Testing...Harmful or Helpful?
Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Are we overtesting in the older grades? Are our students becoming nothing more than data points? What is the balance between a data driven culture and a culture that cultivates creativity?
Goldilocks of Assessments
What would education be like without assessments? Any businessman, school administrator, scientist or professional would tell you that good data is essential to making real changes and improvements. Tests and grades are ways for educators, students, parents and administrators to quantify learning and teaching in order to make comparisons. Comparisons between schools, between classes, between students, and most importantly between the same student over time (hopefully showing growth). We need good data as educators to meet the needs of the individuals in our classrooms. However, as an elementary school educator, I wish to address several problems I see from over testing, not because I think testing should be done away with, but to show why testing needs to adhere to the Goldilocks standard and be just the right amount, not too little and not too much.
When we test, we focus on the quantifiable
What should a child really learn in 3rd grade? State standards help use address this and gives unity to the content that is taught in schools, but what about concepts our standards don’t address? Things like self-motivation, problem solving, creative thinking...ext. For Example, motivation is not easy to quantify, so we don’t test it, but it is at the heart of student learning.
Even when testing in academic areas, it is often hard to quantify learning. Reading tests for example can be very subjective. Early readers are given phonics tests by reading words that follow the “rules of phonics” but then it's hard to know if the child knows the rule or just has that specific word memorized. In order to try to sort this out the phonics tests will often be given with “nonsense words” words that are not real, but just letters put together to see if students know the rule. For example to test if a student knows the rule for silent e a person might be tempted to have the child read a word like “make”....but if the student reads it correctly it might just be because they have memorized that word (it has become a sight word), so instead the child may have to read a word like “pake” that in fact, is not a real word at all, just to see if the student will read it with a long “a” sound and not sound out the e. Then when a kid says “pake” wrong, some would argue that its not even a real word, so how do we know they said it “wrong”. This is just the beginning of the complex discussions that occurs as we try to quantify children's’ ability to read.
Then we get into fluency, which we measure by how many words a student can read correctly in a minute….which means if a student read fast and never stopped at punctuation marks or changed their voice level at questions at the beginning of the year and then by the end of the year they were reading with feeling and stopping at punctuation marks, but read less words in a minute, that students would be considered less fluent from the beginning of the year.
My point with this somewhat lengthy explanation of how we assess reading is not to say that we shouldn’t at least attempt to quantify how a child is doing in their reading and pinpoint what skills they are lacking, it just illustrates that some of the most important things that can be taught in schools are very difficult to measure. This can be a problem if the immeasurable skills are most important, but not emphasized because they are too hard to test. It can even be a danger if we only focus on the quantifiable aspects of a skill because it is the only way to show growth.
Let me just name a few skills that many elementary students have enatily and are very useful in life, but that are hard to quantify and therefore not focused on in (and sometimes even weakened by) formal schooling. Some include; enthusiasm, motivation, passion, assertiveness, energy and curiosity.
Some may say that we are teaching very important skills as we ask students to be still and do well on tests. Discipline for example. I agree that our method of education does teach important skills, but aren’t there many ways to teach those skills. Think for example of a student who is very good at memorizing. They may feel very successful in being “disciplined” in a school setting, but in sports, they may lack “discipline” or so it might seem because it is not as easy for them and they are less motivated to work toward a goal. Think how different the “successful kid” might be if we did 6 hours of PE each day and 1 hour of instruction. I am not suggesting we do this, but it does bring me to my last concern I wish to discuss...
When we test, we focus on the comparison
I think sometimes we try to compare children too much. When we focus so much on formal tests we can really diminish students motivation who are do not do well on the tests. It can lead kids to cheat and try to hide their mistakes and failures instead of learning and growing from them (which learning from mistakes is a very important life skill). It also only encourages very particular skills to be improved upon and some of those skills that I mentioned above become devalued.
Let me just illustrate this with one common practice I have seen in multiple schools. When using data to make small groups and have differentiated instruction it is common practice to focus on a group called, “the bubble kids.” These are the kids who are really close to passing the standardized tests, but aren’t quite there yet. The best practice in my opinion, would be to help enrich instruction for the kids who did well on the test help the kids who are really far behind get caught up AND help the bubble kids in small groups (and this does happen), but often the focus group are the kids who are close to passing the standardized tests, but aren’t quite there because that's how you get, “the most bang for your buck.” I’ve even been in schools where they go as far as to focus on the kids who are “bubble kids” who have been at the particular school the longest because those kids’ scores carry a heavier weight on the school’s grade. To me this seems like we are missing the point of testing when kids become data points. We should be using the testing to enrich each child’s education, not using children to make our school look better on tests.
Am I saying we should do away with assessments? No! Assessments are a great tool that should be used to help teachers, parents and kids know what skills a student has mastered and what skills demand more practice. Assessments should be a resource to help EACH child receive help at their level, while recognizing that some of the most important life skills adults can teach cannot be measured with a traditional test.