Placement Tests, High-Stakes Tests and Tears

Today, Traden, a bright and shiny, two-week-old second grader, cried while trying to muffle his tears so classmates wouldn’t hear.  He stared at the computer screen.  He raised his hand over and over appealing for help.  More tears.  More staring at the screen and struggling to sound out words that were too difficult.  He pointed to the name ‘Ivan,’ and called me over.  “What does this say?” 

“You know I can’t tell you.” I mumbled.

“What does it mean?”

“I can’t tell you that either.” 

This went on for more than an hour.  He was taking the SRI or Scholastic Reading Inventory, designed to give students a Lexile level to guide the selection of appropriate texts for future reading.  It has not been uncommon for this test to take our grade 2 through 6 students an hour plus to complete in our Title I school.

The test is new to us this year.  Tools that help us accurately pinpoint students’ reading levels are invaluable.  However, this test was clearly well above Traden’s reading level right from the start, as was true for several of his classmates.  Even so, his teacher wanted to push forward knowing we needed “legitimate data” for our team data meetings so she could prove student progress as the year went on. 

It was quite devastating to watch Traden concentrate, focus, try, refocus, try again and get nowhere.  Finally, after an hour and a half, along with four other classmates, we discontinued and saved the test so it could be finished later.  But, when Traden left the computer lab, more tears were streaming down his face and he plopped himself down on the coat rack outside his room, hiding behind his backpack.  I spent fifteen minutes talking to him, trying to relieve him and coax him out.  The smell of hot lunch finally caused him to abandon his perch.

My question is why?  Why is it necessary to push kids to tears to get “legitimate data?”  Traden is practically a non-reader.  No doubt about it, his Lexile score will be 0 when he is forced to finish this test.  Why can’t a teacher’s anecdotal record or running record (which could be taken in five minutes, sitting down with Traden with a beginning level reader) count as legitimate data?  Of course these are forms of legitimate data.  They provide authentic, legitimate data, and best of all, can be attained in a non-threatening way.

What has today’s experience done for Traden?  Has it made him more unsure of himself as a reader and more sure that reading is an extremely difficult task for him?  Is this helpful as we now try to pick him back up and build his skill and will to read?

Have you seen the forum Lucy Calkins created for community and educational professionals to comment on their experiences last spring as students took the New York English Language Arts high-stakes summative tests?  These tests were designed to assess the standards in the Common Core , so teachers around the country should have a real interest in how the experience went, since we’re all waiting to see what comes down the pike.  Take a look (I caution you, what you’ll see is not for the faint of heart):

It really is quite horrifying to hear alarming  stories of students anguishing over the test for three days and walking away feeling less competent as readers and writers.  Notice the comments came from parents, teachers, principals, and even superintendents.  This cannot be what awaits us and our students!  Hopefully those who prepare these new tests will carefully study what occurred in New York and learn from the chaos.

We want to get the best we can from our students every day.  The CCSS push us to do more critical reading and writing, and naturally, that is a good thing.  But the tests shouldn’t leave our students perplexed and anxious.  Such feelings can be lasting and only serve to undermine our most important goal:  joyfully creating motivated, confident, strategic readers, writers, and thinkers.

P.S. I promise to do great things with Traden this year!

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