Tests in Futility

Last night were the first parent/ teacher conferences for kindergarten. We went and had a nice conversation with Little Z's teacher. Little Z herself flew around the room in her red cape while we chatted.

Ms. L, the kindergarten teacher, mentioned that she had heard about our "reading lessons". It's true. I've been teaching Little Z to read at home, one lesson each evening. Little Z requested it, after she hadn't learned to read yet, two weeks into kindergarten. So, every night, we do some phonics and read a little passage together. She does most of the reading herself, which is very exciting indeed.

Ms. L said they had two assessments for reading at the beginning of the school year. One, which was not timed, she did quite well on. Another, however, she did not do so well on. Here's what happened:

The test administrator would ask her to do something, like, "Point to the word that begins with "t"", and Little Z would say something like,

"Hey! My mom has me do that, too! She gives me reading lessons, and we do that, too!"

This is how it went with most of the questions: Little Z was asked to do something reading related, and it reminded her of our reading lessons at home. She talked about our reading lessons and forgot to answer the question, or answered it after a lengthy discussion of our reading lessons.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

The time was up. She didn't do well on the assessment.

The kindergarten teacher told this story with some giggles. It didn't seem like it was a big deal. I thought it was kind of funny, until I thought about it a bit too much.

Here is a list of thoughts I had about this topic:

1. Whose idea was it to give a timed test to kindergarteners?
2. What are we teaching with this test? Little Z was making connections, trying to figure out why they were asking her the specific questions that I ask her at home. She was thinking beyond the text, which is exactly what I am trying to teach my students to do in 8th grade.
3. Kids learn what they think you perceive to be important. If we test it, they will try to learn it. They want to please us. If our tests are too simple and penalize asking "why" the test is given, what are we telling them is important? Obey! Don't ask questions! Thinking is not important!
4. When are we actually ready to have timed tests? Third grade? Sixth grade? Adulthood?
5. Why is it wrong to think about the test and comment on it?
6. Little Z hasn't learned how to take tests yet.
7. Of course she should know her phonics, but why does it count against her to think about the larger questions?

A child is an organic, feeling, thinking person, and we're treating them like a product coming out of the kid factory. The process of testing is inhumane in some sense. The school becomes a kid factory. Each kid is supposed to meet certain specs: reading, check. Writing, check. Arithmetic, check. Social studies... Then we sign off on them: Inspector Number 3 passed Jenny to graduate. Congratulations! Have a great life!

If teachers were given the freedom to do their own assessments in order to aide their instruction, that would be a much better deal for the kids. This whole timed assessment of Little Z was a complete waste of time. It did not represent her knowledge or skills in the slightest. The kindergarten teacher would never have timed it, if given the choice. She would have seen the needs of the child (more time) and altered the assessment, on the spot, to better represent her needs. That's what teachers do all the time. But, because the test was handed to her by an authority, and it had rules for administering it, she was not given that freedom, and it was a complete waste of time. I've seen many children who, by the age of fourteen, become completely apathetic and give no effort whatsoever on these tests, and then end up in my reading classes because they test at below grade level in reading. The problem is not their reading, it's their complete apathy after nine years of test where they were never allowed to ask "why". Why do we have to do so many tests that ask no deep questions?

On the other end of the spectrum, many more children than ever before suffer from severe anxiety. Teachers constantly tell kids to do well on these tests, because often our job depends on the results. Wonder why kids are getting more anxious?

I could go on, but I won't!

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