Are We Teaching To The Test?

(By Dr. Robert Grosz, Assistant Superintendent, Teaching & Learning)

On a recent Thursday night, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary film, Race to Nowhere, at the historic Fargo Theater.  According to the documentary’s web site, director Vicki Abeles turns the personal political, igniting a national conversation in her new documentary about the pressures faced by American schoolchildren and their teachers in a system and culture obsessed with the illusion of achievement, competition and the pressure to perform. … Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

During the film, teachers, not from North Dakota or even from the Midwest, described their frustration about the need to teach to the test.  These staff members teach in states where students need to pass a high stakes assessment before they are allowed to graduate.  The pressure of these high stakes assessments forced the teachers in the film to feel the pressure of teaching to the test.

I have heard stories of entire districts across the country stopping the typical instructional cycle weeks before the state assessment and having their students go through test prep activities.  When I “Googled” state assessment prep, I was presented with page after page of test preparation software and test preparation guides that have been designed for districts and states to prepare students for their high stakes assessments.  I am glad these are not our practices.

North Dakota
North Dakota does not have a high stakes assessment that is tied to a student’s opportunity to graduate.  We do have the North Dakota State Assessment (NDSA), but it is not high stakes for the students.  The data from the NDSA is used for school improvement activities and to identify schools for program improvement under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Even with the absence of a ND high stakes assessment for students, the film made me pause to think about the question, do Fargo Public Schools teachers feel they are required to teach to the test?  My hope is no, but I wondered.

Fargo Public Schools
Over the course of the past few years, teachers in multiple settings in varying sized groups have defined or modified the Fargo Public Schools’ Power Learning Targets.  (What all students should know and/or be able to do before leaving a course or grade.)  These targets are what our instruction is/should be focused on.  It is the philosophy of the Fargo Public Schools that staff teach to these targets, not to a test.

The assessments that are conducted in the classrooms, which may include one-on-one conversations with students, performance based assessment tasks, classroom quizzes, common formative/summative assessment, and other forms of assessment, are what we use to determine if students are making progress toward the Power Learning Targets.  The assessments (“the test”) are not the foundation for what we teach, nor are they the targets of our instruction.  They are one of the tools we use to help all students successfully master the district’s Power Learning Targets.  They become the compass we use to make sure our students are on the road to success.