testing are not unique to students alone -- there are many pitfalls for teachers under such a system, especially as more states decide to rate the effectiveness of their teachers by factoring in student achievement data. Grade span testing would not address the anxiety associated with overtesting. Instead, this policy would intensify the pressure for some teachers while completely discharging others from any responsibility -- and that would be a step backward for both students and their teachers.

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