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Class Notes
Remember: Itís only a test
(Published March 25, 2002)


If itís 8:46 a.m. ó a minute after the first-period bell ó and the daily agenda is not posted on the overhead projector, my students are instantly on my case.

"Mr. Wulsin, whereís our Recap?" one will ask impatiently, probably just as the overhead slide is feeding out of the printer into my hand. When I put the slide on the projector, my students know to look for the Daily Recap ó a few short questions that probe their understanding of the previous lesson. This informal and ungraded test provides me with critical information about the progress of the class, which I use to decide whether to move on to a new topic or to hold off and focus on review. If I am doing my job and students are doing theirs, they will leave the classroom every day knowing something they didnít know when they entered. The Recap is a daily test of whether we are meeting this standard.

Formal, graded tests extend the same purpose of the Recap over a longer period of time. At the start of this school year, I gave tests once or twice a month and found that many students had gotten lost early in the unit and had never been able to catch up. To prevent students from falling behind, I started giving a test on the first day of every week. Sometimes the high frequency of tests becomes overwhelming for either myself or my students or both, but this short feedback loop is important for teacher monitoring as well as for student motivation.

Itís no secret that students study more when they know they have a test. The tests anchor the weekly structure of the course, which ideally proceeds from direct instruction to some guided practice, to independent practice and application, and finally to assessment. It is not every week that my lesson plans succeed in carefully leading students along this path to learning. My success rate improves with experience, but there are some weeks when an entire class will bomb the test, whether through failing on my part or theirs (usually both). When this happens, I know that something has to change, and I try to modify my approach to improve our results.

I am reminded of the need for rigorous testing and accountability every time I encounter a basic concept or skill that confuses my students. Many have trouble multiplying fractions, calculating area or identifying metric base units: all things that students should learn well before high school. As a school system and as a nation, we must demand that our youth demonstrate mastery of essential skills by the appropriate grade level. The centerpiece of President Bushís Education Reform Bill ( the "No Child Left Behind Act") is a requirement for annual state-administered reading and math tests from grades 3-8. This will be one of the first important steps toward reforming school systems that are not adequately educating students to minimum standards of competency. If academic achievement is going to improve, then we will have to demand more from teachers and students.

While administrators and policymakers increase the accountability of teachers, they also need to give teachers more support and guidance. First, the expectations for student performance must be defined as explicitly as possible. Teachers should know exactly what skills and knowledge their students need to acquire by the end of the year. Secondly, teachers should be provided with curriculum materials that outline a reasonable week-by-week course schedule with suggested lesson plan topics throughout the year. Such a roadmap would help teachers plan to reach all their essential content objectives in their courses.

Twice a year, D.C. Public Schools administer the Stanford-9 Achievement Test, a standardized test of reading and mathematics used for testing purposes in several states around the country. However, there are no curriculum guides issued to D.C. teachers to help direct them in preparing their students for the content material that is needed. These tests continue to tell us what we already know: that many of our students are far below grade level in their reading and mathematical capabilities. Without providing curriculum plans outlining how to ensure that students learn all the skills they need to know, these tests condemn without correcting. Currently, the District has standards written for each course, which list expected skills but do not outline a logical order of instruction or specify the relative time to be allocated to each topic.

Once the expectations and methods are made very clear, it will be reasonable to hold teachers accountable for their studentsí successes or failures, and consequences should follow those results. Incentives placed on teachers who are equipped with effective techniques and clear targets will generate incentives for students to learn the essential skills that comprise a complete education. But I suspect that until our testing becomes aligned with our curricula, the Stanford-9 will evoke the same feelings that many of my first-quarter tests evoked in many of my students: confusion, disappointment and despair.


Send stories, advice, or questions to H. Wells Wulsin at

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator