The Real Problem with the High-Stakes Testing Debate


We are about to kick off a month of resources and discussion about assessments here on Gradeable.com, and in that spirit, I thought I’d take a few moments to touch on the current hot button in assessment-land: high-stakes testing. Everyone is talking about it: educators, politicians, parents, everyone except maybe the students who are at the center of this educational storm.

The pros and cons are well known (and we’ve recapped them here): high-stakes testing is what makes third graders too nervous and stressed to eat, let alone go to school, let alone perform well on the tests that will have such a huge impact for the adults around them, via the deadly twin bullets of teacher evaluation and school funding. High-stakes testing is just one data point in an entire school year, a flashlight beam in the darkness attempting to measure the moving target of student understanding and comprehension.  Critics further point to known variance in student scores caused by stress, illness, and other factors like stress at home, showing up and just not feeling too hot, or a testing room being too noisy and distracting.

With such well-documented weaknesses, a well-meaning attempt at a common yardstick for student achievement starts to seem like nothing more than an academic farce, or at worst, the spin of a dangerous, stressful and high-stakes roulette wheel. Frantic teachers and principals are coaching their students on test-taking techniques, bribing them with rewards for concentration and good performance, spending valuable learning hours on bubble sheet coloring practice (yes, if you can believe it), and even resorting to cheating — which if nothing else, firmly underscores the desperation felt by some in the education community.

But are we losing focus here?  Are we missing the forest (and the trees), in the interest of imposing an imperfect yardstick on every student in every classroom without regard to the ends and the means, and whether in this case, whether they will ever match?

There are no shortcuts

In a small high school south of Boston, a math teacher named Mr. Badoian is highly attentive to the growth and learning of his students. Mr. Badoian is legendary in the Boston area for coaching the geeky but high-achieving math team of this no-name town to dozens of state and New England championship wins over the past thirty years. Mr. Badoian has been recognized over and over for his excellence as an educator and is one of the best high school math teachers in the country. I was fortunate enough to be one of his students.

For the students in Mr. B’s class, it was known that there were no shortcuts. Mr. B does things his own way. We never used a textbook in his class. He focused on teaching us basic concepts and then reinforcing them with innovative problem-solving, usually much harder than anything we’d ever see on standardized tests. And a lot of repetition, or at least just enough to ensure that you had mastered a concept, before you moved on because in mathematics everything is cumulative. His basic philosophy was that if we understood the fundamentals and prepared at an extremely rigorous level, we didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to standardized assessments.

And he was right. The average mathematics standardized test scores (SAT I and II) in my high school class of about twenty students was 720 out of 800, well above the mean for the school, district, or state. More meaningfully, I can attest to the lifelong impact he had on our class of 22: a large percentage of us ended up in jobs in finance, science and business which we credit to the mathematics fundamentals we learned in his class. The test was not a means, or an end, it was just a temporary snapshot of our progress.  We were aiming at much bigger and more meaningful goals of mastering the fundamentals of a critical subject — and laying the groundwork for our own futures.

An imperfect yardstick & myopia around high-stakes tests

High-stakes testing is not the true lever great teachers use to improve their students’ learning. At best, it is an imperfect yardstick that may not even reflect students’ mastery of a subject. There is no replacement for hard work of learning and mastering concepts that is put in by the teacher and by the student. There is no replacement for the investment of time and effort, for time spent with students understanding what they know and what they struggle with, and for the effort of helpful, targeted feedback that helps them grow.

Many are currently focusing on high-stakes testing: can it be rolled back or postponed or avoided altogether?  But why are we focusing so much on this imperfect yardstick? By focusing on high-stakes testing to the exclusion of any other options, or assessments, or strategies, we risk short-changing a generation of students — and of educators, who are rebelling because they (and we) know, that we are not doing our best, not even remotely or nearly our best — for our students’ learning.

Decades of educational research underlines that it is the day-to-day efforts that matter the most in learning.  Excellent feedback. Creative instruction. Rigorous assessment of (and for) learning. The human contact between teacher and student and engagement around ideas and concepts. The passion to impact, inspire and make a difference in students’ lives that drives teachers to make the investment of time, and the ambition to learn and excel which can motivate students thus inspired.

