More Testing Does Not Produce Smarter Kids

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I’m lying in bed reading my favorite romance novel – I could lie and say Romeo and Juliet, but too many people know what I read and would start to laugh – and take a break to do some Facebooking.

What pops up is the news that the State of Confusion (a state I previously taught in, that I won’t name) is introducing a new test to replace the current national test they are using –  PARCC – which I believe stands for Performance Anxiety Required for all Children Consistently.  While PARCC desperately needs replacing, it is the worst test I saw in over three decades of teaching, I am not optimistic that the State of Confusion will do better with the next replacement test.

Let me do a little mental review.  I am trying to remember what tests we were using when I began my teaching career.  I was teaching in a multi-handicapped deaf preschool in the south in the early 80’s.  Honestly this was not a population that you needed to waste valuable teaching time “testing”.  Think Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan. And I don’t believe we did waste time with testing.  We spent every hour, minute, and second trying to break through to these kids, to teach them how to communicate.

So, I next end up in another southern state, teaching in a gifted program, and the testing climate starts to ratchet up.  I recall entire staffs being rewarded with monetary payments if scores improved.  I happened to be shared by two schools.  In one school, scores went up, so I was rewarded as being an outstanding teacher.  The other school – in my honest opinion the better school, but with a needier population – the scores did not go up, so I was not rewarded, because I was not a worthy teacher – as evidenced by my current use of run on sentences and made up punctuation.

Now I move up the eastern seaboard (no – school systems were not throwing me out, even with my predilection for run on sentences) and I spend the next twenty-plus years dealing with one “high stakes” test after another.  I forget all the acronyms – hysterical amnesia – but the best one (I’m being sarcastic) was the one where the school got the grade, not the child.  Individual scores weren’t reported.  However, an absent child counted as a zero.  I believe the state was terrified that we would expose struggling children to chicken pox so their scores wouldn’t count.  So, and I am not making this up – my daughter, fourth grade gets the flu, during this test.  I stay home and miss the test at my school (silver lining). I get a phone call from her school.  Can she come in?  They need her score.  They don’t want a zero.  I inform the school she can’t come in as she is throwing up.  The response, “Ummm, how often, can she take the test between bouts of throwing up?”  Not making this up folks, I am not that creative.

This test also involved pulling staff for weeks before to prepare all the materials, weeks to give the test, and then weeks demoralizing staff over results.  And let’s not forget the time spent on testing pep rallies, learning testing cheers, producing testing videos….  Is there intelligent life in the Department of Education?  Beam me up Scotty!

We then moved to another test. Question, if this test was so wonderful that we used weeks giving it, and then months terrorizing staff over it, why was it replaced?  Just asking.  If I recall correctly, this one wasn’t that bad. The problem was the data was being used to really terrorize entire schools. Like, worse than ever.  And there was no interpretation of data beyond the actual score.  No thought as to what the data was actually showing.  No thought as to what was impacting the data.  A special education child enters a school in fourth grade as a non-reader.  The year ends with that child reading on a second-grade level.  Wow!  Huge Growth!  Major Success!  Wrong…failure…kid not reading on grade level.

Let’s use some common-sense folks.  If kids are coming from a high socio-economic area with multiple advanced degree parents in each house, let’s be stunned when those kids outperform kids from struggling households. Let’s be stunned when children in general education outperform children in special education.  Let’s gasp in shock when Tara Lipinksi can skate better than I can.  (This has nothing to do with anything except that I love figure skating, this is my blog, and I had not been able to work in a reference to figure skating yet.)

Homes where Shakespeare is discussed will produce students who can do better on a test about Shakespeare.  I am not sure though, that this equates to children who will grow up to be more productive adults.  Not my house – we exposed our kids to science fiction and the VHS tape set of North and South, which is why my children aced the Civil War tests in American History – because their mother was in love with Patrick Swayze. (OK…I am not even sure where to begin to fix that previous sentence, so I’ll just leave it.)  Let’s fire principals and terrorize teachers who are working in the neediest schools.  And let’s reward those that are in the buildings with kids who will learn if no one shows up to teach them.  Makes sense to me.  (This whole paragraph doesn’t work…no wonder they ran me out of so many states!)

What’s the accountability answer? I’m not sure.  Somehow we need to look for growth in each child. Growth as a learner and as a person. I’m not sure there is a test for this.  And realize that when kids come to school from families that are struggling to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, you aren’t going to see the same growth as kids who can spend more time with Authentic educational experiences at home (reading Sci Fi, watching Star Trek, and reciting all three VHS tapes of North and South by heart).  And honestly, with the pace at which our world is changing, our children are going to be doing jobs in the future that we can’t even imagine.  We want to raise children who think outside the box, don’t color in the lines, don’t follow the line-leader, write in run-on sentences, and change the world.

I am not suggesting we write those kids off who come from lower socio-economic households.  On the contrary, let’s put those kids in schools where teachers not only have the time to teach – not test and not “teaching to the test” – but can really teach and reach every child. Let’s give every child this opportunity. Major plug for Authentic teaching and Authentic learning here.

We have wasted the last three-plus decades trying to figure out how to test achievement and we haven’t figured that out.  Every year that I taught we spent (wasted) more and more time on testing instead of teaching. An enormous amount of time! HUGE amount of time. So how do we test Authentic achievement?  How do we produce smarter kids? Maybe with a leap of faith.  Let teachers teach, not test, and let the kids learn.

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