For me, the test apparently comes first. Since all students have to take fair and equal assessments, the assessments are designed by the district and given to us to use in class. Everything comes down to the test. For freshman year, we don't have a state test, but we have proficiency exams every six weeks.
When I was in school, the school set the curriculum. The teacher then designed her own end of the year assessment based on what we learned and what we needed to be tested on. Your score on that test, the final, was a large part of the score that lead to you getting credit for that class.
We have finals, but the major testing is handed to use from some outside entity. Even when you create your own assessments, students get confused by essay questions. "You mean like an ORQ?" No! Write an essay! "Is an essay an ORQ?" No! It's an essay! "Oh, are you saying S.A., like short answer?" How are you going to explain how Odysseus is a noble (or not) character in a short answer? You write an essay. "So it's an ORQ then?" I then spend the rest of the period explaining to them that there's no wrong answer. It's an opinion. "Yeah, but what's the right answer? Is this right?!" Yes. You're doing fine. Just explain why you think that. "Is it still right?"
Sometimes I feel like yelling "You can think for yourself you know!" But I don't. It's not their fault. Testing is a huge issue for them. Tests, and understanding testing language, are drilled into their heads from an early age. Their entire schooling has been within the confines of No Child Left Behind.
I'm currently reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch appeared on The Daily Show to promote her book when Jon Stewart was sharing his thoughts, and the thoughts of Fox News on education, teachers and the support staffs of schools in America. In her book, Ravitch examines how the cart has gone before the horse in terms of testing. States were asked to make tests and then curriculum was formed around them. In essence, everyone is asked to teach to the test. In schools that perform well on standardized tests, students are privileged to be able to have a differentiated education. In schools where test scores matter more, students are taught how to pass the test. The haves continue to have and the have-nots are robbed of a varied, nuanced education that allows them to participate fully in society with knowledge of our cultural history.
I understand the "need" for standardized tests. I do. I understand the need to measure what our kids have learned on an even test and what gaps they have. What I don't understand is the stress poured onto the school to pass the tests rather than teach the students. The tests should be secondary, an afterthought, not the main focus of education. Even if the tests should be so necessary, the onus to pass them should be on the shoulders of the students and parents rather than educators. I can't care enough for me and all of my students. They have to care somewhat about their own education. What does a student care if they fail the reading assessment when all they have to do is sit through a few reading module sessions to make up the difference? Meanwhile, the school continues to lose out, through audits and punishment for failing to meet goals. Our current system doesn't put any accountability on the student. It's a lot easier to not care about your own education when the end all be all test doesn't hurt you in the slightest.