It's Testing Season; But Are We Measuring What We Actually Treasure?

Originally published on The Huffington Post on May 12, 2016.

It’s “testing season.“ Not unlike the term “selfie,” “testing season” has become an expression, a way in which we discuss the school calendar. Usually, “testing season” is given as a reason why absolutely nothing, other than perhaps fire-breathing testing pep rallies, can be scheduled or planned - not just in the one or two weeks of testing but in the weeks leading up to and after testing as well.

I am not opposed to standardized testing and international benchmarking. I believe in accountability because I have seen the impact of a lack of accountability. In my first meeting as a first year teacher in South Baltimore, my new principal - a man close to retirement - stood with a stack of test results. He looked out at his small team of elementary teachers and said, “Our test results were pretty bad. There’s probably some interesting data in here if anyone wants to have a look.” Then he put the stack down and moved on to the next topic - our dress code. The data report was fresh from the printer the pages still linked to one another, and the edging with circular holes to run the paper through the printer still attached. I wonder to this day where, if, or how it was ever used. The message was clear; our students’ learning didn’t really matter. This was four years before No Child Left Behind.

Fast forward to 2016. No one is cavalier when it comes to test results. In fact, schools are inundated with data. But this data paints an incomplete picture of our students’ overall educational experience and growth. In fact, in the pursuit of test results, many schools have become dismissive of aspects our children’s development that matter as much as reading and math attainment.

While we should continue to talk about student achievement as measured by standardized tests, we need to document and discuss more. At the 2016 Lego Idea Conference, Dr. Philip A. Fisher from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, explained that we should be using data to make decisions in schools and about educational initiatives - but we need to be very critical about precisely what we are measuring and what data we are using. Are we measuring what we actually treasure?

We know, for example, that children learn more about language through play than through test preparation. Most educators agree with this intuitively, but have a very difficult time demonstrating the impact of play in their classrooms. Doing so may be difficult, but it is not impossible. Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow at Temple University and Director of the Infant and Child Laboratory, shared an assessment model for what she refers to as The Six C’s. The Six C’s include collaboration, communication, content, creative innovation, critical thinking, and confidence. Most of what is assessed through standardized tests includes lower level content knowledge and critical thinking. Even in the case of tests such as the NAEP and PISA which will begin to include social skills and character dispositions, reports will not go as far as to say whether children will “dare to fail.”

Schools must begin by deciding, with their communities, what they value most. From there, they can decide how best to use standardized assessment data and what other sources of data they must seek to truly understand the impact of their practices on their students. An effective assessment model for social and emotional development or for the skills and dispositions outlined in the Six C’s should serve not as a measurement for children or schools, but a documentation resource to help paint a picture of who our children are becoming and how our schools are best supporting them.