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For Some Kids, Testing Has Unequal Consequences Too

Hey John,

The testing discussion has reached an all-time high. Everything from the cheating scandals in Washington, DC and Atlanta to the Common Core State assessments in New York have put eyes squarely on standardized assessments and the publishers that use them. A common thread in these discussions is often from a very adult perspective. One side wants tests so they have some way to measure something. What they're measuring, how they're measuring, or why they're measuring often gets lost in trying to make numbers move in the directions they seek, often blinding them to the fact that these tests might not measure exactly what they'd like measured.

Then the other side looks at testing as an overused tool, a set of papers meant to have deleterious effects on curriculum, teaching, learning, and school infrastructure. Of course, I sit on this side of the argument. The "status quo" now happens to have an intense focus on this set of multiple choice and extended response questions that doesn't necessarily measure what we want it to, but we use them because all types of policies and metrics (including funding) get tied to the numbers generated from these tests.

If it feels a little heady in the adult side of things, it must be even worse with students.

What's sometimes missing from this side of the argument is that the effects for students is much worse than for teachers. Obviously, the teaching profession has a long way to go before we have the right working conditions and respect from society to make this profession more ... professional. On the other hand, a few of the people who replied to my thoughts said that it's teachers, and not students, who get labeled failures when they don't do well.

What?!

How can we say that children don't get labeled failures? At least most of us have a degree to fall back on, if not an advanced degree, and perhaps another job they can take up in case this job fail. We don't want to leave, but if we have to, we'll be OK.

For too many of my children, already familiar with parole officers and gang members alike, failure on the test gives them the label "failure" in more ways than one. Notice the immense focus on calling kids by their test level (1-4), and how freely we use these numbers when we have our professional meetings. Notice the way we group our students based on these scores, and the disproportionate conversation about "1s" and 2s" districtwide.

In other words, we don't even have to use the word "failure" to label children as such.

Especially for children in poverty (from many different backgrounds), failing on a test determines whether they're on track for further academic success or see themselves on the wrong side of the law. For one group of children, failing the test means possibly more tutoring and summer school, a hiccup on the way to college and beyond if they just keep breathing. For another group of children, failing the test means frustration churned into dropping out of high school and into less positive aspirations.

When we talk about testing, we need to remember that children are at the forefront of what we do. Our best arguments stem from working through our children.

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