K-12 Education

Meet Personalized Needs – What State Assessments Could Learn from CTE

October 22, 2020  • Ashley Lin, Senior at Union High School & Education and Society Program

Every year, I cross my fingers in hopes that it isn’t a “SBAC” year (or if it is, for my teachers to accidentally forget about it – which theoretically shouldn’t be too hard to do, as SBAC tests have no alignment with the classes I’m in). Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen, and I always end up resigning myself to a week of mind-numbing, pointless exams.  

As a student in the Washington State public school system, I get to take the SBAC, or “Smarter Balanced Assessment” in grades 3-8 and 10. These are Washington’s statewide summative assessments in English Language Arts and math, required by state and federal law. According to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, “Statewide testing is important because it helps ensure all public school students receive a quality education, no matter where they go to school, because they are measured to equal standards.” 

Sure, if done well, state testing can be a powerful tool for accountability, facilitating growth, and promoting equity. But, the reality is most are not designed well. Instead of bolstering student success, they take up valuable time and rob students of purpose, agency, and creativity in their learning.

When I think about what could make my disappointing SBAC experiences better, my mind immediately jumps to the more contextualized, real-world assessments I’ve been able to engage in through career & technical education (CTE) classes. I remember my computer science class in 8th grade, where my final assessment involved building a coffee brewing memory game app. Similarly, in my STEM & Engineering Capstone class this past year, my capstone project was organizing a series of Virtual Field Trips for middle school girls, exploring the intersections of STEAM and cultural exchange. 

These types of CTE assessments have allowed me to demonstrate mastery in key concepts while empowering me to direct my own learning based on individual needs. 

Students are looking for immersive measurements of growth, not transactional tests where you plug in a few answers and out comes a number that describes what “level” you’re at. State assessments are failing students because they are so plug-and-play. We’ve been conditioned to believe that it is the unfortunate reality of state assessments to be multiple choice with “standard” questions so we can hold every student to equal expectations. But, equal expectations are not what we need in assessments (or education); we need equally high expectations for all students.

In my experience, state assessments do not recognize where students started, where they intend to go, or what unique self-directed learning experiences or intelligences they may possess. 

This prompts the question – how can state assessments become better? 

The answer can be found in the more immersive models of assessments that already exist in CTE: make these assessments meaningful to students. 

First, make assessments relevant to an individual student’s work. How is everyone taking an Algebra 1-level state math assessment beneficial when clearly not every student is enrolled in Algebra 1? One of the authentic assessment practices presented by CTE Technical Assistance Center of NY says to “avoid challenging students to do complex work but base their grade on assessments at a lower-level.” Assessments in CTE classes are effective because they are directly aligned with what students are learning and working on, often incorporated into the learning process. 

Second, allow students’ creativity to shine through in their demonstration of mastery. CTE assessments work because while there are common standards, evidence of a student’s mastery of these standards can be provided in different forms: a portfolio, a capstone project, or a practical experience. These forms of measurement naturally enable students to move at their own pace and demonstrate mastery of the common standards in ways that align with their interests and long-term goals.   

Undoubtedly, there are still obstacles to figure out if CTE assessments were to be implemented on a large scale. There might be issues with the feasibility of grading thousands of portfolio-based assessments or the translation of CTE data to measure a school’s “quality of education.” While these logistical questions are valuable, they should not distract from the core question in standardized assessment design: are these tests meaningful to students? By utilizing CTE principles, state policymakers can make standardized assessments that students like me look forward to, rather than dread.