Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Are We Measuring Anxiety?

When I transferred to a new school for my new position, my son came with me for fourth grade.  To say it was a culture shock for him might be an understatement.  The new school is a Title 1 school with a large proportion of ELL students.  The year has gone pretty smoothly for him, he's made some great friends, joined different school clubs, and been really happy with his decision to change schools.  Recently, however, he began expressing a desire to return to his old school, but could never explain why he had changed his tune about his current school.  My wife and I tried in earnest to identify any potential problems, we even talked to his teachers to see if anything had happened at school that may have led to this about face.  There were no incidents that his teachers could point to that would lead to this change... but then it hit us!

It was... the test!

Last year, as the testing season approached, there was an uptick in focus on testing strategies and the like. Not a dramatic increase, but enough for him to become aware of the change.  This year, however, has been completely different.  There is a higher proportion of students that require this type of instruction (personally, I disagree with this type of instruction) and that has added substantial anxiety for my son.  He is a strong student that really does not need this type of focus in order to be successful on the state test.  He is, though, chock full of anxiety and this increased focus has left a mark on him.

Just over the weekend, he was given a thick packet of practice tests that he had to complete.  Again, let me reiterate that I do not feel this is beneficial for any student, not just my son.  He dreaded the entire activity, and to be honest it appeared to be nothing more than busy work to my wife and me.  There were a total of 120 questions for him to answer, and as a teacher, I had a hard time finding the worthiness of this assignment.  He completed the activity over the course of the weekend, but along with that came an increase in his anxiety level.  There were lots of tears, worries, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping.  I did not conduct any scientific experiments, but I think it is pretty clear where these developments came from.

I have tried understand the rationale behind the teacher's thinking in assigning this packet, but I have been unable to find anything redeeming.  Besides this packet, there have been similar incidents during the school day that have raised his anxiety level about the upcoming tests.  This whole environment is new to my son and me, and it really raises some questions about what we are doing in education by placing such an emphasis on a one-time test to evaluate a student's growth over the course of a school year.  How does this standardized test, comprised of multiple choice questions, given on one day in April, truly assess a student's growth?  In my eyes, it is far from authentic, and only provides a partial snapshot of a student's abilities, if that.  Making matters worse, the results of this test are utilized to make decisions for these students' future educational placement.

I have tried to remain supportive of my son's teachers throughout his time in school, because I know how hard teaching can be, and did not think it would be beneficial for me to question decisions that his teachers made.  Being an educator myself, I am aware of the multitude of decisions that we make each and every single day in the classroom, and accept that sometimes teachers make decisions that they may later regret.

That being said, I do not feel as though I can remain quiet on this specific topic anymore.  It has now hit home, and I have seen firsthand the effects of being consumed with test prep.  There has to be a better way to assess our students without creating this heightened level of anxiety in them.  In this day and age of rapid technology development, somewhere there is a better answer.  It might be that the students develop e-portfolios throughout the year, focused on specific standards, that can highlight their learning and growth. Of course, I am aware of the inherent challenges that this type of system could present, but I wonder if they are as potentially damaging to students as the current system.  Based on what I have seen over the past few weeks, I think not...

Have you experienced a similar reaction to standardized testing?  How can we assess our students' growth in more authentic ways?

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