I work in a public high school, so we are all focused on "readiness." We want our students to be college "ready" and AP "ready" and "ready" for the real world. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog recently posted a commentary by Monty Neill of Fair Test in which he describes a Race to the Top initiative that encourages states to create a "readiness" test of kindergarteners as part of a Comprehensive Assessment System for public schools. Neill argues that readiness tests for kindergarteners will affect them negatively, convincing these little ones that they are failures at a young age and persuading their teachers that their students are not capable of academic work. These tests would deprive our youngest learners of the type of experiential learning that they need.
As I read Neill's commentary, I thought about education's love-hate relationship with tests. We in education have always given tests. I'm not sure I know a teacher who doesn't assess her students on a regular basis. Whether it's a summative unit test or a question-and-answer session during class discussion, teachers constantly assess their students. Yet, we in education also bemoan tests as time-wasting, fun-sucking, cognition-draining adventures in futility. I'm not sure I know a teacher who jumps for joy when state testing time rolls around. All criticisms of the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives blast their reliance on tests as the gold-standard of accountability. We find ourselves in a classic approach-avoidance conflict: we are compelled to assess our students so we know where they stand yet we hate judging them (and being judged ourselves) for where they stand.
I argue that we should stop fighting the tests. We won't win that battle anyway. The tests are here to stay, regardless of their quality or validity. What we need to do is repurpose the tests, educating the public and policy makers about what value these tests can provide. The problem with the current testing zeitgeist is that the test results are sold as a measure of how well we've prepared students. I'm not sure any educated person, or any person in education, really believes that's what tests really do. We've all taken tests that didn't really measure what we knew. These tests do not measure "readiness," so we should stop hoping that they will suddenly start measuring "readiness" because we use them as an accountability tool. So instead of using tests as measures of "readiness," we should use them as measures of "opportunity."
I always told my students that testing days were the most important days in the course. The testing day was the moment of truth when they would discover whether they knew the material or not. Most students are very confident that they know the material going into the test. In fact, the overconfidence effect is a well documented phenomenon in psychology. People tend to be very confident that they will perform well on a task, but their performance generally does not equal their confidence. Because students don't know what they will be tested on, they assume that they will be tested on what they know. They don't anticipate that questions will come up about stuff they do not know. We don't expend a lot of energy studying information we already feel confident that we know. We do, however, expend great effort learning information that we do not know. So the testing day is when what they don't know is revealed. For students to recognize what they didn't know is the first step to learning.
I am interested in assessing our students, even in kindergarten, but I'm not interested in using the test results to punish parents, students, teachers, or schools for not getting these youngsters "ready" for school. I am interested in assessing our students so that we can know what we need to focus on in the classroom. Can our five-year-olds entering kindergarten read? Can they add or subtract? Can they name the current President of the United States? If so, I'm going to need to plan lessons that take students farther than what the Common Core or any other standardized curriculum would dictate for kindergarten. We waste tons of time in classrooms teaching students material they already know. Test results should point us in the directions we should go from this point forward. The "readiness" approach instead uses test results to scold us for not having the map that tells us where to go.
So, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary, rethink your interpretation of test results. The results will not tell you whether our students are "ready" for anything. But they will tell you how many resources we will need to meet the learning needs of our students. Use the scores as indicators of how much work needs to be done instead of indicators of how little work has been done. See the scores as opportunities to demonstrate just how far students can go instead of evidence that someone has failed. This simple repurposing may be the honey you need to get teachers on board with your reform efforts. Of course, by getting teachers on board, you may not need reform efforts after all.