Untested: Growth That Tests Can’t Measure

Favi called me over to her desk one recent afternoon, leaning forward over her notebook urgently. “I have to thank you,” she said. “You remember how you told Raymond that writing is a way to deal with being upset? Well, I took that advice, too. But I don’t wait to be upset. Every day, I write about a quote. & I really have to thank you. It makes me feel…lighter, if that makes sense. I just feel better every time I do it.”

New York’s school year is ending, & tests are bursting into bloom around us. MOSLs, field tests, the NYSESLAT, all sinister roots winding their way to the towering trunk of Regents exams. It’s a tough time of year, to put it very, very lightly.

Times like this, when my students are emotionally manic balls of stress that ricochet through outbursts & mood swings, when all of their self-esteem & confidence plummets & they find themselves forgetting the most routine of behaviors, when they are bleary & cranky from lack of sleep, or surly & defensive, or on the verge of tears after the slightest frustration, it is easy to feel like I have taught them nothing. They certainly feel as though they’ve forgotten everything. During an after school session, a student working on an essay for another class told me he didn’t want to work with that other teacher, because asking questions was embarrassing there. He knew he would be reprimanded & told, “You should know how to do this! I already taught you this!”

“I know I should know,” my student told me. “I just forget or maybe I’m not sure. Sometimes I ask the question even if I have the right answer, just to check. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

That feeling of I’m not sure & I don’t want to be wrong so I have to ask while I still can seems a direct result of excessive testing. It’s an intense anxiety, one that even self-confident students will suffer through as exam after exam crashes upon them, like so many waves.

But there’s so much more than the test. Tests. The growth & gains my students have made this year can’t always be measured by one test, or even four, or even more. I need to make space to celebrate those moments, so my students can join me in recognizing that increased confidence, stepping outside of their comfort zones, playing teacher, asking questions, & writing independently are huge accomplishments.

Like Favi’s discovery of the healing of journal writing, many of my students have achieved in ways these tests can’t & won’t measure.

There’s Ivy, who began the year so fearful of writing that she did not trust herself to put down more than a  sentence before asking me to read it and tell her if it was “right.” How many hours a week she sat in our classroom after school, tears threatening her eyeliner as I reminded her to write down what she was thinking. “It isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s good. Nothing is perfect.” I can’t pin down Ivy’s exact turning point, but somewhere this year, her anxiety eased up a little. She took risks writing down her thoughts without triple checking her ideas against her classmates’ opinions. She wrote whole paragraphs before asking me to look, & didn’t crumple when I asked a question about her work. & after a reading response activity of drafting coming to America poems, Ivy returned after school to proudly present me with a second poem, one she had simply felt inspired to write. I was so proud I wanted to shout, especially when she handed the poem to me & said, “it’s not perfect, but I like it.”

This school year has held so many of these moments, demonstrations of learning & development that will not be assessed by a formulaic written response to a standardized test prompt. Students reading aloud for the first time, finishing a book independently for the first time, writing in English for the first time after months to years of anxiety & fear. These huge accomplishments do not mean that they will pass their exams, though, & in the end, they will be made to feel like none of these achievements matter.

I’m left with two areas of tension, knots I need to work at as I prepare for next year (next week, next day). One: how do I honor & value students’ growth throughout the year in a way that allows them to honor it, too? Beyond reflective writing & portfolio building, beyond conferences, beyond inspirational speeches; how does the recognition & celebration of improvement become a core piece of our classroom? Two: How do I continue to build a classroom environment that helps my students do the things they have never before done, and extend that safe, productive feeling beyond our walls? It is invaluable, the work I put into creating a classroom that encourages students to take risks & push themselves, but that needs to continue happening when we are apart. How do we create a class environment that allows students space to achieve great things both inside the classroom & out?

This is my favorite place to be as a teacher: holding the tensions in my hand, learning their shapes & textures, feeling for a starting point. What do you think? How do you honor students’ growth, & encourage them to keep growing independently? 

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2 thoughts on “Untested: Growth That Tests Can’t Measure

  1. Thanks so much for writing this, Priscilla. I totally agree that testing does not measure these personal victories that are true reflections of students growth toward life-long learning. At the same time though, I feel this way about any summarize assessment. Because I have the luxury of being at a school that deemphasizes traditional testing, I have noticed that product-driven learning of any kind (even if it is project based) causes similar response in students. The cumulative nature of the assessment leads students to believe that their intellect can and will be quantified in a grade. The emphasis remains on the product of learning rather than the process of learning. As we know, there are so many more valuable lessons to learn in the process.

    The thing I grapple with is the extent to which we are pushing kids to be independent thinkers through assessment. One reason I can tolerate the Regents is because it gives my pursuit for this independence a bit more weight among teenagers; they know they need to get ready to figure something out on their own. At my school, this is key because students have so many opportunities to seek out support that I question how much they own their work.

    At the same time, the stakes are so high for the Regents (and these other tests) that success often comes more as a relief than a sense of academic pride. I love the idea if thinking more about honoring individual successes so that students recognize their growth. Maybe even a board in the classroom that says something like “Measure This!” Or “We’re more than just a test” and displays post-its noting moments of growth you’ve noticed & they’ve noticed in each other. It sounds like you’ve given them all great gifts that cannot be measured, yet can also never be taken away.

    PS- “tears threatening her eyeliner” is an amazing image! Well put!

    • Thanks for this comment, Alie! I love hearing your perspective because of the assessment structure of your school. I think whenever it comes down to one high-stakes assessment, the stress & anxiety overshadow the learning experience. So whether it’s one final research project or one cumulative exam, tying it to graduation is scary & overwhelming. It’s interesting that you’ve found the English Regents a way for students to own their work & feel independent, because it feels the opposite for me; I don’t see it offering students a fair shot at figuring things out on their own. It seems more luck of the draw – hopefully, there isn’t obscure vocabulary in the quote, hopefully there aren’t multiple choice questions about iambic pentameter, hopefully the listening passage isn’t about the history of mimes or something. I think in my perfect world, assessment is portfolio based in the sense that pieces are contributed throughout the year & the final assessment is a written reflection. I know it would have its own pitfalls & challenges, but I am sick of testing that serves only to prepare students to take tests. I don’t think these exams bring students any closer to owning their work – we see 65’s & cheer. As you say, “success” is just relief.

      I definitely want to embed more growth celebration in the classroom, because while I thank you for your comment, I have to disagree that their growth & gifts can never be taken away. The deflation of defeat I’ve seen many students experience after failing exams (usually exam after exam after exam) does cause regression. Most students go into the next semester or year so filled with doubt or dejection that they lose momentum & teachers end up reteaching what students have already practiced & improved in, because they lose. A lot.

      I wish you & your students a good Regents morning!!

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