29 Apr More Than A Number, More Than A Letter
I, and everyone else, have been thinking a lot about testing.
I have been thinking about good tests and bad tests and what they actually measure. The times I have appreciated tests and the times I have not.
I, personally, am tested most when I go to the doctor. Every time I go, the nurse tests my blood pressure and it measures, roughly, 5000/2000. It seems as though my blood vessels are on the verge of exploding. Doctors have expressed genuine concern and fear about whether or not I am going to make it through the next 15 minutes. How could I survive with this kind of blood pressure?
Fortunately for me, I now have a lovely and responsive doctor who has long since realized something: the cuff in my arm is not actually testing my blood pressure, its testing my anxiety level. I have a terrible, horrible, irrational fear of the doctor’s office. I get in there, I start looking at literature, I start googling disorders on my phone. By time the nurse gets in the room I am self diagnosed with something that was last seen in the middle ages and I am making a last will and testament on the notes function of my phone. Once my doctor realized that, he realized all my blood pressure readings were essentially garbage. So like any good practitioner, he changed his protocol so he could get the data he wanted- my day to day blood pressure. I calm down once I get through the exam, so now they check it at the end and have confirmed: I don’t actually HAVE high blood pressure.
Do you see where I am going with this?
What are we actually measuring when we test kids?
Do our assessments give us honest results that inform instruction, or are we essentially finding out who has text anxiety, and who has some visual spatial issues and never gets the dots filled in right?
Let me be clear: well designed assessment is critical, it helps map my teaching daily. But I need assessments I trust. I do not teach in a so called “testing” grade, but I trust my colleagues, and if they say the recent NYS ELA test measured nonsense, then I believe them. In the primary grades, many schools are using independent reading levels as measures of student learning and growth. A tool (running records) that once was thought of as a way to learn about a child’s reading behaviors for purposes of targeted instruction, is now seen by some as a “test” that kids need to “pass”, as in “He passed the book and is now level –.” That sentence erases and undermines the whole point of giving a running record- learning about a child’s habits and behaviors as a reader. To go one step further, if we emphasize only reading level we can lose sight of the child. It’s like declaring you know everything about a person because you know their shoe size. Don’t get me wrong. I love running records, they are one hugely helpful tool in my diagnostic arsenal, my reading blood pressure cuff so to speak, but they exist in a context. If you think one book, or one test, can tell you about a whole child or a whole school, you are wrong.
What does it mean to learn? What does it mean to grow? What do we measure when we assess students? Where on the data can I show the student that used to hide when he was confronted with a challenge, who now relishes them? Where do I write about the way a disparate group of kids became a community and rallied over saving a tipping block structure? How do I show that a center changed their play space from a pet store to a shelter because they thought it was better for the world?
A child is not a letter or a number. They are a person who will grow up and inherit the world. Who do we want them to be? What do we want the world to look like? We must fight to protect the space of childhood, the person before the number, the curious inquisitive creative learner, the community member, the little guy shooting spider-man web hands at you when you are lining up at recess.
Identity is not just what we know, and teaching is not getting kids to “pass a level” or “be a four”. Teaching is so much bigger. Well designed assessments are invaluable assets to teachers that will ALWAYS have a place in our instruction, but lets not get crazy. Identity is also who we are, how we act, what we value and practice, and what we believe about the world. Let’s fight for that too.
Tell me what you think in the comments below,
***It’s been so long since I have written here because Christine Hertz and I are working on a book about many of the topics that have come up on here. Our hope is that it will empower teachers and their students to become the best versions of themselves. It comes out in summer 2015!***