Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leaving no Multiple Choice Footprint Behind

Friday, before the memorial weekend holiday, my students posted their "Footprints" outside our room.
My co-teacher had taught the poem "Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and invited them to write for a few minutes about what they hoped they would be leaving behind as their own "footprint in the sands of time." Then he read their visions aloud, without naming names, to the entire group.
The class reacted with spontaneous applause. There were sighs. Exclamations of "I agree!" or "Oh, that's sweet."
The class decided that the messages were so inspiring that they wanted to share them with the school, so they went up on the wall outside of our class, "walking" down the hallway in a footprint graphic I quickly located and printed for them so they could revise and post their footprint the next day.
The lesson was on poetry, and we also learned the literary terms for the upcoming reading test. But that was just the smallest part. The biggest part, reflecting on what they hope their life will mean to others, will not be tested on June 10.
This sort of decision-making - quickly shifting a lesson based on student behaviors - goes on all the time. It is teaching based on affect - helping students learn through personal connections to the material.
What is wrong with testing?
I test my students regularly. I need to know what they learned, what they still have to learn, or what mis-conceptions they have. I assess my students daily through a variety of means - sometimes just by looking over their shoulder, sometimes through questioning, sometimes in the letters we write back and forth, sometimes more formally through a quiz or essay.
I also teach them how to assess themselves. They set goals for themselves and match their goals against their achievements. They even have to write about it at the end of the course in a Change paper.
And then there's the "TESTS" provided by an outside authority, asking questions I do not prepare, choosing reading my students have a hard time caring about, distilling all their thinking and questioning down into four multiple choice answers often devised in language that flummoxes them, and providing results that aren't particularly helpful in reaching their goals or even in gaining the skills they need to know NOW.
For example, I have remediated ESL students for our reading test. It is an exercise in frustration for all of us. Most of the ESL students who struggle with the reading tests do not have cognitive issues. They are quite bright and adaptable. But they do have language issues.
Example: In reviewing an ESL students' answers to a test, we looked at a poem. She had the main idea question wrong. When I asked her if she knew what the poem was about she said: "I knew the poem was about fall, but I could not find the answer [in the multiple choice selections]" So she took a wild guess. Of course the answer WAS there. One of the choices was autumn, an English word she did not know. In a simple one-minute conversation I had assessed my student's reading comprehension in an oral interchange. She had understood what she read.
This is just a small example of being constrained to the test. I have many more (just try to teach a literary allusion to a newcomer. The vast cultural literacy required for the one answer would take a half-hour to explain. I know. I've done it. It is an exercise in futility since I have no way of prediciting what literary allusion my students will be asked to respond to since I DID NOT MAKE THE TEST and do not know what they will be asked.
How can I prepare them?
Is this fair?
Our school is in danger of falling into the realm of failing schools. The stakes are getting higher. The distraction of preparing students for these tests consumes more and more instructional time.
It will only get worse if teachers are assessed on how well students do on these assessments.
Imagine beginning of the year benchmark tests, mid-year predictor tests, final high stakes tests in every year of a student's life. Ugh. It might just make a student want to drop out.

There are better ways to teach children and to identify effective teachers.
Join the conversation at Teachers Letters to Obama. The month of June will feature discussions and webinars focused on this and other issues. We are determined to get our voices heard and affect policy for the better. Please join the discussions here.Teachers' Letters is not just for teachers. It is a grassroots site for anyone who wants to make America's schools the seedbed for the innovative thinkers and active citizens of tomorrow.
Find out other reasons why testing is not the answer to reform. Visit Anthony Cody, Marsha Ratzel, Renee Moore, Nancy Flanagan, Chuck Olynyk, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, to find out what else is missing in the testing mania. And see David Cohen's brilliant satirical piece on testing from last month.


  1. Oh, well done, Mary.

    It doesn't hurt kids to take a test every now and then--and assessment should be used to inform instruction. But your clear examples show how standardized testing that isn't aligned to either student capacity or school-based curriculum doesn't always tell us what we need to know.

    And those test results certainly don't provide a path of enlightenment for policy-makers. Nice work!

  2. Thank you Nancy. And thanks for reading to whomever has clicked through to this post. When did we decide that teachers were incapable of evaluating a student's progress? When Virginia started its Standards of Learning, I lamented: "I already know who is falling behind! Who will help me get them caught up?" And I continue to predict pretty accurately who will struggle with the tests and why, as do my colleagues. Could this be a waste of resources?

  3. As a chronic foreign exchange student, I know the pain of trying to navigate the usual quotidian activities in a second language. And I mean physical pain, as in headaches and exhaustion. It take an enormous amount of energy just to get by. I cannot imagine doinfg all that while trying to meet the needs of high stakes testing. I think we fail to remember sometimes that these guys are bilingual. That in itself is quite an achievement. How many teaachers do you know who can function in two languages?