being a teacher, change, Student-centered, testing

Yes, I Test My Students – As Long as its Worthwhile

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I have tests in my room… there I said it.  This reward-disliking, limited homework, freethinking teacher actually dares to test her students.  To some this is surprising, to others borderline offensive, and yet to me it makes perfect sense.  See, I believe it is all in what you do with the test.

I used to give tests just so I had a grade to end home and record in my grade-book.  The test was always the final product, the destination of our learning journey.  If a student failed the test or did poorly, it was not my fault, but rather that of the student obviously having poor study skills.  My second year teaching I realized that maybe it wasn’t the student but instead my teaching that was the real cause of their poor test results, and finally this year I realized that it was all me, and even more so, that I actually had power of the format of the tests and what answers they provided.  So this year I took the power away from the tests and gave it back to my students.

Tests in my room take many forms.  There are the dreaded WKCE tests, our state’s standardized testing which take up a whole week of our time in October.  That week is tough for me because this represents the type of tests that I immensely dislike.  Tests that offer no chance for redoing, learning, or even results to be worked with.  We take them, lock them up, send them off and then get results in March – yes, at least 4 months later.  They also test on curriculum that we haven’t even had a chance to teach yet in 4th grade, so we try to cram that into our poor students just so they can regurgitate it when needed, which often they can’t.  Those tests don’t make for any deep mastery, they don’t create appreciation of the world for the students, or even provide them with real learning opportunity.  It’s a take and forget test, that just happens to decide funding for my district.  Sure we try to make it fun with singing, bubble gum and other projects, but still they are something to be lived through and forgotten about, sorry.  Those tests deserve all of the bad publicity they get.

There are valuable tests though, such as the pre-test and post-test I give in math.  Some people may scoff at the notion of pre-testing students on curriculum they have yet to be taught but experience has taught me that done the right way, this is incredibly valuable for the teacher and for the student.  It simply is all a matter of how it is presented to the students.  We discuss how this pre-test is a way for me to guide my teaching, that anything they don’t get they leave blank, and to not spend a lot of time on it.  If they get something, great, if they don’t, great.  Either way it helps me teach them better.  There have been units when a student or two has mastered everything before it has even been taught, knowing that information gave me a chance to offer enrichment rather than the same material.  Those pre-tests let me know when students lack background knowledge or when the whole class is ready for harder concepts.  Those pre-tests also give my students a chance to see what is to come and some even comment on how excited they are to learn something.  These pre-tests are the same as the post-tests, which means I can compare their growth.  How did they do, where are the holes, what did I miss?  I always make it a point to show the students their growth from to pre to post; they often can’t believe how much they have learned.  Those tests inform and push me harder.

Then there are the tests that naturally evolve.  In science rather than a test on the structures of life, my students made an incredible crayfish documentary.  They chose to research and document all of the knowledge they had garnered with the world, rather than put pencil to paper, and became real experts in the doing.  If I ever need proof that they learned something, I just have to watch the 6 minute video.  Or how about in social studies when we learned about Native Americans for the 3rd time in their short school career.  Rather than a formal test, I told them to research whatever they wanted as long as it had to do with Native Americans in WI.  The result: corn bread, models, posters, and time lines were some of the chosen projects.  We don’t do spelling tests but rather test each other when we cannot spell a word.  We don’t do grammar tests but instead create grammar hunts throughout the school.  We don’t do tests that seem purposeless, but rather embrace those that give us something and disregard those that don’t.  We discuss as a classroom how we would like to show off our learning and we find ways that suit all students.  That doesn’t mean we never test, it just means they become more meaningful to us.  As an example my students asked me to test their knowledge in social studies about pioneers because they were unsure of what they needed to remember, so I did.  Tests don’t have to be rigid.

Which brings me to my final discovery in my classroom; tests are not the end.  In my room, they are another step in our journey and only a tool used to figure out where our holes are.  So once a test has been given, it is given back for correction.  Students may use their books, their brains, each other, whatever they can to solve a problem.  Often the mistakes are careless, soemtimes not, but almost always they are fixed and the right knowledge emerges.  Tests are not meant to be the end all for me, they are meant to inform, so when I let my students work with them again I am living that philosophy.  Students know that they get a second chance, because let’s face it, sometimes a question is misread or life is distracting, yet they still try their hardest the first time.

So I return to the point of tests; are they to inform our instruction or to provide us with grades?  I choose the latter every time.  Inform me please, make  me a better teacher, help my students learn more, and don’t ever stop us from enjoying the adventure that is school.

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