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Measuring Student Achievement Must Not Be Rooted in Standardized Tests Alone

Measuring Student Achievement Must Not Be Rooted in Standardized Tests Alone
JohnEric Advento

t’s time to reimagine “data” for the next generation of schooling with everyday qualitative data that is rooted in the student experience. We must work in partnership between home and school to become ethnographers, rather than statisticians.

Earlier this school year, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed significant dips in student math and reading scores. All over the United States, we have been hearing a story of “learning loss” and the need to fill student “gaps.” This framing echoes almost 20 years of test-centered solutions that fail to take into consideration the complexity of learning.

Complex times call for complex approaches, including an orientation toward a love of learning rather than the deficit-based loss: How can we help children cultivate joy in learning? We must embrace a more comprehensive concept of data, one that centers student and family voices as well as students’ cultural values, funds of knowledge, identity development, sense of belonging, and mastery of 21st-century competencies that extend well beyond test-taking.

With that all said, as promised, I share with you highlights of my latest Coffee and Conversation Talk about our very own Standardized Test. For the first time in three years, we administered these tests in the Fall this year to our Grades 3, 4, and 5 students. You can reference my entire slide show presentation at the following link: Lower School Fall ERB presentation

Some background: 

The Educational Records Bureau (ERB) is a not-for-profit organization that provides both admission and achievement assessments for students in grades PK through 12. We administer the ERB’s Comprehensive Testing Program beginning in grade 3 and continuing through grade 8. The Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP) is a rigorous assessment used in Lower and Middle School to assess student achievement in reading, vocabulary, writing, mathematics and science.  

The CTP provides useful information about student performance in achieving essential academic standards. The following are the subtest categories utilizing multiple-choice responses.

  • Auditory Comprehension (Grades 3 & 4) consists of pre-reading vocabulary and comprehension of orally presented material, understanding of stories information, the ability to determine the gist of short passages, and the ability to infer information based on these passages
  • Vocabulary (Grade 5) assesses the recognition and understanding of a wide range of grade-appropriate vocabulary and the use of context clues to determine meaning.
  • Reading Comprehension (Grades 3-5) looks at the comprehension of written material, including recall of information, identifying main ideas, and hypothesizing using information from passages.
  • Word Analysis (Grade 3) is a precursor to the verbal reasoning subtest.
  • Writing Mechanics (Grades 3-5) looks at the understanding of spelling, capitalization, punctuation and usage conventions.
  • Verbal Reasoning (Grades 4 & 5) is the ability to analyze information and draw logical inferences, recognize analogical verbal relationships, and generalize verbal categorical attributes. 
  • Writing Concepts & Skills (Grades 4 & 5) is understanding the components of effective written composition.
  • Quantitative Reasoning (Grades 4 & 5) assesses the ability to analyze mathematical concepts and principles, make generalizations, and compare quantities mathematically.
  • Mathematics (Grades 3-5) tests the conceptual understanding of mathematics, the application of mathematical knowledge to solve problems, and the ability to compute or estimate solutions.
  • Science (Grades 4 & 5) is a subtest that is unique to the CTP due to the way in which the subtest is executed. This looks at the understanding of scientific process skills, energy, forces and motion, space systems, physical and chemical properties, the living environment, and the living organism.

Important to note that some subtests assess a student’s conceptual knowledge (mathematics, science, writing mechanics, reading comprehension) and other subtests look at a student’s application of, or reasoning skills within a concept (verbal reasoning, auditory comprehension, writing concepts, quantitative reasoning). This comparison can prove highly useful, especially for students whose reasoning and achievement scores exhibit marked discrepancies.

The purpose of CTP is to assess student growth and performance at the time of testing. This enables the school to identify strengths and weaknesses at an individual and group level. CTP is considered a “low stakes” assessment, intended to help teachers and administrators make decisions about curriculum and classroom instruction. Because of this, there is no test preparation material available. Due to the purpose of achievement assessments, ERB does not promote the use of tutors. CTP is designed to assess what students know, not their ability to identify the probable right answer. Used in this way, the CTP serves as a diagnostic tool and helps yield reliable results. 

Things to remember:

The ERB is a piece of the puzzle.  It is not the sole piece, nor should it be ignored as an insignificant piece. However, there are many things that are not measured in the ERB which we value at Wardlaw+Hartridge.  The ERB does not measure qualities such as:

  • effort 
  • tenacity 
  • emotional intelligence 
  • creativity 
  • civic participation 
  • service 

As educators in a program that is dedicated to working with the whole child, we know these qualities are important to academic success.

In the event that we discover results that do not match up with class performance, or yearly progress, that is when we as a team can investigate further. Perhaps we uncover concerns related to testing anxiety or the need for accommodation like time extension? The idea would be to identify these needs and set a plan moving forward, prior to assessments like the PSATs & SATs, which are more impactful tests later down the road. 

This ERB test is merely a snapshot of a student’s skills, abilities and knowledge.  Many variables can affect a student’s performance on a test. Test anxiety, fatigue and unfamiliarity with the test format can directly impact test results. The administration of the ERB to our Grades 3, 4 and 5 students was the first time that many, if not all of them, had ever taken a standardized test. Therefore, test results must be considered in conjunction with the myriad of authentic and performance assessments used by our teachers over the course of the year.  This is but one measure!

In closing, I look forward to using the independent school norm scaled score to determine our progress as a Lower School from year to year.  The data gleaned from this assessment can support all aspects of a full, strong academic program. We know that true scores are obtained by multiple measures, administered over time. And finally, results from a single assessment event must always be put into context!