Two hours of each of the first four weeks of my daughter’s second week of 3rd grade school year was spent taking national standardized tests. This was her first experiences with these tests and based on her self-report they were all but enjoyable. Each day I asked her about the test that was taken that day. Each conversation followed a format similar to the following:
“How was the test?”
“Horrible, I hate tests”
“How hard did you have to work to complete the test?”
“Really hard (depending on the test topic)”
“That’s all you can do. Work as hard as you can and do the best you can”
Was this the best way to talk about test taking with her? I’m not positive, but research suggests it is. Focus on effort not outcome, is what one of the main take-aways from Carol Dweck’s research people cite. The good thing is that, according to the average student in the U.S. I will have at least 111 more times between now and her high school graduation to revise my response. That’s how many standardized tests we can expect her to take.
The Pain Doesn’t End There
Perhaps the conversation above is not the most important conversation to have in relation to test taking…or maybe life in general.
About a week later the results from the test came in the mail. As her father I of course wanted to know how my daughter’s math and literacy skills and knowledge compared to her district peers and the national average. Then she asked what I was reading and I told her, with a certain level of discomfort, “They’re your test scores from the tests you took last week.”
“How’d I do?”
I sat on the couch reading and showing her the results.
For much of my adult life my moto with competition has been “don’t compare your growth to others, compare your growth to yourself. So, with a cringe I said, “there are [x] number of children who got higher scores than you and [x] of children who go lower scores than you.”
Leaning across me looking at the graph she said, “So, I did good.”
“Well, you worked hard and you did your best, so, yes” I responded…and immediately rethought my responses. Within seconds she was skipping away disinterested.
I could not let go.
I ruminated on and off for a day or two on how in the world anyone could consider asking a 3rd grader to sit in front of a computer for two hours multiple sequential days a reasonable idea. Especially since the tests have no bearing on the classroom instruction. It is solely another reinforcer for identifying deficits in children and providing children/parents/teachers with a false sense of what it means to be a smart capable person at a school that is better than other schools. Nowhere in the tests, and in school for that matter are children learning that their ability to work with one another, share ideas, and help people when they need help are important life skills.
My Second Chance
The following day she provided an opportunity to continue the conversations.
“Dad, I don’t want to take tests again.”
“I know. I didn’t, and still don’t like taking tests. The problem is that the way schools work now, if we want education at a school we have to take tests. You’ll be taking them for a long time. I still take tests. Just like you, I need to do my best on the tests in order to have the opportunity to do the job I want to do. And if you don’t do well, that’s ok. There are more important things in life.”
“Can I be home schooled. If I was home schooled, would I need to take tests?”
“I’m not sure, but we don’t want you to be home school. We want you to go to your school where you learn how to be part of a learning community. It’s important to mommy and me that you learn how to work in a community and interact with different children. Also, mommy and I need to work so we could teach you.”
She and I talked about jobs and the skills people need for most jobs that help our community work; police officers, teachers, doctors, nurses, people who work in stores and restaurants, etc.
“All of the people contribute to our community and help make it a better place to live.”
“I still don’t ever want to take a test again.”
“I know my love, but the tests help your school get money to make it a better school. You’ll need to take tests and all you can do is prepare for taking the test.”
My Insight as a Teacher
The purpose of testing should be to gather information about children’s current abilities and then make decisions on how to provide effective quality experiences that promote optimal growth. Using them for funding, school status markers, or other political reasons is harmful to children and cause many children extreme anxiety that was not a source of anxiety until the early 2000s. Additionally, the test tend to be a poor measure for many, if not a majority of children’s skills and they create or reinforce biases against children by parents, teachers, and administrators.
What is the solution? Well, I’ll leave it up to you to do a little bit of your own research using keywords you think are the most relevant. Perhaps this blog post has helped you identify a few of those words. Check out this Ted Radio Hour Episode for more insight.