I teach sixth grade and I find the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) standardized test frustrating. Schools use it in ways I wish we didn’t and we can’t use it in ways we wish we could. I didn’t realize how conflicted I really felt until my students bombed the test when I had them take it ‘just for practice.’
I had asked that my students be excused from the second of three yearly rounds of testing. When I made my pitch to my principal, I explained that I can’t really use the MAP to inform my teaching because the information I receive from it is so generalized: it doesn’t help me pinpoint what students know and don’t know. Also, many of the sixth graders in my class read too much into their score and lose confidence in themselves as mathematicians if it doesn’t rise dramatically.
We decided on a compromise: Take the test, but tell them it was just for practice. Students wouldn’t freak out. And they wouldn’t lose out on a opportunity — and this is the part of how we use the test that I don’t like — to experience how the school would determine their math placement for the coming grade. They’d just calmly give it their best. Was I in for a surprise.
When I saw their scores, my heart sank. They relaxed, too much. Much of the class didn’t do as well as they did when they took the test in fifth grade, in spite of six intervening months of learning. These results were completely out of line with every formal and informal observation I’ve made of their learning so far this year. They also don’t match students’ performance in prior years and I have some of the most powerful student growth I’ve ever had this year. Also the experience was still toxic, at least for some of them. One student came into class the next day begging to be taught algebra so he could do better next time. Another was frustrated that she couldn’t explain her answers. She loves that part of how we do math. A third said it was a waste of time because he didn’t care about the MAP because tests like that aren’t going to determine who he is.
To learn more about what happened, I gave my students an anonymous survey. Their responses to my questions and our discussion shed light on the results. Here is what l learned: When they know that a test is tied to an opportunity, like getting into a class, they do their very best. In fact that is what 80 % of them had done in fifth grade when they knew the test would determine their middle school placement. This time, for the practice test, about seventy percent of them reported not working very hard, because, they reasoned, “Why bother? It was just for practice.” This was about the same percentage as those whose scores dropped. They also said they wouldn’t ever work that hard if it was just practice. The test taking experience is unpleasant, it takes too long, and no one reads their work anyway.
My sixth graders taught me that what students understand about how test results are used matters to them. They knew that in the 5th grade, their placement in math class would be determined by their score on the MAP and they responded accordingly. I, along with many educators, have mixed feelings about this, and wish that students’ opportunities weren’t determined by test scores alone. In fact, as professionals with the best interest of children in mind, we can and do work with families to find the best fit for students. Sometimes, we can advocate successfully for a child who hasn’t scored well. In the past I have shared this with students, emphasizing caring adults’ role in advocating for them. But in reality those conversations are the exception, not the rule. Usually it’s a score that determines a child’s math placement. In their world, the numbers do count. Test results matter to students’ future selves. Many of my students will find that doors open for them when they perform well on standardized tests. Others will lose opportunities when they don’t do well.
I have gone into test days too wishful for years, and my wishes have skewed the way I present the experience to my students. I look at the scores and wish I could learn more about my students from them, and I wish the scores didn’t impact my school and students so much. My first wish is silly. I already know what I need to know from spending day after day with these young people. As for the latter, I suspect my nuanced understanding of human development as far more than a test score has been getting in the way of my students’ performance. On test day, I have reassured them that I know how smart they have become through their hard work. They believe in my belief in them and probably trust that I will be there if they slip up like I have been before.
Next time, instead of reminding them of how much I care about them, I will help them see the doors that open and close based on their scores. I will tell them that doing well means having choices and having more power and agency to determine the next steps in their own lives. I will tell them that I care about their results because I care about them. I will help them see that the tests are the only way that people who don’t have the time to come into our classroom and listen to how amazing they are can find out what they know. To the extent that I can, I will help my living-in-the-present eleven year olds see past the people they already know to imagine those they don’t know yet and to have those people, including their future selves, matter.