• Bloomfield Forward
Standardized Test, Scantron Sheet
Dr. Rob Glass

Indeed, as many of us reflect upon our own learning, the task of filling in a little circle on a piece of paper with a pencil was not something we recall eliciting joy. Fast forward to today’s learning experiences and the act of sitting for a standardized test is still not the most exciting moment of a student’s week.

Nevertheless, standardized testing has value and purpose in schools across the country. It helps guide work for our staff, assists students in gauging their own learning progress, and serves a significant purpose in the process of purchasing a home. In fact, on our community survey each year, “standardized test scores” appears among the top three things homebuyers say they look at when choosing a home or selecting a school for their child.

Despite some of the positives of standardized tests, there are certainly some pitfalls. First, our national system of rating/ranking schools and pitting them against one another is, in my opinion, reducing our American education system to a single measure. No industry or business would ever seek to reduce itself to a single measure to publicly or privately evaluate effectiveness.

Second, most standardized testing that is reported in media or on the rating/ranking systems is gleaned from a single test - for us, the M-Step. While the M-Step has some value, it’s not the end-all, be-all of measures. For us, it’s just one measure in a kit of many tools we utilize to assess student progress and outcomes. As a school system, in addition to daily/weekly assessments, we utilize a variety of assessments including the NWEA test in fall and spring (K-9), Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (K-5), PSAT (9th grade), PSAT (10th grade), SAT (11th grade), and authentic demonstrations of learning throughout the year.

What are “authentic demonstrations of learning?” You may be familiar with the term “exhibition” as it relates to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Organization. Through the IB journey, students are required on several occasions to demonstrate their learning in a project and presentation to the greater community. Students involved with the Visible Thinking framework or Sustainability initiatives also host exhibitions of learning. These exhibitions are an opportunity for student demonstration, reflection, and a chance for the entire school community to see the ultimate outcomes of student inquiry and self-directed study.

In addition to exhibitions, students have many opportunities throughout their learning to authentically demonstrate personal growth in learning and understanding. Some of them include:

  • “Genius hour” in 3rd and 4th grades is an opportunity for students to become excited about a topic, research it, and present their learning through reports, presentations, or projects.
  • Our district has placed great value in the arts and world languages and there are many performance tasks in these areas.
  • Google Drive allows students across the district to create digital portfolios of work that can be shared as examples of their learning. Some of these portfolios are utilized during student-led conferences with parents and guardians.
  • The student-led conferences afford parents and guardians the chance to hear, directly from the student, an honest and complete reflection of their own engagement and learning. Students reflect deeply on their personal performance and share what they’ve learned not only about content but also about themselves as a learner. This new form of conferences encourages self-reflection, which is a mature skill each student will need throughout their lifetime. 
  • The MYP (Middle Years Programme through International Baccalaureate) 10th-grade Personal Project, which supports student inquiry and discovery in the content area of their choice. Students demonstrate their learning in front of a panel of instructors as well as the whole school community. This project allows students to integrate the philosophies of IB into a project that is personally defined and student-driven. Everyone is welcome to attend the Personal Project celebration in the high school - please keep your eye on our email newsletter for the invitation.
  • The Senior Capstone project provides students with the opportunity to explore and engage in learning in an area in which they find passion. Students are provided the opportunity to learn in real-world settings by pursuing hands-on internships and partnerships with local businesses and organizations.  

All of this is to share with you that we utilize many forms of assessment to gauge student learning. That said, sharing this is not my way of putting our heads in the sand or ignoring the obvious fact that we are not currently #1 on all measures of the M-Step. In our daily practice, we believe that if we are doing the right things with students, the scores will take care of themselves. We do not believe in “teaching to the test” and, quite honestly, there is no such thing as “teaching to the test” - especially when it comes to the M-Step English Language Arts portion. Either a child will be prepared to demonstrate proficiency, or they won’t. And we believe all students can and will become proficient - it’s our job to help them get there. Within the last year, Our district has launched an intensive, systemic continued focus on literacy instruction; an approach that is grounded in research and has yielded consistently great results in peer districts and in some of the best educational systems across the globe. and wWe are now collecting early indicators of growth that provide us with positive indications that our methods are being effective.And because student proficiency in reading and writing positively impacts all subject areas, we believe our investment in systemic literacy is truly a high-yield strategy that will propel our students to greater levels of achievement on all kinds of assessments across all grade levels.

Yet in our adult “quest to be first,” we must keep in mind the unintended consequences of our public conversations. In our schools, teachers work with students to foster a growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues coined the term “growth mindset” many years ago. Her research showed that when students believe they can get smarter and are reinforced with positive messages about their potential and their effort, they ultimately achieve at higher levels. 

There are many ways to help foster and reinforce a growth mindset. At the very basic level, students are taught to approach challenges with words like “yet” instead of “can’t.” In other words, instead of the student saying, “I’m just not good at math,” the student would instead state, “I can always improve” or “I will use a different strategy to solve this problem.”

As Dr. Dweck says, “Growth Mindset assumes that intelligence and other qualities, abilities, and talents can be developed with effort, learning, and dedication.” When students learn in a place that supports a growth mindset, they increase their abilities and, subsequently, their achievement.

Our community - our whole community - is the place in which our students learn. Due to our hands-on curriculum that often takes students outside of the classroom and encourages them to engage with the world around them, students are often exposed to the discourse within the community regarding their own education system and learning. If our discussion is framed in terms of a growth mindset (ie. “we aren’t at the top yet”) our students will believe in their ability to get there.

Think about it. If you heard that the family doctor you’ve been seeing for twenty years and recommending to all of your friends was not rated as one of the top doctors in the area, would you still put your trust in him or her to treat you medically? The more times our students hear from people they trust that “we’re not at the top,” the less they put their trust in us to help them get there. However, if children hear, “your school isn’t at the top yet, but they’re working hard to get there,” they are more likely to be motivated to trust the educators and do their personal best. 

Learning to speak about our test score data in a Growth Mindset fashion will require us to first constructively analyze our student data as a school community. “Constructively” analyzing data is different from looking at the data for the purpose of rating and ranking the district. To constructively look at data, an individual is required, for a moment, to suspend their personal desire for the district “to be first” and instead utilize all available tools to help tell the story and spur helpful questions. “What are we missing?” “How can we better support the learners who are not yet proficient?” “What’s something new we could try?”

Next, we must acknowledge that our collective hopes and dreams can co-exist. Our emphasis on student inquiry can and should dovetail with our drive for proficiency for every student. Our efforts to provide students with choice, to foster deep relationships with peers, educators, and content - can all agree with the desire to “be first.” The desire to see our district at the top of the rating and ranking scales and the desire to see our students at the top of their own personal “scale” are one in the same - they are simply measured by different assessments in different ways.

Finally, in order to make real and lasting improvements in student performance, we must agree to collectively adopt the language of Growth Mindset and use it in our schools, in adult conversations with one another, and in our homes with our children. There is great power in the word “yet” and if our students hear it often enough, they will not only know what we expect of them, but that we also believe in them.