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Editor's note: The following is a condensed version of the testimony Calvary Elementary School teacher Tammy Parman gave in front of the Kentucky Senate earlier this month.
Teachers know that what gets tested in school is what gets taught. Performance events and math portfolios are examples of this: they are gone. Writing portfolios were reduced from seven to four pieces, and now to three. These reductions made the teacher's job easier, but were they really best for the students?
While some teachers rejoiced in these changes, and I will admit that all of that together was overwhelming, there was value in each. As a teacher, I am in favor of the writing that is included in our current assessment, CATS. Writing takes children from a "knowledge" level to an "application/synthesis" level of understanding. In 1988, when I started teaching in the pre-KERA era, I spent most of my time requiring students to "recall facts." I still feel there is value in that, but if never challenged to show what is known using those facts, what good are they?
Recently my principal, Pam Marks, toured many Chinese schools. She found that teachers there were envious of the creative thinking nurtured in American children. In this global society, isn't it nice to know that our greatest competition for the future workforce is "envious" of the creativity of our children? Employers demand workers be capable of higher-level thinking and our assessment encourages just that by allowing children to combine the facts and strategies they have learned and then show what they know by means of writing. The proposed Senate Bill 1, which calls for norm referenced testing, doesn't allow for the strategic or extended thinking that teachers in my school feel is crucial. Sometimes this type of testing comes down to making a good guess about the answer, but when writing the answer children tell me "they can be more creative, they can remember the information better, they think harder, they can show the teacher what they really know using their own words and terms, and there are many different ways to state the answer correctly in open ended writing."
Do we want good thinkers or good guessers leading our community, state, and country?
Through CATS, well-rounded citizens are molded and their total needs are met by exposure to cultural experiences in the arts. My colleagues and I ask that arts and humanities remain part of the assessment. Students at Calvary are given multiple experiences in the arts through performances, even traveling around the county performing numerous times. What better way to teach the core content than through rehearsals, and what better way to assess student knowledge than through a production with follow-up writing activities. Ten years ago this was not happening in my school. In 1999, Calvary's academic index in arts and humanities was 33.
Today it is nearly 111. Even with that tremendous growth we're not even in the top 20 schools in the state, which shows Kentucky's students are receiving many wonderful arts opportunities.
Some argue that CATS consumes too much instructional time preparing students for "the test" and administering it.
I beg to differ.
The instruction that takes place in my classroom and my school is continuously assessed through classroom discussions, formal end of unit assessments, interactive SMARTBoard assessments, computerized assessments, or casual conversations correcting grammar or clarifying a misconception about content. Instruction and assessment go hand in hand. They are not two separate entities. One cannot occur without the other. If teachers wait until six weeks prior to CATS (or any other type of assessment) to prepare them, our students will never reach proficiency - the goal for 2014.
Our current system holds everyone accountable. Early in my career teachers took a few days at the end of the year to administer the norm-referenced test. At the beginning of the next school year we scanned the results, but was anything done with those results beyond that? Did instructional practices change? No.
Now, as soon as the results come in, we meet to analyze our CATS scores, examine specific content areas, then devise a plan for improvement. Even with an academic index of 111, we at Calvary Elementary find numerous ways to improve our instructional practices. Our principal holds us accountable to see those practices through. As a district, teachers work each summer to refine the curriculum, plan instruction, and improve assessment. SB1 would remove teachers from this after years of commitment to the task.
I have confidence in the writing included in CATS testing. Three of my own children have gone through the reform, and I wouldn't advocate for this if I didn't firmly believe it was beneficial to students. I won't settle for "half above average" and "half below average" as norm referenced tests would label students. I want much more for them! I want to know that my child goes to his school, and others come into my school, challenged by teachers and expected to perform at the proficient level or beyond.
Help me and all of my colleagues shape the lives of the youth of this Commonwealth and equip them with the academic tools they need to become the leaders of tomorrow. I ask this for the children of Marion County and this great state.