Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Testing Season

'Tis the season.

For eight straight days, my 8th graders are settling into my room, uncustomarily set up in sterile rows facing front, handed #2 pencils, and asked to sit in silence for over an hour to complete their NECAPs.  It does not feel natural, and the students comment that they do not feel at home in here, in this setup.

But they listen attentively as I read aloud the same instructions they have heard for the past five years.  The same instructions that all students across the state and New England are hearing.  They do not feel as though I am personalizing their instruction.  They do not like that I cannot help them or guide them.  Yet, they still open their booklets, at the same time, and begin to read and write.  They use up every last minute allotted to them.  They fill their spaces.  I watch them and hope that all I've taught them about reading for information and writing about texts will become evident here, because even though this test was never intended to test my teaching, it is used in that way.

As a teacher who often works from intuition, who knows that science and data cannot name or dictate all parts of life, my first instinct is to criticize standardized testing in schools:  there is irrefutable research that shows that noninstructional factors--like poverty, parent education, and community--explain most of the variances between school districts.  When the 2010 PISA scores were examined closely, the only consistent correlation between achievement and another factor they could find was that between student achievement and parent education.  And when teacher accountability and performance is tied in with test scores gains, there is a 26 percent error rate. Clearly these are red flags. 

Yet, I am also a teacher who loves data.  I analyze what my students know and then use that to drive my instruction--because that's what we should be doing.  We should be able to justify every single moment of teaching in the classroom.  And to do this, one must test; it is inevitable.  Testing is not perfect.  It can be biased, and accuracy can be thrown by too many personal issues that students carry in the door with them--they will be the first to admit that.  But this imperfect source of gathering information is a place to start. 

I talk to my kids about all of this.  I go over their scores with them, so they know where they can improve.  We talk about what these scores mean and what we need to do in the classroom together over the course of the year.  I do not teach to the test.  I teach my curriculum, and I must do so with confidence that the test is aligned with my curriculum.  I explain each part of my curriculum to my students and tell them why it is important.  I listen to their frustrations about testing, but watch them pour over the data.  They see value in this, too, despite the obvious imperfections.

Amidst all of the criticism of standardized testing, voices of reason fail to emerge.  We need reform in this area, absolutely, but we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to push for more adaptive testing that indicates growth and not status. If policy makers had included educators in the decisions that led to this test-heavy educational environment, we may have arrived here earlier.  Once again, we are reminded that teachers, the experts, need to be the guiding voice in these kinds of decisions and educational policy.  But we do eventually learn from our mistakes.  New testing practices that are being examined do adopt better practices, and educators are being included in the conversations.  For the time being, however, we must embrace what positive we can from our imperfect system and use it to benefit our students.

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