We are barely into the second semester, and at my school, we are well into planning our state-mandated testing.
We have a leadership team that works collaboratively to plan our academic goals, and testing is inevitably on the short list of priorities. It’s been a journey getting to the place where we have an administrator who sees the value in working with all of the staff to problem-solve. I must say it’s been worth the trip.
A common complaint about standardized assessments in this time of high-stakes testing is that while teachers and administrators are held accountable, students are not. Of course, teachers must be responsible, but by leaving learners out of the conversation, students often are not vested in the process.
“Why not Ask the Students What Works Best for Testing?”
This year, we moved beyond the staff and tackled the most important players in the game of testing—the students. We all came into the testing planning session with pretty clear ideas of what practices work best, but then one of us suggested the unthinkable. “Why not ask the students what works best for testing?” That idea really got us talking. We decided to create a simple Google Form to quickly collect student opinion. By polling our students, we invited them into the conversation—and, boy, were we surprised by what they said.
One of the first surprises came when we asked them how to schedule the tests. The prevalent consensus from the leadership team was “get ‘er done.” Several team members spoke from their own experience saying that prolonging the agony made it that more agonizing. The student poll, however, showed the students overwhelmingly preferred to spread out the tests. They didn’t want to take more than one test a day, and every other day would be best. They also requested to refrain from testing on Mondays. By asking our students what works best for them and then honoring those choices, we effectively invited them onto our team.
The student poll revealed another surprise about scheduling. Last year, we chose to rotate our class schedules so that students wouldn’t miss the same classes four or five times.
Each day, we began the morning with a different class period: Monday started with first period, Tuesday with second, and so on. That way students didn’t lose an entire week of classes in two subject areas.
Once the testing was over, the teachers were adamant that this fix was perhaps the worst decision ever made. Most of us didn’t know which class we were teaching for the duration of testing; we all had to ask kids.
It's Our Problem
One revelation from the polling was: it’s OUR problem. The kids appreciated mixing up the schedule, as long as the testing remained first thing in the morning. They had no problem reading posters in the hallways and finding the appropriate class. I know some students do struggle with changed schedules, and they should be accommodated. But for the average student, change is not nearly as debilitating as it is for most adults.
The timing issue was also interesting. Research suggests the optimal time for testing is different for different people based on their individual circadian rhythms. Unfortunately, we can’t provide a choose-your-time format, so we decided to go with majority choice.
The best surprise from the polling for me was the quality of student responses. More than half of the students added an optional written response. While some were expectedly predictable—provide gum and let us listen to our music—most of the responses were thoughtful and constructive.
The most recurring suggestion was prepare us for what’s on the test. What? You mean actually teach to the test? The reality, of course, is that this should be a “duh” statement, but looking at test results in our area, it isn’t happening. A major shift of the Common Core is the focus on process and critical thinking.
Unfortunately, we aren’t hitting the mark. I’m speaking for my immediate area here, but many of our students are clearly not well prepared for these newer assessments, according to nationwide results. Too many of us are still teaching from the same old textbooks, favoring content over process, and it’s showing in our test results. The clear student mandate helped me to realize that the old faculty lounge banter that claims, “These kids just don’t care” is decidedly untrue. They don’t want to sit down to a two-hour test they don’t have the skills to master. They don’t want to fail, and they need our expertise to excel. Now, I feel the burden of accountability even more intensely.
So, when we met again to plan our schedule, it was with a new understanding of the needs of our students.
Make Students Feel They are Part of the Team
This year, we are using our students’ input to design our testing schedule. By doing so, I’m hoping that our students will begin to feel they are part of the team. By giving them opportunities to structure the system in ways that best serve them, they will, hopefully, feel more empowered and, perhaps, care more about the outcome. Our goal has always been to prepare all of our students to be successful in the classroom, and in any situation they choose for themselves after graduation.
I suppose it’s about time we clued them into the game plan.
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