State testing is a serious topic, so I thought I’d lighten the atmosphere with a joke.
TEACHER (to class): Can someone tell me “How do you spell ‘crocodile?’”
TEACHER: No, that’s wrong
STUDENT: But you asked me how I spell it!
One day, the student might make a good lawyer. But, in a world with right and wrong answers, there are no bonus points for witty rejoinders.
So, what do we do? How do schools teach students to walk the thin line between finding the “right” answer and doing things their own way? For me, these questions weigh heavily because our school opened with one grade – kindergarten – and has added a grade each year. Now, our oldest students are third graders and they are about to take a state assessment for the very first time.
It’s a unique opportunity. I’m beyond fortunate to lead a team with incredibly smart, talented, dedicated teachers. These ideas are all theirs. I’m just the lucky guy that gets to see the ideas in action.
Embrace the chance – If you teach a tested grade, you get to help students learn how to take a test. You don’t have to do it. There’s a subtle difference, but mindset matters. We’ve tried to remember that we’re building enduring beliefs about assessment and consider ourselves lucky.
See the big picture – Standardized assessments are important because they help schools benchmark progress. They report subgroups, which show achievement gaps that may exist along lines of race and income. This information is essential and, without it, it’d be that much easier to turn a blind eye to the inequities that exist within our society and our schools.
This isn’t your granny’s test – Tests have changed since we took them. Now, questions have multiple answers, reading comprehension asks students to cite evidence, and graphic organizers are part of the testing format. These changes are good. They reward creativity and rigorous thinking. They teach children to do tons more than fill in a single bubble.
Parents need to know – Parents trust their schools and their teachers. We invited all of our third grade families to a meeting about the upcoming state test. In this meeting, we outlined testing dates, showed them sample items, and discussed how they could support their student. They need to know facts about the test and to know there’s a team behind their child.
Take the Long View – Jeff Bezos is famous for saying “I always tell people, if we have a good quarter, it’s because of the work we did three, four, and five years ago. It’s not because we did a good job this quarter.” We met with parents about the state assessment in January – three months before the test begins. We’ve been thinking about quality instruction and critical thinking since our students were kindergartners. All year, we’ve tried to give scholars independent work with multiple correct answers, short essays, and evaluative responses (e.g. There are 13 cupcakes and Jayce wants to give all of them away and an equal amount to 3 friends. He says he has the perfect amount. Is he correct? Why or why not?). Achievement is a marathon. If all you do to prepare is eat spaghetti the night before, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Control What You Can – We’re working individually with families to make sure that students with allergies have their medicine, that school buses run on time, and all students have clean, comfortable school uniforms. We’re also investing in extra snacks, serving all students healthy breakfasts, and planning field trips and special events to incentivize perfect attendance before and during testing. At the end of the day, if the year is a book, we know that the time spent taking a test is just a sentence. We can’t control every word that comes before and after it, but we are trying to make it the best sentence we can.
A Growth Mindset – It turns out that praising effort and process is much more important than praising aptitude. We’ve designed a cheat sheet for families to use with their children to talk about the state test. In the days leading up to the state test, we’ll give students a few practice assessments and share scores with families. We want to give families systems to use that emphasize effort and growth rather than fixed skills.
Examples are below:
If they struggled despite their best effort, try to say:
- Ok. So you didn’t do as well as you wanted to. Let’s look at this as an opportunity to do better next time.
- I admire your persistence and appreciate your hard work. It will pay off.
- What did you do to prepare/study/solve? Is there anything you could do different tomorrow?
I’d be lying if I said we aren’t a little bit nervous. But, to my pleasant surprise, when I talk to students and staff, they are mostly excited. It’s pretty amazing. It turns out – with the right mindset and a little work – you can teach children to do things their own way and spell crocodile.