Walk the halls of the Aspen schools these days and chances are you’ll find all is quiet in at least a few classrooms. It’s not because school is out for offseason; rather, school is in session — and it’s testing season.
Beginning in February and culminating in early May, Colorado students in grades 3-10 take the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests (TCAP), a battery of standardized exams created by the Colorado Department of Education.
Unlike the quizzes and exams given by their teachers, however, the TCAPs do not directly influence students’ grades or their personal academic future. Rather, the tests are the central vehicle in a state “accountability” system to evaluate teachers and schools. TCAP results are used by the state to measure how well schools and teachers are educating students in certain key disciplines.
Today’s TCAP tests are an outgrowth of the Colorado State Assessment Program, CSAP, which the state retired after 16 years. The TCAPs, in keeping with their name, are a transitional system, which will eventually become the CMAS, or Colorado Measures of Academic Success test. Among other differences, the CMAS is expected to be an online assessment that will generate results almost immediately, thus enabling teachers to react and quickly adjust their instruction.
Advocates of standardized testing argue generally that the system helps verify that students are moving through the public school system with a gradually growing body of knowledge that will eventually equip them for success. The tests provide a barometer for educators, parents and legislators to measure student performance and make changes where needed.
Detractors counter that the testing requirements gobble up classroom time and discourage academic creativity. Furthermore, critics say, the tests are a narrow, one-dimensional way to measure overall student learning.
Aspen Journalism decided to ask a handful of local educators — both teachers and administrators — for their opinions on Colorado’s evolving system of standardized tests. The four questions are listed below, followed by the individual educators’ responses.
1. What are the pros and cons of standardized tests as a measure of student/teacher performance?
2. Has the state of Colorado struck the right balance between preparing students for TCAP tests and preparing them for life?
3. How has standardized testing affected the use of classroom time at your school?
4. Does standardized testing help yield better or smarter students?
Georgina Levey, fifth-grade teacher, Aspen Middle School
1. On pros and cons: “It is great to have a common set of data to refer to when making instructional decisions and to monitor student growth from year to year. It also seems like the newer state tests are doing a better job of assessing deeper (rather than broader) into certain content standards and allowing students to use resources to answer questions than they did before. This is a welcome change.
“What is still hard is the ‘be all end all’ feeling I get from the test data, its summative nature, and the way that testing impacts instructional pacing— there is such a close monitoring of how kids are doing on tests without any place to formally comment about perceived external factors that might get in the way of learning.
“I sometimes also feel rushed to cover topics, before the state testing window, just so students have a better chance of answering questions correctly. Lastly, by the time we get the state test data back, it is too late to do anything to adjust instruction for the kids we just taught.”
2. On the right balance: “The research I did for my Ph.D. in educational leadership was rooted in service learning (academics linked to community service), so I notice that many of the life skills that I feel are important for overall success in life do not seem to be measured on the standardized tests. I think I would have done horribly on many of the standardized tests students are expected to take because I was not a great book learner, but I made up for it in grit, resourcefulness, a strong work ethic and a genuine love of learning.
“These skills have not been measured on standardized tests as directly as I would like and may be leaving a large population of kids feeling like they don’t measure up. However, there are signs that the new CMAS tests and revisions to college entrance tests may be addressing some parts of this issue better.”
3. On classroom time: “When high-stakes testing first started, it felt manageable, but it feels much more overwhelming now. The amount of data presented to me that doesn’t always show the right amount of growth really lowers my feeling of overall effectiveness and makes me feel like I have to find a way to cover everything before the test rather than let instruction unfold at a natural pace and in an unforced manner.
“If I did not feel this way, I could teach many topics in a more creative and engaging way. I am really trying to keep these elements alive, but it is harder to do now than in the past. This isn’t to say that kids shouldn’t be assessed — I just wish there was as much value placed on formative classroom evaluations, portfolio pieces, and teacher observations as there seems to be on standardized test data.”
4. On better, smarter: “Better students? Maybe. Smarter students? No.
“I actually think an over-emphasis on standardized testing can send the wrong message since it can be mistaken as a marker for overall intelligence, even when the tests are intended to measure different skills and aptitudes. Many students who don’t do well on these tests are just as capable of being successful in life as those who do well.
“Some of these low-performing students may even be more successful in life because they have experienced setbacks and have learned to be more resilient than those who always make the grade and/or get high test scores. Real intelligence comes in many forms and is dynamic. It all really depends on perseverance and a willingness to always want to learn, no matter what test scores a student receives.”
