Testing, Teaching, and Learning: The Surprising Truth

Pencil boy thinking

“Testing action plan” appears and disappoints

In late October, the Obama administration recommended U.S. schools voluntarily adopt a newly developed “testing action plan” designed to limit the amount of time students spend taking state-wide standardized achievement tests. The testing action plan recommends that states establish a cap on standardized testing that would “ensure that no child spends more than 2% of her classroom time taking these tests.”

Children spend a minimum of 26 hours per school year taking standardized tests.

Children spend a minimum of 26 hours per school year taking standardized tests.

Apologetic in tone, the testing action plan seemed to suggest  the Obama administration—which, incidentally, participated in creating today’s climate of over-testing—was trying to respond to the public’s concerns. However, the critique offered by a range of snarky, trenchant, and clear-headed bloggers made it clear that that no one were fooled: everyone saw that Obama’s  new testing action plan made no actual changes to the current policies regarding mandated assessment practices. The testing action plan was nothing but a ridiculous charade that wasted everyone’s time. 


The testing action plan was fiction, but “testing fever” is fact

Students in grades preK and K aren’t required to take state-wide standardized achievement tests. Some states begin testing students using standardized assessments as early as grades 1 or 2. And mandated state-wide testing typically begins in grade 3. So, Obama’s testing action plan itself has not had a direct impact on students and teachers in grades preK-2.

However, a plague that I call “testing fever” has had an enormous impact on students and teachers in the primary grades.

This little guy probably can’t wait to go outside and play

As many of us know all too well, today students in grades preK-2 are continually tested, assessed, screened, and benchmarked by their classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, parent volunteers, student teachers, special educators, and school psychologists. A wide variety of assessments are employed in this process, and the different assessments are used for many different purposes.

Sometimes teachers don’t even get to see the results of all the assessments completed by their students.  Honestly, I find this infuriating.

The primary purpose of assessing student learning is to give teachers detailed, focused information about their individual students’ performance and achievement.  This knowledge enables teachers to plan lessons that are targeted directly at their specific students’ zones of proximal development (ZPDs) and to maximize the likelihood that every child will succeed in mastering the lessons’ objectives.

Assessment isn’t a just a chore or a diversion for teachers:  it’s central to everything we do.  

We assess student learning continuously to (1) make sure our kids are “getting it” and (2) quickly catch the students who aren’t experiencing success and providing them with supplemental teaching, additional opportunities to practice, and a range of different scaffolds and supports, and (3) offer students who have already mastered the skills being taught to the class with a choice of challenging enrichment experiences connected to the topic.  We are continually checking for student understanding, seeking new ways to present complex ideas or processes and working to engage students in meaningful conversations with their peers.

Sarcasm is a speciality of over-tested children

Sarcasm: a speciality of over-tested children

The not-so-surprising truth about testing, teaching, and learning

In “the real world,” testing, learning, and teaching are part of a natural, never-ending cycle driven by curiosity and a desire for knowledge and mastery.  No one teaches a baby to grab at a toy:  because of  her hard-wired, built-in curiosity about the world, a baby will reach out to learn more about an object in her father’s hand.  Babies learn to walk because they’re curious; they want to explore and broaden their horizons.  Testing their limits, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and using trial and error to find ways to get their bodies upright and moving without support is hard work, but when everything comes together it is truly a delight (not just for the baby, but for the whole family).  The surprising truth about testing ,teaching, and learning is that these fundamentally human activities that shape our experiences throughout the life cycle.

In the mid ’90s my sons attended an extraordinary preschool—Habibi’s Hutch, in Austin, Texas—that provided Sam and Noah with several years of unfettered, open-ended, child-directed, play-based learning.  The exceptionally talented teachers trusted and respected the children and took great joy in their all their remarkable accomplishments.  My boys and I loved that curiosity, autonomy, independence, and fun ruled the day, every day.In preschool, curiosity, autonomy, independence, and fun ruled the day, every day. Click To Tweet

Grrrrrrrr! Rawr!

Noah says,”Grrrrrrrr! Rawr!”

I don't know what Sam was enacting, but he certainly looked the part!

Sam pretending to be someone cool. Perhaps Keith Richards?

Why isn’t elementary school a place that fosters young children’s curiosity, creates opportunities for free exploration, experimentation, and independence, and supports kids in their self-directed testing, learning, and teaching process? Must we force children to change into little robots when they begin kindergarten?  Must we force children to change in to little robots when they begin kindergarten? Click To Tweet

Have any of you worked at or sent your kids to a school or after-school program or camp that supported and encouraged curiosity and self-direction?  We’d love to hear about it!

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