I Teach a Non-Tested Grade…But I Want to Talk About Testing, Too

By Guestblogger Catherine Tighe

As we clean up the classroom for the end of the year, my kindergarten students’ reflections and conversations about their accomplishments indicate how much they have learned this year.  One student observes how her classmates’ handmade names, created in the beginning of the year for our display board, were big, wiggly, and uppercase; now they write their names with precision and expertise and with appropriate upper and lowercase letters.  Another asks if next year’s kindergarteners will learn all of the letters and sounds so they, too, will be able to write and publish stories.  A few students enthusiastically stack and organize the books in our “favorite stories” library.  They share quick references to characters and storylines that have instilled in them a love of literature and reading.   They are filled with pride and excitement, thinking about all they have learned and the joy that they experienced throughout the year.

I can see their progress clearly, but finding precise ways to capture that progress is a huge challenge for educators like me, who teach the grades and subjects that are inherently harder to measure. Even though my kindergartners don’t take traditional tests, I still use established assessments to measure their progress regularly, inform my instruction and help me identify gaps in their learning. Figuring out the right assessments for that purpose is critical, both for my students’ learning and ultimately for how my effectiveness as a teacher is evaluated. That’s why I am honored to be part of the conversation that is happening at the state and national level about how we, as educators, should measure progress of our students in non-tested grades and subjects.  Next month, I will be attending two events aimed at bringing teachers’ voices to the discussion about assessment tools.

First, I’ll join a group of other Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows for a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his senior team to discuss this issue and share teacher feedback from Assessment Advisor, an teacher-created online ratings tool that allows teachers to review the assessments they use in their classrooms. The teachers behind Assessment Advisor have created a database for feedback about assessments already in place, including the amount of time used to administer and the quality of the information that is generated. That data—which comes directly from more than 1,000 reviews written by teachers in almost all 50 states—is incredibly valuable as states, districts and school leaders make decisions about how to measure student learning across all grades and subjects, and how to make sure all our students are getting the skills they need to succeed.

Then I will come home to Boston to participate in the District Determined Measures Anchor Standards Development Panel for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  For that panel, I’ll join other kindergarten teachers to give feedback to my state education leaders about appropriate and effective ELA/literacy assessments for kindergarten.  The district-determined measures will play an integral role in the newly implemented teacher evaluation system.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to voice my opinion, experiences, and knowledge to help shape the way we document and showcase developmentally appropriate growth, and to identify measures that will ultimately contribute to a fair picture of my effectiveness as a teacher.

I am extremely hopeful that the two events will elicit specific indicators we can use to measure progress in kindergarten.  This is by no means an effort to implement testing for the young.  Rather, it is a way to gather teachers’ input on how educators can start using more precise, reliable, and effective measurements to capture and celebrate the learning and growth that happens in non-tested grades and subjects. Just because our subjects aren’t measured easily by traditional tests, that doesn’t mean that we don’t need and want data on our students’ progress to help us improve our practice, target interventions, and celebrate our students’ achievements.


Catherine Tighe teaches kindergarten in the Somerville Public Schools in Somerville, MA. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.


8 Replies to “I Teach a Non-Tested Grade…But I Want to Talk About Testing, Too”

  1. Ms. Tighe,

    Excuse me, I know this is outside your field but I must ask whether you have ever discussed high stakes testing withh inner city high school kids. I ask bout the inner city because that is what I know and, more importantly, that is where teach-to-the-test has been most destructive.

    I’m not saying every single inner city student volunteers horror stories about testing, but the big, big majority have. I’ve never heard a high school student say a good thing about high stakes testing. I always require at least two sides to be presented in every discussion, so I always had to present the pro-testing side.

    And, the students never bought it. They kept repeating a range of complaints. Of course, the kids who came from the poorest elementary schools always protested the most about their education being robbed from them.

    I have no doubt that teachers of younger students can distract kids with games, contests, songs, pep assemblies etc. Once a child reaches a certain level of maturity, however, they can’t be misled, however.

