The testing beast

As we wrap up the year, all schools are embattled with our ultimate nemesis: the standardized test. Thankfully, at my school, we only proctor 2 sets of tests. We administer the NWEA, a diagnostic test in reading, language arts, math, and science in the fall and spring. We also administer the NeSA (Nebraska state tests) to 4th, 8th, and 11th graders in the spring. Overall, the actual testing schedule isn’t particularly disruptive – the NeSA is given during a normal class period and the NWEA involves a couple of late starts. I am forever thankful, compared to many schools who lose entire days or even weeks of instruction to the testing machine. When using words like ‘beast’, ‘nemesis’, and ‘testing machine’, it’s probably no surprised that I am not a huge fan of standardized tests. I have all the usual teacher complaints: it encourages teaching to the test, it takes from actual teaching time, it forces students to find only one right answer for a problem, and so on. Ironically, as a student, I loooooooved testing because I am really, really, really good at taking standardized tests. And then we didn’t have homework. (In elementary school, they even gave us all sorts of snacks and breaks that we didn’t normally get.) Not exactly a ringing endorsement for compliance on testing. As a teacher, I can see the value of NWEA – it breaks down student scores into various categories so we can more easily identify areas of weakness. But as a world language teacher, the scores are pretty meaningless to me. How someone performs in English has very little to do with how they perform in a second language. Well, eventually it does, but not at the novice and intermediate levels where my students are.

I’m going to pick on the NWEA since that’s the one I proctored. As I monitored, I had to ask myself the biggest question of all: how are the questions on these tests actually related to what we do in class? You see, I keep hearing about ’21st century skills’ and ‘use of technology’ and ‘critical thinking’ and ‘project based learning’ and so on (in all areas, not just Spanish). But how are the questions asked on these tests applicable to any of those things? The tests do not ask our students to create, simply to answer trivia questions. I’m particularly harsh on the English/grammar tests, because I wonder – and maybe it’s different in primary languages versus secondary – if the data shows that specific grammar instruction in secondary languages is fairly useless as students will acquire structures when and if necessary for communication, why are we spending time on it in class? How many students do we correct saying ‘me and my friends’ because it sounds wrong according to some arbitrary grammatical rules, when ‘me and my friends’ communicates meaning perfectly well? And I’m not saying that we need to abandon grammar entirely since there is the distinction between formal and informal speech where grammar is a huge component in that distinction, but in casual conversation, who cares if you say ‘me and my friends’ or ‘my friends and I’? What is the point of identifying the topic sentence in paragraph? Why should you need to identify where to put commas in a paragraph someone else wrote?

My thing is, these tests are asking students to interpret… but assessing them in a presentational manner. If I want to know if my students understand the rules of grammar, I think it’s far more useful to assess through them writing or speaking a passage of their own creation. If I’ve learned nothing in the past few years, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter one tiny bit if students know the proper names of things – direct objects, past participles, pronoun-antecedent agreement – it only matters that they can use them correctly. And when it comes to things like writing and grammar, the rules can be and are broken all the time in literature! And don’t even get me started on basic vocabulary questions where students are asked to identify a potential definition, when I know they don’t know some of the words in the choices! And that’s conveniently ignoring the extra difficulties for students with learning disabilities or ELLs.

I guess it matters way more to me that my students learn to do that higher order thinking – the thoughtful analysis, the creation of a new product, or just outright enjoyment of what they’re doing, than to be able to regurgitate answers. But actions say more than words: if we’re told that we’re supposed to care about critical thinking and project based learning, but our students are going to be assessed with basic trivia facts on the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy and the results of that assessment can affect the funding for our schools and the retention of our jobs… we know where the importance really lies. In the meantime, though, I am still going to be working on that critical thinking, those group projects, pushing my students to be creators, not just consumers. I will be teaching AP Spanish next year, so the standardized test monster will be directly looming over me for the first time in my teaching career. I hope my students do well on it, but I would be satisfied if they leave my class with a working knowledge of Spanish and enrichment in their lives. My students are not defined by a multiple choice test.

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