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“Why Do I Have to Take this Test?”

Every spring for fourteen years, I have spent time explaining to students that they will be taking the state test. Thanks to online testing, I no longer have to worry about students accidentally ripping pages out of their test booklets as they use their pencils to break the seal of each separate section of the test, but I do still have to answer the same student questions year after year: “Is this for a grade? Why do we have to take these tests? What will happen if I don’t do well?” At this point in my career I am ready for the questions and know my students will ask them as soon as I tell them the dates when they will take the state test.  When I explain to them that the assessments are not a class grade, but they should still try, they look perplexed because they do not understand why they should participate in something that has seemingly no direct impact on them. They don’t realize that state tests can be valuable for teachers. indeed, state assessments have the ability to be extremely valuable tools if they provide teachers with actionable feedback.

Five years ago, Illinois adopted a new set of science standards. To ensure students were making progress toward meeting those standards the state also adopted a new aligned assessment-the Illinois Science Assessment or ISA. Unfortunately, at this point in time the assessment only provides information as to whether students reached the passing score on the assessment. Pass/fail feedback is not actionable for teachers. I know that 82% of my students passed last year’s ISA and that 18% did not. I do not know if there were specific standards or concepts with which my students struggled, nor do I know where they performed well. Students are tested over a large set of three-dimensional standards (content, scientific practices, and crosscutting concepts) designed to cover three years of middle level science instruction, so without more specific information, it is difficult for the ISA results to inform future instruction.

In contrast, the English language arts and math test does provide detailed reports on how students performed in different categories in each subject. This allows teachers to examine areas of strength and weakness within their content area, so they are able to examine their curriculum to identify areas where adjustments to provide additional supports when needed. Because math and reading skills are both integral skills in science, I am able to use this feedback to create science lessons that meet students where they are academically and help move them to the next level. But it would be even more helpful to me if I had this same type of data from the science assessment.

The Illinois State Board of Education is in the process of reviewing the ISA and the reports that communicate their results. A reporting system that provides information regarding student performance in categories that go deeper than pass/fail is necessary to ensure that parents, students and teachers find value in the tests. I hope the State Board decides on more detailed ISA reports so that in the future, when my students ask why they have to take the test, I can say with fidelity that the test helps students and teachers measure progress against the standards and empowers teachers and schools to make curricular decisions based on student performance, driving continuous improvement.

Jennifer Smith is a National Board-Certified Teacher in her fourteenth year of teaching. She currently teaches 8th grade science at Monticello Middle School where she is also the science club sponsor and makerspace supervisor. Jennifer was an Illinois Teacher of the Year finalist in 2014-15 as well as the STEM Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2016. She is a regional director for the Illinois Science Teacher Association and is a member of the National Science Teachers Association. In addition to teaching, Jennifer spends time on developing science curriculum and providing professional development at state and local workshops.