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How best to help today’s students

A student writing at a school desk.

A student writing at a school desk. Credit: iStock

When it comes to standardize testing, does one size really fit all?

Starting as early as the 1800s, this form of testing has been one of the greatest factors in determining a child’s academic success. Two days after returning from their spring break, on April 11, public school students will take these tests, which have a huge effect on the rest of their scholastic career. Isn’t it time to update the tests to reflect today’s society rather than yesterday’s? Do these tests have significance anymore?

As an ESL teacher for more than 16 years, I have watched as my students, who only recently entered the country, have to take complex English language-based exams before they’ve even had a chance to master the language. Previously, these students were allowed at least three years to acclimate and learn the language, but the system now takes students who have lived here for a year. Could you imagine the frustration of a child from a non-English speaking background who is just learning how to read and write full-page essays on culture to which he or she has just been introduced?

Why do we continue to administer these exams when they no longer reflect our current learning? While I have noticed a handful of progressive institutions promoting and encouraging students to opt out and not take the tests, many low-scoring, low-socioeconomic schools do the opposite. The schools insist students take them, because without these scores, they fear they will not receive necessary funding. The fact is if their students score below grade level, the schools are considered in need and, ironically, are at a higher risk for closure. All the while, the testing companies continue to profit regardless of scores.

Special education students and those with individualized education plans also are given the same examinations and expected to reach the same results as other students. If the definition of an individualized educational program is to differentiate instruction to take into account the needs of individual learners, how can we then turn around and give them an exam that is not tailored to that plan?

While some modifications have been implemented, such as unlimited time and reading of the exams for selected students, very little has been done for those students who struggle. For example, if a student is on a lower reading level than his or her peers and his or her IEP reflects that, then perhaps his or her exam should be tailored to reflect that. I am not suggesting a different (form/style of) exam, but often teachers offer modified versions of texts depending on the students reading levels to better assess their skills. Shouldn’t the tests have those options as well?

Additionally, the tests are given for numerous hours in a row while most classroom exams are given during a single period. Why not adapt the exam to be for one period each day, so as not to overwhelm the students, especially those in lower grades who need time to build up their stamina. For those that have ADHD, frequent breaks are necessary, and sitting for hours on end is not something they are used to. If teachers have to do this in their daily instruction, why can’t the test makers? All students would benefit from these modifications.

I have proctored these tests. Year after year, the pressure and anxiety they engender in students is horrifying. Starting as early as third grade, when these exams begin, many students have gotten ill and in some cases even self-harm in anticipation of these tests. I have seen students who develop stomach pains, nausea and severe headaches. Some poke themselves with pencils.

Why can’t we follow the lead from successful educators such as those in Finland who don’t give any formal assessment until the child graduates the equivalent of high school? And when they do test, the score is the highest in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

Instead of our practices, they take the time over the years and more socially relevant forms of teaching that reach the needs of all children regardless of background. Exams should be culturally relevant and measure a child’s ability to grow. Is it worth all the pressure we put on our students?

If these exams are meant to reflect real-life learning, then they should also be graded as part of a group, as often classroom instruction is offered through cooperative learning. As teachers, we strive to ensure that a student has a proper entry point for learning, an approach that should be replicated in their assessments as well. Oral exams, which test a child’s thinking process, or portfolios of student work can also be used.

To best help our children, do we A: Involve more educators in the process B: Eliminate standardized testing C: Modify exams to reach the needs of each student or D: All of the above?

 

Elana Rabinowitz is a writer and teacher in Brooklyn.

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