The Tests That Matter

Last week, families received back the state test results from this past school year. Within a few days, I received several emails from parents telling me how their kids did in my class last year. Most were very positive (i.e “What did you do? My child is advanced!”), and a few were concerned (“My child dropped x-number of points. What can I do to help?”). Ironically, no one told me their child scored the same as the previous year. The reason this all sticks to me is that each parent who emailed me told me they really don’t care about the tests. And I know they really don’t. So, then, why does it matter? Well, it matters because we have been conditioned to ensure it matters. Newspapers devote articles to successful or failing statistics. Schools are labeled “program improvement schools” if they don’t perform, and then lose their best students to a better school; students are labeled as “below basic” if they are 4 points under the basic line, and targeted as needing improvement; endless staff meetings are spent dissecting which students are within range of making it to proficient, and then entire discussions ensue about how teachers will target those specific kids so that the school’s percentage of “proficient and advanced” students increases. Administrators are pleased when the kids produce an exceptional art project, but they celebrate when their API score meets the target.

This is one of the reasons I am grateful to not have to focus on standardized tests this year, because I can’t support the labeling, dissection, and “targeted improvement” which (often) negatively impacts kids and families, and creates more stress for teachers. I know that these are not the tests that matter, and so do most of you. These tests have come at a premium: art class, creativity, teacher innovation, time to explore, learning in context and through projects, you name it. Is it any surprise that stress-related issues in school have only increased with the rise of standardized testing?

Okay, I do understand there is some value there. How else can we determine some benchmark, or some agreed-upon course of study? How else can the state provide funding to schools, when they are so removed from the actual school, unless there is some measure that the school is providing the state’s mandated standards? But, to assess a child’s worth, a teacher’s worth, or a school’s worth on the outcomes of one week of tests is missing the point, and reducing an education to isolated, sometimes even trivial, skills.

When your child was born, did you hold him or her in your arms and dream about how he or she might one day excel at standardized tests? Doubtful. What you probably dreamt about was your child excelling at the tests that matter. You imagined him hitting the ball out of the park and scoring a home run, after years of practicing on the team. You imagined her finding her passion as an artist, then continuing until she opened up her first exhibit. You imagined him garnering respect for standing up for what he believed in, and orating to an audience from a podium. You imagined her on that stage, singing and dancing, with utter confidence, after countless early morning rehearsals. That a child can think, discuss, debate, analyze, create, imagine, stand for their values, be herself, meet a deadline, connect with others, choose wisely, apply math facts to complex problems, use common sense, read a map, be aware of dangers yet take risks…

Those are the tests that matter.