I Believe In a Tool Called Testing: A Proposed Campaign Stump Speech

With so many presidential candidates taking to campaign stops, debates, and cable news channels, to mischaracterize, attack, and vilify common learning standards and the assessments necessary to determine if all students are learning what they should, it is time to offer a new way to talk and think about testing in the public schools. Following is a different type of campaign speech, one that extols the virtues of testing and the benefits of assessment when it comes to improving both teaching and learning. I offer the following to any candidate to use and make his or her own. I dare someone, anyone, to use it.

“Testing is nothing new in our schools. Each of us can remember having our hearing and vision checked to make sure we were ready to learn. So many of us took California Achievement Tests or Iowa Achievement Tests or Stanford-9s during our K-12 careers, with each assessment designed to measure whether we knew what a student in a given grade should know. We took quizzes and tests and finals designed and administered by our teachers to measure our understanding of the class materials. We sat for the SAT or ACT test to see if we were ready for college-level work. We accepted that testing was a part of school. It was for our parents, it is for our kids, and yes, it will be for our grandchildren.

I have heard the horror stories and urban legends circulating today about testing. My heart breaks to hear tales of a child getting physically ill or visibly frustrated by testing. And I am concerned when teachers, those we entrust with teaching our children, work to resist the very assessments necessary to knowing if our kids are learning.

I similarly am concerned by the rise in rhetoric calling for the abolishment of state tests all together. While much of the current ire is focused on PARCC and Smarter Balanced, there is a growing sense that if enough educators and parents and advocates yell and scream about state tests, that testing altogether will come to an end.

Let me be clear on this point. Testing is not going away. Throughout our modern history, we have tested our students to ensure their proficiency in core subjects. That will not change. We may call the tests by different names. We may use the results for different purposes. We may do a better job of engaging educators in both the development and interpretation of test results. But student tests themselves will not go the way of the dodo.

Nor should they. Despite claims that American education has never been stronger than it is today, we still have a third of fourth graders who are unable to read at grade level. Far too many of those struggling readers are from historically disadvantaged populations. Without those reading skills heading into middle school, these same students struggle mightily when it comes to science and social studies and even math in the later grades. They go from struggling readers to struggling students.

It should be no surprise that the percentage of fourth graders struggling with reading is remarkably similar to the number of students who fail to graduate from high school nine years later. These are our kids. While we may be quick to dismiss the problem as an “urban” one, it is a serious problem that has direct impact on our children, our community, our economy, and our nation.

We can only address this crisis through strong assessments AND the proper application of that testing data. Our children benefit from tests of all types, at the start of the year, throughout the school year, and at the end of grade. We need to test where they are when they start an academic grade and where they are when they complete it. We need to test benchmarks along the way, ensuring that no child is falling too far behind too fast.

We need to do so to empower our teachers with the data necessary to adjust instruction and ensure all children are indeed learning. Educators need real time information to understand what is happening in their classrooms, where students are excelling, and where they may need some additional help. We need testing so teachers can succeed in the increasingly complex tasks we are now demanding of them.

The question before us, then, is not whether we should test or not, but how test results should be used. We should be focusing on the importance of using testing data to properly gauge student learning and progress.

Good tests are invaluable tools in improving student learning outcomes. They track progress and identify gaps in learning. They provide teachers with valuable feedback on what is happening in the classroom. They equip parents and families with a true understanding of how their children are doing and how they stand against their classmates. Used properly, they can instill confidence in all of us when it comes to our schools, our kids, and our future.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen test results misused and downright abused. We have seen outcomes bastardized and we have seen shortcomings held up as proof of failure of our schools, our teachers, and ourselves.

I appreciate that the concern for, and opposition to, testing is growing. For many of these opponents, it is a rejection of Common Core State Standards and a resistance to greater calls for accountability. For others, it is a matter of asking more and more of our teachers, while raising the stakes higher and higher, yet excluding our educators from the very processes that produce the tests and determine how the results should be used.

No, our systems are not perfect. Tests can be better, doing a better job of truly measuring student learning. Teachers can be better engaged in the process, determining what kids should be learning and how that learning can be measured. Accountability measures can also be better, identifying how learning is progressing instead of standing as a symbol of punishment.

I believe in the greatness that is found in our students, our schools, and our teachers. I believe all children can succeed and achieve, and I believe all teachers — if properly supported and resourced — can be truly excellent. Similarly, I believe in testing, particularly when the tool is of high quality and the results are used by our educators to improve student learning.

We must forget these well-intentioned, but misguided, calls to eliminate testing and instead work together on how we can improve the quality of the tests used in our schools and dramatically improve how test data is used to boost student learning, classroom instruction, and teacher preparation. Rather than condemn the process, we must come together to make it better and more relevant to our kids and our communities.

We can, we should, and we must do better. We must do a better job ensuring all students are mastering classroom material. We must do a better job ensuring all educators are empowered with the data and the ability to adjust and improve classroom instruction. To do that, we need testing. We demand testing. And we must embrace testing.”

Father; education advocacy pro; ED of Best in the World Teachers; author of Eduflack blog; founder of Driving Force Institute; education agitator

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