Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Slice of Life Tuesday: Of Standardized Testing and Birding


We're doing standardized testing this week. It's been a long time since we've done any, because last year the pandemic began right before we would normally have done it. I'm sure many schools are in the same boat right now. The kids can't remember how it works to sit still and fill in bubbles with number 2 pencils, and maybe aren't too thrilled to learn about that now.

I recognize the benefits of having some data to track kids through their years in our school, and also to see how we're doing in our instruction, but I also remember very well that this time last year, many were saying that skipping testing was the best thing that could have happened to all of us. Do you remember that? Or was I just thinking those things in my head? 

The other thing I wanted to write about this week was birding, because Saturday was Global Big Day, which takes place every year in the second weekend in May. Birders around the world go out and see what they can see, keeping track of how many species they can find in 24 hours. It's a particularly good time to do this because it's at the peak of spring migration (in the northern hemisphere). And as I thought about these two topics, standardized testing and birding, I started to see some connections.

Our kids aren't standardized, not at all. Each one of them is unique and different. So comparing them to each other, or to kids across many schools, is of only limited value. What if, when I was looking at birds on Saturday, I had compared them to each other? What if I had decided that some were more valuable than others, or more skillful, or just plain better? What if I had placed each in a percentile, a chain of being in which, say, a Mourning Dove didn't get quite as many points because there are plenty of them around, or a White-necked Crow got marked down because of how very noisy it is? 

In the class for which I was proctoring on Monday morning, there were all kinds of kids. There was a cartoonist. There were several skilled soccer players. There were some excellent gamers. There were some great readers, and some other kids who have trouble sitting still long enough to read anything, but who have other strengths. Maybe they don't know about those strengths yet, or maybe they know perfectly well, but haven't revealed them to their teachers yet. Many of the students in that room were taking the test in their third language. All have been through a couple of extremely challenging years, living here in Haiti through a time of political, security, and medical crisis. Ranking them wouldn't make any more sense than ranking the beautiful birds I peered at through my binoculars on Saturday. 

There's nothing wrong with testing students, as long as we realize that evaluation is only one of our goals. Maybe we should also take some time to just appreciate them, in all their variety. Maybe that kid who couldn't seem to focus his attention on his test booklet won't do brilliantly on this particular test, but there is still something to appreciate about him. The testing may help me learn how to teach him better, but I also need to remember that the results are only one aspect of the humanity of this child. 

One of the things that's so great about birding is discovering the variety of birds that exist. The more differences we see, the happier we are. We stop, and stand still, and look, and say "Wow." We let the birds teach us about themselves as we stay quiet and observe. Let's do that with our students, too.


Lanny Ball said...

What a powerful comparison! You ask such great questions: What if we ranked and compared birds the way we do our students? When you put it that way, it reveals a bit of the insanity of forcing kids to take a standardized test when - as you point out- the kids are not standardized at all. I have heard this point made many times, but absolutely love the way you have made it here! Thanks so much for sharing this.

Margaret Simon said...

I love the connections you have made here. We are also in testing mode. It's eerily quiet in the halls, and administrators look stressed. I wish we could relax about it all and realize there are so many more important things about kids than a test score.

Carol Varsalona said...

Ruth, NYS gave an option to schools this year. Only the multiple-choice questions were a must. I was supposed to lead a training session on Part 2 Writing via Zoom but the Long Island Schools did not get involved. I was relieved since I could not see students being evaluated on writing when they all across the state have different experiences with learning during the pandemic. I also was happy that I did not have to change gears from sorting and organizing my new house to prep for a training session.
Thanks for the comparison. It is an enlightening one.