What are we testing, anyway?


I am teaching in the age of “accountability” and “measurable outcomes”.  I am supposed to make “data driven” decisions.  This is the era of “No Child Left Behind”, after all, when  every state must test every child in every subject, multiple times over, before awarding a diploma.

In support of this philosophy, the district where I teach is attempting to implement uniform assessments of reading, across all grade levels in all five elementary schools.  We have looked at written assessments, oral assessments, group assessments and individually administered assessments.  DRA, Fountas and Pennell, Rigby, QRI, Standford…..

Um, OK.   Aside from asking what I am supposed to NOT teach during the dozens of hours I will spend testing kids three times a year, I would really like to ask somebody this basic question:

What am I assessing?

If my goal is find out what level my students can decode and comprehend, why can’t I choose a grade level book and spend the first two weeks of school reading and listening to the kids? We could have a book discussion, do some writing, compare our impressions….you know, we could enjoy a book and learn something while I “assess” how well each student can read.

If my goal is to measure progress in decoding, why would I be measuring it three times a year, as I’ve been told I will do? I mean, in the fifth grade, how much progress in decoding multisyllable words can we really expect between September and December?

And what about those children who come to fifth grade with an adult reading level? (This happens, I promise you: two of my students recommended books to me this year that I later passed on to other adults).   Why would I be testing them?  What can possibly be gained, especially given that the tests don’t extend beyond about grade 6.  What happens when I can’t “prove” progress in someone who came to me already way above grade level?

I remember many long years ago, when I was in grad school, we learned how to evaluate and assess kids in many areas, but we always did it to answer a question.  Like, “What grade level in math can this child complete independently?” or “What are this child’s areas of strength or weakness in reading?”  We tested because we wondered something specific about a specific child.

Now I fear that we are assessing everybody constantly so that we can prove something about ourselves. I fear that we are testing so that we can have some kind of concrete proof that we are doing something every day.  The questions that we are trying to answer are about ourselves, not about the children.

So I have decided that, even though I am only one little cog in the big machine, and will of course do what I am told, before I actually sit down and put any kids through any more tests, I will demand an answer to the question that is plaguing me:

“What am I assessing here, anyway?”

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