For Administrators

Finding the Right Balance on Standardized Testing

By Brian Gatens February 13, 2014

The “new normal” in education has many districts working hard to balance two competing forces.

On one hand, we have to consider the lifelong-learning needs of our students. They require our help to become useful and contributing members of society, to understand the democratic principles that guide our nation and to build life skills to navigate a challenging and changing world.

On the other hand, we face the ever-increasing emphasis on using standardized tests to drive school quality. Unfortunately, for all the importance given to standardized tests, they assess only a narrow range of skills and don’t always live up to their claim of accurately measuring college and career readiness. We’ve become overly specific and narrow in what we consider to be important for children to learn.

So what are we to do?

Teaching to the test does not really work

We could sacrifice the academic integrity of our schools and focus wholeheartedly on student test performance. With so much focus on language arts and math, some schools have decided to focus less on science and social studies and instead teach test-preparation courses solely designed to help students score higher on these exams. These schools ignore that the “gains” from these courses disappear soon after the test is finished.

Getting rid of assessments isn’t a good option, either

We could choose to ignore the presence of the test in the lives of our students and instead focus on our overall academic program and let the chips fall where they may. We could explain to our community that the tests, for all the importance given to them by state policymakers and politicians, really don’t capture the true learning of our students or the quality of our teachers, but are actually counterintuitive to good teaching.

Why we need both

I don’t suggest that we take either path exclusively. The first requires a school to sell its soul to serve the needs of a test, and the second requires a school to ignore the reality of education today.

Instead, we should walk the razor’s edge of serving both masters.

Defenders of tests will tell you that solid test scores are a byproduct of good teaching practices, academically strong school environments and hard-working students. Further, they’ll say that when these are in place, administrators and principals should have nothing to worry about when it comes to results. To a degree, they’re correct. Yet to recognize the needs of students, we have to be extra careful about crafting an academically strong environment that not only helps to prepare our students for life outside of school, but also confronts the reality of today’s schools.

And, as a retired colleague of mine likes to point out, we live in a testing world. Every high-demand profession today requires its practitioners to complete competency tests for admission to the field.

Test results are not only about learning

I’m obligated to point out the proverbial elephant in the room: Test results may well indicate the overall quality of the school, but their conclusions are actually much more indicative of the socioeconomic status of the community that surrounds the school.

To draw that connection even further out, the truth is that if you want to improve the quality of American schools, you need to address the poverty that surrounds low-performing schools. This is the “new normal” that I wish policymakers and politicians paid the most attention to.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.

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