As the minutes drag by, warm stagnant air permeates the classroom. Drops of sweat bead up on my forehead.  I crank up the fans one more notch. The doors, normally open to let the fresh air flow in, are tightly closed.

Anxious teachers dutifully shush students as they pass by our classroom on their way to lunch. Both doors have bright yellow “DO NOT DISTURB Testing In Progress” signs taped to them warning passersby of the serious business ensuing inside. But what is happening inside these doors?

Twenty-seven desks arranged neatly in rows each have a freshly charged computer sitting open on top. Twenty-seven young bodies slump languidly in their seats. Some students are fidgeting. Some lean toward the computer screen with squinting eyes. One is cradling his head with both hands making his chestnut brown hair stick out in funny angles. Another stares blankly out the window with both knees pulled up to her chest strangely resembling a fetal position.

Occasionally a hand shoots up and a student whispers hopefully “Mrs. Peroff, I don’t get it….”

I roll out my stock answer: “Please reread the question to help you understand what it’s asking.”

Even this I am not totally sure I am allowed to say. After a year of building relationships with students and families, designing meaningful learning experiences based on individual student interests, collecting relevant qualitative and quantitative data, providing appropriate supports, is this how we, as educators, want to measure learning?

As we focus on preparing our students for a rapidly changing future, educators are obligated to constantly reexamine not only what we are teaching and how we are teaching it but how we choose to assess student learning.

Currently, in addition to specific skills assessed on the test, what it appears we are also testing is a young person’s ability to sit still and stare at a computer screen for literally hours. We are testing their ability to read lengthy directions and then read a passage that may have no connection with their life or personal experience.

Presently, testing does not assess skills essential for the work to be done in our future such as the ability to communicate and collaborate with peers. Also absent is an opportunity for students to apply their learning to solve real problems in their local community. The test does not contain any way to measure social or emotional growth which is crucial to develop mindsets and habits that will help our children navigate and innovate in an uncertain future.

Testing does not assess skills essential for the work to be done in our future such as the ability to communicate and collaborate with peers.

The mandated state testing looks little like the authentic assessments teachers so thoughtfully craft to measure student learning. On a nontesting day students wouldn’t be sitting at their desks completing an assessment of their ability to calculate the perimeter of a school garden. Students would actually be in the school garden with measuring tape in hand physically calculating the garden perimeter in order to plan their next crop cycle to distribute to local homeless shelters.

Other students would be applying their knowledge of area and perimeter to design and build innovative structures to house the homeless. When students have such rich learning experiences as part of their daily school curriculum, it is easy to imagine how students and teachers alike might view the mandated testing as a disturbance rather than an opportunity.

Another area of concern is school atmosphere during testing time. When asking students about testing a common theme emerged. Student after student reported the test being “really long” and “feeling tired.” One student lamented that  she “couldn’t take normal breaks.”

Behind The Times

With all the recent research on the benefits of brain breaks and movement to increase attention, the testing experience seems to be behind the times. Students taking these lengthy tests are truly mini-adults who feel stressed, anxious, bored and confused just like grown-ups do.

There are so many contextual factors that influence their “success” on these assessments that need to be taken into consideration. A student who went to bed late, missed breakfast, or had a fight with mom, may not have a test score that reflects his or her true ability. 

We may not be able to change everything. And perhaps not everything about testing should be changed. Data collected through testing is important to ascertain areas of need and create systems to support students. Additionally, testing data can serve as a useful way for parents to monitor their child’s growth and need areas. Tests  provide longitudinal data to show student and school growth. It also provides a way for states across the nation to compare scores and rank not only students but schools.

One teacher recently shared with me that without supports created in response to data collected from the mandated state test many of her students would be “left in the dust.”  Some students also report gaining a sense of pride from improving their test scores. When questioned about testing, one student told me, “In some parts (of the test) I felt like I knew it all. I was on top of the world.”

No matter what your opinion is on mandated state testing, the reality is that it is not going away anytime soon. The question therefore becomes, how to make it better?

A Teacher’s Voice

It is our responsibility as educators to start hard conversations about how to improve the testing experience for students, teachers and the whole school community. In addition to examining and transforming school testing culture, teachers are in a position to ask questions, think deeply and engage in conversations with each other, principals, superintendents and local policymakers about how we choose to collect and analyze data to measure student learning.

Teacher voice is essential to inform and improve policy around how we measure student learning. 

I think we should take the advice on the door seriously as our future is in the hands of these eager, vibrant, energetic, little humans enclosed in the testing room doors for days at the end of each school year.

Testing should not be a roadblock stalling the joyride of learning at the end of the year. It should be meaningful and impactful. It should be relevant. We should not “disturb” the learning that is happening in and out of the classroom.

By focusing our efforts on providing students opportunities to apply what they have learned and building meaningful connections to how they can use that learning to solve real life problems, we can better equip our students for what we really need them to do: make the world a better place.

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