The Edmond Sun

April 22, 2013

Teaching to the test

By Janet Barresi
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — As I meet with teachers from across the state, I hear a common theme. I talk with working groups of teachers here at the state department. I’ve had the opportunity to visit with past and present teachers of the year. I also have roundtable discussions with teachers at the school districts I visit on my Raise the Grade Together tours. I listen to superintendents in my leadership advisory group. These educators tell me they are frustrated with “teaching to the test.” Parents and community members often mirror these sentiments. I agree!

The time has come to have a serious discussion about this. I want teachers to know I am committed to working with them and the rest of the education community. This summer and in the fall, together with these groups, we will conduct an audit of all the different assessments given across the state, including federal, state and district level assessments.

I am proposing this study to help identify the best assessments that will provide feedback regarding instructional strategies so teachers can better meet the needs of their students. As we move to new assessments in the next few years, educators will use some familiar tools, including data, technology and texts. They also will use new instructional strategies that are a critical component of all our new Oklahoma C3 Standards. These include strategies to promote critical thinking and problem solving as well as practical application of securely held foundational knowledge. Working together, we can identify areas of duplication and unproductive assessments. Perhaps, we may even find places where we can save money and put dollars back into the classroom.

Through my advocacy and policy work during the past 17 years, and now serving as your state superintendent, there is one thing I know for sure. Our current state tests are by and large memory tests. Every educator knows that tests that rely more on rote memory of facts yield very little in retained knowledge. Our current OCCT tests are aligned to the Oklahoma PASS standards. The state is currently transitioning to the new Oklahoma C3 Standards through the rewrite, revision or replacement process.

The PASS Standards are a “mile wide and an inch deep.” The new Oklahoma C3 Standards are characterized as “narrower, deeper, higher.” They are narrower in focus to allow teachers to develop foundational knowledge in their students. They are deeper so teachers are able to spend more time on content to assure mastery of subject matter and higher because they focus on developing critical thinking skills that are a must for success in the 21st century. In other words, we are teaching children to master information that is critical to their success and also teaching them how to think.  

A close comparison of the two sets of standards explains why. With the old PASS Standards, teachers tend to be boxed into a system of teaching that reduces itself to drill work of students. That helps no one. It is not engaging to students, does not lend itself to mastery of subject matter and does not allow the teachers to develop thinking skills in their students. In other words, the old system makes the teacher work to “get the kids through the test.” Very little information is provided to the teacher and all that is really known is whether or not the student passed and did they improve?

Teachers need more detailed information about what a student should know and be able to do. A math teacher needs to know more than whether or not the student got the right or wrong answer on a test item. That educator needs actionable information on whether or not the student set up the formulae correctly to answer the question. They need to know if they arrived at the correct answer, and if the variables in the problem are changed, how well does the student understand the principle being taught in order to adjust the formulae to arrive at a correct answer for the new variables. The assessment yields better information more precisely targeted to what is being taught and will yield information that is actionable. In other words, instead of the teacher working for the test, the test must work for the teacher. The new academic assessments being developed for social studies, science, for English language arts and mathematics are academic tools for teachers because they evaluate students’ knowledge base across all domains of knowledge.

These should provide teachers with critical information about the strengths and weaknesses of each of their students. They will help teachers know how to adjust instruction. The information derived from them will provide the entire education team including principals and superintendents the valuable information they need to work together as a team to provide the most optimal opportunities for each child. Our state’s new academic assessments are being designed to do just that. If you think about it, we are promoting effective teaching practices, assuring mastery of subject matter, developing cognitive skills and are developing an academic assessment for students that measures all of those skills and informs future practice by educators.

We have engaged teachers and principals in a comprehensive effort of professional development to prepare educators for the new system. Our goal is to create an environment of continuous learning spurred on by innovations in instructional strategies that are student centered, research based and data driven.

My next column will be about how we’re communicating with educators and the public and the training we’re providing to support educators throughout the state.



JANET BARRESI is state superintendent of public instruction for Oklahoma. She may be contacted via her website at www.ok.gov/sde/.