The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As the weather warms up and we approach the end of the year, there’s one thing on the minds of all educators – testing season. Although end of year summative tests have always been a part of the public school environment, it’s really been since the advent of No Child Left Behind that testing has become more than just a singular event, it’s become an entire season. With that in mind, it behooves us to have a discussion about how to make the most of a requirement that you may not always agree with.
Even though the saying is the good, the bad, and the ugly, let’s start with what bad testing looks like because it’s more cathartic. Bad testing is when testing and test prep completely overtakes the time and culture within the school building. Children do nothing but exercises that mimic what the test will look like. Teachers do nothing but talk about the test, and about how what the students are doing is important because it is going to be tested. The joy, wonder, and discovery of an effective educational program is stripped away, leaving nothing but the test as the overarching purpose for attending school every day. Bad testing is when children are no longer seen as individuals, but data points within a specific a category of student. For example, “we need to work on the ability of this student to decode words because they are Hispanic and have limited English proficiency, and those are two categories where our passage rates are low.” When we do this, we stop looking at the needs of students holistically and focus on their testing needs to the detriment of all else. We start teaching the same skills and concepts to all students because we know it will be tested on the standardized tests at the end of the year. This is detrimental to the needs of all learners, as those that need accelerated and enriched instruction are left completing assignments that are not challenging to them, and students who need targeted skill work are given tasks to complete without the appropriate support and scaffolding.
Now that we’ve railed against testing and gotten it out of our system, let’s have a conversation about how to make the most out of administering standardized tests. First, like it or not, standardized tests like PARCC are here to stay. If or when PARCC goes away, rest assured that another test will take its place. Standardized tests are also used to gauge macro student learning, so shouldn’t we at least do something to put our students in a position to be successful? Some teachers view even the mere mention of test prep as anathema and are unwilling to think about potential connections between good classroom instruction and testing. But what if I said you should teach your students how to respond to a question that asked them to compare and contrast? You can give students four choices in response to a question, have them pick the best one, and explain why they made that choice. Assign students a problem that requires mathematical thinking and have them solve it with no other support from you, the teacher. I would argue that all of these strategies are different forms of test preparation that aren’t teaching to the test. Standardized tests ask students to complete all of the aforementioned tasks in one form or another. There is nothing inherently bad about doing work like that in the classroom and teaching students to use those same thinking processes on a standardized test. Additionally, studies have shown that some computer based tests can be a challenge for students with a lower socioeconomic status, thereby furthering the achievement gap, and not presenting a true window into what the students actually knows and can do. Properly preparing your students to take a standardized test, by incorporating strategic thinking into their regular work, and familiarizing them with a computer-based system, allows their score to better reflect their abilities.
If you, as a classroom teacher, decide that all you want to do is prepare students for a standardized test, you will most likely end up fostering an “ugly” classroom. I don’t have any data to support this, but I would bet that schools that focus on testing above all else lose teachers at a higher rate. Teachers don’t go into the profession to create the best test-takers in the country, they go into the profession because they love working with children and seeing how each individual grows and flourishes at their own rate. Conversely, if you want to stick your head in the sand and pretend like standardized tests don’t exist, you’ll end up with “ugly” results. Like it or not, using data from test results has the potential to impact teacher practice in a positive manner. Educators should strive to create a happy medium that allows for the skilled practitioner to create a classroom that excites students and inspires them to learn, while at the same time asking students to take what they’re learning and apply it to the format of a standardized test.