I owe this blog post to fellow #elemchat moderator/educator extraordinaire Pernille Ripp, whose blog is one I never miss. She is one of those gifted writers who magically and beautifully puts into words ideas that I often share, though her version is usually much more eloquent than mine. Her blog posts never fail to provide food for thought, and I come away from her blog with a feeling of inspiration and with every read, a slightly clearer vision/philosophy of education.
One of the areas where I believe Pernille and I definitely see eye-to-eye is that of testing and grades. A recent post of hers inspired the following comment (sorry about the long comment, Pernille!) which I thought I’d also share here. See, that’s the kind of educator Pernille is – one who inspires me to act, and to reflect on how to be a better teacher. So, thank you, Pernille, and, for better or worse, here are a few thoughts about testing.
I have the luxury of working in an environment where numerical grades are not used, and I am able to limit the number of tests and quizzes to a bare minimum. Students and teachers use rubrics and – (get ready for this) – ongoing dialogue – conversations (what a concept!) to discuss progress and growth with students. That said, every year, twice a year, standardized tests waltz in and upset this equilibrium. We do 1 writing test (ERB) and 1 Reading/Writing/Math test (Terra Nova).
Standardized tests have always perplexed me. Particularly in a setting like ours, where more that 70% of our students are not American… When students are given a writing prompt asking them to describe a visit to a pet shelter – and most of them have never even seen the inside of a pet shelter, there is little to do but smile weakly and say “Do your best – your results will not change what I already know about your abilities” (though, to be frank, it can be quite amusing to read stories about pet shelters housing llamas, chickens and venomous snakes!). I tell them that it is our school program that is being evaluated first and foremost, and I do what I can to make the day as fun and lighthearted as possible – we play silly games to silly music during breaks, all the while my heart is silently apologizing to them over and over for the ordeal I am putting them through. And, because they are fantastic kids, better people than most, they put their game face on and give it their honest best. Standardized test time is the only time of the year when I feel like a fraud, when my actions run counter current to my philosophy. It is the only time when I cannot be completely genuine with my students, and tell them how I really feel.
This year, I am toying with the idea of reading aloud a book I only recently discovered (don’t know how it escaped my attention) called The Report Card, by Andrew Clements. This is a book that tells the story of a gifted student, Nora, who exposes some of the myriad shortcomings and negative effects of tests by purposefully doing poorly and sending the adults – parents, teachers, administrators and counselors all a-tizzy. It is only when they stop looking at the data, and begin a true conversation with Nora that they really discover what an extraordinary child she is.
It’s time to drop the charade. If schools are to prepare kids for real life, it’s time we stop subjecting our students to contrived measures that may or may not be commensurate with what they’ve learned, may or may not be formulated in ways that allow students to express themselves in modes that suit their learning and expressive styles, and certainly will not tell me, as a teacher, anything I don’t already know about how best to help each child move forward. Like the librarian in The Report Card, it’s time to be honest with myself and the students about how I feel about the tests they are required to take, and help them, like Nora, make the best of it and get on with the “real” stuff.