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  • by Blaine Helwig

Testing: What ALL is being assessed?

Educators test students throughout the school year. Students are frequently assessed via both formative and summative assessments ranging from weekly spelling tests, reading comprehension tests, social studies and science assessments, math tests, and grammar and writing compositions. Students in the State of Texas as well as around the country are also assessed in the major core subjects. In elementary schools each spring, intermediate students are assessed on a standardized STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) summative assessment in math, reading, writing and science. Needless to say, there is a much controversy concerning the testing of children in the public schools.

Why do we test students?

That is a good question, and it has an obvious answer, in my opinion. Basically, educators want to know what students know and to what level they understand content in a specific academic area or focus. It does not matter if the assessment is a short comprehension assessment at the closure of a daily core lesson or a short quiz on a recently viewed science video or the annual standardized Texas STAAR test. We want to know if students understand the presented subject matter. Now, this premise assumes one important aspect of testing a student on any subject. It assumes there is test validity - assessed content is in direct correlation to the instruction content. For example, test validity would be compromised if students were given instruction and practiced polynomial factoring, but on the final assessment the algebra teacher assessed students on a completely different math area. Put simply, the assessment must measure what it claims to measure – solely on a pragmatic perspective, educators are testing students to determine how well they comprehended what was taught – with the presumption of test validity.

What ALL should be evaluated when students are tested?

This question is the central point of this blog. I have little interest in arguing the merits and morality of standardized testing. If there is test validity on core standardized tests, then student results are relevant to consider. If grade level content is covered well with accountability regardless if the public school is classified as Title 1 or not, students should perform well. The standardized aspect of student assessments is an important issue, but professionally, I am more concerned with pragmatic pedagogy and rudimentary student learning. If those two areas are not well founded, standardized test results are guaranteed to be depressed.

When I was a sophomore civil engineering student at the University of Texas, I was enrolled in a ‘Mechanics of Solids’ course. I was fortunate. My professor was a renowned aerospace engineer with an international reputation. Halfway through the semester, we were assessed on our knowledge and understanding of axial and torsional stresses. We had studied that content for several weeks, and we had completed homework on that content; hence, there was test validity. When my examination was returned, I made a poor grade. I was thoroughly embarrassed. I had studied for the test, and I thought I understood the material.

However, when the professor addressed the class, it shocked me. He said, “Only one student passed this test out of thirty students, and that means only one thing. I did a very poor job of teaching.” He subsequently reviewed the same material in the next couple lectures and presented more examples with thorough explanations. During those reviews, it became abundantly clear (to me) that I did not possess mastery of the material. On the next test over this same content, the class performance was dramatically different in comparison to the first assessment.

Hopefully, a teacher is cognizant that when students are assessed on content, the assessment is also an evaluation on the teacher’s pedagogical effectiveness. Hence, when the vast majority of elementary students do not perform well on an assessment – regardless of the assessment, there are five important elements on student learning and teaching that should be considered.

  1. An assessment or test conveys how well students understood the presented content.

  2. Student formative readiness and preparedness. Did the teacher sufficiently check student learning to ensure content accountability of the material prior to summative assessment?

  3. The assessment also conveys to the teacher how well they taught the content to their students.

  4. The lesson content is invariably founded upon previous perquisite background knowledge and skills. Were these skills addressed to ensure current lesson content understanding?

  5. If students perform poorly on an assessment, it means they need more practice with that content, not less.

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