by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent

This spring, students in grades 3-8 are taking statewide tests designed to measure performance in English language arts, math, and other subjects. These tests had become a source of controversy prior to the pandemic, and some questioned their value. The state also expects to administer a full slate of high school Regents Exams this June for the first time in three years.

The 3-8 assessments are designed to measure student progress in attaining the state standards. They provide schools with data that is used to improve education for all students. For example, if your child’s grade was struggling with a particular concept, the staff could adjust how they teach or enhance instruction with additional resources.

Unfortunately, schools are left with an incomplete picture when fewer take the exams. This is why groups like the National PTA urged parents to allow children to take these assessments in the past. While the state made some changes in response to parent and educator concerns, it is now looking at other ways to assess students beyond traditional multiple-choice tests or essay questions.

The New York State Education Department (SED) launched a pilot program to explore how to reimagine the state’s assessment system in a way that fosters high-quality instructional opportunities, provides authentic measures of deeper learning, and better prepares students for college and the workplace. SED is also working with other states on a grade 5-8 science pilot.

There are several promising models in which performance-based assessment is a key component that not only provide an authentic measure of student readiness, but also drives curriculum, instruction, and school culture. This includes the career and technical education (CTE) programs offered by Questar III and other BOCES across the state.

The 3-8 tests and Regents Exams are often associated with the term assessment, but by definition and practice, it is and should be much broader than this. In public education, we have multiple methods or tools available to measure and evaluate the readiness or abilities of students.

This is an opportune time to look at how we are using assessments across grade levels. When it comes to looking at our assessments, we should ask ourselves: what do they measure, and how do they help students, parents, and teachers? If they do not provide a fair measurement or help all three groups, we need to reconsider their appropriateness. This is not about teaching to a test or advocating for more tests, but rather making assessments more meaningful. It is about unleashing the power of data and how we can use them to improve student outcomes and meet learner’s individual needs.

Just consider your own personal experience for a moment. If you ever sought to earn a driver’s license you had to pass two different assessments – a multiple choice exam and a performance-based driving test. The first assessment measured your knowledge of rules and situations while the performance-based road test better measured your hands-on skills. If you failed the road test, you received the feedback needed to learn, practice, improve and try again.

Performance assessments are used in CTE programs, music, and physical education – and should be expanded to other content areas. Students in our CTE programs must demonstrate hands-on skills that closely mirror their chosen trade or profession. Likewise, concerts and games assess the individual or collective performance of students.

Performance assessments challenge students to complete a complex task, solve problems and produce/present findings or solutions. The learning process is more than just producing the result but showing the process that takes the student there. In the process, this identifies gaps that can be used to strengthen instruction or focus teacher training.

We also use performance as a diagnostic tool in project-based learning environments, such as Tech Valley High School based on the SUNY Polytechnic Institute campus in Albany. Projects incorporate real-life challenges that pose meaningful problems and where solutions have the potential to be implemented. Through project-based learning students must work together to: understand the project’s context; define the roles each team member (or outside collaborator) must play; determine the product or outcome to be produced; study and understand the audience for their work; divvy up tasks and communicate progress; and work within the criteria by which their product or performance will be judged.

This is why these tests are sometimes referred to as “authentic” assessments. After all, they connect what is learned in the classroom to the real-world. For some, this connects the learning in a way that a textbook or test simply cannot.

Moving forward, we must do more than cover the material; we need to help students feel comfortable with assessments. After all, it is something they’ll face throughout their lifetimes – the road test, college or job entrance exam, post-secondary coursework, certification or licensing tests, performance reviews and so on.

It is often said “what gets measured, gets done” in our schools. Today, school leaders speak about using data – from student achievement to climate/culture – to improve outcomes. This is an opportune time to look at what our assessments should look like moving forward.

As John Dewey said: Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results. If performance assessments were used more in P-12 schools, learning would be a byproduct.

This column appeared in the Register Star and The Daily Mail newspapers.

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