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Utah's new adaptive testing system draws praise, criticism

Published: Sunday, April 20 2014 7:35 p.m. MDT

Granite recently fired a teacher who refused to participate in formative testing. Horsley said the teacher had a history of insubordination, but her dismissal nonetheless drew the ire of parents opposed to standardized testing.

One of those parents was Swasey, who wrote on an anti-Common Core blog urging parents to send letters to district officials calling for the teacher's reinstatement.

Swasey, a former educator who opted her daughter out of SAGE, said there are differences of opinion on the effectiveness of testing data.

When asked about schools that have seen success with data tracking, she said there may be positive "side effects" from testing, but they come at the expense of personal relationships between parent, child and teacher.

"Some people feel that data is a wonderful thing," she said. "I personally feel that the human touch and being close and loving and intimately involved with the day-to-day struggles of the child to read and write and do math, that’s how I, as a teacher, have always worked."

But Riddle, who was named Teacher of the Year in October, said she appreciates feedback from testing, whether it's the in-class quizzes she designs for her class, district formative tests or year-end assessments.

"My teaching improves when I have data from the tests and I can differentiate in class depending on what (the students') needs are," Riddle said.

Teaching vs. testing

Parents and teachers often caution against teaching to the test, or prioritizing high scores on math and English assessments to the detriment of well-rounded learning.

Nye said those concerns were heightened by No Child Left Behind, which required schools to meet ever-increasing Adequate Yearly Progress thresholds or face funding cuts.

Assessments, Nye said, were the "tail wagging the educational dog."

No Child Left Behind remains the law of the land, but the Obama administration has awarded states waivers from the progress requirements in exchange for adopting high-quality standards defining the minimum skills a student is expected to master each year.

Most states, including Utah, chose to implement a combination of locally developed standards and the national Common Core, created collaboratively by state leaders.

Meanwhile, advancements in testing technology cut down on the waiting period for test results, providing educators with timely information they can use in classroom planning.

"It’s taking a turn to where we’re actually able to use (testing) in a positive way to determine how we’re providing services to our students," Nye said.

Whitne Strain, of Bountiful, opted her son out of SAGE testing. She said she questions the morality of assessments and worries that data generated by SAGE will one day be used inappropriately.

She said she felt more comfortable with SAGE's paper-and-pencil predecessor, which gave an identical test to each student. Technology, she said, could lead to teachers who are better at achieving high scores than educated students.

"I’m concerned that we’ll lose the most creative teachers and that we’ll tend to get the people that are willing to just take a lesson that somebody else has written and dispense it," Strain said. "Those are some of those non-tangibles that are hard to quantify, and only time will tell if those are going to be an issue or not."

Swasey said effective teachers do not need test results to know the progress of their classroom. She said expensive testing technology offers little value at the local level and draws resources away from class-size reduction efforts and teacher pay.

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