As we enter mid-April, educators and students find themselves in the throes of standardized testing season. While many schools have, for years, participated in interim tests (testing at designated points throughout the school year), those of us who choose the “summative” option only proctor them once a year and that time is upon us.
The benefits of standardized testing might be one of the most divisive subjects in education. Scandals plague the testing system as teachers and administrators have been in trouble for cheating in order to ensure good test scores for their students and schools.
Supporters argue that testing is the best way to measure the quality of our schools. Opponents counter that there are more important things and better ways to evaluate our education system than a series of high-pressure tests. Parents across the country continue to opt out of testing for their children.
I, and many Montessorians, find ourselves in the middle. Standardized testing has a purpose, but it is certainly not the only, or most important, way to measure how well our education system works. For starters, there is a large number of the population that are just not good at taking tests. Secondly, standardized tests only provide children with an opportunity to answer the questions that the test makers (and legislators) deem to be the most important. These tests eliminate the nuance and the essence of what learning has to offer.
In his (amazing) book, “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness,” author Dr. Edward Hallowell writes about five steps parents can take to ensure their children are happy as adults: connection, play, practice, mastery and recognition. Of the five roots, connection is the foundation. A child that is connected to at least one adult, and preferably many more, has a greater chance of being happy as an adult and living a fulfilling life. Connections with adults can, and should, happen often; with home and school being the most critical.
Dr. Hallowell writes, “Studies show that if a child can become comfortably connected to the act of learning and the world of information and ideas, then her chances of pleasure and success in life rise dramatically.” He goes on to say that, “A positive connection to the act of learning leads to comfort and joy in the world of information and ideas, which leads not only to enduring pleasure but to high achievement as well.”
Like most Montessori schools, our students take standardized tests each spring. However, in contrast, to traditional schools, these are low-stakes, no repercussion tests. As a private school, we have that luxury. Our teacher pay is not linked to the results nor is our school funding. Therefore, we come at the tests from a different mindset. They are good practice for later in life when our students will take the ACT and SAT in preparation for college.
We are rarely surprised by the results. If you are familiar with the Montessori approach, then you know that we do not give grades to our students. Instead, each child spends the time they need mastering a lesson before moving on to something new. Rather than assessing a child’s learning through tests and graded papers, our teachers use observation and key questions to determine mastery. Our students also spend three years in each classroom, which leads to strong and connected relationships with teachers. Therefore, standardized test results typically confirm what we already know about where each child is in their learning. It also means that when test time comes, our students get excited! They find this out of the ordinary experience to be enjoyable and fun.
Lately, I have been thinking about the purpose of standardized tests in our school. It occurred to me that we view them much like a college admissions team views an application. How well our students test is simply one part of who they are as a student and as a person. Just because a child is not a strong test taker does not mean they are not learning in the classroom nor does it mean they are failing as a student. It simply means that taking a test is not their best method for demonstrating learning. We package that together with what they are doing in the classroom — their engagement, attention to work, social and emotional development, as well as their learning patterns, to get a full view of the child.
If, as a society, we want to help our children be healthy, engaged and successful learners, which will lead to happiness later in life, then we need to gear our education system toward that goal — connect with students, evaluate them on many fronts not just grades and test scores, and meet them where they are. Making school fun again for teachers should be a priority too!
Jessica Hayes is the director of The Montessori School of Fort Smith. Her column, Education Today, runs the second Friday of each month. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @fsmontessori.