It’s testing season and I’m worried about the pressure of high-stakes assessments, and what that means for the learning in my classroom. How do I show that I value the exams and our learning culture at the same time when they feel so different?
April arrives and all the stakes start to seem high don’t they? Whether it’s the assessments and all the ancillary pressure they create or the desire to not let that environment eclipse the one you’ve worked all year to cultivate, this is one of those tough seasons in a teaching year because it can unearth fears and anxieties, uncertainties and capitulations. But like any season that wears extreme weather, if you’re prepared and aware, conscientious and proactive, you’ll get your learners through it.
That said, I don’t want to minimize the reality of what happens to many of you and your students during this time. I know some of you will have little ones who nearly make themselves sick over these exams. I know some of you will be frustrated with the way exams that can seem so separate from authentic learning will halt the rhythm you’ve worked tirelessly to sustain. Even though I know teachers aren’t afraid of being evaluated, for some of you, watching an isolated testing event being linked to your merit as an educator feels profoundly dismissive of the complex work you do each day.
I also know some of you will go into the exams confident your students are prepared and still disheartened knowing they may be used to rank and sort your emerging learners. In these instances and in all the ones I didn’t name, it’s more important than ever to wield a strong and clear voice about the real narrative of learning in your classrooms.
Here is what you need to say out loud…
- To your students: exams are like thermometers. “Since the day you walked into this class (even before that day) you’ve been learning. But how much or the way in which you learn isn’t the same everyday. Like the temperature, it can be unpredictable. That’s why you show me your work, turn things in, do projects or take classroom exams: so I can consistently take the temperature of your learning to teach me what to do next. These exams we’re going to take are one more temperature reading. They’ll give us information that I’ll look at and think about carefully, but I also know that they don’t define you. Whether the temperature comes back hot, cold or mild, it won’t make me forget about you. You are more than this exam.”
- To parents: exams are like puzzle pieces. “I want you to know we value these exams because they give us another piece of the puzzle to help me understand more about how your child learns. I also want you to know this exam is only one piece of your child’s learning story and I know your child is more than this exam. I know she loves art and works well with others. I know she likes to process slowly, often on her own. I know she’s more motivated to read when you read along with her. I know she is more than this exam.”
- To other invested adults: exams are like races, not finish lines. “What we misunderstand about these assessments, is that they are less about the finish lines and more about the way we’ve been running the race. As soon as we start talking about who came in first or last, we stop talking about how people ran. Did they start slow? Have a bad handoff? Surge too early? Get caught in the wind on the backstretch? When we let our conversations revolve around ranking our students and schools, we ignore the real questions: Is there equitable access for all of our learners? Are we addressing the societal issues that ensure our kids come to school ready to learn? Did we teach them skills they can transfer or did we only prepare them for a test? Are we paying attention to the story of the whole learner and not just how they crossed this particular finish line? Our children are more than their exams.”
Then say out loud to yourself: My students are more than these exams. I am more than these exams. My worth as an educator will be measured in the lives I’ve liberated, not in the number they receive on this assessment. They will remember how we questioned and laughed and struggled and celebrated as resolutely as they’ll forget how long the bars on the graphed report of that one day describe. They will remember I taught, knowing they are more than their exams.
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At the high school level, I’m much blunter. I think I like yours better.
Sometimes we have to be blunt too, Dr. Riina! I suppose it’s all about context, isn’t it?
Sarah, this is beautiful and relevant and timely, and everything that the teachers, schools, and families that I work with needed during this testing season. I’ve shared and shared, and they’ve been so grateful for your words. Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughtful reflections and understandings with us.
Kristen: Thank you, so much, for all of your kind words. You know, when you do this work, you just hope it’s meaningful and helpful to others. I couldn’t be happier that it was for you!
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