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Here's how we can measure student growth outside of standardized testing

Our legislature is currently considering bills to reduce standardized testing in Colorado public schools. Meanwhile, Congress is undertaking its most serious effort to rewrite the law known as No Child Left Behind, and could potentially reduce testing requirements for states.

These serious conversations taking place inside our government have their origins in the people’s concerns. Educators, parents, and students are voicing frustration that testing is excessive and takes away too much time and resources from classroom instruction.

It’s clearly time to reduce the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests and allow educators to focus on what is most important: Instilling a love of learning in Colorado kids.

As a group of Colorado Teachers of the Year, we have dedicated our hearts and souls to our students. We are keenly aware of how and what they have learned, as well as the time it takes to facilitate high levels of student achievement. However, attempting to quantify and accurately measure what our students know and understand is complicated.

Tests that only measure the information students retain (e. g., multiple choice questions) are too limited. We need to determine beyond standardized tests what skills students have acquired and mastered.

Today’s technical, knowledge-based economy requires teachers who can prepare their students to master higher-order thinking skills and determine relationships among seemingly diverse concepts. Teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and moral character are increasingly important to businesses looking for employees. These skills and traits are not measured by typical standardized tests.

Teachers know their students learn in a non-linear, complex, individualized process that can’t be measured in fragmented, short-term formats. Single-letter grades and stand-alone test scores are aimed at quantitatively sorting and ranking students at isolated points in time.

Most people recognize that a single point-in-time test score does not define student achievement. College admissions officers as well as employers are more interested in a unified evaluation of ongoing academic potential or workforce readiness.

Teachers rely on timely, relevant data to drive their instruction. The value of information gained from testing declines exponentially over time. Today’s standardized tests don’t provide data until the following school year. As a result, the test results lose their effectiveness in helping teachers identify and revisit content with a student when remediation is needed.

Colorado’s statewide CMAS testing system requires significant blocks of time from March through May, with feedback that can’t be used in a timely way. For example, teachers know high school students now lose more than 15 percent of a semester’s instructional time preparing for and taking the PARCC and ACT tests. They’re taking AP tests for college credit during the same time period.

The time delays in getting feedback from state-wide testing makes them irrelevant to students who have already moved on to the next instructional level, college or the workforce.

Accountability is important as long as it supports sound teaching practices. We believe the “Measures of Student Learning” as prescribed by SB-191 must incorporate more qualitative evaluations of student learning that support long-term instructional goals, as well as provide quantitative data.

These tools are available. Teachers are now using more relevant vehicles – peer-group research projects, student work portfolios, oral and written communications, and students as instructors – that better demonstrate learning and achievement than do standardized tests.

Individualized classroom assessment should take priority in the system. These are tests developed by teachers that require students to apply acquired knowledge and skills to real world tasks, and provide students with real-time guidance and immediate feedback from peers, teachers, and outside experts.

Teachers know how to prepare their students for testing at any level, but understand that statewide standardized-test preparation takes away valuable classroom time.

When is too much testing detrimental to learning? Clearly, students, teachers, administrators, legislators and parents must come together to determine appropriate levels of standardized testing that support our students’ learning.

Excessive testing does not support students; instead, it seems only to serve those who seek validation to make reactionary decisions for the smallest of education gains. This approach seems certain to fail the vast majority of Colorado students in the long run.

We owe our students a deeper, more well-rounded education, supported by relevant and timely assessments, which will better develop the skills and traits they’ll need for future success.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of commentary pieces on a variety of perspectives from the testing debate. Check back next week for more. You can read an earlier piece here.

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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