Does your school’s testing culture benefit students?

This counselor has changed her perspective (and her school's) on testing. Learn what she does differently.

By Sheri Nelson

“Pick a number one to ten,” said my principal. I chose seven. I had the closest number, and that is how I became the testing coordinator at Elizabethton High School. The other assistant principal chose three and was given the responsibility of afternoon traffic control. I thought this would be great because I would not have to stand out in the cold, rain, or snow every afternoon. Plus, our wonderful Guidance Department handled all of the state and formal assessments, right? Wrong.

New mandates declared that guidance counselors had to spend most of their time working with students and student services. This did not include testing. For three semesters, I have planned, coordinated, scheduled and overseen all testing in our high school. And, I’ve discovered that I love it!

Being a testing coordinator can be very challenging. Teacher evaluations are tied to test scores, which can lead to teaching to the test, high professional anxiety, and frustration for all teachers and students.

The Bane of Existence

Our state testing system has been plagued by many problems from online testing vendors, cyber-attacks, delayed score reporting, and lack of legislative support, causing students’ test scores from the last three years to not count on student records. Establishing validity and trust in the testing process is challenging. We test students in huge blocks of time during each semester, diminishing valuable instructional time. Our focus has shifted from data we can use to improve high school and ensure student success beyond graduation, to testing administration and scoring statistics. For many educators, testing is the bane of existence.

Testing Represents Opportunity & Possibility

Because, in spite of the many challenges, testing represents opportunity and possibility. It is time to showcase what students have learned. Success in assessment is not the smooth administration of tests, but effective use of testing as a learning tool to predict and prepare students to be college and career ready. Our testing programs accomplish more than meeting state testing objectives. We need to develop a positive and beneficial testing culture for our schools.

We Need to Look at More than Scores Alone

With the goal of creating a more beneficial testing culture, I attended the College Board Open Forum in Dallas. I specifically wanted to know how assessments helped our students, teachers, and curriculum. Additionally, I wanted to bring back knowledge to give to our teachers to transform our school testing culture. I attended sessions led by dynamic professionals and thought leaders that addressed assessment issues and concerns that challenge student academic access and success. The thought-provoking discussions, networking, and keynotes illuminated the ineffective use of testing data, unsupported college preparation initiatives, and inadequate services we often provide when we view testing as a necessary evil rather than a learning tool. What I discovered during the conference is that to create a productive testing culture, we must focus on support, rigor, and equity.

To support our students, we need to look at more than scores alone. What are the academic needs of the student? Where do they need to be? What do our alternative and formative assessments tell us about the academic strengths and weakness of the student?

These answers demand that we look beyond scores, graduation rates, and statistics to the whole academic picture. We need to look at implementing project-based learning and rubrics for alternative assessment. We need to take advantage of the supports provided with assessment programs. We need to give students the information they need for scholarships. We need to create a mindset that we are supporting our students not only to be successful in high school, but beyond. And we need to give them the tools and opportunities to prepare them to succeed and graduate from post-secondary institutions.

Going Beyond Reputation

It’s important we secure opportunity for rigor in what students do. That means we need to evaluate curriculum to see what is available for students to do, and not claim rigor in curriculum based on reputation alone. Having innovative programs is great, but we need to make sure students are utilizing them. Otherwise, the programs are worthless. We need to ensure that students are taking advantage of rigorous opportunities that meet their specific interests and needs, and we need to address performance gaps. Our AP Program and Senior Capstone Program need to be accessible and equitable. We need to assess AP classes to determine if success is exposure to the rigor of the course, not a score on the AP test. And we need to build our school’s “academic horsepower” and challenge students to do more than they think they can.

Guarding Against Unintended Consequences

We also need to guard against unintended consequences. Relying on a test score alone, without context and culture, undermines equity. Equity is giving each student what he or she needs. It is not giving everyone the same thing. It’s important to learn what each student’s motivation is and make the test relevant for them, using testing supports to personalize practice for each student.

Testing and assessments are never meant to be an “X” on a calendar. They represent an opportunity to evaluate our past, present, and future. They’re a chance for us to ask what have we accomplished to this point, and how are we prepared for the future? We can use the tests and assessments as a means to showcase and celebrate students’ achievements where they are now.