Testing from the inside out: This week, on May 20, the debate team at Minneapolis’ Northeast Middle School is hosting a “community panel on standardized testing.” With the help of French teacher and debate team coach Michael Grandys, these kids–whose school lives have been defined by testing–will be going directly in to the belly of the beast, and taking the rest of us with them. (I will be on the panel on the 20th, and, more importantly, so will a lot of other people, including students.)
After I met a few of these kids at a pre-panel event, I couldn’t resist asking them why they wanted to host a debate about testing. I just assumed that, since they have grown up within the low expectation-slashing embrace of No Child Left Behind, being tested would be as natural a thing as breathing for these kids. Turns out it’s not that simple.
Here’s what the students I spoke with–8th grader Margret Ritschel and 7th graders Eleanor Craig and Ginger Benson-Nicheallochain–had to say. My questions and prompts are in bold; their answers (not in multiple choice format, unfortunately) are the bullet points that follow.
Tell me how you got interested in the topic of testing.
- I have hated testing since I was little and thought the whole thing was really unfair.
- I got involved in the panel on standardized testing after our coach, Mr. Grandys, went and saw Jesse Hagopian speak in March. He then talked with us about testing, and I got intrigued with it. I did a bunch of research and just got really passionate about it. That’s why I’ve decided to speak out about it.
- There is just so much pressure with testing. Our teachers feel a lot of pressure to teach to the test, but the tests don’t match up with what we’re doing in class.
How do the tests not match up with what you are doing in class?
- We are all in advanced math classes, so the (federally mandated) MCA tests don’t match what level we are at. The test is for grade-level work only, and we are all working above grade level. So, before the tests, we get crammed with knowledge, and told “we’re doing this because it’s on the test.”
Wait. When I asked the Minnesota Department of Education about testing last year, their message was clear: they do not endorse or support the use of test prep. But it sounds like that message didn’t reach your school.
- No, we do test prep packets for three months out of the year, to get ready for the tests. The packets are 10-20 pages long, and we have to do them every day.
- The test prep packets are huge, and kids don’t have time to do them because we still have all of our other work to do. So, this leads to copying and searching on the Internet for answers.
- We get graded on the test prep packets, but we don’t have time to for them.
Why do you think you have to do so much test prep?
- We hear the message all the time: You have to do well on these tests so our school can succeed and teachers can keep their jobs. One teacher said, “I kind of want a job next year, so do well on the test, everyone.”
- It’s so much pressure on students, but the teachers can’t help it. They have to do this
because they are getting graded on our scores.
Some people say the tests are needed, to see how students are doing and what they’re learning. What do you think?
- Testing is not learning. The quizzes and tests that teachers make are more fair, and they are about what we’re doing in class. And teachers don’t lose their jobs if we fail a spelling test. But with standardized tests, teachers can be fired if we don’t do well.
- There are two worlds: the testing world, and the real world. In real life, you can ask for help. On the tests, you can’t.
- With the tests, no one knows what’s on them. We don’t know what we got wrong or why.
- Life isn’t multiple choice. In life, you have to think. And these tests don’t help you think. They don’t teach us how to apply information.
- I don’t like that you can’t ask for help, so there’s no learning. In life, we can always find help or look up information we need.
- I have friends who get good grades and take all advanced classes, but do bad on tests. Why should so much depend on the tests?
So you’re not buying in to the idea that these tests provide useful information to you, your teachers, or anyone?
- Testing was initially a good idea, because we do need to assess students. But it all got mangled. If I hadn’t opted out of the testing this year, I would have had to take 11 standardized tests. It’s too much.
- Assessing students is a great idea, but not to the point of affecting students’ mental health and causing anxiety.
- There is a difference between assessing and ranking, and these tests are about ranking. I know they do this in high school. My brother happens to be near the top of his class, but how would you feel if you were number 138 or something? It is not encouraging.
- So much falls on one day. Kids are crying and feeling pressure, and if you have a bad test day, you can then be put into a special class, for extra reading or math. But there are a lot of smart kids who don’t test well.
- These tests are used to judge students, but do we ever blame the people who make the tests? If a bunch of students don’t do well, do we ever stop and think the tests might be bad? Instead, we are blaming students, but maybe the tests aren’t good.
- MAP tests (given up to 3 times a year purportedly to show growth) are the worst because there is no stopping. The test keeps getting harder if you get a question right, but then it drops you right down if you get a question wrong. Right away you feel like “I’m doing bad.” It’s a negative mentality.
Tell me more.
- If 100 was a perfect score on the MCA tests, and 50 was passing, then they’ll focus on the kids who are getting 40 points, and ignore the kids in the 20 range. Those kids, getting a 20, will keep getting lower and lower if you ignore them, and then the higher scoring kids don’t get attention either. It’s all about the kids close to passing, and having them boost their test scores.
- Teachers should test us on what they’ve been teaching us in class.
- After the tests are over, a lot of kids just think school is over. It’s like school doesn’t matter once the tests are done. One kid didn’t bring his math book to class after the tests and when the teacher asked him about it he said, “We did the test! I thought we weren’t learning anything anymore.”
- High test scores equal a good school in parents’ minds, but schools shouldn’t be judged this way.
- Tests won’t be part of our lives when we’re older. Taking tests is not a job skill.
- Tests are draining. We have to sit for an hour and a half at a time, silently.
- Some students miss lunch because they can’t get up and leave if they are in the middle of a test section.
- Afterwards, your brain is mush. Fried. You need to run around and have a break, but we have to go to another class. Then that teacher can’t really do anything useful like an essay or project because we are all so tired.
- Taking these tests means staring at a computer screen for an hour and a half straight. Last time, I had to ask my teacher for a break afterwards because my eyes hurt and were stinging.
- I actually miss the paper tests because of this.
- The computer lab and the library are closed during testing season, so we can’t use them to do our other work. And some kids don’t have a computer or Wi-Fi at home, making it hard for them to do their homework.
What do you think should be done instead?
- I think testing uses the wrong incentives. It’s all negative because the message is, if you don’t do well then the school will lose funding, and teachers will get fired, and your parents won’t be happy. There isn’t any joy or inspiration this way.
- It’s better when teachers know us and know why we did or didn’t do well on something.
- I read about these schools in New York that use essays and projects to assess students. That seems good.
- Yes! We’ve seen the science classes give presentations, and it’s amazing to see. The presentations are actually showing a student’s passion and it’s great.
- You could learn how students are doing without ranking them.
- Maybe there’s a different way we could fund our schools so we wouldn’t have to have these tests.
- One option would be to just reduce the number of tests. There are a lot of useless tests given that could be taken away.
- I see so many problems with testing, like the Pearson glitches we’ve had this year. Now they’re saying that maybe none of the tests this year will count. If testing has all of these unnecessary consequences, why are we using them?
What about opting out? Has that caught on at Northeast Middle School?
- We’ve just started talking about it, in April of this year, so it’s a very new topic here.
- Seven students, total, opted out at our school. A lot of students just don’t know anything besides tests, so opting out is a really new idea.
- Some students think they have to do the test to get into high school or college. Students don’t have enough information.
Smart kids. Come to Northeast Middle School on May 20, and listen in as they burst the bubble (sheet, that is) around the promise of high stakes standardized testing.
When: Wednesday, May 20, 7 p.m.
Where: Northeast Middle School Auditorium, 2955 Hayes Street NE, Minneapolis