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Originally published Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at 4:58 PM

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Guest: How testing students helps teachers

Students should get tested because it’s good for them, writes guest columnist Erin Gustafson.

Special to The Times

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In my fifth-grade classroom at a high-poverty school, students worked on inquiry-based, hands-on lessons. Through... MORE
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WHEN I taught fifth grade, my students didn’t enjoy end-of-year testing. But a test is like a visit to the doctor. You do it because it’s good for you, not because it’s fun. Tests are a part of life. The questions we have about testing should focus less on whether tests should exist and more on whether we are using high-quality tests that measure learning.

Because of its refusal to require consideration of test scores in teacher evaluations, Washington recently became the first state in the country to lose its waiver from No Child Left Behind — and control of around $40 million in accompanying federal funding for low-income students.

Sadly, this means students are losing preschools and other vital education programs. The loss of the waiver has prompted conversations in Olympia, school districts and guest opinion columns, like the submission by Seattle School Board President Sharon Peaslee.

Tests help measure progress over time, just like a medical checkup measures changes in our health. Most of us think about tests as a single exercise, but for educators they help show how much students have learned over a year against clear learning goals. Without these tests, we also cannot identify racial- and income-based achievement gaps across 295 districts in the state.

For parents, tests provide a measure of how their children are doing. They allow parents to make informed choices about how to support learning or when to seek help. At my children’s school, writing scores from the Measurements of Student Progress test allowed individual parents to seek tutoring, and allowed the school to research and try new strategies to teach writing.

For teachers, a variety of tests provide feedback and reassurance that teaching techniques are working. Every educator wants to improve — and tests are a way to track our own progress as well as the progress of our students.

For students, tests clarify what they know and what they need to focus on to improve.

The art of teaching is in helping students meet their learning goals. It’s performance against these goals that tests measure, and if students learn them well, they can do well on any test.

In my fifth-grade classroom at a high-poverty school, students worked on inquiry-based, hands-on lessons. Through projects and experiential learning, they mastered concepts in a deep, meaningful way. Viewed that way, good test prep is really just good teaching.

Like health care, technology and keeping my desk organized, education is something that can constantly be improved. One big step our state is taking to improve public education is the phase-in of stronger learning goals and smarter tests.

The updated learning goals, called Common Core standards, define what students should be able to do at each grade level. The purpose is to move away from rote memorization, allowing more time to go deeper into fewer topics, helping students master concepts and develop critical thinking skills. Instead of lowering the bar to where students are, Common Core standards raise the bar to where we know students can be.

Because we are updating our learning goals with the Common Core, we are also updating tests to reflect higher expectations. The new tests will be harder, but better. More than just multiple choice, the new interactive tests require students to apply knowledge to real-world problems and to write persuasively. Responding in real time, the computer adjusts the difficulty of the questions as the student takes the test.

The new tests will better measure student learning and teachers will get the results faster. With more timely results, teachers can use test scores to improve lesson plans, diagnose summer learning loss and provide extra help for struggling students.

Better tests don’t mean students will like them more. But it does mean that testing, as a part of learning, will better help students and teachers improve.

Erin Gustafson is a Seattle-based former teacher, a parent and chief learning officer at Inquiry Partners, an education consulting firm.

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