It’s that time of year again!
Now, you may be thinking many things after reading that statement… it’s time for spring break, the start of baseball season, the end of hockey or basketball seasons, the time flowers bloom, the air temperatures start to warm, or even the time to start making plans for summer. Well, I’m not referring to any of those things. As much as I appreciate and love everything I just mentioned, this blog post is not about something most of us in education eagerly anticipate. Quite the contrary, actually. This post is about testing.
More specifically, this post is about annual standardized testing that is mandatory in most, if not all, public schools across the country.
Here in California, we give a series of Smarter Balanced tests depending on the grade. In my own fifth grade classroom, my students will endure nine separate testing sessions. I estimate this will take up roughly ten hours of instructional time: nine hours of testing itself and one hour of setting up computers, logging in, etc.
The point of my post is not to give my opinion of standardized tests. Rather, it’s just to offer a story of something that happened in my classroom today around preparing for the test.
However, before I give the story, I will offer this opinion- I do not believe in spending hours upon hours of precious classroom time specifically preparing children for these tests. Luckily, neither do my principal or my school district. In addition, I firmly believe the idea of teaching to the test is an utter waste of classroom time and dare I say it- educational malpractice. However, I do firmly believe in preparing kids for what they will face.
So, about two to three times each week for the past couple weeks, my kiddos and I have been spending 10 minutes looking over some Smarter Balanced sample test questions and discussing how to approach them. We do this almost as a shared read. I project the sample questions on the smart board and we all tackle the reading passages and accompanying questions together as a group. We talk about strategies, things we’ve already learned that we can apply to the questions, and we give justifications for why we are answering something the way we are answering it.
Well, today my class got into a heated debate around a passage and the two questions that went with it. We actually had a wonderful discussion! Kids chatted in partnerships, cited text evidence, and even respectfully rebutted other kids’ claims. After passionately discussing two potential answers to a question, one of my students asked, “So, what’s the real answer?”
Now, If you’ve shared Smarter Balanced sample questions with your class, you know that the answers aren’t provided. So, I responded that there was great evidence and argument given to support two of the potential multiple choice answers, and that the website does not provide us with the actual answer. And honestly, I couldn’t even decide the correct answer, myself. The same student then asked a follow up question.
“So, on the actual test, how do we give our argument for an answer if we can only select one bubble to click without writing anything?”
I froze. I wasn’t sure what to say. However, in that moment I was so proud of my students. All year, they have worked so hard on learning how to make an argument backed up with evidence through writing. And next week, they are going to be judged based on single clicks without the opportunity to justify and explain their thinking. Finally, I responded
“Well, it’s not always about the actual answer. Think about the great discussion we just had. We all grew a little through working to justify our reasons for an answer and learned more about how to make an argument.”
“But, Ms. Nosek, we can’t do that on the test. We have to pick one answer.”
“So, what’s the point? If we have to choose one answer on the actual test, and we can’t all agree on the answer, what’s the point of doing this?”
Like many of you, I’m a real teacher in a real classroom with real students. I didn’t have his answer. I don’t know what the point is. But, I am proud. I am so proud that my student felt brave enough to ask that question. I am proud that my kids passionately debated something using evidence and argument. I am proud that they kept their debates extremely respectful. I am proud that they listened to each other and were willing to both change their minds and offer rebuttals.
However, I still wonder. What’s the point? What’s the point of these tests? I don’t believe that these tests will show all that my students have learned this year. Well, to be fair, the multiple choice portions probably won’t. I will say that there are written portions of the test. But, I have no idea how these portions of the test are scored or evaluated.
Yet, I do believe I have to prepare students for these tests. I am tasked with giving my fifth graders nine testing sessions over the next three weeks- of course I have to prepare them for it. However, when they ask “what’s the point” I don’t have it in me to give the canned answer that many feel they are supposed to give. So, I just smiled and told them that I just don’t know. Earlier in this post, I said I wasn’t going to offer my opinion of standardized testing. Now that I’ve written out my thoughts, I suspect that you can infer what I really think.
So, I now ask you to ponder… what’s the point?
By the way, if you’re curious, here’s the reading passage and two questions we debated today.