Education leaders: Don’t prescribe diagnostic testing before listening to teachers

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By Tran Le and Amber Northern

When students return to school this fall, most will have experienced a “Covid-19 slide” to compound the typical “summer slide.” Learning loss will likely be particularly acute for children and teenagers without access to high-speed internet or connected devices, and those struggling with issues of food security or other traumas.

As others have noted, that makes it more important than ever that schools diagnose where students are in terms of their reading, writing, and math skills, so that educators can develop plans to accelerate their learning and ensure their success in meeting grade-level standards as soon as possible.

But if past experience is any guide, the precious time and resources likely to be devoted to diagnostic testing this August and September won’t do as much good as it could—so long as leaders fail to listen to teachers explain the challenges and how to overcome them.

We recently completed a small case study of high-performing district and charter schools in the District of Columbia that’s focused on how educators use data to improve instruction. The teachers we talked to saw great value in timely and aligned interim assessments, as the results enabled them to shape individual and small group instruction based on students’ skill levels. But we also heard an earful about the many ways that diagnostic testing went awry. Let’s look at three of the most common issues, and then discuss what schools might do differently this autumn.

1. Assessments that aren’t aligned to state standards or classroom curricula.

Prior research has shown that there is great value in assessments when they’re aligned to both state’s standards and district or school-level curricula. Yet teachers in our focus groups told us that assessments often failed in this regard. This was particularly the case if tests assessed skills that were neither taught in a school’s curriculum nor aligned to the Common Core standards.

Chiefs for Change recommends the use of formative and summative tests tied to a school’s curriculum so that teachers have a much better grasp of particular gaps in students’ conceptual knowledge and skills. Indeed, former Louisiana state superintendent of education John White once succinctly described the problem with tests not aligned to curricula, especially in English language arts: “The trouble is that by not requiring knowledge of any specific book or facts, reading tests have contributed to the false impression that reading is mainly about having skills such as being able to summarize, and not about background knowledge.”

2. Administering multiple tests for multiple purposes instead of one carefully chosen set of assessments.

Our teacher interviewees reported being rushed and at times overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of assessments. By that, they mostly meant the formative tests that have been layered on to one another, year after year, by multiple entities who aren’t adequately articulating the purposes of each test. When we asked various groups of teachers to walk us through their classroom testing regimen, we counted up to fourteen different assessments — interim and summative — administered in a single year. To no one’s surprise, teachers were confused about which entity (the state, district, or school) was mandating each test and whether each was required.

As a result, they complained (justifiably) that repetitive or unhelpful assessments were rarely if ever omitted. One teacher deftly explained, “There’s definitely this battle between assessing and then over-assessing and then having too much data and being like, ‘I don’t even know how to use this.’”

3. Too much time spent on testing and too little attention given to adjusting instruction.

If it were up to teachers, they would administer fewer and shorter tests and use the additional time to review assessment results and for instruction. Asked what she might do with the additional time, one teacher explained, “I would be more intentional with the tests and then what I’m reviewing on the said test. It’s actually going to impact them. It’s not going to be some kind of learning that just falls out of the sky and goes away somewhere.” Another felt even more strongly about the potential damage of too many tests: “Give us some time in between [tests] to just teach…. We’re losing the whole focus of opening up the world to these kids. It’s all about testing now, and they are like mini-robots.”

Teachers believed that shorter tests could be equally informative and advantageous. Moreover, with less time spent on preparing for and administering tests, teachers said they would be better positioned to interpret the assessment data they receive and apply them appropriately to their instruction. Simply put, they would have more time to plan, teach, and review – which they deemed more helpful for students’ learning than sitting for so many tests.

Looking forward

In the coming months, district and school administrators will no doubt be discussing how to properly deploy diagnostic and interim testing for maximum benefit. We trust they’ll recognize that the power of assessment relies on the extent to which tests align to standards and curricula, aren’t duplicating existing efforts or overly time-consuming, and most importantly, enable teachers to adjust their instruction in a targeted way for individual students.

One of the first steps to stemming the Covid-19 slide is taking stock after students’ lengthy hiatus from full-day teaching in brick and mortar school buildings and monitoring progress as we steer them back on track. It won’t be easy. But to optimize the chances of getting it right, the very first thing that leaders should do is listen to their teachers.


About the authors

Tran Le is a former first-grade teaching assistant and Research Assistant at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Amber Northern, a former high school teacher, is Senior Vice President for Research.

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