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April 02, 2009

Assessment is a Four-Letter Word

IPod_nano_2G_blue_on_Dock My nine-year old daughter called me from school on Friday to tell me that she had won an iPod nano at a raffle at school. She didn't buy any tickets for any raffle, so I had no idea what she was talking about, but one of the school administrators got on the phone to verify that she had, in fact, won the iPod and to ask me to pick her up from school because they didn't want to send it home on the bus. I came to find out that other kids had won bikes, scooters, game systems and games, and more iPods. What did they do to deserve these things? Was it a big fundraising scheme? No. All of these "prizes" were given to compensate the students for taking the MSA, or Maryland School Assessments.

Ah, assessments. The bane of my existence. Ever since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the overwhelming emphasis in the elementary school has been on math and reading assessments. Very little instructional time is spent on science, history, or social studies, much less "extras" like art, music, or physical education. Not only is the emphasis on reading and math, but it's on the assessments themselves. The word "test" seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs, because it's all about "assessments." First they have a pre-assessment to find out what the students know. Then periodically throughout whatever unit they are covering they have other assessments, and then at the end of the unit, they have final assessments, all leading up to the MSAs in March. Near as I can tell, the instructional units at school teach directly to the assessments, with little to no time spent on anything that won't be appearing on the assessments.

These tests are a huge deal in the school. They have numerous events to rally everyone together to do well on the tests. Notes are sent home to parents to encourage the parents to write letters to their kids to help them do better on the assessments. They have pep rallies to get the students fired up for the assessments. Younger students in grades K-2, who don't take the tests, are matched up with students in the upper grades as penpals to encourage them to do well on the assessments. They held Assessment Night to educate parents about the assessments and how important they are. And they had the raffle.

The administrator who called with my daughter on Friday said that she won not only because she participated in the assessments, but also because she showed up on time every day (which is a major accomplishment for our family, but doesn't deserve any recognition, as far as I'm concerned) and she "used her strategies," whatever that means. While I'm all for encouraging children to do well in school, I'm not so sure that all the energy expended on testing does our children any favors. What are they learning? They are learning to take tests. I'm not so sure they are absorbing the information they need to know so much as they are learning test taking strategies.

I understand that the assessments are important to the school, and as a former teacher, I fully understand that student progress has to be measured. But tests are not the be all and end all of education, and they shouldn't dictate so much of the curricula in our schools. I call on our federal government to take the steps necessary to roll back NCLB and free up our schools to teach something other than how to take reading and math assessments.


Original DC Metro Moms post. When she's not lamenting the state of public school education, Mary/FishyGirl blogs at The Fish Pond.


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