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A Side Effect of the Testing Culture

We all know about side effects of the testing culture: kids pressured by tests, kids spending too much time on tests, teachers feeling like it takes away instruction, etc. I don’t need to describe these to you. We don’t often hear that the testing culture may cause us to lose information about student learning. I ran into an interesting instance of this one the other day and I thought was worth sharing.

In this context, the district gives tests 2 – 3 times a year, in advance of the state tests. The teachers in this context give the tests as required, but don’t place a lot of emphasis on them. The tests don’t count toward grades, and the teachers haven’t always covered all the material on the tests. And, anyway, the teachers didn’t write the tests – they’re just made to give them. These tests aren’t very important to the teachers because the tests don’t align well with teacher practice in this context. This is all pretty common stuff – I’ve encountered it a few billion times in my research.

Parents don’t see it that way. They usually don’t know the back story of all this testing, or how it aligns to practice, etc. They see these tests like anything else their kid does, and they respond accordingly. In this context, one parent started a dialogue with the teacher because the parent was worried about their kid’s score on the interim test. Through this dialogue, the parent and teacher ended up identifying some content weaknesses that nobody – parent, student, teacher – knew were there. This is great – the student benefits.

What’s the side effect of the testing culture? Well, a big part of the testing culture is the anti-testing culture, which often manifests itself in apathy toward any kind of large-scale testing. The side effect is that the teacher never would have known about these deficits if the parent didn’t say something, because the teacher was apathetic toward the results. This learning information was ready to be thrown out with the test.

Don’t get mad at the teacher. Think about it: when you’re an unwilling implementer of someone else’s script, it’s hard to be invested. Realistically, the electronic grading output wasn’t very informative, and the teacher didn’t have the time to go through each student’s test in thorough detail. We all make judgments about what deserves emphasis in our work and our lives, right? By all accounts, this teacher seems to be doing great things for these kids. If I had any advice for the teacher, it would be that you’re going to have to give this test anyway. Cancel some other assignment so you have time to dig into the results of this test. Don’t put yourself in the position of giving a dead assessment.

Relevant to the larger testing culture, there are two big takeaways. These are relevant to teachers – and they’re especially relevant to district planners who build some of these requirements for teachers:
(1) I understand and sympathize with the anti-testing culture. But we can’t be so invested in the anti-testing culture that we throw out important information about student learning.
(2) We can’t give ANY kind of assignment that we’re not going to use to know more about student learning. That’s Teaching Methods 101.

So that’s what I think. Thanks for reading.

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