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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Because It’s on the Test...

By Peter DeWitt — April 01, 2014 5 min read
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We know that our students are often the collateral damage of high stakes testing. Days of testing with questions they do not always understand, where they finish early and sit...and sit...and sit. Teachers walking around feeling stressed that students may have missed one bubble which threw the rest of their test off. Teachers who stand at the front of the classroom stating they, “Just want their students to try their best,” at the same time they hope that the students did way better than their best could offer.

We know that some school leaders enforce test prep, which means that teachers spend weeks upon weeks providing worksheets that are mind numbingly boring to students. We see students in third grade who loved school up until they realized they were in a grade that came with tests in Math and ELA. The byproduct of tests are just as harmful as the tests.

How do we find a balance during this test-taking culture? Some parents are opting out, which should be completely their choice. Some parents want their children to do well on the tests because they fear that the scores follow them up to when they begin filling out college applications (no, that’s not a joke). Other parents just want their children to get through the tests because they are passive participants in the testing debate, and there are parents who love that their children are challenged by tests.

All of those philosophies converge as our students enter into our schools. It’s easy for some of us to choose which side of the testing debate we are on, but it is much harder for others. What worries me about high stakes testing, is not just what it does to students, but what it does to the adults who are around them. High stakes testing has shifted the focus of the adults from good pedagogy to preparing students for what will be on the test.

The Pedagogy of Keyboarding

The other day I attended a digital leadership conference. Between Tony Sinanis and Eric Sheninger, I was feeling inspired and a bit challenged. They both provided a plethora or technology tools to use in the classroom, as well as tools for school leaders. It’s not that they think technology should be forced into every situation, because they don’t. Eric and Tony both believe that technology needs to be used when it makes the most sense.

Like Michael Fullan has suggested for years, Sinanis and Sheninger believe in pedagogy and good practice. They both believe in doing things because they are good for students, and not because they want to get in front of the new idea du jour.

After lunch, there was a panel that brought together every speaker from the day. One of the topics that came up was the issue of keyboarding. Should we teach keyboarding in the primary grades? Whose job is it to teach children how to properly type? It’s a bit of a change from when some of us were in school, because keyboarding came along when we were in high school. Of course, that was on a typewriter.

The conversation made sense in our 21st century technological world. Very young students bang away on the touchscreens of expensive tablets. They have access to netbooks, Chromebooks, laptops...and desktops. They hardly write in notebooks as much as they type on computers, so the topic of keyboarding makes perfect sense. It was a good pedagogical question, and fits into the mindset of choosing the right drivers when it comes to learning.

Unfortunately, two of the panelists brought up the importance of keyboarding because...high stakes testing will be computer-based. They believed that children need to learn how to keyboard because it will help them perform better on the test. The conversation, which lasted a few minutes, revolved around the test...not the right driver. It did not revolve around good pedagogy or teaching students how to use a keyboard properly because it would help them write stories...it focused on the importance of test prep and test taking.

Keyboarding is important, but not because it will help students perform better on a test. Keyboarding is important because it will help students as they negotiate their way through learning on tablets, desktops and netbooks.

For full disclosure, I’m upset with myself for not saying anything when the audience was asked for questions. I sat back and let the focus for those few minutes be about testing, and not about good pedagogy. It was an opportunity wasted.

Importance of Assessment

I think assessment is very important. High quality assessments guide student learning, help teachers guide instruction, and help students become assessment capable learners so they can create their own paths when adults are not around. Assessment and data are important to how we all move forward when it comes to learning. Unfortunately, high stakes testing doesn’t offer any of that.

It is forced upon students at a young age, often comes with months of test prep even when research shows that doesn’t help, but high stakes testing doesn’t offer effective feedback to teachers, students, parents and school leaders. Effective feedback is timely and personal (Hattie). High stakes testing just doesn’t offer any of those benefits. They are simply all about accountability. We know those are the issues with high stakes testing.

But...do we have accountability in this issue as well? Yes, we live in a test-taking culture, and assessment should have evolved from the days of high stakes testing. The problem is...it hasn’t. But does that mean our thinking can’t evolve? If we can support opting-out, we can support opting out of the thinking that we should only teach something because it will appear on a test. The more we make the tests the center of our conversation, and the reason we teach curriculum, the more the tests become the case for teaching and learning, and good pedagogy gets shoved to some dark corner.

In the End

As some of us fight high stakes testing, we also have to keep in mind that we have accountability in this issue as well. We are better than the tests...and we are better than the policymakers and state education leaders who believe that the tests are the end all to be all to see if we are doing our jobs. We know that there are better ways to assess student learning, and when our best reason for teaching something is that it appears on a high stakes test, we should probably reflect on that, and decide on a more positive pedagogical reason as we move forward. I hope that “Because it’s on the test” will someday be erased from our professional conversations.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.