Opting In

Testing season is upon us. In our Title I elementary school in Central Wisconsin, we have had students preview the computerized assessment. The Chromebooks have been configured and the wireless tested. For the next six weeks, all 3rd through 5th grade students will be taking the Forward Exam, our third different standardized test in as many years.

All of our students except one: My son. He will be sitting this one out.

Our reasons are many. As a parent, I don’t believe the test will glean any useful information about his abilities as a learner. As our school’s principal, I want to set the example with regard to my position on this issue. As a person, having a student sit for multiple hours taking an examination that will have no bearing on his school career makes little to no sense. Students at this age cannot advocate for themselves.

This is not a simple or straightforward decision. Our school has been the recipient of $100,000 in state-level grants for the past three years in large part due to our student achievement results. We have taken pride in receiving these awards, in spite of the reality of how we received them. If other families in our school elected to opt out their kids, our school could lose federal funding – 95% of a school’s student body has to take the test to avoid sanctions. As I said, not so simple.

For these reasons, we are not only opting our son out of this year’s standardized test; we are also opting him into a performance portfolio assessment.

While the rest of the student body is testing, my son and I will be working together to develop an online repository of different artifacts that demonstrate his progress and performance during the school year. Each artifact will be accompanied with a personal reflection about why he included the piece and what knowledge, skill or disposition it showcases about him as a learner. We are using Google Sites for this process. He can take this digital portfolio with him throughout his school career, adding to it and replacing artifacts when appropriate.

I have no problem with families electing to opting their child(ren) out of the standardized test. It certainly makes a point and, collectively, can lead to some much needed change in education. At the same time, when we express our dissatisfaction with something currently happening, I believe we should also be offering some alternatives and creative solutions. Otherwise, we may create a vacuum that gets filled with something pretty similar to the problem we were trying to get rid of in the first place.

If we are opting out our kids of the standardized test, let’s be honest about why with them. When I spoke to my son about this decision, I explained that I believe developing a performance portfolio of his best work from the school year was a better way to showcase his learning than a standardized test. (He responded with, “I’m not sure what you are talking about, so I’ll just go with it.”) I also shared with him that this decision was both taking a position on an important issue and offering a solution to the problem.

Opting out is easy. Coming up with solutions is harder, yes, but it is also an essential part of advocating for equity in public education. Why not be a part of the solution?

Say “No” to Test Pep Rallies

Ah yes, testing season is once again upon us. Proctor meetings are hosted. Test booklets are counted. Student labels come in, albeit at the very last minute. So much work, so little learning.

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photo credit: Alexandra Campo via photopin cc

As I was mulling over what I still needed to do to ensure that these assessments would be administered with fidelity, I wondered about whether there were any effects from schools doing test pep rallies. These events are when the student body is brought into the gymnasium to get pumped up for the upcoming exams. The idea (I think; I have never hosted a test pep rally myself) is to motivate the students to do the very best they can on these tests. While I do take time every year to do an item analysis of how we did on last year’s assessments, we only use this information to guide our instruction. If we can briefly ignore that these tests are tied to school report cards, they can be helpful in finding general strengths and gaps in our curriculum and instruction.

I did a quick Internet search on this topic and came across a post by Jon Robinson (The 21st Century Principal, @21stprincipal). After discussing his own search for answers and evidence, he shared three sound reasons for why schools shouldn’t host test pep rallies:

  • “Test Pep Rallies” might actually harm students and learning. For example, pumping a student up by telling him he’s going to “pass the test” when he fails, obviously is not a boon to self-confidence. In addition, the emphasis that Test Pep Rallies place on tests could foster bubble-sheet learning rather than learning that focuses on problem solving and creativity.
  • “Test Pep Rallies” might also reinforce the “Test-Prep” culture found in many schools today due to No Child Left Behind. In those schools we are confident “getting-ready-for-the-test” takes precedence over everything else. Art and other non-tested courses are tossed out in favor of tested subjects.
  • “Test Pep Rallies” might just be a waste of time. Because there’s no research on their effectiveness to do what they’re designed to do, continuing them year after year might be based on hope and wishful thinking rather than solid evidence.

I found his argument very compelling. Of the three rationale, I connected most with his belief that test pep rallies might actually harm students and learning. When a school takes time out of the instructional day for this type of activity, what type of message are we sending to our students and faculty? This is not acknowledging the fact that we are pulling students out of their learning environments for this event in the first place. When we create artificial enthusiasm within this context, I think it comes across as disingenuous with our students, families, and community. How might this affect our relationships and level of trust with our most important stakeholders in our school?

Please join me in refraining from hosting any type of test pep rallies this fall. Let your students know what you value in both your words and deeds.

Getting On My Soapbox: Standardized Testing

I recently read Annie Murphy Paul’s article in Time titled Relax, It’s Only a Test. Below is the comment I posted on her blog citing the same article.

Thank you for writing about this topic Annie. I have shared your posts often with my educator colleagues.

As I read, some questions came to mind:
– Why are we administering exams that create anxiety in the first place? Do the benefits outweigh the effects? Who benefits?
– How much learning time is lost with the addition of these interventions to reduce anxiety? (Learning time is already reduced due to standardized tests.)
– Even if we can mitigate the anxiety created by these tests, are we getting a truly valid and reliable measure of what our students know and are able to do?
– A multitude of studies show a positive correlation with formative assessment and improved student learning (see: McTighe, Wiggins, Guskey, Fisher, Wiliams, Marzano). What would happen if the 1.6 billion dollars were reallocated toward using formative assessment as our preferred method of measuring student learning?
– How might these distant, standardized tests negatively affect relationships and trust between the teacher and their students?

I know that this is not the focus of what you wrote and I don’t expect you or anyone to change the current testing climate any time soon. I am just curious about your broader perspective regarding high stakes testing as a whole.

When I hear about how we can help our students better manage their anxiety in response to high stakes testing, I believe we miss a more important point: Why are we doing this in the first place?