More Than A Number, More Than A Letter

I, and everyone else, have been thinking a lot about testing.

I have been thinking about good tests and bad tests and what they actually measure. The times I have appreciated tests and the times I have not.

I, personally, am tested most when I go to the doctor. Every time I go, the nurse tests my blood pressure and it measures, roughly, 5000/2000. It seems as though my blood vessels are on the verge of exploding. Doctors have expressed genuine concern and fear about whether or not I am going to make it through the next 15 minutes. How could I survive with this kind of blood pressure?

Fortunately for me, I now have a lovely and responsive doctor who has long since realized something: the cuff in my arm is not actually testing my blood pressure, its testing my anxiety level. I have a terrible, horrible, irrational fear of the doctor’s office. I get in there, I start looking at literature, I start googling disorders on my phone. By time the nurse gets in the room I am self diagnosed with something that was last seen in the middle ages and I am making a last will and testament on the notes function of my phone. Once my doctor realized that, he realized all my blood pressure readings were essentially garbage. So like any good practitioner,  he changed his protocol so he could get the data he wanted- my day to day blood pressure.  I calm down once I get through the exam, so now they check it at the end and have confirmed: I don’t actually HAVE high blood pressure.

Do you see where I am going with this?

What are we actually measuring when we test kids?

Do our assessments give us honest results that inform instruction, or are we essentially finding out who has text anxiety, and who has some visual spatial issues and never gets the dots filled in right?

Let me be clear: well designed assessment is critical, it helps map my teaching daily. But I need assessments I trust. I do not teach in a so called “testing” grade, but I trust my colleagues, and if they say the recent NYS ELA test measured nonsense, then I believe them. In the primary grades, many schools are using independent reading levels as measures of student learning and growth. A tool (running records) that once was thought of as a way to learn about a child’s reading behaviors for purposes of targeted instruction, is now seen by some as a “test” that kids need to “pass”, as in “He passed the book and is now level –.” That sentence erases and undermines the whole point of giving a running record- learning about a child’s habits and behaviors as a reader. To go one step further, if we emphasize only reading level we can lose sight of the child. It’s like declaring you know everything about a person because you know their shoe size. Don’t get me wrong. I love running records, they are one hugely helpful tool in my diagnostic arsenal, my reading blood pressure cuff so to speak, but they exist in a context. If you think one book, or one test, can tell you about a whole child or a whole school, you are wrong.

What does it mean to learn? What does it mean to grow? What do we measure when we assess students? Where on the data can I show the student that used to hide when he was confronted with a challenge, who now relishes them? Where do I write about the way a disparate group of kids became a community and rallied over saving a tipping block structure? How do I show that a center changed their play space from a pet store to a shelter because they thought it was better for the world?

A child is not a letter or a number. They are a person who will grow up and inherit the world. Who do we want them to be? What do we want the world to look like? We must fight to protect the space of childhood, the person before the number, the curious inquisitive creative learner, the community member, the little guy shooting spider-man web hands at you when you are lining up at recess.

Identity is not just what we know, and teaching is not getting kids to “pass a level” or “be a four”. Teaching is so much bigger. Well designed assessments are invaluable assets to teachers that will ALWAYS have a place in our instruction, but lets not get crazy. Identity is also who we are, how we act, what we value and practice, and what we believe about the world. Let’s fight for that too.

Tell me what you think in the comments below,


***It’s been so long since I have written here because Christine Hertz and I are working on a book about many of the topics that have come up on here. Our hope is that it will empower teachers and their students to become the best versions of themselves.  It comes out in summer 2015!***




15 thoughts on “More Than A Number, More Than A Letter

  1. Kristi- Your writing has begun to circulate at Beecher Road School. We are thinking of developing book clubs that focus on your awesome writing this year. We are also hoping that these discussions will lead us to the deep and lasting change that we need everywhere. Thanks for your ideas and compelling writing! Peter

    1. Peter! It’s great to hear from you! I hope all is well over at Beecher Road! I’d love to hear what you are up to, and what you do with all you are now thinking about!

  2. As always, you nailed it. If testing is not for a purpose to move learning forward…it is a barrier to learning. I feel like we are entering the Holy Wars…we need to encourage each other and our students and FIGHT for what education should be.

  3. We could not agree more! We need to focus on the reader behind the number and keep it in perspective! Thanks for sharing and keeping the conversation about using assessment to understand our readers going!

    Clare and Tammy

    1. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts.It is so important that we keep GOOD assessment in the front of people’s mind. No one wants to get rid of it, but its the kind we do that matters!

  4. As you mentioned, I (being a part of everyone) have also been thinking about testing a lot. But I’m not sure I could have put my thoughts together as nicely as you did here. Wonderful post!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughts. I think there are lots of us out there murking about with the same ideas and no clear way to share them! I have had this sitting in my head for weeks

  5. This is my favorite quote from your post: “A child is not a letter or a number. They are a person who will grow up and inherit the world. Who do we want them to be? What do we want the world to look like? We must fight to protect the space of childhood, the person before the number, the curious inquisitive creative learner, the community member, the little guy shooting spider-man web hands at you when you are lining up at recess.” Assessment is critical and there is so much hyperbole out there about it. We need to assess the “little guy” but with a meaningful lens that makes a difference to him and for our teaching. Public education is a right – it is the foundation of our democracy. I want my students to be citizens of the world – well informed and powerful. Thank you for this amazing post.

  6. Kristi, your post has me thinking about how we might have space at the assessment table for the important qualitative insights about students (that you write about) and more quantitative measures. Taken together, and used appropriately, they can provide insight into the student as a learner and reveal to the teacher instructional gaps. My concern rests largely with how assessment data is being used in ways (often punitive) that even the assessment designers and statisticians advise against. I am new to your blog and looking forward to reading more and sharing it with my PLN.

  7. I am thinking about testing from another perspective…what the standardized assessments “say” about my teaching. We just received our students’ results from the ITBS. My students scores were all over the place. I even had a few students whose “growth” from last year’s tests was negative (as in they grew backwards, actually losing abilities) in the subjects I teach. I have had a few very despondent days, feeling like my hard work was worthless if every student didn’t test successfully.
    It is making me question my values (creativity, student choice & voice, higher-order thinking) and my value as a teacher.

  8. Kristi – You had me at :” terrible, horrible, irrational fear of the doctor’s office.” I have it as well. The connection to testing kids was the icing on the cake (though I know you meant it to be the cake). I would be so honored to have you work with our kindergarten teachers this summer for a few days. I am not sure how else to contact you. My daughter follows you on twitter. You have my blog address here, and I will leave my email as well: Thank you, in advance, for considering sharing some of your precious time and expertise with us. ellen spears

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s