In kindergarten I had a health screening that included a hearing test. I failed. The nurse notified my parents and I went to see a specialist. They confirmed I had hearing loss and ordered further tests to determine the cause. After putting my parents through days of worry, they crossed brain tumor off the list of possible causes, and we settled into a routine of yearly monitoring appointments with the specialist. The school, however, had its own routine. Health screenings continue after kindergarten. The nurse would call me down, and I would fail the hearing test. Of course I failed the hearing test, I have a diagnosis that I’m hard of hearing. I would try to tell the nurse before the test, or during the test, or after the test when she asked me why I didn’t follow instructions. I mentally rolled my eyes and headed back to class marveling at the waste of my time (and hers!).
The testing culture in schools isn’t limited to health screenings. How often are teachers asked to administer redundant tests? We haven’t taught the unit on dividing fractions yet, but let’s give this benchmark test that includes dividing fractions. We know the pandemic meant that students missed the section on histograms, but let’s give this pre-assessment including them. The results from the last three exit tickets all show students aren’t understanding, but the pacing guide says the test must be administered today regardless.
I actually enjoy taking hearing tests. I think it’s fascinating how a small change in frequency results in silence instead of beeping. That’s probably because my hearing loss is only in one ear so it’s not a major disruption, because I’m interested in science, and because I’ve never been shamed for having a physical disability. Teachers accommodated my need for preferential seating, people don’t attach a stigma to my hearing loss, and it’s relatively easy for others to understand what I need.
I can’t always say the same for math tests. Taking a math test on something I don’t know isn’t enjoyable, and that’s coming from someone who enjoys math. The testing culture had already gotten out of hand pre-pandemic and I’m worried it will only get worse from here. Here’s what I wish we would do instead:
- Vertical alignment. That means students’ previous teachers communicating with their next instructor. Both on a course level (we didn’t reach unit x, they’re still mastering y) and on a student level (we were working on z with these three individuals)
- Trust teachers. Teachers do formative assessments constantly. From thumbs up, to scanning and discussing during activities, to exit tickets, quizzes, and unit tests. Teachers are constantly gathering actionable data. They don’t need redundant benchmarks to determine what students need. They do need the flexibility and support to meet those needs.
- Targeted diagnostics. Instead of a giant test at the beginning of the year, check in with students a few questions at a time. Only check if you truly don’t know what they know. If the previous teacher said it wasn’t taught, just teach it! But if the previous teacher said students were approaching mastery, or it’s a topic from over a year ago, give the task with a very clear statement to students that you’re interested in learning what they know. A diagnostic doesn’t have to be a test, it could be asking students to Notice and Wonder.
I hope that this year, your school will afford students the same grace that’s been afforded to me. I hope teachers will accommodate students’ needs for additional learning, not attach a stigma to someone not knowing, and acknowledge it’s relatively easy for others to understand what kids need. Because generally, all you have to do is communicate. The three bullets above can be summarized as: first ask prior teachers, then ask current teachers, finally ask students for any additional information you need. Trust the information from each of those stakeholders and use it to spend as much time as possible addressing grade level content. Because we all know time is a precious commodity.
Looking for professional support around mathematics instruction, curriculum alignment, developing and implementing intentional formative assessments, or more? Our Center for Mathematics Achievement at Lesley University offers targeted support for school districts, with evidence of improvement on student academic achievement. Check out our work and offerings here. Remember, we can always customize for your needs.