Part four of a five-part series sharing the Academy’s thoughts on effective and intentional student assessment
Last school year, I taught English in a public middle school where student data charts and test countdowns covered the hallway bulletin boards. Dispirited students practiced test questions daily in crowded classrooms. Teachers begrudgingly spent their limited planning periods in windowless meeting rooms, analyzing data and writing lesson plans to “fix the gaps.” Nothing was to be taught if it wasn’t specifically on the test. Novels and creative writing did not exist in the curriculum. Administrators scrutinized lesson plans weekly not for depth of student thinking, engaging activities or character-building opportunities, but for alignment to the test — the test on which students were judged, teachers were evaluated, and the school’s effectiveness was rated.
In that public middle school, we started talking about the test the summer before the school year began and continued through every faculty meeting thereafter. It was supposed to be part of the students’ grades — this of course would make students try harder and take the test more seriously. There were enormous color-coded charts of “bubble students” in the teacher workroom to remind us which students we needed to focus on and push. These were students who were only a few points shy of being considered proficient or advanced according to the test. Special assignments for these so-called students in our classes had to be highlighted in our lesson plans as documentation. We weren’t supposed to “waste our time” on students who were already proficient or advanced.
My years teaching in this public school as well as others contrasts sharply with my first year here at Harrisburg Academy. The welcoming, inclusive culture at the Academy revolves around creative critical thinking, responsible decision-making, and student-centered learning. Students are not numbers on a data chart. Teachers know their students’ interests, personality quirks, academic strengths and weaknesses, family members, and so much more. At the Academy, students are respected. Teachers are respected. The learning process is respected. My students are excited to arrive at school in the morning and reluctant to leave in the afternoon. As their teacher, I feel the same way.
I truly believe in the power of education to transform lives. I have loved the students and teachers I’ve worked with in rural, suburban, and inner city public schools throughout the country, and now I realize what has been missing all those years. It is so difficult to condense it down into just a few words, but I believe it is about the culture of learning that the Academy nurtures. True success is not about the test scores.