Mandated Testing: What Students Really Need

I’m not anybody all that important. I’m just one public school teacher. One among about three and a half million. I don’t get to be the person who makes the big decisions; I’m the one who gets them handed to me. And, unfortunately, I’ve kind of gotten used to the decision-making folks not listening to me. I dunno; maybe that’s why I’m as opinionated as I am.

I know that the decision-making folks are really, really busy, and they’ve got a lot of people who want to be listened to. 

By the time I release this on my channel, we’ll be a few weeks into the 2021 school year. As I’m sitting here writing this script, it’s Day 7. I have 32 students enrolled in my English II class. It’s during the block when we have lunch, so I’m with these students from 11:25 until 1:40. In less than a week, I knew all their names. 

Part of that is because of a new activity I incorporated this year – the Five-Day Feedback Form, AKA “name tents” – which I’m going to do a video about later on. 

On Monday and Tuesday, I had thirty students present. Yesterday it was sixteen. 

Image: An empty classroom

Some of them emailed me, saying things like, “I’ve been quarantined; what do I need to work on?” or “I looked at Google Classroom but I’m kind of confused.” 

Today, just after class started, the intercom beeped and two more students were asked to come to the office and bring their things with them. Just before lunch, there was another beep, and one more student was dismissed. Ten minutes before the bell to end class, two more. I have no idea what things will look like tomorrow.

We’re not officially doing remote or hybrid learning, but I added a Google Meet option for that course and ran it during class. A few students logged in.

Most of them I just haven’t heard from. I hope they’re okay. They probably are. But I don’t actually know, and that’s hard.

It’s hard, because you care. You care SO MUCH, and you do what you can, and sometimes it’s just … it’s not enough. 

You know this going in. That part actually isn’t different from any other year. As a teacher, you know you, personally, are not going to make a significant, positive difference to every single student. You have to be able to make your peace with that or you just can’t continue as a teacher.

But what IS different this year is the level of need. Across the board, students are struggling more than ever, and NOT just academically (although that too). They are frustrated, they are tired, they are discouraged, they are uncertain, they are lonely, they are confused. They are angry. They feel cheated and betrayed. 

In case you’re worried about me, I’m all right. Not great – honestly, if I WAS great right now, you should worry – but I’m all right. I’m fortunate to have an incredible support system. It’s hard, but at this point I feel pretty confident that I’ll make it through and I’ll come out okay on the other side. If you want to make me feel better, you can leave me a comment!

Anyway. All that is to set the groundwork for what this video is actually going to be about: state mandated standardized testing. 

I already did a video about this back in February, when President Biden’s Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, decided that what would be best for our nation’s students would be no-stakes standardized testing. 

The thing is, I was not personally invested in that decision, as the courses I taught already were ones that didn’t have state exams. But I knew that my students would have exams in some of their other classes, so I encouraged them to do their best, even though the tests wouldn’t affect their grade or course completion. I told them that the information we gathered from their performance on the exams would help us understand how COVID-19 affected student learning, and that was important. They seemed to take that into consideration, at least.

And then as we got into the days when the tests were being administered, I started hearing from other teachers. Ones who were proctoring exams.

I wonder if people outside of teaching have ever heard “Christmas tree” used as a verb. For those of you who don’t know, it refers to filling out one of these – a Scantron form – in a zigzag pattern (DCBA-ABCD-DCBA-ABCD, and so on).

Image: A Scantron form being filled in with pencil.

State exams aren’t given on paper any more, so the process isn’t quite the same. But at the end of last year, teachers were talking about how students were closing their test programs after five or ten minutes, saying that they were done. Something tells me that they weren’t really putting forth their best effort.

Because of this, the results of those exams will tell us next to nothing at all about student learning. What they illustrate is student compliance.  But the thing is, that’s true of all mandated standardized tests – though generally to a lesser degree.

As I explained in my previous video, I understand the intent of these tests, and of attaching funding to them. We want to ensure that students are being treated fairly, that the funding provided will effectively support their education and achievement. We want to know that schools aren’t favoring some students while neglecting others, or favoring teaching methods that are less effective but familiar. 

But there’s a wealth of research that shows that extrinsic, carrot-and-stick motivators create more problems than they solve. Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards came out back in 1993. And the consequences attached to the exams that loom over students like the blade of Poe’s nightmarish pendulum, sweeping closer with every stroke, create an environment that does not remotely facilitate curiosity, exploration, or taking risks, all of which are vital for meaningful learning.

We know that in order for assessment to be useful in guiding instruction, timely feedback is essential. State exams happen at the end of the term, and schools often don’t get scores back for several weeks. Likewise, we also know that attitude and achievement are intimately linked, and these tests tell educators nothing at all about patterns in attitude that could be helpful in shaping programs to benefit students.

The pandemic has forced schools to make unprecedented changes that, let’s be honest, we weren’t ready for, and haven’t been adequately supported in implementing. But it’s given us the opportunity to examine what we’ve been doing and make significant changes that could make real improvement in what we provide to our students.

Secretary Cardona, Dr. Biden… Mr. President? I dunno if you’ll ever see this. But here’s what we need.

State exams ought to be informative, not punitive. That means that they shouldn’t take resources away from instruction nearly to the extent that they do, either in terms of how much they cost financially, or in terms of how much time teachers and students have to spend on getting through them. 

Results need to come back to schools within a week. Ideally, state exams should be midterms, not finals, so that these results can actually be put to use within the same course, with the same students and the same teacher. 

And most importantly, these exams absolutely must include a survey component that allows students to describe their own perceptions of their educational experiences. Again, this should not be punitive. But it would be helpful for teachers to be made aware of how their actions and interactions come across to their students. We care about our students, but they can’t read our minds. So sometimes they don’t see it. And when that happens, this sort of data gathering can help us understand what we can say or do differently, so that our students realize just how much they matter to us.

We have a chance to make changes that will benefit our students. There is no reason not to do this. So let’s do it.

You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.

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