The Measure of a Student

State assessments are always good as an educational conversation-starter.  We like to talk about high-stakes tests, teaching to the test, and whether such exams are a true measure of learning in the classroom.  Like it or not, we take such exams seriously, seeing them as a measure of the student … and the teacher.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was told a story of a Northern Virginia student and a Northern Virginia teacher.  The student is your typical pre-teen boy.  He’s smart, but he lacks focus.  From an immigrant family, his parents are limited in their English language ability, so many notes and instructions home fail to have maximum impact.

This week, the student took a practice test for Virginia’s SOL in history.  Regardless of the reason, he only got about 60 percent of the questions right.  He should be doing better, particularly after nearly a year studying the subject in class. The teacher was naturally worried, so sent a note home.

The note was classic passing of the buck.  The teacher informed the parents of the poor performance on the practice test.  Then the teacher informed the parents that the student had a notebook full of study materials he was required to bring home every night.  The teacher reminded the parents he is to “study every night.”

At face value, the conversation seems pretty basic enough.  Yes, parents need to take responsibility for their children’s performance.  Yes, parents need to make sure their students are studying and successfully completing their assignments.  And yes, parents should care about their children’s achievement on state assessments.

But there are two other issues here.  The first is shared responsibility, the second the intention of state assessments.  Teachers administer pre-tests so they know where their students stand.  Such tests allow teachers to administer targeted interventions to address student learning needs.  It allows for adjustment in classroom instruction, letting teachers see what lessons have sunk in and what lessons have not.

Students succeed in the classroom when parents, students, and teachers all take responsibility for learning.  Teaching is not merely assembling a notebook of study materials.  Requiring a notebook go home each night doesn’t translate into learning.  Such materials are designed to enhance classroom learning.  They can’t replace instruction.

Which gets us to the larger point — the intent of state assessments.  In Virginia, we assume the SOLs will measure what a student has learned over the course of the academic year.  While some may say teachers teach to the test, SOLs (or similar tests in other states) are not meant to be an exam we cram for.  To suggest that SOL success comes from students studying sample questions at home undoes the intent and purpose of the state assessment.

It’s no wonder people have such issues with state assessments.  It cheapens the value of the test when teachers give the impression and all-nighter will result in passing marks or students will learn through notebook osmosis or when parents think the responsibility is all on them to prepare their kids for the state exam.  At the end of the day, state assessments should never be the vocal point of the classroom.  The academic year should be about good instruction.  If teachers teach well, students will succeed.  And they will achieve on any independent exam the state or nation want to throw at them.

I wish my young friend luck on his history SOLs.  And I hope his teacher experiences success with applied instructional methods.  It’s good to encourage parents to get involved, as long as the teacher shares the responsibility, instead of passing potential blame.

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