Why a great teacher fears standardized tests and how to make it better.

Sarah Hagan is a great teacher. But she fears standardized tests:
Will I be freaking out Monday morning? Yeah. Do you want to know why? I'm going to be in a room with my Algebra 1 students who are being forced to take a standardized test. A test that will tell my school district how well I did my job. A test that will label my students as smart or dumb. A test that will make me feel like a success or a failure. A test that will determine whether my students will be able to graduate with their high school diploma. A test that my kids will be stressing about because I've spent the entire year reminding them what a big deal it is. A test that many of my students are already convinced they are going to fail because they've never passed their standardized math tests before. (source)
This quote shook me. Sarah is a dedicated teacher. When she gets evaluated, the results should reflect her great performance. Her students are learning. When they get evaluated, their results should reflect their improvement. These things aren't happening. And the blame lies squarely on the evaluation.
Sarah points out several problems with the test, none of them focused on its content, all of them focused on how it makes her and her students feel. I want to hone in on one of these, the students who are made to "feel dumb".
The problem is in the report:
The report focuses on student performance compared to their peers. Say a freshman starts algebra 3 years behind their peers and they finish algebra 1 year behind their peers. By any realistic measure, they have made an amazing gain. But when they see their progress report, they won't see "Amazing Gain!", instead they will see "Below average". Again.
Imagine how frustrating this is for a student that is behind. When they work hard, they remain behind. What's the point of working hard? Imagine how deceitful this is to an advanced student. When they slack for a year they are remain advanced. Why not slack?
These reports emphasize the wrong outcome. Fortunately, there is a simple remedy. Rather than comparing a student to other students, compare them to their past. Show them how much better they are than last year. The reports should say something like "This year, Genevieve correctly solved 5 types of problems that she could not solve last year". By this measure most students will improve every year because most students learn every year. Instead of feeling dumb as ever, students will feel smarter than ever. This is better, not just because it is more compassionate, but also because it is true.

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