Sunday, October 28, 2012

Testing and Assessment

To use Facebook parlance, CPS testing is what's trending on my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately. As "Common Core" becomes part of parents' lexicon and the effects of testing-based teacher evaluations trickles down, the pitchforks have come out and more parents vocalize their displeasure at testing practices.

As usual, I don't understand what the problem is with testing or assessments.

But back to CPS testing.

To me, it seems that some of this ire could be reduced by using correct nomenclature. As far as I can tell, the only standardized test given is the ISAT. The remaining standardized assessments are just that -- assessments. They are--or should be--used to tailor teaching methods and learning opportunities to students. Not to make a Kindergartener feel like she's failed school at the ripe old age of 6.

Our principal said recently, "If we don't know how students are learning, how can we accurately teach them?" Our school uses STEP assessments to assess students' reading abilities on a quarterly basis. A teacher recently told me that she gets a thrill from the process, although teachers do not assess their own classrooms. My kids get a thrill from the process, which I think must provide them a kind of mental calisthenics in a way that is enjoyable, similar to the way that doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles is enjoyable to me. (Further evidence of the contrarian; the best crossword puzzles are compiled by the AARP.) STEP assessments and levels provide everyone involved--me, my kids, their teacher, the school--an indication of my kids' reading abilities, where they started and where they need to go, what they've mastered and what they need to work on. In some ways, they're a tool to diagnose problems that need help. In other ways, they are a validation of what my kids have accomplished. Why wouldn't I want this checkup on their progress?

REACH and MPG or MAP are state- and district-wide examples of benchmarking assessments. CPS lists them as the only required assessments for K-2nd grade. The Tot Who's Not took the MPG two weeks ago, a fact which I only learned when I turned up to volunteer in his class at what turned out to be the end of the testing period. I don't think he would have commented on it otherwise. A few kids were still in upstairs in the computer lab when I walked in at 9:30; the balance of the class was chronicling the experience in their journals. They wrote "I felt hape (happy)/srprzd (surprised)/ankshus (anxious)/wrd (weird)" about their experience, and drew a picture before joining their classmates on the rug for a review of trick words, vocabulary, days of the week, and the weather. Yes, Ben, a five-year-old can know what the word anxious means. A four-year-old named Fallon taught my 15-year-old self  the word "facetious."

I wrote recently that the number or frequency of testing and assessments should not be taken as a sign that a school "teaches to the test." Yet, this seems to be the assumption made by many parents when they realize how many assessments their children must endure in a given year.

The only test I remember taking was the SRA Achievement test, which I took in 3rd-6th grade. The only anxiety I had about my performance on this test was related to my participation in my district's pullout gifted program, which was also the only class in elementary school to assign homework.

However, in cleaning out a filing cabinet recently, I discovered my K-12 academic records, which include teachers' copies of every progress report ever filed, incident reports from the nurse's office, college admissions acceptance cards, testing results, and completed assessments. I only remember taking the SRA Achievement test, but my file reveals a deeper story: Iowa Skills, Stanford Skills, and Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills tests, and Kaleidoscope, HBK Bookmarks, Boehm Test of Concepts, Metropolitan Readiness Tests, Botel Reading Inventory, and Kuhlmann-Finch Tests assessments.

The number of tests and assessments of my 1980s elementary school youth in Chicagoland district 161 stack up pretty evenly against those that The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot Who's Not will take in CPS this year: STEP, REACH, and MAP/MPG. The Boy and The Girl will also take Scantron, and The Boy will also take the ISAT.  And I'm fine with that.

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