What To Make Of State Tests


This Spring our third and fourth graders will take tests in math and English. They are required by federal law, and administered to public school students across the state. Last year our third graders did well, and we all learned a lot from the experience.

Ellen will host at talk on Wednesday January 8th at 8:30 am at 9 Hanover to review the details of how the tests work. We encourage all third- and fourth-grade families to attend.

Having written about these tests regularly since 2012, I have three big ideas:

  • State tests are well intended, but imperfect,

  • State tests are one of several ways to assess progress,

  • State tests are only as stressful as we adults chose to make them.

Great Idea, Poor Execution

For decades, we rarely asked how well schools worked, especially for kids with disabilities, in poverty, or of color. Every year we spent more money on schools. SAT scores show it had little impact.

From this arose more demanding learning standards (the Common Core) and annual tests, with results broken out along key demographic lines. The idea was to confirm that kids learned what the standards said they should know.

But New York’s English standards alone run to 30 pages. The 45-50 questions a test maker can ask won’t cover all the standards. There are better ways to test, but they are costly.

Thus, the first thing to understand is these tests check only a sample of the things the state says kids should know. We will never compromise our teaching by focusing on the few standards the state checks.

The second thing to understand is that annual tests are proficiency exams, designed to measure students in the middle. Each year experts pick a passing score which is nothing more than an informed guess. The tests also can't detect small, but important, changes among the highest and lowest performers.

Ultimately there are very few things we – and you – learn from these state tests that we did not already know.

Imperfect as they are, the test results offer a basic level of insight about how the school system (as a whole) is performing. They help our authorizer at SUNY to judge the relative performance of the 170 schools in their portfolio. For individual parents (and teachers), however, they provide little additional insight above what work brought home, report cards, and conversations already tell you.

Despite their flaws, annual testing has shone light on students who were ignored in the past. Anna Allenbrook, Principal of the Brooklyn New School, at the heart of the opt out movement, concedes that “parents and schools want to know how their children are doing and standardized exams are one way of measuring that.”

They just don’t provide much additional insight to school leaders or parents regarding individual students.

Multiple Measures

Given these imperfections we judge student progress in many different ways. Exit tickets, spelling tests, group projects, unit tests and our internal standardized assessments are but a few of them. We start checking in September and continue until June. The report cards you get reflect these multiple measures, as do the conversations you have with your child and his or her teacher over the course of the year.

Where the data show us that a child is struggling, we design interventions and monitor progress more closely. Where they show us that a child is accelerating, we design greater challenges and push the child to do more. Long before April of their 3rd grade year.

Reading is the area where you can have the greatest influence; better comprehension even improves their math results. Turn off the TV, confiscate the smart phone, and ensure your child always has a few good books to read. Ask your local librarian for ideas. Dive into The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, the book the Family Orgazation sent home tonight.

Another way to help is to praise your child for her effort, not for being ‘smart.’ Cognitive psychologists say that kids who are told that results come from hard work, not lucky genes, overcome setbacks more easily and achieve better grades.

Lastly, get them to bed early. Sleep is critical to children’s health and growth. Research shows it’s also when their brain consolidates and organizes all the information we expect them to master.

It’s All about the Adults

Given the flaws in state tests, and the wide range of data available to us already, it is a wonder that school leaders chose to get so worked up about them.

Ellen and Lizzie are in classrooms every day, observing teachers and providing feedback. They are not waiting for state test results to decide if a teacher needs extra support.

Your child’s teacher is also in class every day. She has a ton of data and experience that helps her to see where your child is making progress and where he or she is struggling. She’s not waiting for state test results to decide if a child needs extra support.

For a few days this April your children will spend a few hours on reading and math tests. It will be a bit different than a typical day, but we’ll keep is as normal as we can.

And then we’ll get back to what we know works best: A coherent, content-rich curriculum that builds background knowledge and cultural literacy. A socio-emotional curriculum that fosters intrinsic motivation and self-respect. Physical education and movement. Art, Music and Spanish. And love for one another.