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For the past five months, I have attended Ellensburg School Board meetings to remind our directors and community members about the unfortunate state of our education assessment system.

This issue is fundamentally important; educating students is our primary mission and, sadly, testing them has become our primary measure of that mission. It is a grievously flawed system, and the vast majority of those it touches, including teachers, administrators, parents and students, all seem to agree that it stinks, and yet we are on the brink of another school year facing not only the status quo, but also new, additional assessments.

Standardized testing in schools is by no means new; however, it has become more controversial over the last two decades as its uses and reach have broadened. While students in the 1980s may have taken the California Test of Basic Skills or perhaps the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for a single day, we now have, among others, the Smarter Balanced test, the state biology assessment and the Next Generation science test which is under development for 2017. High school students will be testing for eight to 10 days. Additionally, the “stakes” for these exams have risen, especially for high schoolers, since not meeting the standard today means no diploma.

Are standardized tests even a good indicator of student success after high school? As a matter of fact they are, just not the best indicator. Comprehensive studies done by credible institutions, such as Stanford University and UC Berkeley, have presented repeated evidence that the best indicator of post high school success is high school grade point average and rigorous curriculum. The new Common Core Standards address the issue of rigor, and sensible legislation, such as HB 2214, could begin to address the notion that we issue diplomas based on coursework and grades, not just test scores. We should be aware of and encourage such legislation.

Few would argue that we should stop testing altogether; teaching and assessment go hand in hand. What we do need to do is limit the number and scope of assessments given and eliminate tests administered for accountability purposes only, that do nothing to improve teaching or learning. Additionally, because the purpose of assessment is to measure what students know, the more specific the test results, the better for making adjustments to instruction and curriculum. Accountability should be more localized, organized, for example, by ESD or regional districts which can report to the state. Results from these tests should be used constructively, not punitively, aimed at program or school improvement, not teacher evaluation or funding restrictions. Finally, we need to provide our high school students with multiple paths to success in every subject, not a single high stakes test for each one.

Spend 30 minutes researching the business of standardized tests, and you will quickly conclude that it is exactly that, a business, and a big one. Hundreds of millions are spent each year, and hundreds of hours stolen from instructional time, all for what? To generate a test score that I guarantee comes as no surprise to any of our students’ teachers; they already know how their students are doing. We have to change the way we assess our students. Our current trend is an inexcusable expense of time, money, and personnel. Let’s take a position on this issue, as a district and as a community, and work toward an assessment system that offers educational value to our schools, improves teaching and learning, and that measures achievement in a fair and reasonable manner.

Cathie Day is the librarian at Ellensburg High School.

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