Thursday, March 6, 2014

Day 114: Tears For Fears

We make all sorts of excuses why an athlete didn't do as well as expected.  We blame the weather, the ground conditions, the latest stomach bug going around, the lack of familiarity with a strange field/hill/track, etc.  We do not, however, make the same allowances for students taking tests.

As my geometry students completed their standardized testing today, they were called up to my desk one by one to discuss their results.  This is the only test that I do not fight tooth and nail because the feedback is immediate and split between various content sections.  It provides me with some valuable data about a student's strengths and weaknesses.  It also provides me with data about the class as a whole, allowing me to tailor my teaching based on areas of need, such as algebraic concepts.

The other benefit to this particular test is that students take it 2-3 times each year.  This means that I, and the students, are able to see growth over a shorter period of time.

In sharp contrast to this, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) is designed to assess the school, rather than the students.  It takes place over 2 solid weeks for several hours each day.  The district uses the scores to help determine which English and math classes the students may take the following year.  The scores take 3-4 months to come back and are categorized into 4 levels of proficiency (below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.)  Students do not receive any meaningful feedback about this test and, while they are told how important the tests are, are never told why.

As I met with each student today, we went over their results, discussing areas that I need to focus on as a teacher and strategies for them to demonstrate their knowledge as a teacher.

For the most part, there was great improvement shown from October until now.  There were several students who stayed at the same level and two or three whose scores decreased.

One such student came up to the desk, saw her scores and immediately burst into tears.

At the time, I found this incredibly upsetting.

No test, certainly not one that doesn't have an effect on grades, class placement, or personal worth, should have this effect on a student.  she is a smart, hard-working, kind, wonderful young lady and I think the world of her.  Watching her break down upon seeing her score tore the heart from me.

No matter how many times I try to tell them that test scores do not determine their worth, the idea is so engrained that they are unable to shake it.  This is a systemic problem that I don't know how to cure.  I want my students to be able to tell themselves that they tried their best.

 After spending the day ruminating on my conversation with this young lady, I have come to a very different conclusion.  While I'm not sure the situation warranted tears, I am very proud of her disappointment.  She knows that the test does not affect her grade or determine which class she takes next year.  She knows that it is a purely a diagnostic assessment.

And yet, she was still upset.  I like to think that this is because she was hoping to have grown in the past 5 months.  I like to think that she was disappointed in her ability to demonstrate her increase in knowledge.

THIS would be a good reason to be upset.

As many educators know, standardized tests are not accurate predictors of success or indicators of knowledge and skills.  They are, at best, an indication of what a particular student can do while in a particular mood on a particular day.

When the Americans didn't perform as well as expected during the Olympics, there was lots of rhetoric about how the event is just one day.  The various pundits claimed that doing poorly in one event on one day didn't mean that the Olympians were anything less than stellar athletes. 

This is the message I was trying to get across to my students.  Do the best you can, but recognize that the results of one test on one day may mean very little about anything other than that one day.

Regardless of the reason, a standardized test should never make a student cry.

It may be a pipe dream, but I want my students to greet test day by saying "YES! I get to show off what I know!"  If they do poorly, I want them to say "Crap! I didn't get to show off what I know!"

Pipe dream or not, this is what I strive for.


  1. Good for you Justin. Students often take two paths with standardized testing, I don't care or I have to do great. These talks with students are so difficult. The I don't care crowd really does care, they just don't want to look dumb, and the other crowd is being pushed from all sides to be the best, go to a good college, get a good career and make lots of money, etc. Through all of this and the way we teachers often talk about the tests I think we can be a large part of the problem. I know that I want to send a different message to my students also, but I fear I may fall short.

    The message you put here is the right one. "Do the best you can, but recognize that the results of one test on one day may mean very little about anything other than that one day." It's the message we need to be giving to our students every day.

    Thanks once again for the thoughtful post.

    1. Thank you so much. I know that we have talked about how many of our struggles are similar, which I find comforting. The test anxiety that students feel often comes from that felt by teachers. It's a major reason why I don't care about the results of a standardized test.

      "As long as you try your best, put your best effort forth, I don't care at all what score you get. And neither should you."

  2. Excellent point. The kids should not stress about one test.Your final paragraph is the perfect way I try to think about, and try to get them to think about, taking a test.

    1. The real question is how do we convince them of that fact. In an educational system that prizes test results, how do we teach them confidence in their effort rather than performance?

  3. Cool sports analogies! Did you watch any of the Winter Olympics? Not me; too busy. Hey, I am sitting in a Starbucks right now, and I am impressed at how the young barrista offers nice compliments to the older lady customer. "Your hair looks nice!" Awww, that was sweet! Kindness lies around every corner. That reminds me that on Day 112, you said that you didn't know how to teach students to be nice because you aren't nice yourself. I like that--I think that probably fits for me as well. ... Oh, hey! When I click "Publish" on this comment it should say "25,000" ... unless some other person jumps in and steals my thunder. Let's see what happens here!


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