Friday, May 01, 2009


My son couldn't sleep the night before last.

He was totally freaked out and started complaining about headaches and stomach cramps.

Swine Flu?


Test anxiety.

This week, our kids' public school system is doing the testing ritual. My twin sons are in second grade. And for the last two weeks they've been indoctrinated with test-speak and test-prep. The week before the tests, that's all they did. In fact, the school asked that the kids be sent to school wearing certain types/colors of clothes each day of test-prep to somehow 'help' them to remember the 'importance' of how to approach the tests. (Like wearing pajamas one day to help them 'remember' to get enough sleep the night before the test).

And so, my son approached the tests with the anxiety of someone who really thought that failure on the test would mean a lifetime of pain.

Did I mention he's in second grade?

His twin brother, meanwhile, could care less. He's never been one to really give a damn what anybody thought. At age six, he entered the Peabody Preparatory for music. He's been playing trumpet along with Miles Davis records since age seven. He's also diagnosed dyslexic and like his brother suffered delayed speech acquisition. The tests don't mean much to him; he's got other things on his mind.

I'm thinking about this now because I'm doing my own year-end assessments here at school. Being an independent school, we aren't required to jump through all of the standardized testing hoops. Instead, I spend the end of the year interviewing my students. I get feedback on what they think about what they've learned over the course of the year. They tell me what they think of me as a teacher. Really what they think. I've had students criticize me to my face in front of a class and I am so proud of those sorts of students. They remind me why I do what I do.

A lot of people in and around education talk about being 'accountable'. But that usually just amounts to nailing scores on the type of tests my boys took this week. That just doesn't cut it for me. I think you can give all the bubble tests in the world and you can boast at how well you did on those tests as a school, but if you don't really know your students -- if you don't really take the time to ask them what they think about all of it -- then you aren't being 'accountable'.

You are being complacent.

The closest thing to standardized tests I have to deal with at my school is the AP exams. But I don't judge my worth as a teacher based on the AP scores of my Seniors. And I tell my Seniors never to base their opinion of themselves or each other on those scores. There's nothing a three hour test can tell you better than nine-months of classwork.

An analogy:

A woman finds out she is going to have a baby. She spends nine months learning everything she can about childbirth. She takes birthing classes. She talks with other women who have had babies. All the while her body changes. She experiences things in new ways. Her mind develops new and engaging habits of thought related to birth and motherhood. And then the time comes for her to give birth. She is in great pain; she struggles; she feels like she will never make it through. And suddenly the doctor stops the event and leads a stork into the room. Cuddled in a blanket tied hanging from the stork's beak is a baby. "See," says the doctor,"babies really do come from storks!" And the hospital supervisor puts a check mark next to a box that reads 'Successful Delivery'.

The completely unauthentic ending to that story mirrors what I see as the problem with the way in which we use year-end standardized testing -- whether you are talking about state tests or the AP. And in the same way that the stork undermines the very idea of what the process of pregnancy and childbirth is all about in the real world, likewise year-end high-stakes standardized tests undermine the very idea of what the process of authentic ongoing learning is all about in the classroom.

Furthermore, the idea that the best way to evaluate the intellectual development of a student is to give that student a series of questions designed by someone who has never known and who will never know that student is just plain bogus.

Would anyone in their right mind define a distinguished effective teacher as someone who has never even spoken to their students yet who assumes to 'assess' them?

And so my boys spend their days filling in bubbles and I spend mine talking to students. And it's a frustrating place to be as a parent.

I've just cobbled together some of my conversations with students about what they think about being in a paperless classroom and I will be sharing that soon online in iMovie form. In the meantime, I encourage all of you teachers out there stuck giving bubble tests to take the opportunity to talk to your kids; I know that the best of you do. But right now it's really important that you let them know that their lives are not defined by their school's ability to 'account' to anyone.

1 comment:

  1. In MN, we have these same tests. However, we add a written portion in both the math and reading. The problem is still that they aren't being assessed on critical thinking but the ability to find simple facts.

    Great post!


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