The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Reflections on Testing

Way back in my first year of teaching here at Wiley, I found myself reflecting on the curious wording the Emergency Alert Broadcast System that used to conduct regular tests. I remember hearing the distinctive tone sound over the radio or see the test pattern and tone on the television as I was growing up, always followed by this message:

“This has been a test. This has only been a test of the Emergency Alert System. In the case of an actual emergency, you would be directed to tune in to your local news agency. Again, this has been a test.”

test

My students are in the midst of their annual state-mandated standardised testing cycle. Illinois, along with 17 other states, has partnered with the the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College or Careers (PARCC) to develop an end-of-the-year standardised test that sees how well students have mastered the rigorous content standards known as the Common Core State Standards.

Now, right away I know that there were two terms in that previous paragraph that set off alarm bells for my some of readers: PARCC and Common Core. It should not be a surprise to any of my regular readers (all 22 of you according to the WordPress statistics) that I am not opposed to either. I understand and see the value in broad-scope standardised assessment that can be used at a macro level (district, state, nation) to give a snapshot of student achievement. I don’t support the high-stakes component of such testing that requires every student in every class in every designated grade to take the test or see the school subjected to penalties or fines. And I don’t particularly think that the standardised assessments as we give them are the best way to assess students. (In fact, I am much more in favour of dynamic measures that get increasingly complex as students demonstrate mastery so that I know where my students are actually at instead of, as is often the case, where they are not.)

And you will never find me speaking ill of rigourous standards for learning, such as the Common Core State Standards, even if I believe that they have some flaws. Finally, let me remind you that standards do not dictate curricula and curricula do not dictate how I teach; standards tell me where my students should be, curricula provide a roadmap for getting there, but, ultimately, I am the one who makes the instructional decisions in my classroom.

So, with all of that said, I’ve noticed three typical approaches from my students as we have started this testing cycle: some students want to rush through and just be done with it. Some take every second possible to respond then check and re-check their work. Most students are somewhere in the middle. Some students want to do well because they care deeply about always doing everything well. Some honestly don’t care. Most want to do well because they know it is what their parents and teachers want.

Here’s the thing, though: it is only a test. Or, more specifically, it is only test. One of the most common themes about testing I have heard in my school district since I started working here in 2011 is that we never define any of our students by one metric, one rubric, one test, one datum. We look at all of the data. We look at all of the students’ work. We look at students as a group and we look at their individual work. The Urbana School District #116 mission statement says, in part, that we will “ensure that all learners acquire knowledge, develop skills, and build character to achieve personal greatness.” I have been told that the last two words were coined by an Urbana High School student.

“Personal greatness.”

I don’t compare my students to each other. I don’t compare them to their siblings, older or younger. I don’t compare them to other students. I don’t compare them to their parents or other family members. I only compare them to themselves. I want to see each of my students achieve personal greatness by doing better tomorrow than they did yesterday. Each day a chance for learning, for improvement, for growth.

And the tests?

They are just tests. They just let me know where they are in that one small moment. The test scores help me plan instruction, they help me know how to help my students learn. They guide and inform, but they never define.

“This has been a test. This has only been a test of the Emergency Alert System. In the case of an actual emergency, you would be directed to tune in to your local news agency. Again, this has been a test.”

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