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Drawbacks of using PSAT as Michigan’s 8th Grade Assessment

Change is the only constant. In the realm of education this seems particularly true. Having taught for over 20 years, I have seen initiatives come and go. When Michigan adopted the Common Core State Standards, I was hopeful that we could stop the age-old debate of the ‘what’ and really focus on the ‘how’: both how we instruct content and how we measure student learning of that content. When high standards are coupled with high-quality assessments that are aligned to those standards, educators are not only able to get a better understanding of how well students are achieving the standards, but also how effective their instructional strategies are in the classroom. Aligned assessments provide data that can be used to identify where instruction needs to be adjusted and where students need more support, leading to gains in student achievement and understanding.

This month in Michigan, for the first time, eighth grade students will be taking the PSAT 8/9 as their state assessment in ELA and math. The PSAT 8/9 like the PSAT and SAT, has three areas: reading, writing, and math. Instead of aligning to a specific set of standards, it establishes a starting point for college and career readiness and helps students prepare for and know what to expect on the SAT. This isn’t the first change in our state assessment, and it probably won’t be the last. And despite the preparation PSAT 8/9 provides for the SAT (which all 11th grade students in the state are required to take), the PSAT 8/9 is not aligned to our standards.

On one hand, using the PSAT 8/9 makes perfect sense since it is a high-quality assessment and measures foundational skills all students need. But for assessments to be useful for me and my fellow educators, it is imperative that they are aligned to the state standards. Student results from the PSAT 8/9 are reported very quickly and the item analysis and disaggregation of data is extremely thorough, which all data lovers can appreciate. The test also has a strong focus on the ‘Heart of Algebra’, which is a foundational piece of our eighth-grade math standards. But there is also a portion of the standards that are not assessed on the test: geometry and probability/statistics, which like algebra skills, are crucial for students to learn and apply. The content on the PSAT 8/9 only aligns to about 60% of the content in the eighth-grade standards, which means educators have no objective measure that shows how well their students are learning or how well they are teaching to those standards.

Michigan teachers have worked hard over the last few years to design curricula to align with the state standards. They have used data and targeted analysis reports from the state assessment, M-STEP, to make instructional decisions in their classrooms. The absence of aligned data for eighth grade teachers, now that students will be taking the PSAT instead, will be a huge detriment to my colleagues and instructional leaders across the state.

Just as students in grades three through eight are assessed, eighth grade students in Michigan need an assessment that measures how well they have mastered the content in the standards, which will also show how prepared they are for the content in high school. Whether this is through aligned unit assessments, or another standardized test, teachers need assessment data on the full range of standards. This information is critical not only for instruction, but also for school improvement efforts. The PSAT 8/9 is not going to change its content any time soon, so it is up to Michigan educators and leaders to find another way to ensure educators have the assessment data they need to improve their instruction.

Teachers are working as hard as ever to do what is best for their students. We need to have access to meaningful aligned assessment data to make the most informed decisions possible.

As we transition to the PSAT 8/9, let’s be mindful of the gaps in alignment and work to address them. Without the data on the ‘what’ that was supposed to be taught, it is difficult to develop courses of action that focus on the ‘how.’

Jane Porath is an 8th grade mathematics teacher at Traverse City East Middle School. Throughout her career she has been active in the mathematics educational community in various ways. She has served on the Board of Directors for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She has been involved in the development and writing of a nationally recognized curriculum and has provided professional development for other teachers across the nation. Most recently, she was selected to serve on the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council. Through these roles, and many others, Jane has worked to improve the educational system that impacts all of our children.