Learning Matters: Counting the steps, enjoying the view

I recently finished a pedometer walking challenge organized by my local Curves. For four weeks I counted my steps every day with the aim of reaching at least 5,000, preferably 10,000, steps or more. The challenge was both motivating and fun. Now I make a point of walking more, still checking the pedometer for my progress, and I'm enjoying the company of the new walking buddies I gained along the way.

Ideally, public education's standardized tests would operate the same way, providing a challenge to motivate students, teachers and administrators alike. I wish I had been engaged in the pedometer challenge when I was asked recently about standardized testing in public schools. I think it would have improved my answers.

Overall, I think the testing of the last 15-plus years of California's accountability era has been beneficial. Though standardized tests have existed for decades, testing increased in significance as technology improved and as educators recognized the imperative of aligning what they test with what they teach.

With better metrics for analyzing data, teachers can now more closely tailor instruction to their students. However irrational the federal No Child Left Behind's expectation that all students will be grade-level proficient by 2014, my experience tells me that college and career prospects for English-language learners and socio-economically disadvantaged students have improved.

Locally, more students are taking Advanced Placement classes. More English-language learners and students with learning disabilities are being honored for their academic achievements. A greater diversity of students is attending college in higher numbers. If there were pedometers for achievement, more students would be meeting the "reasonably active" mark of 5,000 steps and a wider spectrum of students would be getting to the "good workout" range of 10,000.

Accountability and testing have brought about another good development: a more collaborative community of educators. Successful administrators must be instructional leaders, while successful teachers are those who both share and embrace colleagues' teaching methods.

While some teachers long for the degree of instructional autonomy they enjoyed in years past, many have come to appreciate the shared work of finding more successful strategies for instruction.

"I was nervous at first," a teacher told me a few years ago, describing her first experiences with other teachers touring her classroom and examining her lessons. "But then I realized it's not about me. It's about how we can be more successful with our students."

So why are so many parents and teachers ill at ease with testing? For one thing, what was envisioned as a check to keep everyone in education moving student success forward has become the focus of too much attention.

Testing draws too much energy from all quarters and can undermine the academic improvement it's designed to ensure. Test scores meant to tell schools whether they're headed in the right direction are often interpreted by parents and others as definitive indicators of school quality, which isn't quite right.

California's scores, as reported in its Academic Performance Index, are largely reflections of socio-economic status as much as instruction; the higher the average income, the higher the average test score. There are other ways of reporting results that show success over time in improving student learning, no matter the students' starting point.

That kind of analysis can illustrate how a lower-testing school is nevertheless making stellar progress with both challenged and high-achieving students. But those results aren't typically what the public sees. Most Californians see one number, the API. It's like seeing the total number of steps in the pedometer challenge but not seeing how the walkers have increased their capacities over time. Judging academic achievement, like counting steps, should be about improvement.

Another downside of our testing system is that it doesn't do much of anything to motivate students. With test scores not included in transcripts, students don't see tests as counting for much. Still, testing has come a long way and will improve, I hope, with coming reforms.

But whatever the curricula and the test, if we focus too closely on our instrument of measurement, we run the risk of merely counting our steps. We also want our students and teachers to enjoy the view along the road and the company of their fellow walkers. A pedometer is a great tool to encourage a healthy, active lifestyle. That's how testing should be viewed: a tool to encourage learning as a regular and enjoyable habit.


JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education.

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