In America, 46% of the teachers have advanced degrees in education, where they have learned that frequent, daily assessments are a far more accurate indicator of student learning than once a year high-stakes tests, and the results can actually be fed back into the learning cycle so that students learn more. The same cannot be said of most high-stakes tests, whose analyses and results are often not available until the following school year. By focusing so much on the imperfect yardstick, we are deflecting attention from the day to day where progress actually happens. If teachers focused on the little things, then this “big” thing is maybe not as daunting. Let’s not lose sight of the real end game which is student learning.

Digital tools like ours can take some of the burden out of the paperwork of grading and analyzing frequent, daily assessments. They can even help teachers give better targeted, better structured, and more personal feedback to their students. But as Mr. B taught us, there are no shortcuts for learning. Or assessment. It’s time for the dialogue to change, and that we start paying attention to the forest AND the trees. It’s time to stop short-changing our students and our teachers with this short-sighted focus on high-stakes tests. Our students need us to do better.


Friday Bulletin Board

The Uncomfortable Truth About Technology in the Classroom

Robots in the classroom will CTRL-ALT-DELETE my job! Well did you know Socrates thought the invention books and the practice of writing would hinder the learning process because he thought students wouldn’t have to use their own memories? Or that people thought text books would render teachers obsolete? Technology is here to stay, so join the conversation for finding a balance of technology and traditional learning that’s right for your classroom.


#So #many #hashtags. And who could blame the Twitterverse? The world-wide, real-life conversation is right there at the swipe of a timeline. With this comprehensive dictionary of educational hashtags, find out what people are talking, about whether it’s homeschooling or human rights. For your techies out there, check out these five hashtags related to educational iPad apps to keep you iUpdated.

14 Google Tools You Never Knew Existed

Ever wonder how popular cocaine was back in Victorian times? Well with Google’s Ngram viewer, you can search how keywords have trended in books in the past 500 years. So go forth and Google how your topic has evolved through the years.

How to Use Instagram in the Classroom

Think of 2013’s beautifully filtered version of “I Spy.” Teaching shapes in geometry? Have students post pictures of trapezoids or parallel lines through their travels.

8 Tools for Creating a Website for Your Class

Gone will be the excuse of “Oh I lost my syllabus so I didn’t know that was due.” Don’t be nervous, these intuitive, user-friendly tools will help you become an online mogul before the bell rings.

Have a great weekend!


Gradeable HQ

by Rebecca Segal
You share so much with us, we thought it was about time we shared some of our stories with you.

Teachers live at school.  We live at Gradeable.  So where does Gradeable live?image

We are based at Boston’s one and only EdTech accelerator, LearnLaunchX.  We moved here in June and will be here through September.  And we LOVE working here!               image

Companies working together.  Companies thinking together.


You might ask: why is LearnLaunchX so awesome? And what is an EdTech Accelerator? Well, an Accelerator is a space startups share. We are new and learning, adapting, and evolving as companies. It’s nice to share resources, ideas, and support each other. We share the space with six other EdTech startups.  There are also companies based here who rent space.  So we are just surrounded by innovation!image

Being in an accelerator is amazing because we get access to so many opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. LearnLaunchX holds a lot of events and meetings to benefit the startups so that we can further improve what we are doing. We also have great opportunities like going to a Red Sox game with the other startup folks!imageimage

The office space is great for working, thinking, and collaborating.  There is a lounge to sit in, walls that are like whiteboards, phone booths in case you need to make a call, and Boston Sports-themed conference rooms! image                      image

The view after a long day of grading.

We are also based in the heart of Boston, which is THE city for innovation and education. Everyday we are thrilled to be part of this community.  What about you?  Where do you work and are you part of a learning community?

Rebecca Segal is Gradeable’s awesome intern for the summer. She is currently a student at Brookline High School.



The Importance of Parent-Teacher Conferences

Rebecca Segal

Parent-teacher conferences often happen in the fall and are usually the first form of contact that parents and teachers make. Teachers and parents may see each other at other points during the year – at school plays, choir recitals, or spelling bees – but these times are not optimal settings for discussing a student. The conferences are crucial in allowing parents and teachers to exchange information about the student so that they can be most successful in school.

