Friday, February 12, 2010

The lingering effects of testing & grades

I'm giving an assessment today to my sixth grade science students.  It's a common assessment, developed by all the members of my PLC.  We planned the unit according to our state objectives and county pacing guide.  The assessment itself is open book and open notes.  It's our attempt at emphasizing skill development instead of fact regurgitation.  This is only a recently agreed upon approach in our PLC.  It's one I've been insisting on and we've all finally come to agree that it is the best approach.

I've been teaching my kids from this perspective the entire year.  I've told them from day 1 that I hate grades and would never give another if I didn't have to.  I've told them the most important thing for them to learn this year is how to learn, how to ask the right question, how to analyze a situation, how to recognize and evaluate various relationships among data, concepts, etc.  All of our class assignments and instructional strategies happen this way.

Yet, every time they take a common assessment, they form a line at my desk, asking "What does this question mean?" or "Is this the right answer?" or "I don't understand what this is asking?"  It's not like the assessment is so drastically different from what they've seen before.  It's nearly identical!  It becomes so frustrating because roughly 80% of their questions are unnecessary because they have not read the directions or they are too worried about a grade.

We have done such a disservice to our children.  In our attempts at proving we are doing our jobs we are force feeding tons of content knowledge, giving standardized tests with low level norms established as passing grades, and giving crash diet remediation to allow underachievers to retake our already low expectation tests again.  In the process, students have lost the ability to think for themselves.  They don't read directions because someone has always told EXACTLY what to do.  They are afraid to think because the right answer is too important.

But what about the growing number of classrooms like my own where there is pushback against such culture,  where on a daily basis the students thrive in an environment that provides the opportunity to explore and learn and they consistently demonstrate a mastery of not only the content but the development of those higher order thinking, creative, and collaborative skills?  We put a mandated common assessment in front of them and they suddenly become different children.  It's like Order 66 has been activated and completely new personalities take over, erasing any prior history, training, or allegiance.

It's frustrating because I begin to feel like a failure as a teacher.  It's frustrating because it feels like all that we have accomplished as a class has been for naught.  It's depressing because you begin to wonder if you will ever help these precious children you've been given to overcome this curse.  I don't have a solution.  I just need to rant.  Anybody else know what I'm talking about?

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