The pressure of high-stakes testing and other standardized assessment measures dominates schools around the United States, and my school is no exception. This pressure pervades the atmosphere where I teach, which is especially apparent when the special education teachers gather for department meetings. At our department meeting this week the topic of progress monitoring of our students came up. Immediately the atmosphere in the room changed and a tension descended over the teachers. Complaints were made about the ability of the tests to provide information to inform instruction. Many teachers mentioned that they were simply completing the assessments because they would suffer consequences otherwise. This interaction reminded me of information contained in our current class materials. Demands placed by standardized testing serve as a source of anxiety and frustration for both teachers and students.
The video “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading” included the quote “Knowledge of the World is the most important factor in understanding reading.” In the five years of my educational career, the teaching of reading strategies, to the exclusion of methods, has been inflicted on the subject of reading at my school. We provide students with frequent instruction in reading strategies, whether they need that instruction or not. Now, I am not saying that reading strategies do not have value, especially for struggling readers at the middle school level. However, according to this video, all of those reading strategies will have little benefit if we do not work to build our students background knowledge. Doing so is not valued in the same way as teaching reading strategies. Just as the video pointed out that science and social studies content is minimized at the elementary level, similar action occurs at the junior high where I work. We remove students from social science classes in order to provide more reading instruction, but those classes could provide valuable background knowledge.
With a student population of 54% low income students, many of the students at my school are at a disadvantage when it comes to having the exposure to the background knowledge needed to understand information they read. I struggle with how to build up their knowledge enough to really contribute to their reading comprehension. During classes I provide activities to increase their background knowledge prior to reading. However, they need continued support and encouragement to maintain and increase background knowledge. When my eighth grade students do not even know the role George Washington played for our country, a lesson I taught earlier this week, I worry that despite my best efforts it may not be possible to “catch them up.”
As with many other schools, mine is plagued with over-assessing students using measures that do not provide meaningful information for instruction. Dr. Williams states in Chapter 10 of Critical Issues of Literacy Pedagogy ,“The results of the test are not used for any decisions regarding the teaching and learning environment and, are usually too late to make any difference.” (p. 205) This statement holds true for most of my experiences with standardized testing, which are mostly conducted as the result of edicts given by administration. Teachers often comment that the information provided by these assessments does not improve the instruction for students. In addition to providing little helpful information, these assessments frequently remove students from the instructional environment. Assessment is important, especially if it can lead to improved learning for the student. However, what I see in my school, is that the students being pulled out of classes to complete assessments are the very students who need the instruction they are missing. Those students lose precious class time, that could potentially be helpful to them, in order to assess how they are doing. That practice does not make sense to me. There has to be a way to assess students that does not remove them from the classroom and/or instructional time. Dr. Williams substantiates this thinking and provides an alternative suggestion to these frequent standardized tests in the form of authentic assessment, which is identified as assessment that is meaningful and gives teachers information that can be used effectively to help students.
In addition to the meaningless or negative effect it can have on instruction, high stakes testing cuts down the self-confidence of students who do not perform well on these types of assessments. This is also mentioned in Chapter 10 by Dr. Williams where he states that ineffective or inappropriate assessment can lead to “negative outcomes such as resistance, disengagement, and lack of motivation.” (p. 213) I have witnessed the effect of standardized testing on students who struggle. Students shut down and act out when presented with standardized assessments that only point out to them what they do not know rather than what they do know. I have stood next to a student during a high-stakes test while he says to me, “I can’t do it.” As much as I want to believe that he can, I know the tasks set before him will only frustrate and discourage him. This is why I believe that authentic reading and writing assessments are more valuable when it comes to assessing students and informing instruction. Since these assessments are implemented within the classroom and measure specific criteria, students have the opportunity to demonstrate their successes in learning. Rather than knocking down their self-esteem, these authentic assessments offer the opportunity to students to discover their personal strengths while they continue to develop in other areas.
The frustration caused by high-stakes testing and other standardized assessments pervades educational settings for teachers and students. Educational practices related to reading often focus on only one area, such as reading strategies, when students would benefit from a wider range of information. This focus often comes as a result of wanting to improve scores on standardized tests. While assessment has value in guiding education, there needs to be a shift away from standardized testing to more authentic assessments. These assessments can provide positive benefits for students by focusing instruction on their needs and giving them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities.