Me: “So, now that state testing is complete, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on standardized tests.”
Student: “What does ‘standardized’ mean?”
Me: “Well, when states standardize tests, that means that each school district receives the same or very similar tests for their students. Then the state can see how the kids are doing with learning the same material.”
Student: “That’s so stupid!”
Me: “Why do you say that?”
Student: “It sucks that they give everyone the same test. Are they trying to make US all the same? That’s just stupid.”
BAM! Out of the mouths of babes, my friends. This was the beginning to an incredible, insightful conversation with a group of fifth graders. They were honest, open, and very willing to share their thoughts on teaching, learning, and testing. They had two requests- first, that I not use their names when writing about this conversation and second, that we have the conversation in a private enclosed area. So, the group of us ended up in a surprisingly comfortable storage closet.
I probed a bit further. “What do you mean, make YOU the same?” She responded, “Well, if the tests are all the same, and they want us all to do the same, then it’s like they want us all to BE the same.”
Me: “So, how do YOU learn best? What do teachers to help you learn and make learning fun?”
Student: “I like it when we play games.” (All others agreed with “yeas” or nods.) Another said, “I like projects, you know, when we get to actually DO stuff.”
Me: “Tell me more.”
Student: “Sometimes it’s cool , like when we get to do projects and stuff. But all we’ve been doing is getting ready for the tests.”
Me: “So, do you think SOL tests (Virginia’s state Standards of Learning Tests) make learning different?”
All (very emphatically): “YES!”
Me: “Wow, OK… so tell me how.”
Students: “We have to learn the same things over and over, like every day.” “Instead of tests, there should be projects.” “Teachers get stress over the SOL’s and then we get stress.” “We only learn this stuff for the test and that’s it.”
Me: “So, now that the tests are over, do you remember the information and skills that you learned to help you do well on them?”
Students: “No.” “Not really.” “Maybe some but I don’t think so.”
Me: “Tell me about how these tests affect teaching. Have you seen a difference in your teachers because of the tests?”
Students: “Sometimes, yeah.” “They’re really stressed out.” “It’s like we have to do the same stuff every day because they want us to do good on the tests– it’s just boring.” “We learned some stuff back in the fall and now we’re learning it again- COME ON!”
This conversation continued for quite some time. We moved on to different topics such as the best color schemes for classrooms (they like blue and green) and technology (they want to tear out smartboards and get individual laptops instead). We talked about the best setup for desks (they all agreed that a large “U” shape is much better than small groupings of desks, which surprised me).
Overwhelmingly, these students (who are all considered “at risk” due to academic struggles or socioeconomic status) agreed that state standardized tests aren’t fair to students OR teachers. I was taken aback by how much they seemed to empathize with teachers about these tests. They understood that teachers are often under stress because of these test outcomes. THESE are the kids that need to be heard. THESE are the kids whose success in school is often directly affected by standardized testing. THESE students are the reason we need to create more authentic and meaningful means of assessing learning, such as portfolios or expeditionary year-long, goal-driven projects.
Federal funders and test creators, please do NOT try to standardize our students. They have so much to give and they deserve so much more.