(Un)Fighting Standardized Tests

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.’ 

Learning Testing

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.

4 thoughts on “(Un)Fighting Standardized Tests”

  1. Wonderful post, I completely resonate with all the issues you raised. It breaks my heart to know the affect that the test can have on such mathematically powerful students. I wonder about inviting students into that conversation about whether or not they think the test is a good measure of their learning, to help them build some resilience around it and not lose sight of what actually matters in their learning.

  2. These 6th graders seem to know a lot more than I do (I’m a parent of a 5th grader) about the importance of the MAP. My daughter has taken the MAP many times over the years, and I am pretty sure it was never framed to her as any sort of class placement tool. That includes this year, when (as I have come to realize) it does actually have a significant impact on middle school placement. Overall, I’m glad she didn’t think of it that way—seems like a lot of pressure for a 10-year-old. Knowing the stakes are high may have a positive effect on some students, but a negative effect on others.

    I am amazed that 80% of one class tried harder in 5th grade because they ”knew that the test would influence their middle school placement.” I don’t know how typical the students described in the post are, but I’d suppose that many other kids are like us in being unaware of (or unmotivated by) the high-stakes nature of this particular test. I can also imagine that a multiple-metrics approach to class placement would be a more effective way to diversify student groups in accelerated programs. I even wonder whether simply knowing the impact of the MAP in 5th grade might be a strong predictor of actually getting into an advanced 6th grade class. We might also ask: should it be?

    All this being said, I agree with the conclusion in the post that we need to be honest with our students about the impact of their scores. At the same time, they need to know that what is truly important about them, and what is probably a more important predictor of long-term success, are personal qualities that simply do not register on the MAP.

  3. Rachel, For years I have led with the message that ‘you are more than your test score’ and I still do every single day in my classroom. In fact the tests play no active role in the day-to-day life of our learning community. The tension comes when the test score determines placement. What I say matters to students, and honesty is paramount. What schools do with scores is something I have come to understand I must be honest with my students about. It is my job to support my students to be in the world they are in, and to leave them out of any ambiguity I feel about the policies we work under. All students deserve to know how the schools they are in use their test scores. It is up to their families to respond according to their values. As you note, based on what my students told me, knowing the impact of their 5th grade score might have made a difference in qualifying for advanced math placement. We don’t know however where they got their information. I can’t prevent some students from knowing more than others, but I can have a one-on-one with each of my own students and give them all the same information. That is justice and equity within my sphere of influence.

  4. As a teacher (and a parent), I am conflicted when it comes to standardized tests. In general, I don’t mind tests. I find them very useful to measure the aptitudes and skills of my students. But I also know that a test is just a snapshot of how well they are doing on that day. Sometimes it’s a bad day. Sometimes it’s a day when they didn’t have breakfast. Sometimes it’s a day when they didn’t get a good night sleep. Sometimes it’s a day when they are so excited because after school they are going over to a friend’s house and they can’t concentrate.

    I don’t mind the MAP test, because the test trend out over the years and you can get a sense of growth, even when the data goes up and down. But I also trust that the test is valid. I don’t KNOW that it’s valid. I have to trust. But I also know that the kids and I are familiar enough with the test that we are going to do well.

    Herein lies my problem with the “Smarter” “Balanced” Test. It happens once a year, is largely hyped up, is not developmentally appropriate (in terms of how long young kids have to sit and type), and the test is different each year. The practice tests are were glitchy and I don’t get feedback on how well they do. I’ve taken it and it’s really hard. I’m 40. I have a masters in teaching. In short I don’t trust that it measures what it says it is going to measure.

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