(Image source: Innovation_School)

Governor Dave Heineman from Nebraska emphasized the importance of parent attendance at parent-teacher conferences in a letter to parents.

I want to encourage parents to attend their children’s parent-teacher conferences. One of the most important things we can do for our children is to attend these meetings. They provide an opportunity to meet teachers and administrators, to ask questions and to hear about how each child interacts in the classroom is an opportunity to gain valuable feedback about the development of individual students. Most importantly, it sends a powerful message about how much we as parents care about the education of our sons and daughters.”

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (Image Source: Miller_Center)

What are some ways teachers can provide feedback to parents? They can show grades, charts, exams, or other data.

What if there were a tool that could help you to better communicate with parents to show how a student is doing? If a teacher uses Gradeable, parent-teacher conferences can become far more effective.  Gradeable allows for more specific discussions of a student’s performance; teachers can show parents the student’s exams or analysis of how the student is doing in class. Teachers can communicate more effectively and parents will leave with a better feel for how their child is doing.

When parents and teachers communicate effectively, they set up the student for success. Gradeable can help make that happen.

Rebecca Segal is Gradeable’s awesome intern for the summer. She is currently a student at Brookline High School.


Formative Assessment

These days, it seems like education is overrun with the words ‘assessment’ and ‘accountability.’ It can feel overwhelming, exasperating, and intimidating. Sometimes, all three at once.
But, imagine, just for a minute, that none of the institutional machinery of schools existed. None of the politics or policy. That it was just you and your students, and your only job was to help them become as successful as possible. What would you do to teach better? What would you do to ensure they were successful? That they reached their full potential?

And then, what if I told you that the single most effective tool for success is feedback. Consistent, timely feedback. Research backs up this simple fact. The faster the feedback, the better. The more individualized and personalized, the better.

‘Well, I already knew that!’ you might say, ‘but how do I do it for thirty students? Or sixty students? Or one hundred and fifty?’ The answer is formative assessment. All that means is regularly checking for student understanding using simple, repeatable tasks to make student learning visible. The old adage “show, don’t tell” brought to life.

Formative assessments are feedback for you, the teacher, to let you know if you’re teaching effectively and if students are getting it. And it allows you to give quick, targeted feedback to every individual student, focused on what they know right now, and where they need to go next. They don’t need to be averaged into a final grade.

At Gradeable, we’re building software optimized for formative assessment. We make it easy to give quick, targeted assessments that can be graded quickly and analyzed immediately. You’ll know how every student is doing as soon as you’re done grading, and you’ll be able to make informed decisions about what to teach (or re-teach) next.


Further reading:


Meditation Education

Infographic: Meditation in Schools Across America (Image Source: Maili Holiman)

Meditate on this!


Summer of Freedom

It’s summertime.  The tumult of your classroom has faded and you’ve gotten in at least one good beach day and an afternoon (or three) curled up with a long neglected book.  September seems far away… but not that far.  

You don’t want to think about the kids running around, endless bulletin boards, diving into lesson planning, or most of all the piles of paperwork and grading awaiting you in September.  Or do you?  

What if it could be different next year?  

What if grading was a pleasure, instead of a chore?  What if you didn’t have to manually enter all those scores into your gradebook afterwards?  What if you automatically got reports in your inbox or on your phone that helped you decipher what your students understood and didn’t understand, without any additional work on your part?  What if exit tickets were easy — and free?

We think summer is the perfect time to try a new tool.  That’s why Gradeable is free for the summer.  Sign up for our beta and try it out.  The secret handshake (also known as the invite code) is “SummerOfFreedomBL”.  If you know a summer school teacher, be sure to let them know that Gradeable could be perfect for them too.  

Enjoy your next iced tea, your next tennis game, your next nap on the beach.  Do some summer dreaming.  If nothing else, just daydream about the idea that next year could be different…. just planting a seed.  Enjoy your summer!

High Fives!

From the Team at Gradeable