My Turn: State’s new way to assess student learning could reduce standardized testing

Last modified: 10/25/2014 12:15:06 AM
We’ve been hearing a lot about testing in our schools. There were proposals in the last Legislature – unsuccessful in the end – to postpone the new Smarter Balanced annual assessment. Nashua teachers made news last winter saying that neither their schools nor their students were ready for the new Common Core test (though fears seemed to settle down after they tried the test last spring). And Manchester Mayor Gatsas feels his city should not have to take the test.

There is actually no way for a community to opt out of the annual statewide assessment. For the past 14 years, the No Child Left Behind act has required states to test every child every year in grades three through eight and one year in high school.

But there is now wide agreement that we are over testing and that it has done more harm than good.

Sue Hannan, a longtime English teacher at Manchester’s Hillside Middle School, spoke for many when she told me: “Our teaching became illogical with the advent of No Child Left Behind because we were so concerned with adequate yearly progress. It became a data circus.”

Even tester-in-chief U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on his blog recently: “I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools. . . . This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen.”

But New Hampshire is in the forefront of a movement to reduce overuse of standardized testing and put the responsibility back where it belongs, with our teachers and schools.

New Hampshire Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather pointed out at a national press briefing featuring New Hampshire’s testing strategy last week: “We hear a lot about over-testing because we are running two accountability systems. We have the state accountability system, required by federal law. But that may not help us find out what we need to do to improve teaching and learning. And then we have local accountability systems to improve teaching and learning. We want to bring those together.”

A simple statement, but a big assignment that the New Hampshire Department of Education has been working on for years. They have consulted with everyone from New Hampshire school leaders to the most influential education leaders in the country about how to support local school districts in creating their own ways to assess students’ progress, while still demonstrating that they are reaching all their students.

And now four New Hampshire school districts – Sanborn, Rochester, Epping and Souhegan – are making it work. And Concord, Pittsfield and others are getting ready.

The idea is that, eventually, districts able to do their own assessments would give the statewide Smarter Balanced test only once in elementary school and once in middle school. High schools could possibly choose between Smarter Balanced and, say, the SAT.

The schools are creating their own ways to assess and report on how well students are learning in the other years. They are doing that by going back to good, traditional teaching. They are giving students real-world tasks that demonstrate their ability to use what they are learning. Students will need to do more than recall facts. They will need to put it all together to solve a problem their own way.

In English, for instance, middle school students might submit research papers showing that they know how to analyze and present information from many sources.

In math, maybe fourth-graders would design and cost out a new park and write a letter to their board of selectmen explaining their calculations.

These “performance tasks,” as they are called, are no longer tests set aside from learning time but are part of learning. Instead of choosing among predetermined options, students must construct an answer. The only way to prepare for this “test” is to get better knowledge and skills. And teachers can see right away how well that is going.

The possibilities are endless. Projects could be different for each student to match their interests and needs. They’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate creativity, show how they work with others and manage their own learning. All this is seldom possible on a traditional test.

A lot has to happen to make all this possible.

First, Arne Duncan has to agree. A group of district and department leaders met with him recently and came away with a sense that New Hampshire might well get federal agreement to test these new ideas.

And the New Hampshire Legislature would have to support the idea. But just about everyone is interested in alternatives to standardized testing, so maybe that’s a possibility.

It’s like the difference between the multiple choice part of your driving test and really showing that you can parallel park.

(Bill Duncan is a New Castle resident and member of the New Hampshire State Board of Education. His opinions are his own.)

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