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Our view: Starting over with school testing?

Our view: Starting over with school testing?

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Imagine you’re flying food and potable water to a flood-ravaged area where children are trapped and need help. You’ve just descended from 33,000 feet to land safely and deliver emergency relief. Hurray! Good job.

But your mission is bigger than that. Flooding is a chronic problem that has been defined, with remedies put in place. But despite good intentions, the results have been disappointing, sometimes counterproductive.

So you take off again and, speaking strictly metaphorically here, climb to 200,000 feet to get a global view.

That, with some embellishment, is Wade Whitehead’s view of where the work of Virginia’s new Standards of Learning Innovation Committee stands heading into this year’s legislative session. (Whitehead, a Roanoke classroom teacher and a committee member, offered the flight metaphor; if flooding is a less-than-apt addition, the fault is ours.)

Lawmakers already have filed a few SOL reform bills based on the committee’s first round of preliminary recommendations. These might be seen as added emergency relief on top of the cut lawmakers made last year in the number of SOL tests required.

Whitehead views innovation in public schools assessment and accountability from 200,000 feet. The committee’s real mission, he said in a phone interview recently, is: “What would this look like if we completely started over?”

This presumes Virginia can sustain long-term momentum for a sea change in how student achievement is tested — a political rather than an educational question.

Right now, the public is engaged. SOL reform is truly a grass-roots movement. Gov. Terry McAuliffe stumbled on it as an issue when he was on the campaign trail, where he heard a lot from disgruntled parents.

They have the attention now of the governor, a Democrat, and a GOP-controlled legislature. But legislative interest in reform rises and falls with public opinion, and the governor, by law, has only one term to ride that wave.

To move beyond mere tweaking, Whitehead says, “We need to help the public separate the idea of standards — a good idea — from the testing.”

“I’m not anti-testing,” he hastened to add. “I’m pro-great testing. . . . We should only give a test if we believe it will improve how much a student is going to learn; if it will improve instruction. Use of assessments as a blanket judgment about a school, a teacher or a district isn’t necessarily improving student learning. Because tests don’t measure what we think they do.”

Whitehead is not offering excuses. He’s an award-winning fifth-grade teacher at Crystal Spring Elementary, one of the Roanoke City Public School system’s high-performing schools. Yes, it’s in South Roanoke, the city’s toniest neighborhood – and is one of just three of the division’s 17 elementary schools that is not a Title I school.

But its student body includes poor kids, homeless kids, kids from broken homes, transients — kids Whitehead also describes as thoughtful, helpful, loaded with potential. No matter where they get on the bus, he said, “When they get off the bus, we treat them as gifted — because they are.”

He’s been at Crystal Spring for 18 of the 21 years he’s taught in the city.

The differences he sees there, he says, are threefold: It has a stable staff, a supportive school community and a tradition of achievement. “We expect to do well because we have done well before.”

Those kinds of advantages can’t be duplicated by using what educators call “summative tests” as a cudgel against teachers and public schools. According to Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, “The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.”

“Those tests can provide information about student performance,” Whitehead says. “But what good is it at the end of a year?”

Whitehead and like-minded reformers argue for “formative assessment” options. The goal of these is “to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.” Formative assessment is designed to help students identify strengths and weaknesses so they can target areas where they need work, and to help teachers recognize and address problems immediately.

This editorial page has long supported SOLs as a way to identify and address disparities in opportunities so that, quite literally, No Child is Left Behind. Whitehead acknowledged the federal NCLB Act “did bring attention to students who may have been overlooked in some areas.”

High-stakes tests like the SOLs can identify problem areas, but by themselves won’t help much in addressing deficiencies. The Eberly Center notes, “Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when students or faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.”

Some of that is happening now, Whitehead says, “not because of, but in spite of” SOL testing.

His three big points:

1. Virginia teachers should be using assessments to guide planning and teaching, not the other way round.

2. Time is a constant, but student learning is a variable; e.g., not all students in Algebra I will get it in the same amount of time. “We need to flip that, so learning is the constant and time the variable. That would be a fundamental switch.”

3. To reform education, “We have to attract and retain high-caliber classroom teachers. How do we find and keep the world’s greatest teachers?”

We can’t answer that question, but we’re certain that demonizing public school teachers is counterproductive.

Whitehead is just one of 34 committee members from many different backgrounds, of course, all of whom bring different and needed perspectives to the table. He knows firsthand how students learn. If reformers want to change assessment and accountability from a cudgel to a teaching tool, they might learn what that can look like from a fifth-grade teacher.

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