James B. Carter: Teacher-made tests are best

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 13, 2018

The school year is underway. Across Rowan-Salisbury Schools, teachers are getting to know students. Ice-breakers and questionnaires reveal kids’ interests; journal entries and conversation detail life experiences, and assessments reveal strengths to grow and areas of improvement to nurse into strengths.

While teachers may not know everything about their students yet, when it comes to figuring out what students know and how to assess their knowledge, no one does it better than the classroom teacher.

While standardized tests like the ACT, the SAT, and the slew of end-of-grade tests and North Carolina Final Exams may help some feel good, they tell us very little about what students have learned.

Such tests are constructed outside of the classroom, away from actual day-to-day teaching and certainly with no regard to differences between and among class sections. Teachers know each classroom’s population is unique, carrying its own set of strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. Thankfully, teachers know how to address these aspects to create unique cultures in each of their classes.

Furthermore, many teachers know to integrate a variety of assessments to learn where kids begin on a given subject or skill and to see if they have made growth regarding knowledge and competency. While some students’ self-esteem may be inflated by doing well on standardized tests, relying on them as much as they are relied on in most districts creates a fake sense of accomplishment. All a student has actually accomplished is scored well on one test on one day, creating one datum that lacks statistical validity within the students’ abilities, much less between and among students and schools.

Students’ scores do not correlate directly to success in college or in life, but they do suggest the effects of poverty and lack of resources on one’s ability to do well on standardized tests. Generally, the better off the populace in one’s zip code, the better one will do on these assessments. The poorer the household, the more likely students will do poorly on these types of tests.

The metric best correlated with college success? Grade point average, a device tied to teachers’ knowledge of how best to assess their students.

Standardized tests increase distress and anxiety in students. Just ask any elementary school teacher about the rise in tears, vomit, and acting out associated with standardized test time. Ask guidance counselors when they see spikes in students visiting their offices. At some high schools, students feel such pressure to do well on these tests, they attempt to end their lives.

Standardized tests have reshaped education for the worse, and, especially in elementary schools, they disrupt students’ inherent, organic love of learning and contribute to early burn out on the entire experience of schooling. I feel strongly that, especially at the elementary levels, over-testing walks the line of abuse and neglect.

Thank goodness our local leaders have the acumen to eliminate early-grades testing, and it is my hope they continue to curtail the use of standardized tests at all levels, but especially in K-8.

Besides, there are already expert test-makers in every classroom. Further, tests which distill life down to A,B,C, or D – when every adult reading this knows sometimes we get one option, sometimes several, sometimes none, and sometimes a plethora when it comes to building our lives – constitute an educational folly because they are so unrealistic. No one ever hired someone solely on their ability to ace a standardized test. Standardized tests show little evidence of anyone being college- or career-ready.

With district support, educators can, should, and do ask students to show their mastery of concepts in myriad ways: Presentations, performances, portfolios, service projects, art, and more. In many of my classes, I present students with an array of assessment options from which to choose for the same material, and I am always open to their ideas too.

I know I am not a perfect educator, but I do work to get to know your students; I can help each of them meet their life goals; and I know them better than anyone making tests in Raleigh or Washington, D.C. So too can every teacher in RSS. If we truly want to use the affordances of Renewal Status to disentangle us from standardized tests, we must trust our teachers and reconfigure our cultural beliefs regarding standardized assessments.

Dr. James B. Carter is a teacher at Jesse C. Carson and is the vice president of the Rowan-Salisbury Association of Educators.