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Checking the Turbines: The Role of Assessments in Students’ Growth

I was born and raised in central Illinois, where I have been a high school math and science teacher for almost 24 years. One constant of living in this part of the Midwest is that there’s a lot of wind. Recently, a wind farm was built near my town of Decatur, IL to take advantage of this natural resource. The farm didn’t go up overnight – it took years of construction, community conversations, and verification that the wind turbines were operating effectively.

In many ways, the wind farm is a metaphor for my work and how we gauge students’ progress. Our highest goal as teachers is to ensure students master the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in school and beyond as productive citizens. This goal is what our academic standards build towards, and regular, high-quality assessments are an important part of how teachers help students grow. Done well, they are invaluable for identifying where students are succeeding and struggling. Discussions of scrapping annual testing ignore how teachers use these assessments to guide our teaching address gaps in students’ learning. In my school, receiving detailed results of how students perform has helped us see which academic standards they struggled with, thereby allowing us to tailor our teaching and tools to their exact needs.

Of course, the current system isn’t perfect and can always be improved. Personally, I’ve struggled with the amount of time testing takes out of students’ days. Assessments should always be high-quality and aligned with rigorous academic standards. It’s also important that these evaluations not occur too infrequently (e.g. every two or three years) or only test small samples of students. This can hamper schools’ ability to address each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses, prevent teachers from making real-time changes to curricula, and deprive parents of valuable comparable information about their child’s performance. But we should focus on improving assessments when needed, not throwing them away.

Students and parents benefit when educators can build off test results in more tailored ways. Students are motivated to learn because we craft material that engages them where they are, not ahead or behind of what they comprehend. As a mom of three, I appreciate that regular assessments help prepare my children for exams they’ll have to take later in life, whether applying to jobs, college, the military, or for scholarships.

High-quality tests also help educators measure a child’s progress toward meeting the academic standards for their grade level – not just at their school but compared to students across their state and country. Assessments help teachers and schools track students’ performance year over year and make sure that we’re not leaving any student behind, no matter their zip code or learning style. For these reasons, high-quality assessments receive strong support from civil rights groups, parents, and more than two-thirds of the general American public.

As a teacher, I’ve worked with many students over the years who entered my classroom at different levels of math and science comprehension. I value any information I can get about their performance because it helps me craft materials and lessons to best meet their needs. High-quality, regular assessments are an important part of students’ growth and success. As educators, parents, policymakers, and stakeholders work to improve our education system, let’s not cast aside tools that help us reach our most important goal: helping every student succeed.

Rebecca Wattleworth is a high school math and science teacher in Warrensburg, IL.