A sign on my classroom wall reads: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
That quote, penned by Marcel Proust, resonated with me this year as I worked alongside some of the country’s leading educators to weigh the value of new student assessments most states administered for the first time this year.
In August, I had the privilege of participating in first-of-its-kind research organized by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Over the course of two separate weekends, 23 state Teacher of the Year Award recipients and finalists, including myself, carefully scrutinized new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments with several states’ previous tests. Our mission was to assess the assessments—that is, to determine which exams best measure student readiness and identify areas for improvement.
It was intense work. Each participant spent hours taking the tests, comparing content side-by-side. We classified the cognitive demand of each question and probed the appropriateness for the target students.
We asked practical questions like: Would I want my students and my own son or daughter to take these tests? And we didn’t stop there. We then debated the same considerations as a group, sharing and contrasting our individual findings.
Like many of the participants, I approached the research with more than a little skepticism about the new tests. Shifts in testing and instruction in the wake of No Child Left Behind had done little to improve classroom outcomes. Could these new assessments prove to be anything more than the latest short-lived mania in education? Could they better measure the rigor of education standards that we teachers have diligently implemented over the past several years?
Our answer as a group was a resounding, “Yes.”
In near unanimity, our research determined PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments accurately measure students’ true depth of understanding, better align with classroom instruction and provide a balanced range of questions.
Unlike some of the old state tests, the consortia tests provided opportunities for students to answer both straightforward recall problems and questions that require high-level cognitive skills, which provide insight into how well a child truly grasps a subject.
As an educator, assessments like PARCC and Smarter Balanced are the kinds of tests I want students to take because they align well with high-quality instructional practices — the practices that empower students to build analytical, critical thinking and reasoning skills.
In the same way, the consortia assessments more accurately measure the skills and knowledge students need to succeed at high levels of learning. For teachers and parents, that information is invaluable. It allows us a glimpse into how well the children in our classrooms are learning, and how effectively we are helping them build knowledge and skills sets.
With that information, we can focus instruction, build on what works, and get students support when and where they need it.
The tests aren’t perfect. We all agreed there are areas for improvement, especially as students and teachers transition into this new format. But we all agreed the changes are a step in the right direction — they help put our students on “the right trajectory.”
As states have begun receiving results from assessments aligned to higher standards, some groups have begun to sound the retreat.
They say these new exams are too difficult, not difficult enough, too long, not grade appropriate — the list goes on and on. Certainly, some concerns are legitimate. The trend of over-testing has grown burdensome in recent years and educators need time to adjust to changes happening in our schools.
But we shouldn’t let those issues undo the good that’s happening. Let’s correct what’s wrong and build on what’s working.
I believe if we could just strip away the labels, the politics, the agendas and the preconceived notions, and just focus on what’s best for our kids, we can build a stronger, fairer, more informative system of accountability.
Students who take these new assessments are required to apply complex thinking skills. No matter what name you put on it, isn’t that what we want for our children?
I urge policymakers to heed Proust’s words, and approach higher standards and constructive assessments with “new eyes.” Our students will benefit.