    I would ask you to ask Duncan et. al to do more than ask high school kids about the damage and humiliation of high-stakes testing. I’d ask you to watch teens as they take them. Kids can’t hide the way they recoil from the indignity. They know that some adults, fighting other adults, are “rubbing their noses in it.”

    I would also ask you to pass this on. I don’t believe in silver bullets or litmus tests. If someone wants to send his or her children to a school that embraces high-stakes testing, its a free country.

    But, shouldn’t we agree that it is unethical to impose it on persons without their consent? Ask your other participants to see how all of the other issues that divide us would shrink in importance if we agreed to the rule of thou shall not impose stakes on others’ tests.

    Stop imposing stakes of the tests of others and we could agree to disagree on every other issue, and then put those disagreements aside and join in improving schools. Diagnostic assessments would become more accurate and thus more valuable.

    In fact, how can a person who believes in the value of data also support the attaching of stakes to that data? Educationally, it doesn’t make sense. High stakes testing is not a tool, but a weapon. Please help us protect students who are collateral damage from that weapon.

  2. John Thompson,
    “In fact, how can a person who believes in the value of data also support the attaching of stakes to that data?”

    I hope this is an attempt at parody?

  3. I agree with Catherine’s points. To borrow a phrase from the Data Quality Campaign (DQC). Data is a flashlight; not a hammer.

    Catherine’s description of data use is to illuminate and guide while the comments have referred to assessment procedures that have been evaluative and summative in nature.

    Part of the problem lies in the absence of a common assessment vocabulary.

  4. So what, Catherine? You somehow got to be a privileged voice among many. Without context for your real agenda and the people you work for, what you do and why is not informative.

  5. Catherine, you convey a very clear message. You, as a kindergarten teacher, know exactly how and what each of your students is learning, Because it’s important that as a profession we learn how to measure that learning using common assessments. you are involved in policy-making in different ways, informing the conversation at both a state and a federal level. It’s important that you’ve shared that these policies are being shaped by current, talented teachers in the classroom; so often these reforms are portrayed as being “done” to teachers when, in fact, in many instances teachers are at the table making the policy decisions. Thank you.

  6. First, I should acknowledge that I know Catherine enough to know that she knows her stuff when it comes to teaching and learning. I am happy that her voice is in the room for these important conversations.

    There seems to be a disconnect here, though. The previous commenter’s second and third sentences imply a relationship between, on the one hand, a teacher’s authentic knowledge of her students’ learning, and on the other hand, the need for common assessments to measure that learning. That relationship is not clear to me absent the external factor of teacher evaluation policy.

    As you might have guessed by now, I am not a fan of those policies. Catherine describes the practice of professional teaching when she works through a variety of assessments in the classroom, in real time, over time, to get as close as possible to understanding her students’ learning. The DDM policy is quite the opposite. It is the height of poorly-conceived, convenience-driven education reform. The purpose of assessment is to inform teaching and learning. The purpose of the District Determined Measures is to generate data to evaluate teachers. It requires that assessments be given to wide swaths of students without regard to their individual learning needs, the opposite of good teaching practice. In fact, the DESE page, where this assessment policy is filed under Educator Evaluation rather than some section about teaching and learning (http://www.doe.mass.edu/edeval/ddm/), acknowledges as much. The description there begins with evaluating teachers and ends, hopefully, with some benefit to student learning.

    You are correct that teacher voice is involved in shaping this policy, but it is at this point a matter of making the best of a bad situation. I’m glad we have capable professionals like Catherine there to find what good we can in this.

  7. This was an interesting article/post by Catherine Thighe, kindergarten teacher. I am new to this “blog” thing and so I will just give my opinion on evaluation of children in grade K. Of course, evaluation is necessary for both purposes of making sure that the child is prepared for first grade and for making sure that the teacher is effective. The “how to” is certainly the hard part…children at age 5 or 6 can be so different. Some are reading already and others do not really know all the letters yet. With such a wide range, how can a teacher evaluate a full class of super energetic, easily distracted kids? I think Ms Thighe got a glimpse of the answer. At the end of the year, look at individual growth. There should be some in every child.I do not feel that a set standard for children of that age is realistic.

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