Part One: How standardized tests provide teachers with valuable, individualized information about their students.
In the spring of 2007, about a dozen 7th graders sat down for the English/Language Arts TAKS test. (TAKS = Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).
They sat in rows of laminate desks and held sharpened No. 2 pencils. Their eyebrows pinched in scrutiny. Some feet tapped, other knees bobbed in nervous beats. Erratic beats, keeping no measured time.
There was a time limit, but four hours was apparently far more than enough for most students, who finished well before the clock ran out. One at a time, they shuffled over to turn in their materials, then flop back into their seats, sleeping or reading out the remainder of designated test time.
I collected their tests, quietly stacking the cheap paper booklets and scantrons in the district-provided plastic bin reserved for just this and only this purpose. I prayed to God that these kids would do better than their practice tests had indicated.
It was my first year teaching, and my first year encountering the much-feared and maligned beast of standardized testing.
I wanted to believe that somehow, despite all my weaknesses and failings, despite my lack of experience and finesse, my students would perform magnificently on their tests.
They didn’t. About half of them passed. Same percentages as the year before, and the year before, and the year before…
Opponents of standardized testing are numerous and vocal.
Teachers. Teachers Unions. Parents. Principals. Students. Governors. Mayors.
We “waste” too much time training students for tests.
We “punish” teachers for scores that are not really their fault.
We “crush” student initiative and creativity. We “ruin” students’ innate love of school.
Full confession: my first few years of teaching saw me as one of this large, loud chorus. Why should I have to sacrifice reading great literature to “teach” students what new test terminology will be appearing during this year’s spring exam week? Why? Why should my artistic students be penalized for struggling with multiple choice? Why should anyone, really, be forced to take multiple choice tests? When in life are you faced with actual multiple choice decisions?
(To that question, I offer one obvious answer: the grocery store. Which bread? Which creamer? Which eggs? These are decidedly multiple choice question/decision couplets, at least in a country with warehouse-style grocery stores like America).
But as time wore on, I began to think about the tests in a different light. It could be my slow familiarization to the format – anything new is more daunting, more work. As the years went on, I became somewhat comfortable with the test; I began to trust myself, to trust that I knew what my students needed to know.
More likely, I began to see what the tests were, or at least what they could be.
So for Parts One and Two of this series, I want to share what tests provided me, as a teacher.
One of the most terrifying aspects of being a new teacher is trying to figure out what your students need to know, what you need to teach them.
WHAT DO I DO? is how it feels, looks in the brain.
I’m not sure all teachers struggle as much with this as I did, my first year. I learned later from working in a large, organized, well-funded district that this question can be answered and then some long before any one teacher arrives.
But my first year teaching, I had no guidance. I was the sole middle school English teacher; I was the department. When I asked around, people handed me worksheets or suggested using the textbook. I was told look at the state standards online, and go from there.
But there were hundreds of standards, and I had no idea how to organize them, let alone what materials – which poems, which stories, which books, which activities – would best instruct my students in the fine art of textual analysis.
Here is where a standardized test is incredibly helpful. You can look at the released materials from previous years, and you can get a feel for what kinds of questions a large panel of educators, legislators, curriculum writers, and subject experts have together determined a, say, 8th grader should know how to answer about the Language Arts.
Yeah. I didn’t do that my first year.
Even more beneficial, from a teacher’s perspective, is the information a test can give you about what your students know… and don’t know.
As a teacher, you have access to students’ previous test scores. In our era of standardized testing, the test-makers and score-givers have gotten much better about giving these scores out in a format that is useful. I had access to online programs that color-coded questions by category, analyzed individual and composite scores for me, gave me breakdowns in pie charts, or bar graphs, or line plots, or whatever I wanted, however I wanted to see where my students were at, collectively and individually.
Analyzing piles of student “data” does not sound fun, nor is it fun. But in later years, when I realized the specialized gold each test score told me about each of my students, I was able to start really looking at what each, individual student had mastered.
I could see, for instance, that Vince may have failed the test, but he didn’t miss a single question about Latin root words.
Or I might notice that several students had almost achieved commended status, but for a shared deficit in questions about Metaphor.
Well. I need to make sure I focus in on and about Metaphors.
There are other ways of getting this personalized information, but none I know of that is nearly as efficient and easily understood as standardized testing.
And when you have a hundred students, or a hundred and fifty, or a hundred and eighty… you need easy, you need efficient.
But even if you only have a few dozen of students, as a teacher, you want to know. You want to know what your students know. And you definitely want to know what they don’t know.
Standardized testing may be an imperfect measure, but it gives you something.
Photo: Flickr/Alberto G