Saturday, February 28, 2015

This is only a test

by Libby Sternberg

I had my eyes checked recently. Near-sighted since forever, I've worn glasses from fourth grade on. When I was younger, eye tests used to create anxiety in me. I felt I was failing when I couldn't read the lines on the chart.

Now I'm calmer and don't fear failing the test. I do, however, get anxious about accurately assessing whether option A is clearer than option B, etc. as the doctor tries to figure out precisely what lens will work best for me. What if I'm only thinking it's clearer? What if I get it wrong? Then my eyeglass prescription will be off and...headaches, bad vision, light-headedness will ensue. Fortunately for me, my eye doctor was excellent at drawing out of me a precise assessment of which lens strength worked the best. She was patient and kind. Her goal was the same as mine-- to make sure my vision was corrected adequately.

The point is that even the simplest tests can create anxiety, even after years of testing has given you a comfort level with the assessment. But if the tests have a worthy goal, you soldier through the unease and get to the good results.

Standardized testing?!!!
These are my thoughts as I hear complaints about testing in school. The way some educators and school leaders talk, you would think standardized testing was a new thing foisted on them unawares, that it takes up enormous amounts of school time and creates tremendous anxiety in students that is bad for their health and ultimate learning abilities.

For those with no historical memory, here's a quick flashback: Tests were always with us. At least, for baby boomers, tests were usually a part of school life, even if you went to a private school as I did. And I'm not talking about the regular ole end-of-lesson testing teachers themselves came up with. I'm talking about nationalized tests.

Chances are, if you're a baby boomer, you took one of four tests on the national market at your schools: Terra Nova, Stanford, California Achievement, or Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Teachers would pass out the tests. You'd take them. And...things went back to normal. Before the ruckus over current testing, I remember a presentation at my children's middle school where the principal talked to parents about Terra Nova scores, how they'd identified a problem in reading instruction because of the results, fixed the problem, and scores went up. No fuss, no muss.

So, what's changed? Well, attention, for one. When the four tests listed above were administered, chances are the only people who knew the results for the classes involved were the teachers and administrators. Now, newspapers and other media regularly report on scores from schools, focusing attention (negative, if scores are bad) on what's going on in those institutions.

Now, federal regulations (from No Child Left Behind mostly) require schools to use standardized testing (that states can configure on their own) to assess progress and identify areas that need fixing. The tests are supposed to be used precisely as my eye test is -- to identify where help is needed, where the job isn't getting done. And while fixes are made, children in schools with regular failing grades should be able to access tutoring and even other schools if necessary.

Let's think about this for a bit, shall we? The tests are given out to help teachers and administrators identify problem areas. Just as they always were when we took the four mentioned above back in the day. But now, the problem areas are more on display as media attention has focused on them.

Okay, I get that this attention is painful to teachers who work awfully hard dealing with many challenges. I really, really get that. But the tests are helping them identify some of those challenges. If, for example, you have year after year of first grade scores where only, say, a third of your kids are scoring in the proficient range in a gateway skill like reading...maybe it's time to rethink how you approach teaching reading, right? Maybe it's time to switch up the teachers in those grades or do some professional development work. Maybe it's time to stop pointing the finger at societal problems and ask: Even with all the stuff going on in these kids' lives, how can I make sure every one of them learns to read before they leave my classroom?

That's a painful bit of self-examination, to be sure. But it's necessary. So, here's some advice to school leaders: Take the time you now spend complaining about testing and put it into fixing problems the tests identify. The scrutiny of schools is unlikely to fade. But, trust me, your test anxiety will fade over time.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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