Jim Gilchrist, principal, Aspen Community School
1. On pros and cons: “Pros: Standardized assessments provide a snapshot of how well a student is learning state standards. We use test results, along with a slew of other data, to inform instruction for each child. Standardized assessments give parents, students and staff the assurance that our students can and do perform at the highest levels. Cons: Test results can take on an outsized significance in the eyes of the misinformed. Test scores alone are a poor indicator of teacher effectiveness.”
2. On the right balance: “The Common Core standards are quite good. As with most educational reform, implementation seems to fall apart when reforms are taken to scale and adopted as a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”
3. On classroom time: “We use assessment to INFORM our instruction, but try not to let the test DRIVE instruction. There is nothing on these assessments most parents would not want their child to know and be able to do. So it makes sense to prepare students to do their best. This could be done effectively with less assessment because the time can be excessive.”
4. On better, smarter: “Yes, at the Aspen Community School. We use the assessments to benefit our teaching and improve student outcomes. However, we have a unique focused mission, well-trained staff, engaged parents, students and a very small student-staff ratio. Not all schools are so lucky.”
David Schmid, principal, Basalt High School
1. On pros and cons: “The pros are it helps us focus on specific standards, all the things we want students to learn. The tests give us a glimpse of how students are doing and a glimpse of how teachers are performing in the classroom. I think it also helps us raise a sense of urgency around the types of learning that we want all the kids to do. The cons are that testing is not the final, end-all measure of how teachers and students are doing. You can’t take just one test and say that’s the only measure. You need a body of evidence, you need multiple measures.”
2. On the right balance: “I know a big emphasis on all these tests is literacy. Even in a math test, if your literacy skills aren’t as strong, that affects the outcome. I think literacy is a really important thing. If we can get kids to be strong in literacy and other specific areas, then we’ve provided a foundation for kids to be successful. I don’t know if that’s exactly the right balance, but if the students have strong literacy skills, then they’ll have the opportunity to be successful in many areas.”
3. On classroom time: “At our school, we don’t teach to the test. The focus is the standards that will be measured on the test. If we’re aligning the practices and curriculum to the standards, then I think we’re doing a good job.”
4. On better, smarter: “The whole point behind standardized testing is accountability. The test is not going to make kids smarter, but we are becoming clearer about what they need to learn and now we’re going to be accountable for that. That process might not make kids smarter, but it provides data for us on how kids are doing, and it helps us focus on the things that we think are really important.”
Garry Pfaffmann, 5-8 language arts teacher, Aspen Community School
1. On pros and cons: “Knowing students’ grade-level reading, writing and math proficiency is essential, but I also want kids to have social skills, to make good decisions, to take risks, to overcome challenges, and to engage in learning through real-world experiences. Tests don’t measure these qualities, which carry equal or greater weight in determining a person’s success. I value standardized test results as ONE measure among MANY.”
2. On the right balance: “The state has succeeded in creating target expectations to guide education toward grade-level specific academic success, with the best of intentions. Because test results are published, they become each school’s public face. No matter how great the outdoor ed, visual or performing arts program, or the broader success of a school’s alumni, annual test results are the mandatory PR campaign of each school.
“So, schools emphasize test preparation through constant assessment and monitoring at the expense of other whole-child programs.”
3. On classroom time: “This response varies by teacher and grade level. Enormous pressure has been placed on younger grades to troubleshoot performance levels of struggling students. Kindergarten teachers are faced with performance expectations that were once the expectations of the first grade classroom, so there is less time for foundational play. All grade levels see a greater emphasis on assessment and monitoring to ensure that every student is ‘on grade level.’”
4. On better, smarter: “As long as we keep our focus on the tests as ONE assessment tool among MANY, then yes. I look carefully at the results, modify my teaching strategies accordingly and try to do a better job each year.
“I want every one of my students to perform well in the skills that the tests are designed to assess. AND I want them to have incredible outdoor opportunities, public performances, and social skill building.”
George Stranahan*, longtime local educator and founder of Aspen Community School
1. On pros and cons: “Performance at what? What is the mission of schooling? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Liberty and justice of all?”
2. On the right balance: “The state has designed a punishment system for schools/teachers that produce low scores and no reward at all for preparing them for life.”
3. On classroom time: “Every teacher that I know says that they feel their teaching quality is reduced by the requirements of testing.”
4. On better, smarter: “Better at what? Taking tests? OK, it does that. And what is smarter? Smarter than students who didn’t take tests and perhaps went to a good school?”
* George Stranahan is a donor to Aspen Journalism.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism’s Education Desk and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of education. The Aspen Times Weekly published a version of this story on Thursday, May 1, 2014.