At my house, the song “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen is on TV, the radio, on my phone, and on my kids’ tablet at any given point at least twice a day. Okay, my kids might have a little Olaf obsession, which I totally understand. That is one cute snowman! Sometimes—okay if I were being honest I would say all of the time—the song or movie is playing while I am doing other things, such as cooking, working, writing, or cleaning. Lyrics and lines from the movie have become a part of my family’s vernacular. Just last weekend when my 2-year-old son saw snow for the first time in real life, he ran through the yard yelling, “let’s bring back summer!”
Last night, while I was trying to work on STEMtalk, I heard my children, who are 2 years old and 8 years old, using their TV time to watch Frozen yet again. The song “Let It Go” struck a cord with me. In the song, Elsa lets go of her fear and lets her power loose. In this release she finds that she had more potential than she had ever imagined.
I liken this to our testing culture. We have created a fear in teachers and students that say the greater amount of time we spend preparing for the test, the better chance we will have at warding off all possible negative outcomes. Children that are not doing well in tested subjects miss PE, recess, afterschool activities, and sometimes lunch and weekend time in order to review and study for these tests. We are taking our learners that struggle the most and we are digging a deeper hole for them. Much like Ana when her parents hid her away in hopes of keeping her safe, we are sequestering our struggling learners in hopes that more one-on-one sessions or more reading and test prep will get them to pass.
Let it go! Let go of the test, and let go of the stress that we heap on our children and ourselves. High-Stakes Accountability Testing has done the exact opposite of not leaving anyone behind; it has drawn a line in the sand and says to everyone on the wrong side of that line that they are behind or deficient. What if they are not behind? What if they are in the exact place that they need to be at that moment? Is that a bad thing? I am asking for a paradigm shift in how we view assessments. We need to stop using them to label our students, teachers, and buildings as somehow less than. Instead we need to see tests as a maintenance check of what is working and what is not. We should use these assessments to inform our teaching, not to label, because those labels (as are any labels) are detrimental to our overall goal in education.
As a classroom teacher I worked countless hours with my struggling learners, and their test scores improved dramatically from the beginning of the year to the end although they did not pass the test. The test set a standard for what is average and these kids were not average. On their best day and in their best mood, they were well below average. They had low IQs and extreme health issues or other handicaps (completely out of their control and mine) that stood in their way of reaching the “average” standard. I took the stance early on in my career that I was not interested in getting my kids to pass a test. I wanted my kids to learn to think. If they could think, they would have a great chance at passing any “test” that life threw at them. To be clear, I am not talking about any multiple-choice tests here. I mean real challenges, real tests, like who to vote for, what degree and career to follow, how to handle peer pressures, fighting illnesses, or even handling disagreements. Whatever subject I taught (which was everything from humanities to sciences at different grade levels), I would use the subject’s content as a vehicle to teach my students how to think.
With this group of special learners I had the same goal: use science to teach them how to think. Together we thought out loud, drew pictures, had hands-on experiments, sang science songs, and we even performed a dance about the water cycle, which I will spare you the details of how well that worked. Instead of talking about questions they got wrong, we celebrated what they got right and we simply went back to the drawing board to figure out what they did not know. I was elated when some of my students’ tests came back as a pass, but I was just as elated for those who did not pass. The test told me nothing that I, their parents, or they themselves did not already know. It offered no shocking revelations about these kids, so why give the test any attention—power. These kids have been told or felt like they were different or less than for most of their lives, so I refused to make them feel that way in my class. They were an important part of our community of learners and offered unique insights and ideas.
In the end, we were all successful because we all learned, we all worked hard, and we all searched for knowledge. Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s life believing it is stupid.” Although some of my students failed a test, they never failed to learn.