Monday, June 23, 2014

Testing, Testing

As my ITRW friends know, I'm in my second "semester" of a graduate program, which means that I'm buying textbooks, frantically getting readings done ... and taking tests.  Last week was a doozy:  I had two weeks, and a maximum of two weeks, to pass the statewide online test certifying me as a "teacher-evaluator".  What did I learn from this process?

  1. For starters, as high-stakes as this test is -- every principal, assistant principal, suburban department chair, etc. has to pass it OR LOSE THEIR JOB -- we had two tries.  That is, you could take any portion of the test, fail it, and after 24 hours take it again. The cynical among us would say "Of course you get two tries, otherwise there wouldn't be anyone left to turn on the lights in schools." But the reality is this: when it's really important to get person X up to a particular level of competence in skill Y, we almost always give them multiple tries. How many residents are dismissed for missing the vein the first time? And how many times do we give students the opportunity to retake a test at no penalty?
  2. Second, we were encouraged to do the training together; in fact, virtually everyone from the network chiefs on down told us to take the tests together. Most of the hardest test consisted of watching videos and arriving at performance ratings (along the eight components of Danielson's Dimensions 2 & 3) for the class, and watching with other people--and talking with them about what we saw--was incredibly valuable. I wound up doing the videos on my own (have you tried to schedule a six-hour testing window during the day, with other people, when you have kids?) but the times I did sample videos with other people I learned much more than studying on my own. How often do we provide structures and encouragement for kids to work together on their tasks--and assessments?
  3. Third, we didn't have to study: once you opened the training modules, you could go straight to the assessments. You could also dip into any of the lessons in any order. So when you felt ready, you could go ahead and try the test. (Remember, you get two tries.) How often do we give students this option?
But the most important thing I learned from the experience wasn't about designing assessments, or even structuring instruction. My big takeaway was this: I was terrified. Even with everyone I know assuring me that I'd pass, even knowing that my score beyond pass/nopass was irrelevant, even knowing that my practice tests were all well above the mark, I found the experience of waiting to take the test and then actually getting going practically unbearable. 

Now, we don't tell high school students that they'll lose their jobs if they don't pass Friday's math test. But we do tell them that they need straight A's to get into "top colleges" (and if we don't tell them this, they certainly hear it from everyone else around them), and so an A (or B+) is, for our top students, effectively the passing grade--a much higher threshold than I had to cross. And as adolescents, they're not as good at dealing with stress as most adults (or at least as the "optimal" adult). What I'm getting at is this: I left my office convinced that most of our students--and most of our strong students--find testing incredibly stressful. And while I may have "known" that before, I'm not sure I felt it. I'm not sure what to do about this, but I know that I'll think about testing very differently this year.

So maybe that's the pedagogical payoff for attending graduate school.