Testing, Testing, Testing IV

“I think,” said my colleague B., “that I’m giving my students too much work to do.  I’m way behind on my grading.”

During a mid-morning class change, English teacher B. had stopped briefly to chat with his world-language colleagues.  And we wondered if the problem might be with the grading, not the work.  “Are you taking things up, taking them home to grade, when you really just need to look at them?” we asked.  “Are you treating formative assessments like summative measures?”

Poor B just looked at us, shocked and surprised.  Apparently, for him, assessment and grading were synonymous.

I’m so grateful for my world-language colleagues!  A. and S. are experienced, creative, innovative teachers, and we agree that timely feedback is far more important than the number.  When hours turn into days – days into weeks – because we teachers “get behind on our grading,” everybody suffers. Students don’t know how they’re doing.  Teachers don’t adjust lessons to meet students’ needs. Families get nasty surprises when grades suddenly change, radically, for the worse. Administrators and secretaries have to field angry phone calls from families.

So why do so many teachers “get behind on our grading?”  Why did I do it for years, even though I said I “hated it?”

Is it a power thing?  Is it a pain-punishment cycle? Do we not have the skills or understandings to acgt differently?

I’m not sure.  But grading and testing  are still on my mind.

“Are you testing this morning?” Ms. H. had asked me on the phone.  “We’re starting a performance task,” I said,  “but no, we’re not testing.”  After some silent non-comprehension, she asked if a student could come and see her.  Clearly, for Ms. H., testing and assessment are synonymous too.

It was 7:15 Wednesday morning, and I’d just answered an Edmodo message from L, who was worried that she might be taking a midterm exam with no warning, no instructions, no chance to review.  L is an excellent student, but she seems to see testing and assessment as not only synonymous, but arbitrary and capricious.  A bit later, I got a message from Emily about her students: “too busy panicking about the assessment to pay attention to what they need to learn from it.”

There’s something deeply dysfunctional about these relationships to testing.  There’s panic and avoidance and whispering … and of course the fear of cheating.  Those things don’t go with healthy relationships!  But in so many places, they do accompany testing.


I spent a long Tuesday afternoon in a meeting – a “pre-meeting to prepare for the meeting.”  At a professional-development session next week, we’ll be discussing assessment for proficiency with the World Language teachers in the school district.  But even our training team is struggling with how and what and why to change from old forms of testing.

“I don’t get it!” said Sra. Y, an excellent but traditional-minded Spanish teacher.  “If you give them a rubric, they’ll see what they need to do to make the grade!  What will happen then?”

“Most will probably do well,” A. and I said, “because they’ll know what they need to do.”

“But what if?” she asked.  “What if, what if, what if???”

What was the Question Behind the Question for Sra. Y?

Maybe  “What if they all do really well … and I can’t sort and select?”  That’s scary for someone devoted to the factory model, who got sorted and selected to the top, who feels superiority, in turn, by sorting and selecting others.  Or maybe “What if I’m not the Center of Everything … and I have to redefine my whole role?”  That’s scary if you love being the Center.  Or maybe “What if they can learn without me? Is there even a place for me anymore??”   Twitter’s #edchat on Tuesday kept returning to “tech-avoiding” teachers … but maybe they (we!) “avoid” new technology,  new paradigms of learning because they (we!) are secretly terrified that they (we!) have no role in the shiny, scary new world.

Looming irrelevance is frightening! And it’s much easier to give tests and take your time grading them than to confront those fears.

“Let’s look closer at the intention,” Debbie challenged on Google+:

if we want to know if the kids get it, why don’t we just ask them? Why don’t we have them demonstrate that they understand and perhaps have mastered the information? Why don’t we have them demonstrate the use of the information in some form, how it can be applied? Why don’t we assess their understanding by challenging them and taking the information to a new level, expanding on what they have learned?

… Personally, I have been trained well in the testing process and, now, with the thought of a potential test, … I want to compile all the information and try and remember everything that has been said. My brain is switching to the “what” and away from the “why” and “how” and “what if’s”. That’s sad. I hate the feeling of this brain shift.

How can we change assessment to focus on the why and how and what if?  How can we avoid the brain shift? And how can we help kind, hard-working, traditional teachers – B.,  Ms. H.,  Sra. Y., and their students – as we all seek the replacement paradigms for factory-model schooling and pain-punishment, sorting-selecting testing?

Published in: on October 25, 2012 at 10:16 am  Comments (11)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Life-saving observations in this post! Assessment is important. Feedback is important. But you’re absolutely right that it need not take the form of a heavily marked and graded piece of work.
    Many times when I think about having to grade something I do it in terms of having evidence of growth in a portfolio, or communicating to parents… Anyway, I better get back to my feedback pile.

  2. […] “I think,” said my colleague B., “that I’m giving my students too much work to do.  I’m way behind on my grading.” During a mid-morning class change, English tea…  […]

  3. As I am on track to put a grade on 10,000 pieces of paper for my 125 students by June, I would love to see a shift to assess mastery once the kids – not me – feel they are ready.

    • I agree! I’ve been working toward that myself … it’s a real challenge because a few of my colleagues are already there, some (like me) are on the way, but many (most?) haven’t even thought about making changes to their comfortable testing routine. Students understandably feel caught between conflicting, even clashing expectations.

  4. […] Laura pointed out in a Google+ comment about yesterday’s post, there’s […]

  5. […] Testing, Testing, Testing IV (joyfullatinlearning.wordpress.com) […]

  6. I think teachers and principals are lazy. That’s because the change that is needed isn’t easy or lucid enough for everyone to understand because there is so much (everything) that needs to change. I also think teachers and principals are afraid. They’re afraid of things not working out because there’s really not one single answer to the problem. It’s not like testing, that there’s only one right answer and if you don’t get it right you’ve failed and that’s it. It’s the way they think. It’s the bureaucracy in schools. It’s bad, it’s ridiculous. Now, what I wish they realized is that we will fail a thousand times before we get it right. Ope, but, no. They’re not used to failing, because that’s the way they’ve been taught… Tests… (Oh, and this is just a HS student’s pov btw:)

    • @BryanE, Thanks so much for the comment! I quoted you in my next post and hope to hear from you again soon. Having worked in schools for a long time, I’ve seen lots of examples of laziness and fear … and for those folks who went into education because they wanted one single answer to everything, the current situation must be absolutely terrifying. There isn’t a single “right answer” to the “school problem,” because there isn’t a single “school problem.” And that’s terrifying too.

      We definitely need to hear your voice and those of other high-school students! Do you participate in the #stuvoice chats on Twitter?

  7. […] New reader BryanE is angry about that: […]

  8. Thank you for your appreciation, I love forming part of the ‘for education’ community anywhere I can, now in your blog. And I will also in the #stuvoice chats on Twitter as you mentioned. I am not currently active on there, but I will be eventually, as I come out of the box in which we are put in school.

  9. […] fan of the book (which is definitely worth a read if you haven’t read it, and which inspired this blog post just over a year ago), but was concerned about using it as the Former Power had planned. […]

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