It’s late spring, and for those of you who know much about education, you know that means we are living through spring testing. We started ILEARN testing this week. ILEARN is the Indiana summative accountability measure for the state of Indiana. The testing window opened last week, and each afternoon since it opened, I have been spending a little more than an hour as a proctor in a fourth-grade classroom.

If you’ve followed my blog for any significant amount of time, you probably know that I get jazzed up for making learning exciting. I love for our schools and our classrooms to be places of joy. The vast majority of times that I walk into classrooms in our school, that is what’s happening. You see, learning is never a quiet activity. One of my professors in college drilled a phrase into us: “Learning is social.” She encouraged us to work in groups, to discuss, to collaborate, to challenge one another so that we could all learn. She constantly reminded us that we would need to do the same type of thing when we had classrooms of our own. To put it another way, she taught us that “The smartest person in the room is the room” (I’ve heard this quote from multiple sources but believe it can first be attributed to David Weinberger). That mindset of social learning followed me for most of my teaching career – sure there were moments where we had to be quiet, but if you walked into my science classroom on most days, students were actively involved in labs, gathering data, doing research, etc.

In fact, if I’m being completely honest, when I walk into a classroom where it is totally silent, I often find myself thinking “What’s wrong?” or “Where is the learning?”

I think that’s part of why I struggle with the testing season so much. I’ve long believed that a child is so much more than a test score. I have seen students who should have been able to soar through the state assessment have a meltdown because of test anxiety. I’ve also personally witnessed a child who probably didn’t read any of the questions end up with an amazing score because of lucky guesses. How they do on a single assessment on a single day may not tell us a whole lot about who that child is.

Recently, I have seen some really well-reasoned arguments on both sides of the assessment spectrum. A recent article from The Fordham Institute argues that assessment data is needed, this year in particular, for 3 reasons: state assessments gauge where students are against grade-level expectations; state assessments provide an “external audit” of proficiency that complements course grades and diagnostic tests; baseline state assessment data is essential to tracking progress moving forward.

On the other side, a recent ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) guest post shares some of the things that make standardized testing problematic any year, not just this year. Some of the reasons include: standardized tests don’t provide feedback on how to perform better; standardized tests don’t value creativity; standardized tests don’t value diversity; standardized tests cause teachers to spend more time “teaching to the test.” This article didn’t even really go into the problems of the added stress that is put onto students when being given a standardized test in a year that has been anything but normal.

The reality is that while I have my personal opinions about standardized assessment, I can’t make up quite which way to go. As an administrator, I know that data helps drive our decision-making processes to be able to better support our students. That data can also be utilized to drive professional learning for our teachers. I also know that a test environment creates stress that can literally be felt when you enter a room during testing time.

Last week, while I was in the testing environment, we were giving a math test. It was a multiple-choice computer adaptive test. What that means is that as you answer questions the following questions are adjusted based on whether your previous answers were correct or incorrect to allow for a more individual test with more precise data about a student. During this math assessment, I saw a student in tears because the test was so hard. Even though we had encouraged students to simply do their best, and not worry about the outcome, this kiddo broke down in tears. At another moment, there was a student who leaned back in his chair and simply stared at the ceiling. When I made my way over to check-in, he said “This is hard. How many more questions are there?” The assessment ended up have 45 questions. He was on number 6.

What I find in practice is that state assessments take the joyful classroom learning environment that we have worked so hard to build and suck all the joy out of it. As I write this, we are nearing the end of the second week of testing, and even I am feeling worn down by the stress it creates. Is this what we want for our kids?

We’re spending several hours a day for 6-7 days in our third and fourth-grade classes on standardized tests. It takes away from time that could be spent on more meaningful learning opportunities. It takes time away from our students digging into projects with their classmates that can help solve problems in our school and community. Plus, because of our Covid-19 protocols, our school day is already shorter than normal. In practice, when you take out that time each day for testing, we are losing the opportunity to extend learning on at least one of the subjects we would normally be working with. Not to mention the fact that it causes stress on our students – kids who struggle feel inadequate, kids who are perfectionists will never think they did well enough, kids who don’t test well might simply shut down or break down from the stress.

The reality is that for our students’ futures, simply having content knowledge isn’t what will make them successful, but rather what students are able to do with the knowledge that they have (For more on that, check out previous posts here and here). It’s time we really start rethinking standardized assessment. We need much more of a focus on performance-based assessments, where students actually have to do something with what they know.

On the bright side, I do have to give some credit. In the ILEARN, there are performance task sections. In the performance task, students have to read passages, analyze data, and then respond to questions about the passages or data. While these tests can be challenging for our students, they are more in line with the future-ready skills that our students will need in order to be successful. And as an added bonus, they don’t seem to be as stressful for the kids because even they realize that all the information they need is right there. The scores on performance tasks are based more on how they use that information. And because of the way the assessments are structured, teaching to the test would actually be in line with some of the better practices that we’re trying to use in our classrooms! Now if we can work towards an assessment system that is completely focused on performance-based assessments, and less on adaptive tests, we might better serve our kids and what their future holds.

What are your thoughts on standardized tests? Are there positives you see? Negatives? Has any of what I’ve shared above caused you to rethink assessment? Let me know in the comments below.

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