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Karin Chenoweth Headshot

To Test or Not to Test?

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I recently received an e-mail from a reader who raised a question that haunts a lot of teachers and parents: Does testing harm kids?

Here's the background: My correspondent wrote to say that his suburban school district is convening a committee on the achievement gap in its schools. The district, in a relatively wealthy suburb, is majority white, but with a significant African-American population -- it's the kind of place where middle-class people move for the schools. In general, the district is high-achieving, but it has some terrible achievement gaps.

To give you a sense of what I mean, 74 percent of fifth-grade students met state reading standards -- sufficiently above the state average of 62 percent to permit a certain amount of satisfaction.

But looking below the overall average gives a different picture: Ninety-three percent of the relatively few Asian fifth grade students met state reading standards; 88 percent of the white students; 66 percent of the Hispanic students; 50 percent of the African-American students; and 39 percent of the low-income students (a fairly small percentage of the population).

These are pretty horrifying numbers, but they're not all that unusual. A lot of places have numbers like that. And, as I argue in It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007), those gaps existed unexamined and unaddressed until we had a regular system of public reporting of test results.

So I applaud the district for paying attention to its results and thinking about how to close the gaps.

But my correspondent sees a related problem looming, and this is how he put it:

There's a lot of pushback in our district, from parents and teachers, against Common Core [state standards] and increased assessment. Some of it is based on the idea that frequent testing demoralizes some kids and makes them feel dumb, when they may have huge talents that don't show up in this sort of assessment.

This idea derives from a very deep-down feeling that tests reveal innate and unchanging abilities.

Let me put it another way: If you consistently score low on math tests, does that mean that you are "just not very good at math," as girls of my generation used to say? Similarly, if you don't do well on reading tests, are you -- well -- dumb?

In general, Americans say yes. That is, Americans tend to believe that we are born with a certain level of intelligence and that ability is revealed and honed by schools, but isn't fundamentally changed. If you have this mindset, then -- yes -- tests can be a demoralizing indication that you're just not very smart. Each test exposes a painful truth that you would prefer remain secret and has to be compensated for by other "huge talents that may not show up in this sort of assessment."

But there is another way to think, and I have seen it again and again in schools that have raised achievement and closed gaps among groups of students: that intelligence is malleable. That is, with work and study you can become smarter, and it is the obligation of schools to help kids do so.

With the mindset that hard work makes us smarter, tests are no longer reaffirmations of inadequacy; they become the way kids demonstrate what they know and reveal gaps in knowledge and skill that they need to work on. In other words, tests become not humiliations but personal challenges.

An important piece of this, though, and it is worth thinking about whenever kids take a test, is that kids learn most when they get fast, accurate and encouraging feedback. Taking a test and getting the results months later doesn't really help kids. That means that the state tests kids take -- as helpful as they might be in shining a light on overall achievement -- need to be supplemented with other kinds of quizzes and tests that are graded and reviewed right away so that kids can see where they are and what more they need to do.

One of the "unexpected" schools I profiled in HOW It's Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2009) , Graham Road Elementary School, used to make sure that kids went through every wrong answer on every test with a teacher soon after taking any test. In this way, kids could see what more they needed to do before the next test, and teachers could quickly deal with any misconceptions or misinformation the kids had.

At Graham Road, kids and teachers took the tests seriously as ways to see what was going well and what needed to change.

In fact, teachers reported that many of the kids looked forward to the state tests as opportunities to show how smart they were. That may help explain why a majority of its sixth grade kids -- almost all of whom were low-income children of color -- exceeded state reading standards.

It seems to me that Graham Road and the other "unexpected" schools I write about have something to teach us about how to think about testing.