BY ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Across the US, state tests are high-stakes exams that have become a driving force in educational policy, funding, accountability, curriculum development, and achievement for students, teachers, and school leaders.
No Child Left Behind and its counterpart, Race to the Top, were the national policies that dominated education spaces and shifted the focus from school and district autonomy to a culture of testing. While the Every Student Succeeds Act lessened some of the federal mandates on state testing programs, some individual states, like New York, have redoubled their efforts to use high-stakes assessment data as a way to evaluate education at every level. That is, until 2020 when COVID-19 systematically closed schools, reshaped instruction into hyper-customized blends of in-person and remote learning systems, and fundamentally prevented large groups of students from sitting in the same place, at the same time, to take a paper and pencil, fill-in-the-bubble test, like the generations of students who came before them.
This might sound like an exaggeration, but it isn’t — in its 200-year history, 2020 was the first year in which state tests were canceled.
What will you teach?
For the past twenty years, rigorous high-stakes state tests have become the leading influence on curriculum development and instructional priorities for most public schools. These structures for accountability send a direct message to educators — the only knowledge that is important is the knowledge that aligns with the test.
State tests are directly connected to the following evaluation and accountability processes:
Almost the entire schooling experience, at every entry point, is connected to a test which reviews, monitors, and evaluates performance. Many schools use this mandated external guidance as a way to vet their curriculum, solidify their unit and lesson plans, set the plan and pace for their instruction, and set specific goals for students. While, “you need to know this for the test” isn’t always a compelling reason for students to become interested in a specific topic, it has certainly been a driving force for teachers. Without the guidance provided by the test, many educators have been left to ask, what should I teach?
That is the million dollar question.
Shifting your approach
What should we be teaching, and who should decide?
After two decades of test-informed planning, we have placed all of our trust in test designers to decide what is most important in each academic subject area, and what is not. Now, in this moment where our dreams have come true and there is no test — how do we decide on our next steps?
It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to take an honest look at who gets to set the agenda for learning, and in doing so, acknowledge the reality that while oversight is absolutely necessary in education, high-stakes testing is limited, and limiting. We have to be able to move from simply valuing the test, to testing what we value in each subject area — and teachers and local school communities should have a say in what that looks like.
In the absence of the test, there are three approaches to unit planning that teachers may want to adopt.
Considerations for policy makers
To our partners and colleagues who are decision-makers — big and small — we know you have a bird's-eye view of the now and the next. While we’re waiting, consider (or possibly reconsider) the enormous weight we’ve placed on a single day exam. Current policies give the test a monopoly on setting the values for an entire generation of students, and silence the voices of classroom teachers and school leaders who work directly with students on a daily basis.
These educators have insight into what we could be valuing across fields, and how student progress and performance can be reflected to increase student achievement. We have a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the role of high-stakes tests and shift the structure of accountability to one that incorporates true multiple measures, embraces diverse learning needs, and reflects the population of students we’re serving.
If this feels hard, if it feels overwhelming — it’s because it is hard. It is overwhelming. If you’re feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, it’s because you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and we’re waiting for something to give us a little room.
Reflecting on our values and focusing our instruction on what will help students get engaged, stay engaged, and keep coming back day after day is where we should invest our time and energy. Our instruction will look different than it ever has before, but we have a unique opportunity to learn new skills, experiment, and return to “normal” a bit more evolved than when the pandemic began.