What School Should Really Be About

A MiddleWeb Blog

kids_cusp2Which of the following statements is true?

A. Standardized tests are effective.
B. Standardized tests help kids.
C. Standardized tests accurately assess teaching practices.
D. None of the above

I’m sitting at my laptop, waiting for my T-Eval page to open. It’s taking a long time.

My annual review is approaching, and I need to print out a copy of the self-assessment I am required to complete as part of our state-mandated assessment practices. The on-line self-assessment is made up of six different rubrics: six confusing, subjective, and often impossible rubrics to use to assess myself.


Last month, when the deadline to complete the rubric arrived, I didn’t have any trouble logging into the site back then…and I didn’t spend too much time completing the “on-line self-assessment.” The evaluation rubrics contained in it are broken into categories that “assess” my abilities and success as a teacher, but don’t accurately paint the picture. They are, quite frankly, irrelevant to how I teach….but they are relevant to the future of education.

These rubrics haven’t changed at all, as far as I can tell. As a matter of fact, it seems not much has changed, but my attitude about them is changing. No matter what, I can’t let the frustration of standardized testing interfere with my teaching.

Helping Students Understand Testing’s Limits

Current assessment practices in education are part of my world for now. But they certainly don’t define me, and they certainly don’t define my teaching. I can’t let them. They aren’t what school is all about.

It’s important that my students understand that the tests don’t define them either, but since they also have to deal with all the noise and stress, and they’re nine and ten, I don’t really want to say the test isn’t what school is all about too directly to them.

While researching what is going on in today’s world of education on a broad-scale level, I came across a video created by Kumar Sathy, an educator and author of several children’s books. Mr. Sathy’s video was clearly meant to put things into perspective for kids – that tests don’t define who they are.

In Sathy’s message to the kids, he does not discuss questionable motives that are involved in mixing politics and private industry. He does not discuss vague rubrics or what could be considered “test-scoring malpractice,” or the effect their test scores may (or may not) have on their teacher’s lives.

The kids don’t need to be stressed out by that. Those are “grown-up” topics. Sathy’s message is designed to help students. To help them see that these tests are not important to who they are. This is an valuable message.

Why Our Questions Need Some Honest Answers….

Tony Wagner, former co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard, poses many important questions in a brief commentary he wrote for the 2003 anthology Teaching with Fire. Discussing Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, “Where the Mind Is Without Fear,” Wagner asks: What is school for anyway?

I believe school is a place to learn and prepare kids for life. This is not something that can be easily defined, and using a standardized test (or a rubric) to define “good teaching” simply does not work. An important part of teaching is helping children explore who they will become.

This year my fourth graders and I began with a simple bulletin board that asked a simple question, “What Will You Be in 4-T?” The answer to that can’t be found in any rubric.

The board has been up all year. That wasn’t my intention (although I was hoping to get a month or two out of it). Since then, we have used it for a number of learning activities, including a study of character traits, the importance of word choice, and goal-setting for the future.

mary b bd 1 510

The only thing that has changed about our board is the question being asked. Our original question was replaced by, “What Will You Be in 2015?” This will soon be replaced by, “What Will You Be in 5th Grade?”

Essentially, the question is the same. These questions ask the kids who they want to be. These are questions that involve choice. They are about trying to define who we are right now and trying to figure out who we will be. This is learning at its deepest level.

Assessing Standardized Tests

The numbers generated by statistical assessments, the ones we are using to gauge our progress, are simply data being gathered, used, and manipulated for questionable reasons.

I’m glad the grown-ups who come into my class and other people in my community are starting to share their concerns about testing more openly. And boy, the conversation is becoming quite candid! Earlier this month, on his HBO news/satire show Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver offered a scathing, often hilarious fact-based look at national testing in the United States. The 18-minute video – sent to me by one of my classroom parents – is sprinkled with R-rated images and language, so be forewarned. Oliver’s tragically funny look at what is really going on in standardized testing today is also quite educational.

Why the Secrecy?

purplePearson, and companies like Pearson, won’t answer my questions, and I’m not supposed to talk about their tests because of some shroud of secrecy that surrounds the content (and a waiver I was told to sign). I wonder why they don’t want us talking?

Common Core Standards and standardized tests are not synonymous. They’re more like antonyms, at this point. Good teaching is good teaching. Kids thrive when good teaching is happening. Isn’t that ‘What School is for’ anyway? Won’t that contribute to their ultimate success? I’m just still so unclear about how the tests scores are actually helping the kids.

Loving Learning

In Wagner’s commentary on “Where the Mind Is Without Fear,” he explains, “I hated school…I loved reading, learning, and talking about important questions. But that’s not what we did in school.” Yet that is what my students and I do in our classroom. That’s what defines us.

Wagner poses another important question: “Is life nothing more than a question and answer period, where the questions go unanswered, and the answers go unquestioned?”

No matter. The rubric, the testing, the paperwork…none of it defines my teaching.

But the Tests Persist

Since 1998, standardized tests have been part of my world. Until this year, it seemed only the names of the tests had changed. Here in New Jersey the ESPA became NJASK. Now, we have on-line PARCC testing. The name of the test does not matter. And whether they are taken on-line or not, doesn’t matter. They still aren’t meeting their objective.

Will we ever learn from past mistakes? Who is accountable for “fixing it?” Is it the teachers? The politicians? The parents? The test-makers?

Answer: D) All of the above.

Some of the things that are “too grown-up” for children to hear still have a place in the discussion. The adults are the ones making the decisions that affect students’ educational experience. Thankfully, my frustration is being eased by a little more validation that I’m not the only one who sees the crazy in what is going on.

And I’m sure glad my principal has a good sense of humor (especially since my T-Eval log-in still isn’t working, and I am supposed to bring all of the paperwork to our annual evaluation). He understands. He’s trying to use the rubric too.

Related links:

“Do you know who I am?”

Stephen Colbert on CCSS based test questions

Florida kids’ “report”

Teacher and student ‘Hunger Games’ test prep video

Turtle Lake Elementary 5th Grade Teachers   I have to applaud the efforts of these educators….I wish we really could let it go!

Cool kid talking about test anxiety

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and visit her personal blog (launched in 2021) Behind the Doors of the Teacher's Room for some adult conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.