State testing helps teachers plan
While the primary language Kerrie Willis teaches at Washington High School is English, once a year she expands her vocabulary to include the language of state standardized tests and the information these tests can give teachers.
For several years Willis has been the go-to teacher for the results of the Iowa Assessment test, formerly the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. She said that tracking the results is easier than it had been in the past, with the Grant Wood Area Education Association’s assessment system, which breaks down much of the information and makes it easy for her to get the growth and proficiency scores she needs. She feels Iowa has a good system of testing and holding accountability while not making the stakes of the testing too high.
“In a lot of places they test too often and too frequently,” she said. “Here in Iowa we give kids four tests in high school. They are about 45 minutes each. It’s not a lot.”
While the test is designed around the federal ‘No Child Left Behind’ mandate, she said that she has come to appreciate the test for the data it provides to the schools. She said the data shows where gaps in teaching or learning may be. She said the data also sometimes shows where teachers and students may not be connecting. Much of the information can be used to help teachers determine which education strategies are working.
Willis said the data is valuable and said she does not feel that one test per year is excessive. She said that she wished somehow the district could get a more accurate assessment. She believes some of the students don’t do their best work, so the school doesn’t get an accurate statement of where they are. She said this makes placing the students more difficult.
“The kids don’t enjoy it,” she said. “For sure.”
She said she finds compiling the test results interesting. The tests report how many students per class are proficient at basic skills such as reading, writing and math.
The tests also show how much progress the students are making between years.
“Those are the kinds of things that are going to give us information on where we can go with our instruction,” Willis said.
Hailing from Texas, she said the standardized testing in her home state is “destroying education.” She said in some other states there is a lot of pressure for students to do well, and the tests are used to determine if a student passes. She also said teachers, students and administrators are punished if students don’t pass at a certain level.
“How are they using the information from it?” she said. “I don’t know.”
She said the Washington School District teachers are able to identify students who aren’t proficient. Willis said those are the first students she wants to give help to. She also wants to identify students who are only barely proficient, saying that she wanted to keep the students from “backsliding.”
Willis also looks at scores after the classes she teaches end, to ensure there was growth.
“Some of the kids we have to get back and we have to do it again, because they still need help,” she said. “For the workplace and for college, reading skills are vital. You can’t just push students through here with low reading skills. They just won’t survive in the workplace.”
A 22-year veteran of the high school, Willis said that she discovered the school when she was student teaching and long-term substituting in Cedar Rapids. Willis said that she had become interested in creative writing. Enrolling in the University of Iowa writers workshop, which is known for one of the best writing programs in the country, she learned that she wanted to do more than just write. She decided to explore the educational aspects of writing.
She said Iowa’s reputation for educating students is very good. She believes that the testing is a tool that helps teachers to better educate students.
“I tell my own students that if there is one thing I wish students and parents would realize is that we do use the data,” she said. “The state and federal government may have different reasons for wanting it, but the teachers at the school want that data and we want to do something with it. To do that it has to be meaningful. To be meaningful, the students have to put their best effort forward.”