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Breaking the Cycle of Test-Taking Woe

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April 26, 2013 03:34 pm

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It may have been April Fool’s Day, but it felt like Groundhog Day. Stories about the indictment of former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall along with dozens of teachers and principals on charges of cheating on high stakes assessments are just the latest installment of tales of woe. The District of Columbia Public Schools are still sorting out some accusations and investigations. The tales of falsified graduation rates in Houston are still fresh in the minds of many. We read the stories and think, oh, not this again.
Is it really the case, as Katherine Schultz claims, that “Our schools are no longer designed to produce educated citizens but rather places to produce test results?” As I’ve traveled the country, visited schools, and spoken with teachers, I’ve seen places where the test is not the focus of learning, but rather a stepping stone to the much larger goal.  When I asked teachers and administrators in El Cajon what they were most proud of in their efforts to integrate digital learning strategies and create leaders, they didn’t tell me about their test scores.
“I’m really proud of also some of the things that we’re doing around the district in terms of character and collaboration and problem solving because those are skills that are also help kids be successful both in college, but in real life as well… because it’s something that has really inspired some great teachers to become even better, and it’s really inspired some incredible kids to do some work that we would have not though possible a couple of years ago.” – Stephen Mahoney, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Cajon Valley Union School District
“I’m really proud of the fact that the students are really taking, for the most part, a lot of responsibility for what they’re doing and they’re taking it more seriously. It doesn’t matter to me if you can fill in a bubble.  What matters to me if you’re going to have a compound complex sentence are you using it correctly in your writing as opposed to identifying it here on a worksheet.” –Janet Ilko, Teacher, Cajon Valley Middle School
It’s no surprise that teachers are often quoted as talking about how the constant battery of high-stakes tests is demoralizing for them. But what really gives me hope about the power of digital learning to accelerate progress is the way that the teachers we’ve talked to speak of how these tools empower them to teach the way they’ve always wanted to teach.
“For me as a teacher, it’s really cool to be able to find these opportunities through digital media to say every voice is heard, good, bad, or indifferent ; [the students] have that chance to regroup, to rephrase, to make it what they want and their voice is heard.  I love what I do right now.  I love being with my kids.  I love being with this population of kids, and I adore having students be able to find their voice in whatever that is, and I get surprised every single day.” –Janet Ilko, Teacher, Cajon Valley Middle School
Assessments and accountability are important. We need to know that our schools are serving the needs of all students. There’s a great deal of good work going on today to develop better assessments that will better meet the needs of the individual student and shine a spotlight on those critical deeper learning skills, such as collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. As teacher Janet Ilko said in her own blog:
“If we want real change for our students, we need to step out in front of it, not continually defend ourselves from behind. If we don’t like the test, we need to help shape it. Invite legislators and families into your classroom. Have them see the real work of your students. It is messy, and scary and imperfect. But it is beautiful, and in my opinion our most important work.”
But schools don’t have to wait for those assessments to arrive to break the cycle of test score anxiety.
We know it’s possible to change the culture of learning to one that is student-centered, learning-focused, and engineered to ensure students are ready for college and career. One way schools can start bringing those learning environments to life is by joining the Alliance’s digital learning effort, Project 24. A quick first step is the rigorous self-assessment that will give districts instant feedback on where they are and where they need to grow in integrating technology to improve career and college readiness. They can also join the Project 24 MOOC-Ed to get step-by-step guidance on how to better plan for progress. Or they can tune into Alliance webinars with experienced educators who have navigated the terrain of these changes, and hear first hand about how to overcome obstacles and bring a laser-like focus to student achievement that doesn’t have to involve endless test prep.
As testing season gets into full swing, I hope that more educators will find ways to bring those learning environments to life so that we can avoid more tales of test-taking woe.
Terri Schwartzbeck is a Senior Digital Outreach Associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education. 
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