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Keeping The End-of-Grade Tests In Perspective

Last spring, my third-grader brought home his end-of-grade test scores. He had achieved a 4 on each part, which is the highest score possible. I gave him a quick hug and said I was proud of him.

“It’s nothing to be proud of, Mom,” he said. “The tests were really stupid.”

Regardless of his opinion, he is my son. So I was pleased to see some indication of his having done well on an academic assessment. But both he and I are well aware that there are much better ways of assessing what he knows. I’m also well aware that his test scores from one randomly chosen day give me no real indication of how smart he is, or of the breadth of knowledge he possesses. And I’m certainly well aware that these scores will really have no significant impact on the rest of his life.

However, you would think quite the opposite from the way these tests are touted by certain legislators and educational bureaucrats.

These are the secular high holy days for our public schools. Students, parents and teachers involved in the third through eighth grades are stressfully readying themselves for the standardized tests given at the end of the academic year — commonly known in North Carolina as the EOG or end-of-grade tests. These tests form for us public educators the cornerstone of the federal education “reforms” that threaten to make or break us.

This is how it works: Your child is given a sheet with a bunch of circles, a book with a bunch of reading questions and math problems, and a few sharpened No. 2 pencils. Your child is expected to read the questions, work out the math problems, and fill in the circles for the right answers on the answer sheet. The sheet is collected, sent to Raleigh, and scored by a machine. All the scores across the state are purported to provide an accurate picture of how well our students are learning and how well our teachers are teaching.

The only thing we know for sure that the scores show, however, is how well our students take tests. And because this is true, it is essential for students, parents, and educators to keep these tests in perspective.

I recently asked a highly credentialed and energetic public middle school teacher in this county what she thought of the end-of-grade tests.

“I’m sick of them,” she said without hesitation. “There’s so much pressure to score well. The kids get sick, the teachers get sick, and it’s not what education is supposed to be about.”

She’s right.

President Bush’s misguided No Child Left Behind initiative and its increasingly unattainable objectives put teachers and administrators under tremendous pressure to increase test scores, but not necessarily to improve education. Standardized testing is a cold, impersonal and highly imprecise measure of accountability. It assesses a very finite set of skills and knowledge and judges students (and, perhaps more severely, their teachers and schools) on the narrowest possible scale.

Holding our teachers and schools accountable is a noble goal. But are standardized tests the best means to achieve that? Are we supposed to focus on testing our children, or on teaching them?

Students Shortchanged

The first question we get from many prospective parents who visit our school is, “How do your test scores compare to other schools?” It’s a fair question, but the answer doesn’t necessarily give these parents any solid information about whether or not ours is a good school.

Just as I was pleased with my own son’s test scores last spring, so were we pleased last year when our school’s EOG scores showed an increase of 10 percent. But we never focus on getting those scores, and we personally don’t use them as a definitive measure of how well our students are doing. Dedicated teachers and involved parents don’t need a machine in Raleigh to tell them how much their children have learned. They work with the children every day, so they already know.

The tests are a fact of life, but we must be clear about what these tests do and do not measure. Standardized tests require quick answers to superficial questions. They don’t measure progress, hard work, or curiosity. And their very usefulness as preparation for the real world is questionable.

“Only on ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’ can people rise to the top by rote memorization and answers to multiple-choice questions,” says Paul Houston, director of the American Association of School Administrators. “The final answer to improving education is more than memorizing facts for a multiple-choice test. Children today need critical-thinking skills, creativity, perseverance, and integrity — qualities not measured on a standardized test.”

Putting an undue emphasis on preparing for such a restrictive test can dampen the spirit of a creative child, blight the determination of one who struggles, and negatively impact the overall quality of a well-rounded education in the classroom. In fact, it’s been shown that many teachers adjust how much emphasis they give to teaching certain subjects according to how their students are being tested.

