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Voices: What if elected officials took state tests?

Literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson is doing every assignment alongside her sixth-graders. She wonders if it’s time for teachers and elected officials to start taking standardized tests as well.

On the first day of school, I made my students a solemn promise. Note to self: if you make a promise to a group of sixth-graders, you better be willing to prove you are a teacher of your word, every day for the rest of the year.
What was the promise? I vowed to do every assignment before or alongside my students.

My rationale for this promise is twofold: I want to assure my students that the work we do as readers and writers is purposeful and intended to provide them with targeted practice. I also want to field test my own assignments, prompts and tasks to ensure they are doable, enjoyable, clear, rigorous, standards-based and supportive of the learning.

At the very least, each assignment should be pointing students in a growth-oriented direction. It should have a purpose – and the purpose should be crystal clear to every learner in the room.

Undoubtedly, this has added to my workload. In addition to providing my students feedback and planning for various components of the literacy block, I build in time to do their work outside of class so that I can support the students while they are in front of me.

But I believe firmly the additional time is worth it. So far, I have 100 percent assignment completion and students are already beginning to use my work as a model or support for their own writing.

This practice has also supported me as a teacher. Doing the work helps me revise, reflect and refine assignments and assessments in a way I wouldn’t if I weren’t going through the process as a student myself.

One loophole – standardized tests

Of course, like most promises, this one comes with contingencies. Sustaining this over the course of the year will determine whether the payoff in student learning is worth the time invested. And the first thing my students asked when I shared I would be “doing the work” with them was the million-dollar question, “So you’ll take the state assessment with us as well?”

Busted.

So I amended the promise: I agreed to do the work that was directly connected to our classroom learning. Basically, the work that the students and I have control over.

If it arrives from a state or district office, requires a personal log-in, password or a no. 2 pencil to “bubble” something in, chances are I won’t be doing it. Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t.

But it made me think. What would happen if education stakeholders, from members of the state Board of Education to district leaders to individual teachers, took standardized assessments ourselves before we decide to adopt or implement them? How would our discussions around “measuring student learning” or “measuring teacher effectiveness” change? How would feedback to students look different?

If we took these assessments, we could make meaningful, informed decisions about their usefulness and the need for improvements. We could transform assessment from the inside out – instead of wondering what a publishing house or testing company has in store for our students.

Best of all, we could move one step closer to replacing our current standardized tests with assessments that tell us more about how we can better serve our students.

This year, I’m doing the work with my students. I’m also keeping a no. 2 pencil sharp and ready, just in case.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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