“How do you balance preparation for high stakes assessments with teaching and learning in your classroom?”
Guest blogger: Karyn McWhirter
As a teacher of Advanced Placement students and students preparing to be in Advance Placement classes, I may have a different relationship with high stakes testing than many other educators. Since a central goal for my AP students is that they acquire the tools to pass the AP test at the end of the year and get college credit, much of my classroom time is dedicated to preparing them to meet that goal. However, I would not invest my time or theirs completing practice essays and evaluating them if I did not think that those writing tasks and the ones they will encounter on the national exam were not authentic, valuable thinking and writing tasks. I never feel as though I am balancing preparation for the test with teaching and learning; they are one in the same. I am not teaching to the test; I am teaching analysis, argumentation, and communication, and the test asks students to demonstrate those things.
If teachers feel that they are wasting time preparing students for high stakes tests, then the assessments themselves are probably to blame. Authentic assessments engage students in critical thinking and communicating. They incorporate performance tasks and have relevance to what students learn in class and to the world. If an assessment is not a quality thinking/communicating task, then giving it to students is a waste of time. When teachers are forced to use class time teaching test material and formatting that is not educationally authentic to protect their jobs, the purpose of assessment has been lost.
The reality of education at all levels is that many high stakes tests matter to students and to professionals. How do students get accepted into undergraduate and graduate programs? SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT. How do professionals obtain licenses to practice? Professionals of all kinds (lawyers, medical professionals of all kinds, teachers, technicians, and engineers to name a few) take certification and licensure exams. If we do not prepare young students to face high stakes exams with confidence and skills, then we are doing them a disservice. Are we over-testing most students these days? Certainly; but by swinging the pendulum in the other direction and abandoning tests and test preparation in the classroom, we leave students unprepared for some challenges they will face.
Many educators feel enormous pressure surrounding the high stakes of some standardized assessments because the results affect teachers and schools but do not always affect students. Truthfully, all learning is high stakes. What our children learn in their K-12 classrooms and beyond shapes them and ensures their futures (and ours). We need to spend classroom time engaging students in learning and activities that prepare them for the multitude of experiences they will have academically, professionally, and personally. We need to spend our classroom time shaping students into productive, happy contributors to society and future world leaders. Our assessments need to match these needs and support our teaching. If they do, there will be no balancing act to speak of.
Karyn McWhirter has worked as an English teacher and yearbook sponsor at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, CO for fourteen years. She has taught all levels of students and courses from basic skills classes to Advanced Placement. She has served on traditional and online curriculum design teams, technology integration committees, and participated in, as well as taught, professional development related to inclusion and co-teaching of students with special needs. She was selected Liberty High School’s educator of the year in 2008-09. She holds a BA in English with a minor in Women’s Studies from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she also obtained her teacher education. She earned her MAT in Humanities from Colorado College.