This week, Teach Plus teachers nationwide comment on the reauthorization and key provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
On February 9, I was in Washington, D.C. as part of a six-teacher panel. We gathered on the Hill to talk to Congressional staff about annual assessments, specifically why these should be a part of the new No Child Left Behind legislation. Many of the staffers in the room wanted to know the reasons for this stance. For me, these are rooted in my job. I am a social studies teacher and department chair in an alternative setting for incarcerated students. Where I teach, assessments are essential.
In the juvenile justice setting, every day new students are enrolled and others leave. Some stay for a few days; others are with us for over two years. During the enrollment process, students take a computer-adapted assessment. This gives me vital information that cannot be found on transcripts, such as academic strengths and weaknesses and a student's instructional reading level.
Two-years ago I had a new student, I will call Thomas, in my class. That assessment helped me select resources for Thomas at his reading level, build instructional groups and pairs with the data, and make other decisions to help him succeed. We shared the assessment results with Thomas. He worked hard, and so did I. The next time he took the test, he and I saw an average of 1.5 years increased reading growth. Thomas spent almost a year in my classroom before turning 18 and changed facilities. Later, he was found not guilty and returned to his neighborhood high school. I saw him recently; he is now a senior, on track to graduate in June and attend college in the fall.
Thomas knew that he would take the same test three times a year to measure his learning; there was no over-testing or confusion over taking other standardized tests. This helped him focus and concentrate. I believe that the new ESEA should include guidelines on ways to limit annual testing in order for it not to intrude on the overall teaching and learning process.
This year, our school's instructional leadership team wanted to add more clarity by sharing previous results with our students before they took their second assessment to measure learning. These included a color visual with red, yellow and green to represent their scores. Many of the students wanted to "get to the green." When students took the assessment, we shared data with them that same day, helping them to clearly understand why assessments are important.
If I can get my students re-engaged in the classroom, the likelihood of them getting caught in the revolving door of the juvenile and adult criminal justice system is that much less. I therefore look at annual assessment data from other schools to help determine where my students should go to next once they are out of the system. Some of these schools are worried about taking our students, because they might test lower. That is why it is important to use the annual testing data to help allocate resources and re-evaluate practices and programs to help improve learning outcomes. If our students are in the right environment, they are that much more likely to transition better and therefore improve learning outcome and assessment scores. Far from exempting teachers from accountability, this approach takes into account improvement based on capacity-building and innovation.
I believe that the ESEA reauthorization should allow for schools and districts to take a streamlined, positive, student-centered approach to annual assessment then annual testing. In order for this to work, the assessment must be aligned to college and career standards. Help us as a nation to give all students the same chance to succeed.
Micah J. Miner is a teacher and department chair at an alternative Chicago Public School for incarcerated youth. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow, a doctoral student in Curriculum, Advocacy and Policy at National-Louis University, and a Chicago Teachers Union member.