Luckily, for purposes of discussing our testing philosophy, I can focus the discussion based on the parameters of Ideaventions Academy.
People’s opinions are shaped by their environment and experiences and when the word test in an educational setting comes up, it evokes feelings of anxiety and judgement in me. I can only remember one test in all of my schooling career that I enjoyed. It was in college in one of Bob Solow’s Macroeconomics classes where in working through the problems and questions, the sequence of the questions, drew parallels to the events leading to the collapse of the Mexican economy in the 1990s. However, at the time, I was just thankful that another semester of final exams were over, but the “Aha!” moment in the middle of that exam will always stay with me.
A defining moment for me was a few years ago when my older son took the SCAT test for admissions into Johns Hopkins CTY program. We took the test at a testing center with adults who were there for professional certifications. After the test was complete, we got into the elevator with a woman who had completed a certification exam and as the doors to the elevator closed, my son said, “That was fun! Can we do it again?” It took the elevator-ride down to pick both of our jaws up off the floor. Since high-pressure testing had never been part of his Montessori education, this was a fun time to do some math and answer language questions. His experience and attitude towards this standardized test got me thinking and changed my point of view: If you haven’t been conditioned for tests to be stressful, they can provide meaningful information without impacting the learning process.
Fast forward four years….
As an educator and administrator, these are some goals and questions for each individual child:
- Did this child understand my lesson?
- Did the class understand this unit?
- Am I moving too slowly? Too fast?
- Does the student understand these concepts well enough to be able to draw from them next year? In two months? Next week?
- How is this student’s pace of learning? Linear curve? Exponential growth? Plateau?
There is a certain level of assessment that is constantly occurring in the classroom. With a small group of 8 students, teachers will engage students in casual conversation while they work to figure out what they have taken away from the lesson. Therefore, in a 1.5 hour class of 8 children, each student should have an opportunity to interact individually with the teacher for at least 5-7 minutes.
Assessing students’ mastery of material can also come in many forms that don’t have to be tests. As an alternative to tests, student projects and presentations can be a great way to find out what students learned, but do require carefully designed project guidelines or rubrics. Or if you want to see what the class remembers from a prior unit, it can be done in the form of a game. In another scenario, having a student explain what they are working on, can tell a teacher a lot about their thought process and if they understand what they are doing and most importantly why - learning with a purpose. Creating a portfolio of work is an ideal way for children to demonstrate what they know and what they like while building skills that they will use for the rest of their professional lives.
Global Teacher Prize winner, Nancie Atwell, said it best in the Education Week blog "We really need to be looking at what individual kids are achieving in the disciplines, authentically and personally."
The other category is standardized or grade-normed tests. I struggled with this because I can see the effects of the stress and pressure placed on students and teachers alike. However, the scientist in me also values the information they provide.
I find the results of these types of tests more useful when the child is benchmarked against him or herself over time. Because each child comes from a different starting point, standardized assessments tell us the trajectory of the child’s learning year over year.
When I see a standardized test result of a student who gets 99% across the board, the first question I ask myself is how would she have done if given this test at the beginning of the year? Is this child a candidate for further acceleration? You get a very different picture if a student scores 40% at the beginning of the year and ends up with a 99% compared to a student that came in with a 94% and ended up with a 99%. And if I give them an above grade-level test at what grade does this student start scoring below 80% or 60%? I view these types of tests as data points that help parents, teachers and the school learn more about the learning needs of the individual child.
Additionally, if scores are collected and compared across multiple years, then one is able to determine areas where the child has made more progress or where progress has slowed down. We can further examine those areas to try to understand the trend and any potential actions to take.
The key here is the individual child. Taking the time to analyze the test data over time for the individual child, can turn that data into insights for developing a challenging environment for that child or catch areas that need to be addressed.
To summarize, I believe that day-to-day assessments and evaluations should be done informally through the use of projects, presentations, games or quizzes without the stress of grades tied to them. I also believe that standardized testing, when the data is used to evaluate a child’s progress over time, can be helpful in understanding a child’s learning needs.