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CSAP Testing in Colorado – Is Proficiency Enough?

By Guest Blogger Debbie Leibold

Recently, I ran across an editorial in the Denver Post that was written by a former English teacher.  I am also a former high school English teacher, so I was intrigued when I saw the title of the article – “O CSAP!  MY CSAP!”  The article discussed one of my favorite films, “Dead Poets Society,” and used the contrasting teaching styles of Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) and Mr. McAllister (the old Latin professor) to make a point about our education system and one of its unintended effects on our students.

In the film, Mr. Keating is a teacher who inspires his students and helps them develop a love of learning.  He creates lessons that are relevant to his students, teaches them to make the most of what they’ve been given, and encourages them to “Seize the Day!”  Mr. McAllister teaches his students to memorize Latin verbs and vocabulary and drills his students repeatedly.  He believes students succeed if they can recite back what they have been taught.

The editorial’s author made the point that our current educational system is working so hard to make sure that our students are “Proficient” on CSAP’s (Colorado State Assessment Program) and other standardized testing, that we’ve lost sight of the difference between “proficient” and “educated.”  Mr. McAllister sees proficiency as an end, but Mr. Keating sees proficiency as a beginning – a stepping stone to allow students to expand their horizons and discover and understand a much wider world.

Is proficiency good enough?  Should our efforts stop there?  The author of the article says no, but he worries that our preoccupation with test results might unintentionally send the message that “Proficient” is all our students (and our teachers) need to be.  His premise is that the relationship between the student and the teacher is what makes the difference between a child being merely “Proficient” and a child being a critical thinker, problem solver, and self-directed learner.  Our students need to learn to read, to write, and to do math – that isn’t a question.  They need to learn those skills, however, not to earn a certain test score, but so that they can better understand the world around them and contribute to that world in a meaningful way.  A great teacher who has enough time and freedom in his or her day to create unforgettable learning experiences will make a huge impact on students.  The same cannot be said for teachers who spend most of their time preparing their students for a test that does not reflect what is truly important.

I was fortunate to have some amazing teachers when I was a student, and I’m happy to say that my own children enjoy school and have been challenged and motivated by their teachers.  I do, however, have questions about our educational system putting so much emphasis on testing as a demonstration of what students know and, even more disturbing, judging the effectiveness of our schools and teachers by the scores their students earn on the CSAP or other testing measures.  The thought of basing a school’s funding or perhaps a teacher’s performance pay on the level of “Proficiency” of their students (as defined by a test score) frightens me.  I’m all for accountability, but teaching to the test to ensure a “Proficient” rating, does little to encourage a love of learning and a development of critical and independent thinking.  A “Proficient” rating and the subsequent funding or performance pay do not necessarily correlate with better-educated students.

I fully recognize that CSAP testing (or other standardized testing) is a reality and not something that we can or should ignore. As a parent and a former teacher, I just don’t want better test scores to become the “be all and end all” of what we want for our students.  Like the author of the editorial, I encourage parents and teachers to build the kind of relationships with their students that Mr. Keating had with his.  Teach your kids to think outside the box, to take learning “proficiencies” and apply them to new situations, to discover what they’re passionate about, and to share their excitement with others.  As Mr. Keating would say, “Carpe Diem!”

Debbie Leibold is a former teacher and the mother of two sons, ages 13 and 10.  Debbie is passionate about education and youth development.  She works as a writer and copy editor for Steve Spangler Science.

4 replies
  1. Ellen Peterson
    Ellen Peterson says:

    Well said! Here in Virginia we have the unfortunately named SOLs (standards of learning is what it’s supposed to stand for…). It frightens me to think that we are aiming for the minimum standard in getting our children/students just to pass that test. I do everything I can in my classroom (where there isn’t a science standard to pass at the end of 6th grade) to foster a love and excitement for learning! In my opinion, that same approach needs to be as contagious as the enthusiasm my students share as I pull out the latest Science demonstration!

  2. Sarah Michel
    Sarah Michel says:

    AMEN sister Debbie! I couldn’t agree more!!! Most of the good teachers I know see CSAP as a necessary evil but don’t allow it to dictate what happens in the classroom but I fear for the new graduates who are being “trained” to focus on getting kids to proficient levels only. We really need to reclaim our educational system and reignite the power of education and thank God for great educators like Steve Spangler who remind teachers that science is Fun and innovative!

  3. Mary Jane Else
    Mary Jane Else says:

    I agree. In the name of accountability, we have lost sight of some important ideas. First, we have decide what we would students to be like before we decide what we are to teach. We are currently at risk of rearing a generation of skill-less adults because a heavy emphasis on facts in testing has caused a similar emphasis in teaching. Second, we have never done any real critical thinking about how we assess and how valid our assessments really are. All assessments are, at best, a snapshot of one aspect of a child’s capabilities. At worst, they can be wildly inaccurate. Basing teacher’s careers on the performance of her students on flawed tests is horribly unjust. OK, maybe it is even worse to base high-staked decisions – such as grsduation – on these test.

  4. Dan Maas
    Dan Maas says:

    Thank you for this commentary, Debbie. Your message speaks well of your organization, Steve Spangler and yourself. What I particularly appreciate if your message of balance.

    Any myopic view is dangerous. To neglect achievement on a test that accurately measures important skills is educational malpractice; to sacrifice learning on the altar of test proficiency is also detrimental for students. I enjoyed Dr. Yong Zhao’s “Catching up or leading the way” in which he calls for us to hold on to talent shows and fun activities at school. I don’t quite agree with his attitude toward testing, but I get his point. What has made America great hasn’t been test performance… it’s been what we do with the skills we inspire in every student as the only nation that educates every single child… no matter what.

    Thank you for being an advocate for kids and for authentic learning. We are fortunate that we have voices like yours that keep calling us up to the big picture.


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