Standardized testing at Grace Lutheran School
by Kendall Grigg, Ed.D., Principal
Spring, 2011

Every year, we receive questions from parents about standardized testing: how we do it, when we do it, why we start when we start. This is not surprising. Most of us have experience taking standardized tests. Some of us even remember our numbers on the ACT or SAT. Given the confusion and debate about standardized testing in the culture at large, and the reliance on such tests for high-stakes secondary school placement, it is important for parents to understand the role that standardized testing plays within the broader assessment system at Grace. 

As human beings, we are always assessing one another, all the time. We can’t help but compare, discern, appraise, judge—it’s the way our minds work, and it plays a critical role in developing the enduring understandings necessary to become truly educated. In school, most assessment is what we call “formative”—it consists of feedback to learners, often informal, that allows them to adjust their understanding or to refine their skill. Teachers and fellow students do this for each other constantly in the dynamic learning environment of the classroom.
More formal, but still “formative” assessments might include written responses, first drafts, self-assessments, drawings, discussions, project plans, or quizzes—small “performances of understanding” that allow a teacher to review concepts or adjust instruction on the way toward skill mastery or deeper, more disciplined understanding. With this additional feedback, students have the opportunity to revisit their work, to revise and clarify, to expand and sharpen a performance, whether it is rebuilding a block tower or completing the fourth draft of a research paper.

Periodically, at the culmination of a unit of study or the end of a trimester, we stop revising and take a more formal snapshot of student performance, what we call a “summative” assessment. These include unit tests, class presentations, culminating projects, works of art, papers, live performances, movies, podcasts, and the like, often created with the help of a rubric or checklist of items to be included. We bring our work to a stopping point and make a more formal evaluation of the understanding or skill we are demonstrating. In the younger grades, students might formally assess themselves with the aid of a checklist, the teacher might give written or oral feedback for each item on a rubric, or students might give each other appreciative feedback and ask questions about things that are not clear.  In addition to these types of “summative” assessments, older students also receive numerical scores.

Standardized testing is summative--a snapshot of a student’s performance on basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills under a particular set of controlled conditions on a particular day. It has a role to play within the broader, more finely-tuned and contextualized assessment system at Grace, but that role is limited. Make no mistake—we take standardized testing seriously, and recognize its importance in the current educational landscape. Our approach is pragmatic, balanced, and rooted in current research. 

Our primary reason for giving standardized tests is a pragmatic rather than an educational or philosophical one: standardized tests play an important role in the secondary school admissions process, particularly in the private schools. Furthermore, test-taking skills are life skills; students will encounter standardized tests in high school, in college, and in many of the professions they choose to pursue. Our educational program prepares students to feel comfortable taking these tests and to learn strategies for scoring well. A student who successfully engages with our curriculum is likely to perform very well on standardized tests.

In this strategic approach to test-taking, we help students to understand the test format and the types of questions and problems they will encounter. We time our classroom instruction and review so that relevant skills will be fresh and students will feel confident about how to approach the questions. We do not shape our curriculum to teach “to the test,” since we know that this approach would shortchange our young learners’ developing brains and limit their potential. Instead, we strike a balance and keep a kind of “double-vision”—one eye is focused on making sure that students acquire solid basic skills and can demonstrate that proficiency on standardized tests, while the other eye is on the more complex and comprehensive goals of educating students to be thoughtful, adaptable participants in a rapidly changing world.

Because our primary purpose is to introduce test-taking skills and strategies in a developmentally appropriate manner, students begin taking achievement tests in the second grade. Grace students take the TerraNova 3, a standardized test developed by CTB/McGraw Hill Publishing Company. The test is designed to assess student achievement in the core academic areas. It measures results relative to a nationwide normative group. The TerraNova 3 is not a proficiency test, such as public schools must administer by state law. Proficiency tests are those in which students have been taught all of the content and are tested on what they have mastered. Achievement tests include content students may not have been specifically taught, but they could be expected to have mastered according to their cognitive ability.

For this reason, the InView is administered in conjunction with the TerraNova 3 at Grace School. The InView is an assessment of cognitive abilities that includes verbal reasoning, sequences, analogies, and quantitative reasoning. The InView provides anticipated-achievement scores for individual students, allowing us determine whether students are achieving to their full potential. The data we receive from the combined battery of tests allows us to look for patterns of strength and weakness in the whole class, and to adjust the timing of our instruction as needed. It also helps us define and focus on individual needs more effectively.  The results are carefully reviewed by the faculty and are used a part of our ongoing effort to individualize instruction at Grace.
We take seriously our responsibility for preparing our students to do well on standardized tests, but we also keep them in perspective. Standardized tests do not keep pace with the innovative, dynamic curriculum that good schools develop and continue to evolve. They are not flexible enough to measure student learning in ways that are good for learners and or that demonstrate authentic understanding. In the words of respected Harvard educator Howard Gardner, “Here, in brief, is why most standardized measures of learning are of little use; they do not reveal whether the student can actually make use of the classroom materials—the subject matter—once she steps outside the (classroom) door.” Formative assessments, self-assessments, and authentic assessments designed by teachers to actually measure what they hope to have taught—these are the measures in common use at Grace and by thoughtful educators everywhere. (March 2011)