It’s time again for standardized testing

This week, public school students across Colorado will engage in an annual rite of spring: state standardized exams.

As a critic of testing and the punishment used as a means of driving instructional improvement, I'm sometimes asked my opinion about state testing and its value. I'll cover the inventory of testing we are required to administer in Colorado and share my opinion as to its value in this column.

As an educator and parent, I would be remiss if I didn't encourage all students to take the exams we are scheduling in the coming weeks. Take them seriously and do your best. The results do provide some relevant insight and feedback about student achievement. In life, even when we don't want to do something that's unpleasant, yet is required, say for a job, a college class or even a mundane household chore, we need to show up and do our best.

Students in Colorado take exams in English language arts/literacy and math in grades third through ninth and science tests in grades fifth, eighth and 11th. Also, a sampling of one-third of the schools in the state will take a social studies exam in grades 4 and 7. Students will also take the SAT in the 11th grade.

The names of all the tests are an alphabet soup of acronyms. The entire bundle of academic tests is called the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS. Within those, the ELA/L and math tests have a special name derived from the interstate group pooling together to administer them, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams.
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The ELA/L, math and science exams are a requirement under federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (or ESSA, which is the successor to No Child Left Behind). The Colorado legislature added in the social studies and SAT requirements.

Students learning English are also assessed on yet another exam, called the WIDA ACCESS (the story behind that acronym is so complicated I won't go into it) and it provides a measure of progress for students working to become English proficient.

The United States assesses students in public schools far more than any other nation on earth. Looking at the international high performing systems, in particular, we see that most of those systems test at key "gateway" transition points, such as when a student exits elementary, enters high school, and at graduation.

To the credit of the Colorado legislature, they did remove some assessments from the high school level in a reform bill a couple of years ago. They are considering replacing the ninth grade PARCC test with a pre-SAT exam, which students are more likely to take seriously since it's viewed as a prep test for the actual SAT. Regular readers of this column know I'm stingy in giving credit to the state legislature (or Congress, for that matter). However, these reductions and alignments are welcome changes to the state assessment system.

There are lots of well-established criticisms of standardized testing and of using it as a driver for raising school quality. First, the tests are highly correlated with student background, demographics and poverty. Though there are bright spots, test results can nearly be replaced by looking at zip codes where poverty is concentrated. Decades of educational research highlight that some 70 percent to 80 percent of the variance in student test scores is determined by out-of-school factors.

Second, the tests are often criticized for narrowing the curriculum (and learning experience) to what is covered on the tests. Standardized tests are looking for a very specific set of knowledge and require that it be demonstrated in a very specific way. We have literally millions of examples of people who perform poorly on standardized tests, but go on to lead very successful lives because they rely on skills and knowledge not measured on the tests.

Finally, the tests are criticized for being unnatural and poorly aligned with the kinds of skills students will need as adults. Certainly, the ability to read and do math is important — no one is disputing that. But, most important problems people deal with are complex, meaning they have more than one possible answer and are often solved by collaborating with others, as opposed to working out a solution alone. Complex problem solving requires research and reflection (as opposed to working without access to the outside world and on a timer).

Still, these current exams should be given credit for being an improvement over previous efforts. The PARCC tests do ask students to evaluate evidence, synthesize complex information, reason, and communicate through writing. By no means do they give us a complete picture of students and their talents, but they do give us insight to an important subset of skills.

So, when it comes to PARCC and the volume of standardized testing in Colorado, I'm still not a fan. However, I firmly believe that our students are as capable and smart as any kids in the world and that we should, as a point of community pride, do our best to show that. I encourage students and families in our schools to take the exam seriously, engage with them and do our best. We're doing good things for kids in our schools and these exams are an opportunity to showcase that effort.