by Neal Brown, Green Acres School, Head of School
This past week, our 8th graders finished taking their last round of the Comprehensive Testing Program 4 (CTP 4), a test provided by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). Once each year, we administer this standardized test to our 6th through 8th graders, not without some ambivalence. While we don’t “teach to this test,” or tie it to students’ grades, we do believe that these tests measure skills in language arts and mathematics that inform our understanding of our program and of our students. We also believe that students benefit from practice in formal test-taking skills, even if we believe these skills are dramatically over-emphasized in most school settings.
At Green Acres, for example, we look for a range of assessments which include tests and quizzes but often emphasize longer individual and collaborative projects, presentations, student-led conferences, and other performance-based assessments that capture a broader range of academic skills and habits—and that offer students as many opportunities as possible to express their unique individuality and creativity.
Last week, a parent forwarded me the following message sent by a friend’s public elementary school principal to students as they received their state standardized test scores.
We are concerned that these tests do not assess all of what it is that makes each of you unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best. The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.
Much has been written in recent years about schools’ overemphasis on testing, and on the tremendous pressure children and teens are under as a result in schools today. Some of you came to Green Acres a few years ago to watch the documentary Race to Nowhere, which pointed not only to stress-related illnesses and burnout of students, but to rampant cheating and a dearth of both excitement and academic preparation among students as a result of being over-tested and over-scheduled. Now Vicki Abeles, the director of Race to Nowhere, has published a book and directed another film entitled Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation. Here she continues to remind us that the intense pressure children and teens are under is not only harming their mental and physical health, but it’s actually making them less intellectually capable. Brain researchers would clearly agree on the negative impact of too much stress on learning. Abeles writes:
Rather than ask why our students fail to measure up, this film asks us to reconsider the greater purpose of education. What if our education system valued personal growth over test scores? Put inquiry over mimicry? Encouraged passion over rankings? What if we decided that the higher aim of school was not the transmission of facts or formulas, but the transformation of every student? And what if this paradigm-shift was driven from the ground up? By students, parents, and educators? By all of us?
These are powerful questions that we grapple with each day. As some of you saw in our recent showing of the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed, schools can—and should—be engaging places that stimulate student excitement and at the same time hold them to high standards, with testing put in its proper place: as just one of many ways that we assess student accomplishment. No child should be reduced to a test score.