Yearly Testing: A Must-Have for Teachers

03/05/2015 10:03 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015

This week Teach Plus teachers nationwide comment on the reauthorization and key provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

By Chris Hofmann

When a student enters your classroom struggling in math or reading, every moment counts. This was the case for Alex, a bright-eyed 4th grader who started the year significantly behind his peers in reading. By the end of the year, he had gained over two years and caught up to his classmates.

Alex's growth was no accident. Even before he and his classmates lined up for the first day of school, I knew that Alex needed help. This was because I had analyzed my incoming class's standardized test results from previous years. And when Alex walked into my classroom, I already had a plan in place to make his growth a reality.

Right now, Congress is proposing to make fundamental changes to the Elementary Schools Education Act (ESEA) that will deprive teachers of important information about their students and their teaching. The current version of the legislation seeks to shift away from annual assessments towards grade-span testing, where students would only be tested three times during their entire 13 years in the K-12 system. If grade-span testing were to take the place of annual assessments, educators like myself would lose a critical source of data to help us identify the needs of students like Alex and make use of every learning moment.

Each year, over the summer, I start by examining my new students' test scores from the previous year. While these tests never paint a complete picture, they give me a great start. I am able to identify struggling students and make immediate efforts to remedy their skill and knowledge gaps. In the case of Alex, I was able to meet with his parents before the start of the school year to ensure support at home. I was able to choose a seat that reduced distractions and focused his attention. And most importantly, I was able to set up an after-school program for Alex and three of his classmates to target specific needs from the very beginning of the year. This was all possible because I had early access to the information that yearly standardized tests provide.

Educators know that no single data point can capture a student's academic performance, which is why a long-term view of a student's performance is so important. Have they always struggled or was there something in the previous grade level's content that posed a challenge? Was the previous year's data an outlier or is the student's performance relatively consistent? The answers to these questions help teachers like me determine the best course of action for each student. I fear that without yearly testing teachers would lose the perspective provided by a longitudinal view of their students.

In addition to offering a clearer insight into individual students' trajectories, yearly assessments provide an important tool with which to evaluate the choices that teachers and schools make about curriculum. These assessments provide us with an opportunity to look for blind spots and adjust our educational programs accordingly. Last year, my grade-level team observed a recurring trend in our data: our students demonstrated significantly better comprehension on fiction texts than on nonfiction texts. Because we noticed this trend in our standardized test results, we were able to make changes to our curriculum, adding an additional nonfiction unit and incorporating more nonfiction reading throughout the year. By shifting to grade-span testing, teachers in many grades would lose this independent lens through which to view their teaching and curriculum.

The incalculable value annual tests hold for teachers and students everywhere is clear. For teachers everywhere and students like Alex, Congress should reject grade-span testing and maintain yearly testing as a provision of ESEA.

Chris Hofmann is a 4th grade teacher at KIPP Raices Academy in East Los Angeles. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.