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New Student Assessments Are Tests Worth Taking ~ Joanna Eagan-Murray

California has more students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade than 20 other states in the nation. That is a staggering number of students – more than 3 million – and families who are counting on us to provide the highest quality education possible. That’s why California was among the more than 40 states that voluntarily adopted the Common Core academic standards a few years ago. The promise of higher quality and more rigorous benchmarks to ensure students learn what is needed for success after graduating high school is being realized, despite what critics would have people believe.

But the results from the new assessment that schools are using to measure students’ learning progress will surely give new fuel to critics because scores have dropped. Despite this drop, though, I am confident that we will see an uptick in academic achievement. Why? Because I’ve spent more than 15 years in the classroom teaching a variety of subjects to middle schoolers, and I know the great potential of our students.

The new Smarter Balanced assessments marks the first time that a standardized test is directly aligned with our state’s academic standards so that we know we are testing students on what they are learning instead of assessing what they have not learned. That is a crucial difference, but it also a major transition to which students and educators need to acclimate. This year’s test will serve as a baseline to establish a means for us to compare future years’ scores to give parents and educators a more accurate picture of where students are doing well and where they need extra support.

What will be the most frustrating aspect of the new assessments for parents is likely to be the score reports – and this makes sense: new assessments require new methods of reporting. I fully expect there to be a lot of confusion over the meaning of proficiency, which is what the tests will be measuring. For a student to be proficient in a subject such as math or English Language Arts, it means that he or she have proven capable of doing at-grade-level work. For middle school students, that means performing tasks such as critical analysis of written passages and explaining the meaning within the context of real-world events. It is no longer enough for students to discuss how a novel or article makes them feel; they are now being asked what it means, which is the kind of analysis the college professors and employers will expect.

In addition to the content differences of the Smarter Balanced assessment, the format of the test is new. Instead of endless fill-in-the-bubble exams in which a good guess is scored with the same weight as a right answer, students will now write short- and long-form essays and show their work for how they solved problems. These are not tests on which rote memorization wins the day, but rather tests on which students show that they have truly learned and understood the materials taught in the classroom. These tests are also being given on computers, which better reflects how this generation of students learn. From as young as 2 years old, children are showing an amazing facility with smartphones and tablets; this is not a generation to whom paper and pencil is a natural refuge so why would we encourage aptitude with electronic devices only to test them on paper? This makes no sense, and actually does students a disservice.

The other disservice that we should avoid would be to compare this year’s scores to last year’s. The major difference between the two assessments make such a comparison inherently unfair, although I expect that opponents of the Common Core will seize on this to make their point. They are wrong to do so, and they are grasping at straws.

I know that California is on the right track to prepare our students for success in life. The Smarter Balanced assessment is just one measure of academic progress, and while it is an important one, it is one in which time is needed to work out all the kinks. Still, this is a test worth taking.

Change is hard, and there are always the inevitable naysayers who stand in the way of progress. But I know that my 300,000 educator-colleagues share my dedication to preparing students to achieve their full academic potential, which will set them on the path to prosperity and success in everything they do.

Joanna Eagan-Murray has been a teacher for sixteen years and currently teaches middle school grades 6-8 in Vista, California.