Testing Season Begins

Testing Season Begins
Lori Desautels, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Education/ Teaching and Learning Leadership Academy
Marian University

Within a few weeks, students from Indiana and across the nation will be embarking upon a series of standardized tests that follow intense days and weeks of test preparation accompanied by much anxiety and worry from parents and educators. Indiana students from a variety of grade levels will begin the early days in March trying to remember how to use text evidence in reading passages, pulling up numerous steps, arrays, and trying to conceptually explain algorithms, while desperately trying to understand the format of bubble sheets, computer compatibility, and how to interpret “test” questions. Many of these test participants are English as Second Language learners, students with a wide diversity of learning potential, social and emotional challenges, strengths, cultures and interests. Among these young learners, there are many who put themselves to bed in the evening, get themselves up and ready for school, and do not have the hot breakfast, arranged homework times or an adult present telling them they need their eight to nine hours of sleep.
For the very first time in the history of this “test-taking” movement in education, I am intimately involved. I am feeling the tangible pressures of the teachers and administrators I am co-teaching beside this school year. As an Associate Professor at Marian University, I am also the sounding board to 60 plus first and second year teachers/ graduate students taking my courses. Although my vocation has landed in higher education for the past six years, I am currently, two mornings a week, teaching in fifth grade classrooms in a faculty in residence program along with the instruction and responsibility of my other courses. The test preparation, anxiety, and now a palpable worry from lost days of instruction because of the harsh winter in Indianapolis, are leaving many educators feeling disillusioned and uneasy.
Last week, I even found myself rushing through instruction, not addressing the personal and emotional comments and questions from these 10 and 11- year -olds in a way that demonstrated a “felt presence.” I felt pressured to make sure we spent every minute of the allotted math and reading blocks, re-teaching, reviewing, and testing their endurance for academic mastery! As I left the elementary school, driving to campus for my undergraduate classes, I just took a deep breath and shook my head. What are we doing?
I am not writing this article in favor of or against testing as a whole, but I am concerned that in this culture of increased assessment measures, without “informed instruction,” we are forfeiting an incredible amount of time, energy and the innate plasticity of intelligences of so many of our students! If a child or adolescent does not perform well on a test, I want to know why! I want to know where the errors were. Was there an anxiety in simply taking the test that immobilized the parts of the brain that think , problem solve, and discern with logic and fluidity? Was this student distracted? How do I engage this student so that they begin to feel capable and successful? What types of errors can be re-taught and rethought?
We prepare for these tests with pre-test and district measurements, but the content moves so quickly and the amount of subject matter to memorize is mind boggling.
Research from Harvard University, John Hopkins, Tufts University and many other higher education research institutions are sharing the knowledge that “how” we are currently teaching and “testing” is the exact opposite of how the brain is wired to learn. Dr. John Medina, developmental molecular biologist with the University of Washington School Of Medicine speaks of many researched brain rules. There is not enough space in this article to include all of these, but we do know this: brains learn through novelty, contextual patterns, questions and movement. From an evolutionary perspective, our brain developed while working out, walking as many as 12 miles a day. The brain still craves that experience. We are not wired to sit for long periods of time learning in sedentary positions. To move is to learn, and yet with increased testing, the joy of teaching in novel active ways using all of our senses, while employing novelty inside instruction is being significantly limited. We teach and test to two intelligences, Math and Language. Dr. Howard Gardner from Harvard University has discovered six to seven more intelligences that address interpersonal and intrapersonal, music, nature, visual spatial and kinesthetic aptitude and learning. When we teach and test to a child or adolescent’s unique learning style, interests, and culture, we address the “whole” child. We did not have this research 30 years ago! We do now. Yet the education reform movement is actually ignoring this research. Learning is about attention and emotion. Emotion drives attention and learning. As biological beings, we are wired to pay attention to every stimulus in our environment, but we select where to place our focus because we are wired to survive and to be alert to what is emotionally appealing. The brain always processes meaning before detail. Have we created meaningful associations in our testing environment?
Many of our students are walking through our classroom doors in a chronic survival mode, (new normal in many environments) where everyday stress is a waking part of his or her life. We know that stress shuts down learning; there is a definitive cognitive collapse. Perceived stress is as individual as our thumb prints and its direct impact on the limbic system in our brains directly affects our ability to learn and remember.
Testing has become the main focus for education, to the point where learning is no longer enjoyable for either educator or student. As my colleague stated a few weeks ago, “I am dismayed as a parent, I am disheartened, and as a self-proclaimed life learner, I am disappointed. Students take at least three high stakes test every year between grades K-9. They are also required to take four benchmark “practice” exams to gather predictive data on how they may perform on the test taken at the end of the school year. These schedules alone take away a substantial amount of instructional days and cause further disruption to an optimal learning environment.”
So with what we have before us, I still believe with all my heart that the connections and relationships created between students and educators are more than possible; and as the research indicates, these relationships are game changers in the life of education success! What can we do in these final weeks of preparation so that we prepare our students emotionally; stimulating an environment where creative thinking, design, empathy and problem solving, (paradoxically many of the skills large companies and universities desire from young adults following graduation) are brought to life?
We can engage our students with helping them to see their own expertise in so many areas within their own cultures and lives. We can share with students that these tests are important, but they do not define their personhood or intelligence. We can encourage and notice every small effort or action that is positive no matter how insignificant. Notice everything in these next few weeks that is positive or even neutral. Where we place our attention inside our classrooms is where the collective class moves in disposition, effort and action. We can share our own frustrations and stories that let our students know, “you are not alone” in your thinking and feelings!
We can weave the tested material into stories where we create context and patterns because our brains are wired for story-telling! For example, if I am teaching persuasive writing passages, I can create my own writing passage in an area of student interest and model a story of how I came up with the topic, comparing the topic sentence to the boss of a company while equating the details of the paragraph in the story to the employees in a chocolate factory…for example, Hershey.
We can take brain breaks, pulling up a casual class discussion for a few minutes on a popular topic or read a story of interest together. We can get up and move, stretch practice some deep breaths, or simply rest. We can encourage our students to write out their worries, perceived stressors and sadness’s on small sheets of paper to be tossed in the trash, or shared later in private. Research reports that when we write out any worry or concern before a test, we create space and cognitive capacity in the working memory where subject content is practiced and learned.
As educators and parents, we need to remember that emotions are contagious and how we are feeling at any given moment is picked up and modeled by our students subconsciously. Tests and programs embedded in schools do not create change. People create change and this era of “teaching to the test” is struggling to remember that the people, the children and adults in this living system of education are chockfull of potential, genius and experiences that have the power to functionally and structurally change the brain and our world.

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