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What makes a good test?

New York Teacher
World Journalism Preparatory School
Erica Berger

Starr Sackstein, who teaches English and journalism at the World Journalism Preparatory School in Queens, says she prefers comprehensive project-based assignments to multiple-choice exams. "On a test, nine kids could get the same grade, but no nine kids are exactly the same," she says. "My students show me they can research, cite, analyze and write in a comprehensive and thoughtful way."

Are teachers afraid of tests? On the contrary, most teachers recognize that tests can be powerful tools. But not all assessments are created equal.

The high-stakes standardized tests designed by Pearson bear little resemblance to assessments that, when designed and used by teachers themselves, allow teachers to refine their instruction and evaluate student progress.

“Achievement isn’t about getting a grade. It’s about learning a skill and being able to apply it in different settings,” says Starr Sackstein, an AP English teacher at World Journalism Preparatory School in Auburndale, Queens. “For different areas, mastery looks different and for every kid it looks different.”

Like standardized tests, teacher-developed assessments are grounded in standards. “As a team, we come together and ask: What does this standard ask students to do? What skills do they need to master it? Then we write questions tailored to each standard,” says Dawn Rosevear, a 3rd-grade teacher at PS 11 in Chelsea.

But unlike standardized tests, which come too late in the school year to be of any value in guiding instruction, the results of classroom assessments can help teachers make critical adjustments to their teaching.

“After I give a pre-assessment in math, I make a spreadsheet to show what students have mastered or haven’t mastered a particular standard,” says Rosevear. “I use that data to form groups for small-group instruction or to hold individual conferences.”

The results of these assessments also give students a window into their own learning objectives. In Emmanuela Remy’s 6th- and 8th-grade English classes at Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, for example, students use rubrics to assess each other’s writing, create action plans for improvement using Depth of Knowledge vocabulary and hold peer conferences based on the results.

“They look at each other’s results and troubleshoot with each other,” says Remy, a model teacher at her school. “Their reflections are deeper than when I just grade it myself — it’s not just, ‘I got this wrong because Ms. Remy said it’s wrong.’ Why is it wrong? They explain it to each other.”

In Sackstein’s classroom, frequent self-assessments allow students to tailor their own goals.

“Based on the standards, they talk to me about where they are and their level of mastery,” Sackstein says. “Then I look to help the kids achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves in their standards-based reflections.”

Because pre- and post-assessments are often identical, teachers can compare students’ work before and after a unit, allowing their progress to be clearly tracked. A 3rd-grader who doesn’t give any examples to support her ideas in a written pre-assessment, for example, might ably use text evidence in a post-assessment.

“I can pull out a piece of writing and say, ‘Here’s what they did before and here’s what they did after,’” says Rosevear. “It can really speak to the changes that are made.”

Developing their own assessments also allows teachers to address a variety of learning styles. Sackstein’s students choose from a variety of different projects — from designing a comic strip to producing a movie — to demonstrate their skills.

“We have all these different ways to give students access to learning and to differentiate instruction, but the state test doesn’t differentiate,” says Rebecca Schropfer, a master teacher at PS 811 in the Bronx who teaches high school students with profound special needs. “We can really individualize these assessments so that the assessment might look different, but it’s still being judged on the same standard.”

Lastly, the work they put into developing these assessments allows teachers to stay focused on what really matters.

“My goal is to prepare them for college,” says Sackstein. “Not to prepare them for the exam.”

Read the column "Standardized tests have a purpose — just one."