I don’t opt my kids out of testing , never have and never will. Every State is different and every State is in a different place in terms of their movement towards more appropriate "smarter" assessment. And although I consider myself a progressive in the area of education, opting out has never seemed the most effective means of shifting educational policy… especially now, when there is finally movement towards a different paradigm. (Albeit a slow shift, it is a shift, nonetheless.) You read this right, I said a different paradigm is coming...a deeper, more ‘whole child’ way of learning. Like all paradigm shifts, this shift is awkward and somewhat uncomfortable. Parents, educators, and leaders don’t know where to hang their support. A part of this shift will require parents, teachers, districts, and eventually institutions of higher education, to view standardized testing as just one of many tools in getting to know our children. This shift also hopes to create more inclusive tests, allowing for children to show their knowledge in a multitude of ways. Part of my own paradigm shift through this process is realizing my antagonism has been misplaced, and that the testing itself, is not as much the issue as is the policy and behavior around testing. These policies and attitudes have helped create the monster achievement culture that is now so entrenched in our communities...and when we are stressed about standardized testing at all levels, what effect do our attitudes have on our students; our children?
I am not a standardized testing proponent by any means. If teachers spend their year teaching to the test they are bowing to pressure. Well meaning colleagues lose their way, forgetting to trust what they know about how children learn. I know this pressure well. As a preschool teacher in a high achievement community I had the pressure of Kindergarten readiness pushing my buttons every step of the way. Sometimes, despite my good intentions, I bowed to pressure; but more often than not, I stayed my course and proved to myself, parents, and colleagues that play based child directed learning prepared my students for kindergarten more fully than other schools of thought. (pun totally intended).
The upshot of testing is just like anything else we do in life...while some kids aren’t very good at it, some kids are really great at it. Some kids will show poorly on tests, and some kids find standardized tests to be an opportunity for them to show their skills. Year after year, the AP teachers at my kids’ high schools would spout off about… ‘if your kids get an A in this class, they’ll most likely get a 5 on the AP, a B they’ll get a 4’, and so it went...but not really, because my kid got a D+ in the class, and lo and behold, scored a 4 on the AP exam, because of course, every child is different. Every child learns differently, tests differently, participates differently, and achieves differently. Despite all the ‘anti this’ and ‘anti that’ campaigning out there, there is room for all of these different ways, and they can all help parents and teachers look more closely at who our children really are. With just a little bit of creativity and thought, we can transform assessment to include all type of intelligences. Testing and grades are such limited pieces of the pie and we can and need to demand more... but we need to do so in ways that make sense both in our schools and in our homes.
So last Friday, the dreaded email arrived, “Reminder: AZ merit testing next week”. Included was the schedule of testing and a plea to eat well, sleep well, and be on time (and no, we haven’t been on time… sigh). I immediately felt my ‘progressive educator Mom-pissiness’ take over my thinking...why stop there? How about we spend the week toileting and bathing extra well, too? (yes, while I never have my kids miss testing, and I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water, I am still irked about the amount of time and emphasis testing takes up).
...So, yes, ice cream and buttered toast is my answer to testing week this year.
As I mulled over the email a bit further, I noticed the teacher mentioned a few things that made me less and less perturbed as the weekend went on. She asked parents to remind their kids that testing is; hard work, another way to show what you know, and she asked us to remind our children about the strategies they have learned throughout the year. She did not say that it was going ‘to be easy’, not one mention of being ‘smart’, or of the idea that if they had gotten good grades they would do fine. Her use of the phrases ‘working hard’, ‘show what you know’, and ‘use strategies’ made me stop and ponder what these words really mean. As parents and teachers, there are so many ways we can approach all kinds of testing. There are ways we can either raise the stakes or alternatively reduce the stress; ways we can talk to our kids about the information that tests (and for that matter, grades) provide, because like it or not, (standardized or not), life is a series of tests, a series of successes and failures. No, not all tests are standardized of course, but tests all the same.
I am the first to admit I battle the achievement culture and have made mistakes talking in front of my children. Last year my daughter’s test score saw a rather a sharp decline, and unfortunately she heard me discuss it with her Dad. What she didn’t hear is that I later realized she was still being tested in a more traditional format called “AIMS testing”, while her curriculum had shifted to be entirely common core. These shifts make a big difference and I missed a major parenting moment not realizing she needed to be a part of this whole discussion. I had unintentionally, as well as unknowingly, set me daughter up for feeling apprehensive about testing. Stupid numeric scores had briefly derailed me. Since realizing there was angst around testing, (um yeah… when I told her not to worry, the tests don’t matter to me, and she threw it back in my face that they mattered last summer…deep breath). I have since regrouped with her to talk about how many factors can affect testing; our move to a different State, the fact her teachers don’t teach to the test, the change in curriculum that testing was still catching up to...just to name a few. This experience made me realize our kids need to be more regularly introduced to thinking about their own learning, the factors that affect how they learn, and for that matter, thinking about how they test too… nothing is the end all or be all in life, and most certainly not tests.
Most of you are probably somewhat familiar with the idea of Mindset courtesy of Carol Dweck at Stanford University. Of particular interest to me, is her growth mindset research;
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people had these qualities.
It is probably abundantly clear to you, I love to think about learning. From children and parents to teachers and leaders, reflecting on my own and others’ learning has been a mainstay in both my personal and professional life. Learning is, in fact, working hard no matter how someone does it; the biological processes and complexities of the brain alone prove it. Different learning styles make that even clearer, and depending on our learning styles and our own unique processing, we can teach our children to understand their own processes and develop their own strategies. Learning is in the struggle, the combination of challenge and repetition. Smart is a myth. Easy is a myth. Our kids need to know that. Teaching our kids about the different types of ‘smarts’ and talking about ‘gifts and abilities’ can provide a different attitude to fend off the achievement culture and reduce competition. It takes effort to learn. Emphasizing hard work is essential to helping children feel more confident in approaching more difficult problems… deep breath… challenge is good… and in order for our children to show what they know, they might just have to learn some new strategies.
With that in mind, may I innocently suggest, that as parents, we help change the paradigm. Instead of participating in the shrouded cloud of doom during testing week, whether that includes opting out or reluctantly opting in, lets create a new reality for our children, by emphasizing a new kind of mindset. Let’s view testing as another learning moment and for some of us that might mean making it a memorable type week… eat ice cream, skip baths, increase heavy work and physical play to promote focus, watch movies for down time, prolong night time cuddles… let your kids milk it. Let’s collectively view it as another tool for learning about how your child shows what they know… and maybe, just maybe, the stress of testing might just become another hump in our kids’ journey to adulthood.
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