Toward tests worth teaching to

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 4:03 pm by

I am not a professional educator by background.  I worked on education policy for the State Assembly and Governor Cuomo, then went to work for New York State United Teachers in 1996 and moved to the Council of School Superintendents in 2002.

Coming out of the Capitol to work more intensively with educators – teachers and superintendents – I was surprised by how positive they were toward the state’s efforts to raise standards and help all students to meet them.

To be sure, both groups routinely quarreled with Commissioner Mills and the Regents over some of the specifics in translating aspiration into policy.

But my sense was that they predominantly embraced the idea that “all means all,” and drew energy from the mission of  at last giving all students access to a meaningful curriculum and striving to help all meet its expectations.

Now there is justifiable concern over how a change in cut scores will affect grades 3 through 8 test results for students and schools and how those scores will be reported and received, especially in this time of extreme financial challenges.

But I draw some hope for the long haul based on our past experience.

I respect the efforts of state officials – Commissioner David Steiner, Senior Deputy Commissioner John King, and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch – to stress that there were weaknesses in the tests that the state developed, that schools were responding rationally to the tests as they were constructed, and were in fact helping more and more students achieve success on those tests.

Now the Education Department has assembled data which makes a pretty compelling case that the tests were flawed.  The Department released more data today.

In one sense, I can’t dispute the Commissioner’s analogy that if your thermometer is broken you don’t keep using the thermometer.

It’s not a perfect analogy, however.  Unless you’re trying to influence whether you go to school or work or stay at home, you don’t try to “improve” your temperature reading.  But schools do try, honestly and earnestly, to improve test outcomes for their students.

Building on that analogy, it would have been far preferable if the Department officials could have said to schools at the beginning of the school year, “We are going to be making some changes to the grades 3 through 8 tests, including raising cut scores; here is what you will now have to do in order to improve your students’ chances to demonstrate proficiency.”

But like all of us, they juggle competing demands and time lines.  SED spent the past year investigating and confirming suspicions about the tests. Having now reached a firm conclusion, it would be hard to justify keeping the bad thermometer.

A theme that we have stressed is that, for better or worse, as long as there are tests, there will be teaching to the test.  So we need to be sure we have tests that are worth teaching to.

That gets at what I draw hope from in this experience.

As the SED leadership has stressed, schools were responding rationally to the assignment they were given – helping students meet state standards as measured by the tests the state employed, and more students were passing those tests.

Now the state is acting to improve its tests and hopes to take other steps, including developing curricula that would diminish the now excessive role of state tests in defining expectations for schools and students.

I expect that as the state makes those changes, schools will again respond, and will once again achieve increasing success in helping students demonstrate proficiency on the state’s improved assessments.

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