Assessing the Assessments: What a Survey of America’s Top Educators Revealed About Year-End Tests

As the Senate prepares to take up the rewrite of No Child Left Behind this week, and as our nation continues to debate the future standards of K-12 education, a critical voice has been missing from these policy conversations: that of the classroom teachers who best know student learning — and the measures of it.
Some of our nation’s best educators recently engaged in a research study of four state assessments and the two new end of year assessments, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  Nominated by their peers and colleagues, these teachers represent practitioners of exceptional in-classroom practices and educational outcomes.
As Executive Director and CEO of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), I saw the value and the unique perspectives that these teachers offer regarding state assessments. As states have adopted higher-quality and more rigorous academic standards, it became necessary to make certain that standardized tests which measure how well students are learning are closely aligned to these standards. The new tests from PARCC and Smarter Balanced have been met with criticism – some valid, some prefaced on misinformation – but in asking top educators to evaluate the tests, we wanted to know where they would rank when compared side-by-side with older assessments.
Essentially, we set out to assess the assessments. From among our roster of state Teachers of the Year and Finalists, we recruited a cadre that had specific experience with fifth-grade learning standards. We hired a psychometric expert who designed an array of surveys that we utilized to collect educator feedback on each assessment, surveys designed utilizing Evidence Centered Design methodology. We grounded the teachers in each of the assessments by training them in Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and then having them rate each test item by its DOK.
Over two separate weekends, the teachers “sat for” the tests – they took two former state exams and either the PARCC or Smarter Balanced (the consortia) test in addition to applying DOK and completing surveys on each. They also participated in a lengthy focus group discussion where a number of teachers expressed that they were prepared to give negative feedback on the two consortia tests and were surprised to find that they preferred them.
Our findings told us that, in the judgment of these teachers:
  • The new consortia assessments better reflect the range of reading and math knowledge and skills that students should master.
  • The new consortia assessments include items that better measure cognitive complexity in a balanced way.
  • The new consortia assessments better align with the kinds of strong instructional practices these expert teachers believe should be used in the classroom, and thereby better support great teaching and learning throughout the school year.
  • The new consortia assessments provide information relevant to a wide-range of performers, particularly moderate and high-performers.
  • While the new consortia assessments are more rigorous and demanding, they are more grade-level appropriate than prior state tests.
In summary: The participating teachers said they believe that the PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams will drive productive learning and best assess students on what they need to be successful.
What was also very clear through the rich focus group conversation was that the preparation for the consortia test is very different from the other assessments. Educators frequently hear criticism about “teaching to the test” or giving students “test tricks” to help them score higher marks. For PARCC and Smarter Balanced, though, the right preparation is excellent in-classroom teaching, not testing strategies. After conducting a rigorous side-by-side analysis, the teachers in the study agreed that lower-performing students would certainly struggle with the tests but – and this was a critical component – that absolutely does not mean the new tests should be discarded.
School is supposed to challenge students, they said, and excellent teaching supported by high-quality assessments will help them meet the challenges.
As we continue moving ahead in revising education to focus on higher standards, it is essential that our best teachers are involved in defining and evaluating the related assessments. PARCC and Smarter Balanced are not perfect tests – indeed, it is unlikely there could ever be such a thing – but, in the view of these teachers, the tests put us on the right trajectory for strengthening student learning.

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