I Would Choose for a Student to Fail

I Would Choose for a Student to Fail

I’d rather not choose, but if I had to, I’d choose for a student to fail the test.

I had that thought as I paced the tile floor while on gym duty. It was just a thought exercise I was having with myself. Would I rather a student develop a love of reading and fail the big test, or would I rather a student pass the multiple choice state assessment but not really enjoy reading.

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Bullets for Standardized Tests

  • Some Many Most kids do not enjoy it
  • Many would rather sit and do nothing than check for mistakes
  • Some kids will race through... no matter what
  • Many kids do not understand what testing is supposed to "do"
  • Many kids will work hard on it for you [the teacher], but for no other reason
  • How do we present testing?  Really?
  • What is the benefit to the student? Really?
  • Do students understand that not everything can be tested?
  • Lots of students develop anxieties [stomach aches, blurry eyes, headaches, lots of headaches] around testing time
  • Do we bribe them by telling them it's for a grade?
  • Do we tell them it's not for a grade and risk them not trying?
  • Do we threaten them if they don't perform a certain way?
  • If it's not for a grade, then what IS it for?
  • Where, if anywhere, does learning fit into this equation?
Random thoughts as we took our practice state assessments today.

The Definition of Inauthentic


My school was fortunate to be selected by our state to field test their latest standardized weapon of mass instruction.  Fortunate.  You know, like when you step in gum, and you're fortunate that your errands are over and you're on the way home.  Fortunate.

We just had our state writing test a month ago, and have our state math and reading tests in a few weeks.  Now we get to field test next year's writing test.  More scantron bubbles; more prompts.  We're fortunate.  I'm not sure the kids thought so.

Groans and moans filled the room when I announced our good fortune.  Groans and moans about the test, and groans and moans about writing.  I understand the first, but the second broke my heart.

The Test

"The test is practice,” I told them.  “You're just test driving it to see what needs to be adjusted for next year.  We'll send them off and never see them again.”  “Don't stress," I said.  "It's not even graded."

Of course a kid asks, "Then do we even need to try?"  That's what happens when kids are graded.  They quickly figure out what really needs their attention.  A few other students echo the sentiment.

"What do you think?"  I threw it back on the student.  Another student chimed in and said, "We should always try our best on everything we do."

Then, silence.  I let those words settle to the ground like dirt kicked up on a playground soccer game.  I didn't know what to say.  It's kind of a cross roads question.  I feel like the field test is a waste of time, but I think each student needs to make up their own mind about it.

The Day Of

One girl is fed up.  She said she did not want to take the test.  I'm secretly proud of her, but I can't tell her that.  At least not now.  Kids should have some say in their education, right?  A short talk with the AP and she was off to work.  I wonder what that conversation was about.

One boy was excited about his written composition.  He liked his prompt, and he's writing something he cares about.  He asked, "Can I copy this on to notebook paper when I'm finished?  I want to keep my story."

His expectant eyes made my heart sink.  I knew the answer I had to tell him.  "I'm sorry, buddy.  I can't let you have any extra paper during the test."

He raised his hand thirty minutes later.  With confidence he said, "I'm finished with the test, but I'm going to sit with it for a while.  I want to memorize my story so I can write it again when I get home."  I just nodded my head.  The response I wanted to give was not on the approved phrases list that I carry around on my testing clipboard.


This is the definition of inauthentic writing.  The student doesn't own it- literally or figuratively.  Tests like this are why kids hate writing.  Writing like this is why I hate testing.

Stripped Learning

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Cue the Imperial Death March

Testing day.  It’s finally here.  For the last week, my class has been going through labor pains as we prepare for the inevitable day of our state writing test. 

We are in our room this morning, but it’s different.  The whiteboard is blank,  The SMART Board and computers are off.  Our learning artifacts on the walls have all been removed or covered by dull butcher paper.  The fluorescent lights are fully on.  The desks are all in rows facing the front.  It’s still our classroom, but it’s different.  It’s been stripped.  Not only physically stripped, but stripped of its dignity.

Why the formality?  Why the radical transformation?  This environment is not how I teach the students, so why must it be how I assess them?

I caught myself a few times lately saying things like, “When this is over, we can get back to real writing.”  The state test is, unfortunately, real.  It’s just not authentic.  It’s easy to forget the difference.

*     *     *

I paced the room, both anxious and confident, as I actively monitored the students.  I knew many of them were fighting the feeling of being trapped and constrained, just like I was.  Some students sped through, and others took their time.  But, in the end, I’m not completely sure it mattered. The hour hand took six trips around the clock, and it was all over.  The fear, anxiety, and tears came to a close.

Each of my students will now get a number- one number assigned to their learning.  This number is assigned from one day out of their lives.  It reduces their learning down to a quantifiable digit.  This number strips their learning.  It strips it of context and authenticity.  Their learning is stripped of its significance.  There’s a word- significance.  Where does that fit into bubble sheets and scripted prompts?

In our race to the top, there’s pressure to quantify as much as possible, whether that number represents significance or not.  But, we must never forget that there is a face behind that number.  It’s a face of significance.

Staring Down The Barrel of a Test

Tomorrow is a big day.  I guess it's THE big day in some ways.  Tomorrow, my 4th graders will be taking their state writing exam.

Last week was a busy week as we discussed and prepared.  I don't make the test a big deal, but I have a responsibility to make sure that my students are informed and ready.  As we talked, I've found myself saying things like "When the test is over, then we can get back to real writing."  Unfortunately, the test is real- all too real for some.  I think many of my students feel as if they are staring down the barrel of gun with no easy way out.

Many are understandably nervous.  I don't emphasize the state tests in class, but yet the anxiety remains.  So many other forces push and pull on them to try and make tomorrow into something it is not.  Parents knowingly and unknowingly put pressure on their kids to perform.  Older kids and siblings can lay it on thick as well.  Teachers before me have also shaped their feelings about it.  I'm sure I've even added to the stress.

Here is what I keep saying over and over to them (and to myself)-
It's NOT the end of the world.  It's one day.
You can't truly fail unless you fail to give your best.
Grades don't determine your learning.  You determine your learning.
We are going to get through this together.
I just hope they believe me.

Many students have blogged their feelings about our test on their blogs.  Check them out, and leave some #comments4kids.

Photo credit: rudyjuanito