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Friday, March 20, 2015

Test Taking: Diagnose or Defeat?

Yesterday students took a practice test.

It was a "one size fits all" test.

Some tackled the task with ease while others became very frustrated. There was a real range.

I found myself wishing that every student could have a test at their "just right level of challenge" because that kind of test would serve to diagnose a student's current needs well.

For many reasons children at the same grade level fall into many levels of achievement related to specific subject areas.

A child might be "behind" or "ahead" due to multiple factors including:
  • extra study
  • recent move or immigration
  • physical or emotional issues
  • age
  • the impact of other interests
  • home routines and support
  • self concept and confidence
  • willingness to risk
  • ability to focus
  • education opportunity
In time, I hope testing improves so that children take the online test they're ready for and move up the skill, concept, knowledge ladder in ways that fit their learning needs and style. 

I remain a fan of streamlined standardized testing, perhaps one or two tests a year, that help us understand a child's achievement with a broad lens. I see this kind of testing as one measure of a child's overall learning profile. 

For example, as I reviewed students' tests last night, I did learn a lot about the children. A few quiet children who don't speak up often demonstrated excellence and depth with problem solving. A couple of others showed need in very discrete, but important ways. One child's explanations were extraordinary. Many others demonstrated similar needs to one another, needs for later teaching related to writing concise targeted mathematical explanations and using tables to display their work. There were a few, however, who found the test to be too challenging and defeating--the test in a sense zapped their enthusiasm for the subject. These children who are just as capable of successful learning as their peers, but for various reasons, are not at grade-level yet.

Defeating students with tests that are inaccessible to them only serve to turn those students off to learning. It is very difficult to explain to a young nine or ten year old that it's not their fault that the test is too difficult for them, but instead it's the fault of a test that is years beyond their current level of learning. 

If we're going to continue with a standardized testing routine, I suggest that children take a diagnostic test in the fall that levels them and demonstrates their learning path since we know that reading, writing, and math knowledge begins with the basics and builds in a somewhat predictable way. Then we can use that diagnostic as one piece of data to inform a child's overall learning plan. After that the child gets to learn in engaging, holistic ways--ways that make a child want to invest time and energy into their studies. During the year we can assess with formative, more informal, assessments. Then at the end-of-the-year the child takes one or two tests as one way to chart growth and need.  I hope we simplify, streamline, and target tests to a child's needs if we're to continue on this path. 

To diagnose or defeat is an important consideration as we look at the effect of testing. I think we can test better with greater personalization in this regard. 

In the meantime, I'll use last night's assessment to renew the teaching path once again. For those who find the tests defeating, I'll meet them at their readiness level with more concrete models and engaging investigations, and for the rest, I'll work to fill in the gaps related to the fifth grade standards by teaching the material which students have yet to solidify in deep, memorable ways.