What Happens When Standardized Test Scores Don’t Reflect Student Growth?

Personalized Learning

What Happens When Standardized Test Scores Don’t Reflect Student Growth?

By Annie Preziosi     Aug 31, 2017

What Happens When Standardized Test Scores Don’t Reflect Student Growth?

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

It is painful when all of the effort that teachers and students put into teaching and learning becomes summarized by standardized test results—especially when hard-working students who have demonstrated massive growth over the course of the year receive poor scores.

This past April, while administering the 5th grade ELA standardized test in Louisiana, I did as I was supposed to—I circulated and stuck to the script. I walked up behind Mike (name has been changed), a bright and diligent student. He was slumped in his chair, staring at the ceiling. I patted his shoulder. “Try your best,” I said. He rolled his eyes at me.

Somehow Mike scored ‘Approaching Basic,’ which is not the lowest score, but is below the grade level standard. I’m not even sure if he finished the test, and at one point, I had to ask him to leave the room after he propelled himself out of his chair and groan-hollered. I was annoyed. He was capable of passing, but he blatantly gave up. His score reflects badly on me as a teacher—and I guess it should.

The truth is, I am more annoyed with myself than I am with Mike. He was one of my best students and his reading comprehension was on grade level according to his classwork, quiz grades and discussions. But I didn’t figure out a way to help him see that or get him to invest in himself. I wondered how the test would affect him after it was over. Would it just add to his test anxiety in the future? Was I just another irrelevant adult pushing him to do something he didn’t didn’t see the point of? Would his score rob him of confidence in his intelligence and ability to be successful?

Now, Mike is a 6th grader at my school and he came to spend recess in my classroom recently. Apparently he hates recess; he wanted to hang out in my room instead. It bothered me that he had underperformed and seemed to blow off the test, so I asked him why he didn’t show what he knew that day. “I just hate those tests,” he moaned, explaining that they were boring and stressful. So, I dug a little deeper, asking him what he wants to be when he grows up. He said: “I don’t know, maybe an FBI agent.” I asked him if he would try hard on a test for that job. He said “If there’s a test, then I would just have to find a different job.” When I heard that, I knew I’d failed Mike.

As much as the test is an indicator of his reading comprehension—and I do believe that Common Core-aligned tests give a valuable measure of students’ reading comprehension and critical thinking skills—this particular child left my classroom lacking confidence in his ability to achieve his future goals, maybe even more convinced that he couldn’t achieve them.

Our school got a grant in 2016 to implement a personalized learning initiative. In June, before the school year started, my colleagues and I travelled to Chicago to work with LEAP Innovations, get schooled in the LEAP Learning Framework, and visit several local schools that were successfully implementing personalized learning. I was excited to try everything I saw.

When I returned, I purchased beanbags and bounce cushions to implement flexible seating. I used my 1:1 laptops to create a paperless classroom, providing instant teacher feedback on writing assignments. I made a class playlist on Google sites with hyperlinked assignments that allowed students to choose which skills to work on and which activities to complete. I even administered frequent student surveys to get their feedback. But what I neglected to do, despite the better wisdom of the teachers and administrators I met in Chicago, was to help kids set goals that mattered to them.

It’s not that I didn’t think about it—it’s that I wasn’t sure what to track. I showed kids their grades and ELA standards mastery scores, which I had tracked through bi-weekly Common Core-aligned quizzes. I meticulously graded every classwork assignment and sent them individualized feedback. I sent them rubrics for writing assignments and emailed them grades for every exit ticket. But what I didn’t do was ask them what they wanted to achieve. And this was a mistake because kids are motivated by goals—not grades.

At nearly every school I visited in Chicago teachers told us that if there is one essential thing to do in a personalized learning classroom, it is to conference with students. However, much like my own middle school students, I ignored the tried and true wisdom and had to learn the hard way.

When I met with Mike last week, I essentially conferenced with him. I learned about his larger goals, and if I had been more intentional about it, or if I still had the opportunity to teach him, I could have helped him set more smaller benchmark goals and celebrate his victories along the way. If I had conferenced with Mike last year, I might have been able to point out to him how his research skills could help him become an excellent investigator. Or that his blog entries, in which he embedded extremely relevant GIFs into spoiler posts about the novel we were reading, “ The Westing Game,” might indicate a future in new media journalism. Or maybe I would have found out that the test makes him nervous and helped him practice calming strategies so he could still do his best.

I work at a school where nearly every student receives free and reduced lunch. Because research has shown that poverty correlates with lower standardized scores, we already know that most of my students, including Mike, are at a disadvantage from day one. That’s not to say our students can’t achieve high scores on these tests; I know they can and I have seen many of them do so. But how can we motivate the kids who can’t see how a multiple choice test impacts their future? And is success on the test enough? Some research suggests that even a college degree is ‘worth less if you are raised poor.’ Other research, however, shows that goal setting can close achievement gaps.

My goal for my students is not that they pass the test—it’s that they accomplish their own healthy and productive goals. I can’t presume to generalize what that means for all of them, and since every child is different, I imagine that every learner’s goals will be as well. I want my students to succeed on the test, but I don’t think the scores alone are enough to really make a difference in their lives, especially if they are trying to climb into a higher socioeconomic situation or defeat a pattern of intergenerational poverty. I’m not sure what is.

I’ve read a lot about the qualities that correlate with success—empathy, having a best friend, reading on grade-level in the third grade. All of those things might matter as much as the scores on the Common Core-aligned tests, but I believe the goals students have for themselves are more motivating than anything else could possibly be.

This year, I plan to help my kids set personal goals and make individualized plans for success. I plan to help them see how each moment in a classroom can connect to their dreams, and to conference with all 80 of my students at least twice a month. And if I find out that there are concepts they feel they need or want to know, I plan to support them in their learning.

The conference is the most personal aspect of personalized learning. I hope that conferencing and personalizing goals for each student will help my students achieve on the test. More importantly, however, I hope that in 15 years, my students land the job they want, even if they have to sit through a test to get it—and that when they do, they feel proud, confident and successful. If only there was a way to measure that.

Annie Preziosi is a fifth grade teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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