Why PAWS is Meaningless to Our Students…And Why We Should Take Notice

Each spring our students in grades 3-8 and 11 take the PAWS test.  According to the WDE website, the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS) is to “foster program improvement at the school, district, and state levels in support of the teaching and learning that takes place in Wyoming public classrooms and meets all of the attendant requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001(NCLB)”.  According to our students, it’s a waste of time.  It’s somewhat taboo to admit that publicly, but they’re right and here’s why:

  1.  The test is meaningless to our students.  Let’s be clear, there are a lot of standardized tests that have meaning when it comes to determining which schools and career choices our student will have access to.  The ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and the ASVAB come to mind.  Students can make a clear connection between success on these tests and future opportunities.  No such connection exists for the PAWS test.   Our students know this and candidly, once they reach a certain age, the majority of our students could care less about their PAWS scores.
  2. Success on the PAWS provides no benefit to our students.   So what does a high score on the PAWS test get a Wyoming student?  More college options?  Nope.  Increased Hathaway funding?  Not happening.  Ever been asked what your PAWS score was during an interview?  Ever gotten a scholarship offer based on our PAWS score?  Ever had to take a remediation course at college based on your PAWS score?  Ever gotten into an honors course based on your PAWS score?  Nix, nay, negatory, nuh-unh.
  3. It promotes poor teaching.  Over the course of the past ten years a lot of teaching has evolved into a process of test preparation that lacks a great many tenets of quality teaching and learning.  Out of fear of seeing our name at the bottom of some school performance list published in a newspaper or suffering NCLB punishments, we have all played the game.  And some school districts have gotten pretty good at it through teaching to the test at the expense of better instructional practices.
  4. Standardized tests in general.  First, they are a poor predictor of success.  Research is showing that affective traits like perseverance and work ethic are better predictors (did someone really need to do research on this subject for us to realize this).  Even tests like the ACT don’t do a great job of predicting which students will be successful at college.  Secondly, they do a very poor job of assessing critical 21st Century Skills.  Skills like collaboration, communication, creativity and information, media, and technology skills.

The Select Committee on Education Accountability is in the process of designing an accountability system for Wyoming schools.  If that system continues to use a test like the PAWS test, our kids will continue to recognize a distinct lack of relevance, meaning and value to their personal success.  And they will continue to give a corresponding effort.

The sad reality is that there is a very simple solution.  First, the WDE and our legislators need to stop sitting on their thumbs and endorse the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Forty-six states have already adopted the CCSS as have most or not all Wyoming School Districts.  Wyoming is listed as adopted on the CCSS website, but the WDE and our legislators still can’t seem to quit squabbling over how to get this done .  Secondly, adopt the ACT as the measure for accountability for 11th graders and be done with it.  The ACT is highly aligned to the CCSS and it has both value and meaning for the vast majority of students.  True, not all kids want to go to college.  But a student prepared for college will have a greater probability of success in career ventures that don’t require college preparation than if we were to use a lower bar.

Additionally, some kids may not find relevance or value in the ACT, but you aren’t going to find or build a test that has it for every student.  The ACT is the best option available, and we are already giving it to every Wyoming junior.  Drop the PAWS at the high school level and save Wyoming some money.

And lastly, put standardized tests in perspective.  They should be a part of an accountability system that includes multiple measures.  Would you want your evaluation to be determined by a single day?  On August 3rd, Albert Pujols, arguably the greatest baseball player of my generation, went 0-5 and struck out twice in a 10-5 loss to the Brewers.   On October 20th, in the playoffs, when it mattered the most, he went 0-4 in a 4-0 loss to the Rangers.  Two months later he was signing a $250M contract.  It would be ridiculous to think that a baseball team would evaluate a player like Albert Pujols based on his overall performance during a single day.  Why would we want to do that with kids?

As a school district, we will always have to deal with standardized tests like the PAWS.  Policy makers today want a hard statistic.  They want a number that definitively says thumbs up or thumbs down.  And while they all know there are better ways to evaluate student success, they continue to march down the Road to Abilene anyway because it’s easier and politically expedient.

So what do we do?  We focus on what we know is right.  We forget about teaching to the test.   We align our curriculum to the Common Core.  We implement best instructional practices that teach kids how to solve real world problems.  We incorporate 21st Century fluencies into the curriculum.  We implement formative assessments approved by our local Board of Trustees and use that information for accountability and to drive instructional improvement.  We increase the value we place on traits like perseverance and work ethic.  We focus on ACT scores because they provide a real world benefit for the majority of our students.  We take a hard look at implementing an International Baccalaureate curriculum because it focuses on preparing students to live and work in a rapidly globalizing world and gives college bound students a distinct advantage.  And we recognize the fact that the PAWS test has some value in terms of instructional and school improvement, but the scores don’t have any real correlation to success after high school.

If we do those things, I think our students will be successful on the PAWS anyway.  It’s possible they won’t score as well as students in districts that specifically tailor their curriculum to the test.  But what’s more important?  Having the shiny veneer that comes with being at the top of that list or knowing our students leave these walls prepared for what’s next.  We shouldn’t spend another minute of our valuable time doing things that don’t have relevance and value for our students.   Sorry WDE.  Sorry legislators.  The PAWS test just doesn’t make that list.  It’s time we listened to our kids when it comes to their future instead of you.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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3 Responses to Why PAWS is Meaningless to Our Students…And Why We Should Take Notice

  1. Thanks for taking the courage to write this phenomenal protest to PAWS. You ROCK!

  2. Rollie says:

    I totally agree.

  3. Kris Ewert says:

    Homerun again! So thankful that we have leadership like yours and a common sense understanding of valuable data as opposed to hoop jumping politics…

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