Monday, February 23, 2015

Are High-Stakes Tests Becoming Dinosaurs?

About a year ago on this blog, I wrote a piece  entitled 364 > 1, in which I tried to emphasize the importance of high quality instruction day in and day out rather that placing all the importance on a one day, high stakes test.  To this day, it remains my most read post.  I assume that meant that many of the educators that read it agreed with me.  However, since that time, the emphasis and pressure for students and campuses to produce on a given assessment has increased even more if that is possible.  Our state’s accountability system found a way to disregard the many other data sources available (and mandated such as House Bill 5) to recognize schools that were “perpetually underperforming”.  In some cases, “perpetual” has meant that schools with traditionally high student achievement scores that took a ONE year dip and found themselves on the state’s “most wanted” list.  There are documented cases of schools with pass rates over 90% that made the list because they didn’t make enough progress based on a complicated series of statistics.  Seriously?

My grandfather, who was about as wise a man as I have ever known, never failed to make simple points with strange analogies. He grew up poor in West Texas but became, by all measures a successful business man, husband, and father.  I will never forget him telling me, “Dinosaurs are extinct, but jackrabbits still run wild.” When I asked him what he meant, he talked about how too many people become frustrated reaching for the one “big event” that will prove they are successful that they lose sight of all the small things that mean so much.  I can’t help but think that we have somehow turned high-stakes tests into Dinosaurs….big, bad, and scary.  However, if we remain focused on the little, day to day, activities that improves student learning, we will not only survive, we will thrive…just like the jackrabbits in West Texas.

Daniel Venables, in his book “The Practice of Authentic PLCs” creates a data triangle that highlights the importance of daily lesson planning, formative assessment, and feedback that have the largest impact on student achievement.  The message is clear.  The results of an End of Course exam or STAAR tests, while important, do little to change teaching and learning.  It is the attention to daily results based on learning targets, formative assessment, and observations with feedback that have the potential to change results.   In addition, if we don’t use the daily information we gather to change and adapt our own skills, we will, like the dinosaurs, become extinct. 

From bottom to top: What a teacher and students do on a consistent basis has more impact than any high-stakes test!


  1. I do believe high stakes tests are becoming Dinosaurs. The question is how do we assure and uphold the idea that jackrabbits are more important.

  2. This is why is it ever so important to utilize assessment to drive instruction. Dr. Chen modeled the ultimate means of utilizing assesent to guide instruction when he led NISL participants through difficult math tasks. He assessed each of us by asking questions early before our scheduled session start time. As we struggled through the math, he asked us questions to help guide our thinking. Additionally, he affirmed us by having us share our thinking in a systematic way (less efficient to most efficient strategies). Dr. Chen's example sparked discussion about assessment. If he had waited until we all turned in our work or until our "Math Workshop" was complete, it would have been too late for us as students to have demonstrated success. He adjusted his instruction on the spot. This is where we as leaders must take a stand. If we don't want to be the extinct group that loses sight of true dynamic learning, we have to ensure we are building the content knowledge of our teachers. We have to make sure they can diagnose and prescribe specific instruction to meet the needs of each student. We must ensure we aren't merely prepping them for an assessment that is 1 day out of the many days of instruction. If we are intentional about utilizing on the spot formative instruction to guide our teaching, then summative assessments should be a small piece of the overall picture. We owe it to our students to make these adjustments while providing them with rich experiences in which they are able to collaborate, reflect, struggle and persevere.

  3. I have had 3 exchange students live with me during 3 separate school years. They thought the Anerican system was easily manipulated and did not require deep thought. All three were honors students. In Germany, the teacher teaches for a semester with little to no formative assessments. At the end of the semester, the student applies the concepts being taught in the form of an exam. The exam usually only has 3-4 questions. There are no multiple choice questions. Students in Germany take hours to complete these 3-4 question exams. Students are "graded" on their exam scores as well as class participation/interaction.

    My girls are doing well. One of the girls is in her 4th year of med school. One is a graduate with a marketing degree and the third just joined the Peace Corp. The only standardized test they ever took was in the United States.

    There are other avenues to assess students. Do I agree everything about the German system? No. Students are ability grouped after elementary school and if they aren't college material, they are sent to a lower school or taught a trade. It's a different paradigm. Maybe, we need to shift our paradigm to better meet the needs of our children? We can certainly come up with something that truly assesses the students' ability to analyze and apply what they have learned during a school year.

    I am hopeful that with conversations like this, change will happen.

  4. Loved the analogy! This has been a topic on our campus since the PD day in January. I share that graphic frequently with the staff. Today, I placed the link on the staff newsletter.

    I couldn't agree more...the daily, intentional reflection of lesson planning, assessments and outcomes is our most powerful tool in instruction.