Education Week’s special report four years ago on standards and testing, “Quality Counts 2001,” indicated that 66 percent of American teachers surveyed said they must concentrate “too much” on what’s tested at the expense of other subjects.

At a North Carolina Department of Public Instruction workshop I attended this past February, the presenters discussed the results of a statewide survey taken of teachers and the amount of time spent teaching subjects in relation to whether or not those subjects are tested. The survey revealed that students across our state are being severely shortchanged when it comes to studying history and the fine arts, for example, simply because these subjects aren’t tested.

The Department of Public Instruction might dictate the standard course of study, but the reality is that in the classroom, what students are being taught is frequently dictated by how they’re being tested.

Inordinate Emphasis

When we teach to the test, we fail to teach. If we have to live with these tests, we must do so while providing a balanced, quality education for our students. When a teacher is teaching the curriculum in an engaging and lively fashion that encourages the development of critical thinking skills, students who apply themselves to their studies will generally have the knowledge base necessary to score well on the tests.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they WILL score well on the tests. The process doesn’t take into account headaches, fights with parents, text anxiety, hunger, or preoccupations with countless real world difficulties so many of our young people have to cope with every day. Testing doesn’t allow for the fact that certain students may not have some of the assumed prior knowledge necessary to score well on certain questions. Students may not receive clear directions, may not follow directions carefully, or simply may not be comfortable taking tests.

In fact, any number of factors on test day might lead to a score that does not give any meaningful indication of a student’s abilities or knowledge. His test score might reflect little more than how well he took the test that particular day — hardly a measure of accountability to put too much stock in.

Most of all, we must be careful not to overemphasize the importance of these tests at the expense of learning. When we put an inordinate emphasis on standardized testing, we give our students the false impression that the reason they learn is so they can perform well on a test. We send the message that we must read an isolated passage in a booklet because we have a dozen multiple-choice questions to answer about it, not that we read an entire book for the joy of gaining insight, inspiration, or information. Testing leads us to regard knowledge as a product, something one works toward fretfully and produces in the form of a grade on a scale of 1 to 4.

But none of that is true. The desire to pursue knowledge is something we are all born with, and it’s something worth pursuing for its own sake. Any true educator wants to nourish that innate drive so that her students become eager, lifelong learners. The happiness, if any, which comes from earning a 4 on the end-of-grade test is fleeting. The joy that comes from a deeper understanding of what is meaningful and true is something that cannot be taken away.

Keep the Pressure Off

The best way to prepare for these tests is to keep them in perspective. Don’t make a big deal out of them, keep the pressure off, and cultivate an attitude of respect for the intrinsic value of education.

We keep the atmosphere at our school relaxed and comfortable on test days and spend our afternoons in what we call our “theatrical production company,” as the entire school is involved in working on the year-end Broadway Junior musical that we stage at the Sunrise Theater. This antidote to the potential stress of testing keeps our students’ minds and bodies actively engaged in something creative, productive, satisfying, and real. No one is going to grade them for their performance in the show, but what they learn from the experience is of inestimable value. The reward comes from the satisfaction in the process and the performance itself, and we believe that is how we encourage children to be the kind of people who for all their lives will love learning for its own sake.

And while the state can hold our teachers and schools accountable with its testing, the best way for you and me to do it is to become involved. If you want to know how well a teacher is teaching or a student is learning, sit in the classroom. See how the lessons are being taught, see if the students are engaged, see if there is a shared love between the teacher and his students for learning and growing in that room. Those are the sorts of things no standardized test could possibly hope to assess.

When those visiting parents ask us about our test scores, we certainly let them know how we stack up. But we also tell them this: “Don’t ask about how well our students test. Ask instead about how well our students learn.”

That’s the question every good teacher and administrator really wants to answer. And it’s the question every parent ought to ask.

Susan P. Kemple is artistic director at Sandhills Theatre Arts Renaissance School (STARS).

— Susan P. Kemple
The Pilot


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