Part one of a five-part series sharing the Academy’s thoughts on effective and intentional student assessment

“Yo, why do we have to be here, Mister?”  This question came up at least once every session of a standardized prep class, a roughly 45-minute session twice per week with around 20 students in my classroom.  These 6th grade students, chosen because they were “on the bubble” between “Nearing Proficient” and “Proficient” on the state standardized assessment for mathematics, were pulled from physical education in order to learn from me how to do better at taking the test.  I was given a scripted curriculum and lots of practice questions, and the focus was much more on how to eliminate wrong answers than it was how to understand the embedded concepts.  These students already had one fewer elective course than their higher-performing peers; now they also lost their physical exercise twice per week — and for many of them, PE was their favorite class and a confidence booster.

While I only stayed at that large, inner-city public school for one year (due in large part to having formed a distaste for scripts and standardized assessments), my principal reached out to my personal email later to let me know that most of those students did indeed improve on the assessment, and the school was to meet Annual Yearly Performance (AYP) goals for the year.

I was happy for the principal, but felt terrible for the students involved.  They spent so many hours thinking about standardized test items and worrying they were dumb, only to be given a proverbial pat on the back for being labeled proficient in math.  What will that mean to them in identity formation?  Does it promote a growth mindset?  How would they react now, as adults, if I were to find them and ask what they recall from those days?

As I was creating a course on measurement and evaluation at California State University years later, I spent a lot of time researching best practices on assessment with the following phrase in the back of my mind:  When will we stop weighing the chicken and start feeding the chicken?  

Though the university had asked me to spend significant time instructing teachers-in-training on standardized assessment practice and data analysis, I decided we would engage in more of the chick-feeding assessment variety.  We spent a great deal of time in my class discussing and practicing formative assessment, which is all about how you come to know your students and utilize simple observational tools and effective questioning to assess understanding and move the student and class forward.

Good teaching will always involve assessment, but testing can be seldom and still be effective.  Next week’s blog entry, written by head of Early Childhood and Lower School, Kevin Muirhead, will get into some of the specifics around testing in these earlier grade levels at Harrisburg Academy.  I’ll be back in a few weeks to address the past, present, and future testing efforts at Harrisburg Academy, and we will also include the voice of our teachers and current parents as a part of this four-part series.  Be sure to follow along and read the full series!

Learn more about Harrisburg Academy on our school website.