AFT Members Share Classroom Perspective on Assessments

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AFT members spared no effort this fall when it came to keeping the voices of frontline teachers in the mix at a series of federal hearings on how to help states build a new, better generation of student assessments.

At stake was the administration's new $350 million competitive grant program to help states work together as they develop and implement high-quality assessments. These assessments will be aligned to a common set of internationally benchmarked K-12 standards. The program, known as the Race to the Top Assessment Program, is distinct from the more publicized $4.35 billion program with a similar name. However, many of the assessment strategies developed by consortia of states under the smaller, testing-focused competitive grant program are expected to hold great sway over Race to the Top grants and even the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

At a series of hearings in Atlanta, Boston and Denver this fall, the U.S. Department of Education gathered leading researchers in testing and solicited public comment as it begins to develop rules for the competitive grant program—an opportunity many AFT members, many of whom traveled thousands of miles to testify, felt was too important to waste. By far, it was the AFT and its members who constituted the biggest voice for classroom teachers at these hearings, expressing on-the-ground professional concerns and hopes when it comes to testing and accountability.

The nation "has the potential to implement assessments that are responsible and fair," said Catalina Fortino, a Teacher Center staffer in New York City public schools who traveled more than 2,000 miles to testify at the Dec. 2 Denver hearings, which focused on assessment of English language learners (ELLs). Current testing of ELLs' content knowledge is "often not fair, not valid—and neither reliable nor appropriate," stressed Fortino, who works with content-area teachers on strategies to help ELL students do their best. Much of ELL testing today is simply an afterthought, often grafted from work tied to the needs of students with disabilities. "I know all too well the toll that a rigorous exam can take on ELLs who have not had enough time to learn the core academic language," Fortino told the Education Department panel.

AFT member Kristina Robertson traveled almost 1,000 miles from Burnsville, Minn., to testify at the hearings in Denver. In poignant comments that drew applause from the room, Robertson detailed the problems with testing today, and urged the panel to "give hope to our students" by fostering a new generation of assessments that are informed by leading researchers and the collective wisdom of the classroom.

There was plenty of local teacher interest in the hearings, as well.

Jody Papini, a 15-year veteran teacher in Douglas County, Colo., took time out to testify at the Denver hearings. She urged the administration, as it develops rules for the new assessment initiative, to carefully consider the AFT's "Smart Testing" criteria—including supportive professional development that details how assessments are tied to state curricula and standards.

Require states that participate in the program to develop "tests that do not duplicate across education system levels [and generate] user-friendly test results," she said. "Most importantly, require that they take into account the impact of such assessments on the day-to-day classroom experience of our children."

Many of the points and perspectives offered by Fortino, Robertson, Papini and other teachers who testified are captured in written testimony submitted by the AFT and in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The AFT is urging the administration to develop rules that will spur states to recognize that strong standards and assessments are the "bookends" of reform—their success depends on time, adequate resources, strong professional development and other elements that constitute the heart of school improvement. Rules for the new competitive grant program are expected by March 2010. [Mike Rose, John Mitchell, Dalia Zabala/photo by Ernie Leyba]

December 3, 2009