This week Teach Plus teachers nationwide comment on the reauthorization and key provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
Think back to the last time you set a goal. What was the first thing you did? I'll bet you assessed what you'd been doing. At the beginning of this year, I set a nutritional goal for myself. The first thing I did was take an inventory of what I had been eating. Then I measured myself. This particular bit of assessment was a humbling experience.
Assessment, which is something we do daily in all sorts of ways, is a good thing. I taught for 10 years before becoming an assistant principal. A good portion of my teaching experience occurred before the new age of testing, and I have seen firsthand the difference that a focus on assessment makes. As a result of assessment, I'm more aware of where students start and end, where a child needs to go, what they have actually learned, and how best to facilitate such growth. During parent-teacher conferences I can talk to parents about where students have deficits and how we can work together to strengthen weaknesses. Using the data from assessments, I can talk to parents about how we can personalize the learning experience for their child.
Because of the emphasis on assessment, I became a better educator. I had to learn more about how to teach reading because my evaluation was tied to it. As a result, I became a more skilled reading teacher. When I initially entered the classroom as a teacher, I was given some books and expected to teach reading well. I didn't know that there were "reading levels" and that there were guidelines that helped me measure and inform my efforts. The system didn't require that I focus on the data. With the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) came a new set of demands and a new focus on closing the achievement gap. In hindsight, I can't believe this wasn't a requirement before now. If I'm not growing students, why teach?
This focus on the data cultivated a sense of urgency for me to ensure that each and every one of my students experienced growth and development. I also began to realize that I needed to challenge my higher-performing students who seemed to ace everything I threw at them. You see, this focus on the data isn't just about the students who struggle; it's also about the students who are ready to move beyond the confines of prescribed curriculum. It's about challenging those students who have gone unchallenged. If I'm not growing students and preparing them for a global future, why teach?
As an administrator, I use data from assessments to invest students in their learning and help teachers fine-tune their instruction. We take time to discuss the data in hopes of raising achievement levels, designing project-based assignments, and making learning more relevant for each of our students. The assessment data also enables me to engage families. It's cliché but true that people don't care what you know until they know how much you care. Sharing data in this way helps me show teachers, parents, and our students how much I care and how invested I am in their success.
When I was younger, I helped my grandfather around the house. My grandfather was "ole-school" and liked to use old, heavy wrenches. I loved those wrenches. He and I would move around the house and fine-tune things. We would tighten something in the bathroom or loosen something in the kitchen. My grandfather had a different wrench for everything, and he occasionally used the wrench to drive in a nail or two. I see assessment similarly. It is a tool. Assessments serve a purpose. That can provide us with invaluable data. The data from assessment allows teachers to fine-tune their teaching practice. Similarly, meaningful data enables administrators, schools, and school districts to fine-tune their approach.
It is certainly true that we are still learning to use assessment in the best way possible. There are times when assessments demand more time, and times when the curriculum is unintentionally narrowed. There are even times when assessments don't provide the necessary data, and meaningful data isn't being used to build or fine-tune but as a hammer. Does this mean that we just throw out the wrench?
If we're to meet the education goals we have set as a nation, if we are committed to liberty and justice for all, and if each student is to meet their individual goals, we need assessment as part of the NCLB reauthorization that is now debated by Congress. Only then will we have a critical tool necessary to help us move forward and grow our students. Otherwise, why teach?
Dwight Davis is an assistant principal at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, D.C. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.