I wish the standardized tests would go away.
I try in my teaching and learning to assume best intentions. I believe (or most days I want to believe) that the government officials who dreamed up standardized tests did so to ensure that teachers were doing their jobs and not turning a blind eye to the needs in front of them. That pains me because the vast majority of teachers I know are professionals who work tirelessly to help all students learn and they don't require a standardized test to push them to do their jobs. But I also know that in many school districts progress isn't being made and that these tests are an attempt to make sure all kids get the education they so rightly deserve.
I also believe that when they created this testing monster that they didn't know what they were starting and now it is difficult to put the beast back in the cage. When it comes to social studies, I often feel like the test is akin to a trivia game. I recently had an award winning historian tell me that he didn't think he could pass the standardized test in California. Frankly, I think if you gave these tests to the politicians who pushed for them, that they would have a difficult time passing them. Actually, I don't just think it. I know it. And please understand kids aren't taking one test. Some of them are taking as many as four in the span of a two weeks. I am not anti-testing. I am anti-high-stakes standardized testing.
The effects of this testing culture on our kids and teachers is difficult to watch. This week I listened to students articulate how anxious they were over standardized tests. I saw students who had been taking a test for more than 7 hours continue to work on an un-timed test after the school buses had pulled away. These are middle school students. I watched stressed teachers exhausted after hours of proctoring who had next to no time to prepare lessons or grade papers. I listened to my own daughter (a third grader) ask not to go to school so she could avoid a standardized test. I watched her struggle on math practice items not because she couldn't do the math but because she couldn't understand what the question was asking her. I could have opted her out, but worried that this would begin a vicious cycle of reinforcing test anxiety in a world where test scores matter. Like so many teachers and parents, I find myself between an institutional rock and a hard place.
But I believe that there are ways that I (and the other teachers and parents out there) can nudge this rock until one day it breaks into pieces under its own weight.
I offer four simple ways to take the power away from these standardized tests and to hand it back to our students, to our learners and ultimately to ourselves.
1) Be positive and upbeat. Tell your students that they will do fine. That you believe in them. Tell them that they don't need to be nervous or anxious because while this is an important measure, it is one test, one day. It does not measure who they are. Tell them that you know (and they know) that they have learned so much since September and that nothing can take that away from them. Be a reassuring voice, in a chorus of anxiety and stress.
2) Don't celebrate your scores in front of students. Don't announce how many pass advances or passes you had (even it is 100 percent). Don't set aside class time to reveal the scores. Instead, spend the precious time teaching and learning with your students. I tell them the scores will come in the mail and when they ask me why, I tell them that it's because it really, truly doesn't matter to me. I don't need a test to tell me that they have learned. They are more than multiple choice test scores. And remember, if you celebrate one child's success on this measure you are at the same time, casting shame on those who didn't pass (even if they tried their very best).
3) Don't celebrate scores in front of your colleagues. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard teachers or administrators congratulate other teachers on their scores. This drives me absolutely crazy. It pits teachers against teachers, acting as though these scores are the measure of how hard they worked or their talent as educators. It lends merits to these measures. It also adds pressure to teachers who teach some of our highest need students. Do I really think that because my kids scored higher on a test than students in a Title 1 school in an urban school district that I am somehow better at my job? Do I think I am a better teacher than the math teacher in my building who teachers second language learners? Absolutely not. So don't compare. Don't congratulate. Instead praise your colleagues for a creative lesson, for a positive attitude, for a community service project, or student engagement. Praise them for the real work.
4) Stop posting about scores on social media. I see it every testing season. Teachers posting about their pass rates. I get it, but I want to see it stop. If we don't believe in standardized tests then posting on social media just gives validity to the test. It creates a perception in the broader community that we believe this is how teaching and learning should be judged. I don't. So you won't see me referencing my scores.
I didn't come to these strategies early in my teaching. It's been a step by step process. Not too long ago, I did each of the things that I referenced above. I made my students, my fellow teachers, and my community believe that I felt these scores mattered. But one day, I woke up. I knew that I wasn't in this line of work to help kids pass a multiple choice test. I was giving my service to make sure that we raise a generation of students who know how government works, who know about their nation's history. Students who can read, write, discuss, listen and solve the problems that are surely on our horizon. Whether they mark A, B. C. or D in their test booklet won't matter in ten years so I am going to focus on what does. I hope you'll do the same.
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